“Where then is your sense of happiness now? For I testify about you that if it were possible, you would have pulled out your eyes and given them to me! So then, have I become your enemy by telling you the truth?” – Galatians 4:15-16 (NET)
I highlight Paul’s questions in order to bring attention to yet another cause of the Christian blues. His entire letter to the Galatians deals with it. They’d been run-of-the-mill pagans until he’d arrived and given them the good news of the gospel and they’d responded with overflowing joy. Paul had an eye affliction at the time that made him look like a zombie but it hadn’t affected their reception of his words of hope one iota. He wrote, “…though my physical condition put you to the test, you did not despise or reject me. Instead, you welcomed me as though I were an angel of God, as though I were Christ Jesus himself!” They’d deemed the message more vital than the messenger and Paul was pleased about that. Yet at some point after he left town they’d become depressed. So much so that he wrote, “My children – I am again undergoing birth pains until Christ is formed in you!” He was angry about their sad condition and had been openly rebuking them since 1:6 when he wrote, “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are following a different gospel.” And later in chapter three with “You foolish Galatians! Who has cast a spell on you? Before your eyes Jesus Christ was vividly portrayed as crucified!” These people had started their Christian journey with jubilation but were now plagued by the born again blues. What in blazes happened? The answer is simple. They’d listened to false teaching.
False teaching wasn’t indigenous to Galatia. The problem pops up throughout the Epistles right and left. Teachers were dutifully reciting the apostolic gospel but they were adding junk to it and the result was conflict and unhappiness in the lives of the redeemed. As always, Satan was behind it. He doesn’t have to aggressively attack our beliefs to be successful. All he has to do is plant erroneous ideas in our heads about doctrine and before long we’re arguing about aspects of Christianity that have nothing to do with scripture. He’s been at it since day one. If you read a history of the Church in any era you’ll see over and over the rising of heresies and the battles the Church had to fight to preserve the fundamental truths of the faith. False teachings fall into two basic categories, (1) the gospel is bull or (2) it’s incomplete. It’s the latter that Paul was confronting in Galatians. Certain teachers had come along and said “Yes, the Apostle was correct about everything but he didn’t go far enough. He left out circumcision. You gotta do it to join the club.” This made many smile because a lot of them were Jews and they figured what was good for the goose was good for the gander. So when Paul insisted that ceremonial law was no longer in effect they grumbled. It didn’t seem right that a Gentile could be a Christian without first becoming a Jew so when later preachers tacked on that requirement they ate it up. Confusion ensued. Paul got wind of it and he was understandably perturbed. He knew that if he didn’t nip this stuff in the bud the whole movement could crumble so he didn’t mince his words. In 1:8 he writes, “But even if we (or an angel from heaven) should preach a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be condemned to hell!” To ensure they were paying attention he lets them have it again in verse 9. “As we have said before, and now I say again, if any one is preaching to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let him be condemned to hell!” We’d do well to take note of his straightforward words regarding this issue.
Why is the Galatians’ conflict relevant today? It’s because we’re inundated by false teachings and they’ve gutted the faith of many believers who, in the beginning, experienced first-hand the joyous elation of being saved only to see their enthusiasm whittled down bit by bit until they’re back where they were before surrendering to Christ. Someone told them they weren’t reading their Bibles right or that there was more to know than what was contained in the Word. The speaker seemed so spiritually sincere that they bought into the “new” Christianity lock, stock and barrel. Inevitably it led to the fostering of serious doubts as they tried to reconcile the new teachings with what’s plainly stated in their Bibles and their joy became a distant memory. “Where then is your sense of happiness now?” Paul inquires. False teachings aren’t limited to the rants of charismatic loons like Jim Jones or David Koresh. You’ll find them in the tenets espoused by Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh Day Adventists and Mormons, just to name a few. (I’m not pulling a smear job here. I go to a Baptist church but I know if I dug deep enough into the bylaws of the SBC I’d find things that have no basis in scripture.) Some sects teach that adult baptism by immersion is mandatory. Some insist that you take part in odd rites and observances. Others believe that talking gibberish is the only way to verify the gift of the Holy Spirit. Yet others feel that taking medicine is a denial of faith. The list goes on and on but what I’m stressing is that this is a very grave matter, not some paranoid theory I’m putting out there. We disciples of Jesus need to use our heads and our common sense. If it ain’t in the good book it may not be good.
In Galatians Paul laid down a major principle that must be adhered to for Christianity to thrive, especially in today’s world of easily-acquired misinformation. The tendency of many people is to say “How dare you criticize my dogma?” or, worse yet, “What does it matter?” But eternal truths need to be proclaimed eternally, even if we step on toes in the process. Rudely putting others down is never productive so we must approach this topic in a way that causes believers to think rationally, just as Paul did. He starts with the matter of his authority. In the first two chapters Paul tells us why he has the right to defy anyone to preach an alternate version of the gospel. “Now I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel I preached is not of human origin. For I did not receive it or learn it from any human source; instead I received it by a revelation of Jesus Christ.” He once savagely persecuted Christians but then Jesus, “the one who set me apart from birth,” knocked him for a loop on the Damascus road and gave him his marching orders. Paul emphasizes that the message he was told to deliver is exactly the same as the one given to the Apostles who’d been with Christ in the flesh. Though he’d received the gospel by different means, it was identical to what he’d heard them proclaiming in Jerusalem. He asserts that he isn’t preaching something he came up with on his own but what he was given by Jesus in person. In other words, he’s saying the only truth is what Christ taught and caused to be written down. That’s the unshakable standard by which we are to judge the authenticity of what we hear and it always will be.
Everything must be held up to the light of the Bible before being labeled as truth. No exceptions. False teachings will thereby betray their guilt one of two ways. First, they’ll contain less than the apostolic message. They’ll leave out stuff on purpose because it’s harder to notice something smells funny when details are swept under the rug. Details such as the fact of Christ’s incarnation, or His having two natures in the One Person, or His virgin birth or His physical resurrection. It might look like Christianity but it ain’t. It may deny that “God made the one who did not know sin to be sin for us, so that in him we would become the righteousness of God” and term Jesus’ death on the cross no more than an inspiring act of love. I once got into a fat tome called the “Urantia Book” and that was one of the things it touted. But if that’s true then the entire New Testament is a hoax. I’ll never again give that lie a second thought. I didn’t understand the atonement until I finally studied the Holy Word and came to savvy its inescapable logic. Some Christians, believing they‘ve got their ticket to heaven due to mumbling “I believe,” continue to sin at will because “all is forgiven.” They’re omitting details. What they conveniently overlook is the teaching that states “faith without works is dead.” Dead as in dead. The second tactic of false teaching is to add to the gospel what we want to be true. This is what Paul was tackling head on in his letter and the litmus test is whether or not it matches up with what the Apostles preached. If it don’t, it’s crap. Paul exhorts the Galatians to work out the implications of what they hear. The bogus teachings that were being spewed avoided denying Christ per se while denying Him at the most crucial junctures. When Paul confronted Peter about his excluding Gentiles from the faith he was made to see he was adding conditions to being saved that weren’t put in place by Jesus. Here’s a more relatable scenario. Suppose you know a Muslim who’s a generous humanitarian and does everything they can to help the homeless. False teaching can lead you to believe they deserve to go to heaven simply because they’re so wonderful. Yet if you fail to see what that implies you’ll be denying what God’s Word states about no one coming to the Father except through Christ and saying that He suffered a criminal’s death for nothing! Martyn Lloyd-Jones offered good advice when he wrote, “Do not look at things at their face value only, but see what they really imply.”
A third thing about false teachings is they can claim to be the result of some kind of “bonus revelation.” The Catholic Church openly avows that the edicts of the Pope are as authoritative as scripture even though that’s never expressed in God’s Word. And they aren’t alone. Often “updated truths” are the result of someone having had a vision. The problem with this kind of thing is that any Jane or Joe can claim to have been infused by God Almighty with additional info and qualify it by saying that the human race, because we’re so much smarter and less superstitious nowadays, are more capable of comprehending deeper truths. The implication is that the Bible is no longer all we need. Another characteristic of false teaching is that it invariably emphasizes one particular thing far above all others. In the case of the Galatians it was circumcision but today it could be a certain Bible translation. No matter what the “special” deal might be, it shifts the emphasis away from Jesus Christ and that can lead to all sorts of iniquitous mindsets, including bigotry. Whenever you hear a radical teaching implying that we need “Christ plus ___ (fill in the blank)” it should send up red flags.
Fourthly, skewered doctrines always indicate that faith alone is insufficient. Paul was direct in 5:6 when he wrote, “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision carries any weight – the only thing that matters is faith working through love.” Don’t let anybody tell you that faith ain’t enough. That’s one of the devil’s favorite fibs. In verses 4-5 Paul states flatly, “You who are trying to be declared righteous by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace! For through the Spirit, by faith, we wait expectantly for the hope of righteousness.” Here’s the last test. If a new teaching diminishes your initial conversion experience then you must question its veracity. Paul wrote, “Where then is your sense of happiness now?” He’s asking folks if the ecstasy they felt upon hearing the gospel the first time now meant nothing to them. “Who has cast a spell on you?” he pleads. Don’t forget the rock solid good news and how it changed your whole life.
Most erroneous teachings are subtly alluring and can make you think they’ll supply what you think you’re missing out on but I urge you to cherish the epiphany you had when you first accepted Christ as your Lord and Savior. No one and no teaching can take that away from you. Think of somebody like Dr. Billy Graham who became filled with the Holy Spirit as a young man and spent his entire life taking the good news of the gospel to all corners of the earth. He considered the Sabbath to be Sunday, he never spoke in tongues and he never slapped anyone in the forehead to heal them. Would you ever say that he was lacking in knowledge, insight and understanding? Those who claim to have new-and-improved teachings would. They’d claim that they’re on equal standing with the saints and that for almost two millenniums the Church has been clueless until they came along. How preposterous! 6:17 reads, “From now on let no one cause me trouble, for I bear the marks of Jesus on my body.” What does Paul mean? He’s saying, “Stop bringing up circumcision or how you got baptized or banning musical instruments from the sanctuary or some dude’s ‘special teaching,’ telling me it’s the key to my salvation! I don’t need any of those things to know my Heavenly Father and His only begotten Son who cleansed me of sin and the Holy Spirit who resides in me.” That should be our attitude, too. Check out 6:14. “But may I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.”
Here’s the deal. If you’re depressed because you’ve heard conflicting teachings about God’s plan for your life and you’ve come to have doubts that anyone knows the truth anymore I offer this remedy. Read your Bible. Open it every day. God didn’t make his Word available to us so we could pick and choose only the verses that back up what we care to hear and disregard the rest. He wants us to gain a comprehensive understanding of the Bible in order to better seek Him and love our neighbor. Familiarize yourself with what we’re told from Genesis to Revelation. That’s the only way to protect yourself from someone feeding you false teachings and telling you that without them you’re not a Christian at all. I’m no scholar but I know what’s in the Bible and what isn’t because I read it. God’s Word ain’t broke. It don’t need fixin’. Anything that tries to take center stage in place of Jesus Christ or presumes to add on to His majestic message I will reject. All we need to know is found in Acts 16:31. “…Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved…” As my mom used to say, “End of discussion.”
(Inspired by the sermons of Martyn Lloyd-Jones in his book “Spiritual Depression.”)