It was less than twenty years from its inception when the early church came into contention with a “different” gospel. The Apostle Paul expressed it like this: “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel, which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let them be under God’s curse!” (Galatians 1:6-9)
Whenever I have come into contact with a skewed gospel, it has either been watered down or ratcheted up. There is either a relaxing of necessary pursuit or the adding on of extraneous rule-keeping. Legalism was the issue for the Galatian church; it may make for a clearly marked path, but it is not the way of freedom. “Formerly, when you did not know God, you were slaves to those who by nature are not gods. But now that you know God—or rather are known by God—how is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable forces? Do you wish to be enslaved by them all over again? You are observing special days* and months and seasons and years! I fear for you, that somehow I have wasted my efforts on you.” (4:8-11)
Deserting freedom in order to return to slavery. Surely, none of us would advise such a trade-off. What was the main motivation, besides the familiarity of tradition and perhaps the coercion of family and friends? “The only reason they do this is to avoid being persecuted for the cross of Christ.” (6:12)
The Cross is, and always will be, the dividing line of the true Gospel.
A few years later the Apostle needed to address some other issues. “Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain… But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith… If the dead are not raised, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.'” (1 Corinthians 15: 1-2, 12-14, 32)
There is a healthy tension (tautness) to be maintained in the gospel message. A central component to this is both the brevity of this life and the unending, perpetual life awaiting us. Whenever we lose the forward gaze of where all of this is going, the things of earth grow strangely appealing. On the other hand, resurrection hope fuels our endurance. “Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.” (15:58)
The words I long to own, to be a true testimony of my life, are these: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.” (2 Timothy 4:7-8)
The words I would abhor to ever be true of me: “You were running a good race. Who cut in on you to keep you from obeying the truth?” (Galatians 5:7)
Forty years ago I embraced the Gospel of Christ and was radically transformed. I still love that Gospel today and have no desire for another.
* Special days to commemorate a meaningful spiritual event are not wrong. They will never suffice however, as a substitute for genuine, spiritual encounters with the living God.