What is this eternal gospel, this eternal good news? Surely, no one was more confident that he knew the content of the gospel than the apostle Paul. On one occasion, when his version of the good news was being seriously challenged by some of his own colleagues, Paul made this extraordinary claim:
If anyone, if we ourselves or an angel from heaven, should preach a gospel at variance with the gospel we preached to you, he shall be held outcast. I now repeat what I have said before; if anyone preaches a gospel at variance with the gospel which you received, let him be outcast! Gal 1:8-9, NEB.
Now if the apostle’s language should seem too strong, this rendering in the New English Bible is the mildest I could find. Gentle J. B. Phillips translates, “May he be a damned soul!” The Greek is anathema esto. May he be “anathema.” The Good News Bible, produced by the American Bible Society, translates, “May he be condemned to hell!” The Living Bible states, “Let God’s curse fall upon him!” The King James Version translates, “Let him be accursed!” When do we say that about our fellow human beings? The New International Version translates, “May he be eternally condemned!” To say the least, Paul was profoundly convinced of the rightness of his version of the good news and the dire consequences of turning to another gospel. You recall how Romans 1 describes the dire consequences of turning away from the truth (1:20-32).
Paul was stunned to observe the willingness of so many early Christians, who had recently been set free from the meaningless requirements of false religion, to go back once again to the fear and the bondage of their former ignorance and misinformation about God:
I am astonished to find you turning so quickly away . . . and following a different gospel. Not that it is in fact another gospel; only there are persons who unsettle your minds by trying to distort the gospel (emphasis supplied) of Christ (Gal 1:6-7, NEB).
He goes on to ask how they could possibly be so foolish, comparing the good news they had received with what they had given up. Look at Galatians 3:1: “You foolish Galatians! Who put a spell on you? Before your very eyes, you had a clear description of the death of Jesus Christ on the cross (emphasis supplied)!” Gal 3:1, NEB. He continues reasoning with them in Galatians 4:8-9, GNB: “In the past you did not know God, and so you were slaves of beings who are not gods. But now that you know God (emphasis supplied) . . . how is it that you want to turn back. . . ?” Notice how the same turning point for the Galatians is related to the knowledge of God (Gal 4:9), to the good news (Gal 1:6-7), and to the cross (Gal 3:1). All three of these texts address the same subject. The good news of the cross is the truth about God.
Paul is sympathetic with the Galatians, in spite of his strong words. After all, what could be expected of new converts when some of the leading Christians in Jerusalem were themselves contradicting and compromising the gospel of Christ (as described in Acts 21:15-28)? Even Peter, after his broadening experience with Cornelius, reverted to some of the narrow views that he used to hold. According to Galatians 2:11-14, Paul was moved to correct Peter to his face and in public. How could Paul feel right about doing that? In 1 Corinthians 13 he wrote that love is never rude. Love never insists on having its own way. This is also the Paul who wrote Romans 14. He was so respectful of other people’s freedom that, when there was disagreement over this or that religious matter, he would say, “Let everyone be fully convinced in his own mind,” and, “Who are you to criticize one another?” Rom 14:5, 10.
But when people suppressed or perverted the good news about God, gentle Paul spoke out with almost frightening conviction and power. He even went so far as to suggest that these legalistic agitators were confusing the new saints about the good news of truth and freedom. They were upsetting the new converts by urging them to re-adopt the rite of circumcision and other legalistic details. He said, “I wish they would go the whole way and make eunuchs of themselves” (Gal 5:12). You know that Paul must have been deeply moved to say that about those legalistic agitators.