Galatians Part 3: Jesus Plus Something

Ask your friends what it means to be born again, and you’ll get as many answers as you have friends.

People love to say, “The Bible says that God helps those who help themselves.” No, the Bible does not say that. Yet it seems people prefer the treadmill of self-effort, which is at the core of every world religion, except Christianity. Only the Bible offers a radical message of utterly unconditional grace–and the gift of perfect righteousness to make us right before God forever.

Paul says it this way in Romans 1.17,

For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”

Religion says DO. Christianity says DONE. As the great hymn of the faith proclaims, “My hope is built on nothing less, than Jesus blood and righteousness … On Christ the solid Rock I stand. All other ground is sinking sand.”

According to Nelson’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Galatians is one of Paul’s great letters. In it he forcefully proclaims the doctrine of justification (that is, right standing with God) by faith alone. Martin Luther, the Reformer, claimed Galatians as ‘my epistle.’ So wedded was Luther to Galatians, both in interest and in temperament, that, together, they shaped the course of the Reformation and, subsequently, all of history since 1517. Galatians has been called the “Magna Carta of Christian Liberty.”

Galatians has six chapters which can be divided into three main sections:

  • Part One: A statement of the problem and a defense of Paul’s authority as an apostle, Chapters 1 and 2.
  • Part Two: A precise explanation of the Gospel, Chapters 2 and 3.
  • Part Three: Freedom in Christ/Life in the Spirit, Chapters 4 and 5.

Let’s dig into “Part One,” the persistent problem of religion. By “religion” I am referring to the power of religious traditions with or without Jesus, or what I famously refer to as

JESUS PLUS SOMETHING

Specifically, the problem in the Galatian churches was a re-introduction of Jewish religious practices, particularly circumcision, into the new Christian communities. As preachers like Paul carried the message of Christ the Savior outside the Jewish world of Palestine, many Gentiles became believers. This made Jewish Christians uncomfortable, because pagan Gentiles were not schooled in nor committed to important Jewish practices, particularly circumcision.

Yet salvation is either Jesus or religion. Not both in any mixture.


How serious is this problem, of mixing a little Jesus with a little of this and a little of that? Is it really such a big deal? Look at Galatians 1:6-9 and cringe:

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by 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 him be eternally condemned! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned!

Let me point out a few things here. First, Paul jumps right to the point. His introduction and greetings (verses 1-5) are pleasant but terse. To say he is passionate about his concerns would be an understatement. He was smokin’ mad. “I’mastonished (shocked, according to the NLT) that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you …” In The Message it reads, “I can’t believe … how easily you have turned traitor.

Wow. Are you hearing Paul? Feeling Paul? Does he give you a sense that there’s a serious problem in the Galatian churches? Well, what is it? Sexual perversion? Drugs? Rampant sin?

No, they are turning away to another gospel, which is really not the gospel. In other words, they are drifting to another way to be saved: Yes, you have to believe in Jesus, but if you are a Gentile, you have to be circumcised, too. As long as we put Jesus in there somewhere, it sounds like the gospel, but it’s fundamentally different. In fact, it’s not really the gospel at all. It’s not good news, the literal meaning of the Greek term euaggelion, translated “gospel.” The treadmill of human effort is bad news.

Only grace and grace alone is good news. Religion, that is, trying to please God in your own effort, is an impossibility. Your very best will never be good enough, and that’s bad news. Jesus plus something, in some ways, is even worse, a badder bad, because it sounds so Christian. I mean, you have to start with Jesus, right? You can’t go anywhere without him, right? He’s Lord and Savior, right? Yeah, but … but … but.

This is precisely the problem Paul is addressing in Galatians, and he calls it, note the harsh expression, a perversion of the Gospel: “Some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ.” And how are they doing this? By telling Gentile Christians that, yes, you have to believe in Jesus. He is Messiah, Savior and Lord, but … But if you are really a Christian, you have to be circumcised, too. They “were teaching the brothers: ‘Unless you are circumcised … you cannot be saved‘ ” (Acts 15:1, emphasis mine).

These circumcisers were perverting the gospel, not by sin, not by “worldliness,” but by adding something to the absolutely finished work of Christ. As we will see later in Galatians, they were saying, in effect, that the saving work of Jesus on the Cross and in his resurrection was necessary for salvation, but it was not enough. To me, this is just short of blasphemy, as Paul suggests in Galatians 2:21:

I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law [that is, human effort, doing good works], Christ died for nothing!

Christians believe that Jesus is everything. He’s my all in all. It’s Christ in me, the hope of glory. But when you believe in Jesus plus something, Jesus and his work for us becomes less than everything in exact and direct proportion to how much of something you add to Jesus. If my righteousness, my right standing with God, can be gained through Jesus plus human effort, then Christ died for nothing

This is why Paul fumes:

But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you [grace alone, Jesus plus nothing], let him be eternally condemned! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned!

Eternally condemned? Whew! People have told me that, if after I become a Christ follower, I persist in sin, or unbelief, I could … well … go to hell. Yet Paul is suggesting that you can “lose your salvation” by adding things to the good news of the finished work of Christ: Let him be eternally condemned. Whatever Paul means here literally, it’s a fact that unrighteousness is not nearly as bad as self-righteousness.

Incidentally, people have pointed out that the foundation of the Mormon religion, the Latter Day Saints, was an angel preaching “another gospel,” a gospel that certainly doesn’t leave out Jesus, but one that pushes him to the sidelines. You know, it’s the Church of Jesus Christ, but a Jesus that can only be fully understood through the Book of Mormon. Mormons are lovely people who speak openly of their faith in Christ … but … but … but …

Why is that we can so clearly see the legalism problem in “cults” like the Mormons, or for many evangelical Christians, in the unique beliefs and practices of the Catholic church? Yet we can’t see the problem of Jesus-plus-something in so many of our own circles. Maybe it’s because some people have large logs of legalism, while others of us have just little specks in the eye, you know, Jesus plus a little something.

So why is the problem so serious? Why such a big deal? Jesus plus something perverts the gospel, that is, it takes the “good news” of God’s unconditional love in Christ and throws the responsibility back on you, making relationship with God conditional (big logs), or somewhat conditional (little specks). And that’s not the Gospel – “good news.” That’s bad news!

Just because you don’t usually hear this stuff about salvation, it would be easy to think that I’m off my rocker. Or maybe I’m just making this up. Well, my good friend Paul faced the same skeptics:

I want you to know, brothers, that the gospel I preached is not something that man made up. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ (Galatians 1:11-12).

Indeed, understanding salvation by grace alone requires something of an epiphany. As clear as Paul is on the subject, and as hard as I have tried to explain it, some people just don’t get it, won’t get it. They believe in Jesus, they love Jesus … but …

Years ago I was doing a short term international outreach with a friend of mine. On the long return flight, I discovered that, though he had been a Christian for a few years, some people had thrown him into confusion (to use Paul’s words). So I read him portions of Romans and Galatians–and shared the message of salvation by grace alone.

I’ll never forget the moment. Heaven was on his face as he said to me, innocently, “This is really good news!”

“Yes!” said I ecstatically. “It’s the euaggelion, the gospel!”

So, then, do you have to believe in Jesus-plus-nothing to be saved? No! That would be another subtle way to overturn Jesus-plus-nothing. I’ve had an unfortunately large number of Christians disagree with me (and the apostle Paul), but I have no doubt they are true believers on their way to heaven. Yet so many Christians are the neo-Judaizers. Yes, they’re saved, but to the extent they add things to Jesus, to that extent they are often hard on themselves and they are always hard on others, as we will see in Galatians 2:11-14.

Wrapping up the first chapter of Galatians, then, Paul recounts his “previous way of life in Judaism,” when he was “extremely zealous for the traditions” of his forefathers. But God called him “by his grace” and “revealed his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles.”

In other words, God chose an extremely religious man, a man deeply devoted not only to God, but to his own passionate self-effort to be everything God wanted him to be. God chose this man, saved this man and squeezed out of him every last ounce of self-righteousness (see Philippians 3:2-11). God specifically chose Paul to reach the Gentiles, people who had nothing in their hand to bring. No traditions. No good works. Nothing. People who have nothing fully appreciate and embrace Jesus plus nothing.

Christianity, then, was not Jesus Messiah added to Jewish tradition for the Jews, nor was it Jewish law and practice added to Jesus for the Gentiles. Salvation was and is by Christ alone.

Continue reading: Galatians Part 4: JESUS + NOTHING and Arizona SB1070

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