Unity in the Gospel
Scripture: Galatians 2:1-10
It should not surprise us that in the early days of Christianity, our great enemy – the Devil – did everything in his power to crush the church and her leaders. He used persecution, but he also used lies. And as we get further into the letter to the Galatians, it will become obvious that Paul was dealing with a false rumor.
Some people were spreading lies about Paul’s teaching – specifically that his teaching was different than the teaching of Peter, James, and John.
Last week, we finished the first chapter of the letter, where Paul defends His Gospel by saying it came from God, not men.
In chapter 2, Paul will defend the unity of the apostle’s teaching.
As we study this together, please keep in mind – this is one of the reasons why I believe the Bible. Humanly speaking, the early church should not have survived. The persecution… the lies… the struggle was real. It makes no earthly sense why this little religion is now the world’s largest faith. And yet, Jesus said, the gates of hell will not prevail against His church.
1 Then after fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus along with me.
14 years after his conversion, Paul travels to Jerusalem with two brothers in Christ – one is a Jew and the other is a Gentile. And I love the boldness here. This was risky, possibly even dangerous.
Paul makes a statement by taking Titus with him. This is the statement: We’re not going to get together and argue about a theological theory. I’m going to put one of these people in front of you. He refused to let “Gentile Christians” become an idea. These were people with souls.
And we would be well served to remember this in our own debates, especially when we are talking about brothers and sisters in Christ, who believe the same basic things about Jesus.
This week, I read a great story about RC Sproul speaking at a church conference. RC Sproul was a Presbyterian theologian known for teaching Reformed theology. We have one of his books on the book table.
But during the Question and Answer time at this conference, someone asked Dr. Sproul if he thought he would see Billy Graham in heaven. I assume the person asking was concerned about the fact that Billy Graham was not Reformed. Sproul was also known for his quick wit, and I love his response:
“No, I don’t believe I will see Billy Graham in heaven.” And the whole audience gasped! But then he continued, “Billy Graham will be so close to the throne of God, and I will be so far away from the throne of God, that I will be lucky even to get a glimpse of him!”
That’s beautiful! That’s unity in the Gospel. And I say that believing that Dr. Sproul had much better theology than Billy Graham. It matters, but it is a matter of secondary importance.
2 I went up because of a revelation and set before them (though privately before those who seemed influential) the gospel that I proclaim among the Gentiles, in order to make sure I was not running or had not run in vain.
Paul does not doubt his message at this point, but he understands that the Church would be divided if the apostles preached different messages. He was not called back to Jerusalem because the apostles doubted him. Instead, God led him to return.
Notice that the apostles have these discussions in private. They were eager to preserve the peace and unity of the Church. And notice how Paul refers to the other apostles. He calls them “those who seemed influential”.
I think that is an important correction for the way we think of Christian leaders. These men were literal disciples of Jesus. Think about all the things they experienced! But Paul doesn’t think of himself or the other apostles as self-important celebrities. These men understood their place in the kingdom.
We should be careful of elevating leaders in the church to positions of great influence. Not even the apostles were comfortable in that role.
3 But even Titus, who was with me, was not forced to be circumcised, though he was a Greek.
This is the mic drop moment for me. Paul says, I took Titus to Jerusalem. We met with the other apostles. They didn’t force circumcision on Titus. Boom. What now, Judaizers?
We haven’t talked about this yet, but circumcision was THE major practical issue. Many of the Jewish Christians were demanding that Gentile Christian men must also be circumcised. They wanted to keep some of the ceremonial laws as requirements for faithful followers of Jesus. In other words, they wanted to keep Christianity in the Jewish world.
This group was known as the Judaizers and they operated as a faction, desperate to control the early church. Paul called them “false brothers”. This was not a secondary theological issue.
4 Yet because of false brothers secretly brought in—who slipped in to spy out our freedom that we have in Christ Jesus, so that they might bring us into slavery—
5 to them we did not yield in submission even for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might be preserved for you.
Here, Paul introduces the language of freedom and slavery. This will be an important subject in the letter. We’ll come back to it in a moment.
6 And from those who seemed to be influential (what they were makes no difference to me; God shows no partiality)—those, I say, who seemed influential added nothing to me.
Again, Paul downplays the influence of men, and he says that they “added nothing to me.” In other words, they did not edit Paul’s Gospel.
There are really two ways of changing the Gospel – and both are equally dangerous. Paul is concerned here with people trying to add something.
It is very common for Christians, churches, and entire denominations to add things to the Gospel. We might add moral requirements to the Gospel for two reasons. The first is simply bad theology. It is common for people to misunderstand the nature of grace and poison the Gospel with works-righteousness. That’s not an issue of secondary importance. This sort of bad theology destroys Christianity altogether.
But we also run the risk of distorting the Gospel when we are unwilling to adapt our preferences and traditions for the sake of the lost. This is the influence of conservatism. If we load new believers up with expectations that are cultural and not Biblical, the Gospel can easily become lost in the confusion. It may not be our intention to create a new form of works-righteousness, but it can happen anyway.
We must be careful of adding to the Gospel. But we must also be careful of subtracting from it. Paul doesn’t specifically address this concern here, but He will later in the letter.
Many Christians will subtract from the message in an attempt to make Christianity more attractive. This is the influence of liberalism.
It has become common in the last 100 years for some professing Christians to say they love Jesus, but they disagree with Paul. They are usually referring to Paul’s teachings on certain matters – especially when it comes to sexual sin.
But something I encourage you to consider is this:
You will find no contradictions at all between the teaching of Jesus, Paul, and the other apostles. None. Not about the Gospel, or really any issue at all. There are zero contradictions. And that means there is only one true version of Christianity, because the New Testament is completely unified in its message.
Ignoring parts of the Bible we don’t like is a dangerous practice. We are all tempted to downplay or minimize the reality of sin and judgment to make Christianity sound more accepting and tolerant, but when we do that the Gospel loses its power. Jesus demands our repentance. He doesn’t suggest it. Jesus also talks about hell more than anyone else in the Bible. This is what the Gospel saves us from! Sin. Death. Hell. The wrath of God.
We must be careful of adding OR subtracting anything from the Gospel.
7 On the contrary, when they saw that I had been entrusted with the gospel to the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been entrusted with the gospel to the circumcised
8 (for he who worked through Peter for his apostolic ministry to the circumcised worked also through me for mine to the Gentiles),
9 and when James and Cephas and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given to me, they gave the right hand of fellowship to Barnabas and me, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised.
10 Only, they asked us to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do.
And this is where we will end our reading of the text for today.
Let’s look briefly at verse 10 and then we will consider the rest of the story as a whole.
Peter, James, and John encourage Paul to continue preaching the Gospel to the Gentiles and they ask him to remember the poor.
Concern for the poor is a big theme in the New Testament as a whole. It is an important response to the Gospel. Followers of Jesus cannot help but care for the needs of the poor. The early churches were known for their generosity.
But this request had a special purpose. The Jewish churches were much poorer than the Gentile churches. They were asking Paul to use his influence to help bring unity between the churches – not only in theology, but also in support. Wealthy churches helping poor churches.
One of the things I love about Presbyterianism is that we do this… not perfectly, but we do help our sister churches and we have benefited from the generosity of other churches.
Now, let’s consider the message of the text as a whole.
Paul’s argument continues to reinforce the idea that there is only one Gospel.
I understand that there are many churches and many denominations around the world. We disagree about all sorts of things. But there is only one Gospel and the things that are necessary for salvation are sufficiently clear in Scripture.
There can be no debate about the basic content of the Gospel message – our need for repentance and faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ.
Any church or denomination that adds or subtracts something from the Gospel message ceases to be a true church. It becomes a false church. It becomes like every other religion – dependent on some form of works-righteousness or more concerned with human traditions than the glory of God.
And yet, the church has had many different expressions throughout history – even in the first century. Why? Because of what Paul describes as our freedom in Christ.
We must resist any attempts by professing Christians to alter the message of the Gospel, either by adding to it or by subtracting from it. And while we should stand firm in our convictions of what we believe the Bible teaches, we should also be slow to condemn professing Christians who disagree with us on secondary issues.
This is because God has given the church some wide margins, especially in terms of cultural expression. We have some very important things in common. But we are also very different.
How do we live in this tension?
We must condemn the things God condemns, but we must also accept the people whom God accepts. And we must lay no further burden upon fellow believers except that which Scripture clearly teaches about the Gospel, careful to maintain unity in Christ.
This is why you can be adopted into Christ Fellowship by a simple profession of faith in Jesus. You don’t have to agree with me about Reformed theology or infant baptism. You may disagree with us on all sorts of things, with some exceptions. If the Bible calls it sin, then it is sin. We’re not bending on that, because it would be subtracting from the Gospel.
But we’re also trying to be careful not to add any burdens to you that Scripture does not add. You’re welcome here even in disagreement about other important things. As my friend Chris Accardy wrote this morning, “It is more important to have saving faith in the Lord Jesus than to know exactly how you got it.”
The four apostles who gathered in that private room to discuss the Gospel – Paul, Peter, James, and John. All four of them wrote part of the New Testament. And it is clear from their writing styles that they were very different men. They were each concerned with different problems in the church. They emphasized different doctrines and practices. They never contradict one another in Scripture, only because they were writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
And these men were far from perfect, as we will learn next week. But the Holy Spirit protected the message of the Gospel that day. Thanks be to God!