Paul’s (and Luther’s) Secret
Sometimes it’s the smallest stories that strike the deepest.
This year marks the 500th year of the Protestant Reformation, which was not a small story. Martin Luther’s actions turned the world upside down on its head. The political, spiritual, and cultural impact of the reformation hit the western world like an unexpected category four. No one was prepared for the storm that would decimate the medieval church. The sheer scope of the Reformation’s influence makes it guaranteed that its 500th anniversary does not go without its share of fanfare.
This week at Emmaus Church we started our preaching series in the book of Galatians. At the heart of Galatians lies several key reformation principles: specifically the doctrines of Biblical authority and justification by grace through faith. Paul starts his magisterial argument by establishing his apostolic authority to preach the only true gospel. The bringer of any other gospel than the one he first gave to the Galatians, the one he received from Christ himself and from no other, should be accursed and damned by God.
Paul’s authority to make such a statement comes from his assurance in the infallibility of the direct revelation of God. The gospel he received on the road to Damascus was straight from Christ, and so, as Luther points out, he is unafraid to speak so boldly against any who would pollute it to the minutest degree.
Paul maintains that there is no other gospel besides the one he had preached to the Galatians. He preached, not a gospel of his own invention, but the very same Gospel God had long ago prescribed in the Sacred Scriptures. Paul subordinates himself, all preachers, all the angels of heaven, everybody to the Sacred Scriptures. We are not the masters, judges, or arbiters, but witnesses, disciples, and confessors of the Scriptures, whether we be pope, Luther, Augustine, Paul, or an angel from heaven. (Luther, Commentary of Galatians)
The great truth that Paul, and likewise Luther, shout to us from the rooftops is that absolutely no one is above the Word of God. Not even angels! Go against the direct revelation of God, add or subtract or maim or twist the gospel handed down through the ages, and you risk being damned for all eternity. The stakes are insurmountably high.
But have stakes always been so immense?
This morning I read a small story. I am working my way through the historical books, and am currently in 1 Kings. The book includes lofty stories of Solomon’s rise and downfall, as well as the split of the Hebrew kingdom. But the narrative today was simpler. So small is the story that the protagonist goes unnamed.
The story, in 1 Kings 13, is that of a “man of God”, sent from Judah to Israel to prophesy against the wicked king Jeroboam. His task was simple: deliver the message from God to the king, and return with haste another way from Bethel, refusing to stop for either food or drink. The directions for the man of God came directly from God himself, the “word of the Lord” (13:9) was spoken clearly to him.
At first, the man of God does well. He abides by the word of the Lord, he does not neglect it or disobey it. He returns a different way, denying refreshment and even reward from Jeroboam.
But then the man of God is pursued by a “prophet” from Bethel, who for an unknown reason is eager to meet with him. He wants to bring him back to his house to converse, to rest, and to eat and drink with him at his table. Of course, the man of God from Judah declines, because he has been told by God not to do the very thing that the unknown prophet is asking him. Then something curious happens: he changes his mind. He returns with the prophet to his house, abandoning the command of the Lord that was explicitly given to him.
What changes his mind? The prophet from Bethel tells him he too received a word, from an angel, that the man of God is to return with him. But God is not one to contradict himself: the wayward prophet is lying. Despite all this, the man of God believes him! He neglects the word of God, given directly to him, for the here-say of a false prophet who claims he received revelation from an angel.
This seals the fate of the Judean man of God. After he leaves from the prophet’s house, refreshed and ready for his journey home, he is cursed by God. He never makes it home. Instead, he is attacked by lions on the way and buried in a land foreign to him, far away from his family. Such a harsh punishment speaks to the gravity of the offense.
Do you see the significance of this? Paul is not pulling exhortation from thin air when he warns the Galatians not to neglect the true gospel. There is evidence, all over scripture, of what happens when prideful and sinful men neglect the word of God. Even the smallest story of an unnamed messenger shouts this warning. The man from Judea was tricked into believing a false gospel. He forsook direct revelation in favor of angelic rumors and a tempting refreshment, and it cost him his life.
Gospel At All Costs
Let’s not make the mistake of taking Paul lightly. Our default setting is mistrust: for God’s word and for his gospel. Do not believe the lie, do not turn to another gospel — no matter if someone invokes the of authority angels, demons, popes, priests, or presidents. It makes no difference if someone comes back from the dead or arrives from the future, let no word of false gospel stick to your heart or mind.
More often than not, we act like the wayward man of God in 1 Kings 13. We are prone to leave the God we love. We are easily distracted, preaching to ourselves a gospel of works and self-righteousness that is absent of Christ. There is grace for you if you slip up every now and then. If you are covered in the blood of Christ, you will be saved from damnation. But make no mistake: unrepentantly neglecting, denying, adding or subtracting from the shed blood of Christ is denying it. And if you deny it, it will not save you. That’s how serious this matter is.
It may seem like I am being too harsh. But the stakes are high, and they have always been high. The gospel of Paul is the gospel of Christ, the true gospel. Its a simple gospel. If you repent of your sin and turn to Christ, he will make you new. The gift of salvation is given by grace alone, received through faith alone, and stands on the basis of Christ alone. Grace is not just the main course, it is the only course. No religious or moral side-dish will save you. And there is still time to partake — this delicious meal of redemption is available to every sinner, no matter what false gospel you might have propagated or believed in the past.
Whether you have a small story or a big one, you are invited to stand for the true gospel. In our day, there will be voices that tempt you believe something else. Those voices existed in Paul’s day, and in Luther’s. But no matter the pressure, and no matter the consequences, as children of God we have not been given a spirit of fear or timidity. If you do believe this gospel, hold tight, no matter who is telling you to let go. “Its easier this way, not as painful”, they might say. “Don’t be so stubborn”, they will tell you. “Lighten up.” “Just love everyone.” “Don’t be so narrow minded.” “No one believes that stuff anymore.”
Christian, don’t do it. Do not listen. Be stubborn. With an iron grip, hold fast to the bloody cross of Christ and refuse to let go. Your hands might hurt a little, and your heart too, exhausted from the cost of following Christ. You might be persecuted or mocked. But it is all worth it in the end, for the reward of seeing God and knowing that we faithfully, though imperfectly, held on. No treasure or comfort of the world is worth losing the gospel.
For us, the faithful few, our cry must continually be “gospel at all costs”.
If you live in Kansas City, and are curious about Jesus Christ or looking for a church home, please join us at Emmaus Church this Sunday as we journey through the book of Galatians and discover the essence and importance of the true gospel of Christ.