Books of the Bible-
Don't Mess with the Gospel
In chapter one of
the book of Galatians, the Apostle Paul is firm and forthright that
the Christians living in the churches of Galatia are not to distort
the Gospel, transform the Gospel, pervert the Gospel. Therefore, I
have been thinking of examples of when we distort or pervert
For example, at my
house, at every birthday, I have a cream pie instead of a birthday
cake. So did my father, my grandfather, my children. We all have
plain cream pies for our birthday. It is a sacred tradition. I would
like to share with you the recipe for this sacred cream pie: one cup
of half and half, one half of cup of sugar, three tablespoons of
flour, one teaspoon of vanilla, and you bring it to a thick boil and
pour it into the pie crust. Thatís
it. So simple. It is terrific. Some people want to take this plain
cream pie and make it fancier. That is, they want to add coconut in
order to spice it up and they will then call it a coconut cream pie.
But I donít want coconut cream pie; I want plain cream pie for my
birthday. Still others want to put a meringue on the cream pie in
order to make it look more elegant and cover up its basic
simplicity. But I donít want meringue on my birthday cream pie.
And still others want to put chocolate into the recipe so it become
chocolate cream pie. Now I want you to know that I am really fussy
about my cream pie for my birthday. So was my father, my grandfather
and now my children. So donít mess with the recipe of my plain,
simple cream pie. I love it the way it is.
illustration. My hair
is now white, as white as can be, and I earned every one of these
white hairs. As some of you know, a long time ago, my hair was dark
brown or black and it gradually became gray and the gray color upset
me. But my gray hairs really upset my barber. He insisted that he
dye my gray hairs to be black. He did, and my hair became jet black.
You saw it when it was freshly dyed and you laughed at me and
laughed at the new color of my hair. The true color of my hair today
is what you get: white. Now,
for my sister and all others who legitimately dye their hair in
order to look younger, that is just fine. My sister, ten years older
than I, is a blonde now, but I know that the true color of her hair
is white. Pure white, just like mine. You can mess with the truth,
the true color of hair and change it. Me? I didnít want the barber
to mess with my hair.
I was at the Des Moines Waterland Parade the other day, and the
traditional clowns came by. This one particular clown was really
good, with big flapping shoes, red colored cheeks, garish plaid
pants, and he came right up to my grandchildren to give them a
handful of sugar filled candy. He laughed as he gave them the sugar
filled candy as he whispered into their ears: ďIn real life, I am
dentist. Donít tell any one.Ē We all laughed. Inside the
clownís clothing was a real human being who was actually a
dentist. But the truth of who he was, a dentist, was changed so he
became a clown who passed out candy that cause cavities.
In the Epistle
lesson for today we hear of a church which was changing the true
gospel, was perverting the true gospel, was messing with the gospel.
The Apostle Paul wanted people to hear the genuine gospel. In
a similar way, I always wanted and want plain cream pie for my
birthday. But folks are forever messing with the recipe for plain
cream pie and making the pie into something else. So also, people
are forever messing with the gospel and changing it into something
else, so that it looks better, tastes better, and is more elegant.
What is the gospel?
The gospel is a summary word. It summarizes the whole Christian
faith. What is the gospel? That Jesus Christ was raised from the
dead by the powers of God and that someday you too shall be raised
up to eternal life. What is the gospel? That Jesus Christ died for
all of yours sins and paid the penalty for all of your sins, and
that we are called to live a life of forgiveness. What is the
gospel? To love one another as Christ has loved us. The Jews created
more than six hundred rules and regulations that they were to live
by in order to be moral people, but Christ gave only one rule for
life: love as Christ loves. That is the gospel. Eternal life,
forgiveness, a life of love. Three ingredients to the recipe. So
simple. All freely given. Donít mess with the simple truth of the
As we move into the
sermon for today, I need to give you some background information
about the Apostle Paul who lived at the time of Christ. The Apostle
Paul, before he became the Apostle Paul, was known by the name of
Saul, and he was a fanatical Jew who persecuted and killed the first
Christians. He was a feared man by the first followers of Christ. On
the road to a town by the name of Damascus, Saul was struck by
lightning and was blinded. During that experience with the bolt of
lightening, God penetrated the rigid shell of Saulís life and he
was transformed. Christ got into his heart. The Gospel got into his
heart. Eternal life. Forgiveness. A life of love. And that needs to
happen to us as well. Slowly, quickly; at any speed or any slowness;
a fast bolt, a slow shock. It is crucial that the Gospel penetrates
the shell of our lives and we know the gospel. We need to know that
our parents and grandparents live eternally with Christ. We need to
know that our sins are fully and freely forgiven. We need to know we
are called to live a life of love, the way that Christ loved.
So Saul became
Paul. Saul was transformed into Paul. He became the greatest author
of the New Testament, writing some thirteen or fourteen letters. He
became the greatest theologian of the early church, giving us great
theological ideas like gospel and grace and freedom. He became the
greatest missionary of the early church. He was the missionary who
brought Christ to the ends of his earth.
After Paul was
converted and the gospel of Christ finally penetrated him, he went
home to his home town for three years before going up to the capital
city of Jerusalem and meeting with the leader of the first
disciples, Peter. Peter and the first disciples were very Jewish.
They were Jewish Christians and they wanted other new Christians to
be Jewish too. That is, they wanted people to believe in Christ,
PLUS follow the Jewish rules, regulations and rituals. They wanted
new converts to believe in Christ PLUS experience circumcism. What
is circumcism? It is a Jewish ritual. At eight days, the babies
would be circumcised. That is, the foreskin of their penis would be
cut. Now, that is permissible for children but another matter for
adults. Peter and the other disciples wanted new converts to Christ
to go through circumcism, a very painful process, especially for
adults, in order to be Christians. Circumcism discouraged new
converts, needless to say. The Apostle Paul shouted, ďNo way.
Christians do not need to be circumcised into order to become
In other words, new
Christians did not have to become Jewish, with Jewish customs, in
order to be Christian. The Apostle Paul uncoupled Christianity
from Judaism. Would you imagine a railroad train? A railroad engine
and it is coupled to the railroad car coming behind? The Apostle
Paul uncoupled Christianity from Judaism. Christianity was to become
a new religion and not merely an extension of Judaism. Currently, I
am reading a fabulous book entitled JOHN ADAMS by David McCullough,
a Pulitzer Price winner. This book tells the story of the birth of
America. It gives us the details of our Declaration of Independence,
the Constitution, the war with England. The United States of America
could have remained forever legally coupled to England. We could
have remained a colony of England. But as a nation, we were
uncoupled from England and we became a new nation, the United States
of America. The Apostle Paul was doing the same thing in his
century. He was uncoupling Christianity from Judaism, and a new
religion was formed, the most powerful religion and force on earth.
This was the
missionary genius of the Apostle Paul. He uncoupled Christianity
from the rules, regulations and rituals of Judaism; from the
circumcism of Judaism. Therefore, Spanish Christians could be
Spanish. Gallic Christians could be Gallic. Roman Christians could
be Roman. None of these new Christians needed to become Jewish in
order to be Christian.
But new Christians
needed to hear and believe the gospel: Jesus was raised from the
dead by the powers of God and so will we someday. All of our sins
are freely forgiven through the death and execution of Jesus on the
cross. We are called to live a life of love, loving as Christ loved.
That was the core. Those were the essentials. You didnít have to
become Jewish to become Christian, but you needed to retain the
gospel to be Christian. You couldnít mess with the gospel. You
couldnít change the essentials.
Paul went home to
think about these matters. He was for three years before going up to
Jerusalem to talk through his ideas with Peter. He went home again,
this time for another fourteen years, meditating on the gospel.
During all this time, Paul concluded he would be the missionary to
the rest of the world outside of Jewish Palestine. The original
disciples would be missionaries to the Jewish world of Palestine.
Paul would take the gospel, the summation of the Christian faith, to
the rest of the world, to all the world that was non Jewish. He
would tell the essential truth about Christ: Christ was raised from
the dead by the powers of God; Christ paid the penalty for all of
our sins; Christ gave us one rule, to love as Christ loves.
He first went to
the island of Cypress and the governor of that island was eventually
converted to Jesus Christ. This was Paulís first convert. His very
first convert. What was the name of the governor of the island?
Sergius Paulus. Paulus. Paul then took the governorís last name to
be his own name. He will have a new name: Paul, the missionary to
the rest of the world outside of Palestine.
Do you know the
gospel? Has Christ penetrated the shell and hardness of your life?
Has Christ broken through so that you know that Christ was raised
from the dead by the powers of God? Do you know that you are fully
and freely forgiven through Jesus Christ? Do you know that you are
called to love as Christ loves? Do you know the simplicities of the
But the simple
gospel is never enough. Christians then and now are forever trying
to change the gospel, just like people are always trying to change
the simple recipe for cream pie.
Let me give you
examples. The following
are examples of where the simple gospel was not enough and
Christians became wrapped up in the ďissue of their dayĒ and
slowly and surely, the ďissue of the dayĒ became a substitute
for the gospel.
For example, in 325
AD, there was the Roman Emperor named Constantine. Constantine used
Christianity to glue his empire together. He made Christianity to be
the legal religion of the Roman empire.
All citizens were to become Christians. That became the law.
Also, under his reign, the Nicene Creed was written. The Nicene
Creed was the body of doctrine that all
Christians were to believe in so that they could be called
Christians. And soon, the body of doctrines became the gospel. The
hot issue of the day became the energetic focus of the Christian
movement. No longer was the gospel to know that Christ conquered
death, that our sins were freely forgiven, that we were to live a
life of love. No, that was the gospel PLUS a body of doctrines
called the Nicene Creed. Now, there is nothing wrong with the Nicene
Creed. The creed states the doctrines of the Christian church, but
that theological formula slowly became the gospel itself. The
Biblical gospel was replaced by a creedal gospel.
467 AD. There was an enormous conflict between two theologians,
Arius and Athanasius. At the focus of their debate was whether or
not the Holy Spirit was truly and fully God. Athanasius won the
battle, and a Trinitarian Creed was written to state the doctrinal
truth about the Holy Spirit. That Trinitarian Creed was and is
great, but is soon became the gospel. The Trinitarian Creed was the
hot issue of the day, and it became more important than the Biblical
The year was about
1750; 1743, to be exact. The burning issue was whether the earth was
the center of the
universe and whether or not the earth was flat. That was the hot
issue of the 1750s during the time of Galileo. Gradually, a
Christian was to believe the gospel PLUS that the earth was flat and
the earth was the center of the universe. The hot issue of that day,
the earth being flat and being the center of the universe, slowly
became more important than the Biblical gospel itself.
The year was about
1850. The missionaries from the United States and Europe were
flooding into Africa by the thousands, and they knew the basic
gospel. But to these missionaries, the gospel of God raising Jesus
from the dead, Jesus paid the penalty for our sins and we are to
love one another as Christ loved us; this gospel was important PLUS
Africans becoming European and American in their culture. The
missionaries started to teacher western culture such as men wearing
pants, women wearing skirts, men wearing leather shoes and women
wearing blouses and all the Africans learning hymns from Germany or
England or the United States. The Africans were to know the gospel
PLUS the Africans were to become European or American in culture.
The year was about
1950, and the western world became strongly anti-communist. It was
the era of Eugene McCarthy and John Foster Dulles. The world knew
the gospel of Christ PLUS Christians were to be democratic
capitalists and being a pinko communist meant to be an materialistic
atheist. In the 1950s, Christians knew and loved the gospel PLUS the
hot and burning issue of the day was to be anti-communist. And as
always, the hot issue of the day slowly became the gospel. The
Biblical, simple gospel of eternal life, forgiveness and love was
transformed into a focus of being anti-communist.
And soon, the
burning issue of the day was abortion. Christians were to believe in
the gospel PLUS to become anti-abortion. In fact, certain Christians
felt so strongly about the abortion issue, it slowly replaced the
And soon, the
burning issue of the day was homosexuality. Christians were to
believe in the gospel PLUS be against gay behavior. In fact, certain
Christians felt so strongly about the gay issue, it slowly replaced
the gospel itself.
Some people get
upset with me about the abortion or gay issue. Such people tell me
that I have changed positions; that I donít preach about these
issues as I did in years past. I would like to suggest to such
people that I have better notes and transcriptions of sermons from
the past. In fact, it was twenty-five years ago that I wrestled with
these texts from Galatians. As I reread my sermons from a quarter of
a century ago, I said the same thing: people always get hyped up and
focus on the burning issue of the day and the burning issue of the
day replaces the gospel. Twenty-five years ago, I said that abortion
and the gay rights become the gospel for many people.
What is the gospel?
What is the core of the gospel in the Scriptures. It is so simple.
God raised Jesus of Nazareth from the dead, and shouted from
the mountain tops that death itself had been destroyed. What is the
gospel? Jesus died on the cross, paying the price for all of our
sins. Our sins have been fully and freely forgiven. What is the
gospel? That Christ loved the world so much and we are to love one
another as Christ loved us. The gospel. It is crucial that a slow
lightning bolt or a fast lightning bolt penetrate the shell of your
life and mine, so that we believe and know the gospel.
We had a birthday
in our family the other day. My oldest son wanted the traditional
cream pie, as did his father, grandfather and great-grandfather from
decades before. He wanted a plain simple cream pie. Not with
coconuts. Not with meringue. Not with chocolate. He didnít want
anyone to mess with the basic recipe. Amen.