In our true worship of God, we don’t want to abandon Him by abandoning the only way by which others can come to Him in spirit and truth.
In the first two parts of this series, we looked at the Apostle Paul as an example of reaching out to people different from us, with the Gospel—people who are across an ocean or just across the street. Paul familiarized himself with people and used familiar pieces of their own cultures to familiarize and cultivate the Gospel with them. We learn from him how to be aware of culture, and in stepping into different cultures, to be there to cultivate the truth of the Gospel. In this final part of the series, we learn another critical lesson from Paul: we must beware of cults.
A cult is simply a group that indoctrinates and declares the heresy of a different gospel. Cults are all around us, and we face their constant pressure to waver on what we know to be true. We will find them in every culture. However, our first battle is not on the outside, but on the inside, as we face inner temptation to waver on what we know to be true.
The danger we face, in familiarizing ourselves with people and presenting the Gospel in familiar terms, is that our desire for their acceptance will cause us to change the terms of the Gospel, downplaying the hard truth of the Gospel, making it more consumer-friendly. This can happen to the point that we are suddenly not presenting the Gospel at all, but a cultic gospel instead—a gospel that hurts no one and gets no one hurt—a gospel that shifts with shifting popular opinions. The most well-meaning, well-grounded churches, caught in this subtle trap, can cross the lines of orthodoxy and become cults within themselves. We all must beware of this danger.
A different gospel is a real danger (1:6):
I am astonished that you are…turning to a different gospel--
This letter was to the churches of Galatia (1:3)—churches planted and cultivated with the truth of the Gospel: Who Jesus is, what He did, and why He did it. And at this point, they were in danger from a different gospel.
We can’t go along acting like the danger of a different gospel is something we don’t need to watch out for. Gospel integrity must be established, but is not established once and for all—it must be maintained now and from now on, as we realize what the danger of a different gospel really is.
A different gospel is a desertion of God (1:6):
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel--
A different gospel is not simply a small squabble over a few differing facts. It is an outright abandonment of God Himself. A break-away from the true Gospel is a break-away from the true God. It’s not a technical problem—it’s a relational problem. Paul did not express astonishment over them deserting a set of religious ideas, but over them deserting a relationship with God. It is impossible to know God through a different gospel, because He doesn’t offer us multiple choices.
A different gospel is a distortion of the true Gospel (1:7):
not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ.
The case is not that we have multiple choices of gospels, in order to decide which one we prefer. This isn’t a competition of greater and lesser gospels—better and worse gospels—gospels that might get you further along with God than others, as you find one suited to your spiritual taste or spiritual level. There is only one Gospel of Christ—anything other than that, even if He is somehow included, is an invalid distortion with no possibility of redemption.
A different gospel is a damning gospel (1:8-9):
But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.
Paul was clear about the gospel he preached to them so that they were clear about what they received (see also 1 Corinthians 15:1-8). Paul had left them with no question as to what they were to really believe.
Anybody who deviated, from what Paul and his team so clearly laid out for them, was to be considered accursed--anathema—set apart for destruction under cursed condemnation. Why such a harsh declaration of damnation? —Because the damned were damning others. They needed to be seen for what they were and what they were doing, and they needed to be cut off. This is the case for all cults substituting damning man-made reasoning for redeeming God-given revelation.
A different gospel is the danger of desiring man’s approval (1:10):
For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.
Now, this is the same guy who said that he was a slave to all people (1 Corinthians 9:19) and that he tried to please everyone in everything he did (1 Corinthians 10:33). So, which was it? Was he a slave to people or a slave to Christ? Was he trying to please people or trying to please God?
We need to understand and learn from Paul this way: He enslaved himself to people in putting aside and not insisting on his own personal rights. He pleased people in putting aside and not insisting on his own personal preferences. However, he never enslaved himself to people to try and please them in putting aside and not insisting on God’s own Gospel.
When Paul cultivated within the context of a culture, his motivation was not to win their approval, but to win their hearts for them to be saved (see again 1 Corinthians 9:19, 22-23; 10:33). So, he never wavered from the one and only way for them to be saved. Paul contextualized the Gospel without changing the Gospel.
Paul was not seeking the affirming, admiring approval of people—only of God in ministering the truth to people, which included how he treated them unselfishly. And he wasn’t trying to please people at all costs—he was living to please Christ at all costs, which meant that, even when facing the cost of persecution, the Gospel was not on the chopping block—that is why his head eventually was.
The Sum of True Worship
We are to be unselfishly flexible when reaching out to people different from us. When stepping into their cultures—into their homes, neighborhoods, towns, cities, or countries—we must be willing to lay down our personal identities so that we can identify with them, cultivating relationships with them in their lives in order to cultivate the Gospel into their lives. And that means that, with the truth of the Gospel, we must be unshakably inflexible when reaching out to people who disagree with us. We must be careful, when we are cultivating those relationships, not to cultivate ourselves right into a cult by compromising the truth that, in fact, might cause them to turn away or turn us away. In not compromising, our hope is that God will use His truth to reveal, and turn them to, Himself. In our true worship of Him, we don’t want to abandon Him by abandoning the only way by which others can come to Him in spirit and truth.