false doctrine in Galatians

10 Lessons From Galatians on False Doctrine and Its Teachers

The Galatian church had fallen prey to false teachers, and many of its members were being drawn away from the pure gospel of grace alone. Paul writes the letter to rebuke them and get them back on track. Here we can glean insight and many practical tips for how we can recognize and defeat false doctrine in our churches.

1. To believe a different gospel is to desert God (Galatians 1:6)

This is clear from Paul’s words, “you are so quickly deserting Him…for a different gospel” (1:6) Put simply, to forsake the God-ordained means of coming to God is to not come to God. The Greek word can mean to be transferred to another place, to revolt, or to change one’s mind, beliefs or religion. It is God whom they are deserting. They are moving away from God to another religion.

2. A false gospel is not good news at all (Galatians 1:7a)

There are many other reasons why the gospel of works that plagued the church is not good news, but I shall address two. The first reason is that it kept the people in bondage to the Law. Paul makes it clear that this is a bad place to be. Paul said that all who are under the Law are under a curse (3:10), and are obligated to keep the entire Law (5:2).

The second reason is similar: This doctrine is not good news because it does not save you. To be a follower of this particular teaching disqualified one from enjoying the freedom found only in Christ–the One who both fulfilled the Law, and bore the curse we deserved for breaking it. Paul says that Jesus rescued us from our sins (1:4), whereas our own physical circumcision could not.

3. Anything added to, or taken away from, the true gospel is a total 180 turn (Galatians 1:7b)

These people are said to be “distorting” the gospel. The Greek word means to change to the opposite. The same word is used in Acts 2:20 to signify the sun turning to darkness, and in James 4:9 for laugher being turned to mourning. In the LXX, the Greek translation of the OT, it is used in Psalm 77:44 (78:44) for the Nile being turned to blood. That seems to be a powerful perspective on things! Darkness is to the sun as anything but the gospel is to the gospel.

Anything added to, or taken away from, the true gospel is a total 180 turn. Click To Tweet

4. Men who teach false gospels are accursed, and under judgment (Galatians 1:8-9; 2:4; 5:10)

Paul flat out says that these people are to be accursed–or, anathematized. Paul also calls these men “false brethren” in chapter 2 verse 4. These men were not real followers of Christ. Read Second Peter or Jude and you will know the eternal destiny of a heretic.

Paul says that the person who was spreading this heresy in the church “will bear his judgment” (Gal. 5:10). In Romans Paul says concerning certain men who would twist the words of the apostles, that “their condemnation is just” (Rom. 3:8). Or consider also his words against Alexander the coppersmith: “The Lord will repay him according to his deeds” (2 Tim. 4:14). The deeds in mind must be in relation to false doctrine, for verse 15 mentions how Alexander opposed Paul’s teaching.

This may sound harsh, but it makes sense. If somebody preaches a message that sends people to hell, where would that person go? Paul says that false teachers will arise “deceiving and being deceived” (2 Tim. 3:13). Both the one being taught lies and the one lying are both blind to the gospel! Think of the words of Jesus to the Pharisees, that a convert of theirs is “twice as much a son of hell as yourselves” (Matt. 23:15). They are leading people to hell, where they too are headed.

5. Teaching false doctrine comes from a desire to please men rather than God (Galatians 1:10a)

This verse starts out with “Therefore,” which connects it with what he had just said in his introduction. The fact that he just called out the false teachers as hell-bound and the Galatians themselves as abandoning the gospel proves that he speaks to please God instead of men. His speech would have been a lot more flattering had his motives been the opposite.

Men do not like hearing the Word of God. At a church with a good preacher the congregation will not feel comfortable in their sins. The faithful preacher will not send his sheep away feeling better about themselves.

On the other hand, Paul says that people will gather to themselves teachers who will tickle their ears with false doctrine (2 Tim. 4:3-4). People are fed up with hearing the exclusivity of Christ, eternal punishment in hell, and total depravity. They want to be flattered and told they are good. Heed the warning of Paul that men will “deceive the hearts of the unsuspecting by their smooth and flattering speech” (Rom. 16:18). Jude also speaks of men who flatter their listeners (Jude 16).

For more on this verse and its implications for our preaching, see Does Our Preaching Please God, or Men? by Steve Rohn.

6. Those who seek to please men cannot possibly consider themselves slaves of Christ (Galatians 1:10b)

The concept is simple: If men are not preaching the message God sent them to preach, they are clearly not serving God. Being God’s slave involves His ownership of us and our complete allegiance and obedience to Him.

The Bible often contrasts seeking to please men with seeking to please God. In another letter, Paul says that he was “approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel,” and he therefore preached “not as pleasing men, but God” (1 Thes. 2:4). That’s the logic: God is the one who called him to preach, so it is to Him that he must answer. Again, it is “in the sight of God” that he preached, and therefore he would not peddle His Word (1 Cor. 2:17). Paul mentions divisive men who are “slaves…of their own appetites,” instead of the Lord (Rom. 16:18).

It may also have to do with fear. Paul says the reason some of these men were circumcising the Galatians was “so that they will not be persecuted for the cross of Christ” (Gal. 6:12). These men were under the threat of harm, and therefore they chose to serve and fear men rather than God. However, Paul preached the cross rather than circumcision, and was therefore still persecuted (5:11). Paul preached the truth to the Galatians, even though it might have made him their enemy (4:16).

7. To compromise the truth just one time can ruin a true preacher’s chance of protecting their sheep in the future (Galatians 2:5)

Paul’s motive for not yielding submission to the false teachers’ demand that Titus be circumcised was “so that the truth of the gospel would remain with you” (Gal. 2:5). Had the leaders of the church put themselves in subjection to the heretics, nothing would have prevented the sheep from following.

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The story of Peter found later in chapter 2 illustrates this (although in his case the fault is not teaching heresy). There we read of Peter’s sin of showing partiality and fearing man when he stopped sitting with Gentiles in the presence of James. When he did so it was not only he who sinned, but “the rest of the Jews joined him in hypocrisy” (v. 13). We should never think we are the only ones affected by our sins.

8. False teaching ought to be attacked from Scripture (Chapter 3)

This is exactly what Paul does in chapter 3. In just a few sentences he cites 6 Old Testament passages (Gen. 12:3; 15:6; Lev. 18:5; Deut. 21:23; 27:26; Hab. 2:3). He uses the phrase “as it is written” on a couple occasions, calling upon the Word as the supreme authority on the matter (vv. 10, 13). Being that the heresy of the Judaizers was based on the Law, Paul quotes from the Law itself to uncover their misunderstanding. Paul shows that justification and the blessings of Abraham always came through faith, for Abraham was promised well before the Law ever came. The Judaizers were trying to bring these Christians back under the Law, but Paul shows from the Law itself what a dreadful state of slavery that actually is.

9. If God is not the source of our doctrine, it cannot be true (Galatians 5:8)

Paul says that the false teaching of the Judaizers “did not come from Him who calls you” (Gal. 5:8). Nothing that comes from God is going to contradict what already came from God in the Bible. To obey what the Judaizers taught is to not obey God. On the contrary, the gospel Paul preached did come from God. He received the gospel through a revelation of Jesus Christ (1:11-12). It was not something concocted in his own mind, which he proves in the narrative about his conversion and early years from 1:13 to 2:21.

10. False doctrine spreads through churches quickly (Galatians 5:9)

Paul uses the picture of leaven spreading through a loaf of bread to illustrate how false doctrine can quickly spread through a church. He uses this same illustration elsewhere, warning that sexual sin in the church must be addressed and removed lest others be impacted and dragged down (1 Cor. 5:6). Elsewhere he likens the spread of false teaching to that of gangrene, or cancer (2 Tim. 2:17). It is “worldly and empty chatter” that helps spread it (v. 16). People love debating and giving their opinions, and that’s fine, but with the blind leading the blind, both parties can be carried away by “fine-sounding arguments.”

When we let our sheep listen to Christian radio or read books by whomever the new smiler is, they will bring those doctrines into our churches. We need to be careful, for it may be hard to catch at first, as Jude says, “men have crept in unnoticed” (Jude 4).

Had Paul been at the Galatian church, he would have stopped the madness immediately. Church leadership needs to be on the watch for approaching wolves. The men placed in teaching positions and leadership ought to be tested first (1 Tim. 3:10; 5:22). We cannot let a man into the pulpit who does not agree with the particulars of our church’s doctrine–let alone the fundamentals of the faith! This does not mean we consider any member who is slightly on angelology anathema. Contentious people in our congregations need to be addressed differently than the fainthearted and weak (1 Thes. 5:14; Jude 22-23). Paul’s response to these false teachers is more harsh than the “gentle restoration” of a true brother struggling with sin (Gal. 6:1-2).

-Steve Rohn

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