The epistles to the Romans and to the Galatians both treat of the same great subject, namely, the way of a sinner's justification before God. There is, however, an important difference between the two epistles. In the epistle to the Romans, the apostle states what the gospel really is — the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth, because therein is the righteousness of God revealed in the way of faith. But in the epistle to the Galatians, he had to do with those who, having received the gospel of the grace of God, had attempted to unite with the gospel the works of the law, and by this very means to nullify the gospel. Hence we find much sternness in this epistle; and on no other occasion does St. Paul so strongly assert his apostolical authority.
"Paul, an apostle, (not of men, nor by man, but by Jesus Christ, and God the Father, who raised Him from the dead;) and all the brethren which are with me, unto the churches of Galatia grace be to you, and peace, from God the Father, and our Lord Jesus Christ." (Gal. 1:1-3.)
The apostle was not sent forth from men, neither did he receive his commission from men. He here insists on the speciality of his apostleship. Unlike the twelve, his commission was direct from the risen Jesus. It came fresh from heaven after Jesus had finished His work; as the apostle himself states to the elders of Ephesus, "That I might finish my course with joy, and the ministry, which I have received of the Lord Jesus, to testify the gospel of the grace of God." God seems to have anticipated the fiction of the present day, by breaking any semblance of apostolic succession, in His manner of choosing the apostle Paul.
Fellowship in labour, and especially labour in the truth of the gospel, was very precious to the apostle; he therefore associates the brethren with himself, as sharing their perfect sympathy and concurrence with him in what he here states. Galatia was a large province, in which there were several congregations of Christians, and he directs his epistle to the churches of Galatia. In Acts 16:6, the first mention is made of the apostle visiting Galatia, and in Acts 18:23, we find him going through Galatia and Phrygia in order, strengthening all the disciples. Peter also addresses "the strangers scattered throughout Galatia." This is the only instance in which the apostle addresses the several churches of a province; his other epistles, except those to individuals, are addressed to the one church in a particular city. The mode of apostolic address in the several epistles, and the manner in which the apostle asserts his office, are well worthy of consideration. In the epistle to the Philippians, he does not assert his apostleship at all, taking, as I believe, the higher title, in his estimation, of servant of Jesus Christ.
"Who gave Himself for our sins, that He might deliver us from this present evil world, according to the will of God and our Father." (Gal. 1:4.)
This verse really contains the whole subject of the epistle. Such is the way of Paul's teaching; he introduces the subject in a very summary manner, and amplifies it afterwards. What has law to do with those for whom Jesus has given Himself to rescue them out of this present evil world? For believers to have recourse to the law is to go back into the world, out of which Christ gave Himself to deliver them. This is of practical importance. There are many who need quite as much now to be rescued out of traditional Christianity, as the Galatians needed to be rescued out of idolatry. How many things have we all received from tradition, and not from the Word of God. We cannot hold to the Scriptures and tradition; the authority of the one will necessarily supersede the authority of the other. Adherence to the Scriptures will make us relinquish tradition; a clinging to tradition will make the Word of God of none effect. "Christ gave Himself for our sins." If I believe in substitution, I see that the Lord Jesus has stood in my place, and that I am thereby, according to the will of our God and Father, "delivered [or rescued] out of this present world."
"I marvel that ye are so soon removed from him that called you into the grace of Christ unto another gospel which is not another but there be some that trouble you, and would pervert the gospel of Christ." (Gal. 1:6, 7.)
The apostle ministered the gospel of the grace of God; and arduous was his labour, and sore his trials, in seeking to preserve its purity. Under the guidance of the Holy Ghost, he could see the truth of the gospel imperilled, where others could see no harm. If we put devotedness in service, or the best of good works, as supplementary to the work of Christ, it is no gospel at all. It was certain men that believed which said "it was needful to circumcise the Gentiles, and to command them to keep the law of Moses." (Compare Acts 11 and 15.) It was peril not from without, but rising up in the very bosom of the Church. The fifteenth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles may well be called the Christian's Magna Charta. These teachers said, "Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved." The gospel is independent of these 'ifs' and 'excepts.' If they are introduced, they subvert the gospel of the grace of God. The apostle James, in this chapter of the Acts, teaches the same truth as Paul in this epistle, namely, that the attempt to add any thing to the finished work of Christ, as the ground of acceptance with God, is to "trouble the brethren," and to "subvert their souls." It is God who tells us how precious the work of Christ is to Him. He knows its value as we know it not. God sets forth the gospel as meeting all the need of the sinner; for if the omniscient God searches the heart and trieth the reins, the same God knows also the preciousness of the blood of Christ, and testifies of it to us. How easily may even a believer in Christ turn the gospel into no gospel, to the misery of himself as well as of others. The religion of Christendom is but the Galatian error in full manifestation; it has perverted the gospel of the grace of God, and substituted in its place a modified covenant of works.
"But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed. As we said before, so say I now again, If any man preach any other gospel unto you than that ye have received, let him be accursed. For do I now persuade men, or God? or do I seek to please men? for if I yet pleased men, I should not be the servant of Christ." (Gal. 1:8-10.)
It is a solemn thought, that the apostle should speak thus of an angel. Angels heralded the birth of Jesus. Angels ministered to Him in the wilderness. An angel strengthened Him in His agony in Gethsemane. Angels were at His grave on the resurrection-morn, and announced the glad tidings, "He is risen." Angels relieved the bewildered men of Galilee, by the announcement, that the Jesus they had lost sight of should so come again, as they had seen Him go away. Jesus was seen of angels; but angels never tasted of His grace in redemption. They can see the virtue of His blood, and say, "Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honour, and glory, and blessing." But they cannot say, "Thou hast redeemed us to God by thy blood." It is thus that a lost and ruined sinner is brought by redemption into greater nearness to God than an unfallen angel. And it is the experience of such amazing grace that makes one, comparatively ignorant in other respects, more sensitive as to the truth of the gospel, than the man of vast parts, or even than an angel, who has never tasted that grace. Is there such a sense among us of the value of the gospel? Is there such a jealousy for the truth of the gospel in our day? The jealousy of the apostle for the gospel was such, that he could say, "Though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed." Will such faithfulness be pleasing to men? What says the apostle? "Do I now persuade men, or God?" that is, in using this language, am I seeking to approve myself to God or to men? The gospel cuts from under men every possible assumption. The denial of self must be the denial of self in every form — bad self, good self, religious self. This displeases men. Herein is the offence of the Cross. There is no occasion to affect singularity in preaching the gospel. It it be preached simply and earnestly, and it is of itself sufficiently offensive, because it sweeps away all refuges of lies. It is a solemn word, "If I yet pleased men, I should not be the servant of Christ."
"But I certify you, brethren, that the gospel which was preached of me is not after man. For I neither received it of man, neither was I taught it, but by the revelation of Jesus Christ." (Gal. 1:11, 12.)
We have had abundant experience, from the days of the apostle to the present day, of what the gospel would be "according to man." It would entirely frustrate the grace of God. The gospel is the expression of God's thoughts and ways to man as a convicted sinner, and His thoughts and ways are higher than our thoughts and ways. The most experienced Christians find it a constant battle and struggle to beat down their carnal thoughts, and to bring every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ. The thoughts of God toward us are thoughts of grace, love, and peace; but we often think of Him as a hard master and austere man. The apostle is exceedingly jealous on the point of having received his gospel directly from the glorified Jesus. When the Lord appeared to him in the way, He thus gave his commission, "I am Jesus whom thou persecutest. But rise, and stand upon thy feet; for I have appeared unto thee for this purpose, to make thee a minister and a witness both of these things which thou hast seen, and of those things in the which I will appear unto thee." (Acts 26:15, 16.) It was by direct revelation from the Lord that the apostle received his gospel; and we, too, need "the spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of Jesus." Even now God is pleased to "reveal to babes that which is hidden from the wise and prudent." And he who knows in his own case, that "where sin has abounded, grace has super-abounded," is in possession of the highest wisdom, even the wisdom of God.
"For ye have heard of my conversation in time past in the Jews' religion, how that beyond measure I persecuted the church of God, and wasted it: and profited in the Jews' religion above many my equals in mine own nation, being more exceedingly zealous of the traditions of my fathers." (Gal. 1:13, 14.)
In these verses Paul shows us that it must have been an extraordinary power which delivered him from his traditional religion, which made him think that he "ought to do many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth." He who had been so studiously instructed in Judaism needed the manifestation of something much more excellent to deliver him from his religion, "received by tradition from his fathers," and to show him its vanity and powerlessness. This is important. We often regard the gospel as a remedy to which perforce we must have recourse; but Paul regarded it in comparison with a previous revelation of God, which indeed had its glory, but which faded away before the excelling glory of which he was a minister — "the glorious gospel of the blessed God." The most accomplished and zealous religionist, and the chief of sinners, found their identity in Saul of Tarsus, when he saw himself in the light of the glory of Jesus. And so it ever must be. However sincere we may have been in our religious convictions, if they have not been according to God, but according to tradition, we are awakened to the discovery, in the light of God's truth, that in the very thing on which we most prided ourselves, we were most contrary to God. "Men," says the Lord Himself, "will think they are doing God service, by putting you to death." The greatest opposers of the doctrines of grace are those who receive their religion from tradition, and not from the Word of God.
"But when it pleased God, who separated me from my mother's womb, and called me by His grace, to reveal His Son in me, that I might preach Him among the heathen; immediately I conferred not with flesh and blood: neither went I up to Jerusalem to them which were apostles before me; but I went into Arabia, and returned again unto Damascus." (Gal. 1:15-17.)
In the 15th verse, the apostle seems to allude to Jeremiah 1:5: "Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou earnest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee; and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations." Paul was made an apostle of the Gentiles by as distinct an act of God's sovereign power, as Jeremiah was appointed a prophet to the Gentiles. God called both one and the other, without any previous training, to their respective ministries; the one denouncing God's wrath on the Gentiles, the other preaching peace to them through Jesus Christ. But the call of the apostle by the grace of God was accompanied by an inward revelation of the glory of the Son to his soul. There was indeed an outward revelation which affected others as well as himself: his companions "fell to the earth" (Acts 26:4), as well as himself; they were "speechless, hearing a voice, but seeing no man." But however they might be affected and astonished; whatever might have been wrought in them subsequently, at that time it pleased God to reveal His Son in Paul alone. It is one of the cravings of men's hearts, "to see signs and wonders;" but there is nothing saving in such manifestations; yea, rather the revelation of the Lord Jesus in glory, without any inward revelation to the soul, will be the world's judgment. But now the Lord Jesus Christ is manifested to some in the world, without being manifested unto the world. "The world seeth Him no more, but they see Him." This is an essential distinction between the Church and the world. The Church, by the presence of the Holy Ghost, now delights in an unseen object, even Jesus, and loves His appearing, that she may see Him as He is, and be with Him for ever. The world indeed shall see Him, but only to hear its own doom from His lips.
The traditional religion of Saul the Pharisee gave way before this inward revelation. He saw its profitlessness, and, instead of being gain, he could only regard it as loss, for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus the Lord. He did not "confer with flesh and blood;" for he had the witness in himself, in the blessed suitability of Jesus the crucified, but now risen and glorified one, to his need. It is ever dangerous to confer with flesh and blood concerning that which God has revealed. This we see to be the case in another apostle. The Father, not flesh and blood, had revealed to Peter the glory of the Person of Jesus but Peter conferred with flesh and blood, and reasoned against so glorious a Person as the Son of the living God having to suffer. How differently does he speak when, led of the Holy Ghost, he says, "Christ has also once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, to bring us unto God." The first thoughts of faith are right. Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him for righteousness; he conferred with flesh and blood, but what sorrow and trouble he brought on himself in the matter of Hagar. And so with regard to ourselves; we receive God's testimony concerning His Son Jesus Christ, and find peace with God as our portion; but we are tempted to confer with flesh and blood; we demand, as it were, evidences from ourselves, which prove not satisfactory to ourselves, instead of resting on the evidence of God to us in the gift and work of His Son, in all its suitability to meet our need. No evidence we can produce from ourselves can ever be satisfactory, because it must ever be accompanied with the consciousness of imperfection, and the soul can find refuge only in that which is perfect, and complete, and finished. Such is the work of Christ on the Cross; and on this God Himself calls us to repose with confidence. The moment we confer with our intellect, we get darkness to our souls.
Paul did not go up to Jerusalem to them that were apostles before him, to get either confirmation to the truth of the gospel, or their authority for preaching it; he had received both directly from the risen Jesus; but he went into Arabia, into the desert. He needed privacy, to be alone with God, in order to digest the wonderful truth he had received. This is worthy of note for us all, but especially for young converts who may be tempted to court publicity when they need retirement. From the wilderness Paul goes not to Jerusalem, but returns again to Damascus — the place of His wonderful conversion.
"Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to see Peter, and abode with him fifteen days. But other of the apostles saw I none, save James the Lord's brother. Now the things which I write unto you, behold, before God, I lie not. Afterwards I came into the regions of Syria and Cilicia; and was unknown by face unto the churches of Judea which were in Christ: but they had heard only, That he which persecuted us in times past now preacheth the faith which once he destroyed. And they glorified God in me." (Gal. 1:18-24.)
The more we trace Paul's steps, after the Lord appeared to him in the way, the more shall we understand the gospel of that grace which he preached, and delighted to preach. And sad indeed is it for those who preach the gospel to others, if they taste not its grace as often as they preach it. The glorious gospel of the blessed God, the more it is known, the more must it be delighted in.
Now these personal incidents in Paul's history, brought so solemnly before us in verse 20, are certainly intended to teach us the nature of the gospel which he preached. Paul, a proficient disciple, both of the law and the traditions men had added to it, shows us in his person that the grace of God, in the revelation of His Son in him, had delivered him from that which was his former boast. How entirely, therefore, must law and gospel be opposed to each other.
Again, he studiously kept away for some years from Jerusalem, which might be regarded as the great religious centre, to show that he got nothing from thence. And when he did go to Jerusalem to visit Peter, it was not to get authority from the apostles, but to have fellowship in labour with them. The marked manner in which Paul speaks of himself, as having persecuted the church, tends to show us himself as a specimen or pattern man of what the grace of the gospel could effect. If he preached the gospel of the grace of God to others, he could ever point to himself as the roaring lion, changed, by the revelation. of the Lord Jesus in him, into a lamb. And he saw in others who received his gospel what others saw in him — an elect vessel of mercy, and gave the glory to God of their conversion, as others glorified God in him.