By Mike Willis
One of the most offensive things about those who are New Testament Christians in the eyes of the non-Christian world is their belief in the “oneness of the church” or “one way of salvation.” The man who believes that there is just one church is considered an ignorant bigot in the eyes of most people today. A man must learn to be tolerant of another’s religion, we are told. However, one thing which I have observed in my discussions with the “tolerant” is this: it is extremely difficult for the tolerant to tolerate the intolerant. They are perfectly willing to tolerate any religious belief or practice so long as the one involved in that belief or practice does not say that it is the only way to heaven!
Yet, my brethren, one of the very things which offended the religious community of Jesus’ day was His statements about the exclusive nature of the gospel. He said, “I said therefore to you, that you shall die in your sins; for unless you believe that I am He, you shall die in your sins” (Jn. 8:24). This statement offended the Jews of Jesus’ day. When Peter said, “And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men, by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12), the Jews were offended. When Paul labored to turn away the pagans from their idols to worship Jehovah, the Ephesians were offended (Acts 19:23f). All of the inspired writers believed that there was but one way of salvation, namely, through the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The gospel of the first century was intolerant. It would not tolerate the belief that one could be saved through Judaism; it would not tolerate the belief that one could be saved through the various religions of the pagans; it would not tolerate perversions in the gospel from false teachers among the Christians. The first century gospel was intolerant of other religions. Consider with me this passage as an example of the intolerance of the gospel:
I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel; which is really not another; only there are some who are disturbing you, and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even though we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we have preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to that which you received, let him be accursed (Gal. 1:8-9).
Let us examine this passage very carefully as it illustrates the intolerance of the first century gospel.
A consideration of the heresy with which Paul was confronted will be helpful in understanding this important passage. Paul had gone into Galatia to preach the gospel; he converted many to the saving gospel of Jesus Christ. Upon his departure to regions which had not heard of the gospel, Judaizers entered the church and made havoc of his work. These men denied Paul’s apostolic authority. Hence, chapters one and two of Galatians are designed to refute their denial of his authority and to show that he had as much apostolic authority as any other apostle. The Judaizers apparently charged that Paul had departed from the old Jerusalem gospel and was a false teacher. The doctrinal point of departure which the Judaizers pressed was this: they taught that a man had to submit to the Mosaical law (and, specifically, to circumcision) in order to be saved.
Here are some of the things which characterized this apostasy:
(1) It was quick. Paul said, “I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you ….” The apostasy did not occur over a long period of years; it occurred almost overnight.
(2) It was to a “different” gospel. Paul said, “I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel; which is really not another . . . . ” The Greek New Testament has a play on words here which is pretty well reproduced in the English by the words “different” and “another” (the KJV has “another” in both places). The Greek word allos refers to “another of the same character” whereas the Greek word heteros refers to “another of a different character.” Paul’s wonder is that they should have so soon accepted a gospel different in character and kind from that which they had already received, which therefore had no right to be called another gospel because it was no gospel at all. The gospel taught salvation through grace by faith; the Judaizers taught salvation through perfect obedience to the Mosaical law. The word “gospel” means “good news.” That man could be saved by perfect obedience to the Mosaical law was not “good news” because no one could obey the law perfectly. Hence, this was a different gospel; a doctrine of salvation which did not deserve to be labeled “gospel.”
(3) It perverted the true gospel. Paul said, “I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel; which is really not another; only there are some who are disturbing you, and want to distort the gospel of Christ.” These Judaizers did not deny the virgin birth, death, burial, or resurrection of Christ. They did not deny that baptism was essential for salvation. Indeed, they did not deny any of the facts or the one act which those who distinguish between gospel and doctrine label as “gospel.” Rather, they bound the Mosical law upon those Gentiles who wanted to follow Christ. To bind the Mosaical law upon Gentiles was to pervert the gospel of Jesus Christ.
(4) It disturbed churches. Paul said, “I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel; which is really not another; only there are some who are disturbing you, and want to distort the gospel of Christ.” Those who teach their opinions (such as whether or not God will save the pious unimmersed, overlook sins of ignorance, etc.) disturb churches.
To tamper with the gospel is to trouble the Church . . . .Indeed, the Church’s greatest troublemakers (now as then) are not those outside who oppose, ridicule and persecute it, but those inside who try to change the gospel . . . Conversely, the only way to be a good churchman is to be a good gospel-man. The best way to serve the Church is to believe and to preach the gospel (John R. W. Stott as quoted by James Montgomery Bolce, “Galatians,” The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. X, p. 428).
My brethren, you think of the good men whom you know as faithful gospel preachers. Ask yourself how many of them have divided churches, caused problems among the saints, etc. Even experience itself confirms that those who are faithful to the gospel do not trouble the churches and that those who try to improve the gospel are the real troublers of the church.
(5) It brought damnation. Paul said, “But even though we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we have preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to that which you received, let him be accursed.” The heresy which Paul was fighting would cause a man to lose his soul! When Peter became involved in it, “he stood condemned” (2:11). Because this
heresy was, and any heresy is, damning, Paul withstood it; he had to demolish this departure from the true gospel. He could not tolerate it; he had to eradicate it.
The Duty of Intolerance
Our society has reached the state where it is critical of intolerance. The man who will not tolerate another’s religion is considered narrow-minded and bigoted. Tolerance of all religions is considered charitable and extolled by most people. Yet, Paul was a most intolerant person as he wrote Gal. 1:6-9.
The grounds of Christian intolerance is the exclusive claims of the gospel. Jesus taught that there is but one way of salvation; He said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through Me” (Jn. 14:6). The gospel is not a way of salvation; it is the way of salvation. The gospel is not a life for men; it is the life unto men. The gospel is not a truth; it is the truth. The grounds of intolerance of the gospel is that it is the only means of salvation!
The Limits of Intolerance
Though intolerance is a virtue, there are some very real limits to intolerance. When John Calvin condoned the execution of Servetus for his heretical doctrine, he had certainly violated the limits of intolerance. Intolerance does not give the right to exterminate those who teach false doctrines.
Intolerance must be limited to the rights of the gospel, not the claims of the preacher. Intolerance commonly springs from personal jealously or party spirit. Our intolerance is not toward men who preach the same gospel in other terms than we use. It is against those who teach another gospel. And, my brethren, the gospel of gimmicks as manifested by those involved in the bus ministry, the gospel of recreation as manifested by those involved in church sponsored recreation. and the gospel which tolerates practically any religious belief as manifested by the unity-in-diversion faction are not the gospel of the first century! If these were being opposed simply because someone used other terms than did I in preaching the same gospel, they should be tolerated. That is not the case, however; those involved in these movements have perverted or distorted the old Jerusalem gospel! Consequently, these perversions cannot be tolerated.
Our intolerance must, therefore, be limited to perversions of the gospel. Matters pertaining to personalities, which scriptural methods are used, individual consciences, etc. must be tolerated. The Christian must be tolerant of anything which does not pervert the gospel of Christ or destroy the unity of the saints.
The average fellow seems to think more of tolerance than he does of truth. Indeed, this spirit has invaded the church. Apparently, those propagating this spirit of tolerance have forgotten that heresy is damning. The Pulpit Commentary contained these important remarks on this passage:
There is a spirit abroad that leads men to think that everybody is right, that nobody Is wrong, that nothing but an evil life will bring retribution hereafter. By men of this spirit the apostle would be regarded as cruelly illiberal and narrow (p. 47).
The lessons revealed in Gal. 1:8-9 need to be preached anew to every generation that men everywhere might learn that the gospel cannot tolerate perversions of it. There is but one way of salvation-through the gospel of Jesus Christ. One who perverts that gospel destroys the one way of salvation. Consequently, the Christian cannot ignore even the smallest perversion of the gospel. He cannot tolerate heresy.
Truth Magazine XXII: 9, pp. 147-149
March 2, 1978