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25 February 2019

The alternative gospel of good karma.

Introducing Paul’s letter to the Galatian churches.

Galatians 1.1-10.

Probably the first epistle Paul of Tarsus ever wrote was Galatians, his letter to the churches of central Asia Minor (now Turkey), called “Galatia” because it was settled by Celts (whom Romans called “Gauls”). The Celts invaded Bulgaria in 279BC, moved into the Turkish highlands later that century, and took that over too. Yep, there were a whole bunch of white people living in the ancient middle east. History’s full of odd stuff like that.

The New Testament epistles aren’t in order of date, but length: Paul wrote the most of them, and Romans is his longest letter; the sermon of Hebrews is the next-longest writing, James the longest after that, 1 Peter the longest (well, not all that long) after that, then 1 John, then Jude. All were written in the years 40 to 70, so the ancient Christians didn’t think their date of authorship was all that relevant. Present-day historians care way more about that sort of thing, and a number think 1 Thessalonians was written first, ’cause Paul wrote it with Silas and Timothy, 1Th 1.1 so they speculate it was written in the middle of one of their missions, and Galatians after that mission was over. Me, I figure Paul introduces himself to Christendom in this letter: Many followers of Jesus knew who of him, but hadn’t yet heard from the man himself. And some—as this letter points out—weren’t so sure he was really Jesus’s apostle.

See, then as now, people assume you can’t be an apostle unless Jesus personally appoints and sends you, like he did the Twelve. But once Jesus was raptured, he supposedly stopped making apostles. (Christians nowadays make an exception for Paul, ’cause of Jesus’s special appearance to him… ignoring the fact Jesus still appears to people and sends ’em on missions.) So here, as he did in other letters, Paul explained how he’s an apostle same as the Twelve. Maybe with a slightly different mission, but still.

But the core of his mission is the same as that of the Twelve: Share the gospel. God’s kingdom has come near, Mk 1.15 and if you wanna live in it forever, Jesus made it possible. Trust that he did it; repent and follow him. Popular pagan belief presumes any way we earnestly approach God, with or without Jesus, is totally fine with him, ’cause he’s flexible like that. But this profoundly confuses theological apathy with grace. If it was all the same to God, he’d never haave bothered to send us Jesus!

Hence the only way to get to the Father is via the door, the road, the truth—that is, Jesus. He’s the king, and holds the keys, of God’s kingdom. There’s no getting into the kingdom around him. And there’s no alternative to the kingdom but weeping and gnashing of teeth. There is no other gospel. Don’t let anyone tell you different.

Problem was, people were totally telling the Galatians different. And it was working on them. Hence Paul’s letter… which I oughta start quoting, huh?

Galatians 1.1-10 KWL
1 Paul—not sent by humans nor though humans as an apostle,
but by Christ Jesus, and Father God who raised him from the dead—
2 and all the Christian family with me, to the Galatian churches.
3 Grace to you, and peace from Father God and our Master, Christ Jesus.
4 Jesus, who gave himself for our sins to take us out of the current evil age,
by our Father God’s will— 5 glory to God in the age of ages! Amen.
6 I’m wondering at how you so quickly switched from your calling in Christ’s grace
to another “gospel”— 7 which isn’t another gospel.
Is it that someone’s bothering you, and wants to twist Christ’s gospel?
8 But even when we, or an angel from heaven, “evangelizes” you away
from what we evangelized you, you’re to ban them.
9 Like we said before, and I say again now: If anyone “evangelizes” you away
from what you received, you’re to ban them.
10 For do I rely now on people, or on God? Or do I seek to please people?
If I were still pleasing people, I’d never have become Christ’s slave.

Three things to unpack here. First is how humans didn’t make Paul an apostle… which I’ll get to in another article, ’cause Paul really delves into it there. Second, there ain’t no other gospel. And third, banning anyone who says otherwise—which tends to get interpreted as cursing them. And since nobody needs to be told twice to curse others (as Paul seems to have), this interpretation has been awfully popular throughout Christian history—even though it’s wholly inappropriate for Christians to curse anybody.

Karma’s how the world works. Grace, how God works.

What alternative “good news” were Galatian Christians dabbling in? Well we sorta deduced it by the rest of Galatians. Seems certain people were trying to give them the idea they’re saved through works righteousness—by being good people, by obeying God’s Law, by racking up so much good karma that God has to let ’em into his kingdom, ’cause they deserved it. If you’re good people, God can’t deny you a place in his house.

It’s how humans, and most of our self-invented religions, work: If we’re good, the universe owes us one, and God rewards us with heaven. Problem is, it’s not how God works whatsoever. He does grace. He does all the work. So all we now gotta do is trust him. Dismissing God’s grace in favor of our own good deeds is—in comparison to how much God’s sacrificed and done for us—insulting and dickish. “Yeah, yeah, Jesus died for me, but look what I did.” To be fair, people who put their faith in their own karma are too dense to realize how truly awful they’re being towards God. But that just goes to show how self-centered and messed up humanity is.

Because Paul ranted against works-righteousness so extensively in this letter, we’re pretty sure the folks swaying the Galatians were what Christians have historically called Judaizers. Bluntly, that’s an inaccurate, anti-Semitic word. It implies all Jews were—and are—legalists, claiming to be saved because they’re good people.

But that’s actually not how the bible describes them. To hear John the baptist tell of it, they thought they were saved simply by dint of being Abraham’s descendants. The problem wasn’t at all that they were counting on their good deeds; John’s whole objection was they didn’t have any good deeds. They were actually counting on cheap grace.

Luke 3.7-9 KWL
7 John said this to the crowds coming to be baptized by him:
“You viper-spawn! Who warned you to escape the wrath of God?
8 Fine then: Produce worthy fruits, from repentant people.
Don’t start to tell yourselves, ‘We have a father in Abraham’:
God can raise up children for Abraham from these rocks, I tell you.
9 And the axe now lays ready at the root of the tree,
so every tree not producing good fruit is cut down and thrown into fire.”

From what we know of all the Jewish denominations of the day—Sadducees, Pharisees, Qumranis, and Samaritans—none of their formal beliefs are consistent with what Paul wrote about. ’Cause Jews didn't teach works-righteousness. They taught corporate election. It’s the totally biblical idea (held by us Christians too) that God chose and already saved Israel. From Egypt, remember? He adopted them as his children, and made a kingdom of them. Exactly like God chose and already saved humanity, through Christ. Same as Israel, God’s already cleared the path to a relationship with him, if we want it. There's nothing we need do more than repent and follow him.

But. In every religion we’re gonna find a faction who can’t wrap their heads around grace, and keep insisting upon karma. Because karma is fair and grace is not. Karma means we either merit saving, or work our way into deserving it. Grace means we don’t deserve jack squat, but God saves us anyway, ’cause love.

Grace is the horse, and good deeds the cart: Now that God’s saved us, we can stop trying to earn heaven—we already get it!—and focus our efforts on living for God. But that’s not the way legalists think at all. To their minds, the purpose of every Christian’s life is to keep God’s favor. Because we might lose it, and therefore our salvation, if we’re not diligent enough. One little slip-up and God might say, “All right; I’ve forgiven you 2 billion times and that’s 2 billion and one: I’m done. You’re going to hell.” To them “the fear of God” isn’t a metaphor for respect; it’s literal, paranoid fear. The kind of perfect fear which casts out love.

But in reality this legalist lifestyle has nothing at all to do with pleasing God. It’s entirely about pleasing the legalists.

After all they’re the ones who invented this f---ed-up “gospel” where God only saves us when we’re good. Where God demands graceless blind obedience, and threatens hell over any mistakes. Where the smallest mistakes have penalties, and acts of contrition are the only way to work ’em off. Where God’s constantly angry and vengeful at sinners, and only grudgingly, conditionally accepts the repentant. Where hell vastly outpopulates the kingdom.

That’s the cosmos they prefer. Like them, it’s harsh, bitter, spiteful, and lacks the Spirit’s fruit in every part of its composition. That’s how we know God has nothing to do with it.

On the opposite end of the religious spectrum are libertines, people who figure grace means we get to do whatever we please. Paul rebukes them later in his letter; legalists first. For those of us who are making the effort to follow Jesus, we need to watch out for both mindsets and their distorted “gospels.” Neither of them are what Jesus and his apostles taught, and don’t let anyone tell you different. Not even if you hear it from angels… advice both Muhammad of Mecca and Joseph Smith should have heeded.

Cursing the legalists?

Wanna freak out people who insist the bible has no contradictions? Quote Paul’s bit about “cursing” from some other translation. Try the ESV.

Galatians 1.8-9 ESV
8 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. 9 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.

Then drop some James on ’em.

James 3.9-10 ESV
9 With [the tongue] we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. 10 From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so.

I know; they’ll try to weasel out of it by claiming James can’t possibly apply to this particular situation. If he only knew what these false apostles were up to, he’d change his tune and cuss ’em out same as Paul. Besides, isn’t it true that sometimes we dismiss wisdom sayings when the situation doesn’t wholly apply?

Well, however they try to nullify James so they can defend the practice of cursing, remind ’em Jesus likewise discouraged calling down curses. “Bless your cursers,” he taught, Lk 6.28 and never once cursed anyone in the gospels. A tree, yes; never people. His students really wanted to, and Jesus rebuked them for it. Lk 9.54-55 Curse anyone, and God’s quite unlikely to agree to and empower that request. He wants to save people, not destroy them.

So where does Paul get off saying the Galatians were to curse anyone who preaches a false gospel? Well he didn’t. He said to ban them.

Galatians 1.8-9 KWL
8 But even when we, or an angel from heaven, “evangelizes” you away
from what we evangelized you, you’re to ban them.
9 Like we said before, and I say again now: If anyone “evangelizes” you away
from what you received, you’re to ban them.

The word Paul used was ἀνάθεμα/anáthema, a word we likewise have in English because the KJV left it untranslated. 1Co 16.22 KJV To English-speakers it means something or someone we intensely dislike, or have excommunicated. It comes from ἀνατίθημι/anatíthimi, “to set aside,” or “to dedicate.” Usually for religious reasons; usually as something holy. But in the Old Testament, stuff wasn’t always dedicated, or חֵרֶם/kherém, to God for the purpose of worship. Sometimes they were dedicated to God because they were toxic, and the Hebrews were to stay away from them. Or, as was the case of idolaters like the Amorites, to destroy them.

Declaring someone kherém (or to use the better-known Arabic word, harám) isn’t actually putting a curse on them. Their actions had cursed them. They cursed themselves. Everybody else was simply to treat ’em as anathema: Ban them from leadership, and don’t let ’em in any position of authority in our churches. Don’t let ’em teach, and if they try to do it anyway, or otherwise promote disharmony or insurrection in the church, have them leave entirely. They’re not right, and not safe.

So that’s actually what Paul instructed the Galatians—and us—about legalists and their warped versions of the gospel. It’s not that we’re to curse them; we’re not to curse anyone. It’s that they’ve cursed themselves. Their teachings are contrary to God, and therefore dangerous. They’re gonna convince Christians to stop putting our trust in Jesus and his self-sacrifice, and instead put it in our own ability to be good, or to believe all the right things, or otherwise earn heaven, as if that’s even possible. They’re gonna convince Christians to ignore the Holy Spirit when he tries to correct us, and in so doing cut us off from the one who applies God’s salvation, bought by Jesus, to our lives. And without the Spirit we’re gonna produce nothing but bad fruit, and be the least Christian “Christians” you ever did see. And drive potential Christians, or weaker Christians, away from God altogether.

Christians who call down curses upon heretics, and anybody who mistakenly spreads an inaccurate or false teaching, aren’t being fruitful either. We’re indulging our flesh. Making enemies instead of friends. Hating those enemies instead of loving them. Declaring war and doom upon them instead of trying to win them away from doom—like our Father wants. We may not be able to have them in our churches, but there’s no reason we can’t still love them, do good to them, and in so doing lead them to repent. Grace tends to do that.

But interpreting anáthema as “curse them” or “damn them” doesn’t do that, and promotes the same sort of legalistic, fruitless, godless behavior Paul was trying to denounce. It undermines him. If people try to teach you good karma saves, y’don’t counter them by telling them bad karma unsaves! That’s why I anathematize the idea. Steer clear of such people, but same as with persecutors, Ro 12.14 bless and don’t curse.