The “gospel of grace”… with a little karma in it.

by K.W. Leslie, 22 February 2022
Galatians 1.6-9 KWL
6 I wonder how you all switched so quickly
from Christ’s gracious call to you,
to “another gospel”
7 —which isn’t another gospel
unless it’s because someone is troubling you all,
and wants to corrupt Christ’s gospel.
8 But even if we,
or an angel from heaven, might evangelize you
away from what we evangelized you,
consider them cursed.
9 As we had foretold, and tell you again:
If any one of you evangelizes
away from what you received,
consider them cursed.
  • “Christ Jesus’s apostle to this present age.” Ga 1.1-5
  • Which alternative “gospel” were Galatian Christians dabbling in? Well we sorta deduced it by the rest of Galatians: Certain people were trying to give them the idea they’re saved through works righteousness. Basically if you’re good people, and obey God’s Law, you’ll rack up so much good karma, God has to let you into his kingdom, ’cause you deserve it. Good people go to heaven. Bad people go to hell.

    People presume works-righteousness is a Pharisee idea. It’s actually not. It’s a pagan idea. Pharisees actually believed (as did all the Jewish denominations of the day) in 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.

    Pharisees figured Jews like them—and Paul, Barnabas, Simon Peter, James, and all the earliest apostles—had birthright citizenship in God’s kingdom. Even if you weren’t Pharisee: Sadducees could be saved too. True, Jews should do good works; everyone should. But Pharisees recognized they weren’t saved by good works; they were saved because they were Jewish.

    Yeah, I know: Christians regularly claim Jews believed in works righteousness. (And still do!) But that’s not consistent with the scriptures. You might recall John the baptist critiqued them for presuming they were saved just by being Jewish—and for taking it for granted, and therefore not doing good works.

    Luke 3.7-9 KJV
    7 Then said he to the multitude that came forth to be baptized of him, O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bring forth therefore fruits worthy of repentance, and begin not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father: for I say unto you, That God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham. 9 And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: every tree therefore which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire.

    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.

    And karma had wormed its way into Pharisee teaching. Including the way Pharisee Christians were teaching the gospel. It turned the gospel into a false gospel, a heretic gospel, a damned gospel. That’s in part what Galatians is all about: The gospel of grace… but with just a little bit of works righteousness at its core.

    How are gentiles saved?

    The core issue of Galatians, and the core debate of the Council of Jerusalem which Paul attended in the year 50 (and which he discusses in Galatians of course), was how gentiles get into God’s kingdom. ’Cause Jesus came to save them too. But the very idea, butts heads with the Pharisee idea of corporate election: God means to save the Jews.

    How’d Pharisees deal with it before? What if you’re not Jewish?—what if you’re gentile, whether Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Scythian, Persian, even Vandal? Well Pharisees figured these folks had to become Jews. How do you do this? Um… you gotta adopt Jewish practices and customs. Starting with ritual circumcision, ’cause every Jewish male was circumcised. And you gotta study the Law, and follow it.

    So functionally we’re talking works righteousness. If you want to be saved, you have to do stuff. You can’t just fall back on your ancestry, like they did: You can’t just point to Abraham. You gotta make an effort to join Abraham’s descendants. To undergo nationality-reassignment surgery. (Considering part of it is ritual circumcision, I do mean that literally.)

    That’s what Pharisees figured it took for gentiles to be saved, that’s what Pharisee Christians were demanding of gentile Christians, and that’s what Paul was critiquing in Galatians. We aren’t saved by national identity, and don’t let the nationalists tell you otherwise. We’re saved by God’s grace. Alone.

    And these “Judaizers” would actually agree. You are saved by God’s grace. Alone! But… only Jews were saved by God’s grace, and you had to jump through some hoops before you could be considered a Jew. So, grace with extra steps. Which isn’t grace—but the thing with people who demand extra steps, is they don’t always realize they’ve slid into works righteousness. The Judaizers certainly didn’t.


    Paul wondered how the Galatians could be so quickly flipped to another gospel. And he’d likely wonder how we could be so quickly flipped to another gospel, for we do precisely the same thing as the Judaizers. No, we don’t demand new converts have to become ritually circumcised and follow the Law. But we do all too frequently demand our new converts have to “become holy”—by which we don’t mean they have to follow Jesus now; we mean they have to act like us. Dress like us. Vote like us. Adopt the very same worldview we have.

    And some of us actually insist they gotta become like us before they can become Christian: If you’re a sinner, or if you hang out with people we consider unacceptable, you gotta clean up first, and ditch your friends. As if God only wants us when we’re clean. As if he’s not offering to clean us up himself… and as if we know what the Holy Spirit does about what’s gotta change first.

    So many Christians don’t realize that’s the “gospel” we present to the world. It’s not grace. It’s another gospel. And as Paul informed the Galatians, there is no other gospel. That “other gospel” is damned: It’s heresy, and leading people away from Jesus instead of towards him. It’s teaching them God doesn’t love them, won’t accept them as they are, and wants them to stay away till they first fix themselves. It’s teaching them they’re damned.

    Judaizers, and Christians who add extra conditions to salvation, have a massive blind spot when it comes to such things. We won’t even realize we’ve put up roadblocks to grace. We can’t possibly fathom these roadblocks are based on our own personal prejudices instead of what the Holy Spirit wants: We’ve projected so much of ourselves upon God, we’re pretty sure the Spirit totally wants this stuff.

    Including our very human, very selfish urges towards karma. Humans like to think we’re worthy of the stuff we’ve been given. To a legalist’s mind, the purpose of every Christian’s life is to be worthy, and stay worthy—to maintain God’s favor. Because they imagine 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” wherein 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 the word he 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 “consider them cursed,” as I translated it: 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. Really it’s that they 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.