Paul’s Warning of God’s Destruction
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. (1:8–9)
The Judaizers who were misleading the Galatian churches probably had impressive credentials and may have been among those who claimed to be from the Jerusalem church and to be authorized by James, the leader of that church (see Acts 15:24). In addition to proclaiming their modified form of the gospel, which Paul declared to be no gospel at all, they sought to undermine Paul’s authority and teaching in every way they could.
Although the particular heresy of the Judaizers was legalism, Paul’s warning applies equally to the opposite perversion of libertinism or antinomianism, which, under the guise of freedom in Christ, removes all standards of righteousness and morality. Of such false teachers Jude wrote, “For certain persons have crept in unnoticed, those who were long beforehand marked out for this condemnation, ungodly persons who turn the grace of our God into licentiousness and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ” (Jude 4). Whether as restrictive legalism, permissive liberalism, or cultic perversion, any teaching that adds to or takes away from God’s revealed truth is a distortion of the gospel and perverts the nature and the work of Christ.
Against any and every distortion of the gospel of Christ, Paul declares, 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.
Even if Paul or any of his associates were to change their teaching, the Galatians should not listen to them but treat them like heretics, which they would then be. Even an angel from heaven should be rejected if he were to present a gospel different from the one originally taught by Paul. The Jews believed that the divine law came through angels (cf. Heb. 2:2), and the Judaizers may have made the point that this made the Old Covenant and its attendant ceremonies and traditions binding.
Paul was, of course, speaking hypothetically. He would never have changed his teaching, and an angel who was truly from heaven (and therefore set apart from the fallen angels identified with hell) could not teach anything contrary to God’s revealed truth. But the apostle was reaching for the most fanciful possibilities imaginable to make his point that absolutely no messenger, no matter how seemingly godly and good, should be believed or followed if his teaching does not square with God-revealed apostolic doctrine. The truth outranks anyone’s credentials, and every teacher or preacher must be evaluated on the basis of what he says, not who he is.
Many false systems are attractive because they emotionally appeal to love, brotherhood, unity, and harmony. Many false teachers are popular because they seem to be warm and pleasant and claim to have great love for God and for others. It is because distortions of the gospel by such deceptive personalities are so appealing that “Satan disguises himself as an angel of light” (2 Cor. 11:14).
William Hendricksen paraphrases Galatians 1:8 in this way: “Even if we or a holy angel must be the object of God’s righteous curse, were any of us to preach a gospel contrary to the one we humans previously preached to you, then all the more divine wrath must be poured out on those self-appointed nobodies who are now making themselves guilty of this crime.”
Paul turns from the hypothetical to the actual as he reiterates his concern. 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 repetition reflects the passion of the apostle for gospel truth.
As we have said before refers to an earlier visit, not to the preceding clause in the text, since now (arti) is an adverb of time. The sense seems to be, “What I said at that time I am saying again now.” From the start of his ministry among them, Paul had warned them of imminent gospel perversions. The gospel which you received refers to the once for all (aorist tense) preaching of the good news of grace in Christ which they had previously believed.
False teachers not only should not be believed or followed but should be left to God’s judgment to be accursed. Accursed translates anathema, which refers to that which is devoted to destruction. The apostle John wrote, “For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh. This is the deceiver and the antichrist.… If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house, and do not give him a greeting; for the one who gives him a greeting participates in his evil deeds” (2 John 7, 10–11).
Christians are to have nothing to do with false teachers, no matter what their credentials. It is both naive and unscriptural to believe, for instance, that staying in a religious school or church that denies the Bible and distorts the gospel gives a believer the opportunity to be a positive influence for the Lord. Even a leader like Timothy, well trained in divine truth, was warned to stay away from error and to concentrate on the pure truth of God (1 Tim. 4:6–7, 13; 2 Tim. 2:15–17). To subject oneself to false teaching, no matter how orthodox one’s own convictions may be, is to disobey God and to compromise and weaken one’s testimony and to tolerate distortion of the grace of God in Christ.
8. But though we. As he proceeds in defending the authority of his doctrine, his confidence swells. First of all, he declares that the doctrine which he had preached is the only gospel, and that the attempt to set it aside is highly criminal. But then he was aware, the false apostles might object: “We will not yield to you in our desire to maintain the gospel, or in those feelings of respect for it which we are accustomed to cherish.” Just as, at the present day, the Papists describe in the strongest terms the sacredness with which they regard the gospel, and kiss the very name with the deepest reverence, and yet, when brought to the trial, are found to persecute fiercely the pure and simple doctrine of the gospel. Accordingly, Paul does not rest satisfied with this general declaration, but proceeds to define what the gospel is, and what it contains, and declares boldly that his doctrine is the true gospel; so as to resist all further inquiry.
Of what avail was it to profess respect for the gospel, and not to know what it meant? With Papists, who hold themselves bound to render implicit faith, that might be perfectly sufficient; but with Christians, where there is no knowledge, there is no faith. That the Galatians, who were otherwise disposed to obey the gospel, might not wander hither and thither, and “find no rest for the sole of their foot,” (Gen. 8:9,) Paul enjoins them to stand steadfastly by his doctrine. He demands such unhesitating belief of his preaching, that he pronounces a curse on all who dared to contradict it.
And here it is not a little remarkable, that he begins with himself; for thus he anticipates a slander with which his enemies would have loaded him. “You wish to have everything which comes from you received without hesitation, because it is your own.” To show that there is no foundation for such a statement, he instantly surrenders the right of advancing anything against his own doctrine. He claims no superiority, in this respect, over other men, but justly demands from all, equally with himself, subjection to the word of God.
Or an angel from heaven. In order to destroy more completely the pretensions of the false apostles, he rises so high as to speak of angels; and, on the supposition that they taught a different doctrine, he does not satisfy himself with saying that they were not entitled to be heard, but declares that they ought to be held accursed. Some may think, that it was absurd to engage in a controversy with angels about his doctrine; but a just view of the whole matter will enable any one to perceive, that this part of the apostle’s proceedings was proper and necessary. It is impossible, no doubt, for angels from heaven to teach anything else than the certain truth of God. But when the credit due to doctrines which God had revealed concerning the salvation of men was the subject of controversy, he did not reckon it enough to disclaim the judgment of men, without declining, at the same time, the authority of angels.
And thus, when he pronounces a curse on angels who should teach any other doctrine, though his argument is derived from an impossibility, it is not superfluous. This exaggerated language must have contributed greatly to strengthen the confidence in Paul’s preaching. His opponents, by employing the lofty titles of men, attempted to press hard on him and on his doctrine. He meets them by the bold assertion, that even angels are unable to shake his authority. This is no disparagement to angels. To promote the glory of God by every possible means was the design of their creation. He who endeavours, in a pious manner, to accomplish this object, by an apparently disrespectful mention of their name, detracts nothing from their high rank. This language not only exhibits, in an impressive manner, the majesty of the word of God, but yields, also, a powerful confirmation to our faith, while, in reliance on that word, we feel ourselves at liberty to treat even angels with defiance and scorn. When he says, “let him be accursed,” the meaning must be, “let him be held by you as accursed.” In expounding 1 Cor. 12:3, we had occasion to speak of the word ἀνάθεμα. Here it denotes cursing, and answers to the Hebrew word, חרם, (hhĕrĕm.)
8 The truth of the gospel message is of such high value that Paul now verbalizes the unthinkable: if anyone, whether Paul and his companions or even an angel from heaven itself, a messenger who enjoys the presence and glories of God, should preach a gospel other than the gospel of salvation by faith in the person, word, and work of Christ, he or she should be “eternally condemned” (anathema, GK 353). This is extremely strong language, but the stakes could not be higher. At issue is God’s redemptive grace and the means for fallen humanity to receive that grace. Alternative gospels, such as those preached by Paul’s opponents, distort God’s intended redemptive activity and leave humanity to suffer the just result of sinfulness. These gospels do not reconcile people to God, do nothing to remedy human sinfulness, and thus must be condemned in the strongest possible way—particularly since God has provided in the gospel of Christ the way of escape, and that is the gospel the Galatians have already embraced. Bearers of false gospels may be persuasive and appealing, and their messages may resonate with their hearers at some level, but even Satan may appear as an “angel of light” (2 Co 11:14). The church must take care to sift the teaching of God’s purported messengers, so as to protect against teaching that leaves its hearers in danger of eternal destruction.
Paul’s language of condemnation (literally he says, “Let them be damned”) is discomfiting to some in today’s inclusion-at-all-costs, nonconfrontation, and truth-is-relative culture. They would prefer that he had not written in such a straightforward manner, and consequently these words are often ignored or explained away. They suggest that Paul is driven by jealousy of the success of his opponents or that he is guilty of being emotionally distraught and so has spoken rashly. Thus his words here need not be taken all that seriously.
This, of course, will not do. A false gospel that is not the gospel does not lead people to life. Boice, 429, notes, “If the gospel Paul preaches is true, then both the glory of Jesus Christ and the salvation of men are at stake.… If men are taught a false gospel, they are being led from the one thing that can save them and are being turned to destruction (cf. Mt 18:6).”
The Reaction of the Apostle Paul (verses 8–10)
The situation in the Galatian churches should by now be clear. False teachers were distorting the gospel, so that Paul’s converts were deserting it. The apostle’s first reaction was one of utter astonishment. Verse 6: I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ. Many evangelists of later generations have been similarly astonished and distressed to see how quickly, how readily converts relax their hold of the gospel which they seemed to have so firmly embraced. It is, as Paul writes in Galatians 3:1, as if someone has bewitched them, cast a spell over them; and this is, in fact, the case. The devil disturbs the church as much by error as by evil. When he cannot entice Christian people into sin, he deceives them with false doctrine.
Paul’s second reaction was indignation over the false teachers, upon whom he now pronounces a solemn curse. Verses 8 and 9: But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again, If any one is preaching to you a gospel contrary to that which you received, let him be accursed. The Greek word twice translated ‘accursed’ is anathema. It was used in the Greek Old Testament for the divine ban, the curse of God resting upon anything or anyone devoted by Him to destruction. The story of Achan provides an example of this. God said that the spoil of the Canaanites was under His ban—it was devoted to destruction. But Achan stole and kept for himself what should have been destroyed.
So the apostle Paul desires that these false teachers should come under the divine ban, curse or anathema. That is, he expresses the wish that God’s judgment will fall upon them. The Galatian churches, it is implied, will surely then not accord such teachers a welcome or a hearing, but refuse to receive or listen to them, because they are men whom God has rejected (cf. 2 Jn. 10, 11).
What are we to say about this anathema? Are we to dismiss it as an intemperate outburst? Are we to reject it as a sentiment inconsistent with the Spirit of Christ and unworthy of the gospel of Christ? Are we to explain it away as the utterance of a man who was the child of his age and knew no better? Many people would, but at least two considerations indicate that this apostolic anathema was not the expression of personal venom towards rival teachers.
The first is that the curse of the apostle, or the curse of God which the apostle desires, is universal in its embrace. It rests upon any and every teacher who distorts the essence of the gospel and propagates his distortion. This is clear in verse 9, ‘As we have said before, so now I say again, If any one is preaching.…’ There is no exception. In verse 8 he specifically applies it to angels as well as men, and then adds himself also: ‘But even if we.…’ So disinterested is Paul’s zeal for the gospel, that he even desires the curse of God to fall upon himself, should he be guilty of perverting it. The fact that he thus includes himself clears him of the charge of personal spite or animosity.
The second consideration is that his curse is uttered deliberately and with conscious responsibility to God. For one thing, it is expressed twice (verses 8 and 9). As John Brown, the nineteenth-century Scottish commentator, writes: ‘The apostle repeats it to show the Galatians that this was no excessive, exaggerated statement, into which passion had hurried him, but his calmly formed and unalterable opinion.’ Then Paul goes on in verse 10: Am I now seeking the favour of men, or of God? Or am I trying to please men? If I were still pleasing men, I should not be a servant of Christ. It seems that his detractors had accused him of being a time-server, a man-pleaser, who suited his message to his audience. But is this outspoken condemnation of the false teachers the language of a man-pleaser? On the contrary, no man can serve two masters. And since Paul is first and foremost a servant of Jesus Christ, his ambition is to please Christ, not men. It is therefore as ‘a servant of Christ’, responsible to his divine Lord, that he measures his words and dares to utter this solemn anathema.
We have seen, then, that Paul uttered his anathema both impartially (whoever the teachers might be) and deliberately (in the presence of Christ his Lord).
Yet somebody may ask, ‘Why did he feel so strongly and use such drastic language?’ Two reasons are plain. The first is that the glory of Christ was at stake. To make men’s works necessary to salvation, even as a supplement to the work of Christ, is derogatory to His finished work. It is to imply that Christ’s work was in some way unsatisfactory, and that men need to add to it and improve on it. It is, in effect, to declare the cross redundant: ‘if justification were through the law, then Christ died to no purpose’ (Gal. 2:21).
The second reason why Paul felt this matter so keenly is that the good of men’s souls was also at stake. He was not writing about some trivial doctrine, but about something that is fundamental to the gospel. Nor was he speaking of those who merely hold false views, but of those who teach them and mislead others by their teaching. Paul cared deeply for the souls of men. In Romans 9:3 he declared that he would be willing himself to be accursed (literally, to be anathema), if thereby others could be saved. He knew that the gospel of Christ is the power of God unto salvation. Therefore to corrupt the gospel was to destroy the way of salvation and so to send to ruin souls who might have been saved by it. Did not Jesus Himself utter a solemn warning to the person who causes others to stumble, saying that ‘it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung round his neck and he were thrown into the sea’ (Mk. 9:42)? It seems then that Paul, far from contradicting the Spirit of Christ, was actually expressing it. Of course we live in an age in which it is considered very narrow-minded and intolerant to have any clear and strong opinions of one’s own, let alone to disagree sharply with anybody else. As for actually desiring false teachers to fall under the curse of God and be treated as such by the church, the very idea is to many inconceivable. But I venture to say that if we cared more for the glory of Christ and for the good of the souls of men, we too would not be able to bear the corruption of the gospel of grace.
The lesson which stands out from this paragraph is that there is only one gospel. The popular view is that there are many different ways to God, that the gospel changes with the changing years, and that you must not condemn the gospel to fossilization in the first century ad. But Paul would not endorse these notions. He insists here that there is only one gospel and that this gospel does not change. Any teaching that claims to be ‘another gospel’ is ‘not another’ (verses 6, 7, av). In order to make this point, he uses the two adjectives heteros (‘another’ in the sense of ‘different’) and allos (‘another’ in the sense of ‘a second’). The Revised Standard Version brings it out: ‘You are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another gospel.’ In other words, there are certainly different gospels being preached, but this is what they are—different. There is not another, a second; there is only one. The message of the false teachers was not an alternative gospel; it was a perverted gospel.
How can we recognize the true gospel? Its marks are given us here. They concern its substance (what it is) and its source (where it comes from).
- The substance of the gospel
It is the gospel of grace, of God’s free and unmerited favour. To turn from Him who called you in the grace of Christ is to turn from the true gospel. Whenever teachers start exalting man, implying that he can contribute anything to his salvation by his own morality, religion, philosophy or respectability, the gospel of grace is being corrupted. That is the first test. The true gospel magnifies the free grace of God.
The second test concerns the gospel’s origin. The true gospel is the gospel of the apostles of Jesus Christ, in other words, the New Testament gospel. Look again at verses 8 and 9. Paul’s anathema is pronounced on anybody who preaches a gospel which is either ‘contrary to that which we preached to you’ or ‘contrary to that which you received’. That is to say, the norm, the criterion, by which all systems and opinions are to be tested, is the primitive gospel, the gospel which the apostles preached and which is now recorded in the New Testament. Any system ‘other … than’ (av), or ‘contrary to’ (rsv), or ‘at variance with’ (neb) this apostolic gospel is to be rejected.
This is the second fundamental test. Anybody who rejects the apostolic gospel, no matter who he may be, is himself to be rejected. He may appear as ‘an angel from heaven’. In this case we are to prefer apostles to angels. We are not to be dazzled, as many people are, by the person, gifts or office of teachers in the church. They may come to us with great dignity, authority and scholarship. They may be bishops or archbishops, university professors or even the pope himself. But if they bring a gospel other than the gospel preached by the apostles and recorded in the New Testament, they are to be rejected. We judge them by the gospel; we do not judge the gospel by them. As Dr. Alan Cole expresses it, ‘The outward person of the messenger does not validate his message; rather, the nature of the message validates the messenger.’
So then, as we hear the multifarious views of men and women today, spoken, written, broadcast and televised, we must subject each of them to these two rigorous tests. Is their opinion consistent with the free grace of God and with the plain teaching of the New Testament? If not, we must reject it, however august the teacher may be. But if it passes these tests, then let us embrace it and hold it fast. We must not compromise it like the Judaizers, nor desert it like the Galatians, but live by it ourselves and seek to make it known to others.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1983). Galatians (pp. 16–17). Chicago: Moody Press.
 Calvin, J., & Pringle, W. (2010). Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul to the Galatians and Ephesians (pp. 31–33). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.
 Rapa, R. K. (2008). Galatians. In T. Longman III &. Garland, David E. (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Romans–Galatians (Revised Edition) (Vol. 11, pp. 565–566). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
 Stott, J. R. W. (1986). The message of Galatians: Only one way (pp. 24–28). Leicester, England; Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.