Prof. Hanko is professor emeritus of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary. Previous article in this series: March 15, 2006, p. 279.

Paul’s Warning Against Apostasy

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. 

Galatians 1:8, 9

These verses contain an almost heart-stopping warning and threat to the Judaizers in the Galatian churches and to all ministers of the gospel. We must remember that this is the Word of Christ Himself to ministers, and that Christ, enthroned in the heavens, says to ministers: “Pervert my gospel and the end is hell.”

Such a strong condemnation pronounced upon unfaithful pastors and teachers by Christ Himself can be explained only in the light of Christ’s love and concern for His church. That church is so important to Him that He gave His own blood to redeem it. It is His bride, His beloved, the glory of His own body.

Christ has ordained that His church shall be gathered from out of the wicked world by the preaching of the gospel, for through the preaching Christ Himself speaks and calls His own. He saves them from sin and hell through the gospel; He sanctifies them by the power of the gospel; He provides for all their spiritual needs as long as they are in the world by means of the gospel; He keeps them safely in His own hand unto the end of their life by the gospel. The gospel is the only power to work these mighty and wonderful things.

When wicked men, claiming to preach in the name of Christ and posing in their hypocrisy as possessing the gospel of Christ, pervert that gospel, they are disobedient to Christ, threaten the welfare of the church, and bring the beloved of Christ to the brink of destruction. Is it any wonder then that Christ is very angry with such men? It would be tantamount to a man who, being entrusted with the care and protection of another man’s wife while the man himself is away serving his country, would try to persuade that wife to be unfaithful to her husband. Even if the wife, in faithfulness to her husband, would resist all efforts to make her sin (as the church, by the power of grace, also resists unfaithful pastors), the husband, upon learning of such treachery, would be furious.

Differences Between the Two Verses

The warning and threat of judgment is repeated, and the two verses appear to be very similar to each other. One wonders why the apostle said nearly the same thing twice. Such a question requires that we make a few general observations about the differences, subtle though they may be, between the two verses.

First of all, of rather minor significance is the difference between the wording used in the description of those of whom Paul speaks. In verse 8 the apostle mentions himself along with his co-workers and includes an angel from heaven who would come to earth to preach. In verse 9 he speaks broadly of “anyone.” It is clear that this is an all-inclusive warning that the apostle makes to all who take upon themselves the task of preaching the gospel. In fact, the universality of this warning is underscored by the fact that it embraces angels who might come from heaven to preach or teach—as they did on occasion in the Old Testament and in the apostolic era before the Scriptures were complete.

It may be unlikely that such a thing could happen after the Scriptures are completed and Christ has ordained ministers in the church; but who knows whether once again angels as preachers will come at the very end, when the witnessing of the church is silenced by persecution (see Rev. 11:1-10). In any case, though the elect angels would never pervert the gospel, they are mentioned here to impress on the minds of ministers the utter seriousness of bringing the pure gospel to God’s people. Even angels are not exempt from the judgments that would come on unfaithful ministers.

Also of minor importance is the fact that in verse 8 the apostle speaks of the gospel “which we have preached unto you,” while in verse 9 he speaks of “the gospel which ye have received.” In the first expression the apostle puts the emphasis on the preacher; in the second he reminds the Galatians and all who hear the pure preaching, that the one gospel that is given by Christ is the gospel that the saints received as the Word of Christ that saved them. Why would they now want anything different—if some minister tried to teach them another gospel than that which gave them blessing?

A third minor variation is the addition in verse 9 of the words: “As we said before, so say I now again.”

While some commentators want to refer this “said before” to verse 8, the more likely idea is that the apostle refers to his ministry among them when he was first with them. He means to say, “I warned you when I was still with you that there would be false teachers who pervert the gospel. I told you that, upon penalty of hell itself, no one might teach any other gospel than that which I taught. I taught you as an apostle who had received from Christ Himself the gospel Christ wanted preached in the churches. Now you lust after the teachings of those who teach a perverted gospel. Now I say once again what I said before.”

We ought, at this point, to notice that verses 8 and 9 are introduced with the word “but.” The meaning is clear enough. There were those in the Galatian churches who were perverting the gospel. Let them and the congregation know what severe judgments await those who commit this terrible sin.

“Preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you … preach any other gospel unto you than that ye have received….” Although these two statements are similar in the AV, they differ significantly in the Greek. The difference is one of the mood of the verb “preach.” The main verb in verse 8 is in the subjunctive mood, while the main verb in verse 9 is in the indicative mood.¹ Because the subjunctive mood carries with it the idea of uncertainty or probability without certainty, the translation could, perhaps, better be: “If we or an angel from heaven should preach to you….”

The main verb in verse 9, also in a conditional sentence, is in the indicative, a mood that does express certainty. That verse, therefore, is correctly translated in the AV. We could, perhaps, emphasize the difference by translating it, “If anyonedo preach….”

The difference is important. Verse 8 lays down the general principle set forth here. “If now or in the future, at any time or in any circumstances, be he man or angel, should preach to you something different from what we have preached, let him be anathema.” But in verse 9, the apostle has his eye on the Judaizers themselves, and, while not addressing them directly, nevertheless expresses something that is really going on in the Galatian churches. “If in fact anyone does preach (and this is happening among you) anything different from what you have received, let him be anathema.”

What is the gospel that Paul preached among them and that they received as the very truth of their salvation? Paul testified before the elders of Ephesus on the beach that he had preached wherever he went the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:24, 27). In short, however, as Paul explains to the elders on the shore near Ephesus, it is the gospel of the grace of God that he had received from Jesus Christ. In his letter to the Corinthians Paul insists that he preached only “Christ crucified” (I Cor. 1:23), even though it was a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks, for among those who believe, it is both the wisdom and power of God.

If we may sum up the whole gospel in a very short statement, especially within the context of the letter of Paul to the Galatians, we could do no better than to say that the gospel, as far as its contents are concerned, is the good news² that God, out of unmerited favor and eternal love, according to His own eternal purpose, has sovereignly given, for Christ’s sake, the blessings of salvation to His people, without any merit of their own and on the basis of no works that they perform, but on the basis of His eternal determination to glorify His own name.

Another gospel would, therefore, be any gospel that, while piously and deceptively speaking of salvation by grace, makes salvation dependent on the will of man or on man’s works in any sense of the word. Another gospel is the gospel of Pelagianism, of Arminianism, of free willism, of justification by faith and works. Another gospel is a gospel of salvation by human merit. Another gospel is any gospel that teaches that Christ died for all, that God wants everyone to be saved because He loves everyone and gives grace to everyone, but depends on their choice in His final decision to save or to damn. Another gospel is any gospel that ascribes power to man and gives him some glory for his salvation, but detracts from and denies in whole or in part that all glory belongs to God and to Him alone.

The gospel of free, sovereign, and particular grace is the gospel that Paul received from Christ and that he preached to the Galatians (and everywhere he went in his missionary journeys), and this is the gospel that the Galatians received and believed, confessing that it was their salvation.

This is the gospel by which the Son of God gathers, defends, and preserves unto Himself, from the beginning to the end of the world, a church chosen unto everlasting life — of which I am and forever shall remain a living member.³

“Let him be anathema.”

The word “anathema” comes from a Greek word that means, literally, “set apart and devoted to God.” This was the same idea as the Hebrew word “curse.” The treasures of Jericho, for example, were “accursed to the Lord” (Josh. 6:17, 18). The idea was that such things as were set apart and devoted to God were devoted to God without hope of redemption.4 Applied to men, the idea is that such as are anathema are subject to the direst punishments because they have sinned against God, scorned His holiness, spurned His justice, and were devoted to God as those who manifest God’s virtues of justice and righteousness when they are punished.

This is, then, a very severe judgment that the apostle pronounces upon unfaithful ministers of the gospel. God’s judgment rests upon them already in this life, but ultimately it comes when righteous judgment is pronounced on them by Him who sits as the Head of the church on His great white throne. Our Christ, who loves His church, will make known His fierce wrath against all who did His church harm. He will vindicate the cause of His people, who suffered under the hands of those pastors who sheared the sheep of Christ rather than feeding them.

It would serve our purpose well to quote here the words of Ezekiel: “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel, prophesy, and say unto them, Thus saith the Lord God unto the shepherds: Woe be to the shepherds of Israel that do feed themselves! Should not the shepherds feed the flocks? Ye eat the fat, and ye clothe you with the wool, ye kill them that are fed: but ye feed not the flock. The diseased have ye not strengthened, neither have ye healed that which was sick, neither have ye bound up that which was broken, neither have ye brought again that which was driven away, neither have ye sought that which was lost; but with force and with cruelty have ye ruled them. And they were scattered, because there is no shepherd: and they became meat to all the beasts of the field, when they were scattered. My sheep wandered through all the mountains, and upon every high hill: yea, my flock was scattered upon all the face of the earth, and none did search or seek after them” (Ezek. 34:2-6).

Ministers would do well to listen with trembling to the “woe upon you” of Ezekiel and the “let him be anathema” of the apostle Paul.

¹ In the English language the use of the subjunctive mood is gradually disappearing. But in the Greek, the difference between the subjunctive and indicative is critical. While the subjunctive mood has a variety of uses in the New Testament, it almost always, in one way or another, carries on its shoulders the idea of a kind of uncertainty. Such is the case in this verse where it is used in a conditional sentence.

² Both the verbs and the nouns used in these two verses refer to the gospel as “good news.”

³ See Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 21, Q. & A. 54.

4 Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament defines the word in that way and gives the example of Leviticus 27:28, 29. In this passage the word applies to a sacrificial animal, but can also be applied to people, as in the case of Achan (Josh. 6:17).