On our recent trip to Europe, we realized something profound about the gospel; it is dangerously easy to get sidetracked from the good news of Jesus and fall into a performance-based, religious mindset that completely subverts the gospel. This is true for countries, for churches, and for individuals.
The three countries we visited, Poland, Ukraine, and France, have each been exposed to the gospel of Jesus Christ for well over a thousand years. When you look at a map showing religious demographics, they are generally marked as “Christian” countries. It is true there are many churches or cathedrals on the landscape in these countries – usually at least one in every village or town – but that does not mean there is a strong and true Christian presence in these countries.
You see, the gospel message that once powerfully affected these countries has been lost. The good news of the grace of God and the finished work of Jesus Christ has been subverted by a religious system of works, prayers (often to Mary, not to Jesus) and religious hierarchy. This has left a vacuum that secular humanism has attempted to fill. For the most part, the few people who are religious in these countries know a form of religion, but they do not know the message of the gospel. According to most studies, evangelical believers make up less than 1% of the population of both France and Poland. In essence, through the centuries, they have forsaken the original message that was brought to them and have followed “another gospel”.
This is exactly what Paul was fighting against in his letter to the Galatians (Gal. 1:16-17). It is also what we must fight against in our own lives. In subtle ways, every day, those of us who believe in the message of the gospel find ourselves being distracted by or even led astray to “another gospel”. We feel our daily position with God is dependent upon our performance or even our feeling on a particular day. We trust in our ability to “be good”, rather than the finished work of Christ. This leads us into one of two traps:
1) Self-hatred – because we can’t live up to God’s standard of holiness, or
2) Self-inflation – because we mistakenly think we have lived up to the standards.
When we lose sight of the gospel, we seek to be justified by our good deeds (be our own Savior) and thereby keep control of our lives (be our own Lord). When we trust Christ as Savior and Lord, we turn from trusting our own goodness or our own self-denial for our salvation. This is Paul’s point in Galatians: we cannot begin in the spirit (the work of Christ) and expect to be perfected in the flesh (our own efforts). Moralistic people can be deeply religious, but there is no gracious transforming joy or power. Only the true gospel – the message that we are sinful and need to be saved utterly by grace – allows a person to see God as he really is (holy and just) and us as we really are (sinful and needy).
Tim Keller puts it this way: “Christians see that both their sins and their best deeds have really been ways of avoiding Jesus as Savior.” The Apostle Paul, by the Spirit of God, was trying to cure the gospel ADHD that the Galatians were suffering from. The prescription was then, and is now, a fresh look at the person and work of Jesus Christ.