Which is a greater threat to the church—subtraction from the gospel or additions to it? What do I mean? Subtraction would be to take away something. There certainly have been serious subtractions in history. Denying Jesus’ true deity or humanity. Take away from the Incarnation and you don’t have the true gospel. Other subtractions include denying the bodily resurrection of Christ or denying the existence of God or the supernatural. Those are serious and gospel-altering subtractions.
However, within the church, the greatest danger is not subtraction but addition. Church history shows this to be the more insidious probability. Why? The atheist is easily identified and his gospel is rejected. After the first few centuries of Christians worked out the nature of Christ, anyone denying the deity of Jesus is pretty easily identified and silenced.
However, adding to the gospel is devious and devilish because addition sounds right at first. Hello friend, what do you believe? I believe in Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Son of God, born of a virgin, suffered under Pontus Pilate, crucified for sin, resurrected on the third day, coming again. Well then, you must be a true brother and teacher. Ah, but therein lies the great deception that has led so many away from the one true gospel. Sola gospel.
This fall we are doing a teaching series on the recovery of the one true gospel. It is known in history as the Great Reformation. This October is the 500th anniversary. Noted church historian Phillip Schaff says of the Reformation,
“The Reformation of the sixteenth century is, next to the introduction of Christianity, the greatest event in history. It marks the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of modern times. Starting from religion, it gave, directly or indirectly, a mighty impulse to every forward movement, and made Protestantism the chief propelling force in the history of modern civilization.”
We are not preaching the reformation or history or the key figures. We will be teaching the doctrines that recovered the gospel and created reformation. My hope is that the truths that shook the world would shake our church, our worlds, our homes, and our hearts.
Why the Solas of the Reformation?
Sola. What does that mean? Sola is Latin. It means “alone.” For example, solitary comes from this root word. Over the years, the doctrines of the Reformation were summarized in “solas.” Here they are in Latin with their English counterparts: Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone), Sola Gratia (Grace Alone), Sola Fide (Faith Alone), Solus Christus (Christ alone), Soli Deo Gloria (God’s Glory Alone). In each of these categories, the Reformers identified additions that had been made. They said, No, you cannot add to Scripture. You cannot add to grace. You cannot add to faith, Christ, and God’s glory. Add to these and you have fundamentally changed the gospel.
Chemistry provides a good illustration of how this works. If you add protons to the nucleus of an atom, it changes the element completely. It has what it had before (all those protons are there) but now it is no longer what it was. Add a proton to hydrogen and you move up the periodic table to helium. A proton is a small thing but adding one proton to hydrogen changes the essential element itself.
The solas identify the irreducible nucleus of the gospel and get rid of all the man-added protons of human merit, traditions, and self-righteousness. The solas say the gospel is no less than this and no more than this. If you subtract from it, it is no longer the gospel. If you add to it, it is no longer the gospel. These things change the nature of the gospel itself.
The Apostle Paul planted a church in a region called Galatia somewhere around the year 48 AD. Only one year later he learns that the Galatian Christians were in serious jeopardy of abandoning the gospel. He wrote them this,
“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. 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. 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.” (Galatians 1:6–9 ESV)
That is very strong language! What had happened? After Paul left, the Galatian church had received teachers and teaching that said, Yes, you are forgiven your sins by faith in Jesus. But now that you are a Christian, you must obey the Old Testament law. Specifically, you must be circumcised, which was the Old Testament sign of the Abrahamic covenant. These teachers didn’t walk into church wearing a sign that said, “I’m a false teacher. Believe what I teach and you will end up in hell.” Rather, they sounded right in the essential gospel. They seemed to be hydrogen. But wait, they added a proton. Their gospel was “hydrogen plus,” they were, in fact, preaching a helium gospel. By addition, an essentially different one.
Gospel + Old Testament Law = Salvation (False!)
Paul identifies the error and with apostolic authority condemns to hell anyone who teaches it. “Let him be accursed.” (v. 8) Then he repeats it in v. 9, “Let him be accursed.” Let him be damned to hell. Lest you miss how Paul thinks about it, in a few chapters he will say he hopes these circumcising Judaizers will slip with the knife and emasculate themselves. (Galatians 5:12) That’s strong, vivid langue, don’t you think?
Why such vehement language? The gospel of Jesus as given by the Apostles is everything. It’s everything. It is the most precious reality in the entire world because it is the only way for a person to be saved from the wrath of God by the love of God through the complete, finished work of the Son of God in his atoning and substitutionary death and victory over death in the resurrection.
Paul says the apparent importance or qualifications of the messenger don’t matter. Even if an angel appears, if it tells you something different from the apostolic gospel, that angel is under a curse. History shows errant movements like Mormonism beginning with a supposed angel delivering a different gospel. In the 15th century, it was a Pope. Do not listen or believe anything but the one true gospel. No subtractions, no additions. Nothing less, nothing more. No matter who preaches it.
He repeats this in 1 Corinthians, “Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.” (1 Corinthians 15:1–4)
The essential gospel is of first importance. It is the most important thing.
Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
© 2017 by Steve DeWitt. You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that: (1) you credit the author, (2) any modifications are clearly marked, (3) you do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction, (4) you include Bethel’s website address (www.bethelweb.org) on the copied resource.
 Philip Graham Ryken, Galatians: Reformed Expository Commentary, p. 21.
To hear the message of this excerpt in its entirety, click here