A Commentary by John Stott
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. That 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.