Beginning my read-through of 1 Corinthians, I was struck by the apostle's tone.
Paul is writing to a problem-church. They are messed up, from Dan to Beersheba. They're schismatic, they're elitist; they've got some people who are confused about the resurrection, they've got others who get drunk at Communion (-- must be that curiously strong first-century grape juice). They've even got a guy having an illicit relationship with his dad's wife, and the goofs at New Life Abundant Dynamic Impacted Living Worship Center of Corinth wear it as a badge of courage. They're a mess.
And yet the apostle starts the letter off in gracious, patient tones. Hear him from that perspective:
Paul, called by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus, and our brother Sosthenes, 2 To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours: 3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 4 I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus, 5 that in every way you were enriched in him in all speech and all knowledge— 6 even as the testimony about Christ was confirmed among you— 7 so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, 8 who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.He asserts his apostleship right off the bat, as he commonly does (v. 1). He is going to take them to the woodshed, and that in no uncertain terms. When they get there, Paul wants them to be crystal-clear on who it is who's hauled them out.
But Paul can also afffirm them as called to be holy, as kept and gifted; he can even thank God for them, and wish them grace and peace (vv. 2-9). That is a gentle beginning. He's holding the rod behind his back, to be sure. The admonition and sarcasm and pleading are coming. But he sets the stage in a gentle, conciliatory way. It's brothers and sisters Paul will confront.
This opening is basically like all of the apostle's letters' beginnings. All except one.
That "one" would be Galatians.
I have often said that anyone who reads Galatians 1:1ff aloud in sonorous, sepulchrally ecclesiastical tones, thereby does the letter, the apostle, and the hearers a great disservice. The apostle did not write calmly. He was perfectly rational, perfectly in control -- but he was hot. His letter starts off like a slap in the face. Notice what is there, and (almost more importantly) what is missing, in his opening words in Galatians:
Paul, an apostle—not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead— 2 and all the brothers who are with me, To the churches of Galatia: 3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, 4 who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, 5 to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen. 6 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— 7 not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. 8 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. 9 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.Like the other letters, Paul identifies himself and his recipients, and he does wish them grace and peace -- but there the similarity ends.
In other epistles, the apostle (as it were) knocks politely at the door, identifies himself, comes in with a smile, says nice things about the kids, the cats, and the furniture, accepts a cup of coffee, and sits down to have an earnest talk.
Here in Galatians, Paul bellows out his creds, kicks the door in, charges in through the dust-cloud, and starts throwing furniture around. Less Martha Stewart, more Jack Bauer.
No coffee, thanks.
What's the difference? Why the shift in tone?
It isn't that the "issues" in Corinth aren't crucial. It isn't that Paul doesn't feel strongly about them. Read 1 Corinthians, you'll have no doubt of that. In Corinth, they may be a goofy plate of spaghetti, but the apostle evidently has reason to believe that the majority still holds fast to the essentials of the Gospel (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:1ff.).
He is not so sure of the Galatians. He's hopeful (cf. 5:10), but the apostle is clearly very worried for them (cf. 4:11, 20; 5:7). They were foolish, bewitched (3:1) Their trouble isn't elitism, immorality, disorder -- bad as those are. The Galatians' problem is that they are defecting from the Gospel itself (1:6). They are giving attentive ears to a perversion of the very core and essence of what it is to be a believer. If they embrace this perversion, it will send both them and its preachers straight to Hell (cf. Galatians 1:6-9).
This is -- or should be -- instructive to us.
We in public Christendom have our extremes. To the one extreme, of course, are the gleeful fighters. They are represented by the separated brethren of the First Baptist It-Never-Rains-In-August Church folks, who "worship" just around the corner from the First Baptist It-Does-So-Rain-In-August Church. These sorts of folks think WWF is for pansies. They jump into a brawl at the drop of a hat (or the refusal to wear one). There's no lining up such a spirit with imperatives such as those we find in Ephesians 4:1ff., Philippians 2:1ff., and elsewhere.
But at the other end we have the "peace in our time" folks, phlegmatics who think that all this quibbling about doctrinal details is just so much bosh and foolishness. They are far, far above the rabble. They are passionate about their lack of passion, and disdain those who disdain mortal heresy aloud and in public. They consider it bad form, impolite, un-conciliatory.
So this fellow preaches Christ alone as Savior, by grace alone, through faith alone, and the seamless imputed righteousness of Christ as our sole hope of standing before God; but then that other good brother preaches faith too, grace too, Christ too, salvation too -- all sealed and held and maintained by our faithfulness and righteous living. What of it? Both are preaching Christ, are they not? Why get ourselves upset over jots and tittles? Is God such a harsh theological schoolmaster? There are few enough of us as it is. We should be grateful to have such educated, articulate, winsome, influential -- and popular! -- men and women on our side at all. We should not quarrel about trivia. We agree about so much! Let us not exalt the adiaphora.
Count me in as heartily opposed to quarrelling about adiaphora. But the Gospel is not in that category. Eternal life and death is not trivial. If you don't think that way, the apostle Paul clearly did.
Paul sounds angry, does he not, like Jesus in the Temple? But it is the anger of concern, and we see both emotions mixed in his words to the Galatians. Why is it so?
No parent would have trouble understanding what close companions fear and anger can be. We all know of the scene of a mom or dad snatching his careless, wandering child out of the busy traffic on the street, hugging him tight -- and then paddling him, and telling him never, never to do it again.
So some pneumatic phlegmatics can be passive, calm, indifferent and unengaged in the controversies over the nature of the Gospel today. Some of them speak and write as if the Reformation were much ado about nothing. They seem to think it was an unfortunate mistake. They are unwilling to contend for this, the sola Gospel, the heart of the Christian faith. Worse, they instead gladly contend with those who are willing to contend for the Gospel.
I have to conclude that their problem is the opposite of their own estimation. It isn't that they are just so abounding in love that they won't fight. It is that they are bereft of love. For if they truly loved their fellow humans, they'd be unable to rest easy as men and women are sold the poison of a false, damning "gospel" -- no gospel at all, no Good News, but a dyspel, bad news. And if they loved God's Word, they'd never accept seeing its core message perverted and subverted.
And if they loved the Savior, they'd never make peace with His perfect and final sacrifice, His love, and His accomplishment on the Cross cast to the ground, there to be mixed with the dung and muck of human merit.
The apostle was no such pallid, flabby, loveless soul. When the Gospel was perverted and souls endangered, he saw red. Now, that was a man. That was a man of God.
God grant His church more of Paul's mindset today.