STUDIES IN GALATIANS No. 31
November 21, 1999
“May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me and I to the world.”
Tonight is the last of thirty-one Lord’s Day evening studies we have devoted to Paul’s letter to the Galatians. We considered the final paragraph as a whole last Lord’s Day evening, but I want to finish our study of this great book of the Bible, Luther’s “Katherine von Bora,” by looking once more at the magnificent 14th verse, a fitting conclusion, if ever there was one, for a study of Galatians.
The thought that leads to v. 14 is that of the judaizers’ boasting in the Galatian converts’ flesh – a way of saying that the judaizers were more concerned about getting the Gentile Christians circumcised and the honor that would come to them for that, than they were for maintaining the purity of the gospel and the honor of Christ. They could point to all the Gentiles whom they had persuaded to be circumcised and other Jews would be impressed. Paul counters with this thought: if he is to do any boasting, he wants to boast, not in worldly things, not in what he might accomplish or be known for, but only in the cross of Christ and its effect in his life.
There is a kind of boasting that Paul says is “excluded” in Romans 3:27. That is all boasting in one’s own accomplishments, all thoughts that one has some claim on God and God’s favor. In Philippians 3:4-6 Paul mentions some of the things he might have boasted in and did once in his life – the very things the judaizers still boasted about – his circumcision, his being a Jew, his zeal for the law – he was so zealous he was a persecutor of the Christians – and so on. But none of this could matter any more, not since he discovered the true extent of his sin and guilt and how, hopeless in himself, he had found salvation in Christ. That, of course, is the rub for others. No one can truly understand, appreciate, or embrace the cross for himself until he “pours contempt on all his pride”, until for the sake of righteousness with God, he is willing to say that he is “content to let the world go by, to know no gain or loss; my sinful self my only shame, my glory all the cross.”
He goes on. By that cross, the Holy Spirit had wrought a mighty change in Paul. The world had been crucified to him. All those honors and pleasures that drew his heart away from God before had, consequently, lost their charm, their allure. They had become, Paul would say in Philippians 3, “dung.” And, he goes on to say the reverse was also true. In the same way that the world had lost its allure for Paul, Paul had lost his allure in the estimation of the world. This is what is meant by the last phrase, “and I to the world.” He had become an object either of complete disinterest or active contempt to the world. As one commentator expresses it, “Paul’s ideals and outlook have now become so spiritual and unworldly that the world can ignore him, just as if he had ceased to be.” [Duncan in Hendriksen, 245] In other words, Paul had made a radical reassessment of life in the light of the cross. In fact, it seems clear that, as Calvin argues, Galatians 6:14 and Philippians 3:7-9, are simply two different ways of saying the same thing.
“But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ – the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith.” [3:7-9]
And that is just a NT way of saying what the Lord says through Jeremiah (9:23-24).
“’Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom or the strong man boast of his strength or the rich man boast of his riches, but let him who boasts boast about this: that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord, who exercises kindness, justice, and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight,’ declares the Lord.”
The point is clear enough and often enough made in the Bible. But, it is worth our pondering in various respects.
First, we need to appreciate how striking Paul’s phrase is: boasting in the cross. Crucifixion, in the ancient world, was nothing to boast about. Crucifixion, along with fire and the beasts, was the supreme penalty imposed by Roman law. Josephus refers to it as “the most wretched of deaths.” It was the most commonly imposed of the supreme penalties, as well, because simpler to arrange than fire or the beasts. What is more, it gave full vent to the blood-lust of crowds and the hunger for revenge of kings, for a victim often suffered excruciating pain for days. What is interesting is that crucifixion surfaces almost never as a subject in the literature of the classical world. The urbane and sophisticated people of the classical culture were ashamed of the barbarity of it. It was an extraordinarily cruel form of death, pitiless, and they were embarrassed that it was still widely employed. They didn’t like to talk about it. What is more, only the dregs of society typically were crucified: slaves, the worst of criminals, people who threatened the social order – revolutionaries like Spartacus, and the like. To boast in the cross, then, would have struck any ordinary citizen of the Roman world as preposterous. No wonder Paul, in 1 Corinthians 1:23, wrote that the message of Christ crucified was “foolishness to the Gentiles.” The cross was the last place one would look for salvation for the world!
Here is one pagan’s judgment of the “sick delusion” that the Christians perpetrate. Not least among the monstrosities of their faith is the fact that they worship someone who was crucified.
“To say that their ceremonies centre on a man put to death for his crime and on the fatal wood of the cross is to assign to these abandoned wretches sanctuaries which are appropriate to them and the kind of worship they deserve.” [In Hengel, Crucifixion, 3, citing Caecilius in Minucius Felix’ dialogue Octavius 9.4]
I suppose a modern equivalent would be the worshipping of someone who had been executed for a terrorist bombing. That’s what a Gentile would naturally think of someone who had been crucified. No wonder the gospel faced credibility problems in the Gentile world. It is good for us to remember this, to remember how utterly improbable the Christian message was and what the cross, as an instrument of death, symbolized for almost all people in the world of that day.
You get a taste of the pagan reaction, how ridiculous they thought the message of the cross, in this jibe of Celsus reported to us by Origen.
“Everywhere they speak in their writings of the tree of life and of resurrection of the flesh by the tree – I imagine because their master was nailed to a cross and was a carpenter by trade. So that if he had happened to be thrown off a cliff, or pushed into a pit, or suffocated by strangling, or if he had been a cobbler or stonemason or blacksmith, there would have been a cliff of life above the heavens, or a pit of resurrection, or a rope of immortality, or a blessed stone, or an iron of love, or a holy hide of leather. Would not an old woman who sings a story to lull a little child to sleep have been ashamed to whisper such tales as these.” [Contra Cel. 6:34]
The cross for us has such precious associations, but for the people of that day, it was a terrible, brutal, cruel thing. Not something to venerate, nothing to boast about.
And, for the Jews, two factors combined to give the cross and crucifixion a horrific aspect. First, it had been used excessively by the Romans in the pacification of Judea and so was associated in the Jewish mind with their mistreatment at the hands of the Romans and with their subjugation — something akin the Auschwitz crematorium to the modern Jewish mind. What is more, the Jews took Deuteronomy 21:23 (“If a man guilty of a capital offense is put to death and his body I hung on a tree, you must not leave his body on the tree overnight. Be sure to bury him that same day.”) at least to indicate that crucifixion was a sign of God’s curse. So the idea of a crucified Messiah was even more completely ruled out. Paul has already, in this regard, in Galatians 5:11, referred to what he called “the offense of the cross,” the offense that Jews took to it.
So Paul says that while the message of the cross was foolishness to the Gentiles, it was a stumbling block to the Jews. They couldn’t conceive of a Messiah who was cursed as he was if crucified! And over and over again through the ages the offense of the cross has surfaced, in the world and in the church. Islam cannot conceive of the Son of God, a true prophet like Jesus, being crucified. In the Koran we read that God put Jesus’ likeness on another man so that they ignorantly crucified a substitute in Jesus’ place while Jesus himself was taken up to heaven. “Allah would not permit such a wonderful person as the Prophet ‘Isa to be so mistreated.” But liberal Protestantism has its problems with the cross as well: that God should need to punish sin at all, that he should punish a substitute for another’s sin, all the old objections. And they are, even as we speak, making their way back into evangelical circles once again. Feminism, including its evangelical variety, is loathe to make the cross so crucial. It sounds to them like child abuse, what the Father does to his Son. See how the cross really is a scandal! An offense?
We are left to ponder this. It is highly interesting and important that the Gospel Writers do not embellish their accounts of the Lord’s crucifixion. In Luke 23:33 we read simply, “…there they crucified him.” There is no effort to elaborate the universe of humiliation and degradation and indescribable agony that crucifixion brought a man into.
It was a punishment in which the victim was first beaten, often terribly, then stripped and exposed before the crowds that would gather to watch; in which intense pain was created by the nailing of spikes through the hands and feet and then, for hours, sometimes for days on end, the weight of the body hung on those spikes. It was a punishment in which the sadism of the executioners was given full rein and in which the physical and mental misery was increased by the jests and the stares of those who watched. One almost universal agony suffered by the crucified was a raging thirst, hence our Savior’s “I thirst.”
Now, consider then, how amazing a thing it is that over the centuries Christ has cast such a halo around that instrument of torture. Churches were built in the shape of crosses; the cross can be found on the flag of many nations of the world, poets and hymn writers sing of “the wondrous cross” and the “blessed or dear cross”, and we wear it around our necks in silver or gold. Think of wearing a small electric chair or a miniature Auschwitz crematorium around your neck and you get the idea of the jolt, the jar of glorying in the cross.
But, second, says Paul, the offense of the cross is the entire point. He bore our curse in our place, to take away our sins and make us righteous before God. And in no other way could we be made righteous before God. That was the enormity of our guilt and that was the only way to dispatch it in a way that served both the interests of God’s love and his justice. The entire argument of the letter to the Galatians is thus summed up in the sentence, “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ…” He doesn’t mean the literal cross, the gibbet, the pieces of wood, of course. He means Christ as he was crucified for us to bear in our place the punishment of our sins. Embrace that reality, that message, that gospel, that Savior and all that the world finds important and necessary falls away.
Here is Malcolm Muggeridge, a late convert to Christianity, who lived a long life seeking that which the world considers important.
“I may, I suppose, regard myself as a relatively successful man. People occasionally stare at me in the streets: that’s fame. I can fairly easily earn enough to qualify for admission to the higher slopes of the Internal Revenue: that’s success. Furnished with money and a little fame, even the elderly, if they care to, may partake of trendy diversions: that’s pleasure. And it might happen, once in a while, that something I might have said or wrote was sufficiently heeded for me to persuade myself that it represented a serious impact on our time: that’s fulfillment. Yet I say to you, and beg you to believe me, multiply these tiny triumphs by a million, add them all together, and they are nothing, less than nothing, a positive impediment, measured against one draught of that living water Christ offers to the spiritually thirsty, irrespective of who or what they are.” [Jesus Rediscovered, 77]
And that has always been the way Christians have spoken. Once the cross has been seen and embraced for salvation, or, better, Christ the crucified for salvation, everything else that used to matter is cast into the shade.
The cross casts its long shadow over every part of life. And, for the Christian, it brings its own meaning and grace and power and hope and love to every part of life.
Tertullian, the church father of the 3rd century, in a lovely passage, gives expression to this appreciation of the cross as a universal principle of the Christian life.
“At every forward step and movement, and every going in and out, when we put on our clothes and shoes, when we bathe, when we sit at table, when we light the lamps, on couch, on seat, in all the ordinary actions of daily life, we trace upon the forehead, the sign [of the cross].” De Corona, iii.
Or, much later, here is Charles Simeon.
“It is our great aversion to the cross that makes it burdensome. When we have learned to glory in it, we have found the philosopher’s stone… till we have learned this lesson, nothing can be done to any good purpose.” [Cited in BOT 275-6 (1986) 2]
Or, later still, here is James Denney, the 19th and 20th century Scot theologian.
“I would rather preach with a crucifix in my hand and the feeblest power of moral reflection than have the finest insight into ethical principles and no Son of God who came by blood.” [In Gammie, Preachers I have Heard, 163]
And countless examples of Christian verse, some incomparably sublime, such as Watts’ “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” or Clephane’s “Beneath the Cross” or Cecil Francis Alexander’s “There is a Green Hill Far Away” or Johann Heermann’s “Ah, Holy Jesus” or William Cowper’s “There is a Fountain Filled with Blood” but many more of less worth but no less emotion.
The cross! It takes our guilt away!
It holds the fainting spirit up;
It cheers with hope the gloomy day,
And sweetens every bitter cup.
It makes the coward spirit brave,
And nerves the feeble arm for fight;
It takes the terror from the grave,
And gilds the bed of death with light.
The balm of life, the cure of woe;
The measure and the pledge of love;
The sinner’s refuge here below,
The angel’s theme in heaven above.
Or, from L.E. Maxwell’s poem, “Born Crucified,”
The Cross fell like a two-edged sword
Of heavenly temper keen,
And double were the wounds it made
Where’er it glanced between.
Twas death to sin, twas life
To all who mourned for sin.
It kindled and it silenced strife
Made war and peace within.
And no wonder all of this attention to the cross. It lies at the heart and center of the Christian faith as an historical faith and it lies at the heart and center of the Christian life as a response to a great love.
The cross is the final demonstration of God’s love and Christ’s love for us. “He loved me and gave himself for me,” Paul said earlier in the letter. And in Philippians 2 he reminds us that when God the Son emptied himself and took upon himself the form of a man and became obedient to death, he became obedient even to the death of the cross, or as J.B. Phillips translates it, “and the death he died was the death of a common criminal.” That is how far the Lord went down for us and was willing to go down for us. Or as the author of the letter to the Hebrews puts, “who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame…” By dying on the cross the Lord demonstrated his death to be the death of a criminal, for terrible crimes – but the crimes were not his own. By dying the worse conceivable kind of death – crucifixion – he demonstrated the full measure of his suffering so far as it could be demonstrated. The worst of it, of course, — the being made sin, the bearing of God’s wrath, the alienation from his Father – these are things we cannot fathom.
But, further, the cross was the supreme example of love and self-sacrifice that Christ would call us to as his servants. If you would be his disciple, we are told over and over again, “you must take up your cross daily and follow him.” You must sacrifice yourself for others, as he did, love others uncaring of yourself as he did, follow the Lord and perform his will absolutely and without thought of consequences as he did. It is the cross that Christ suffered that lends to the Christian life such a radical, all-consuming character. As he died for us, we must, in turn die for him, to ourselves, our sin, the world, and the blandishments of the devil.
That is why it is absolutely not any contradiction in Galatians for Paul to argue with such passion for justification by faith alone – which is to say, by the work of Christ alone – and then to lay such stress on a holy life and good works at the end of the letter. Christian good works are the only fit, the only appropriate, the only loving response to a salvation freely given but obtained at such terrible cost to Christ himself.
No wonder that Paul, in 1 Corinthians 1:18, should identify his entire message, the content of all his preaching, as simply “the message of the cross.” The cross is how we get salvation and what we are to do with it once we have it! Here is the key to the true philosophy of life, the true understanding of our place in the world, and the meaning of our lives. Christ for us on the terrible cross bearing our sins and winning for us entrance into eternal life, our life then, in turn, a crucifixion of a kind also – a death to the world and what matters to the world, embracing with all our hearts the peace with God that even the worst of sinners can find in the righteousness of Jesus Christ and, thereafter, devoting ourselves, our time, our talents, our energy, our love to the life that Christ has exemplified for us – the sacrifice of ourselves for God and others. That is how one glories in the cross and the cross alone. He embraces it for his or her own salvation – repudiating any thought of his or her own works for peace with God – first by words of love and praise and then by deeds of imitation, he or she turns a back on the thought and interest of the world to do as the Savior did while in the world.
Or, as John Donne has it, “All knowledge that begins not, and ends not with his glory, is but a giddy, but a vertiginous circle, but an elaborate and exquisite ignorance.”
And that is what Galatians was all about. Salvation comes from Christ, his death, his righteousness, and in no respect from our own. The Christian lives from life not to life, from a justification he already has, not one he is seeking to achieve. Embrace that truth and it changes everything. It is Christ on the cross or nothing: some false gospel that is no gospel at all. It is Christ for us or we religious folk might as well be pagans. It took the Son of God dying on a cross to deliver us from our sins – so black and so great as they are – but, his having come into the world to die on a cross, obviously, clearly, unmistakably, salvation doesn’t require something else in addition! He saved his people and he saved them to the uttermost. And it is for them to glory in him and that salvation for the rest of eternity.