The Centrality of the Cross
Yet the image of the Cross was at the center of Paul’s life and thought. In no more conclusive way could Paul express the centrality of the cross in his thinking than by exalting it as the sole object of his boasting. For him it is the key to man’s salvation, and he assumes that his readers will know what he means when he refers to it. It clearly stands for much more than the mere historical fact that Jesus was crucified. It stands for the whole significance of the event, not only for mankind in general but for Paul in particular. He could understand how the cross was a stumbling-block for Jews, but he could never understand how Christians could ever fail to see it as their greatest glory. It may well be that a major part of the weakness of much of the witness of the modern Church lies in a failure to boast in the cross.
One of the great paradoxes of Christian history is that so many calling themselves Christians have avoided the substitutionary death of Christ on the cross that is so central to Paul’s letter to the Galatians (see especially Galatians 3:10-13). Perhaps one reason for that distortion is that the crucifixion reflects upon all of us humans in an unflattering light. It points to the fact that we are sinners who are unable to save ourselves, whoever we are or whatever we do. The cross shrinks us to our true size. In the process it provides the only possible foundation for a theology of salvation by grace. The only alternative to grace is some sort of salvation by human achievement. Whether that achievement be circumcision, dietary rigidity, or some other holy practice makes no difference. Paul’s gospel is crystal clear – salvation by grace through faith on the basis of the Cross and Resurrection (Ephesians 2:8-10; I Corinthians 15:1-4). But, in spite of his clarity on the topic, people are still fascinated with the Judaistic perversion (or some form of it) some two thousand years after the penning of his “large letters.”
Paul’s jest at the Judaizes that they wanted others to keep the law but didn’t truly observe it themselves is another recurring theme in Galatians – that is, the necessity of those who seek salvation through law to obey the whole law and the actual impossibility of doing do (Galatians 3:10; Galatians 5:3; Galatians 3:21, 22). While to Paul the Judaizers were nothing short of hypocrites, they were at least consistent in their claim regarding the Gentiles that it was necessary to circumcise them and to charge them to keep the law of Moses (Acts 15:5). Still Paul regarded their claim as nothing but a human religion. Basing itself on what people could do for God rather than on what He could do for them, it was self-centered rather than Cross-centered. But it must be one or the other, either by faith or by works, either the worship of the accomplishments of one’s self that is so dear to the unrenewed human heart or a prostrating of self at the foot of the cross.
In Galatians 6:15 Paul hits upon the importance of a total renewal or rebirth or reorientation for every Christian. Christianity is not an outward change. It is not being circumcised or even baptized. Rather, it is letting god make us into a new creation (confer II Corinthians 5:17). Jesus calls the same experience being “born anew” by the Holy Spirit (John 3:3,5). Paul in Romans 12:2 refers to it as a transformation. Other places speak of it as getting a new heart and a new mind (Philippians 2:5; Hebrews 8:10; romans 12:2) or as being converted (Matthew 18:3; Acts 3:19). All those metaphors describe the same life-changing event. For Paul Christianity is always an inner experience rather than an outward one. Yet the Judaizes down through history have always emphasized external symbols. Thus, Paul’s counsel to the Galatians is still as relevant as it was the day he wrote it.
The apostle notes in Galatians 6:16 that those who walked (lived) according to the rule (standard) of his gospel of grace would be blessed with mercy they needed so badly and with that peace with God and with others that comes through justification by faith (Romans 5:1, 10). He also reminds them of his teaching in Galatians 3:29 that it is those who have the faith of Abraham who are truly the Israel of God. His final appeal is for them not to continue to cause him trouble by questioning his apostolic authority because he himself bears the marks of a slave to Jesus in his own body. Undoubtedly, he had in mind the scars of his many persecutions (see II Corinthians 11:23-28). Paul ends his great epistle with a reference to grace. It is the fitting conclusion to a letter that began with the name word Galatians 1:3 and alluded to it throughout.
Although Paul shot many verbal cannon shots at the church of Galatians and at the church of today, Paul was bound and determine for them and us to understand that salvation only comes from man getting right with God by faith in His saving grace. There is no other way to salvation and heaven than through Christ’s atoning sacrifice. The sacrifice where he lovingly gave of himself that man could be made right with God.
This post marks the end of our series on Galatians, a series which has covered 14 weeks. I really hope you have enjoyed it.