C. J. Mahaney writes, ‘The cross was the centrepiece of Paul’s theology. It wasn’t merely one of Paul’s messages; it was the message. He taught other things as well, but whatever he taught was always derived from, and related to the foundational reality that Jesus Christ died so that sinners would be reconciled to God and forgiven by God.’
Up to this point this point Paul has been dictating to someone who has written for him. Now, as was his custom, he takes the pen himself to write the ending with his own hand. See what large letters I use as I write to you with my own hand (11). He wants to highlight the importance of these last words, in the way that we might underline them or put them in bold. He will remind them to keep the cross central.1. ‘Only those who are truly aware of their sin can truly cherish grace’ (12)
Remember the context to this letter. The apostle Paul was on a missionary journey when he took ill and went to the hill country of Galatia to recover. There he shared the good news about the life and death of Jesus and many accepted this message with joy. However, soon false-teachers arrived on the scene and muddied the waters. They said that you had to earn God’s acceptance. They said that you had to keep the Law of Moses, and in particular be circumcised, if you were to become a Christian. Paul writes to set the record straight. Becoming a Christian is about receiving the free, life transforming grace of God made available because of the life and death of Christ. Jesus lived the perfect life and died for our guilt so that all who trust in him could be accepted as God’s beloved sons and daughters.
But what motivated the false-teachers to take the beautiful message of God’s free gift and turn it into a message of having to earn God’s acceptance? Paul tells us. ‘Those who want to make a good impression outwardly are trying to compel you to be circumcised. The only reason they do this is to avoid being persecuted for the cross of Christ’ (12-13). In particular they didn’t want to trample on the toes of their fellow Jews. It seems that the Jews of that day had misunderstood the rituals and rules of the Old Testament. These things were never meant as a means of earning God’s acceptance. Salvation has always been a matter of grace.
Rico Tice tells of someone who, during a Christianity Explored course, said that they believed they were going to heaven because they give blood. The cross offends all such thinking. If your friends thing that they are going to be accepted by God on the basis that they are good people, who try their best and are different than rapists, then the message of the gospel is going to offend them. The gospel is only relevant to those who see themselves among the chief of sinners. The gospel declares that our sin is such a serious thing that nothing less than the death of God’s own Son could deal with it. When we show people the glory of the cross we proclaim their spiritual bankruptcy. C. J. Mahaney writes that, ‘only those who are truly aware of their sin can truly cherish grace.’2. We will only glory in the cross if we have humbled ourselves as hell deserving sinners (13-16)
They false-teachers wanted to boast of your flesh (13). They wanted to say, ‘look how many people we have compelled to be circumcised.’ They weren’t motivated by the glory of God or the good of his people. They simply wanted to boast in themselves. Unlike Paul, who writes, ‘May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ …’ (13).
When Mahaney is asked at Starbucks, ‘how are you?’ he replies, ‘better than I deserve!’ ‘I do it,’ he explains, ‘as a way of preaching the gospel to myself every day.’ He understands that he deserves God’s divine wrath for his sin, but that Jesus experienced that wrath so that he no longer has to. He knows that he deserves hell, but he is on his way to heaven. He knows that he has nothing to boast about other than the cross of Christ. The cross puts everything else into perspective!
The apostle Paul had been like the false-teachers that caused so much trouble in Galatia. He had been a self-righteous, religious man who boasted in what he did. Then he experienced a life-transforming encounter with the risen Christ. He was born again and made new. Now the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world (14b). He was no longer hostile to the message of the cross. He gave up trying to but God’s acceptance. He stopped seeking to earn his way to heaven. He realised that neither circumcision nor uncircumcision nor any other way people want to justify themselves matters.
Being accepted by God is not the result of giving blood, being respectable, not having a criminal record or simply being a good person. Being accepted by God is a gift made available to us through the cross of Christ. John Stott writes, ‘only if we have humbled ourselves as hell-deserving sinners shall we give up boasting about ourselves, fly to the cross for salvation and spend the rest of our days glorying in the cross.’
Paul then pronounces a blessing on those who live in light of the glorious gospel of grace. Peace and mercy to all who follow (literally ‘to all who walk by’) this rule (referring to the gospel), even to the Israel of God (he is using this Old Testament description of God’s people to refer to all who now trust in Jesus). Are you walking in light of the gospel? Does it shape all your thinking? Do you preach it to yourself every day?
Finally, let no-one cause me trouble, for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus. His body showed the scars of being persecuted for the message of the cross. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit brothers and sister. Amen (17-18).
A final word to Mahaney on this theme of grace: ‘Never be content with your grasp of the gospel. The gospel is life-permeating, world-altering, universe-changing truth. It has more facets than any diamond. Its depths man [or woman] will never exhaust.”