The Centrality of the Cross

Galatians 6:1-18

24 October 1999

Greyfriars Church

Introduction 2

In verse 11 the apostle Paul introduces the final part of his letter with the words see what large letters I use as I write to you with my own hand!ref

Paul usually used an amanuensis (which is just a posh word for secretary) to write down his letters which he dictated. In Romans we actually hear from one of his scribes, I Tertius, who wrote down this letter, greet you in the Lordref. But it was Paul's custom to add a greeting in his own writing at the end of his letters, primarily for security, so that the churches knew that they were getting a genuine Paul, and not a fake or forgery.

In this case he remarks on how large his writing is. Did he just have bad handwriting, or what? There's a bit of a debate about what he means by this, but it seems likely that what he is doing is using large letters for emphasis, just as we might use capital letters, or on a word-processor, bold letters, to highlight parts that are particularly important.

So, for Paul, what follows is particularly significant. He has gone to some trouble to write it, and we should make every effort to understand it.

In this final section Paul is re-emphasising the key themes of his message to the Galatian churches. You will recall that he has argued throughout the letter against some false teachers who are trying to sell the Galatians a kind of Gospel-plus: it is faith and the law that saves, they are saying. So, as well as keeping various Jewish festivals, and the Jewish law, christians need to be circumcised too. Paul has argued very strongly—vehemently, even—against these teachers, because they have perverted the gospel message.

So what follows is of the deepest importance to Paul: let's learn from the Apostle.

The shame of the cross

I've given this first section the title "the shame of the cross". To see why I've called it this let's look at the motives of the false teachers in verses 12 and 13.

Paul says that the reason they are teaching this fake gospel-plus message is that they want to make a good impression outwardly, that they are trying to avoid being persecuted for the cross of Christ.

They have dressed up the message to make it more acceptable, more impressive even, to the society of the day. They don't want to preach the true gospel message because the true gospel message is a message about the shame of the cross.

I'll explain what I mean by that. At the heart of the gospel message is the fact that we are so utterly depraved that God had to send his perfect, wonderful Son to be brutally and bloodily executed as the only means by which we may be rescued. The gospel is a message about our failures and God's wrath: about God's curse upon us. It's a message of shame for every single person on the planet.

Is it any wonder that true gospel preachers are persecuted! Who likes to be told that they are utterly depraved, and that the cross proves that it is true? We are proud people. But it is the work of the gospel preacher to say these things. In 2 Corinthians Paul talks about the work of a preacher like this:

We are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life. And who is equal to such a task?ref

The true gospel is offensive to the world. It is the stench of death. But these guys, these false teachers, couldn't cope with this part of the message. They wouldn't face up to the shame of the cross, but dressed up the gospel message in two ways to make it more appealing to the people.

Outward over the Inward

First, they emphasised the outward over the inward. Their gospel was a message of outward show, about making a good impression outwardly, through observing the religious laws and even circumcision. Rather than offend the people of the time with the true message about our perilous state before God, they moulded the gospel message so it became acceptable to the society of the day, where observing the religious laws and the outward signs of religion were what mattered.

They had completely missed Jesus' own teaching that what really matters is the state of our hearts, which is what most of the Sermon on the Mount is about.

I don't know how much you know about dry rot. Actually, until about two years ago I was wonderfully ignorant about dry rot. But then we started to renovate our house, an old victorian terrace. Whilst taking some plaster off the walls so that some damp-proofing could be done, we found scary grey tendrils working their way up the walls from the rotting joists under the floor. This is dry rot. To deal with it properly is an expensive, messy and disruptive process, which involves replacing most of the floor, and any other wood nearby, like door frames, and treating everything with some particularly nasty chemicals.

I've got to be honest with you: I've never been so tempted in my life to do a simple cover-up job! It would have been so easy to have replastered, repainted and to have tried to forget all about it.

But the thing about dry rot is that, unless you do something about it, it will slowly but surely demolish your house. In this case a cosmetic cover-up job would eventually have been disastrous. We had no option but to get rid of the rot from the fabric of our house.

It's the same with the gospel. We try to hide the truth of our inner spiritual depravity beneath an outward layer of respectability, like the pharisees to whom Jesus said, Woe to you! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men's bones.ref We are happy to slap on layers of paint, disastrously ignoring the rot in our hearts.

Have things changed much since Paul wrote this letter? The church today is full of teachers who, wanting to make the gospel respectable, or to avoid the scorn of others, deny, for example, that we are under the very wrath of God, they deny even that He has a wrath at all. And so the message becomes a little more comfortable, and over time their gospel slowly transforms itself into "go to church from time to time, and try to be a good person, then you will be OK" . Isn't that what Christianity means for so many people today? It's just a redecorating job, a cover-up. Where's the cross gone? That's why it was so obnoxious to Paul, of course. A gospel without a cross is no gospel at all: it can't deal with our inner rottenness.

I have to admit that I have this temptation too. It's easy to talk about sin and judgement and the cross from up here—you can't answer back, for one thing—but I find it very hard to talk to my family, or my colleagues about these things. The words stick in my throat, and a little voice in me says "you can't say that!" . But we must talk about these things; to fail to do so is to ignore the rot, which doesn't help anyone.

Our work over God's work

So the false teachers emphasised the outward over the inward.

The second way that the false teachers were avoiding the shame of the cross is by making their gospel about our works instead of God's work. Their gospel is about law-keeping, it's about what we do, just like the old covenant.

I doubt that many of us are being pressed to be circumcised, but we indulge in this mollification of he gospel in many other ways. In truth we like to think that we are good people, don't we, and we corrupt our religion so that we can say to God "Look, I'm OK really!" . So we make our religion to be about attending church, about being baptised, about not swearing or smoking or parking on double yellow lines, about not indulging in sin—any obvious sins anyway—and then we are content. Our pride is happy, and we do not have to do any serious business with God.

But the message of the gospel is that we are spiritually helpless. The most shameful thing about the cross is that it was necessary at all. As Paul said earlier in the letter if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!ref If we could be saved by what we do, then Jesus would not have had to die for us. The cross confirms that we are helpless in the face of our sin, and our pride does not like that one bit.

The true gospel tells us that not only are we rotting inside, but that we can do nothing ourselves about it. It's not a very nice message is it? That's why the false teachers were shy of talking about it.

So the false teachers had dressed up the cross to make it more acceptable to people by emphasising an outward show over inward repentance, and by emphasising our work in salvation over God's work. But this was obnoxious to Paul because by trying to cover over the shame of the cross they had missed its whole point.

The glory of the cross

The apostle Paul had, of course, got the point completely. In contrast to the false teachers he says in verse 14 May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christref , or as the King James Version puts it But God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.

To the world, the message of the cross is a shameful message, but for Paul it is a glorious message. So I've called this section "the glory of the cross". The shame of the cross and the glory of the cross.

The inward over the outward

First, in contrast to the false teachers, Paul's gospel emphasises the inward over the outward. We see this as he goes on in verse 14: 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 worldref.

Paul has no interest in making an outward show: the world has been crucified to him. As far as he is concerned the world is nothing, it is dead to him, so why should he need to impress the world? And he has been crucified to the world. It no longer has any power over him, to the world he might as well be dead.

If we are Christians then this is a glorious truth: it's real freedom. As Paul says in chapter 5; It is for freedom that Christ has set us freeref.

We don't need to live anymore by the world's rules, whether they are religious or human. Because I now trust God I don't need to be an ambitious workaholic. I can turn a blind eye to all the adverts that try to tell me what I should be wearing or driving or drinking, what I should spend my money on. I don't need cupboards full of sharp clothes, or a car with attitude. I don't need respect, or to exact revenge when I am slighted. What would be the point of these things? The world is crucified to me and I to the world.

Note too that the church can also be a worldly place, and we can easily become concerned with outward shows of piety right here rather than the humble repentance to which the cross should be leading us.

A well known sinner, Jonathan Aitken, began to understand this when he became a Christian after being put in jail. He says

To put it simply, I called myself a Christian without actually being one. I was strong on the externals. I do not think I had fully appreciated the simple truth that it has everything to do with the internal commitment of the heart.

We should search our hearts for these attitudes. Are we strong on the externals, but weak on the internal commitment of the heart? Jesus was always full of scorn for this hypocrisy. The true gospel emphasises the inward over the outward. Do we do the same?

God's work over our works

Paul continues in verse 15 Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is a new creationref.

So, here is another contrast with the false teachers. Paul's gospel emphasises God's work over our work. Circumcision, and law keeping is all our human effort. None of this can put us right with God. Only God himself can that work, and he does that by making us new creations. Paul says elsewhere, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!ref This is God's work. We can no more recreate ourselves than bread and butter pudding can turn itself into strawberry pavlova. Ezekiel puts it like this, again emphasising that it is a work of God, I will give you a new heart, God says, and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of fleshref.

This is why the message of the cross is so crucial. It is only when we face up to the fact that we cannot save ourselves—that we cannot even contribute to our salvation, that Jesus died that death for us on the cross—, it is only when we give up our pride and our pretensions, it is only then that God can do open heart surgery on us, making us into new creations. He will take away all our sin, all our guilt and our burdens—the very things that we long for but are powerless to do—and He will make us new again.

Perhaps some here today are looking for God. Well, I have to admit that I have great trouble finding things. My wife, Penny will confirm that I have an irritating ability to fail to find things that are right under my nose. I will frantically search around in the most obscure places, getting more and more frustrated, while the thing is right there all the time. Does anyone else have this problem?

We can be like that with religion. We try so hard to do the right things that we miss what's right in front of us: the cross of Jesus. When we truly look at the cross it reminds us of our shame, of our weakness, of our sin, that Jesus had to come to die like that for us. It shows us that we need to admit to God that we are ashamed of our sin, of all that we have done to cut ourselves off from God. We have to forget about trying to look good on the outside, and let God transform us from the inside.

Then we can begin to know the glory of the cross. There is no other route to knowing the glory of the cross than first feeling the shame of it.

Recently I flew back from Japan: a thirteen hour journey which can be extremely boring. Fortunately I found myself sitting next to a nice fellow with whom I had a lot in common, so the journey seemed shorter than usual as we chatted away. One of the things that he told me was that he had become a Christian here at Greyfriars church a few years ago. Isn't that an encouragement from God? This fellow had looked for God and found him here. If you are looking for God, you can find him here as well. The cross of Christ is where he is to be found.


Finally Paul rounds off his letter with another reason for us to take him very seriously. Verse 17: Finally, let no one cause me trouble, for I bear on my body the marks of Jesusref. Here he is talking about the physical injuries that he has endured as he has gone about preaching the gospel. As he says elsewhere, he was five times given the thirty-nine lashes, in addition to beatings and stonings. His body suffered for the gospel just as Jesus' body suffered.

This proves how different Paul was from the false teachers. He was not afraid of persecution—he did not need to dress up his gospel—because he knew the true glory of the cross.

When we feel timid to discuss the shame of the cross with people we should remember its glory. The cross is the only way by which people can be saved from God's wrath; and it is the very way in which we ourselves are saved, if we are Christian. If we can get to grips with this, then, perhaps like Paul, we can be a little braver.