Reading Time: 6 mins

At the Cross

Reading Time: 6 mins

The cross not only stands as the measure of our hatred of God but also as the measure of God’s love for us.

As the apostle Paul brings his letter to the Galatians to an end, he offers one final appeal to the gospel of Christ crucified in the midst of which he, likewise, reveals that these concluding words were written with his “own hand” (Gal. 6:11). This, of course, makes the Galatian epistle unique since it is probably the only biblical piece of writing that Paul wrote himself from start to finish. While his other letters were more often than not dictated to an amanuensis, with only the last few lines coming from Paul himself (as in the case of 1 Cor. 16:21), the gist of Chapter 6 of his letter to the Galatians suggests that the entire tome came from his “own hand.” This was to be expected, considering the urgency of the situation that precipitated Paul’s letter in the first place. Galatians was likely written during the days of the Jerusalem Council (Act 15), at which many of the church’s leaders gathered to discuss how Gentile converts are made right with God. Were they obligated to adhere to the Mosaic law, as the Jewish constituency insisted (Acts 15:1, 5)? Or were they justified by some other means?

Eventually, the Council determined that all who believe “will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 15:11), thereby affirming the apostolic doctrine of justification and, likewise, curtailing the first wave of doctrinal schism within the church. It is not hard to fathom Paul’s frustration, though, when he received news that the Galatian churches had been being duped by this “other gospel.” Immediately preceding the conference at Jerusalem was Paul and Barnabas’ first missionary tour, which was spent proclaiming the good news of Christ crucified among the cities of Southern Galatia. Following their return to Antioch, reports arrived concerning a gaggle of Jewish legalists who were responsible for undermining Paul’s message. But since his presence was needed at the Council and since the matter was too critical to afford to wait for a copywriter, we might imagine Paul hurriedly grabbing a pen and paper and furiously writing what we now know as Galatians. The intent, of course, was to follow up with the Galatian congregations at a later date, which he eventually did (Acts 16:1–5). 

Consequently, this is how important it is to get justification right. According to the Judaizers, justification for Gentiles was by faith plus something else. It was about what they believed but also about what they did — namely, how well they followed the codes of Moses. Paul, however, saw this as a complete contradiction of the true gospel of God (Gal. 1:6–9). Preaching a so-called “gospel” of “Jesus plus something else” only results in abandoning Jesus entirely. Adding anything to the good news of free justification in Christ nullifies that announcement. Paul was not willing to budge from this position, even in the slightest (Gal. 2:16). He was convinced that the issue of justification was critical to the church’s survival, leading him to compose this decisive bookend to his most fervid letter where, in a way, he puts all of his cards on the table. As Paul wraps up this epistle, he condenses the whole ordeal into the simplest of terms: “It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh who would force you to be circumcised, and only in order that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ. For even those who are circumcised do not themselves keep the law, but they desire to have you circumcised that they may boast in your flesh” (Gal. 6:12–13).

Preaching a so-called “gospel” of “Jesus plus something else” only results in abandoning Jesus entirely.

The Judaizers were shysters. They were frauds. They presented themselves as those who had the best intentions for the Galatian disciples, but, in reality, they were out for themselves. The driving force behind everything they said and did was “to make a good showing in the flesh,” which means that despite their super spiritual rhetoric, their endgame was their own glory, not God’s. Paramount for the Judaizers was the maintenance of the outward façade of religious devotion. Everything was based on outward performance. Their “gospel” boiled down to religious showmanship. They relished in superficial spirituality and legalistic devotion, all for their own benefit. By coercing the Galatian converts to follow through with circumcision, they hoped to contrive religious reputations that perpetuated their status as authorities within the church. 

Accordingly, Paul’s conclusion lands one last broadside against the ministry of the Jewish legalists, as he divulges that they were changing the gospel not only to boost their résumé but also to avoid adversity (Gal. 6:12). As a result of their specious mixture of faith and works, which made the gospel more palatable, they ventured to bypass the persecution that ensued whenever the cross of Christ was proclaimed. Remarkably, Paul admits that he could have followed suit by compromising the gospel with the addendum of circumcision (Gal. 5:11), which would have allowed him to avoid tremendous amounts of pain and hardship. It would have been easy to alter his message to appease the masses, but Paul wasn’t interested in changing the gospel to please others, especially since the gospel wasn’t his to change (Gal. 1:6–10). 

This raises a question, though: Why was there so much persecution following Paul’s ministry? Why was he harassed so incessantly? Why was there so much hatred hurled his way? Why was there controversy always following him? Just before writing Galatians, Paul was left for dead in the Galatian city of Lystra (Acts 14:19). What would compel men to do that? In every case, the answer was always the cross of Christ. It was Paul’s indefatigable responsibility to declare “the word of the cross” (1 Cor. 1:18). “I decided to know nothing among you,” he would later write, “except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). But what makes Christ’s cross so hard for people to accept? So hard to hear? What is it about “Christ crucified” that stirs up so much hostility, hatred, and violence? I contend it is because the cross simultaneously does two things that we absolutely detest and holds them up for us to confess and accept. 

When we look at the cross or talk about the cross, we see God’s law and God’s gospel at work at the same time. When Jesus bleeds out and heaves on that blasted Roman torture device, we are made to witness the awful effects of our sin and rebellion. We are disobedient sinners who are rotten to the core, but because God loves us, he sends his Son to die in our stead. On the cross, therefore, Jesus is saying, “I’m here because of you. These nails are your fault. These thorns are due to your disobedience. This is what your sin costs.” The initial message of the cross is an announcement that reminds us of our misery and blows to smithereens any notion we might have that we can be “good” or righteous in and of ourselves. At the outset, the cross brutally shows us the depths of our wickedness and despair. It is not surprising, then, that humanity hates this message since no one likes to be told how bad they are. No one enjoys hearing how they’ve failed, especially when that message is accompanied by the fact that we cannot fix our own failure. 

We who are broken are utterly incapable of fixing our brokenness on our own. Sinners cannot solve the problem of sin by themselves. The first word of the cross is a word of law and judgment, which compels us to come to grips with our desperation and the devastation it has caused. Mankind’s gut reaction is to resist this message at all costs, even going so far as to silence anyone who would dare to preach it. “Man’s gospel” (Gal. 1:11) is utterly opposed to the cross, so much so that he comes up with his own alternative method of making himself right through works of piety and spiritual achievement, which allows him to stay comfortably deluded that he can carry out what the law demands. But of course, no one can live up to those demands, which means that the only outcome is death. Accordingly, the cross is the definitive statement of what occurs when the law’s requirements are exacted.

This is when the second word of the cross resounds. Whereas the first word is a word of judgment, the second word is a word of grace. While the nails are still our fault, according to Jesus’s own testimony, his death is for us. “This is my body,” Christ says, “which is given for you” (Luke 22:19). Therefore, while, at first, the cross says, “Look at what your sin has done,” Christ follows that up by declaring, “Look what I’ve done for you.” While the judgment of the cross says, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law and do them,” the grace of the cross flows from the announcement that “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (Gal. 3:10,13). Consequently, Paul attests that he will never boast about anything except for that blasted yet beautiful cross: “Far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation” (Gal. 6:14–15).

Paul’s glory was not tethered to anything he could accomplish, nor did it rely upon his religious performance. He invested zero confidence in himself, neither in circumcision nor uncircumcision. Rather, all of his hope and assurance rested in the cross of Christ alone since he understood that on that wretched tree where Jesus died, all of his sins were being put to death there, too (Gal. 6:14; cf. 2:20). The ultimate announcement of the cross is that Christ alone is our righteousness. We have none of our own nor can we win any on our own. We are righteous in and because of him. The cross, therefore, is our solace and satisfaction. It causes us to stumble since it tells us we can do nothing to save ourselves, but it also causes us to rejoice since it tells us everything we need to know about our Savior. Indeed, the cross not only stands as the measure of our hatred of God but also as the measure of God’s love for us.

On a hill just outside of Jerusalem, the world was made to see the clearest picture of who God is, as the sight of the cross offers not only the best view of ourselves but also of God himself. Although we were the ones who put him there, he was the one who willingly went there. All that we are and all that we need is, therefore, found at the foot of the cross, where the Living One died so that the dead might have life, where the Savior bore the curse so that the cursed ones could be saved. With Luther, therefore, we confess that the cross alone is our theology. This is the good news for you, sinner. There is no other gospel.