Branded for Christ: A Solemn Call to Glory in the Cross
October 14, 2001
Six months after we started, we come at last to the end of our journey through the book of Galatians. It has been an exciting trip! Time and again we have been brought face to face with the grace of God as the only hope of our salvation. Along the way we have seen a side of Paul that is rarely found in his other letters. There he teaches and exhorts. Here he warns and pleads. This is an emergency letter written under great pressure to a church in danger of leaving Christ altogether.
As Paul comes to the end, he wraps up his letter with a paragraph that in many ways summarizes everything he has said. He does what preachers are supposed to do every Sunday: Tell them what you plan to say, say it, tell them what you just said. In this paragraph, he tells us what he has been saying throughout these six chapters. Nothing is wasted, every word counts, and every verse tells us something we need to know.
I. The Final Paragraph 11-18
A. His Signature 11
“See what large letters I use as I write to you with my own hand!” (Galatians 6:11). We learn two important facts from this verse. First, Paul evidently dictated most of the letter (that seems to have been his common practice) and then added the final paragraph in his own hand. This would be especially significant since the Judaizers were questioning his legitimacy and his authority. Adding final comments in his own hand would dilute much of that criticism. Second, Paul wrote the final paragraph with large letters, possibly because of a persistent eye problem (alluded to in Galatians 4:12-20) and possibly also because he wished to emphasize his comments. We do the same thing when we inject “IMPORTANT: READ THIS” into the text of a letter or an e-mail.
B. His Enemies 12-13
“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. Not even those who are circumcised obey the law, yet they want you to be circumcised that they may boast about your flesh” (Galatians 6:12-13). This is a final, blistering attack on the Judaizers who were seducing the Galatian Christians to give up Christ in favor of circumcision. Paul levels four accusations against them:
1) They are braggarts: They “want to make a good showing.”
2) They are bullies: They “compel you to be circumcised.”
3) They are cowards: They want to “avoid being persecuted.”
4) They are hypocrites: They do not “obey the law” themselves.
No wonder he wrote as he did to the Galatians. He had nothing good to say about these so-called converts whose true purpose was spiritual seduction.
C. His Boast 14-15
“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. Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is a new creation” (Galatians 6:14-15).
Paul’s only boast was in the cross of Christ. What is your boast? Is it your money? Your education? Your family pedigree? Your good connections? Your winsome personality? Your ability to get things done? Your good grades? Your glittering track record? Your popularity with powerful people? Your family and your children? Your portfolio? Your personal achievements? Your good looks? The list is endless. For Paul, there was only one answer: “I boast only in the cross of Christ.” To him, nothing else mattered. He regarded his family background, his religious heritage, his education, and even his good morality as “dung” compared to the glory of knowing Christ personally. (See Philippians 3:1-9.)
In 1825, John Bowring watched as the morning light bathed a cross standing in the midst of several dilapidated buildings near the entrance to Hong Kong harbor. Later he wrote the words to a hymn we still sing today:
In the cross of Christ I glory,
Towering o’er the wrecks of time;
All the light of sacred story
Gathers round its head sublime.
Did you see the picture of the face of Satan in the billowing smoke coming from one of the burning towers of the World Trade Center? Several friends sent me the photo, which apparently is genuine. The face of the devil appears in the smoke for a moment and then disappears. I hadn’t thought much about it until I read a column by Peggy Noonan, writing for the Wall Street Journal. She compared that fleeting picture of Satan with the perfectly-formed cross unearthed from the rubble of the fallen towers:
“If you are of a certain cast of mind it is of course meaningful that the cross, which to those of its faith is imperishable, did not disappear. It was not crushed by the millions of tons of concrete that crashed down upon it, did not melt in the furnace. It rose from the rubble, still there, intact” (Peggy Noonan, “Welcome Back, Duke,” October 12, 2001).
She puts the matter this way. If you are ignorant, superstitious or (she says) like her, you believe the face of the devil was not there by chance. Ditto for the cross found in the rubble. Did this happen by accident? You can argue it either way, but perhaps there is a lesson here. The devil takes his best shot and then disappears in a puff of smoke and fiery destruction. Later, many days later, the cross emerges from the ruins of the fallen towers. It “towers o’er the wrecks of time.” The cross reminds us that evil cannot and will not win. God has ordained that through the brutality of a Roman cross, salvation would come to the world. Peggy Noonan says: “This is how God speaks to us. He is saying, ‘I am.’ He is saying, ‘I am here.’ He is saying, ‘And the force of all the evil of all the world will not bury me.’”
The cross is the sign of victory. Through the cross we have cut our ties with the world. We have said goodbye to the world and the world has said goodbye to us. And it is through the cross that salvation comes. This is why circumcision or church membership or mode of baptism eventually become irrelevant. It is Christ and Christ alone who saves, and he saves us by virtue of his bloody death on the cross. The only thing that matters is being born again (a new creation) through faith in Jesus Christ who died on the cross for us. Everything else is just details.
D. His Blessing 16
“Peace and mercy to all who follow this rule, even to the Israel of God” (Galatians 6:16). The blessing is Paul’s way of extending his hand to the whole body of Christ. The “rule” of verse 16 ties directly to the previous verses. Paul has no boast except in the cross. That is the “rule” of his life. He wishes grace and peace and God’s love to everyone else who follows that same “rule” and finds glory only in the cross.
E. His Suffering 17
“Finally, let no one cause me trouble, for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus” (Galatians 6:17). The word “marks” is related to the English word stigmata, which in certain circles refers to the marks on the body that seem to mimic the wounds Jesus suffered in his hands, his feet, his head, and his side. Paul’s meaning is broader than this. He is really saying, “You Judaizers can take your little circumcision club and go somewhere else. Don’t bother me any more. You like to make marks on the body and call yourself holy. Here are my marks. See the scars. Here is where I was beaten. Here is where I was scourged. And I got these marks when I was stoned and left for dead.”
But there is even more to consider. The word “marks” was sometimes used for the mark put onto a slave’s body to show that he was owned by someone else. Paul’s scars were the marks of divine ownership that proved he truly belonged to Jesus Christ.
F. His Benediction 18
“The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brothers. Amen” (Galatians 6:18). To the very last verse Paul continues hammering his points home. His words are personal—”brothers.” He repeats his main theme—”the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.” He points one final time to the main issue—”be with your spirit.”
And so we come to the end of Galatians. Paul has said all he can say. What will they do? As he writes his final words, not even Paul knows the answer. Having made his argument, the issue now rests with his readers. Will they choose slavery or freedom? It is fitting that the book ends this way, with an unanswered question, because in every generation the church of Jesus Christ faces the same issues in one form or another. Will we choose liberty in Christ or will we succumb to the temptation to return to the slavery of self-effort and lawkeeping as a means of pleasing God? Will we decide that God’s grace is not enough and that we need to add something else to what God has already done for us? Today our argument isn’t about circumcision, but we quickly substitute other equally good things in place of the simple gospel—church membership, baptism, good works, charitable giving, strict accountability to the rules of the church, and anything else that exalts the flesh and gives us a sense that we have contributed to our own salvation. Because the Galatian heresy is with us today—and because the Galatian heretics are alive and well—we need this passionate little book. No wonder Luther loved it. No wonder legalists have always hated it. Thank God Paul had the courage to write it. May we never forget things we have learned.
II. The Enduring Value of the Book of Galatians
Before we leave this book, let’s take a moment to sum up some of the major lessons it teaches us. Four especially come to mind as truths we need in the 21st century:
A. The impossibility of salvation by any form of self-effort
Here is the foundation of everything Paul wanted to communicate. In Galatians 2:16 he used a little phrase three times to make sure his readers could not miss the truth. No one can ever be saved by the “works of the law” (NKJV). The irony of this is that God gave the law to show men their sin. It is a “tutor” or a “schoolmaster” to lead us to Christ (3:24). The most basic use of the law is to show us our sin by causing us to admit, over and over again, that no matter how hard we try, we can never achieve the perfection the law demands. To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, we can keep some of the law some of the time but we can never keep all the law all the time. In the end, we are all in the same boat—guilty sinners, lawbreakers, those who “missed the mark” and therefore are part of the “all have sinned” of Romans 3:23.
There aren’t very many people today who try to go to heaven by keeping the laws of the Old Testament. Contemporary Judaism has evolved into a general system of ethical rules that is only loosely related to the Torah. And most Christians don’t spend much time poring over the minutiae of Leviticus and Numbers and Deuteronomy. Most of us rarely even read those books. So it’s not as if the problem is that we literally try to “keep the law” in the same sense as the Galatians. But there is something very deep in the human heart that finds the notion of God’s grace quite repulsive. We’re all for grace as a kind of “spiritual flubber” (to borrow an image from the old Walt Disney movie The Absent-Minded Professor) that helps us jump higher than we could ever jump before. We’re fine with the idea of a little help along the way. But in our hearts, we still think we can jump almost all the way to heaven. All we need is a little help. But that lie we tell ourselves is the very heart of the Galatian heresy. Our legs are broken with double compound fractures. We lie on the ground slowly bleeding to death. We can’t jump, we can’t move, and we can’t even stand up and walk. Our plight is hopeless unless God intervenes. That’s the hard truth about the human condition. We don’t like to hear it, but there it is anyway, and until we come to grips with the reality of our own sinfulness, we will never be saved.
The bottom line: You can’t save yourself and you can’t even contribute to your own salvation. As long as you try to save yourself, you are lost even though you may be an extremely religious person. Until you “put your deadly doing down,” you will not and cannot come to Christ.
B. The ever-present danger of doctrinal defection in the church
It could not have been easy for Paul to write this emergency letter. He knew before he wrote it that some of his readers would be very angry at him. The Judaizers would use it as proof of his emotional instability and the legalists would accuse him of preaching a false gospel. The lovers of Moses would accuse him of dishonoring the Old Testament and making light of the law of God. And some would simply turn away from him as an agitator whose only goal was to gain a cult of personal followers. There was no way, he knew, that he would win over 100% of the Galatians. Perhaps most would follow the Judaizers and his work might even come to nothing. He didn’t think so, he hoped for the best, but he could not be sure.
Let us learn from this that even the best-taught believers may go astray. The price of freedom is eternal vigilance. There are times when we must stand for the truth no matter what it costs. Paul was willing to risk his friendship with the Galatian believers if only he could save them from “falling from grace” and turning to “another gospel” that is no gospel at all. To him the issue was crystal-clear. It was nothing less than the difference between truth and error, right and wrong, heaven or hell. Having led most of his readers to Christ, he now risks it all in order to save them from the false teachers who had bewitched them with smooth talk and a seductive message.
As I write these words my mind is picturing a friend who is in precisely that situation. The issues are not quite the same but the end result is identical. This person has come under the influence of some so-called Christians who claim to follow Christ but openly practice that which God calls sin. They make light of it, deny it is sinful, and claim to be true Christians. My friend is badly confused, having been enticed by their friendship and their clever words. The issue is as yet undecided. Do not be deceived and do not take anything for granted. In a moment of loneliness, the smiles and laughter from the other side could seduce you, too.
C. The absolute necessity of God’s grace
Everything God does for us is on the basis of grace. Our salvation is all of grace all the time. This is why Paul again and again comes back to the doctrine of justification by faith alone. That isn’t just a dusty phrase from the theology textbooks. It is a statement of the heart of the evangelical gospel. To use a term from the sporting world, justification is “the whole ballgame.” Get this truth down and you’ve got the truth that can save your soul, forgive your sins, transform your life, and take you all the way to heaven. Miss this and Christianity becomes just another system of rules and good advice.
To justify means to “declare righteous.” It’s a term from the courtroom that describes the verdict in a trial. When a defendant is justified, he is declared not guilty, his record is wiped clean, the charges against him are dropped, and he is free to go because in the eyes of the law, he is an innocent man. No one can successfully bring any charges against a justified man. No accusation can stand against him. Applied to the spiritual realm, justification is that act of God whereby he declares guilty sinners to be righteous on the basis of the death of Jesus Christ. In my mind the key phase is “declares guilty sinners to be righteous.” It’s not as if God takes nice people and makes them a little bit better. That’s moral improvement; it’s not justification. It’s what you get by reading Emily Post or by watching Martha Stewart tell how to make a picnic basket.
When God wants to justify a person, he takes an honest-to-goodness guilty sinner and declares him righteous and totally forgiven. He wipes the record clean. A judge who did that on earth would be disbarred and then thrown in jail. But God can do what no earthly judge can do because he does it on the basis of the bloody death of his Son on the cross. In Galatians 3, Paul explains that Christ became a “curse” for us. He paid the price for our sins and he bore the heavy load of our guilt. He died in our place, taking our punishment, dying in our stead, the price of sin was laid on his back, and he was wounded for our transgressions. An old hymn says it this way:
O Christ, what burdens bowed Thy Head!
Our load was laid on Thee;
Thou stoodest in the sinner’s stead—
Didst bear all ill for me:
A victim led, Thy blood was shed!
Now there’s no load for me.
Death and the curse were in our cup—
O Christ, ’twas full for Thee!
But Thou hast drain’d the last dark drop:
’Tis empty now for me.
That bitter cup, love drank it up,
Now blessings flow for me.
Jehovah lifted up His rod:
O Christ, it fell on Thee!
Thou wast sore stricken of Thy God;
There’s not one stripe for me.
Thy tears, Thy blood beneath it flowed;
Thy bruising healeth me.
It’s all there, the whole gospel in those wonderful words. While lifted up, he drank the cup, he drank it all for me. And what he did for me, he did also for you. The price was fully paid, the penalty laid on the back of the innocent Son of God. And because he paid the price, all that God asks is that we believe in his Son as our Lord and Savior. Are you satisfied with what Jesus did when he died on the cross? Is his death enough for you? Or do you feel you need to add something to the merit of the blood of Christ as the ground of your salvation?
Let the word ring out strong and clear. It is all of grace all the time. It is not by us, not even a little bit. Our salvation is all of God and all of grace, purchased by Christ on Calvary. This is the saving gospel of the New Testament. We glory in it and we preach it wherever we go.
D. The surpassing value of Christian liberty
Many people regard Galatians 5:1 as the theme of the letter. There Paul reminds us that it is for freedom that Christ has set us free. And having been set free, we must stand in that freedom. We must not let anyone steal our freedom or dilute the liberty that is ours in Christ. Having been set free, we must stand guard on the ramparts to fight off anyone who would lead us back into slavery.
Freedom is worth fighting for! The shocking events of September 11 ought to have burned that truth into our minds. At the September 14 prayer service in the National Cathedral, it is noteworthy that the White House asked for the singing of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Written in 1862, during the dark, bloody days of the Civil War, the original words contained this line: “As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free.” In most modern versions, the second “die” has been changed to “live,” thus giving the line a more upbeat ending. It is significant that the original reading was sung at the National Cathedral. No doubt the President wished to impress upon the nation the true cost of fighting terrorism. Blood must be met with blood and death with death in order that liberty might prevail.
I think Paul would approve both the wording and the sentiment behind it. He understood that Christian liberty, having been purchased with the blood of the Son of God, must be defended with all that we have. There is no reprieve from the ongoing battle between God’s grace and human effort as the means of salvation. You can have one or the other but you can’t have them both. That truth ought to be clear enough by now. Having been born free, let us live free. Having been liberated by grace, let us walk in grace. And having been given the Spirit, let us walk in the Spirit, filled with the Spirit, in step with the Spirit, producing the fruit of the Spirit. To live that way is not natural, it is supernatural. The world cannot counterfeit it and it has no answer for it. It is nothing less than Christ living in us through the power of the Spirit as we walk in the Spirit day by day. When we do this, the true demands of the law are fully met.
What a liberating message the gospel is. This is the message the world desperately needs to hear, and more than that, this is the message the world needs to see lived out in us. This week a friend sent me a note with the news that his mother had died rather suddenly at the age of 74. She was at the hospital waiting to go into surgery when her heart suddenly stopped. Her last words were: “I am ready to see Jesus; I want to see Jesus!” Then she was gone. Looking back on her life, my friend said that his mother was the reason he became a Christian: “She ultimately was the person who led me to the Lord. It was not in words—but observing her day-to-day activities suggested there was something beyond human abilities that kept her strong. I could have chosen many routes to deal with my crises in life, but my mother’s example led me to choose to accept Jesus Christ as my Savior which I did at age 13 and have never looked back.” And that’s the power of the gospel when it is lived out daily in the Spirit’s power. It can take you to heaven and it can take your children to heaven, too.
Do you know Jesus? Are you trusting in him? He’s the only way to heaven. Apart from him, there is no other way, and apart from him, you need no other way. For the final time in this series, I urge you run to the cross. Trust in Christ. Lay all your sins on him. Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved. May God give you faith to believe the gospel. Come to Christ and you will never be the same again. Amen.