The Heart of the Christian Gospel
Galatians 6: 11–18
We’ve been studying the book of Galatians together since July. Up until now, Paul has dictated the letter through a scribe. But now look at what he says in verse 11: “See with what large letters I am writing to you with my own hand”. Paul now takes the pen in his own hand and writes the conclusion to this letter.
Now let’s pause here. Paul often concludes his letter by signing his own name. It’s like a signature. That way the recipients know that the letter really is from him. But this time Paul doesn’t just sign his name. He writes a conclusion and summary of the entire book.
Notice that he does so in large letters. Why the large letters? Some people guess that it’s because of Paul’s bad eyesight. That’s possible. But it’s also possible that Paul is taking the pen in hand at the end of this letter and underlining and highlighting his central message. It’s the only time in any of his letters that he provides a concluding summary of his book in this way.
What, then, does Paul emphasize? He emphasizes the principal themes of the heart of the Christian gospel. Here are two questions about the heart of the Christian gospel.
1. Is the heart of the Christianity outward or inward?
12 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. 13 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.
Is the heart of the Christianity or Christian gospel outward or inward? We must answer that Christianity is fundamentally not a religion of external ceremonies, but something inward and spiritual, in the heart.
But the Judaizers concentrated on something outward, namely on circumcision. In verses 12 and 13, they are described not only as ‘those who are circumcised’ themselves, but as those who ‘would force you to be circumcised’. It is with justice that they are sometimes called ‘the circumcision party’. Their party cry is, ‘unless you are circumcised … you cannot be saved’ (Acts 15:1); they thus denied that salvation was by faith only.
Why did they do this? Paul is very outspoken. Verse 12: they want to make a good showing in the flesh. Verse 13: … that they may boast in your flesh. Notice the repetition of the word ‘flesh’. Circumcision was performed on the body. It is quite true God gave it to Abraham as a sign of His covenant. But in itself it was nothing. Yet the Judaizers were elevating it to an ordinance of central importance, insisting that without it nobody could be saved. But how could an outward and bodily operation secure the salvation of the soul? It was plainly ridiculous.
A.W. Pink once said, “The greatest mistake made by people is hoping to discover in themselves that which is to be found in Christ alone.” Or as Tullian Tchividjian says, “The most dangerous thing that can happen to you is that you become proud of your obedience.” Think about that. Our greatest danger, our greatest mistake, is that we look to ourselves and our obedience rather than to Jesus Christ.
Yet the same mistake is made today by those who attach an exaggerated importance to baptism. Baptism is important, as circumcision was important. The risen Christ gave baptism to the church, as God gave circumcision to Abraham. Baptism is a sign of covenant membership, as circumcision was. But both baptism and circumcision, however great and spiritual the truths they signify, are themselves outward and bodily acts. And it is ridiculous to magnify such things as indispensable means of salvation and then to go on to boast about them. It was a kind of obsession with ‘ecclesiastical statistics’, bragging about ‘so many circumcisions in a given year’ just as we might brag of so many baptisms.
What, then, is of central importance? Verse 15 supplies the answer: For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation. What matters primarily is not whether a man has been circumcised (or baptized) or not, but whether he has been born again and is now a new creation. Circumcision was, and baptism is, an outward sign and seal of this. The circumcision of the body symbolized the circumcision of the heart (cf. Rom. 2:29). Similarly, baptism with water symbolizes the baptism of the Holy Spirit. And it is a sad tragedy when men become so upside down in their thinking that they substitute the sign for the thing signified, magnify a bodily ceremonial at the expense of a change of heart, and make circumcision or baptism the way of salvation instead of the new creation. Circumcision and baptism are things of the ‘flesh’, outward and visible ceremonies performed by men; the new creation is a birth of the Spirit, an inward and invisible miracle performed by God.
Throughout history God’s people have tended to repeat this same mistake. This was the great fault of Israel in the eighth and seventh centuries BC, when God through the prophets Isaiah complained, ‘this people draw near with their mouth and honour me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me’ (Is. 29:13). Jesus applied this Scripture to the scribes and Pharisees of His day and exposed their hypocrisy. Mk. 7:6, 7 says:
6 And he said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written,
“‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’
Indeed, it is natural for a fallen man to decline from the real, the inward and the spiritual, and to fabricate a substitute religion which is easy and comfortable because its demands are external and ceremonial only. But outward things matter little in comparison with the new creation or the new birth.
This is not to say that the bodily and the external have no place, for what is in the heart needs to be expressed through the lips, and what is inward and spiritual in Christianity needs to have some outward expression. But the essence is the inward; outward forms are valueless if inward reality is lacking. So my friends, the heart of Christianity is inward.
2. Is the heart of the Christianity is Human or Divine?
Our second question is whether the heart of the Christianity is human or divine. In other words, is it fundamentally a matter of what we do for God or of what He has done for us?
In their concentration upon circumcision the Judaizers made a second mistake. For circumcision was not only an outward and bodily ritual; it was also a human work, performed by one human being on another. More than that. As a religious symbol, circumcision committed people to keep the law: ‘It is necessary’, the Judaizers said, ‘to circumcise them, and to charge them to keep the law of Moses’ “(Acts 15:5). They insisted upon obedience to the law because they believed that man’s salvation depended upon it. Their idea of the way of salvation was that the death of Christ was insufficient; we still have to merit the favour and forgiveness of God by our own good works. So their religion was a human religion. It began with human work (circumcision) and continued with more human work (obedience to the law).
Paul challenges this teaching vigorously. They cannot seriously believe that salvation is a reward for obedience to the law, he argues, because they ‘do not themselves keep the law’ (verse 13). So they know that salvation cannot be earned. Why then do they still insist upon meritorious works? Paul’s answer is: ‘only in order that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ’. (verse 12).
And what is there about the cross of Christ which angers the world and stirs them up to persecute those who preach it? Just this: Christ died on the cross for us sinners, becoming a curse for us (3:13). So the cross tells us some very bitter truths about ourselves, namely that we are sinners under the righteous curse of God’s law and we cannot save ourselves.
And if preachers preach Christ crucified, they are opposed, ridiculed, persecuted. Why? Because of the wounds which they inflict on men’s pride.
The attitude of the apostle Paul was totally at distinction with these views. Verse 14: But far be it from me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. The cross for Paul was not something to escape, but the object of his boasting. The truth is that we cannot boast in ourselves and in the cross simultaneously. If we boast in ourselves and in our ability to save ourselves, we shall never boast in the cross and in the ability of Christ crucified to save us. We have to choose. Only if we have humbled ourselves as hell-deserving sinners shall we give up boasting of ourselves, fly to the cross for salvation and spend the rest of our days glorying in the cross.
To understand this passage, we need to understand three things.
First, we all boast in something. We all boast in something: in some accomplishment, some characteristic, some relationship.
Everybody boasts in something. It could be your popularity, intellect, appearance, influence, income, or job performance. It could be your religious accomplishments. We all boast in something.
Secondly, we also need to understand something else. Our boasting, our obsession, our identity, should ultimately come from one place only: the cross of Jesus Christ. Paul says, “But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.” This is strange. Today we think of the cross as something noble and beautiful. In Paul’s day, it was the ugliest thing possible. You couldn’t mention the cross in polite society. The Romans considered the cross to be “degrading, disgusting, despicable, detestable, and disgraceful” (Phil Ryken).
But Paul says that this is his boast. Paul looked at the cross and saw that God loved us enough to send his Son to die for us. He looked to the cross and saw his salvation. Christ has paid the full price for our salvation. We’ve been forgiven and justified. God’s wrath has been turned away, and we now stand innocent before God.
Don’t boast in anything else. Boast only in the cross.
Thirdly, so understand that we all boast. Then understand that it only makes sense to boast in one thing: the cross. And then understand what it does to us. When we boast in the cross, it changes everything. Paul says that the world has been crucified to him. The cross completely changes what we value and care about. Tim Keller puts it this way:
The gospel changes what I fundamentally boast in – it changes the whole basis for my identity. Therefore, nothing in the whole world has any power over me – I am free at last to enjoy the world, for I do not need the world. I feel neither inferior to anyone nor superior to anyone, and I am being made all over into someone and something entirely new.
The gospel completely changes what we boast in. It completely changes our identity and values. When the cross grips us, we begin to see it as the only thing that truly matters.
These are fundamental parts of the gospel. No-one has understood the gospel who has not grasped that Christianity is first inward and spiritual, and secondly a divine work of grace.
Further, these two principles of the gospel are always and everywhere the same, not only in first-century Galatia, but in the whole church of all time.
3. Paul’s Conclusion
Verse 16: And as for all who walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God.
Here Paul teaches three great truths about the church.
a. The church is the Israel of God
The Christian church enjoys a direct continuity with God’s people in the Old Testament. Those who are in Christ today are ‘the true circumcision’ (Phil. 3:3), ‘Abraham’s offspring’ (Gal. 3:29) and ‘the Israel of God’.
b. The church has a rule to direct it
God’s people, God’s ‘Israel’, are said to ‘walk by this rule’. So the church has a ‘rule’ by which to direct itself. This is the ‘canon’ of Scripture, the doctrine of the apostles, and especially in the context of Galatians 6 the cross of Christ and the new creation. Such is the rule by which the church must walk and continuously judge and reform itself.
c. The church enjoys peace and mercy only when it walks by this rule.
And as for all who walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them. How can the church be sure of God’s mercy and blessing? How can the church experience peace and unity among its own members? The only answer is when all ‘walks by this rule’. Conversely, it is sinful neglect of ‘this rule’, the apostolic faith of the Bible, which is the main reason why the contemporary church seems to be enjoying so little of the mercy of God and so little internal peace and harmony. ‘Peace upon Israel’ is impossible when the church departs from its God-given rule.
Verse 17: From now on let no one cause me trouble, for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus.
The marks of Jesus: Doubtless they were wounds which he had received while being persecuted for Jesus’ sake. According to 2 Corinthians 11:23–25 he had received ‘countless beatings’—five times the thirty-nine lashes of the Jews, three times beaten with rods and once stoned. Some of these sufferings may already have been “endured before the time of his writing this Epistle. Certainly he had already been stoned in Lystra, one of the Galatian cities, and left in the gutter for dead (Acts 14:19). The wounds which his persecutors had inflicted on him, and the permanent scars they left behind—these were ‘the marks of Jesus’.
Paul longed to be left alone by these false teachers. As a Jew he had on his body the mark the Judaizers were emphasizing; but he had other marks too, proving him ‘to belong to Jesus Christ’. He had not avoided persecution for the cross of Christ. On the contrary, he carried wounds on his body which designated him a true slave, a faithful devotee of Jesus Christ.
Finally, verse 18: The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brothers. Amen. Paul had begun the Epistle with his customary salutation of grace (Gal. 1:3) and gone on to express his astonishment that the Galatians were ‘so quickly deserting’ the God who had called them ‘in the grace of Christ’ (1:6). Indeed, the whole letter is dedicated to the theme of God’s grace, His unmerited favour to sinners. So he ends on the same note.
In other word, the authentic characteristic of the gospel is ‘the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ’.