A Commentary by John Stott
Our second question is whether the essence of the Christian religion 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. He even impugns the motives of the Judaizers and calls their bluff. 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: ‘their sole object is to escape persecution for the cross of Christ’ (verse 12, NEB). Cf. 5:11.
And what is there about the cross of Christ that 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 unpalatable truths about ourselves, namely, that we are sinners under the righteous curse of God’s law and we cannot save ourselves. Christ bore our sin and curse precisely because we could gain release from them in no other way. If we could have been forgiven by our own good works, by being circumcised and keeping the law, we may be quite sure that there would have been no cross. Cf. Galatians 2:21. Every time we look at the cross Christ seems to say to us, ‘I am here because of you. It is your sin I am bearing, your curse I am suffering, your debt I am paying, your death I am dying.’ Nothing in history or in the universe cuts us down to size like the cross. All of us have inflated views of ourselves, especially in self-righteousness, until we have visited a place called Calvary. It is there, at the foot of the cross, that we shrink to our true size.
And of course men do not like it. They resent the humiliation of seeing themselves as God sees them and as they really are. They prefer their comfortable illusions. So they steer clear of the cross. They construct a Christianity without the cross, which relies for salvation on their works and not on Jesus Christ’s. They do not object to Christianity as long as it is not the faith of Christ crucified. But Christ crucified they detest. 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 variance 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.
As a result, we and the world have parted company. Each has been ‘crucified’ to the other. ‘The world’ is the society of unbelievers. Previously we were desperately anxious to be in favour with the world. But now that we have seen ourselves as sinners and Christ crucified as our sin-bearer, we do not care what the world thinks or says of us or does to us. ‘The world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.’
So, then, Paul has contrasted false and true religion. On the one hand was circumcision, standing for the outward and the human, a formal external religion and our own efforts to save ourselves. On the other is the cross of Christ and the new creation, the finished work of Christ on the cross to redeem us and the inward work of the Spirit in our hearts to regenerate and sanctify us. 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. Verse 16: *Peace and mercy be upon all who walk by this rule, upon the Israel of God.* Here Paul teaches three great truths about the church.