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THE RAPPELER’S CHIEF CONCERN
I have only repelled a handful of times in my life. But each time has been uniquely memorable. Stepping off a cliff and walking down the rock face parallel to the ground is a thrilling experience. As you might guess, the overriding concern anyone who rappels has when stepping off the side of a cliff with a rope tied around one’s waist is making sure the other end of the rope is securely fastened to an object that will not give way.
For Paul, that object was not his morality. Not the number of churches he started or people converted under his preaching. It was the cross of Christ.
It is not a stretch to say that the message of the cross was the defining truth of the apostle’s life. It was his anchor to which his rappelling rope was connected that gave him a tremendous sense of gospel security and boldness.
I don’t know if he ever rappelled, but in a lecture to the students at his Pastor’s College, the famous London preacher, Charles Spurgeon remarked, "I pray that our ministry, and mine especially, would be tied and tethered to the cross." I think Spurgeon got that idea from Paul in Galatians 6.
Why is the cross so central to the Christian? What does it say about me if the cross is not the defining truth of my life? What would change if it were? Let’s consider some of these questions as we read Galatians 6:11-16.
11 See what large letters I use as I write to you with my own hand! 12 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. 13 Not even those who are circumcised obey the law, yet they want you to be circumcised that they may boast about your flesh. 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 world. 15 Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is a new creation. 16 Peace and mercy to all who follow this rule, even to the Israel of God.
PASSION IN HIS PEN
When communicating with the churches in the New Testament, Paul would dictate his letters using a scribe called an amanuensis. In this case, however, Paul took the pen and wrote the conclusion in his own hand. In verse 11, when he mentions writing with “such large letters,” he intends for us to feel the passion of his words. Without the ability to underscore, make italics, or bold text, using extra-large letters would provide the emphasis he needed to make sure his readers didn’t miss something significant.
For Paul, what was most significant was the doctrine of salvation by grace alone through Christ alone. That is what the cross represented. A Savior who substituted himself in death to redeem sinners from the law’s demand for justice. The cross is the place, as one theologian commented, where justice and mercy kissed.
Throughout this letter, Paul has been contrasting grace and faith with the false doctrine that demanded human works be added to the blood of Jesus for one’s salvation to be effective. In the Galatian context, the works included receiving the mark of circumcision. For us, it could be any number of requirements, ranging from raw moral obedience to the quality and quantity of one’s prayer life.
Practical obedience to Jesus is a good thing. So is prayer. But neither are meritorious. They may be profitable and beneficial, but they do not contribute an iota to our status before God as forgiven sons and daughters. That status is secured through the cross.
Paul wrote the letter to the Galatians because he was deeply grieved by the legalistic teaching of grace plus works for salvation, knowing that such a theological error would have devastating effects in the church. He foresaw not only that individual believers would lose their joy, but also that the fellowship would implode with infighting and a spirit of mission would evaporate. Sadly, it all came true.
The solution to fix their problems would be found in their ability to boast. The Galatians needed to brag better. And so do we. Let me explain.
TWO KINDS OF BOASTING
According to English dictionaries, to boast is “to talk with excessive pride and self-satisfaction about [someone’s] achievements, possessions, or abilities.”1 My boast will either be in my achievements or in the achievements of Jesus. It is my observation that the professing believer begins to make spiritual progress when they begin to hate their self-boasting and learn to love bragging about Jesus.
This is what we see in Paul’s conversion. In Philippians 3:4-9, he contrasts his former boast with his new one, showing us how the gospel shifts the source of our pride and satisfaction away from ourselves and onto Jesus. He writes,
If anyone else thinks he has reasons to [boast] in the flesh, I have more: 5 circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless. 7 But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. 8 What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith.
IT WILL COST YOU
To boast in Christ sounds spiritually romantic on the surface. But did you notice what it cost him to exchange righteousnesses? He took everything he formerly prized and used for a sense of identity and labeled it garbage.
It is not that our cultural heritage, theological knowledge, positions of leadership, life skills, and former achievements are in themselves worthless pieces of junk. Not at all. But if I make anything my functional righteousness—something that gives me a feeling of value and worth— the only way to remove it from its place of prominence is to tear it down. It does no good to gently replace an idol.
The Israelites in the Old Testament were guilty of setting up idols on high places on various occasions. The Lord did not tell them to carefully replace the idols, but to tear them down, smashing them into nothing. That is what Paul is doing in Philippians 3. By sharing his own testimony of what it cost him to receive Christ, Paul teaches that we cannot have two sources of righteousness.
It is like trying to have two favorite sports teams in the same league. To be a true fan rather than a casual fan, one team must have your absolute allegiance.
It is the same way with righteousness. I can only truly boast in my achievements or in the achievements of Jesus. Not both.
EVIDENCE OF THE NEW CREATION
By the way, boasting in the cross isn’t just a religious slogan. It is practical evidence of spiritual regeneration. When Paul mentioned all that matters is “a new creation” in verse 13, he sounds an alarm of sorts. If my true boast is in something other than that cross, I may not be a true believer.
In Scripture, the old self represents the unregenerate life that seeks righteousness in worldly achievements, possessions, and abilities. On the other hand, the new self (the “new creation”), represents the regenerate life that seeks righteousness, not in one’s own merits, but in the merits of Christ.
The honest believer will admit that there are times when he boasts in the cross and times when he caves to the desires of the flesh and boasts in himself. So, what should you do if you are convicted that your primary boast in this life has not been in the cross but in a Jesus substitute? What if your true identity is not derived from Jesus but from an idol?
CALL TO ACTION: NAME, CONFESS, AND EXCHANGE THE IDOL
First, name the idol.
Is the idol wealth, success, comfort, being right, reputation and recognition, people-pleasing, popularity, or some other means to achieve human praise? Wealth, success, and popularity are not bad things in themselves. But when I use them as a source of righteousness and identity, they become idols—or Jesus substitutes. So, name the idol. Be warned, though. This is much more difficult than it sounds. Naming the idol means you are about to have to tear it down.
Second, confess the idol.
Paul said he had been crucified to the world and the world to him. I think this is his way of saying, “I consider all forms of self-righteousness garbage compared to the gift-righteousness of Christ.” So, whatever idols you name, just be honest and confess them to the Lord, saying, “I have sought to find my life in [fill in the blank] instead of being found in Jesus. I have used [fill in the blank with the name of the idol] to bring me glory and bring honor to my own name. I abhor this deceptive Jesus substitute and cast it down from the throne of my heart.” That confession is what we call repentance.
We’ve named the idol and confessed it. But there is one more part to the process. Up to this point, we’ve felt the pain of our sin but now, we get to experience the thrill of grace.
Third, exchange the idol.
Can you imagine a car dealer inviting you to trade in a burned-out piece of junk for a new Range Rover for an even swap? It would sound too good to be true. What’s the catch? With the gospel, there isn’t one. Seriously. It sounds too good to be true. But it is true. The gospel invites you to trade in rubbish for a priceless treasure by exchanging the idol by receiving God’s gift-righteousness by faith.
Name the idol. Confess the idol. Exchange the idol.
Then you will begin to boast in the cross, with Paul, taking every opportunity “to talk with excessive pride and self-satisfaction about Jesus’ achievements, possessions, and abilities.” The world needs Christians who love to brag about Jesus. This is what your kids and grandchildren need to see in their parents and grandparents. Boastful Christians is what our community needs. So, as a church and individual believers, let’s make it our aim to boast — but only in the cross of Jesus.
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