Galatians is a letter that is full of doctrinal truth, but is no theological treatise.
It is a letter from a man who deeply loves the men and women he is writing to. 6.11-18 is his last appeal, his last invitation to keep trusting the gospel for salvation and living it out day by day, and he decides to ‘write to you with my own hand!’ (v.11).
Internal not external
First, he wants to convince them that real Christianity is a matter of inward change, not external observance. It is substantial, not superficial. Again, he focuses on the motives of the false teachers. They ‘want to make a good impression outwardly’ (v.12).
Paul has already said that the preaching of the gospel is terribly offensive to the human heart (5.11-12). People find it insulting to be told that they are too weak and sinful to do anything to contribute to their salvation. The gospel is offensive to liberal-minded people, who charge the gospel with intolerance, because it states that the only way to be saved is through the cross. The gospel is offensive to conservative-minded people, because it states that, without the cross, ‘good’ people are in as much trouble as ‘bad’ people. Ultimately, the gospel is offensive because the cross stands against all schemes of self-salvation. So people who love the cross are ‘persecuted’ (v.12).
If someone understands the cross, it is either the greatest thing in their life, or it is repugnant to them. If it is neither of those two things, they haven’t understood it.
The false saviour that the Judaizers are worshiping is approval. That’s what is going on under their legalistic teaching. ‘The only reason they [teach what they do] is to avoid being persecuted for the cross of Christ’ (v.12). They want to ‘boast’ (v.13). They got into religion for the fame, prestige and honour it can bring them in the world. Their ministry, as in 4.17-18, is a form of self-salvation.
As a result of this concern for appearances and acceptance by the world, the false teachers are offering a religion that mainly focuses on externals and behaviour (circumcision and the ceremonial law), rather than internal change of heart, motives and character. The gospel is inside out: an inner change of heart leads to a new motivation for and conduct of behaviour. They are outside out: focusing on behaviour, never dealing with the heart, and always remaining superficial.
Paul again makes the most telling critique of this way of religion: ‘Not even those who are circumcised obey the law’ (v.13). On its own terms, biblical legalism cannot work. If we really read the law and see what it commands (e.g. ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’, 5.13-14), we will see that we cannot possibly save ourselves by obeying it. A religion based on externals and behaviour as a way of salvation may prompt pride and bring popularity, but it cannot deliver the eternal life it promises.
What are you boasting about?
Ultimately, Paul says, the heart of your religion is what you boast in. What, at bottom, is the reason that you think you are in a right relationship with God?
If the cross is just a help, but you have to complete your salvation with good works, it is really your works which make the difference. Therefore, you ‘boast about your flesh’ (v.13), your own efforts. What an attractive-sounding message: to be able to pat yourself on the back for having reserved a place for yourself in heaven!
But if you understand the gospel, you ‘boast’ exclusively and only in the cross. Our identity, our self-image, is based on what gives us a sense of dignity and significance — what we boast in. Religion leads us to boast in something about us. The gospel leads us to boast in the cross of Jesus. That means our identity in Jesus is confident and secure — we do ‘boast’! — yet humbly, based on a profound sense of our flaws and neediness.
So the gospel can be well summarized in one remarkable sentence: ‘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’ (v.14).
I am saved solely and wholly because of Christ’s work, not mine. He has reserved a place in heaven for me, given freely to me by him. I ‘never boast’ — I take no credit for my standing with God — ‘except in the cross’; what Christ has done is now something I ‘boast’ in. To boast is to joyously exult, and to have high confidence, in something. To know you are saved by Christ’s work alone brings a joyous ‘boasting’ confidence; not a self-confidence, but Christ-confidence.
This brings a stunning turnaround in my life. The world is dead to me. First, as John Stott says, the Christian does not need to care what the world thinks of them. But Guthrie probably gets closer to Paul’s gist when he says: ‘The natural world … has ceased to have any claims on us’.
Paul is telling the Christian that there is nothing in the world now that has any power over them. Notice he does not say that the world is dead, but that it is dead to him. The gospel destroys its power. Why? If nothing in the world is where I locate my righteousness or salvation or boasting, then there is nothing in the world that controls me — nothing that I must have.
Paul is not saying that I must have nothing to do with the people and things of the world. Ironically, if I must have nothing to do with the world and must separate from it, then the world still has quite a lot of power over me! Paul means that the Christian is now free to enjoy the world, because he no longer needs to fear it, nor to worship it.
So Paul restates what he said back in 5.6: ‘Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; but a new creation’ (6.15). Religious or moral attainments or failures are irrelevant when it comes to salvation, because it is not about what I have done, but about what Christ has done. Because of the gospel, Paul says, I do not feel inferior to or intimidated by anyone — circumcision means nothing. And because of the gospel, I do not feel superior to or scornful of anyone — uncircumcision means nothing.
All that matters is that, through Christ crucified, we are made a ‘new creation’ (v.15). The gospel changes my future, giving me a place in Christ’s perfected re-creation. And the gospel changes my present, giving me a whole new self-image and whole new way of relating to everyone.
‘A new creation’ in verse 15 is the parallel to ‘faith working by love’ in 5.6. Paul’s point is that the two are essentially the same thing. The gospel creates a new motivation for obedience — grateful love arising from a faith view of what Christ has done. It is a new birth, a supernatural transformation of character, a new creation.
So verses 14-15 sum up what it means to rely on what Christ has done, rather than on myself. I am being made all over into someone and something entirely new.
A life of peace
If verses 14-15 sum up chapter 5, verse 16 (which, following such an emotional and stunning sentence, is easy to miss!) encapsulates what Paul was saying in chapter 3. Here, he calls living by the gospel a ‘rule’ (v.16) — it is a way of life, a foundation of everything. Anyone who sets the gospel of Christ as their ‘rule’, he says, will find ‘peace and mercy’. And they will be members of ‘the Israel of God’. Christians are all Abraham’s children, heirs to God’s promises to him.
Paul concludes by pointing to the fact that: ‘I bear on my body the marks of Jesus’ (v.17). What are these? Probably he is referring to the literal scars he had from the imprisonments and beatings he had received for the sake of Christ. The teachers of the false, popular, self-salvation gospel had none of these, because the world loved to hear their message. But Paul is a true minister, a true apostle, as he argued in chapters 1 and 2. Do not doubt me, he says: I have the real marks of apostolic authority — not greatness and riches, but signs of suffering and weakness.
And then he signs off. But even here, Paul is reminding the Galatians of the message of his letter. ‘The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (v.18) is the entry point to, and the way to continue with, and all we will ever need in, the Christian life. We begin by grace, by being justified by faith in what Christ has done. We continue by grace, not by anything we do. This gospel of grace is what the Galatians need to know, and love, in ‘your spirit’. It is not a set of abstract truths. It is a way of life, of deeply fulfilling, secure life now, and of eternal life to come. Amen.
This article is an edited extract from Tim Keller’s new book, Galatians For You (published by The Good Book Company — http://www.thegoodbook.co.uk), and is used with permission.