Hope for Us in the Offense of the Cross: Meditations on Galatians 5:1-12

by Pastor Taylor Gilliam

We’re saved completely by grace, not because of anything we’ve done… But hang on, do I really not get any credit?

Recently while reading Galatians 5, something stood out to me afresh:  “You were running well. Who hindered you from obeying the truth? This persuasion is not from him who calls you,” (Gal. 5:7-8).

Paul, writing to the church of Galatia, is perplexed by believers’ sudden and confusing diversion from right belief into something false. These believers used to live under obligation to the Jewish law, and were set free from it through Christ. Yet, they were still choosing to hold themselves to that law, and requiring the same of others. Why is that wrong? Simply put, Christ’s death on the cross has set us free from the law! Jesus bought our freedom from the tyranny of the law with his death. We are free indeed! To be clear, Paul is not saying that we’re free from obligation to live moral lives and seek holiness; rather, he is saying that believers are free from the pressure to live in perfect obedience to God’s law as the grounds for our salvation.

I know this to be true, so my tendency is to just pass over that scripture quickly, thinking, “Yes, so-and-so really should remember this…” But God loves me, so he’s helping me acknowledge my own sin in this area too.

The question is: why would anyone want to continue trying to keep the law when Christ has accomplished perfect obedience and set us free? We should also ask ourselves: what is our motive behind our good works and “law-keeping”? I believe it has to do with our deep desire to prove ourselves worthy. I know it’s only because of grace that I can be called worthy, but somehow, if I’m honest, that doesn’t give my flesh much satisfaction. If I’m truly honest with myself, I still desire a pat on the back from God at the end of my life. I’d like to hear him say to me, “I chose you because you were already pretty good and just needed a little help,” or, “You were most likely to succeed.”

One of the deepest longings of my heart tends to be that I would gain the approval of those I love most, so I perform my duties heartily hoping they’ll find my work good enough. But this is not how it works in the kingdom of God! If we try to add even our best works to the perfect work of Christ on the cross, it nullifies the gospel. We must be careful that we don’t mix any of “our good deeds” into the formula we’re trusting in for salvation. “A little leaven leavens the whole lump,” (Gal. 5:9). Even if leaning into our works gives us some sense of comfort in this life, trusting in them will rob us of the eternal joy and rest that can be ours in Christ.

Paul is so disgusted by this new movement of perverting the truth that he writes, “I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves!” (Gal. 5:12). He’s saying, emphatically, that those who live under this belief are leading you astray, and they should just circumcise themselves and be done with it, rather than trying to convince others to do likewise. He cuts to the main point, saying, “[I]f I still preach circumcision… the offense of the cross has been removed,” (Gal. 5:11). He says the offense of the cross has been removed if we accept any other means for our righteousness, and furthermore, that Christ will be of no advantage (Gal. 5:2)! This message is so often what I need to be reminded of; if I seek to be validated and approved through good works, Christ is of no benefit to me, and I am not living under the gospel of grace.

If I seek to be validated and approved through good works, Christ is of no benefit to me, and I am not living under the gospel of grace.

The message of the cross can actually be offensive. Maybe for you, the idea that you need a Savior, or that there is nothing you can do to deserve your rescue is a somewhat hurtful. In our culture, one of the greatest obstacles to sharing our faith is the sobering message that we cannot save ourselves; people don’t like to hear that. Yet I want to assure you all that while it may be disheartening or offensive to some, it is truly the most beautiful, freeing message we can ever share! This passage illustrates the process of God liberating us from the obligation of keeping the whole law.

Circumcision, before the time Paul was writing, was the way to separate the righteous from the unrighteous. It’s what made a person “good enough” to be a covenant member of God’s covenant family. After Christ, however, circumcision was a mere tradition; it didn’t have the same effect. Additionally, any person who became a member of God’s family through circumcision bore a certain obligation to produce moral characteristics and uphold the law. Paul iterates here that if you maintain the belief that circumcision is part of salvation, then you obligate yourself to uphold the whole law.

Christ came and sacrificed himself, paying ultimately the debt that each person owed. Now, because of his death and resurrection, righteousness is through faith in the blood of Jesus, not in any act or tradition we uphold. This is good news for us! If we choose to stay our hearts on any other hope except salvation through Christ alone, whether it’s hope in other people or ourselves, we are fooled by empty promises and are “severed from Christ,” (v. 4). What a great truth that we are justified, made right through Jesus’ death (our debt paid), and given new life and freedom from the shackles of performance through his resurrection!

Even if leaning into our works gives us some sense of comfort in this life, trusting in them will rob us of the eternal joy and rest that can be ours in Christ.

Paul explains here that no one is righteous apart from Christ. No amount of religious practice or good deeds will save anyone. We must remind ourselves of the “offense” of the cross:  we are not good enough; he is infinitely worthy. Our hope will not be in ourselves; it’s in Jesus. Obligation to the law is slavery; justification by faith in the grace of God is liberty! Paul once said he decided to know “nothing except Jesus Christ, and him crucified,” (1 Cor. 2:2). I don’t know a better message than this: Christ died, he arose, and salvation is in his name alone!

Maybe you have experienced the pain of carrying a load that’s far too heavy for you to bear. That’s what saving yourself would be. You know that there is no life for us in that pursuit; there is only slavery unless we place our faith in the all-satisfying Treasure—Jesus, whose sacrifice atones! One thing I know:  Christ satisfies. He is worthy, and there is REAL life in Him. Give up the pursuit of winning God’s approval; it might just allow you to be free from the need to seek the approval of others as well. Embrace instead the full offense of the cross. Accept that you cannot save yourself, and cast yourself wholly upon the beautiful gift of God’s grace in Christ for totally unworthy sinners.

“O, the wonderful cross, bids me come and die [die to my need to prove myself worthy] and find that I may truly live.”

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