Severing Our Love Affairs

Thomas Schreiner, Galatians (Zondervan, 2010), 392:

The cross plays a bookends role in the letter [of Galatians], for just as Paul begins the letter by featuring the freedom won in the cross, so too he closes the letter by underlining the significance of the cross.

Paul’s only boast is in Christ’s cross, by which he is crucified to the world and the world is crucified to him (6:14). The cross and eschatology are inseparable. Just as the cross liberated believers from the present evil age (1:4), so too it crucifies attachment to this world (6:14). The opponents boasted in circumcising converts and took pleasure in external accomplishments because they lived to win the applause of others (6:12–13). They lived for comfort in order to avoid persecution.

The cross severs a love affair with the world and grants a person (by grace!) a desire to boast only in the cross. A new reality—a new age—has begun through the cross, and Paul summons the Galatians and all believers to find their joy only in the cross and to renounce any boasting in human accomplishments.

Letting Go of Self-Righteousness

Paul in Galatians 6:12–15:

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. 14 But far be it from me to boast nexcept in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. 15 For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation.

Thomas Schreiner comments on 6:15 in his Galatians commentary [(Zondervan, 2010), pages 379–380; my emphasis]:

Since the world has been crucified to Paul (and by extension to all Christians), whether one is circumcised or not is utterly irrelevant. What is remarkable is that circumcision is assigned to the old world order, to the old creation rather than the new creation. The law is part of the old age, while the cross inaugurates the new age.

The centrality of the new creation functions as an envelope with the introduction to the letter, where the death of Christ delivers from the present evil age (1:4). The new creation has dawned, in other words, through the cross of Christ.

We see the same dynamic in 2 Cor 5:14-21. There Paul also features the new creation, and again it is tied inextricably to the cross of Christ. The new creation has been inaugurated in Christ and will be consummated at the eschaton, when the groaning that characterizes the old creation will pass away (Rom 8:18-22).

Remarkably, in the midst of a great conflict over circumcision, Paul does not elevate uncircumcision either. Those who find significance in uncircumcision belong to the old world order as well. There is no particular virtue in uncircumcision, which explains why Paul was willing to circumcise Timothy (Acts 16:3). If circumcision is practiced for cultural reasons and not to achieve salvation, observing it is up to one’s individual conscience.

Verse 15 parallels both 5:6 and 1 Cor 7:19. The faith that expresses itself in love (5:6) is now a reality because the new creation has dawned. The ability to keep God’s commands is a reality in the new creation (1 Cor 7:19). Eschatology, then, plays a vital role in Galatians, for the Judaizers were attached to the old age and failed to see that the new has come. Their error, however, was not merely eschatological; there were anthropological corollaries and causes, for those who are attached to the old age cling to it because they desire to establish their own righteousness instead of receiving the righteousness from God (cf. Rom 10:3).

This is one way that eschatology reframes the personal struggle with self-righteousess and legalism (but without in any way diminishing the priority of personal obedience).

If you find it difficult to release your grip on your own self-righteous before God, you’re not alone, it is a problem we all face as sinners. The solution is found in turning away from the old age and living in light of the new age that began in the death and resurrection of the Savior. The eschatology of the New Testament, here in Galatians, will serve us well in our struggle to release our grip on self-righteousness.

On Legalistic Preaching

Yesterday I spent the day researching in the main reading room at the Library of Congress. Reading there is really one of the coolest experiences a nerd could ever blog about. Mainly I was there to kick around some ideas I have for a potential book project and the purpose of my trip was really not much more than acclimating myself to a number of 18th century writers that I am only vaguely familiar. One of those writers is Ralph Erskine. Erskine wrote a book, indecisively titled Gospel Sonnets, Or, Spiritual Songs (Edinburgh: 1755). One of the chapters in the book is comprised of several sonnets that slap legalistic preachers around. This sonnet was too good not to post (pp. 49-51):

Hell cares not how crude holiness be preach’d,
If sinners match with Christ be never reach’d;
Knowing their holiness is but a sham,
Who ne’er are marry’d to the holy Lamb.
They mar true holiness with tickling chat,
To breed a bastard Pharisaic brat.
They woefully the gospel-message broke,
Make fearful havoc of the Master’s flock;
Yet please themselves and the blind multitude,
By whom the gospel’s little understood.

Rude souls perhaps imagine little odds
Between the legal and the gospel roads:
But vainly men attempt to blend the two. …
The fiery law, as ’tis a covenant,
Schools men to see the gospel-aid they want;
Then gospel-aid does sweetly them incline
Back to the law as ’tis a rule divine.
Heav’n’s healing work is oft commenc’d with wounds,
Terror begins what loving-kindness crowns.

Preachers may therefore press the fiery law,
To strike the Christless man with dreadful awe.
Law-threats which for his sins to hell depress,
Yes, damn him for his rotten righteousness;
That, while he view the law exceeding broad,
He fain may wed the righteousness of God.

But ah! to press law-works as terms of life,
Was ne’er the way to court the Lamb a wife.
To urge conditions in the legal frame,
Is to renew the vain old cov’nant game.
The law is good when lawfully ’tis us’d,
But most destructive then it is abus’d.
They set not duties in the proper sphere,
Who duly law and gospel don’t sever;
But under lassy chains let sinners lie,
As tributaries, or to DO or DIE.
Nor make the law a squaring rule of life,
But in the gospel-throat a bloody knife.