Subtracting Through Addition: Galatians 6:14-15
Read Galatians 6:14-15
In the roaring era of the Old West, an itinerant preacher crossed paths one evening with a group of cowboys herding cattle northward. They were a hospitable group and invited the preacher to eat with them, which he did. They were also a pretty uncouth group, as the preacher knew from having met cowboys in his travels. Their knowledge of how to cook was about on the same level as their appreciation for opera – which is to say, non-existent. The preacher had, accordingly, armed himself in advance with a bottle of hot pepper sauce. When the steaks were passed around the cooking fire, the preacher took the sauce from his saddlebag and gingerly sprinkled some of it so as to promote his steak's untapped potential. One of the cowboys, never having seen this before, stared at the preacher wide-eyed and asked to try some of the sauce. The preacher obligingly handed the bottle over, and the cowboy proceeded to empty the entire contents on his own meat. The cowboy ate ... and when the storm had passed sufficiently for him to breathe normally, he quickly concluded that the preacher must certainly believe in future punishment, for he carried a sample about with him in his saddlebag.
I suppose the moral of this story could be that more is often less. More of the preacher's pepper sauce only made for a less edible meal, for the simple reason that adding to something sometimes risks subtracting from the whole. That is not only true in the kitchen. Were we to paint a moustache on the Mona Lisa, there would be more detail in the portrait, but the addition would make for less of a painting. Should we write an extra scene for Hamlet, we would have more acting but a less marvellous play. If we dared to put the Philadelphia Eagles (an American football team) on stage with the company of the Pennsylvania Ballet, we might have more power, but would assuredly have less finesse. As we can judge from the close of Paul's epistle to the Galatians, the same thing holds true in the Christian life.
Unlike the other Pauline epistles, which were written to churches in places like Philippi, Colossae, Corinth or Rome, there was no specific city called Galatia. Galatia was a Roman province in what is now Turkey, and Paul had been remarkably successful in preaching and organizing churches there. However, it was a success which had a few noticeable quirks. In Acts chapter 14 there is recorded a disturbing incident in the Galatian town of Lystra. Here Paul and Barnabas were welcomed and celebrated after healing a man impotent in his feet, but then the local people brought out oxen and garlands in order to perform a sacrifice to them under the impression that they were gods in disguise. When Paul and Barnabas frantically persuaded the people that they were not Zeus and Hermes, but just ordinary mortals like themselves, the people took the let-down well enough. But they wanted to know afterwards if they could still, maybe, do a sacrifice (Acts 14:18). To the reader this almost begins to resemble a comedy screenplay.
So from the start the province of Galatia had a habit of doing too much of a good thing and thereby making it a bad thing. Once Paul had gone on to his next rounds of preaching in Greece and Italy this habit did not disappear. The leaders he had appointed to look after things among the Galatian churches came up with the bright idea that, since Paul was a Jew, since Jesus had been a Jew, and since all the other important Christians seemed to be Jews, they ought to 'bone up' on the Old Testament, start observing Jewish dietary laws, and circumcision, all under the impression that this was somehow necessary to pleasing God as Christians.1 That was not what Paul had taught them. When he learned what they were doing he wrote the Galatians a circular letter, for all the churches of the Galatian province. 'I am amazed', he wrote, 'that you have abandoned everything I taught you about the gospel of Christ and gone off in pursuit of a different gospel' (Gal. 1:6). They had done exactly that by deciding to add all of the observances of the Old Testament to the message of Jesus Christ as an extra condition for getting right with God. 'Don't you understand', he asked them over and over again, 'what all those observances in the Old Testament were really for?' They were given to illustrate just how impossible it was to be perfectly observant! They were like a school teacher, showing you how you can't rely on your own abilities or your own spirituality to please God but rather must rely by faith on the grace of God, as he has shown it in Jesus Christ.
I once had a science teacher, Mr Cianfrano, who was memorable for his colourful teaching style and his way of illustrating a scientific point. One day, to illustrate the scientific measurement of work (and how much it differed from the common-sense notion of work) in foot-pounds, Mr C. stood one member of the class up at the wall and told him to push with all his strength; to another he gave a tennis ball and told him to toss it gently up and down. 'Who', asked Mr C., 'is performing work?' Answer: the fellow with the tennis ball. Despite all the sweat and exertion of the other guy's pushing on the wall, he had not moved it an inch; therefore there were no feet moved to multiply by pounds of weight so as to produce any measurable foot-pounds; thus no work. By contrast, the one with the tennis ball had moved his air-filled ball very nicely, thank you, and so had something which fit the measurements of work.
Paul wants the Galatians to understand that all the pushing and pulling they want to do at the wall of the Old Testament law will amount to exactly zero in the eyes of God, because there is no way they will ever move the wall of the law on their own. It looks strenuous – it looks hard – it looks impressive. But it doesn't actually move you one inch towards God's favour. That comes only through faith in Jesus Christ.
The problem is, of course, that it does look impressive, hard and strenuous. That's the fatal attraction. And that's what led Paul to make this defiant declaration in Galatians 6:14-15:
May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything!
There is exactly one answer to our need to be right with God, and it comes from Jesus Christ, whose death on the cross filled up the whole bill of our offences against God.2 Anything we try to add to that on our own simply drives us off that path into a ditch.
The problem is that, time and again, we do exactly that: we decide, at some moment or on some issue, that the gospel doesn't seem quite tasty enough on its own, so we have to add something of our sauce. Sometimes it is politics (you are not a consistent Christian unless you think this or that way politically); sometimes it is culture (you are not really a Christian if you dress/eat/amuse yourself in a certain way). Usually, if we back up and think for a moment, we can see the silliness of this: Christianity is about Jesus Christ. End of story! But warning people against adding the hot sauce of politics or culture to the gospel is pretty obvious – or at least obvious if we're talking about someone else's politics or culture. Sometimes, though, our temptation for adding to the gospel is more common-place and less easily recognizable. That is what happens when we tell ourselves that Christianity is about doing good things; so if we do a certain amount of good things or a few really good things this will please God. Doesn't that seem like common sense?
Yes, it does. That's why I am suspicious of it. In just the same way I am suspicious of the 'common sense' which tells us that the sun rises in the morning and sets in the evening (actually, it is a total violation of 'common sense' to state that the sun is fixed, and the earth shakes, rattles and rolls around it, but it happens to be the truth all the same). Thus Paul is suspicious of 'self-service' Christianity, not only for the mangle it makes of the gospel but also for the motivations which lie behind it. Paul says in Galatians that the people who want to set up the hurdles of the Old Testament law, such as circumcision, are not just making a mess of the gospel; what's really driving them is the desire to make a fair show in the flesh. In other words, they don't want Jesus Christ to shine; they themselves want to shine, and Jesus Christ is merely the occasion.3 But that is not how the gospel operates. It offers us truth, not flattery, and the truth about ourselves is summed up in one bleak word – sinners. At root the reason the Galatians wanted to add their own sauce to the gospel was that they didn't want to concede that they were sinners. Somewhat sinful, maybe; but not so sinful that they couldn't summon up the heroic strength needed to keep all the Old Testament observances and really, really impress God with their virtue.
They were kidding themselves. The message of the cross is about how far up the universal creek we are, without a paddle. To that message you can make only two legitimate responses. You can get angry with God and tell him that you are much better than he thinks you are, or you can tell God that he is right, you are wrong, and then plead with him to have mercy on you.
'All of us have inflated views of ourselves, especially in self-righteousness,' says John Stott, 'until we have visited a place called Calvary. It is there, at the foot of the cross, that we shrink to our true size. Any attempt to make your relationship with God into a fifty-fifty co-operative ... any attempt to add your layer to God's cake ... is a fool's errand, on a par with trying to add an extra factor to E=mc2.'J4
If you cannot improve on Einstein's equation do not imagine you can improve on God's. The ironic thing about this situation is that, if anybody had the reason or the wherewithal for boasting about his personal contribution to God's equation, it was Paul. So take heed when he says that all the hard-earned religious laurels in the world do not amount to a pile of dust when compared to Jesus Christ. At one time Paul had thought that he had to build his own bridge to God; he learned that no humanly-built bridge ever gets that far. Instead, God has built the bridge himself, from the flesh and blood of his own Son on the cross; and you have to set aside your own ideas of bridge-building and step out in faith on God's bridge, if ever you hope to see Gods.5 But when I say 'step out in faith', I don't mean collapsing into passivity, or flinging yourself into an abyss and hoping there's a hero waiting to catch you. The cross of Christ is a solid span; you take no chances by crossing on that bridge. From your first step the structure beneath is firm and secure. The question is not about the cross, or whether it can be relied upon to make us right with God; the question is whether we are willing to leave the baggage of our own 'common sense' about working our way into God's favour behind us.
J. C. Ryle once said that a Christianity without the cross is like 'a heaven without a sun, an arch without a keystone, a compass without a needle, a clock without spring or weights, a lamp without oil'.6 To say with Paul that we never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ does not mean that we become ignorant or incurious; it simply means that we get focused. We strip away the things we are tempted to add in order to make the gospel 'taste better', and concentrate on the central fact of our relationship with God, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself. That is the real meat of the kingdom of God (no sauce added) and the real bridge to his blessing.