The Offense of the Cross

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“You were running a good race. Who cut in on you to keep you from obeying the truth? That kind of persuasion does not come from the one who calls you. ‘A little yeast works through the whole batch of dough.’ I am confident in the Lord that you will take no other view. The one who is throwing you into confusion, whoever that may be, will have to pay the penalty. Brothers and sisters, if I am still preaching circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been abolished. As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!” (Galatians 5:7-12)

What’s going on here? Paul had preached the gospel to people in Galatia, and many had responded by putting their faith in Jesus and His complete work on the cross. Paul’s message was that salvation came only through Jesus Christ. Nothing more, nothing less. As he told the Corinthians, “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (2 Corinthians 2:2). He was firm that “no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law” (Romans 3:20). 

But now some false teachers were beginning to plant doubts. Was faith in Jesus’ work on the cross enough? Or did they also need to be circumcised? Circumcision was that visual symbol of being part of God’s chosen people, so the argument must have sounded persuasive. 

The IVP New Testament Commentary[1] describes what is happening here:

“The picture is of a runner who distracts another runner, blocks his way, cuts in on him and trips him. Everyone would have been very angry with a runner who did such a thing. He would have broken the clear rules against cutting in or tripping in the foot races of the Greek festivals. He would be immediately disqualified and excluded from the festival.

“The false teachers are hindering the Christians from obeying the truth of the gospel with all their talk about joining the Jewish people and keeping the law.”

Paul’s statement in verse 6 must have truly shocked the Jews: “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” They were quite proud of their status as circumcised, chosen people of God. However,

“The offense of the cross is that it denies a ‘most favored nation’ status, a ‘superior race’ category, as the reason for God’s blessing. For the blessing of God comes only through the cross, where the judgment of God upon all was removed by Christ’s death (see 3:13-14). The message of Christ crucified is offensive not only to Jews but also to the pride of all who want to claim some personal merit as the basis of God’s approval.”[2]

But Paul warns them if they fell back upon that reliance on the law by being circumcised, “Christ will be of no value to you at all. Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law” (Galatians 5:2-3).

So the bottom line of Paul’s case is that there is nothing, absolutely nothing you can contribute to your salvation, not keeping the law, certainly not circumcision, it is all Christ’s work on the cross. As Dr. Erwin Lutzer declared on our recent series, “Let me say it very clearly: Your contribution to salvation is your sin. That’s what you contribute. Jesus contributes everything else.”

“But when Christ came as high priest of the good things that are now already here, he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not made with human hands, that is to say, is not a part of this creation. He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption. The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean. How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!” (Hebrews 9:11-14, emphasis added)

We conclude with this quote from the IVP New Testament Commentaries:

“So Paul has totally discredited the value of circumcision and the motives of the false teachers who want to impose it upon the churches in Galatia. They only ‘want to make a good impression outwardly’ (6:12); they want to boast in their sensational ceremony (see 6:13). Since their motive is to put on an impressive ritual show, they might as well learn a few lessons from the pagan priests, who really know how to put on a good show when it comes to using a knife on the human body!“It is never pleasant to expose the deceptive, destructive tactics of the ‘false brothers.’ But it is necessary to do so in order to protect the freedom of fellow Christians. Of course, circumcision is not an issue today. But we are constantly faced with a choice between different religious options. They are not all the same; they are not all spokes on a wheel leading to the same hub. Some religious options lead to slavery and imprisonment. Only by obedience to the truth of the gospel of Christ can we protect the freedom that is ours in Christ.”[3]

Go Deeper on The Offense of the Cross

  1. InterVarsity Press, accessed through biblegateway.com
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid., emphasis added.

1 Comment

  1. L. Dale McCartney, M.D. on July 22, 2023 at 8:42 am

    So, which “gospel” shall we be rightfully offended at? John MacArthur posted a recent article entitled “Sins did not kill Jesus, God did.” Brian Zahnd is offended by that gospel and offers a very different view of God the Father (i. e. “Sinners in the hands of a loving God”). Is John offended by Brian’s God? Which view is most consistent with Genesis 3:15 and Psalms 22 (the whole thing) and with every verse in Acts about the Cross? Isn’t it high time that we preach the correct interpretation of Isaiah 53. Ditto for 2nd Corinthians 5:18-21 and several other verses of Paul which have ignored Paul’s penchant for metaphors rather than literalisms. Which gospel do you subscribe to and why? This is not trivial, in light of John 17:3.

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