The Apostle’s argument in this section henges on one fundamental 1st century Christian belief that may be too foreign to modern American Christians to deliver the punch of the passage’s meaning. While the cross is foolishness to the wisdom seeker, to the moral, the highly principled, religious law keeper, the cross is a stumbling block. God himself lay this stumbling block in Zion. What the cross provides for the lowly, unprincipled, acknowledged sinner, was and will always be a scandal to the upright who finds his hard won righteousness diminished by the presence of sinners at the Lord’s table. With a belief so basic to the founding of the faith, how is it that the church has come to be characterized by conservative moralism?
A Little Leaven
Galatians 5:8 (NAS): 8 This persuasion did not come from Him who calls you.
I was raised in the church. I cannot remember a time when church was not a part of my life. I was given the grace of faith in high school, and church became more to me than mere custom. It became my embassy, reminding me often of the home I was far from. But it wasn’t until I was well grown and in seminary that I first heard that the cross is only good news for bad people. I thought that the cross was the way of the righteous. It took a long time before the news of the truth of the Gospel to arrived and sever the binding notions of hard won holiness, rigid righteousness, and the scent of necessary legal activity.
That the stumbling block of the cross was not more widely known was enough to keep me off the path to freedom for a long time. But as Paul reminds the Galatians, just because law keeping is found everywhere, doesn’t mean it’s from God. Living by the law does not come from Him who calls you to freedom, but just a little leaven will leaven the whole lump.
It’s this Pharisaic leaven’s nature to spread thoroughly, distorting the dough and giving the impression that law is the nature of the dough itself, but the pervasiveness of moralism and the heavy burden of righteous performance is the result of just a little leaven; just a few who have disturbed us.
The Scandal of the Cross
Galatians 5:11 (NAS): 11 But I, brethren, if I still preach circumcision, why am I still persecuted? Then the stumbling block of the cross has been abolished.
Sadly, in our present culture, we have come to believe persecution is embodied in the gradual loss of our religious freedoms. Our nation’s founders described these freedoms as inalienable, but they would have indeed been alien to the founders of the faith.
I’m not courting persecution, in fact, like everyone else, I enjoy and praise God for the freedom to worship. But in earnest faith seeking understanding, we do not share the same nature and source of persecution as we were warned we would in Scripture. It may, in fact, be just the opposite.
The Apostle’s rhetorical question suggest that persecution does not come from preaching circumcision: which in this case is one aspect of the law. If he were preaching the law and being persecuted for it, then the scandal of the cross, which indeed brings persecution, would be abolished. The satirical tone of the argument belies this being true.
What brought Paul and others persecution was the scandal that sinners could receive righteousness through faith alone provided by the crucifixion of the Christ, apart freedom the works of the law. This persecution came not from liberal sinners, but from conservative law keepers (anachronism intended). The persecutor Paul knew well, for such was he before his trip to Damascus.
Could it be that there is no biblical persecution of the church in America because we preach circumcision? More directly, do we preach moral law out of a misunderstood zeal for holiness, while neglecting the scandal of the cross?
Called to Freedom
Galatians 5:13 (NAS): 13 For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.
The constant pursuit of “holiness” to call ourselves a Christian has come to characterize Christianity. The leaven has done what leaven does, and we wear the shackles with moral pride. Just as it was in Jesus’ day, our chains have become our righteousness. We are proud to call ourselves conservative.
I share Paul’s desire for those who have disturbed us to go on and cut themselves. It is likely Paul is speaking of the cutting of circumcision, when he mentions going all the way in their cutting. He communicates in graphic terms the mutilation of Jesus’ offer of His righteousness to the lowly, won by His death on the cross, that the high-minded may exalt themselves beyond their station.
We were not called to be moral or conservative. We were called by a scandalous message of grace but a crucified Christ. We were called to freedom; a freedom bound only by an equal call to serve one another in love.