Summary: Paul is adamant that the preaching of the Cross is central to the Gospel and what is should mean to believers.
There’s a striking phrase in St Paul’s letter to the Galatians: “God forbid that I should glory save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (6:14). When we come across that sort of statement it can be helpful to ask the question, “Why did Paul write like that?” To ask ourselves, “Why the Cross?”
There’s a story told - and I take it to be a parable because I hope it’s not true - of a country church which had a creeper - perhaps an ivy plant - growing up by the porch doorway. Over the doorway was a text carved in stone, "We preach Christ crucified". Over the years the plant grew steadily and a branch gradually spread over the doorway. The first word of the text covered by the leaves of the plant was "crucified" which reduced the text to "We preach Christ". Well, we might think, that’s unfortunate but the essential part of our faith is still there. As time went on the branch spread further and covered over the word "Christ". Now, this was serious, but no-one seemed to notice, and the message of the church to the world outside was reduced to "We preach" - it had no message; the church was merely a talking shop.
That’s why I said I hoped the story was only a parable, because if any essential part of the message of the Christian gospel is neglected, Christianity will lose its power, it will no longer be the Gospel as revealed in Jesus. This is what the apostle Paul meant when he wrote to the believers at Galatia, "May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world" (6:14).
It’s been said that nothing in history or in the universe cuts us down to size like the cross ... it’s at the foot of the cross of Calvary that we shrink to our true size. It’s there that our delusions of self-righteousness are exploded because we see ourselves as we really are - as sinners before a holy God. So we have to ask the question, "Why the Cross?" Why did Paul say that he could never boast of anything except the cross of Jesus? The context of Paul’s words is his concern that the Christian believers to whom he wrote were in danger of being seduced by false teachers into abandoning the simplicity of faith in Jesus as their Saviour; Jesus who had died on the cross.
What happened to the Christians at Galatia can easily be repeated at the beginning of the twenty-first century because the evil one is just as anxious to divert us away from the truth of the Gospel as he was in the first century. Human nature hasn’t changed in the passing of years. So let’s think of what could side-track us from the priority of boasting only in the Cross of Christ. I trust I’ll not be misunderstood when I suggest a candidate is the ethical teaching of Jesus. His teaching, of course, is wonderful. It’s the highest standard of morality given to humanity. There are many people who aren’t Christians who praise the Sermon on the Mount. Ghandi, the great Indian leader and a Hindu, praised it. They like Jesus the teacher; they say that his teaching is the very thing the world needs - as indeed it does. The theory is that if everyone practiced it, all our problems would be solved. There was a TV show of a prominent politician choosing his favourite hymns. He told the interviewer that he believed in the ethical teaching of Jesus which fitted in with his brand social ideals, but he had no feeling for the Christian view of the atonement of the Cross of Christ. It was what you did that mattered. Well, St Paul would disagree!
It’s true the world would be a great deal better if the teaching of Jesus was put into practice, so why didn’t the apostle say, "God forbid that I should glory, save in the Sermon on the Mount, save in the incomparable teaching, of the Son of God?" Paul knew very well that teaching alone, even from the lips of Jesus, was not sufficient. You see, there is all the difference in the world between praising the Sermon on the Mount and practicing it! We applaud it, but to apply it is a different matter! In our better moments we may want to live according to its standard but because we are fallen beings, we are powerless to do so.
Paul knew all about this when he wrote to the Christians at Rome of a "law at work ... in my body, waging war ... and making me a prisoner ... What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me?" The real meaning of the Sermon is not, "Live like this and you will become a Christian", but rather "Because you are a Christian live like this." In fact, like the Ten Commandments and the life of Jesus, there’s nothing that condemns us, as the Sermon on the Mount. Paul knew that it wasn’t just the teaching of Jesus, but the power of God in his life which would rescue him - as he put it, "Thanks be to God - through Jesus Christ our Lord" (7:21-25).