Only a New Creation Counts
When I visited Andrew Hafvenstein in the hospital last week, we talked about how strange—and yet really not so strange—it is that the more mature you become as a Christian, the less worthy you feel to be a child of God. It seems strange because the closer you come to Christ, the more his character rubs off on you. But it's not so strange because the closer we get to the real beauty of Christ, the more obvious and ugly our remaining sin appears. Andrew had a great illustration. When you are sweeping a hall, you may feel pretty good that the dirt is being cleared away; and then suddenly you move into a beam of light coming through a window and you see the true situation. The air is filled with dust.
So we who are Christ's are destined for now to live with a mingling of joy and remorse. If we walk in the light as he is in the light, we really are being changed from one degree of glory to another into his likeness (2 Corinthians 3:18). But it is precisely in the light that we see with greatest clarity the remaining evil of our own hearts. We rejoice to know Christ and to experience his dazzling fellowship and mercy. But we also grieve over our recurrent failures to walk exactly in his footsteps. Jonathan Edwards has a great sensitivity to the real experience of true Christians when he says,
The desires of the saints, however earnest, are humble desires; their hope is a humble hope; and their joy, even when it is unspeakable and full of glory, is a humble, broken-hearted joy, leaving the Christian more poor in spirit, more like a little child, and more disposed to a universal lowliness of behavior. (Works, vol. 1, p. 302)
Foolishness and Delusion or Mercy and Peace
Today we conclude a six-month study of Paul's letter to the Galatians. So I have asked myself, What should I look for in the people as evidence that the Word is bearing fruit? Andrew Hafvenstein and Jonathan Edwards warn me against looking for perfection. They warn me against looking for people who are proud of their growth, speak highly of their spiritual attainments, whose joy in the grace of God is not deepened by recurrent remorse because of failures to walk by the Spirit.
What should I look for to see if the message of Galatians has begun to take root in our hearts? What I would like to do to answer that question is to notice with you how Paul in these last verses of his letter develops a contrast between two mindsets. The one is what he has been trying to drive out of the Galatian churches. The other is the one he seeks to live by and teach. He calls this second mindset a canon or a rule and says that those who are in sync with this rule receive God's mercy and enjoy God's peace.
Suppose I had the power to hold out to you two hands for your choosing. In the one hand is the mercy of God to forgive all your sins and the peace of God for your eternal enjoyment. And in the other hand was every desirable thing the world could offer you (money, leisure, health, popularity, big business savvy, a spouse—you name it)—but no mercy from God and no final peace with him. Which would you want? "What does it profit you if you gain the whole world and lose your soul?" Only in the grip of a great satanic delusion do people choose the world over the mercy and peace of God. But surely the Holy Spirit is here this morning to break that delusion and to help us feel the utter foolishness of desiring the pleasures of the world for a season at the expense of God's mercy and the beauty of his peace. And so verse 16 becomes a big freeway sign to tell us how to leave the road of foolishness and get on the road of God's mercy and peace, and stay on it.
"Peace and mercy be upon all who walk by this rule, upon the Israel of God." God's mercy and peace belong to those whose lives conform to a certain rule. And since only a foolish delusion keeps us from wanting God's mercy and peace, therefore we should be very eager to know what this rule is.
The Mindset of the Legalist
In verse 11 Paul seems to take the pen from his secretary and finish the letter with his own big distinctive writing: "See with what large letters I am writing to you with my own hand." Then with pen in hand Paul describes the two mindsets that have been at war throughout the letter. The first one is evil. The second one is good. The second one is the rule we should follow. Let's look at them in that order. The evil mindset is described in verses 12 and 13:
It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh that would compel you to be circumcised, and only in order that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ. For even those who receive circumcision do not themselves keep the law, but they desire to have you circumcised that they may glory in your flesh.
Well, here it is for the last time; let's look at it carefully and then shove it from us forever: the mindset of the legalist. A person who uses the law as a vehicle of pride is a legalist.
Paul takes the issue of circumcision for example: do the Gentile believers have to be circumcised to enjoy full acceptance with God? Paul said no and suffered for it. The Judaizers say yes. But what is the motive behind this demand? Compare the end of verses 12 and 13. Verse 12: "They compel you to be circumcised that they might not be persecuted for the cross of Christ." Verse 13: "They desire to have you circumcised that they may glory in your flesh." The motive was twofold: to avoid pokes and win strokes. When all is said and done and the pen is in his own hand, the two things he wants to warn us against most are these: the fear of human opposition and the love of human praise.
Why are these so dangerous? Because if your mindset is governed by the fear of being rejected and the love of being praised, you cannot embrace Christ crucified. Legalists have to substitute morality for the cross of Christ because the cross puts an end to all pride and lays you open to persecution. But according to these two verses they want to avoid persecution and they are proud of their religious zeal. And so they reject the cross. The cross of Christ is a great stumbling block for people who do not have the grace to humble themselves before God and man.
Before God the effect of Christ crucified is to strip us naked of all merit and reveal our utter desperation and dependence on mercy. The love of God comes to us through Christ crucified so that we can see what our sin really deserved. It is morally impossible to be proud at the foot of the cross. And so for those who don't want to humble themselves before God, the cross remains an offense and a scandal.
But there is another reason legalists reject the cross. It not only humbles us before God; it humbles us before men. "Except a man take up his cross and follow me, he cannot be my disciple." You cannot cherish the Christ of Calvary without joining him on the Calvary road. But the Calvary road is where people jeer and spit and laugh. Therefore, no one who is enslaved to the praise of men will join Christ on the Calvary road. O, how many people are like these Judaizers, who say in effect, "I cannot take my stand with the crucified Christ because I'm afraid of what people will say or do."
So we can say at least this: if the message of Galatians has begun to bear fruit among us, then this first mindset of legalism that uses morality as a vehicle of pride, and fears human rejection, and craves human praise—this mindset will be on the wane.
The Mindset of the New Creation
But now let's look at the alternative mindset in verses 14 and 15 which Paul aims to have in himself and to teach others. Remember verse 16 said that God's peace and mercy belong to people who live by this rule. The rule, I think, is the mindset of verses 14 and 15. "But far be it from me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation."
What is this "new creation" that counts for everything? The new creation is what exists when the old mindset is crucified with Christ. Paul speaks in Galatians 2:20 of being crucified with Christ; yet somehow he lives and so the "he" that lives must be new—a new creation raised, as it were, from the dead. A new birth (John 3:3). Newness of life (Romans 6:4).
There are some parallels that help us see what this new creation really is. The closest is Galatians 5:6. Note that 6:15 says, "Neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but a new creation." Galatians 5:6 says, "In Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is of any avail, but faith working through love." So I would infer that the "new Paul" who is created when the "old Paul" is crucified with Christ is a Paul who lives by faith which works through love. This is confirmed back in 2:20, "I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God." In a sense Paul doesn't live anymore. Christ lives through him. But he does live, and the "new Paul" is the Paul who depends so much on Christ day by day that it is as though Christ were doing the living through Paul. So the new creation of Galatians 6:15 is the mindset of utter reliance on Christ day by day. Or we could say that the new creation is the power of Christ's life unleashed in us when we lean on him.
But notice in verse 14 that Paul's last effort in this letter to describe the mindset of the new creation does not mention faith. It mentions glorifying or exulting: "Far be it from me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ." The history of the Christian Church is marred by groups who have ripped the heart out of faith by making it a dry, formal intellectual assent to certain truths. Paul prevents us from doing that by the way he ends his letter. The mindset of the new creation does not just agree that Christ died for sinners; it glories in the cross. It boasts in the wonder of the cross. It cherishes the benefits of the cross. The cross is the pride and joy of the new creation. It's the present you show off first when friends come over Christmas afternoon.
Glorying in the Cross
Paul has a double way of showing what it means to glory only in the cross. He says in verse 14, "By the cross the world has been crucified to me, and I have been crucified to the world." I think he means something like this. Since I met Christ, the world has come to look like a despised, worthless, cursed thing. When a thing is crucified, it is rejected and scorned. That's what became of the world when Paul met Christ. He said, "I count everything as loss (crucified!) for the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord" (Philippians 3:8). Paul was so swallowed up by the love of Christ that the benefits of the world looked to him as cold and ashen as a crucified corpse.
But he says it another way, too. He says, "I am crucified to the world." When the world looks at me, it sees nothing very attractive, either. I am like a corpse as far as the world is concerned. Christians who believe in self-denial for Christ's sake are crazy. They are like dead people—fools at best, scorned and persecuted at worst. Remember how Paul described his ministry in 2 Corinthians 6:8, 9, "We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, yet well-known; as dying, and behold we live; as punished, and yet not killed." As far as the world is concerned, a life devoted to a crucified Christ is a throw-away life. Paul put it like this in 1 Corinthians 4:13, "We have become, and are now, the refuse of the world, the offscouring of all things." So another way of saying that the world is crucified to me and I to the world is to say the world has become refuse to me and I have become refuse to the world.
But don't miss the main point. The only reason Paul mentions his rejection of the world and the world's rejection of him is to accent the value of Christ crucified. The status and pleasures that the world of Greek hedonism or the Pharisaic legalism held out to Paul were like a big garbage heap compared to Jesus Christ. Paul was ravished by the love of Christ. He was utterly mastered, held captive, by one great scene in history: a cross on Golgotha, and on it the Son of God who loved us and gave himself for us.
Self-Exalters Versus Christ-Exalters
When Paul says in verse 16, "Peace and mercy be upon all who walk by this rule," I think the rule is the mindset described in verses 14 and 15 in contrast to the mindset of verses 12 and 13. So let's conclude by laying out the contrasts in summary, one by one. Let's call one the mindset of self-exaltation (whether legalist or libertine) and the other the mindset of Christ-exaltation. I'll mention four contrasts. First, the self-exalters desire to make a good show in religious rituals (6:12) because they crave the applause of key people. But Christ-exalters regard the pleasure of human applause as a pile of garbage compared to the pleasure of knowing Christ; and so they are not men-pleasers (Galatians 1:10; Ephesians 6:6).
Second, self-exalters fear persecution and rejection from men more than they cherish the cross of Christ (6:12). But Christ-exalters expect and accept persecution from a world that crucified Christ (5:11). In fact, they say with Paul, "For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities; for when I am weak, then I am strong" (2 Corinthians 12:10). Christ-exalters don't fear men. Christ is their refuge and shield and great reward.
Third, self-exalters regard outward forms (like circumcision) as the essence of religious life (6:13). But Christ-exalters regard an inner new creation as the essence of religious life. Self-exalters can manage to clean up the outside while leaving the root of pride untouched, and so religion and morality are useful outlets for their uncrucified self-reliance. But Christ-exalters know that for Christ to be king, they must die and a brand new creation of humility and Christ-reliance has to replace pride and self-reliance.
Fourth, self-exalters remove the stumbling block of the cross by ignoring or despising its implications. Self-exalters have to avoid the cross because the splinters of the old rugged cross always pop the balloon of self-exaltation. But Christ-exalters glory in the cross; they cherish it above all things. And I think that is where Paul and Christ would want me to end this series.
None of us will be saved because we are perfect or because anything we do earns God's approval. The peace of God and the mercy of God are free gifts purchased on Calvary for all who walk by this rule—the rule of Christ-exaltation, not self-exaltation. Right standing with God is not merited by works. It is given freely to those who glory in the work of Christ on the cross. Therefore, I urge you to come to the cross. And if you are there, I urge you to glory in the cross. Christ crucified is the basis of all our prayers, the assurance of all God's love, the certainty of full forgiveness, the ground of all our hope, and the fountain of midnight peace and morning mercies for ever and ever. Amen.
O sacred head, now wounded
With grief and shame weighed down,
Now scornfully surrounded
With thorns thine only crown;
O sacred head, what glory,
What bliss, 'till now was thine;
Yet, though despised and gory,
I joy to call thee mine.
© Desiring God Foundation. Distribution Guidelines
Share the Joy! You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in physical form, in its entirety or in unaltered excerpts, as long as you do not charge a fee. For posting online, please use only unaltered excerpts (not the content in its entirety) and provide a hyperlink to this page. For videos, please embed from the original source. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Desiring God.
Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: By John Piper. © Desiring God Foundation. Website: desiringGod.org