“But if I brothers, still preach circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been removed” – Galatians 5:11
In this magnificent letter, Paul writes the Galatian church who had been inundated by false teachers. These teachers had come into the Galatian fellowship, and had started preaching salvation by self-merit. In fact, they went so far as to force the Gentile Galatians to become Jewish and to follow the Mosaic Law (Gal 5:1-12). Paul therefore wrote this letter to defend his gospel of salvation by Christ’s merit, not our own.
In this letter, Paul had to argue on a myriad of levels in order to convince his hearers that his gospel was the true gospel. Because of this, Paul gave many differing defenses of his gospel.
One of Paul’s defenses for his gospel was the fact that he was being persecuted heavily for preaching it (by both Jews and Gentiles — the persecution was just as bad on either side). In fact, in Galatians 5:11, Paul called his message “the offense of the cross”. Apparently, for Paul, the fact that his preaching was an offense to man was confirmation of the validity and veracity of his gospel. And in fact, Paul did offend most of his hearers. Over the course of his ministry, his gospel earned him scores of beatings, mockings, imprisonments, and banishments. And this was for Paul a good thing, because it meant that his gospel was about Christ and not him.
In contrast, however, Paul mentioned repeatedly that the false teachers who were misleading the Galatians had not been mistreated or persecuted at all for their message. Paul said that they preached their message of salvation by self-merit in order to be praised. He argued that the false teachers preached their “gospel” in order that they might be esteemed by others (Gal 4:18), and boast in themselves (Gal 6:13). In fact, Paul accused the teachers of preaching salvation by merit for the very purpose of avoiding persecution (Gal 6:12).
One question that we have to ask from all this is: what was so offensive about Paul’s gospel? And, what was so non-offensive, even self-promoting about these false-teachers’ message?
I think the obvious answer is merit: Upon whose merit are you attempting to be saved?
The false teachers preached a gospel of self-merit. It was a salvation that depended on proving yourself worthy of love and acceptance by God. It was a gospel that esteemed human willpower and morality. It was a gospel of self. And for this, these false teachers were praised (and they loved the it!), because the message boasted in its hearers. It was a message of, “You can do it! Just follow the rules!”
In contrast, Paul preached a gospel that pleaded the merit of Another. It was a gospel that despaired of human ability. It disparaged of self-will, and insulted the moral capacity of men. Instead, Paul’s gospel pleaded and hoped in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. It found acceptance in Christ’s righteousness, and forgiveness through Christ’s death. It was a gospel that boasted in Christ alone, through whom we die to the world and find acceptance, love, and fellowship with God (Gal 6:14).
This was what Paul was trying to highlight when he gave attention to the false teachers’ need and desire for praise. They had a man-centered gospel! And, this is why Paul highlighted his own persecution. He had a Christ-centered gospel; one that was offensive to his hearers. It was a message of offense — and Paul did not want that offense removed, even if it led to his own martyrdom (which it eventually did).
James Boyce comments on Galatians 5:11, saying, a man-centered gospel is “part of a system that seeks to attain standing before God through merit. In opposition to this, the cross proclaims man’s complete ruin in sin, to the degree that nothing he does or can do can save him, and thus also proclaims man’s radical need for God’s grace. The natural man does not understand such teaching (1 Cor 2:14) and, in fact, hates it, because it strips away any pretense of spiritual achievement”.
Luther adds to this, saying, “God forbid, therefore, that the offense of the cross should be taken away. This would happen if we should preach what the prince of this world and his members would be glad to hear — that is, the righteousness of works”.