"But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world." (Galatians 6:14 ESV)
“The idea that Jesus died on a cross for our sins is intellectually contemptible and morally outrageous.” This was the studied estimate of Christianity by the great Oxford University philosophy professor A.J. Ayer in the mid-twentieth century. Long before Ayer expressed his contempt for the cross, the famed Roman orator Cicero, who lived about one hundred years before Jesus, said, “The very word ‘cross’ should be removed not only from the person of a Roman citizen but from his thoughts, his eyes, his ears.”
As we review the basics of the gospel, nothing is more central than the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. With Easter coming this week, it is good for us to pause and reflect on the gory glory of the cross. As we have seen, the “best and the brightest,” both ancient and modern, have dismissed the cross as intellectual foolishness at best and perilously close to obscenity at the worst. If this is what people think about the cross, why did Paul say it was the only thing in which he would boast?
As we begin to think about an answer, it is good to have some background on crucifixion. The physical agony was excruciating. In fact, the very word “excruciating” comes from the cross: it is a combination of two Latin words; “ex,” meaning “from” or “out of” and “crux,” which means “cross.” Literally, excruciating pain is pain that is “from the cross.” Crucifixion was reserved only for the worst of the worst in the ancient world. No Roman citizen was crucified. Death happened as the hapless victim had to pull himself upon the nails piercing his wrists and feet; in other words, the victim died a slow death by asphyxiation. It was a gruesome way to die.
Yet, this is what Paul boasts in! Why would Paul boast in an instrument of torture? Why would Paul write something, to put it in more modern language, such as, “But far be it from me to boast except in the electric chair”? Because, at the cross, the Lord Jesus died to set sinners like us free. And Paul knew something of the depth of his sin and so he understood something of the depth of Christ’s sacrifice for him. Thus, his only boast was Christ and him crucified.
Paul boasted in the cross because it alone demonstrates God’s perfect love and his perfect justice. It shows us that God will give his best for his enemies by giving his worst to his son—a gory death on this cruel instrument—while at the same time demonstrating the seriousness of any breach of his law. Think about it this way: we deserve much worse than the cross. In fact, so great is God’s wrath that when he was pouring it out on his son on the cross, as one theologian said, “I doubt if Jesus even noticed the nails.” Any sin is an affront to God’s justice and deserves only death. The cross gives us a faint but all-too-graphic portrayal of the seriousness of sin.
But while the cross demonstrates God’s inflexible justice, it is manifestly the greatest display of his love. With every painful breath, every drop of blood spilled, Jesus was doing his cross-work for helpless sinners like us. God’s love took him to the cross and God’s love kept him there, so that none of us would ever have to doubt God’s love again. Therefore, God’s love is not heart shaped. It is cross-shaped. This week, as you prepare for Easter, take some time and think about the cross. When you’re tempted to boast, remember that the only boast any of us can make is that we were so bad, the cross was necessary. That will humble us quickly! But, at the same time, we will boast only in the cross because, though we learn we are so evil that it requires the cross to cleanse us, we see that God loves us in an unfathomable way. He loves us enough to die. On a cross.