How to Boast in the Cross

Near the very end of Galatians, Paul picks up the pen himself and writes this declaration of the Christian life: “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” (6:14). The word “boast” is a rare one in the Greek language, but John Stott has suggested it means to “trust in, rejoice in, revel in, live for. The object of our boast or ‘glory’ fills our horizons, engrosses our attention, and absorbs our time and energy.”[1] I found this helpful. How can we have the cross of Christ fill our horizons?

            It won’t happen if we are looking to self. Paul contrasts boasting in the cross with boasting in the flesh (v. 13). Though he might have reason for being proud of his piety (Phil. 3:3–9), he leaves that to the side. This is hard to do, isn’t it? One morning I was having breakfast with a man who had recently moved to the area to begin doing campus ministry. He wanted to meet me to hear about our church and see how we could mutually support one another. In the process of getting to know one another, I shared a story that served no purpose other than to make myself look good. It’s as though I wanted this newcomer to the ministry to know that he was talking to the real deal. How pathetic! In that moment, the cross was eclipsed in my vision by my vanity.

            I also won’t see the cross if I’m looking to the world. Paul writes that, for the Christian, in the crucifixion of Christ another two crucifixions have taken place: “the world has been crucified to me and I to the world.” What does this mean? “The world” refers to the godless values and vain pleasures of our present age. It’s referring the reign of sin. And through the cross that sin no longer reigns over us or in us. We don’t belong to the world anymore. Therefore, we don’t care about the world’s value system. In our age, social media begs us to boast in our vacation, our kids, even our dinner(!)—this has become the value system of the day. But the Christian rejects the lure to find worth in likes and shares. The Christian can say, “I am free at last to enjoy the world, for I do not need the world.”[2]

            The very fact that Paul would claim to boast in the cross is proof he cared little for what the world thought. In the ancient world, the term cross was unmentionable in polite society. Paul not only used the term, he loved it. Why? Because the cross of Christ was his life. This was his new value system. His world revolved around Calvary. How like God to turn a symbol of death into the source of our life. How like God to take a symbol of scorn and derision and make it the source of our boasting.

            Do you boast in the cross, and nothing else? In an ancient Old English hymn, anonymously penned in the 8th century, the cross is personified. The poem is called The Dream of the Rood (an Old English word for cross):

It was long ago—I still remember it—that I was cut down from the edge of the forest, ripped up by my roots. Strong enemies seized me there, made me their spectacle, forced me to bear criminals…I was raised as a cross; I lifted up a mighty King, the Lord of heavens; I do not dare bend. They pierced me with dark nails; I bear the scars, the open wounds of hatred…They mocked us both together. I was drenched with blood that flowed from that man’s side after he had sent further his spirit… Now the time has come when men will honor me far and wide over the earth and all this glorious creation, and pray to his beacon. On me the Son of God suffered for a while. I am therefore glorious now, and rise under the heavens, able to heal each one of those who will reverence me…

That concluding line captures what Paul is teaching here: that though once despised, the cross is now glorious and able to heal and bring to life all who will reverence it. That is not to say we bow down and worship the object. We reverence the cross—we boast in the cross—for what it stood for. Literally what it stood for on that mountain top all of those years ago: it stood for Jesus. To boast in the cross is to boast in the person and work of Jesus Christ. He must fill our horizons.

[1] John R. W. Stott, The Cross of Christ (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1986), 349.

[2] Tim Keller, Galatians for You (The Good Book Company, 2013), 184.