As we seek to gather in our hearts and minds the message of this wonderful book, we can see the heart of it here in the last passage. Just as we need to summarize, so does Paul.
If a man cares about something outside himself, it is possible to appeal to him through argument, or appeal to duty, or through the attraction of that which is lovely. But if a man cares only for himself, keeping himself warm and dry, then it is no use to appeal to him through anything that might threaten that position. Everything that is said, no matter what is said, is incorporated into an ingenious argument that shows that he does not have to alter anything at all. When Paul hadn’t written, they advanced their heresy. When he did, they advanced their heresy. When he makes sure they know he was the one writing this letter, they no doubt will move on to something else.
There are two kinds of comfort. The flesh likes religion. It provides the industrious with a good way to get money, women, reputation and fame, or even more money. In such a situation, to preach the cross is the height of folly. Consequently, the history of the Church is filled with ecclesiastics whose eye was always on the main chance, shepherds who would feed only themselves. This is one sort of comfort.
Godly comfort is from the God of all comfort, who comforts us in our afflictions so that we might learn to comfort others in the same way (2 Cor. 1:1ff). In order to qualify for this comfort, a man must have been nailed to the cross of Christ (with regard to the world), and the world must have been nailed to the cross of Christ (with regard to that man). The cross of Christ reveals to us the mind of Christ, and it is in this cross that we finally learn to see the fundamental vanity of all worldly things. Note that I did not say all earthly things, or material things. But the world is described for us repeatedly in the New Testament. It is Vanity Fair, and those who start quibbling about whether this or that aspect of the fair is lawful in itself are simply showing that they are fools. But not to themselves, of course. Of course this or that is lawful.
The issue is always the heart. The issue is never circumcision, or uncircumcision. It is not baptism, or unbaptism. It is never membership in this church or that one. The issue is why. If the why is the new creation in the cross of Jesus Christ, everything else will be put to rights, and everything else will be a means of grace appropriated through faith alone. But in everything you say or do, provided it is in the name of God, someone will be right there to twist the words into something more conducive to the worldly way they want to remain.
Paul says that peace and mercy are for those who walk in accordance with this rule. Such an understanding is what ought to characterize the Israel of God, which is the Church. So what is the rule?
The rule is the cross. But not the cross on a steeple, or a little silver chain. The rule is not the cross in the architectural pattern of the church sanctuary. Of course, we are not opposed to the cruciform in all its various physical manifestations, but what we are really after is the cruciform heart. The cruciform heart is naturally hostile to the world, and recognizes that world in all its manifest shapes and appearances. Often that worldliness is “cruciform.” Sometimes it is hostile to that form. The world is a protean shapeshifter.
Confused? This is why Paul attacks the law, when it is in the mouths of those who would commend themselves. This is why he glories in the law when it is in the mouth of the one who loves. This is why Jeremiah attacked the Temple, and why Solomon built it. This is why God commanded sacrifices, and then told the people He actually wanted mercy instead. This is why ministers baptize the repentant and then laugh at the baptism of the unrepentant. This is why the Westminster Confession is one of the glories of Western civilization, which it is, as well as a set of blinkers for Calvinistic workhorses. This is why the saints of God have been called many different things — Catholics, Puritans, Methodists — and why they have frequently been persecuted by men bearing the name of yesterday’s godliness.
The worldly Bible teacher, in love with the flesh, wants everything to stay put. Sons of Sarah must always remain sons of Sarah. To say that sons of Sarah can somehow become sons of Hagar is to talk nonsense to him. He wants everything static so that he has a foolproof method for knowing what side he is on. But that is not how spiritual battles go.