This is a good year to think about boasting. That’s true for at least three reasons. Trivially, because American public discourse involves an unusual amount of boasting. (We’ll fix health care for good, or crush ISIS, or “make America great again.”) Historically, because this is the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, which Martin Luther (among others) saw as a call for the church to boast not in works, but solely in the Cross of Christ. Theologically, because the contemporary church hardly ever mentions the concept—even though the apostle Paul mentioned it dozens of times in just a few short letters.
The problem could be our fairly childish perspective on what counts as “boasting.” To modern ears, it sounds like a six-year-old saying, “My dad is bigger than your dad,” or a professional wrestler’s trash-talk, or perhaps a presidential Twitter feed. So when we hear Paul railing against boasting in anything other than Christ crucified, we might assume it doesn’t apply to us. Boasting? I haven’t done that since “I’m the king of the castle.”
In the ancient world, however, boasting was not just child’s play; it was deadly serious. You would boast as you went into battle, reassuring yourself that victory was certain. Goliath did it to David: “Come to me, and I will give your flesh to the birds of the air and to the beasts of the field” (1 Sam. 17:44, ESV throughout). Messengers from enemy nations did it to Jerusalem: One warning mocked “the men sitting on the wall, who are doomed with you to eat their own dung and drink their own urine” (Isa. 36:12). This sort of boasting has provided iconic moments in the history of stage and screen, from Henry V to Gladiator, from “Get three coffins ready” to “They may take our lives, but they’ll never take our freedom!” When life and death are at stake, your boast reveals your ultimate confidence.
We need not look far for modern equivalents. Boasting is omnipresent in politics and professional sports. It is central to advertising, a surprising amount of corporate life, a wide variety of social media, and, of course, the military. Parents boast in certain products, programs, or disciplinary techniques. Influencers boast in their influence and patriots in their nation. Where is boasting? Everywhere.
It gets into the church, too. Our tradition is growing, while yours is shrinking. Our leaders have courage, while yours only capitulate. Not only do such sentiments encourage division; they reveal that our source of security and hope of victory is fundamentally misplaced. When push comes to shove, we are quick to boast in ourselves—our choices, theological emphases, abilities, or communities—as the ground of our confidence.
Paul’s response to boasting is enormously important, but also rather surprising. He does not forbid the Galatians, or anyone else, to boast. He seems to know that this is an inevitable feature of being human: We are weak, dependent creatures forever facing the possibility of death, so we are bound to seek reassurance that we will overcome. Rather, he urges boasting in the right thing: “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord” (1 Cor. 1:31; 2 Cor. 10:17).
If you’re fleeing Pharaoh’s army, don’t boast in your sea-crossing skills; boast in the one who throws horses and chariots into the deep. If you’re fighting Goliath, don’t boast in your pebbles or your aim; boast in “the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom [Goliath] defied” (1 Sam. 17:45). Yet Paul goes one further, to guard against our treating God as a mere military ally or national talisman. “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” (Gal. 6:14). Not only do we boast in the Lord but in what seemed his moment of greatest weakness.
Whether going into battle, into public office, or simply into work, we point to the thing we believe will secure us against danger. That in itself is not sinful. But our normal grounds for boasting—our strength, our plans, our works—are laughably inadequate. The louder we shout about them, the less convincing they become. There is only one anchor who always holds. So let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.
Andrew Wilson is teaching pastor at King’s Church London and author most recently of The Life We Never Expected (Crossway). Follow him on Twitter @AJWTheology.
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