We’ve learned about the problem in the church at Galatia: a forced return to the old way of living under the law accompanied by neglect to recognise the new way of living under grace. This issue was a real test of loyalties in Paul’s day and involved getting rid of old and established ways of doing things.
We saw how even the apostle Peter was caught out as he tried to please his Jewish compatriots who saw a deviation from law‑adherence as an unforgivable disregard from long established traditions.
Mercifully we don’t have the same pressures on us as Peter did but we have I think a deeply ingrained impression that to be ‘successful’ Christians we have to be ‘good’ and have to live by a set of rules whether written or unwritten. This is often tied up with church traditions and is often more of a problem for well established Christians who confound their Christian traditions with what God really wants of us. Paul has, at times not so gently made the point that our outward actions express what is going on within us – and it is what goes on within us that is the key to living lives that please God. The battle within involves the old sin nature and the new nature. These two wrestle for dominance within our being: if we orientate our thinking and being towards the old nature then that old nature will express itself in the way that we live. Conversely if we ‘walk according to the Spirit’ we will live lives characterised by the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, meekness, goodness, faith and self control. This is not just a spiritual game. The way we live will have eternal consequences. In view of this Paul has some words of encouragement as to how to help each other live right.
1. Helping each other live right
Paul begins chapter 6 with these words: ‘brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in sin.’ The word in the Greek used for sin here is paraptoma. It’s not always correct to break up a Greek word like this into its component parts but in this case the overall meaning seems to be derived from the two words para which means alongside (from which we get the English word parallel) and ptoma which means a fall. The words taken together (in the compound word paraptoma) mean a false step or as has simply been translated in the NIV a sin. If we don’t order our lives by the spirit and rather walk according to the fleshly nature within us we will be overtaken (or caught) by a false step: sin. It’s the inevitability of operating within the wrong sphere. We must not think as Christians that we can play with the sin nature, entertaining a loose relationship with it without consequences. How many believers have toyed with the old nature, dancing to its beat only to find that they are overtaken by destructive sin. The question arises as to how fellow believers are to respond to this sort of thing. Paul gives a tender and practical piece of advice: ‘you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently.’ I think there is an assumption here that the person who has been overtaken by the sin is repentant and willing to be helped (which we ought to contrast with some who are quite happy to remain in a sinful situation – Paul has separate advice for such situations, see 1 Corinthians 5). The goal for the person who has fallen in this way is restoration. I think what Paul must mean here is getting back on track – back to living in the sphere of the Spirit. Living within the sphere of the Spirit has to be nearly impossible if we rarely think of spiritual things, rarely meet with fellow believers and spend most of our time immersing ourselves in the thinking and philosophy of our godless world. In view of this, we need to all be careful of how we orientate our lives – Paul says ‘but watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted.’ This is good advice! We do not live in isolation however, Paul says ‘carry each other’s burdens and in this way you will fulfil the law of Christ.’ What then is the law of Christ? In a well known discussion about which Jewish law was of greatest importance Jesus said ‘To love him (God) with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbour as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.’ (Mark 12:33) – that sounds like a pretty good definition of the law of Christ and we can express this by carrying each other’s burdens. But what could that look like? I’ve heard a more than a few times people turn their noses up at some churches because they believe the church in question cannot serve ‘their needs’ (which might be that there aren’t enough families, children, people their age etc). This puts the question the wrong way around – shouldn’t we be attracted to churches where we can help ‘carry each other’s burdens?’ But what does it mean to carry each other’s burdens? It sounds like an exhausting expectation that we are to be forever helping each other all of the time with anything and everything! In the context it seems that the biggest burden we bear is to walk in the Spirit – what are you, what am I doing to carry that burden for my fellow believers? If you are not doing this or thinking like this then Paul says it’s about time you did and if you are, be careful because it’s easy for such people to ‘think they are something when they are not!’
If we are to bear one another’s burdens effectively we must continually test our own actions. How easy is it to start to lord it over other ‘lesser’ people and swell with our own pride and self importance. Isn’t meekness one of the fruits of the Spirit? I can hear myself saying ‘well I might not be perfect but at least I’m better than him!’ No, no, no! Says Paul. Don’t compare yourselves to others but rather test your own actions. Paul’s not saying that we should constantly beat ourselves up though; the word for test carries the idea of testing with the intention of approving. This is a much more positive thing and as we learn to walk in the Spirit and test our actions we discover that we can approve our actions and be satisfied with them. Just as we have some obligations to help our fellow believers stay on this track of walking by the Spirit so also we have an obligation ourselves to carry this load (verse 5). How well are you doing?
When you present God’s word to people at church I note four categories of response, there is the most normal one which is silence (which is usually assumed to be polite indifference!), there is a related response which is polite acceptance ‘thank you for your interesting sermon!’ There is a third response which I dread and is usually accompanied by someone with an open bible who is keen to point out the error of your thinking! Finally there is a fourth category which is one of encouragement. I remember when we were thinking about how we ought to live by the spirit someone approached me and said that they found this concept very helpful and as a result had decided to stop watching the BBC soap Eastenders as it was not helping them walk in the Spirit. What a great response! I personally found it encouraging and challenging: what was I watching on TV that was preventing me from walking in the Spirit?
2. Present actions: Future impact
What does all of this matter? After all aren’t we completely forgiven of all of our sin when we believe in the Lord Jesus? There is quite a hot debate about this very subject amongst theologians. Some say that unless as believers we do good works we don’t have the right sort of faith. In the final analysis this view ends up being a works-based salvation by the back door: you’re ultimately acceptable to God if you are a ‘good’ person. Such a view undermines the whole point of God’s rescue-plan from sin which is s a gift that cannot be earned in any way at all. In any event if such a thing were correct how good would you have to be to be sure you had the right sort of faith? This well intentioned view undermines the work of Christ and leads to the insecurity of relying on how good we are. So does this mean that it’s OK to sin as much as you like because you cannot lose the gift of total forgiveness? It should be no surprise that the answer is an emphatic no! How we live in the hear-and-now is of eternal consequence. The apostle says ‘do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows.’ There is a consequence to persistent and willful living according to the flesh. Paul says ‘whoever sows to please the flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction.’ Paul doesn’t elaborate on the nature or extent of the destruction, but he’s sending a serious warning that there are negative consequences for a believer who persists in living according to the old nature. How this contrasts with the thinking of the world. We visited the Tate Modern gallery a few years ago. One of the galleries we walked around seemed to be portraying the most vile thoughts dredged up from the darkest places in the minds of the artists. The world’s thinking is that what we are is absolutely fine and in fact there is something to be celebrated in ‘being what you are.’ This thinking is indeed having disastrous consequences in our society. We say to our young people that whatever their sin nature dictates they should follow that desire because it’s expressing who they are. It’s heart breaking to see the devastation that this causes. This thinking is force fed to our society through the TV, through our education system, through our medical system and through the laws passed by our politicians. But I think the destruction Paul has in mind in the life of a believer is something a bit different. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 3 that there will come a day of testing for every believer. The test will be applied to the work that we do and the test will be by fire. If what we do is of eternal value the fire will not destroy our work, but if we work with poor materials the fire will utterly destroy our work: it will not survive the test. Does this mean loss of salvation? No. Paul says ‘if it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved – even though only as one escaping through the flames.’
In light of this, how ought we to live? Paul says ‘whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.’ Isn’t this worth investing some of our resources in? Absolutely – ‘Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up (verse 9).’ So the message is that this is of great eternal importance, don’t give up, it’s too important! I sometimes hear Christians look down on people who are a bit simplistic in their faith and not all that ‘spiritual’ in their language and demeanor, but I think Paul here is encouraging a simple and down to earth attitude. So, if you have the opportunity says Paul ‘do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.’ In doing so, we will be sowing for an eternal harvest.
3. Final words
Paul almost certainly used a secretary to write out his letters, possibly in part due to poor eyesight, but now he picks up the pen himself and writes with big letters – perhaps this served not only to help him see what he was writing but to emphasise his final words. And here’s his final message: don’t regress to circumcision as a mark of your faith. I’m struck by the way Christians like to use labels to discriminate between different groups and subgroups. In our day it’s often denoted by which version of the bible you use or which hymnbook you use or how you administer communion or whatever. The issue in Galatia was that those who wanted to drag the people back to the old way of the law had their label and it was circumcision. Circumcision in itself wasn’t really of any significance but it was all the stuff that it brought with it. What really counts now is not circumcision and the straight jacket of law-observance brought, no, it’s the new creation says Paul. Understand this, grasp this, live this and you will not only live a life bearing spiritual fruit but you will be sowing for an eternal harvest.