The Life of Freedom (preaching resource for 7/3/22)
Note: though the RCL Epistle reading this week is Galatians 6:1-16, this sermon exegetes the larger context (Gal. 5:26-6:18) drawing on multiple sources including commentary from from John Stott (IVP NT Commentary) and the Expositors Bible Commentary.
Sowing Seeds (source)
In Galatians chapter 5 Paul defines and defends our freedom in Christ. But what does that freedom look like in everyday life? Paul tells us in chapter 6.
1. LOVING RELATIONSHIPS (5:26-6:5)
Life in Christ, in step with the Holy Spirit, looks like loving relationships. Paul illustrates this by examining relationships among Christian brothers and sisters. He shows how Christians should not treat one another, then how they should.
a. How Christians should not treat one another (5:26)
Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.
Here is a vital truth: our conduct toward others is determined by our opinion of ourselves. When that opinion is grounded in conceit (self-centeredness), one of two things will result: First if in our conceit, we regard ourselves as superior to others we will ‘provoke’ (challenge, hassle) them, for we want them to know and feel our superiority. If, on the other hand, we perceive them as superior to us we will ‘envy’ them. Neither attitude nor relational strategy expresses Christ’s God-centeredness and humility, which we share through the indwelling Spirit. And so we must say ‘no’ to our sinful nature, and say ‘yes’ to the Spirit of Christ.
b. How Christians should treat one another (6:1-5)
Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other's burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. If anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself. Each one should test his own actions. Then he can take pride in himself, without comparing himself to somebody else, for each one should carry his own load.
The way of the fallen nature (the ‘flesh’, KJV) is ‘self-centeredness’. The way of the Spirit is ‘other-centeredness’, expressed in ‘carrying’ other people’s ‘burdens’. What kind of burdens? All kinds, including besetting sins. When we see a brother or sister in Christ caught up in sinful behavior, we should (as our Lord instructed in Mat. 18), go to them in Christ’s spirit of humility, seeking to ‘restore’ them in love—with gentleness. In doing so we will seek to help, not punish or expose. But those who offer such help must, themselves, be ‘spiritual’, that is, walking in the Spirit, not in the flesh, or they too may be drawn into sin. So be careful.
By such burden-bearing we 'fulfill the law of Christ' (v2). Paul may here be linking 'burdens' and 'law' as a swipe at the Judaizers who were seeking to burden the Galatians with law observance. Paul may be saying to them, in effect, that instead of imposing the law as a burden upon others, they should rather lift their burdens and so fulfill Christ's law.
At its root, the 'law of Christ' is to love others as He loves us. That’s Jesus’ ‘new commandment’ (John 13:34). So, as Paul has already stated in Gal. 5:14, to love our neighbor is to fulfill the law. Note that to 'love our neighbor', 'bear one another's burdens' and 'fulfill the law' are three equivalent expressions. It shows that to love one another as Christ loved us may lead us not to some heroic, spectacular deed of self-sacrifice, but to the much more mundane and unspectacular ministry of burden-bearing. When we see a woman, or a child, or an elderly person carrying a heavy load, do we not offer to carry it for them? So when we see somebody with a heavy burden on their heart or mind, we must go alongside and share their burden. Similarly, we must be humble enough to let others share ours.
Paul continues in v3: *For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself*. The implication seems to be that if we do not or will not bear one another's burdens, it is because we think that we are above it. Again it is apparent, as in Gal. 5:26, that our conduct to *others* is governed by our opinion of *ourselves*. As we provoke and envy other people when we have self-conceit, so when we think we are 'something' we decline to bear their burdens.
But to think thus of ourselves is to be self-deceived. The truth is that we are not 'something'; we are 'nothing'. Is this an exaggeration? Not when the Spirit has opened our eyes to see ourselves as we are—rebels against God who made us in His image, deserving nothing at His hand but destruction. When we realize and remember this, we shall not compare ourselves favorably with other people, nor shall we decline to serve them or bear their burdens.
Comparing ourselves to others is so dangerous that Paul says, *Each one should test his own actions. Then he can take pride in himself, without comparing himself to somebody else, for each one should carry his own load* (vv4-5). In other words, instead of scrutinizing our neighbor and comparing ourselves with him, we are to test our 'own actions' for we will have to bear 'our own load'. That is, we are responsible to God for our work and must give an account of it to Him one day.
There is no contradiction here between v2, 'carry each other’s burdens', and v5, 'each one should carry his own load'. The Greek word for ‘burdens’ means a heavy load, while the word for ‘load’ is a term for a light pack. So we are to bear one another's heavy 'burdens', but there is one light ‘load’ we cannot share—indeed we do not need to because it is the burden of condemnation which Christ has already lifted from us.
2. SOWING AND REAPING (6:6-10)
Anyone who receives instruction in the word must share all good things with his instructor. Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. Let us not become weary in doing good, or at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, specially to those who belong to the family of believers.
Paul next addresses Christian living under the great principle of sowing and reaping: *Whatever a man sows, that he will also reap* (6:7, RSV). This principle is written into all life. It is not the reapers who decide what the harvest is going to be like, but the sowers.
Take agriculture for example, if a farmer wants to reap a bumper harvest of a particular grain, he must sow the right seed, and he must sow it plentifully. The same principle operates in the moral and spiritual sphere of life. If a person 'sows their wild oats' as the saying goes, then they must not expect to reap strawberries! On the contrary, 'those who plough iniquity and sow trouble reap the same' (Job. 4:8). Or, as Hosea warns (8:7), 'they sow the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind'.
This principle is an immutable law of God, which Paul prefaces first with a command: *do not be deceived*. Many people are deceived concerning this law of seedtime and harvest. They sow their seeds thoughtlessly, nonchalantly, and blind themselves to the fact that the seeds they sow will inevitably produce a corresponding harvest. Or they sow seed of one kind and expect to reap a harvest of another. They imagine that somehow they can get away with it. But this is impossible. So Paul adds a statement: *God cannot be mocked*. People may fool themselves, but they cannot fool God. They may think that they can escape this law of seedtime and harvest, but they cannot. They may go on sowing their seeds and closing their eyes to the consequences, but one day God Himself will bring in the harvest.
From this principle we turn then to the application. There are three spheres of Christian experience in which Paul sees the principle of sowing and reaping in operation in a Christian’s life: ministry, holiness and well-doing:
a. Christian ministry (6:6-7)
Anyone who receives instruction in the word must share all good things with his instructor.
The principle here is clear: a minister (who sows the word) may expect to be supported by (reap support from) those who receive it. Jesus emphasized this principle many times, such as his teaching that 'the laborer deserves his wages' (Lk 10:7). Those who devote their lives to ministry should reap a livelihood from those who are the recipients. And so we are to sow financially and otherwise into the church generously.
b. Christian holiness (6:8)
The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.
Here Paul applies the sowing-reaping principal to the theme of the flesh (sinful nature) and the Spirit which he has addressed in 5:16-25 where the flesh and the Spirit are two combatants at war with each other. But here the Christian's life is likened to a country estate, and the flesh and the Spirit are two fields in which we may sow seed. Further, the harvest we reap depends on *where* and on *what* we sow.
This is an important principle of holiness. We are not helpless victims of our nature, temperament and environment. On the contrary, what we become depends in large part on how we behave; our character is shaped by our conduct. According to Galatians 5, the Christian's duty is to 'walk by the Spirit', according to Galatians 6 it is to 'sow to the Spirit'. Thus the Holy Spirit is likened both to the path along which we walk (Gal. 5) and to the field in which we sow (Gal. 6). How can we expect to reap the *fruit* of the Spirit if we do not sow in the *field* of the Spirit? The old adage is true: 'Sow a thought, reap an act; sow an act, reap a habit; sow a habit, reap a character; sow a character, reap a destiny.'
Let’s examine the two kinds of sowing which are possible, namely 'sowing to the flesh' and 'sowing to the Spirit'.
1). Sowing to the flesh. In chapter 5, Paul tells us that our 'flesh' (sinful nature) is our lower nature 'with its passions and desires' (v24) which, if unchecked, break out in the 'works of the flesh' (vv9-21). This lower nature is in each of us and remains in us even after conversion. It is one of the fields of our human estate in which we may sow. To 'sow to the flesh' is to pander to it, to cuddle and stroke it, instead of crucifying it.
The seeds we sow are largely thoughts and deeds. Every time we allow our mind to harbor a grudge, nurse a grievance, entertain an impure fantasy, or wallow in self-pity, we are sowing to the flesh. Every time we linger in bad company whose insidious influence we know we cannot resist, every time we lie in bed when we ought to be up and praying, every time we view pornography, every time we take a risk which strains our self-control, we are sowing to the flesh. Some Christians sow to the flesh every day and wonder why they do not reap holiness. Holiness is a *harvest*; whether we reap it or not depends in large part on what and where we sow.
2). Sowing to the Spirit. To 'sow to the Spirit' is the same as 'to set the mind on the Spirit' (Rom. 8:6) and to 'walk by the Spirit' (Gal.5:16, 25). Again, the seeds we sow are our thoughts and deeds. We are to 'seek' and to 'set our minds on' the things of God, 'things that are above, not...things on earth' (Col.3:1-2). By the books we read, the company we keep and the leisure we pursue we can be 'sowing to the Spirit'. Then we are to foster disciplined habits of devotion in private and in public, in daily prayer and Bible reading, and in worship with the Lord's people. All this is 'sowing to the Spirit'; without it there can be no harvest of the Spirit, no 'fruit of the Spirit'.
Paul distinguishes between the two harvests as well as between the two sowings. The results are only logical. If we sow to the flesh, we shall 'from the flesh reap corruption'. That is, a process of moral decay will set in. We shall go from bad to worse until we finally perish. If, on the other hand, we sow to the Spirit, we shall 'from the Spirit reap eternal life'. That is, a process of moral and spiritual growth will begin. Communion with God (which is eternal life) will develop now until in eternity it becomes perfect.
Therefore, if we want to reap a harvest of holiness, our duty is twofold: First, we must avoid sowing to the flesh, and secondly we must keep sowing to the Spirit. We must seek to eliminate the first while concentrating our time and energies on the second. It is another way of saying (as in Gal. 5) that we must 'crucify the flesh' and 'walk by the Spirit'. This is the way of growing in holiness.
c. Christian well-doing (6:9-10)
Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those ho belong to the family of believers.
Active Christian service is tiring, challenging work. We are tempted to become discouraged, to slack off, even to give up. So Paul gives us this incentive: he tells us that doing good is like sowing seed. If we persevere in sowing, then 'in due season we shall reap, if we do not lose heart'. If the farmer tires of sowing and leaves half his field unsown, he will reap only half a crop. It is the same with good deeds. If we want a harvest, then we must finish the sowing and be patient, like the farmer who 'waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient over it' (James 5:7).
If the sowing is the doing of good works in the community, what is the harvest? Paul leaves us to guess. But the patient doing of good in the church or community always produces good results. It may bring comfort, relief or assistance to people in need. It may lead a sinner to repentance. It may help to arrest the moral deterioration of society (this is the function of 'the salt of the earth') and even to make it a sweeter and more wholesome place to live in. It may increase people's respect for what is beautiful, good and true. And it will bring good to the doer as well - not indeed salvation (for this is a free gift of God), but a reward in heaven for faithful service.
*So then*, Paul continues (v10), since the sowing of good seed results in a good harvest, *as we have opportunity (and this earthly life is full of such opportunity), let us do good to all men, and especially to those who are of the household of faith*. As the old saying goes 'charity begins at home', although it must not stop there. We are to love and serve even our enemies, Jesus said, not only our friends. Thus, a 'patient continuance in well-doing' is a characteristic of the true Christian.
3. CONCLUSION: HERE’S WHAT COUNTS (6:11-18)
See what large letters I use as I write to you with my own hand! Those who want to make a good impression outwardly are trying to compel you to be circumcised. The only reason they do this is to avoid being persecuted for the cross of Christ. Not even those who are circumcised obey the law, yet they want you to be circumcised that they may boast about your flesh. May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is a new creation. Peace and mercy to all who follow this rule, even to the Israel of God. Finally, let no one cause me trouble, for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brothers. Amen.
Here Paul concludes his epistle. So far he has been dictating, but now, as his custom was, he takes the pen from his secretary's hand in order to add a personal postscript. Verse 11: *See with what large letters I am writing to you with my own hand*. Various suggestions have been made about these 'large letters'. Perhaps he is referring to his unprofessional writing style—he was not a professional scribe. Or perhaps his large letters were due to bad eyesight in connection with the 'bodily ailment' of 4:13-15. But most commentators consider that he used large letters for emphasis.
What does Paul emphasize? It is the central theme of this letter: the gospel, which is a declaration of freedom in Christ. He contrasts his gospel with the false gospel of the Judaizers. As he makes this contrast, he pinpoints the vital issues at stake. Reading his words, we are lifted out of the first century and brought into the twenty-first. We even catch a glimpse of the course of church history down the ages.
Paul’s closing point to us is this: The gospel is not about circumcision of the flesh, which represents governing our lives by the stipulations of the Law of Moses. It’s about being a new creation in Christ—and this comes through the Spirit, not the Law. And so believers are to follow ‘this rule’—this way. In doing so they will be God’s true ‘Israel.’ Amen.