Who is in danger in this passage of Scripture? According to verse 1 somebody has been overtaken in a trespass. Somebody's sin has come to light. He was caught spending the weekend with another woman. Her lie to the welfare people has been detected. His tax evasion was discovered. The source of the rumor has been found. Her constant belittling of her husband has spread for all to see. There is transgression in the church and people know about it. Who is in danger? Whom does Paul spend five verses warning about what might happen to them in this situation of discovery and restoration. The one who has fallen? Or the one who is about to help him stand? Every verse but one has a big yellow light flashing: Caution! Caution! And the message of warning is directed not to the one who has fallen, but to those who aim to help him.
The Virus of Self-Reliance
Someone asked me back in the spring, after I had preached several months from Galatians, why I was so preoccupied (even "obsessed") with the issue of self-reliance and self-exaltation. I've thought a lot about whether this is a theological hobbyhorse of mine, or whether it is the black thread woven through this book which Paul himself belabors. A text like today's is a strong confirmation to me that I am not weaving more black into the tapestry of my sermons than Paul did into his letter. If a doctor is going to address his medical students on the manifold diseases caused by a certain virus, he will refer very often (perhaps in every lecture) to that one virus.
Pride, or self-exaltation, or self-reliance is the one virus that causes all the moral diseases of the world. This has been the case ever since Adam and Eve ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil because they wanted to be God instead of trust God. And it will be true until the final outburst of human pride is crushed at the battle of Armageddon. There is only one basic moral issue: how to overcome the relentless urge of the human heart to assert itself against the authority and grace of God. Why else would Paul write to spiritual people to bear the burdens of others and then spend most of the paragraph warning the spiritual people against the danger of their own pride?
One other word before we look at how Paul does that. Paul described his pastoral labors in 2 Corinthians 1:24 like this: "Not that we lord it over your faith, but we work with you for your joy." When Paul writes Galatians 6:1–5 and when I preach Galatians 6:1–5, our aim is your joy. The battle against pride and self-exaltation in our hearts is a battle for joy. What will keep the clear breezes of joy and peace and goodness blowing through the Bethlehem family? We will keep the windows of our fellowship open to the Spirit of joy by recognizing and doing battle with the window-slamming forces of self-sufficiency in our lives.
The Wind of joy will blow most clean
When you and I have felt and seen
That sin keeps joy from being wide
And every sin takes root in pride.
Burden-Bearing and the Law of Christ
The main point of Galatians 6:1–5 is given in a general way in verse 2 and a specific way in verse 1. Verse 2: "Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ." If a Christian brother or sister is weighed down or menaced by some burden or threat, be alert to that and quickly do something to help. Don't let them be crushed. Don't let them be destroyed. Don't be like the scribes and Pharisees. Jesus said, "They bind heavy burdens hard to bear and lay them on men's shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with their finger" (Matthew 23:4). Don't increase burdens. Make them lighter for people. Some of you wonder what you are supposed to do with your life. Here is a vocation that will bring you more satisfaction than if you became a millionaire ten times over: Develop the extraordinary skill for detecting the burdens of others and devote yourself daily to making them lighter.
In this way you fulfill the law of Christ (6:2). That's an odd phrase in a book that says (5:18): "If you are led by the Spirit you are not under the law." And (3:13): "Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law." Have we been freed from the curse and burden of the Mosaic law just to be burdened down with a more radical law of Christ? No. The difference is that Moses gave us a law but could not change our hearts so that we would freely obey. Our pride and rebellion was not conquered by Moses. But when Christ summons us to obey his law of love, he offers us himself to slay the dragon of our pride, change our hearts, empower us by his Spirit, and fulfill his law.
That is why, even though Christ's law is more radical than the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, he can say, "Come to me, all who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light" (Matthew 11:28–30). The law of Christ is not easy because it's greasy, or permissive. It is easy because when we are weak, he is strong. It's easy because he produces the fruit of love: "I am crucified with Christ, it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me" (2:20). Christ never commands us to do anything that he wants us to do on our own. Therefore, every command in the law of Christ is a call to faith. Through faith God supplies the Spirit of Christ (Galatians 3:5); through the Spirit we produce the fruit of love (5:22); through love we fulfill the law of Christ (6:2). Therefore, if you trust him, you will fulfill his law of love. You will devote yourself to lifting the burdens of others.
The Burden of Trespasses
That is the main point given in a general way in verse 2: bear each other's burdens. But in verse 1 Paul had given one specific kind of burden and how to help a person bear it. "Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness (or meekness)." We tend to think of burdens as sickness, unemployment, loss of a loved one, loneliness, rejection, etc., and the people who bear them as victims. That is right. And if we are full of Christ, we will be about the business of bearing those burdens. But Paul shows us in verse 1 that burdens include trespasses, and those oppressed include culprits. We should probably define a burden, then, as anything that threatens to crush the joy of our faith—whether a tragedy that threatens to make us doubt God's goodness, or a sin that threatens to drag us into guilt and judgment.
A person who is sinning needs our help. Paul says, "Restore him." The word means, make things right. It's used for repairing nets that are torn (Matthew 4:21). Sin is a breakdown in the machinery of our life. It has to be repaired. If you find someone with a breakdown, do what you need to do in order to restore the person to good, godly running condition. In other words, nobody who lives by the law of Christ and in the power of Christ can say about a brother's or sister's sin: "That's not my business. I don't have to add that to my burdens. It's his problem, not mine."
But I have been around Bethlehem long enough to learn that that is exactly the attitude of some of you toward sin in the church. I know of some attitudes and behaviors in this church that are so clearly contrary to the Word of Christ they should have been confronted and repaired long ago by some of you. But, for whatever reason, an atmosphere of silence and neglect has been cultivated—not forgiveness, mind you, for behind closed doors those sins are talked about aplenty. It may take us a long time, but I pray that we can continue to cultivate an atmosphere at Bethlehem where love is so great that we take the breakdown of sin seriously and serve each other as merciful mechanics.
Ultimately, only Christ can forgive and repair the breakdown of sin. Primarily, therefore, our job is to admonish or rebuke or warn each other about attitudes and habits and plans which are wrong, and then point each other to the Great Mechanic who can fix any broken-down jalopy.
That's the main point of the passage, then: Bear each other's burdens; specifically, take on the trouble of helping people realize their sin and get it repaired. If it seems easy for you to help a person bear the burden of sickness, or unemployment, or loss of a loved one, or loneliness, or rejection, but too hard for you to bear the burden of confronting a person because of sin, meditate on this thought: a sinful attitude or a sinful habit is much more harmful to a person than any of those other burdens. Therefore, if we really care about a person's ultimate welfare, we will confront them with their sin as well as comfort them in their trouble. Wouldn't it be great to belong to a family of believers who loved each other so much that they simply could not look the other way while a brother or sister hardens into a habit of sin! Let's be that family! If we are not, we do not fulfill the law of Christ.
The Danger of Pride
Now, having made that main point, everything else in Galatians 6:1–5 is a warning against the danger of pride in those of us who take on the burden of correcting and restoring a fellow believer. Attention! It is not a warning against correcting and admonishing and restoring a person; it is a warning against doing it arrogantly. Unlike some of us, Paul will not throw out the baby of confrontation with the bath water of pride. Paul does not say, "You are all proud and sinful; therefore you have no business pointing out anyone else's sin." He says, "Since you all struggle with pride, therefore make every effort to humble yourself when you point out someone else's sin." The dirty bath water of pride must go. But the clean and healthy baby of loving, humble confrontation must stay.
So I assume that from here on out those of you who belong to Christ and long to follow his law of love will seek to bear each other's burdens and especially to correct and admonish each other about sins in each other's lives. So let's spend the rest of our time listening to Paul's instructions how to knock the legs out from under the ladder of our pride.
In verse 1 he says that you should be "spiritual" before you take on the burden of confrontation. That simply means that you should be "led by the Spirit" (5:18), "walking by the Spirit" (5:16, 25), "bearing the fruit of the Spirit" (5:22). It is not a reference to upper-echelon Christianity, but normal Spirit-filled Christianity. Spiritual people are ordinary people relying on an extraordinary Spirit who produces through them love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness (or meekness). And there's the link between 5:22 and 6:1—gentleness (meekness). "You who are spiritual restore him in a spirit of gentleness." The way to avoid pride as you confront a brother about his sin is to act only in the power of the Spirit. Look to yourself lest you fall prey to the temptation to rely on yourself, or exalt yourself. Remember you are a basket case of sin apart from God's gracious Spirit. Therefore, total reliance on him produces gentleness or meekness, and meekness is the twin sister of humility which is the opposite of pride and boasting.
Paul said in 1 Corinthians 4:7, "What do you have that you did not receive? And if you received it, why do you boast as though it were not a gift?" Which implies that if you are trusting in the Spirit of God for the gift of guidance and power to love, you cannot boast or be arrogant about the maturity you have attained. It is all of God. Examine yourself, Paul says, to see if you are relying on the Spirit in meekness like a needy child, or whether you are puffed up with self-reliance. The spiritual person will help the erring brother or sister by pointing only to Christ where there is healing. The proud person will not help, because attention will be drawn to himself where there is no healing at all.
Assertive Pride and Timid Pride
Verse 3 is the most radical attack on pride in the passage, and it is given as a ground or basis for the meekness with which we bear the burden of loving confrontation: "For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself." Paul's assessment of why people won't confront a brother taken in sin or why people do it without meekness is just the opposite of the 20th century assessment. If you don't have enough so-called assertiveness to confront someone, or if you do, but act arrogantly, most contemporary preachers and counselors (Christian and non-Christian) will tell you that your problem is lack of self-esteem. Paul says that your problem is that you think you are something, when in fact you are nothing.
Someone may say, "Oh, no. The reason I don't confront people is because I'm afraid, not because I'm proud." Listen to the Word of the Lord from Isaiah 51:12, 13, "I, I am he that comforts you; who are you that you are afraid of man who dies, of the son of man who is made like grass, and have forgotten the Lord your Maker who stretched out the heavens?" Who do you think you are to be afraid of mere man, when I am your God and have infinite power? The fear of man may feel humble, but it is rooted in pride, says the Lord. So the Word of God remains: our failure to fulfill the law of Christ is because we think we are something, when we are nothing.
Paul is speaking morally here, not physically. Of course we exist, and in that sense we are something. What he means is that apart from the special grace of God in us we amount to a moral zero because of our sinfulness. "There dwells in me, that is in my flesh, no good thing," Paul said in Romans 7:18. "Apart from me you can do nothing," Jesus said in John 15:5. Again in 1 Corinthians 3:7 Paul says, "Neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth." (Cf. also 2 Corinthians 3:5; Romans 15:17, 18; 1 Corinthians 13:2; 15:10.) As far as moral capacities are concerned, man without Christ can only say one thing honestly: I am nothing; God be merciful to me, a sinner.
But then when God is merciful and Christ enters our life and enables us to love, we ought not to start talking about self-esteem but Christ-esteem. "I am crucified with Christ, it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me" (2:20). What we need to break out of the shackles of our assertive pride and our timid pride is not the bolstering of self-esteem, but a radical confidence in the incomparable Christ who came into the world to save utterly unworthy sinners! When you are looking wholly to Christ for your forgiveness, guidance, love, and joy, the sinner you admonish and restore will know you do not come in the spirit of pride.
Testing One's Own Work
Finally, in verses 4 and 5 Paul says, "Let each one test his own work, and then his reason to boast will be in himself alone and not in his neighbor. For each man will have to bear his own load." Verse 5 sounds just the opposite of verse 2 where we are to bear each other's burdens. And verse 4 sounds just the opposite of verse 3: are we or are we not supposed to boast in ourselves?
Briefly, here is what I think these verses mean. Verse 4 means: in measuring the value of your own achievement, do not take the work of others as your standard of measurement. Don't get puffed up because a brother falls lower than you. Our pride loves to see people fall when we have stood. Paul says, stop feeding your pride by comparing yourself with those who sin. Don't measure your moral achievements by those of others; measure them, test them, by the laws of Christ. Then whatever there is in you to boast about will not be owing to another's inferiority.
But can we boast of anything in ourselves? Ten verses later Paul says (6:14), "Far be it from me to boast (same word as in v. 4) except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ." And in 1 Corinthians 1:31 he said, "Let him who boasts boast in the Lord." And in Romans 15:17, 18, "In Christ Jesus I have a reason for boasting in things pertaining to God. For I will not presume to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me." The cross of Christ and the work of his Spirit in our hearts evaporate all the pride out of our boasting; the cross and the Spirit orient all boasting on the grace of God (1 Corinthians 15:10) and transform it into joyful exaltation in what God is merciful to do through us.
Verse 5 is not a contradiction of verse 2. ("For each man will have to bear his own load.") It is given as a ground for verse 4 ("for"). I think it means: Don't ever try to lighten the load of your own sin by comparing yourself to a failing brother or sister. Why? Because you are going to bear your own load in the judgment. When the final assessment comes and we are all measured by the law of Christ, no one will make your load lighter by being worse than you are. You will bear your own load in that day. The plea we hear so often—"But I was as good as Jack!" or "I wasn't any worse than Jane!"—will fall on deaf ears at the judgment. Don't bolster your pride by comparing yourself with others: you will bear your own load.
Father, forgive us for the pride of our hearts that keeps us from meekly and lovingly admonishing and restoring each other when we sin. Transform Bethlehem into a people whose hate of sin and love for sinners creates a community of purity and peace and joy. Amen.