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The Epistle to the Galatians: What is the Gospel? Chapter 6 – “Bear One Another’s Burdens”

The Epistle to the Galatians: What is the Gospel?

Chapter 6 – “Bear One Another’s Burdens”

Paul has no illusions about the challenge of living the Christian life. Anyone can fall. Christians need to support each other, not condemn one another. Each of us has our own role to play in Christ’s service. There is no rank or hierarchy in the church. Paul reminds the Galatians of the battle with the flesh that he mentioned in the previous chapter (5:16-17). Insisting on observing the law however does not demonstrate spirituality. In fact, it only serves the pride of the flesh (Col. 2:16-23).

I. “A Spirit of Gentleness” – 6:1-10

Paul acknowledges that there can be failures and breakdowns in the Christian community. This is the practical application of his insistence that Christians have to follow the law of love rather than the written law. A focus on the law leads to condemnation and rejection when someone is “detected in a transgression” (The Scarlet Letter for example). Paul maintains that we who are led by the Spirit “should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness.” However, this has not often been the case because the Galatian heresy of depending on the law is so widespread. Too often Christians caught in a failing (certainly as defined by the law of Moses) are subject to removal from whatever office they have and even rejection by the Christian community.

This is the opposite of what Paul advocates. Such a person is to be restored “in a spirit of gentleness.” There is a vast difference between being removed and being restored. Paul would not object to a restoration that would include discipline, counselling or other appropriate responses. Yet all this has to be done by the community bearing the burden of the person and responding in an attitude of gentleness. Too often individual Christians and the church in general response with harshness and condemnation. What may even be worse is to cover up the indiscretion or to pretend it didn’t happen. This hardly fulfills “the law of Christ.” Jesus did not hesitate to criticize even the disciples but he always restored them (Matt. 17:17). Jesus placed a high priority on forgiveness (Matt. 18:21-22).

Paul reminds his readers that anyone of them may be tempted. We should not be quick to judge. Jesus puts it bluntly when he says let the one who is without sin cast the first stone (John 8:7). Years ago President Clinton’s lying about a sexual encounter led to his being impeached. He was roundly criticized. Yet some twenty years later it has been noted that virtually everyone involved in a leadership role in his impeachment has been found to have been guilty of some form of sexual immorality. These types of situations lead to the world seeing Christians as hypocrites.
Paul Is not about to excuse sin or indulgence. There is the other extreme that tolerates and accepts everything. God is merciful. “All things are lawful” (I Cor. 6:12). Paul has already warned about the danger of using freedom as an excuse for self-indulgence (5:13). God cannot be mocked. To take the attitude that I can do whatever I want because I’m free in Christ is in effect to mock God. If we indulge our flesh we will bear the consequences of corruption. However, if we focus on the Spirit (not the law) we will receive the benefit of eternal life. We are saved by faith. We need to live in faith. True, all of us are vulnerable. We all need support in Paul’s “spirit of gentleness.” At the same time, we are accountable and responsible. We can never take God’s goodness and mercy for granted.

Paul concludes this section with a call for action. We are to work for the good of all, especially for those of the family of faith. Our acts of mercy, love and justice need to focus on all people. Of course Christians should support each other. However, we cannot be limited to those in our own circle. We need to “work for the good of all.” We must be prepared to respond to anyone who are in need.

II. Final Thoughts – 6:11-18

Paul mentions the problem with his eyesight in referring to the “large letters” in his writing. In his final comments Paul reiterates his point that following the law, beginning with circumcision, is not a sign of spirituality, much less Christian faithfulness. In fact, it is the opposite. It is a sign of the flesh, our lower self-centered, sinful nature. Paul may be alluding to the fact that Christian Jews were being persecuted in synagogues when he speaks about avoiding persecution. However, this may apply to Gentile believers since it would be presumed that Jewish Christians would already have been circumcised.

Paul makes his point again that any display of following the law of Moses quickly leads to boasting (Luke18:11). This is the irony of the law. Rather than curtailing the power of sin or the flesh, it actually leads to greater sin (Rom. 7:7-25). The law in any form leads either to despair over our failure to keep it or to spiritual pride if we can convince ourselves that we are really following it. For Paul circumcision or keeping the law is not the main issue. None of those can be a commandment or requirement. For Paul the new creation in Christ is everything (II Cor. 5:17).

What Paul has done in this epistle and in his other writings is to turn the conventional view of religion on its head. Coming to God is not a matter of human effort or intention. Still less is it based on following any sort of law or religious observances. It is all a matter of God’s gift of new life given in Jesus Christ. The gospel breaks down all barriers. It is not a matter of belonging to any particular group or organization, religious or otherwise. The gospel is for all. There is no distinction, no separation. The fact that God has provided salvation for all solely by the grace (gift) received in Jesus Christ challenges us to proclaim the message. God is merciful to all (Rom. 11:32) but that mercy cannot be separated from the faith we have in Christ. Faith is broader than what we think. Christ is greater than we can imagine. In him a new creation has begun. Paul calls us to live into this new creation. We don’t create it but we can certainly witness to it and invite everyone to share it.

The tragedy of the Galatians and one that has been repeated throughout the ages is that God’s gift can be turned into a list of demands and requirements. When that happens freedom disappears. The loss of that all-encompassing freedom also leads to the loss of the fruit of the Spirit. The all-embracing message of the gospel is reduced to a narrow set of restrictions. For Paul that truly is a different gospel which in fact is no gospel at all. Paul prays for peace and mercy for the Israel of God. This is the transformed and renewed Israel that Paul describes in Romans 9-11, an Israel that embraces not only Jew and Gentile but indeed everyone,

“For to this end we toil and struggle, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe” (I Timothy 4:10).

Questions for Us –

1. Why do you think it is so important to restore those who have fallen “in a spirit of gentleness?”

2. Why do we often find it easy to compare ourselves to others? Why is pride so deadly?

3. Why does Paul identify religious requirements like circumcision with the “flesh” over against the Spirit?

Next Study – James Chapter 1 – “Lacking in Nothing