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Many believers use an alternate code-language I call “Christianese.” It’s a special language that perhaps only folks from an American Christian subculture will understand. For example, we don’t leave a congregation because we don’t like the pastor; we leave because we “aren’t being fed.” We don’t decline to help in a certain ministry because we hate the idea of it. No, we decline because “God isn’t calling me to that, right now” or because “I don’t have peace about that.” A pastor doesn’t leave a congregation because he had an affair. Instead, he had a “moral failure.”
Christianese is but one idiosyncrasy in the American evangelical ecosystem. Every culture has its loopholes; byways and back alleys that lead nowhere good but can be a cloak for bad behavior. Christianity is no different. We have a thirst for self-promotion. Before we’re Christians, we like to exalt in our achievements—we like to feed our pride, to feel superior. After we become Christians, we know that’s “bad” and so we cloak our pride in a veneer of piety.
Paul said we must always march in step with the Spirit (Gal 5:25), because we live in union—in relationship—with the Spirit. Then he warns us against being conceited, which means to be proud for no reason.1 We like to make performance an idol. We like to compare ourselves to others. We like to silently judge other people. This produces a tepid legalism that only grows stronger if we don’t work to crush it. We can get like that without even noticing. The apostle knows this—it’s why he’s talking about it here.
The tell is simple—legalists never glory in the fruits of the Spirit. This is because those are virtues, which means they’re about character, attitude, demeanor, the heart. A legalist (or a legalist apprentice) will never boast about the fruits of the Spirit—she’ll always boast about something external, something more measurable, something at which it’s easier and cheaper to point. Never forget that.
So, it’s no accident that when Paul wants to discuss the error of arrogance, pride, and vain-glory—to explain how to avoid 5:26—he turns to external things. If we could hear his voice, we would know his tone, and know how to read this passage better. Is this written in a forceful and confrontational tone, or is it more a warning from a worried friend? I see the tone as “affectionate disappointment”—the frustrated urgency that characterized the first four chapters can’t have faded too far into the background. I interpret the apostle’s tone here as, “I fear for you, that somehow I have wasted my efforts on you,” (Gal 4:11).
Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently (Galatians 6:1).
How do we know if someone is failing to “keep in step” with the Spirit? Easy—look for a moral failure. A believer is caught in the act. He stands ashamed. He didn’t plan it, but it happened, and now what to do? How should Christians react? It’s easy to cloak a cruel and harsh spirit with a religious gloss. So, Paul detonates that bridge by declaring that if someone is caught in a sin—something that isn’t premeditated, but perhaps overtakes the believer by surprise or by way of a sinful impulse2—then the folks who are truly spiritual should restore that person with a spirit of gentleness, of friendliness.
The NIV tries to help by rendering “you all who are spiritual” as “you who live by the Spirit.” This is right, but perhaps it helps too much. It’s an adjective. It describes the true Christian—she is spiritual, she has the fruits of the Spirit (Gal 5:22f). In other words, Paul says, show the fruits of the spirit in real life, towards real people, in a real situation. Living in union and relationship with the Spirit isn’t an abstract thing, an idea that exists on paper as a nice utopia. It’s real. We can make it real. We must make it real. That starts with not being legalists towards one another when we sin.
The apostle does not say in what manner this is to be done; but it is usually to be done doubtless by affectionate admonition, by faithful instruction, and by prayer. Discipline or punishment should not be resorted to until the other methods are tried in vain.3
But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted (Galatians 6:1).
The legalist doesn’t like to contemplate this scenario, because he already “knows” he’s better, faster, stronger, and smarter than everyone else. “Well,” Paul says, “you’d better check your ego, because you aren’t any of those things.”
Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ (Galatians 6:2).
Paul keeps pressing the fruits of the Spirit because this is where the rubber meets the road. This is Christianity. If you love your covenant brothers and sisters, then you won’t cast them aside when they’re overtaken in a transgression. If you have joy, your focus will be more on God’s love and grace and less on a cold disapproval of others. If you have peace, you can be patient with other people because your own status isn’t dependent on measuring yourself favorably against others. If you have kindness and goodness, then you have a tender-hearted, sweet, and gentle disposition that is eager to forgive.
If you’re faithful, then you’ll show loyalty towards your brothers and sisters by wanting to help them. If we have gentleness, then we’ll want to be kind friends towards others. In short, the opposite of a Pharisee. And, if we live in relationship with the Spirit, we’ll pray for self-control so we don’t do things we ought not do—which means we sympathize when our brothers and sisters fail in that goal, just as we do, too.
We each have burdens, sins, temptations, struggles. We can either be islands, or we can carry these for one another. Help each other. Pray for one another. Be understanding. Be kind and good. What will we do? What does the law of Christ say?
It says to love your neighbor as you love yourself (Gal 5:14; cf. Lev 19:18, Mk 12:28f)—this is what James later called the “royal law” (Jas 2:8). Again, this doesn’t mean Jesus and Moses are at odds. It means this has been God’s heart all along, and the majestic intensity of the Spirit’s work in the lives of New Covenant believers makes this possible. Not a spirit of eager condemnation, but of loving correction (see Jn 7:53-8:11). The Old Covenant law was never an end in and of itself, nor was it ever intended as a vehicle to achieve righteousness in God’s eyes. Obedience was always predicated on love for God (Deut 6:4-5), and Paul is saying that now—as the story has progressed further along into the New Covenant—the Mosaic law is explicitly interpreted Christocentrically.4
If anyone thinks they are something when they are not, they deceive themselves (Galatians 6:3).
The truth is that you’re nothing. I’m nothing. We are nothing. We’re only haters rescued by grace. That means we must not be so quick to condemn, to throw people away, to say “Aha!” If you are in a Christian community where there is a deficit of love, of patience, of understanding—no fruits of the Spirit applied to real people, in real life, in real situations—then you should flee.
Life in relationship with the Spirit—in step with Him (Gal 5:26)—isn’t a polite mission statement, a vision poster, or some bumper sticker. Love is the animating force that binds Father, Son, and Spirit together into one society of persons, one constellation, one compound being—God literally is love (1 Jn 4:8). Part of being restored to the image of God (cf. 2 Cor 3:18) is the renovation of love as that animating force that binds us to God, and to one another in the believing family. The fruits of the Holy Spirit are the crop, the harvest the Gospel reaps in your life from the fountainhead that is God’s love (Jn 3:16). A harvest isn’t theoretical—it’s either there or it’s not. These are virtues because they come from within and so cannot be consistently faked.
A legalist will not like any of this. She’ll equivocate. She’ll talk about holiness (1 Pet 1:15-16). She’ll talk about standards. She’ll get exasperated when one mentions love, patience, kindness, goodness—as if these are Pollyanna ideals for naïve folks who hail from Mayberry. Paul takes a sledgehammer to this lie; “You are nothing, so don’t think you’re something. You’re no better than him.”
Each one should test their own actions. Then they can take pride in themselves alone, without comparing themselves to someone else, for each one should carry their own load (Galatians 6:4-5).
There’s a movie starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford titled The Sting. Both men play con-artists running a swindle on a gangster played by Robert Shaw. One scene takes place on a train. Newman and Redford are preparing for the first act in this long-running con game. This particular hook involves poker. Newman’s character must successfully cheat during a game to set Shaw up.
Newman sits at a table, shuffling cards like a virtuoso. He does several cute little card tricks, and then he fumbles the deck and cards go flying everywhere. Redford stares at him, horrified. Can Newman get it together? Will he fumble the thing when it counts, too? Newman scowls, gathers the cards, and says to Redford, “Just worry about your end, kid.”
In other words, “You worry about your part. I’ll take care of mine!”
That’s what the apostle Paul is saying here. Worry about yourself. Weigh and judge your own actions. Do self-reflection, rather than judgmental condemnation. Then, you can have pride in your own holiness rather than tut-tutting about everyone else’s alleged lack of that virtue. This isn’t a license for self-righteousness, but a call to find grounding and foundation for peace in your own fruit of the Spirit, which is the harvest of God in your soul. After all, the day is coming when the Lord will assess the quality of what each believer has built upon the foundation that is the Gospel—we’ll be graded according to our own fruit (1 Cor 3:10-15).5
A legalist finds peace by comparing himself first to a standard and then to others, graded on a curve. A Christian boasts and glories in what the Spirit is doing in his life. So, each believer must “carry their own load” in the sense that we worry about our end—we focus on the Spirit’s renovation project in our own lives, rather than comparing ourselves to others. The true believer need not fear hellfire—that isn’t even on the table here—but we should serve the Lord with an eye towards being acknowledged as good and faithful children when Jesus returns.
Nevertheless, the one who receives instruction in the word should share all good things with their instructor (Galatians 6:6).
This is a little aside from Paul that has no real connection to what’s come before, or what comes next.6 The NIV tries to make a connection but the word it translates “nevertheless” can also mark a quick transition and be rendered “now” or something colloquial like “by the way …” This is a throwaway comment that’s almost spontaneous. It’s about how a teacher in the congregation deserves to be compensated. Perhaps all this talk about people worrying about their own selves, focusing on their own fruit of the Spirit, has spurred the idea to quickly remind people that their teachers in the congregations (who hopefully talk about this stuff) deserve some love!
Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows (Galatians 6:7).
This comment reminds us of Hosea (Hos 10:12-13). Our actions are the seed we plant. The consequences of those actions are the crop, the fruit, the harvest. When we say one thing and do another, we’re hypocrites. When we say we love God, and don’t love one another, and don’t show the fruits of the Spirit towards brothers and sisters who are overtaken in a transgression, then we’re ridiculing God. We’re insulting Him. We’re mocking Him. “To their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace,” (Heb 6:6).
It’s so easy to fool ourselves. Christians have been doing it since the beginning of time. We do evil and are so blind that we see everyone else’s faults but our own. “Don’t be deceived!” Paul warns.
Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life (Galatians 6:8).
Again, life in union with Christ doesn’t mean works-righteousness, of which legalism is a symptom. Nor does it mean lawlessness; a “we can do whatever we want!” ethos. It means marching in union—in relationship—with the Holy Spirit. Relationship produces observable fruit; either for God or for a very different master (1 Jn 3:7-10). What fruit are we bearing? What’s our “harvest”? More specifically, what seeds are we planting that generate this fruit? The answer tells us all we need to know about the crop to which we belong when Christ sends forth the harvesters at the end of the age to bring in the sheaves (Mt 13:30, 40-43).
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 who belong to the family of believers (Galatians 6:9-10).
The beloved apostle closes this section by implying an equation that suffuses the whole letter:
We don’t know when the time of harvest will come, but we must do our bit while we wait. This means those virtues—that fruit of the Spirit—applied in real life to real people. To all people, of course, but especially to those in the household of faith. Christ’s family is a global community. What kind of crop will we have to show Jesus when He returns to gather in the harvest?
1 LSJ, s.v. “κενόδοξος,” p. 938. The word only occurs once in the New Testament, and once in the apostolic fathers. The CEB has “arrogant” and the NIrV offers up “proud.”
2 See (1) Friberg, Analytical Lexicon, s.v. “προλαμβάνω,” p. 330, (2) Abbott-Smith, Lexicon, s.v., p. 381, and (3) Gerhard Delling, s.v., in TDNT. Albert Barnes captures the spirit of the matter: “hurried on by his passions or temptations to commit a fault,” (Barnes’ Notes, vol. 11 (reprint; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), p. 390). See also Schreiner, Galatians, p. 357.
3 Barnes, Notes, p. 391.
4 “The law, according to Paul, must be interpreted christocentrically, so that it comes to its intended completion and goal in Christ. The ‘law of Christ’ is equivalent to the law of love (5:13–14), so that when believers carry the burdens of others, they behave as Christ did and fulfill his law. In this sense Christ’s life and death also become the paradigm, exemplification, and explanation of love,” (Schreiner, Galatians, pp. 360-361).
5 Schreiner notes that the verb here (“then they can take pride in themselves …”) is future, and so interprets vv. 4-5 as referring to the judgment of believers (Galatians, pp. 361-362). He is correct, but I want to emphasize the present-day implications too.
6 Ridderbos, Galatians, pp. 216-217.