The chief aim of this epistle text is to instruct people in the Church, especially those in official authority, that is, pastors. Saint Paul says, “If a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted.”
The phrase, “you who are spiritual,” seems to refer to all who are in the spirit, that is, Christians. This task belongs to all of us because of our obligation to show brotherly love to fellow believers. However, the same task belongs particularly to preachers by right of their vocation. Since we exercise the keys publicly on behalf of the congregation, we ministers are especially called upon to rebuke and correct a man who has been overtaken in a fault.
Here the word “fault” can mean any sin in which a man has become snared. The devil, the sinful world, and the old Adam are all working to entangle us. All of us can fall; none are immune. If we are human in this life, then the sinful nature still clings to us, and we are vulnerable.
Consequently, we should learn two things: If a brother, particularly a pastor, comes to us to show us our sin, we should not be offended. Rather, we should see that they are showing love to us by trying to help us. We will likely feel an impulse in that situation to react defensively and angrily, because the old Adam feels too proud to tolerate any criticism. Hopefully, we will instead receive rebuke in a spirit of humility and gratefulness.
Secondly, we should learn that it is not helpful to ignore other people’s sins. Instead, the loving way is to show them their sins to help them escape any entanglement. If a man wandered off the right path and blundered into a bog and was stuck fast, he would most certainly want us to throw him a rope and pull him out. That is how we should view this task.
Now, this does not mean that we need to constantly hound and nitpick every behavior of every person. There is a certain amount of overlooking that love does, because we cannot make everything absolutely perfect in any one of us. Particularly, you should realize that you cannot make yourself utterly sinless, so why should you try to pounce on a fellow brother over every little sin?
So when is it good to correct a brother? First of all, when it is a very serious sin. Some sins are casual and slip out of a person without their notice. But other kinds of sin require more conscious intent. These pose a danger to a Christian. Secondly, tell a brother when he is repeating the sin over and over. This means that he is likely unaware that it is a sin, or has stopped repenting over it. If you see that he is sorry and is struggling with the sin, it is not time for rebuke, but encouragement and consolation. Then it is time for the Gospel.
When we bring rebuke to a brother, then Paul warns us to do so “in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted.” If you come down like a ton of bricks on someone, then you may simply crush their spirit and remove any hope from their hearts. Instead, approach them softly, as you would to a weak and injured person, which is spiritually what they are. Compassion and a desire to heal should guide you.
But a person may be tempted to think too highly of themselves while they correct a sinner. Paul counsels us to humility with these words: “For if anyone thinks himself to be something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself.” If you get puffed up because you think you are saving someone, watch out, because you are thinking more highly of yourself than you should. If by God’s grace He is using you to help a stumbling person, that is His grace and mercy, not yours.
Pride can be an enticing lure for pastors. Since Christians are under obligation to honor their pastors, these men may be tempted to listen too closely to the voices of praise and thanks, and get an inflated ego from it. So they are admonished by the apostle to guard against it. Those in spiritual authority should not become proud nor misuse their office. Such misuse can damage Christian unity in doctrine and in love.
Also, pastors should not despise or pass by the wounded and helpless. It is one thing to be prideful and puffed up. It is another to not speak when you are obligated to do so. If a pastor ignores a man stuck in a sin, then how is he better than the priest and Levite in Christ’s parable? They passed right by a man who lay on the side of the road, beaten within an inch of his life. The priest and Levite thought that they were something, in fact, they were so much something that they could not possibly stop. There was no compassion in those hearts. May we not only feel compassion, but act upon it; especially me, the minister of the Gospel.
That is the whole point and goal of the apostle’s exhortation in Galatians. When we are snared in a sin, we lose sight of the Cross. We need a fellow believer to lead us back to see the Blood of atonement shed for us. We would want someone to restore us if we were losing hold of the sweet forgiveness of Christ. We should be willing to do the same for another.
We should not sow and reap to the flesh, with its chosen ways and pleasures. Instead, we should sow and reap to the Spirit. In this context, Paul wrote that sowing to the Spirit meant sharing all good things with the one who teaches, which is me, the pastor. This means giving offerings, or whatever else helps support the teacher of the Gospel. This shows the devotion we have towards the Word. It shows that we value the things of God, not the things of the sinful flesh. We should prefer to deny ourselves pleasure and instead receive eternal life, not eternal corruption.
This kind of devotion only comes by the Spirit, working in the Word. It only comes when the Gospel does its gracious work in forgiving us, and thereby awaken our hearts to value this treasure which is Christ and His work.
So we glory in the Cross of Christ, by which we are crucified to the world, and the world to us. Our pride and joy that give our life meaning are the suffering and death of the Son of God for us. Nothing we can do or say can save from sin and death; only the Crucifixion. Ugly as it is, Calvary is our crown of victory.
It is ugly also in its effect upon us in relation to the world. The sinful people of the world will hate us because we are Christians. We in turn condemn them as lost sinners, for that is what we confess when we say that no one is saved except through faith in Christ. But this mutual condemnation – the sinful world of us and we of the sinful world – will result in pain and friction and perhaps outright persecution. We must thus bear our own crosses of pain under persecution, whether small or large.
Yet it is all worth it. We consider it joy and a gift of God that we are rejected by the world. For we are not part of this old creation that is passing away. We are the new creation in Christ Jesus. We are renewed in Him so that we are part of what is coming, the incorruptible and eternal heaven and earth that God will deliver to His saints.
These few words by no means exhaust the meaning of this text, but let them be enough for now.
The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. Amen.
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