Galatians 6:1

October 17, 1999

We have been considering, over the past several Lord’s Day evenings, Paul’s exposition of the Christian life as a life of conflict between the flesh and the Spirit. The flesh wars against the Spirit and the Spirit against the flesh (Spirit with a capital “S”). The deeds of the flesh, which he enumerated in a representative list, are to be mortified, killed, put off, resisted, cleansed from a Christian’s life by the act of the will energized and empowered and inspired by the present Holy Spirit and the fact of Christ’s definitive deliverance of his people from the power of sin. In the same way and by the same means, the deeds of the Spirit, the heart, speech, and behavior pleasing to God and consistent with the new life God has given to his people, are to be cultivated, practiced, and made habitual.

As C.S. Lewis put it with a wonderful insight even if not with the most accurate theological statement:

“A new nature is being not merely made but made out of an old one. We live amid all the anomalies, inconveniences, hopes, and excitements of a house that is being rebuilt [while we remaining living in it].” [Miracles, 155]

Now, this general ethical perspective is applied to some specific issues and situations.

And, quite naturally, Paul begins with our obligation to those who are caught in some sin. After all, he has been talking about the real presence of sin, of the flesh in Christians and of their continuing conflict with sin. Surely, it is no surprise that Christians will be caught sinning, even caught in some habitual sin.

We all know, of course, that there is a great difference between the sins that we commit and the sins that we are caught at. And we know the difference as well between more common, tolerable faults – an over-quickness in judgment, the unkind word or gossip, tardiness or forgetfulness in some duty, and so on – and sins of far greater consequence to the reputation of Christ and the well-being of others.

John Newton, in one of his letters, writes about this.

“The Lord makes some of his children warnings and examples for others, as he pleases. They who are spared, and whose worst deviations are known only to the Lord and themselves, have great reason to be thankful. I am sure I am: the merciful Lord has not suffered me to make any considerable blot in my profession during the time I have been numbered amongst his people. But I have nothing to boast of herein. It has not been owing to my wisdom, watchfulness, or spirituality…. But I hope to go softly all my days under the remembrance of many things, for which I have as great cause to be abased before him, as if I had been left to sin grievously in the sight of men.” [“Grace in the Ear” Cardiphonia]

Nevertheless, some sins become public and are such as require some response. Commentators suggest that Paul’s language here suggests a more minor fault; in any case the severity of the sin is not stressed. We do not need to suppose that the admonition applies in all cases. Certainly there are cases that immediately become the responsibility of elders, some cases in which there will be or can be no restoration, and the like.

Paul is speaking of the general run of Christian experience and the sins that Christians frequently commit and which come to the notice of other believers. And, in such a case, the more mature, practiced, obedient Christians should restore the offending believer gently, not harshly, not judgmentally, not proudly, not peremptorily, for the spiritual believer is the one who fully understands how much sin there is in his own heart, how easily he falls prey to temptation, and how much he depends upon the Holy Spirit for a godly life – a Spirit he can ill afford to offend by a proud and harsh spirit of his own.

There are some interesting details here.

First, Paul does not say precisely what restoration consists of or how it is to be done.

We may assume that he is speaking of confrontation that leads to confession and contrition, a challenge to new obedience with all practical help offered, and sympathetic encouragement offered by forgiven sinners to a forgiven sinner, and all in such a spirit of gentleness that the offending brother finds it easy to say and do what a Christian should. The sinning brother is thus brought to repudiate his sin and practice new obedience and is fully restored to the heart and the affection of the church. {This is not always easy, of course, and the sinning Christian often needs more than a simple nudge: Nathan with David; Paul with Peter.) That is restoration elsewhere in the Bible and that is how it is fostered. The assumption is that the public sin cannot help but to have created some breach between the sinning Christian and his fellows.

This is a point that seems lost on many Christians today. Their assumption seems rather to be that there is no need of restoration when a Christian sins, for forgiveness, fellowship, a refusal to judge are to be automatic, they come with the sin at the moment of sinning and it is the obligation of other Christians to regard the believer as already restored, not to restore him. Your elders here have certainly encountered that attitude in dealing with people who have been caught in a fault.

I heard of such a case a few days ago. A volunteer in a CPC – not our local CPC – confessed to the morning prayer meeting at the center that, though unmarried, she was pregnant again. But, she hurried to say, she knew she could acknowledge that to this group because they wouldn’t hold it against her or cast her out. It was an unwelcome surprise to her that she should have to be restored and that that restoration would require her stepping down from her work as a CPC volunteer. It did not occur to her that her restoration would require repentance of her, a true acknowledgement of the enormity of her crime, and responsible action in demonstration of that repentance, action that was as visible as the sin she had committed.

No, such sinners must be restored. Their Christian profession does not bring restoration automatically and immediately. The responsibility of the spiritual brethren is to restore the sinning believer, not to recognize his or her constant and inviolable state of restoration.

The Apostle is not worried about admitting that there are more spiritual members of the congregation and less spiritual.

We may wonder how such a distinction can be made – though we make it all the time as a matter of fact – without pride and envy raising their ugly heads. But the Scripture never gives us to think that all Christians live the Christian life equally well. Some are older, more experienced Christians, others are newer and less mature. But, even among those who have been Christians a long time, there are great differences. And, as I will say shortly, even at different moments of the same believer’s life spiritual maturity waxes and wanes. Solomon was more spiritual as a young king than an old king.

There is no doubt that we have more and less spiritual people in this congregation. Surely we do. You judge that spirituality by such things as the consistency of one’s living, by the way in which a person’s thinking is subject to the Word of God, by the way in which the principles of the gospel and attitudes consistent with the gospel – love for God and Christ and neighbor, joy, peaceableness, humility – are visible and consistently so in one’s life, by the extent to which the practice of living faith in Christ and his promises is visible, and by the way in which one’s Christian character stands up to stress.

For what after all does Paul mean by calling certain Christians “spiritual” but that these believers demonstrate to an eminent degree the influences of the Holy Spirit in their hearts and lives. They are people who, according the terminology Paul has just employed in the preceding paragraph, are obviously being led by the Holy Spirit and are themselves keeping in step with the Holy Spirit.

Over the past several weeks I have heard of two cases that illustrate what Paul is talking about, but, unfortunately in a negative way. Both concern ministers that I know and have respected.

In the one case, this man was both a church pastor and a seminary president at the same time. One of the emphases of his pastoral work was a stress on the training of elders and deacons and the importance of lay leadership in the church. Well, his family fell into disarray, his children were not in subjection, the last straw being the announcement of his fifteen-year-old daughter of her intention to marry a fellow she shouldn’t have married at twenty-five. The elders in the church – the very men he had so carefully trained – began dealing with him as the Scripture requires, as this very text we are considering requires – for, as Paul makes clear in Timothy and Titus, a minister’s children are a part of the measurement of his life and behavior. They did exactly what they should have done. I know some of those men. They loved their minister and dealt as gently with him as they could have done, but he would have nothing of it. The very things he had himself taught to others, he would not accept in his own case. The Presbytery was called in and gave the same judgment as the session and he wouldn’t have it from them either.

You cannot always tell who the more spiritual members of a church are, until that spirituality is put to the test. Nor is it always possible for the more spiritual to restore those who have been caught in a sin.

In the other case, a minister was criticized by some members of his congregation. Two of them came to him and told him that they did not think he was doing the job that needed to be done. The two church members violated Paul’s command here, for they should not have brought their accusations as they did, especially against a minister, a matter requiring special care, Paul says in 1 Timothy 5. In any case, they weren’t gentle enough by half. The minister, however, did not keep this conversation to himself. He took his wounded pride to the congregation in conversation after conversation. Now the church is in great distress, his Presbytery is involved, people have left the body, and the future is uncertain. Here also is a man who has been caught in a fault, but who has been difficult to restore. Looking at the entire situation, it seems that here was a case of the unspiritual seeking to restore the unspiritual. I’m afraid that happens more often in the Christian church than it happens that the spiritual try to restore someone caught in a fault.

I’m sure most ministers assume that they are to be numbered among the “spiritual” in the congregation. Time and pressure will tell the tale, however. I think, for example, of Samuel Annesley, John and Charles Wesley’s maternal grandfather. He was “intruded”, that is forced upon a parish in Kent by the Puritan parliament and came as a replacement for an ungodly but very popular minister. The people of the parish made every effort to demonstrate their displeasure at Annesley’s coming and their preference for their former minister. Annesley even received death threats and had stones thrown at him. In response, he promised to leave them as soon as they were ready to receive another minister of his own type. Well his ministry bore a rich fruit and the people were greatly reformed and they did not want him to leave. But he kept his word and left lest any failure on his part to be true to his word would prove a bad example to his young converts. There is a spiritual man! If he couldn’t restore a person caught in a fault, it probably couldn’t be done.

The third detail to take note of here in Paul’s exhortation is the particular danger that attends the spiritual, the “successful” Christian.

We have admitted that Paul does not deny that some live the Christian life more faithfully than others and that such spiritual maturity comes with some corresponding obligations. The spiritual folk in a congregation ought to be the ones who are asked to do a good deal of the heavy lifting in dealing with brethren who have stumbled.

But there is a peculiar danger that lurks near a faithful, fruitful Christian life. Paul says to them, in particular, “Watch yourself, or you also may be tempted.” Paul says a similar thing in 1 Corinthians 10:12-13: “…if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall.” The man who is stumbling all the time knows how easily he falls prey to temptation, but the man who has seemed to put some of his sins to death, or, at least, is living a consistent Christian life for the most part, can grow lax in his watchfulness and find himself suddenly and surprisingly the Devil’s prey. I suspect that this has been the case in regard to both of my minister friends whom I mentioned earlier. They would never have imagined doing what they have done, if you had put it to them, months or years ago, as a general case. They would have been like David, angry about that man who stole his neighbor’s sheep. But at the last, they were that man! They weren’t cautious, watchful over their own hearts. They took past victories as guarantees of future ones. A very big mistake! This was King Asa’s mistake. He was a spiritual man, and in his spiritual maturity, and on account of it, he let down his guard and did things at the end of his life he never would have done years before. He who had trusted the Lord for victory in battle over a superior enemy later threw one of God’s prophets into jail!

Well those, then, are some details from Paul’s exhortation in 6:1. Let me conclude now with an exhortation to us all to be “spiritual” people, to be the people capable of such restorations as Paul describes here. The church is in need of such men and women and always will be in need of them. “Spiritual” in the Greek world of Paul’s day meant having to do with the spirit or the soul of man. Things were “spiritual” because they had to do with the soul and not the body. But Paul has given us a very different meaning of the term. In Paul “spiritual” has to do not with the human soul as opposed to the body, but has to do with the Holy Spirit as opposed to the flesh and the sinful aspects of human life. Men and women are “spiritual” to the degree that they are filled with the Holy Spirit and the Spirit is living and working within them. [Cf. Whyte, Thomas Shepard, 86]

What is such a life and what are such Christians but the manifestation of the presence, power, will, and divine goodness of the Holy Spirit. Such a life is the life the Spirit creates in those who do not grieve the Holy Spirit, but rather keep in step with the Holy Spirit.

There have been times in the church’s past when there have been many deeply spiritual men and women in her company. Scotland in the 16th and 17th centuries was such a time. Alexander Whyte once wrote,

“There were many choice Christians in that day in Scotland. Were there ever more, for its size, in any land, or in any church on the face of the earth? I do not believe there ever were. Next to that favored land that produced the Psalmists and the Prophets, I know no land that, for its numbers, possessed so many men and women of a profoundly spiritual experience, and of an adoring and heavenly mind, as Scotland possessed in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries…. What minds and hearts those men and women had! And how they gave up their whole mind and heart to the life of godliness in the land, and to the life of God in their own hearts! How thin and poor our religious life appears beside theirs!…. Was it the persecution? Was it the new reformation doctrines? Was it the masculine and Pauline preaching: preaching, say, like Robert Bruce’s and Rutherford’s that did it? What was it that raised up in Scotland such a crop of ripe and rich saints?” [Samuel Rutherford, 123-124]

I was reading this past week one of the letters that Samuel Rutherford wrote to John Kennedy. Kennedy was the remarkable son of a remarkable father. Hugh Kennedy’s deathbed was a fabled part of Christian tradition in the West of Scotland for many generations. The old saint, in the last ours of his life, was visited with joy that was unspeakable and full of glory. The report of it had made an immense impression on the entire Scottish church. His son, who had seen the chariot of fire in which his father had ascended to the next world and the sight of Christ, became, himself, a most spiritual man. There are three letters from Rutherford to him that have survived. And they are all full of the deepest and purest Christian sentiment and feeling.

The first of them was written after Kennedy was himself almost drowned when his small boat was swept out to sea. But for men such as these, for spiritual men, that accident was cause for the deepest thought and reflection and consecration. Rutherford reminds him that the winds and the waves were from God as was his deliverance from them. He urges him to see that God’s sparing of his life lays Kennedy under a great obligation to make the most of his lengthened days.

“The Lord knew that ye had forgotten something that was necessary for your journey; that your armour was not as yet thick enough against the stroke of death.”

“Now, in the strength of Jesus, despatch your business; that debt is not forgiven, but [postponed]; death hath not bidden you farewell, but hath only left you for a short season.”

“The last tide will not wait you for one moment. If ye forget anything, when your sea is full, and your foot in that ship, there is no returning again to fetch it. What you do amiss in your life to-day, ye may amend it tomorrow; for as many suns as God maketh to arise upon you, ye have as many new lives; but ye can die but once, and if ye mar or spill that business, ye cannot come back to mend that piece of work again. No man sinneth twice in dying ill; as we die but once, so we die but ill or well once.”

“Fulfill your part of the contract with patience, and break not to Jesus Christ. Be honest, dear brother, in your bargaining with him; for who knoweth better how to bring up children than our God? For…He hath been practised in bringing up his heirs these 5,000 years; and His bairns are all well brought up, and many of them are honest men now at home, up in their own house in heaven… Now, the form of his bringing up was by chastisements, scourging, correcting, nurturing; and see if he maketh any exception of his bairns; no his eldest son and his heir, Jesus, is not excepted… It is true, terrors of conscience cast us down; and yet without terrors of conscience we cannot be raised up again; fears and doubtings shake us; and yet without fears and doubtings we would soon sleep, and lose our grips of Christ.”

“Good brother, call to mind the memory of your worthy father, now asleep in Christ; and, as his custom was, pray continually, and wrestle, for the life of a dying, breathless kirk.” [Letters, No. xxii, pp. 74-77]

Oh for the day when there will be large numbers of saints everywhere in the church who think like that and speak like that and feel the force of divine truth like that. Who love Christ and the church like that; who love the Word of God and the gospel like that. Who face the power of sin and temptation realistically like that but also know the power of Christ’s deliverance like that. And who bend every power to the end that they might walk according to the Spirit and not according to the flesh.

And how fortunate those believers, we believers, who, when we are caught in a sin, have such spiritually minded people to restore us!