STUDIES IN GALATIANS No. 29
November 7, 1999
The Bible always does this: throw ideas at us in places where we do not expect to see them. Here we have had a sustained polemic against the idea of justification by works, of our contributing to our own standing before God. And now, in a concluding exhortation, Paul urges upon Christians perseverance in good works precisely in view of the prospect of the judgment day. Indeed, the sound of these verses is so jarring in the context of the polemic of Galatians, that more than one commentator has looked for and found a way to marginalize the burden of Paul’s remarks here. Luther does that himself, by applying vv. 7-10 only to the previous verse 6 and the subject of paying ministers, which he then applies to German situation at the time. [LW 27, 125-128]
Exhortations to perseverance and warnings about giving an account on the Great Day are common enough in Paul’s writings, but we didn’t expect them here, in Galatians. But there is no doubt about Paul’s meaning. “Christians have been justified by faith and cleansed from guilt, they have received the Holy Spirit, but they must persevere in holy living and not rest on their oars.” [Bruce] Paul once said the very same thing concerning himself (1 Corinthians 9:26-27).
And let us not miss the full force of Paul’s remark and exhortation. One might think, from verse 8, that the only distinction that Paul is making here is that between the saved and the lost. There are only the two alternatives: destruction and eternal life. You persevere in good works and get heaven; you fail to persevere you get hell instead. And, there is no doubt that the NT presents the scene of the Judgment Day in those terms: the righteous are vindicated in that Judgment, the unrighteous are condemned. In fact, it troubles us that all the Judgment scenes seem to concentrate on the separation between the sheep and the goats in terms of their behavior, their good works.
That is the way the Lord himself portrays the Last Judgment in Matthew 25:31-46 or in John 5:28-29. The basis of the judgment is the works of a man, his good deeds, the obedience of his life; very much the same terms that Paul uses here in vv. 9-10 where he speaks of our doing good and doing good to all people.
This is not the only perspective, of course. In 2 Thessalonians 1:8 Paul writes of the final judgment visiting punishment upon “those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.” Still, there is this orientation in the Judgment texts to good works and faithful living as the standard of divine judgment, insofar as a separation is made between the saved and the lost on the Great Day.
However, there is more than just that definitive separation here in Paul’s remark. A remark like v. 7, axiomatic as it is, together with a statement like that in v. 9 certainly suggests, what in any case Paul teaches elsewhere in his letters, that the principle of reaping what one has sown applies also within the Christian life and within the judgment of a Christian life. That is, there is a greater reward for Christians who sow more to the Spirit than other Christians do and the judgment of the Great Day will also respect this difference in the measure of one’s sowing between individual Christian.
It is, after all, an axiomatic statement. You have this basic principle of life in God’s world put in a slightly different form in 2 Corinthians 9:6 where it clearly refers to a greater or lesser measure of reaping within the Christian life itself and within the judgment of Christian lives. “Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously.”
Now, the principle is wholly unlimited here. It applies to life in general and in all its stages. It certainly applies to the judgment day and the final accounting of life, as we read in v. 8, but it applies all along the way as well. It is simply the consequence of the imposition of God’s righteous judgment upon the world of mankind.
It is true, for example, of the life of the unsaved, and we see that sowing and reaping according to what one has sown all the time.
- A philandering President finally reaped what he had long sown.
- Lung cancer or sclerosis of the liver is a reaping of the sowing that people have done who have smoked or drank.
- A broken marriage is often the accumulated harvest of marital sins.
- Children who are in moral and spiritual disarray are likewise often the reaping in tears of parents who have neglected their responsibilities.
- Bankruptcy is usually the reaping of a long time of irresponsible sowing unto debt.
- Sin is itself often the reaping of other sins that were sown: abortion the reaping after promiscuity; divorce the reaping of adultery; lying often the reaping of all manner of sins – witness American politics from Watergate to Paula Jones.
- And, most importantly, a long indifference to the gospel and to spiritual concerns, can leave a man or woman totally impervious to the truth of God, the message of salvation, even when death is imminent. I have seen people on their deathbed, and talked to them, who had less interest in the question of the future of their own soul than in whatever was on the television in the hospital room. And these are people who would believe absolutely in some afterlife. There is a terrible and brutish indifference. And what is it but the reaping of a lifetime of indifference to spiritual truth and spiritual issues.
And, once we consider all of this evidence that one does in fact reap what he sows, it is perfectly obvious that Christians do not escape the reach of this law.
A Christian teenager who squanders his high school years and plays instead of studies finds, just as a non-Christian teen will find, that his options for college and beyond are suddenly limited. He is reaping what he has sown. A young Christian woman who finds herself with a child but no husband finds her options suddenly much fewer and less interesting than she had imagined that they would be at this time of life. She is reaping what she has sown.
And a Christian in the middle of life, who has long contented himself with spiritual mediocrity and indiscipline, has formed by constant travel over the same soft ground deep ruts of sin, finds that escaping those ruts, turning on spiritual zeal, fashioning new beginnings in the middle of life, before it’s too late, is not so simple as he from time to time imagined that it would be. Just like the nominal Christian, the Christian in name only, he finds that by long refusal to heed the Word of God that was preached to him, he has become, in Owen’s memorable phrase, “sermon proof and sickness proof.” Nothing can really shake him up. I came to the conclusion a long time ago that I was not going to spend my time and energy in the ministry trying to awaken Christians whose settled habit of life was spiritual napping.
Of course this is the way life is, even in the kingdom of God. Some sow much more to the Spirit than others and so they do and will reap much more in the end. Some sow sparingly and some generously, some make ten talents of the one they are given, some five, and some none at all. Those who make none may not be Christians at all, but all Christians don’t make ten!
Now, to be sure, the reaping does not follow upon the sowing by some fixed law of nature. The Lord is free to apportion the harvest as he will. Only in the great day will there be a perfect proportion between reaping and sowing. As we read in many places in the Scripture – Psalm 73 and Ecclesiastes are two famous cases in point – the wicked do not always reap what they sow in this world. They can die wealthy, happy, and beloved. Only in the judgment of the Last Day do they finally reap precisely what they have sown. And, similarly, the righteous never reap all that they sowed while in the world. The great harvest of their lives is not gathered in until the great day. Still, there is much reaping of what has been sown, even already in this life.
But, at the end, everyone will reap what he has sown! Note what Paul says: “Do not be deceived. God is not mocked.” In other words, it is easy for us to believe the contrary, that men will not reap what they have sown; that somehow they will be spared the consequences of their actions. This is what most people believe, most of the time. That they will not be made to eat the bitter fruit of their living. I remember Billy Graham once in a televised sermon saying that it was an observation of his that “some people live by the philosophy that you sow your wild oats during the week, then go to church on Sunday to pray for crop failure.” But life in God’s universe is not so. It is a remarkable thing for Paul to say in a letter devoted to the subject of salvation by grace and justification by faith! But, even in the world of grace, God is not mocked! That is as it should be, for, as the Scripture says, the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether, and the judge of all the earth does right.
It is true of the unrighteous in hell, some will be beaten with many stripes and some with few. It is true of sin in general. Our catechism asks: “Are all transgressions of the law equally heinous?” And answers: “Some sins in themselves and by reason of several aggravations are more heinous in the sight of God than others.” The Lord says plainly that it will be worse for the inhabitants of Capernaum than for those of Sodom and Gomorrah. The worst sinners who face the severest penalties will not be found in a prison or a slum, but always in churches, where they have sinned against the truth, against the light, against the presence of the Lord himself. And, you see the point: in God’s perfect judgment, greater sins will reap a more bitter harvest, lesser sins a less bitter one.
But the principle applies equally to those who have been made righteous in the righteousness of Christ. Let me review the biblical demonstration of that fact, of the Bible’s teaching that there will be a reaping for Christians in the judgment that is commensurate with their sowing in this life.
- There is a difference of honor and of activity among the angels which at least demonstrates that there is no incompatibility between true righteousness and differences of degree.
- Similarly, God has created great differences in the world of creation and among men and women, and has carried those differences over into the life of the church. Some have more gifts than others, more authority, receive more of his blessing. Peter, James, and John formed an inner circle of the Lord’s disciples. Again, here is a demonstration that there is no incompatibility between grace and degrees of difference among the saints.
- The Scripture explicitly teaches the works of the dead in Christ follow them to heaven. But, at the same time, the Bible makes no effort to hide the fact that some saints work more faithfully and fruitfully than others.
- The Scripture teaches unmistakably and emphatically that all men, without distinction, and Paul includes himself and the Christians among them, must appear before the judgment seat of Christ to give an account of the deeds done in the body, whether good or evil. What is the point and purpose of this judgment according to deeds accept to render a perfect judgment, a judgment that is according to the truth. Verses like 2 Corinthians 5:10 or Romans 14:12 (“So, then, each of us will give an account of himself to God.”) or Ephesians 6:8 (“…because you know that the Lord will reward everyone for the good he does…”) or Philippians 4:17 (“Not that I am looking for a gift, but I am looking for what may be credited to your account.”) or Hebrews 13:17 (“Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account.”) or James 3:1 (“Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.”) or Luke 12:48 (summarizing the lesson of the parable of the foolish steward: “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.”) and many other texts like that, remind us that, in the Bible, divine judgment is infinitely perfect, encompasses everything thing in our lives, and, reminds us of what we should not forget, viz. that God does care very much how we live!
- The purpose of these passages and others like them is over and again explicitly said to be to solemnize us about the lives we live or to cause us to do our work, in Milton’s phrase, “as in my great Taskmaster’s eye.” They are precisely suited, in other words, as a counterpoise to the great emphasis of justification by faith and not by works, which explains why we find this emphasis on the judgment according to works cheek to jowl with the great statements of justification by faith in Paul.
After all, no one doubts that, alongside the prospect of the judgment of our deeds, the Bible unmistakably teaches that those in Christ are, whatever the measure of the faithfulness of their lives, safe in Christ’s righteousness.
- The same Bible that warns Christians to prepare to give an account of their lives tells us that those who believe will not be condemned because they already have eternal life (John 3:18; 5:24);
- That the believing dead are already with Christ in heaven and are clothed in white robes (2 Corinthians 5:8; Philippines 1:23; Revelation 6:11; 7:9,14);
- That Christ will come again to be glorified among all those who believe (2 Thessalonians 1:10);
- That the saints will themselves judge the world (1 Corinthians 6:2,4);
- And that all the sheep of God will be gathered on the great day to the Lord’s right hand.
And, yet, we cannot deny that Paul and the rest of the Bible teaches us most emphatically and unmistakably that a man reaps what he sows! How wise the Bible is! And how true it is! It teaches us all the truth and makes us face up to all the truth.
We prefer one or the other and always stand ready to silence the truth we least like with the truth we prefer. Luther says that in his time, “if they taught in a sermon, that salvation consisted not in our works or life, but in the gift of God, some men took occasion thence to be slow to good works, and to live a dishonest life. And if they preached of a godly and honest life, others did by and by attempt to build ladders to heaven.” [“Evangelista” in The Marrow of Modern Divinity cited in Thomas Boston, Works, vii, 236]
But, brethren, we want and need both: the free grace and justification and the reaping what we have sown. We don’t want God’s gracious gift of the righteousness of his son to be turned by us into an excuse for a lazy, worldly, selfish life; and we do not want zeal for a godly, obedient, fruitful life to become the cause of a proud and legalistic spirit in our hearts – always so ready as they are to accommodate such a spirit.
George MacDonald found an epitaph in a Scottish churchyard that made a deep impression on him.
Here lie, Martin Elginbrodde;
Hae mercy o’ my soul, Lord, God;
As I would do, were I Lord God,
An ye war Martin Elginbrodde.
MacDonald, a remarkably sentimental man in a very sentimental age, thought that man’s longings must reflect the actions and attitudes of God. MacDonald was highly critical of the stern, biblically based Calvinism of the Scottish church of his day, even though his day saw an almost unprecedented flowering of the Calvinist pulpit – many preachers who were deeper, better men, than MacDonald.
The fact is, man’s desires are profoundly twisted. He does not want to reap what he has sown; he doesn’t even see the justice in it. He is happy to hear of grace – though he little understands what that really means (the full extent of his own sin and guilt, his hopelessness, the ruin of his pride, the immensity of the debt then owed to God, etc.) – but he does not want to hear about reaping what he has sown, unless he is left free to decide which seeds will bear fruit and which will not.
But, Paul says plainly and pointedly, do not be deceived, God will not be mocked! A man, every man, both sinful man and righteous man, and that to the perfect degree, will reap what he has sown. And what is the burden of that: be very careful how you sow!