A Pair of Paradoxes

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“Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself. But let each one test his own work, and then his reason to boast will be in himself alone and not in his neighbor. For each will have to bear his own load” (Galatians 6:2-5).

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

If you check out this text closely you might notice that it contains some apparent contradictions. Verse 3 says “Bear one another’s burdens,” but at the end of the same paragraph it says, “For each will have to bear his own load.” Then, in verse 4 we read, “Let each one test his own work, and then his reason to boast will be in himself alone,” but at the beginning of the last paragraph the author asserts, “Far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Galatians 1:14). So which is it? Bear one another’s burdens or bear your own load? Boast in yourself or boast only in the cross of Christ?

We have here not a couple of contradictions, but a pair of paradoxes—seemingly self-contradictory statements that when investigated prove to be well founded or true. Such paradoxes emerge when St. Paul looks, as he sometimes does, at the same situation from two different angles. He looks first from the standpoint of the Law, and later returns from the perspective of the Gospel.

According to the Law, everyone will be judged by their own deeds, on his own work. So, before the judgment of God we only have our own works to boast in and not our neighbor’s. Not exactly comforting, is it? Considering our own righteous deeds are as filthy rags. Even our best works are marred by sin, selfishness, and impure motives.

But the Gospel shows us a wonderful exception. The one Man whose works are worth anything allows us to be judged based on His works, to boast in them, and so Paul happily concludes, “Far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Galatians 1:14). So, under the Law we do bear our own load, an intolerable load, for who could shoulder the burden of their own guilt and carry it on earth, much less to Heaven? But under the Gospel, our Lord Jesus bears our load and frees us to help others with their burdens.

This is the picture of the Christian community we are shown, reaching back to Pentecost and the formation of the New Covenant people of God—burden bearers. The image chosen to describe the moral life of the believer is a graphic one. Each is carrying a burden (Galatians 1:2), and the burden is the obligation of the holy Law of God, or more precisely it is our inability to keep His Law.

One of the criticisms Jesus made of those who interpreted the Law of God for the people of His day was this, “You load men with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not touch the burdens with one of your fingers” (Luke 11:46). So, you imagine people staggering and stumbling under this moral weight.

From the times of the Old Testament stumbling has been an image of peril, especially moral peril (cf. Isaiah 59:10; Proverbs 4:16). Therefore, it is for each of us as we go our way: There is a danger we will crumble under a weight which is too much for us to bear and fall into peril of our souls. Law. Sin. Inability. It is all right there.

Then comes the invitation of Jesus: “Come to Me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy, and My burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-29).

As Christians, we find ourselves still staggering under the Law, failing and falling. Then what? This is the next point for Paul. We need someone to help us to our feet. The lesson says we do it for each other. It is extraordinary that the Lord should have arranged it this way, but here it is. When one Christian topples under the weight, and falls into sin, then another believer, tottering in unstable equilibrium under the same burden, should be the one to help them up.

How is it done? We all know enough of the principles of mechanics to see how the one who acts as a crane to hoist up another must be strong. They must stand on solid ground, the moral high ground. Only from there could one venture to lift another. So, our text tells us everyone must find, “his reason to boast in himself alone and not in his neighbor.” Each of us must be up to the task and each of us must test our own work.

But you know this is impossible. Which of us could deem ourselves strong enough to be able to rescue another? We know if we even tried to point out the moral speck in our neighbor’s eye, we would be prevented by the log in our own. Inevitably there is no boast in ourselves. That was “Law talk” reminding us we stand or fall on the merits of our own lives in God’s judgment. Stand or fall? We all fall if we rely on our own virtues under God’s verdict.

We have nothing to boast about, except one thing. Like St. Paul, we can boast only in the cross of Jesus. And that’s good news! If you wanted something to boast of, what could be greater than this? As we look to the cross on which the Son of God gave His life, we know He did it for you and me. We did nothing for Him.

So long as the boast is only in Him and in His cross, God has a use for us. Despite the law of mechanics, God can use us to help one another in our weakness and stumbling. “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong” (1 Corinthians 1:27). When one sinner falls under the burden of temptation, of a law which is too much for their frailty, whom should God appoint to aid them but another sinner. Would you rather not be helped up by a fellow sinner who knows what it is to stumble?

The New Testament letter to the Hebrews makes a telling analogy. “Every high priest chosen from among men,” it says, “is appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. He can deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is beset with weakness” (Hebrews 5:2). And so, St. Paul says, “If anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness” (Galatians 6:1).

Guess what: You are qualified for the job precisely because you have no qualifications for it—no moral greatness, nothing to boast about, except, of course, the cross of Christ. The point of the Hebrews’ analogy about the high priest who can sympathize with our weaknesses is Jesus, our great High Priest. In every way He was tested as we are, only in His case without sinning (Hebrews 4:15).

But the point is not left there. Did you admit earlier, too, how in the case of your own collapse you likewise would desire the helping hand of a fellow sinner? God gives you just that. A righteous and holy Messiah in Heaven who is impervious to our temptations is no use to us in our mire. We need one who will enter it with us and for us. “For our sake He made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).

We reach upwards to the helping hand before reaching down to offer one to our fellow Christian. We also look to the fellowship of the Church, to one another, to help us in our weakness even as we help others in their weakness.

Still, when someone stumbles into sin, there is a good chance that your first reaction will be, “I don’t want to get mixed up in that.” True, the Bible warns against busybodies who stick their noses into matters that are none of their business; but there may be times when you are in a position to speak to a friend who has stumbled. It may be the difficult chore of pointing out their sin, calling them to repentance. It may be encouraging one who has repented, standing by them so they know they’re not abandoned. Don’t be deceived, though—both are difficult tasks.

Paul also warns those who do such things, “Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted.” Dear friends, heed these words when shocked by sin. The same sinful flesh dwells in you, too, and you are perfectly capable of committing the same sins that shock you now, and church history is full of those who fell prey to the very sins they most denounce.

Paul emphasizes that those led by the Spirit will live connected to a community of fellow believers. A Christian at a distance cannot bear another’s burdens. A believer with no contact with others of the faith cannot restore another in “the spirit of gentleness.” An “isolated Christian” is a contradiction in terms. Pastors are right to admonish those who refuse to attend Christian worship and who refuse to work with their fellow believers. Indeed, pastors and other Christians must admonish those who choose to isolate themselves. Believers need each other!

An unnecessary side effect of the Reformation emphasis on justification before God has been a tendency to stress the individual at the expense of the community that God, by faith, has drawn together. The preaching of God’s Word, Baptism, the Lord’s Supper—the means of grace—are all corporate affairs. Paul explains in his letter to the Romans that Christian faith is not possible apart from the messengers who deliver the Gospel message (Romans 10:14-17).

For it is that Gospel message that is paramount. No wonder Paul says, “But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation.”

There is nothing we can do to save ourselves or contribute to our salvation. Nothing we can do improves our status before God. Sinners from birth, we are by nature lost and condemned creatures. We are blind, at enmity with God, dead in transgressions and sins. Such a situation requires a complete change. Or as the apostle puts it, “a new creation.”

And that new creation is what happens when we sinners come to faith in Christ. By faith we exchange our own filthy rags for the robe of Christ’s perfect righteousness. Clothed in Christ’s garments of salvation you are forgiven, at peace with God, assured of an eternity of bliss with God in heaven. Until that time, you spend your days on earth in cheerful service to the God who gave you all this by grace, freely as a gift. That is “faith expressing itself through love.”

All this has come to us through Christ and His cross. Well might we all resolve with Paul: “Far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.” May we never boast in anything else; but always boast in the cross—and boast in it alone. For there we find forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life. Indeed, for Jesus’ sake, His sacrificial death on the cross, you are forgiven for all your sins.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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