In 2007 while serving as a Navy Chaplain in the North Arabian Gulf, I became aware of a very interesting procession that occurs every Friday night, and then again on Sunday evenings, on the highway from Saudi Arabia into Bahrain. You may be aware of the Islam prohibition against consumption of alcohol. Maintaining this religious law is very important to the strict Moslem, but such laws are not as strictly followed in Bahrain as Saudi Arabia, and so, every Friday night hundreds of Saudis travel to Bahrain for (I was told) a weekend of drinking.
I was quite amused when I first heard this and had a little self-righteous snicker, “Surly they don’t think that Allah cannot see what they are doing when they are in Bahrain?” But, after some reflection I realized that we Christians are often just as inconsistent in our religious practices. And, as the Apostle Paul points out in today’s reading from Galatians 6, God cannot be mocked – we cannot pull the wool over his eyes and fool him if we are not consistently living the true Christian life (v.7).
The original issue that prompted the writing of this letter to the young church in the city of Galatia was the need to refute an argument concerning how to live as a follower of Jesus and what was required for justification. In the passage from Galatians 6:7-18, Paul concludes his argument. From this we learn that the Christian should live by faith in the freedom of the Spirit, and the passage tells us how we can do this. Firstly, we are to ...
1. Sow to please the Spirit.
In verse 7, Paul stated what has become a well known maxim, ‘A man (or women) reaps what he (or she) sows’. Now this is really a common sense principal of life that is understood by any farmer or gardener. I expect that we all understand that if, for example, you sow seeds of weeds then you will reap, or harvest, weeds. Alternatively, if you want to reap wheat then you need to sow seeds of wheat; if you want to harvest apples you need to sow seeds of apples. To express this in the more general lifestyle form that Paul uses, ‘The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.’ (v.8, NRSV)
Paul had already explained back in Chapter 5 what the acts of the sinful nature are – such things as sexual immorality, idolatry, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, etc.
“If you live like this”, he wrote, “you will not inherit the kingdom of God.” (5:21) And now he reiterates this – ‘The one who sows to please his sinful nature (also expressed as sowing to the flesh) ... will reap destruction.’ Elsewhere, in Romans 8:13 we read that, ‘if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die.’ (Rom 8:13
And so he warns the Galatians, and us, that if we indulge in sinful thoughts or deeds then we will be judged as sinful and will not receive eternal life.
Now, living life in the Spirit requires us to make a choice to cease pandering to our sinful self-indulgent nature. We are, instead, to sow to please the Holy Spirit which means sowing seeds of Godly thoughts and deeds, and good works in the lives of others.
Verse 10 tells us that this has to be a conscious and active thing that we do: ‘let us work for the good of all’ (NRSV). We are required to actively look for the opportunities within this God given life to do good to all people (as it is expressed in the NRSV). The verse goes on to say that we should do this especially to those who are part of our church family, our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ; but note that it first says, ‘all people’, it does not exclude any person.
You will remember Christ’s commandment to love our neighbour as ourselves. He was quoting from Leviticus 19:18 and this command is repeated three times in Matthew’s gospel. And who are our neighbours? Neighbours are our fellow beings - all people – no matter who or what they are.
If we live this way, then we will reap two things: From Chapter 5 we learnt that in this life we will reap the fruit of the Spirit which we might understand as holiness in character. You remember them – ‘love joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.’ (5:22) These are the characteristics of the Spirit filled Christian who has been set free from the bondage of sin, i.e. bondage to the old self-indulgent nature.
In addition, Chap 6:8 states that, as well as reaping the fruit of the Spirit, the one who sows to please the Spirit will, following our time on this earth, reap eternal life with our God in heaven.
But there is more to living by faith in the freedom of the Spirit then just sowing to please the Spirit. As we consider this passage in the context of the entire letter to the Galatian church, we see that in order to live by faith in the freedom of the Spirit we must not only sow to please the Spirit, but we must also ...
2. Maintain the true gospel.
John 3:16 tells us that ‘God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life’. And Ephesians 2:8 tells us that ‘... it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works ...’ This is the good news that we must be careful not to corrupt by adding additional requirements for salvation.
An outcome of God’s actions through Jesus and the Holy Spirit is that Christians have been set free from slavery to the sinful, self-indulgent nature. When we receive Jesus Christ into our life as our Lord and Saviour we receive new life through the Holy Spirit – we become a new creation. And this is achieved not by what we do, not by our rituals, or by strict adherence to some church law; but, by what God is able to do in us as a result of the death and resurrection of Jesus.
The error being taught by the Judaizers, and others, was that: ‘Unless you are circumcised ... you cannot be saved.’ (Acts 15:1) In saying this, they denied that salvation was by faith alone.
But Paul says in verse 15 that what counts is not whether you have been circumcised or not; what counts is whether you have become a new creation.
The deeper problem is that circumcision was just one of many OT rites that were required to obey the Jewish law. And so, circumcision represents the law. The Judaizers were in effect arguing that in addition to Christ’s death on the cross, salvation also required obedience to the Law; and strict adherence to and practice of religious rituals.
Now, this idea applied to different rituals can still be a problem today! Some people seem to place an unwarranted importance on church ritual as the means to achieve righteousness in the eyes of God. But the lesson here is that when we introduce additional requirements for salvation, such as the works of the Law, or a strict following of some religious ritual, the gospel of grace is perverted and brings the Christian convert back into the bondage of legalism.
So, to live the life of faith in freedom by the Spirit, the Christian needs to sow by the Spirit and maintain the true Gospel of Jesus Christ. If we do this there will be rewards – i.e. provided we are not deceived and led astray, or so long as we don’t become weary and give up. Therefore, from verse 9 we must then add a third way to live the life of faith in the Spirit, and that is to ...
3. Persevere to the End.
Paul writes, ‘let us not grow weary in doing what is right.’ It is not always easy to maintain a consistent life of faith, obedience to the commands of Christ and the Holy Spirit, and of always seeking to do good to others. It is easy to fall back into old habits, to become judgemental and unloving towards our neighbour, or to give in to the desires of our old selfish, self-indulgent nature.
It is also easy to be influenced by the world and others - to be compromised by worldly values and beliefs and an innate desire to seek approval and praise from others.
This apparently was the reason behind the Judaizers’ insistence that the Jewish followers of Christ should abide by the OT rites of the Jewish law, especially circumcision. Paul suggests that they wanted to make a good outward impression, i.e., to earn the approval and praise of their fellow Jews. And they were doing it, not out of concern for the Jewish Christians - not out of a desire to love their neighbour - but for selfish reasons. They apparently wanted to avoid any opposition from the Jewish opponents to Christianity. They were sowing to please their sinful nature.
So it can be a struggle, and in the face of apparent failure or opposition we may grow weary and be tempted to give up, particularly if we try to do it through our own effort. Gal 3:3 says, ‘Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?’
Instead, Paul encourages us that if we live by the Spirit and seek to sow to please the Spirit, then through the power of the Holy Spirit working actively in our lives, we can persevere and attain the goal.
As he concludes his letter to the church in Galatia, the Apostle Paul emphasised that we are not justified by obedience to the law; but by the cross of Christ and God’s grace. This is the Christian doctrine of ‘salvation by faith and not by works’.
In living the Christian life, we are to sow to please the Spirit - following the leading and prompting of the Holy Spirit and in the power of the Spirit. We are exhorted to love God and all people as we love ourselves, to seek to be conformed to those holy habits and characteristics that Paul calls the fruit of the Spirit, and to seek to do good to all.
As he wrote in verse 7, God cannot be fooled - and we must not be deceived – we will reap whatever we sow.