Galatians 6:1-10 (ESV) 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. Let the one who is taught the word share all good things with the one who teaches. Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.
The Epistle reading for the Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity contains the powerful but oft-ignored admonition, “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness.”
One reason some ignore this is because Jesus said, “Judge not, and you will not be judged” (Luke 6:37), and they take it for granted that any form of calling another person to repentance is judgmentalism. However, judgment would involve immediately announcing a public verdict, which we certainly are not to do when our neighbor has fallen into sin. In Luke 6, Jesus goes on to talk about helping the neighbor remove the speck from his eye (after we have removed the log from our own), which would have to be a gentle process lest the eye be damaged while restoring your neighbor’s eye to full health!
There also are certain elements of this passage that can be abused or ignored. For example, “any transgression” has to be tied to God’s Laws and not manmade ones. “Transgression” comes from the Latin word transgredior, which means to cross over something; in moral terms, this means to cross a boundary that God has put in place in His Law. Today there are all sorts of made-up “transgressions” that are so ill-defined as to be meaningless; for example, racism, sexism, homophobia. Perhaps such “sins” are bandied about not so much to “restore” others but rather to slander and intimidate.
By contrast, St. Paul had just a few verses earlier given concrete examples of “transgressions,” also known as “works of the flesh”: “Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Galatians 5:19-21).
“Gentleness” is another ignored aspect of this passage. Especially on social media, when self-appointed enforcers of the aforementioned manmade “transgressions” sniff out a “transgressor,” there certainly is no “spirit of gentleness” observed as they castigate and cancel the “offender.” And in our own relationships, when we have been sinned against or observe outrageous behaviors in our neighbor, we are tempted to respond with indignant severity, which Paul says we must not do.
Once we have properly understood what “any transgression” means and have adopted “a spirit of gentleness,” then the one who is “spiritual”—that is, living in repentance and being led by the Holy Spirit—actually is required to gently and lovingly try to help the erring brother recognize his sin and repent. This is not an act of judgmentalism, but of love, seeking the repentance and salvation of the sinner.
Repentance is a turning away from sin and a turning back to the Lord and His forgiveness, and it is integral to the Church’s message. After all, Jesus did say, “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3). And He began His public ministry with this call as well: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15).
The Lutheran Book of Concord also shows that repentance does involve turning away from sin: “When repentance and faith in Christ (Acts 20:21), or repentance and forgiveness of sins (Luke 24:46–47), are mentioned as distinct, to repent means nothing other than to truly acknowledge sins, to be heartily sorry for them, and to stop doing them” (Formula of Concord, V, 8). If no one points out to me which sins to confess, seek forgiveness for, and stop doing, how will I ever know to repent of anything?
It is most important to emphasize the goal of repentance, namely, that it “leads to life” (Acts 11:18). The will of God for His children clearly is to repent of our sins, trust in Christ for forgiveness, and then strive to lead a God-pleasing life in our vocations. When we are erring or straying, sometimes we need gentle restoration from our brothers and sisters in Christ. While this experience is unpleasant, it reminds us to focus on the ultimate goal of our faith, the Final Restoration: Resurrection unto everlasting life and a happy reunion with our loved ones in heaven!
Prayer: O God, for our redemption You gave Your only-begotten Son to the death of the cross and by His glorious resurrection delivered us from the power of the enemy. Grant that all our sin may be drowned through daily repentance and that day by day we may arise to live before You in righteousness and purity forever; through Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.