We are prone to extremes. Some avoid dealing with others in relation to their sins and faults; others are quick to respond with extreme severity. Neither of course, is biblical. We are responsible for each other. Rebuking those who are sinning is loving but it shows hatred to allow them to go on in it (Leviticus 19:17). It is our duty to tell them what they ought to be hearing from their conscience. Yet such rebukes and challenges must be given with love, wisdom and humility. We ought to be ready to give and receive such loving and faithful reproof. It something Christ Himself has appointed for our wellbeing (Matthew 18:15).
James Fergusson reflects deeply and at length on a verse that helps to guide us between the extremes of severity and inaction. What follows is an updated extract. He says that in Galatians 6:1, the apostle speaks to those who are “spiritual”. This means those that had received a large measure of spiritual graces. By such grace they were preserved from the subtle snares of sin and Satan, which had entrapped others. Such are also called “strong” (Romans 15:1) and “perfect”, i.e. comparatively (Philippians 3:15).
He exhorts such to seek to reclaim and restore all those “overtaken” in a fault. They are to restore them to both a felt sense of God’s pardoning grace and to amendment of life. “Overtaken” means being suddenly and without prior consideration being overcome by any sin. In the original Greek it means to do something in haste (1 Corinthians 11:21).
In using all necessary means to achieve this end e.g. admonition, reproof or necessary correction, they should exercise the grace of spiritual meekness. They must suppress all feelings of revenge or sinful expressions of emotion. He enforces this exhortation by counselling that everyone, even the best, must consider deeply their own frailty while dealing with the faults of others. They must recall how easily he may be drawn by temptation to be overtaken with the same, similar, or a greater sin.
1. We Must Deal Meekly with Those at Fault
Tolerating sin both in others and ourselves is far too common (1 Samuel 3:13). Yet there is another sinful extremity to be avoided, i.e. when under pretence of hatred to, or righteous anger against the sins of others we refuse to admonish, reprove them in the spirit of meekness because we think they are obstinate. The apostle says, “If a man”. This can be read as anticipating an objection, “though a man be overtaken in a fault, restore such an one…” This presumes that some were apt to think themselves free from the duty of meekness towards a person at fault. The apostle shows, that nevertheless they were bound to restore and deal meekly with such despite their fault.
2. Excessive Severity Comes from Pride
This sin of excessive severity towards the sinful failings and falls of others comes from pride. Such a “holier than thou” (Isaiah 65:5) attitude may well pretend to be zeal but really it is pride. The rigid critic and lofty censurer of another’s faults does not seek his brother’s reformation so much as to create a good opinion of himself in the minds of others. He seeks to be seen as if he were more concerned for holiness and hatred of sin than others. The connection between chapters 5 and 6 shows that this sin is to be guarded against as having some kind of dependence on vainglory. Compare “Let us not be desirous of vain-glory” (Galatians 5:26) and “if a man be overtaken in a fault, restore him in the spirit of meekness” (Galatians 6:1).
3. Motives for Compassion
The apostle calls the Galatians “brethren” to give more force to the need to exercise love and meekness in recovering those who had fallen. He calls them brethren to express his love to them and remind them of the love they ought to have to one another as brethren. The person to be restored is referred to by the common name of “a man”. This points to the common frailty of mankind so as to show that his falling into sin is rather to be pitied than wondered at. Paul also transfers the guilt of the sin in a great measure from the person himself to the subtlety of Satan and violence of the temptation by which he was overtaken. All of this provides motives to exercise the pity and meekness to which he exhorts. “Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault”, he says.
4. Those Who are Not Yet Obstinate Require Less Severity
Greater severity must be used (1 Corinthians 4:21) towards those who are so maliciously obstinate in sin that they cannot be reclaimed by a meek and lenient approach. Yet others, whom we must in charity judge to be otherwise, but are rather overtaken by the violence of some prevailing temptation, ought to be dealt with more gently. These are the only ones whom the apostle will have us to deal with using a spirit of meekness: “If a man be overtaken in a fault, restore such an one etc.”
5. It is Easy to be Overtaken in a Fault
So subtle and assiduous is Satan in tempting (1 Peter 5:8) and so ready is our corruption to comply with temptation as soon as it is presented (Ephesians 2:2) that the child of God cannot but be overtaken unawares by some sin or other. This will happen unless we are all the more careful and diligent (Matthew 26:41). By sinning in this way the child of God dishonours God and lays a stumbling block before others. Paul assumes that it is likely for all men to be similarly overtaken when he says, “If a man be overtaken in a fault. ”
6. The More Holy We Are the More We Should Seek to Restore Others
It is the duty of all men to endeavour to reclaim those lying under unrepented guilt (since the command is given to all: Leviticus 19:17). Yet, the more holy men are, and the further they have advanced in spiritual things, the more obliged they are to this duty. This is primarily because they are better able to fulfil it since they less tainted with sin than others. They have therefore, more liberty to reprove. They also know better how to do this difficult duty wisely. Such are more willing to perform it than others with less knowledge and love to God’s glory and their neighbour’s good. Thus, the Apostle directs this exhortation mainly to those that had received a greater measure of grace. He addresses those “which are spiritual” telling them to “restore such an one”.
7. The More Gifts We Have Received, the More We Should Seek to Restore Others
The more graces and gifts a man has received, the more he is obliged to devote himself and all he has received (within the limits of his calling; Hebrews 5:4) for the spiritual good and edification of others. Paul gives this task of restoring the backslidden Christian chiefly to those who had received a greater measure of grace and spiritual gifting: “Ye which are spiritual, restore such an one”.
8. Those Who Have Fallen into Public Sin are Reluctant to be Restored
When a child of God falls into public sins and erroneous opinions they damage the inward condition formerly enjoyed. It lays waste the conscience and consumes all his former spiritual sensitivity (1 Peter 2:11). Thus, the person who has fallen in such sins is, ordinarily, averse to being reclaimed and proves difficult to deal with. They are like a man with a dislocated bone that can hardly bear to have it touched. The word rendered “restore such an one” implies this because it means literally, to set dislocated parts of the body in joint again. Thus we see that sin puts the soul, as it were, out of joint.
9. We Must be Tender in Using Means to Restore Others
Since it is the duty of all Christians (especially those who are spiritual) to seek to reclaim any who are so fallen we must use means. The necessary means are: admonition (Matthew 18:15); reproof (Leviticus 19:17); and prayer to God on their behalf (James 5:14-15). Christians must pursue these out of charity and their mutual relation to one another as members of one body. Ministers and elders must also pursue them, by virtue of the authority which Christ the King of the Church has given them (Ephesians 4:11-12). In pursuing all these means everyone must use great skill and tenderness in order to attain their goal of restoration. He says, “restore such an one” or set him in joint again. It is a phrase borrowed from surgeons who, when they treat a dislocated bone, handle it with skill and tenderness.
10. Meekness Proves Our Intentions are Right
The grace of meekness, which is necessary to moderate inordinate anger and quickly repress feelings of revenge before they rise to any height (Ephesians 4:26), is the work of God’s Spirit in us. It is essential to exercise this grace towards those who are fallen in all the means we use to reclaim them so that we are not carried away with passionate rage but only zeal to God, love to the person and sanctified reason. This is how we prove we are seeking to recover our brother rather than abuse him. We are labouring to help him; not seeking to disgrace him. Thus, he says, “Restore such an one in the spirit of meekness”, or in the meekness which is produced by God’s Spirit.
11. Anyone May be Tempted
No one (not even the most spiritual) can promise themselves immunity from strong temptations to gross public sin or that they will stand when if left to themselves. Paul urges even the spiritual man to consider himself, lest he is also tempted. It is not only possible that the spiritual man may be tempted, but also that he may yield to temptation when presented to him. The argument would not have had such strength to enforce meekness towards those who are overtaken in a fault.
12. Those Who are Most Uncharitable Know Their Own Hearts Least
Those who censure the faults of others in the most rigid and uncharitable way are usually greatest strangers to their own hearts and scarcely sensitive to their own infirmities. We need serious consideration of our own weakness and the fact that the root of our neighbour’s sin and all other sin is in us (Romans 3:10-20). We must be mindful that it is only by God’s grace that we are able to stand (Psalm 94:18). If God allowed the tempter to break loose on us, we would exceed the sins of others as much as they exceed ours. Seriously considering all this should not completely restrain us from reproving sin in others. Rather, it should cause us to moderate exceedingly our severity towards their sin by showing meekness, pity and compassion towards them. This is why the apostle enforces the former exhortation of restoring their fallen brother in the spirit of meekness with counsel to consider ourselves lest we also be tempted.
13. It is Difficult to Take Our Own Weakness Seriously
We are so prone to think well of ourselves that there is great difficulty in getting people to reflect on themselves, and seriously consider their own frailty and weakness. They are reluctant to consider every other thing which may keep them low in their own eyes, without despising others. This is clear from Paul’s change from speaking to them all in the plural to addressing them individually. Having said, “Ye who are spiritual, restore” which is the plural pronoun (“ye”); he then says, “considering thyself” changing to the singular pronoun (“thy”). This gives greater force and a sharper edge to his admonition. He knew that he was urging a duty that would only be obeyed with great difficulty.