Many things in life are burdensome, and we appreciate the help that others can give us to share the load. In the list of things that weigh us down, we can also include our failings in a spiritual sense, or any of the human frailties that make life difficult for others. It is easy to criticise others but what can we do to positively help our brothers and sisters? In this updated extract, James Fergusson shows how (and how not) to overlook the failings of others.
Paul says in Galatians 6:2, “Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ.” Here he is exhorting all his hearers not only to endeavour to reclaim those who are overtaken in a fault, but also to tolerate and bear patiently with the sins and infirmities of others, until these are amended, and the sinner reclaimed.
These sins and infirmities are called a “burden.” Partly, because sins such as these may be a burden and weight to the sinner himself, either because of his grief and sorrow for them, if he is a penitent (Acts 2:37), or because of the vexation and trouble which some sins, such as wrath, malice, envy, etc., bring to the natural spirits even of the impenitent sinner (Job 5:2; Prov. 14:30). And partly, because sins like these, even if not felt burdensome by the sinner himself, are nevertheless heavy burdens to those who interact with him (think of curiosity, back-biting, self-seeking, and such like, Prov. 16:28).
Bearing their burdens fulfils the law of Christ
The apostle enforces his exhortation with the reason that in this way they “fulfilled the law,” the commandment of mutual love, which he calls “the law of Christ.”
It is not as if love to our neighbour had not been enjoined before Christ came in the flesh, for it is a prime piece of the law of nature, imprinted on the heart of man at creation, and renewed again by God Himself on Mount Sinai (1 John 2:7).
But he calls it “the law of Christ” because, first, Christ renewed this commandment, not only by freeing it from the false interpretations of the scribes and Pharisees (Matt. 5:23, etc.), but also by pressing it in its spiritual beauty and spiritual nature, now that the external cover of Mosaic ceremonies which veiled it (1 Cor. 9:9-10) have been laid aside and abolished (Eph. 2:15). This is the main sense in which it is referred to here as Christ’s law, i.e., in opposition to the false apostles, who pressed so much the Mosaical law of ceremonies.
The second reason why he calls it “the law of Christ” is because this law, so renewed, is what Christ in a special manner laid as an obligation on His followers, as a mark of true faith in Him (John 13:35).
And the third reason is because Christ fulfilled this law in His own person, and in so doing left an example of it to us (1 John 3:16).
Burden-bearing in practice
Nobody is free from sinful infirmities, which are burdensome sometimes to themselves, and frequently to others. Therefore we ought not to break the relationships we are in because of such infirmities, but rather persist with these relationships, patiently bearing whatever infirmities we cannot otherwise help.
Bearing with the infirmities of others is fully consistent with the use of the means which God has prescribed for restraining sin and reclaiming the sinner. These include the means available to the civil authorities, who are responsible for punishing those who do evil (Rom. 13:1-4), but also the means available to ministers and individual Christians, such as admonition, reproof, and so on. The duty of bearing one another’s burdens must be in harmony with, and cannot be contrary to, the duty in verse 1 of restoring the sinner who has been overtaken in a fault. It is the opposite of giving him countenance, or partaking with him, in his sins.
When the apostle exhorts us to have a “spirit of meekness” and gentleness in verse 1, this is effectively what he calls “bearing their burden” here in verse 2. The manner we should have in doing so is a compassionate frame of spirit, made evident by our meek and patient way off interacting with those who are overtaken in a fault (without neglecting any duty we owe them). This gives the guilty sinner no small ease under his weighty burden, and has the tendency both to preserve him from fainting under heartless discouragement (if his conscience is touched with the sense of his guilt) and also to further the work of his conviction and amendment (if he is yet going on complacently in his sin).
The best evidence of love to our neighbour is what is displayed in our serious endeavours for bringing about their spiritual good – taking the most effective grace-filled and affectionate way to reclaim them from sin, together with supporting them and sympathizing with them under their spiritual burdens. This is what the apostle calls fulfilling the law of Christ, or of mutual love, as if the one thing that law calls for is love.
In the sense and to the extent that the child of God evidences his love to his fallen brother by his serious endeavours to restore him to the enjoyment of God’s favour, and to a holy and blameless lifestyle, and by bearing with him under his infirmities in order to recover him, in that same sense and to that same extent he attains to fulfilling the law. Of course we are not able to do this perfectly, in the sense of coming short in nothing for matter or manner (Lam. 3:2). But we can do it sincerely, and without dissimulation (Rom. 12:9), in our honest aim and endeavour. This is what it means to fulfil the law of Christ.
Our own burdens are a reason to share the burdens of other
Paul goes on in Galatians 6:5 to enforce on every individual the duty of examining their own work, rather than to be narrowly prying into the infirmities of others. “Every man must bear his own burden,” or give an account of his own actions to God (Rom. 14:12). The Lord will pass sentence, either absolving or condemning, not as to whether you have been better or worse than others, but as you are in yourself (see 1 Cor. 3:8).
This does not militate against the tenor of the gospel, affirming that God will deal with believers as they are clothed, not with their own righteousness, but with the unspotted righteousness of Christ (Phil. 3:9), for it is evident from the point of the Galatians passage that the apostle excludes only the infirmities of our fellow sinners from being the rule according to which God will pass sentence, and not the righteousness of Christ grasped by faith. “Bearing one another’s burdens” in verse 2 means a bearing by way of sympathy, Christian forbearance, and diligent use of means for reclaiming the person fallen; but “bearing our own burden,” in verse 5, means a bearing by giving an account to God for our own actions (otherwise it would not be a cogent argument to enforce the exhortation of verse 4, “Let every man prove his own work”).
However light people’s sins seem to themselves when they are committed, yet they will be found not light, but heavy, when they come to reckon with God about them.
God is so righteous that He will call no one to account for the sins of others, but only for their own. Yet remember that we can make the sins of others our own, by not doing our duty to impede these sins (Eze. 3:18), or by following them and walking in them (Ex. 20:5 with Eze. 18:14, 17), or by not mourning to God for them (1 Cor. 5:2).
We would be wise to frequently to call to mind the account which we must give to God, and to busy ourselves most in and about the things which He will expect an account from us about. We should be employed most in examining our own work, and not in prying into the details of other people’s behaviour and infirmities.
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