Note: As I have pointed out before, I have a habit of including references to Greek terms in my notes, whether I actually refer to them or not, so I have left them in with transliterations.
Introduction: Remember that in last week’s post we saw that Paul describes the Christian life as a battle between the flesh and the Spirit (5:16-17) and that he further describes how crucial it is that we follow the Spirit’s leading if we are to have victory in the conflict. He even describes walking in the Spirit as similar to the way a soldier follows his commander and heeds his commands. We are like soldiers at war, who must follow our leader – the Holy Spirit – and heed His commands. And, just as when one soldier is exhausted or wounded, the others help to carry the load, even so we must all recognize our responsibility to bear one another’s burdens. This was the focus of last week’s study of verses 1-2, but the focus of today’s study is on the responsibility each one of us has to bear his own load. After all, every soldier in battle is ultimately responsible for his own pack. This responsibility is emphasized in verse 5, where Paul gives the reason for what he says in verses 3-4.
NKJ Galatians 6:5 For [γάρ, gár] each one shall bear [Future Active Indicative > βαστάζω, bastázō] his own load [φορτίον, phortíon].
The Greek word translated load here is defined by the Linguistic Key to the Greek New Testament as a “burden, a load which one is expected to bear. It was used as a military term for a man’s pack or a soldier’s kit” (p. 519). But how do we understand the two responsibilities Paul has enjoined upon us in this passage, on the one hand to bear one another’s burdens, and on the other hand to each bear his own load? Is there a contradiction here? Of course I don’t think so. In fact, I agree with the assessment of Spiros Zodhiates, who has ably addressed this matter in his Complete Word Study Dictionary:
Some critics contend that a contradiction exists in Gal. 6 between Paul’s injunction that we should bear “one another’s burdens” (Gal 6:2) and his assertion that “every man shall bear his own burden” (Gal 6:5). However, the conflict is only apparent. In Gal 6:2 the word for burden is báros, a burden or difficulty. In Gal 6:5 the word for burden is phortíon, responsibility. In the first case, Christians are being enjoined to help each other bear up under the vicissitudes of life. In the last case, Christians are told that each person must assume responsibility for his particular (ídios, one’s own) duties in life; they have no right to shirk their responsibilities or to expect others to perform them. (e-Sword)
So, Paul teaches in this passage that mutual accountability and personal responsibility go hand-in-hand for the Christian. We must never emphasize one without the other. We must each “bear one another’s burdens” (vs. 2), and we must also each “bear his own load” (vs. 5).
Scot McKnight wrestles with this issue in his commentary on this passage, where he writes that:
Our personal responsibility before God does not rob us of our accountability to others, nor does it put us on a deserted island to live a solitary life. These are Western problems that need to be faced, and the message of Paul – a mutual accountability that does not deny personal responsibility and a personal responsibility that includes a mutual accountability – stares our world in the face.
I make one more observation regarding personal responsibility. In our culture we have become acutely aware of the origins and causes of our behavior. I am aware, for instance, that certain aspects of my personality come from what I learned from my father and mother; I am aware as well that some of my traits (both good and bad) appear in my two children. This is a common perception today. But in this process, at times there is an implicit excuse for our personality traits or our behavior. “I cannot help it,” one might cry, “because this is how I was raised.” Or, “You would not blame me if you knew my past.” We must sympathize here with the obvious reality that what we do and who we are result from what others have made us, and we should not refrain from recognizing that certain bad dimensions of people are not solely their fault. But what the Bible teaches is that we are personally responsible for everything we are and for everything we do, regardless of the causes and problems we might have. This, of course, leads to an entire feature of application: urging people to accept responsibility for everything they do and are. Paul teaches that we must “bear our own burdens” in this regard.
I essentially agree with McKnight’s position, but I think it is also important to point out that, when Paul says that “each one shall bear his own load,” he is speaking in the future tense. So, to be sure, although we must each recognize our own responsibilities now, what Paul has primarily in mind is a future accountability before God, which I think will happen at the final judgment. He also speaks of this future judgment for Christians in his first epistle to the Corinthians:
NKJ 1 Corinthians 3:10-15 According to the grace of God which was given to me, as a wise master builder I have laid the foundation, and another builds on it. But let each one take heed how he builds on it. 11 For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 Now if anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, 13 each one’s work will become clear; for the Day will declare it, because it will be revealed by fire; and the fire will test each one’s work, of what sort it is. 14 If anyone’s work which he has built on it endures, he will receive a reward. 15 If anyone’s work is burned, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire.
Clearly this judgment will not determine whether or not we are saved, which has already been determined in this life when, by God’s grace, we embraced Christ as Savior and Lord. But there will be a future judgment that takes into account what we have done with the grace He has given us.
In my view, this is what Paul has in mind here in Galatians 6:5. It is not that he is unconcerned with the responsibility we each have to bear our own load now, but rather that we bear it now in light of the fact that we will have to bear it then. And, because each one of us must bear his or her own load, there are two things we must avoid: 1) conceit, and 2) comparing ourselves with others.
First, we must avoid conceit.
This is found in verse 3, where Paul says:
NKJ Galatians 6:3 For [γάρ, gár] if anyone thinks himself to be something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself.
This relates both to what came before it and what comes after it. Such conceit will prevent us from bearing one another’s burdens as we should, as in verses 1-2, but it will also prevent us from taking proper responsibility for our own burdens, as in verse 5. And it will prevent us from accurately examining and assessing ourselves before the Lord, (as we shall see in verse 4. Paul is concerned that we avoid the same kind of conceit he has warned us about in the preceding context:
NKJ Galatians 5:26 Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another.
That such conceit is a common temptation for Christians is assumed by Paul not only here, but also in his other writings. For example:
NKJ Romans 12:3 For I say, through the grace given to me, to everyone who is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think soberly, as God has dealt to each one a measure of faith.
NKJ 1 Corinthians 4:7 For who makes you differ from another? And what do you have that you did not receive? Now if you did indeed receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it?
NKJ Philippians 2:3-4 Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. 4 Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others.
As David Guzik has said, “If I esteem you above me, and you esteem me above you, a marvelous thing happens: we have a community where everyone is looked up to, and no one is looked down on!” (Commentary on Philippians, e-Sword).
At any rate, it is clear from passages such as these, as well as the text before us this morning, that Paul viewed pride as a grave danger that the Christian must avoid. Pride causes us to forget that we ourselves are completely dependent upon the grace of God, and it does this by deception. As Paul says in this verse, if anyone thinks himself to be something, when he is nothing, “he deceives himself.” This led Matthew Henry to conclude that “Self-conceit is but self-deceit.” (Commentary on the Whole Bible, e-Sword, italics mine)
It is pride that deceives us into thinking we are something when we are nothing. But what, exactly, does Paul mean when he uses the word nothing. Does he mean:
1) That we are “nothing” in the sense that we are totally worthless?
2) That we are “nothing” in comparison to God?
3) That we are “nothing” in comparison to what we are deceived into thinking we are?
I think Paul has in mind the latter of these three possibilities. After all, he is speaking in the context of the need to bear one another’s burdens by helping one who is caught is some sin, and he warns us to be careful lest we too are tempted (as in vss. 1-2).
As we saw last week, if we are not careful, we can start to think that we are better than someone else who is struggling with some sin that we might not be dealing with ourselves. But a spiritual person (as in vs. 1) will realize that he too is capable of falling into sin and will be moved by compassion to help his brother rather than to look down on him.
The point here is really that we should be aware that a prideful attitude toward others in their struggle with sin necessarily means that we are self-deceived. In this sense we are tricked into thinking we are something when we are nothing. In reality we are no better than anyone else! We are all just sinners saved by grace!
Second, we must avoid comparing ourselves with others.
Conceit seems inevitably to lead to comparing ourselves with others, which is one reason we need to avoid it, and which is why I think Paul says what he says in verse 4:
NKJ Galatians 6:4 But let each one examine [Present Active Imperative > δοκιμάζω, dokimázō] his own work, and then he will have [Future active Indicate > ἔχω, échō] rejoicing [Noun καύχημα, kaúchēma] in himself alone, and not in another.
When Paul issues the primary command in this verse, that we must “each one examine his own work,” he assumes it is necessary because we are tempted to boast in comparison with others. He uses a Greek verb that means “to examine, to approve after testing or examination. The word was used for the testing of metals to see whether they were pure” (Linguistic Key to the Greek New Testament, p. 519). This word implies a very careful examination that we must each make of our own work, or whatever it is we do with our lives, particularly in service to the Lord.
When we each conduct such an examination and find something worthy of approval, then we will each have a cause for “rejoicing” in our own efforts rather than in comparison to the efforts of another. The Greek noun translated rejoicing here in the New King James Version refers to the ground or reason one has for boasting (Ling. Key, p. 519). This idea is better reflected in the ESV and the NASB. I think the KJV and NKJV prefer to translate it rejoicing because they want to avoid the idea that a Christian should ever boast in himself for any reason. They would certainly want to avoid the NIV’s skewed translation that encourages a man to “take pride in himself.” Indeed, such an idea seems to go against the very concern Paul has in the context that we avoid conceit.
But is all boasting about something we find in ourselves to be considered prideful or sinful boasting? It certainly is if it is self-reliant or self-aggrandizing boasting. This is the kind of boasting James warns us about:
NKJ James 4:13-16 Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, spend a year there, buy and sell, and make a profit”; 14 whereas you do not know what will happen tomorrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away. 15 Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we shall live and do this or that.” 16 But now you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil.
But, again, is all boasting about something we find in ourselves to be considered prideful or sinful boasting? I don’t think so, for, after examining ourselves thoroughly and finding something worthy of approval, we will also discover that it is a result of God’s working in us. Remember what Paul wrote to the Ephesians on this point:
NKJ Ephesians 2:8-10 For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, 9 not of works, lest anyone should boast. 10 For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.
So, we should never boast in such a way that we trust in and glorify our own works rather than the grace and working of God in our lives. But if God is working in our lives, then there will be something worthy of approval and thus worthy of boasting about, won’t there? I think so, and I think this is why Paul elsewhere teaches that it is always a good thing to boast about what God has done in and through us. For example:
NKJ 1 Corinthians 1:26-31 For you see your calling, brethren, that not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called. 27 But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty; 28 and the base things of the world and the things which are despised God has chosen, and the things which are not, to bring to nothing the things that are, 29 that no flesh should glory [καυχάομαι, kaucháomai, boast, verb related to the noun καύχημα, kaúchēma, in Gal. 6:4] in His presence. 30 But of Him you are in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God – and righteousness and sanctification and redemption – 31 that, as it is written, “He who glories [καυχάομαι, kaucháomai], let him glory [καυχάομαι, kaucháomai] in the LORD.”
NKJ 2 Corinthians 1:12 For our boasting [related noun καύχησις, kaúchēsis] is this: the testimony of our conscience that we conducted ourselves in the world in simplicity and godly sincerity, not with fleshly wisdom but by the grace of God, and more abundantly toward you.
NKJ 2 Corinthians 10:17-18 But “he who glories [καυχάομαι, kaucháomai], let him glory [καυχάομαι, kaucháomai] in the LORD.” 18 For not he who commends himself is approved [δόκιμος, dókimos, adjective related to the verb δοκιμάζω, dokimázō, in Gal. 6:4], but whom the Lord commends.
We too may boast about what God is doing in and through us. And we may look forward to doing so when we stand before Him in the final judgment, placing all our confidence in what He has done rather than in our own efforts or abilities.
Conclusion: I will conclude by encouraging all of us to ask ourselves such questions as, “When I put my own life to the test, do I find in myself good reason to boast about what God is doing for, in, and through me? Or do I find myself constantly comparing myself to others so that I can feel better about myself?”
As James Montgomery Boice points out, “To use others as a norm is a kind of escape” (EBC, Vol. 10, p. 502).
Let us not try to escape the results of careful examination before the Lord, and if we find little or nothing worthy of approval, let us ask the Lord to so work in us that we might look forward to standing before Him at the judgment, whether through saving us from sin or through renewing repentance and faith in a wayward heart.
But, on the other hand, let us also avoid the kind of self-centered introspection that loses sight of God’s Word as the standard by which we must always judge ourselves. As Timothy George has insightfully observed:
… there is a great difference between introspection and self-examination. The former can easily devolve into a kind of narcissistic, spiritual navel-gazing that has more in common with types of Eastern mysticism than with classic models of the devotional life in historic Christianity. True self-examination is not merely taking one’s spiritual pulse beat on a regular basis but rather submitting one’s thoughts, attitudes, and actions to the will of God and the mind of Christ revealed in Holy Scripture.
Amen! I hope we will all take time this week for such self-examination, and perhaps, if we need to, ask help in this regard from our brothers and sisters ion the Lord.