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Saturday, December 23, 2017

Luther on restoring the fallen (from his commentary on Galatians 6:1-5)

"When someone falls down, do you put out your hand to help them, or do you kick dirt in their face?"

I heard a preacher say that recently, and it captures well the underlying concern in the apostle Paul's words in Galatians 6:1-5, as well as Martin Luther's comments on it.  I've come to this great passage in my devotional reading of both Galatians and Luther's commentary, and I'm continuing to do this "devotional blogging" until I reach the end of the book (which won't be very long now).

The passage says, "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."

The great Reformer obviously had observed that loving restoration is the opposite of what often happens when someone has fallen into sin.  He writes,

Let the ministers of the Gospel learn from Paul how to deal with those who have sinned. "Brethren," he says, "if any man be overtaken with a fault, do not aggravate his grief, do not scold him, do not condemn him, but lift him up and gently restore his faith. If you see a brother despondent over a sin he has committed, run up to him, reach out your hand to him, comfort him with the Gospel and embrace him like a mother. When you meet a willful sinner who does not care, go after him and rebuke him sharply." But this is not the treatment for one who has been overtaken by a sin and is sorry. He must be dealt with in the spirit of meekness and not in the spirit of severity. A repentant sinner is not to be given gall and vinegar to drink.

Those who fail to do so [bear the burdens of the fallen] expose their lack of understanding of the law of Christ. Love, according to Paul, "believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things." This commandment is not meant for those who deny Christ; neither is it meant for those who continue to live in sin. Only those who are willing to hear the Word of God and then inadvertently fall into sin to their own great sorrow and regret, carry the burdens which the Apostle encourages us to bear. Let us not be hard on them. If Christ did not punish them, what right have we to do it?

Paul and Luther then go on talk about the primary reason why people kick dirt in the faces of the fallen rather than helping them up, which is pride.  They think of themselves higher than they ought to think (v. 3, see also Rom. 12:3), and compare themselves to those who have failed with thoughts like "I would never do that" or "he made his bed, now he'll have to lie in it."  But Paul challenges us to examine our own works, which would surely lead us to recognize that we ourselves are no better than anyone else (because we know more about our own secret sins than we do about those of others).  This calls to mind some wise words from a pastor who reached out to me after some sin had been exposed in my life.  I said to him on a text, "Thanks for your phone takes courage and compassion to care for the lepers."  And he responded, "We're all lepers, Dave, we just don't realize it sometimes."

Luther then goes even deeper by suggesting that a particular symptom of spiritual pride, which must be healed in us before we can be healers to others, is a desire for the approval of people, or "the fear of man" as the Scripture calls it.  His words about this are helpful not just for pastors (whom he addresses), but for anyone who wants to help others up rather than kick dirt in their faces...

"Let a minister be faithful in his office," is the apostolic injunction. "Let him not seek his own glory or look for praise. Let him desire to do good work and to preach the Gospel in all its purity. Whether an ungrateful world appreciates his efforts is to give him no concern because, after all, he is in the ministry not for his own glory but for the glory of Christ." A faithful minister cares little what people think of him, as long as his conscience approves of him. The approval of his own good conscience is the best praise a minister can have. To know that we have taught the Word of God and administered the sacraments rightly is to have a glory that cannot be taken away.

[About verse 6, "each will have to bear his own load"]  That means: For anybody to covet praise is foolish because the praise of men will be of no help to you in the hour of death. Before the judgment throne of Christ everybody will have to bear his own burden. As it is the praise of men stops when we die. Before the eternal Judge it is not praise that counts but your own conscience.

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