We are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ’s merits alone – this doctrine, justification, which is not only the central point of Paul’s letter to the Galatians, but is the central focus of the entire Bible – is the rock on which the Christian church stands or falls. But did you know that there’s a problem with this doctrine? Or, at least, there is the perception of a problem. The problem: if Jesus has done everything – then that doesn’t leave anything for me to do. It leaves us without any purpose or reason for living. I’ve even heard Lutherans complain that it’s depressing that our theology is so focused on Christ’s death for sin and our goal of heaven; that it feels like we are just sitting around waiting to die. Well, let’s confront that question. Why are you here? What is your purpose in life? Throughout the ages, false teachers have tried to satisfy the human need for purpose. In Galatia, false teachers taught that the purpose of life was keeping the Law of Moses to please God. In Luther’s time (and our time), Catholic theology taught people to “do” penance, “do” mass, “do” the Rosary – and if you really want to “do” something, enter a monastery to earn God’s grace. Today, the vast majority of Christian best-sellers promise to give clear direction to how you must live to please God and receive his blessings. The sad truth is that these guides have confused justification and sanctification, law and gospel: implicitly or explicitly teaching that you are saved by what you do – rather than that you do what you do because you are saved. In contrast, Paul refuses to create a new legal system for Christian living. If you’re looking for a rule for every single area of life, you’re not going to find it in his letters (or anywhere else in the Bible). Paul stands firm in the freedom of the Gospel with his encouragement to never become weary of doing good.
What is “good”? We know there is a lot of good being done in the world (husbands and wives are faithful to each other, parents diligently raise their children, laborers provide necessary goods and services, the sick are treated, the hungry fed, the naked clothed) but also that there is a lot of evil masquerading as “good” (for example: encouraging a biological boy to identify as a “girl” is evil; classifying a divorce as “no-fault” is evil, regarding it as a “right” for same-sex couples to adopt children is evil (a perversion of God’s plan for the family); etc.) Clearly we need a better definition of “good” than the world can offer. And God – the only one who is essentially good (Luke 18:19) – has defined what is truly “good” in his Word. He has three criteria. First, “good” is a fruit that can only be produced by faith in Christ. Only Christians can do truly good works. In Romans Paul says that everything that does not come from faith is sin (Romans 14:23). The book of Hebrews states that without faith it is impossible to please God (Hebrews 11:6). Second, it must be done in love, and the Biblical definition of love is activity that is in harmony with God’s will. Love serves as a mask for all kinds of evil today, but true, God-pleasing love is shaped by the 10 commandments. Paul says in Romans that love is the fulfillment of the law (Romans 13:10). Finally, for a thing to be considered “good” it must be done to the glory of God – and not for selfish, self-serving reasons. In Isaiah God says I am the LORD; that is my name! I will not give my glory to another or my praise to idols (Isaiah 42:8). If something is done contrary to these three criteria, it doesn’t matter what the world says – it’s not truly “good” in the eyes of God.
As he closes his letter to the Galatians, Paul gives some practical examples of the good God wants us to never tire of doing. And it’s a bitter pill for the sinful nature to swallow. In our case, Paul is describing the opposite of the American way: instead of “living and let live” and “minding your own business” Christians are to take personally responsibility for each other (Genesis 4:9)! Paul says: Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. To be “caught” doesn’t mean “ha, gotcha!” It means “overtaken, trapped, or stuck” – like a car that has slid into the ditch and is stuck in the mud. When you become aware that a fellow Christian has gotten stuck in sin, any sin, you who are spiritual, that is, you who believe in Jesus, are not to just stand back and watch them spin their tires. No, you are to roll up your sleeves and get down in the mud and help them. Notice that Paul does not say that this is only the responsibility of the pastor or elders, this is the responsibility of any and every Christian. For example, it would be very “good” in the eyes of God if you were to notice that someone hasn’t been in church for some time for you to reach out to them. This is to be done gently. In other words, the goal is not to further humiliate or shame them, but to carefully bring them to repentance and forgiveness. (The Greek word for “restore” is the same used for a doctor “setting” a broken or fractured bone.)
But the good God wants us to do for others isn’t limited to dealing with sin, either. Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. Again, this requires two things that don’t come naturally to us: first we must be will to share our own burdens and then we must be willing to shoulder the burdens of others. Both are hard, aren’t they? We don’t like to admit that we need help – and at the same time, we often think, I’ve got enough problems of my own – I don’t have time to help someone else. In the ancient world, burden bearing was a slave’s job. But that’s exactly what we are, aren’t we? Christ has set us free from serving the Law so that we might be free to serve others. What kind of burdens does Paul have in mind? The scope is limitless – which is probably why Paul doesn’t list any specifics. It could be befriending someone who is lonely or supporting someone who is struggling with addiction or encouraging a parent who has difficulty with an unruly child. It could be bearing with your spouse’s annoying and perhaps sinful habits, or it might simply be rejoicing with those who rejoice and mourning with those who mourn (Romans 12:12). Paul’s goal is not to tell us precisely what burdens to bear but to impress on us that burden bearing is a responsibility we all share.
But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted. At first it might appear that Paul is cautioning us against falling into the same sin as the person we are trying to help: for example, that you try to help a gambling addict break his habit but you end up sitting down at the slot machine next to him. And while that is a real danger, the context leads in a different direction. He’s warning against a different temptation: the temptation to be proud and condescending and judgmental. To adopt the attitude of the Pharisee toward the tax collector: God I thank you that I am not like…this tax collector (Luke 18:11). St. Augustine once warned “There is no sin that one man has committed that another man could not commit.”  We don’t dare look down on anyone who has been caught in sin or struggles with a burden – because none of us is free from sin ourselves. To drive that point home, Paul continues if anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself. Each one should test his own actions. Then he can take pride in himself, without comparing himself to somebody else, for each one should carry his own load. Paul urges us to look at everything in view of Judgment Day. We will each stand in judgment for our own actions compared to God’s holiness – not compared to others. By ourselves, we are nothing, there is nothing good in us (Romans 3:10-12). Knowing this, we won’t be so quick to cast judgment when someone is caught up in sin. Instead, we will meet those who have fallen at the foot of the cross where we all find needed forgiveness.
Does that give enough purpose to your life now as you wait for heaven? There’s a part of me that says: “Nah. I think I like the American version of a “purpose-driven” life better; that life is all about fulfilling my dreams, reaching my potential, achieving my own happiness.” After all, that’s the way rest of the world works, isn’t it? If you spend all your time serving others, who’s going to serve you? If you don’t fight for your rights in your marriage, your family, your career, your church, you’ll just be run over and ignored. If you stoop down to give someone else a hand, how do you know you won’t get dragged into the mud? So it’s better to just mind your own business and take care of yourself and let everyone else do the same. And while we know that as the way of the world, isn’t that too often the way of the church? Let’s be honest. If you look around you right now, how many names do you know? Do you know where they live or what they do or what burdens they may be struggling with? How can we even pray for them, much less help them – if we don’t even know them? How can we claim to be spiritual when we quickly grow weary of doing good when it’s too inconvenient or takes too much energy or effort or takes away from my “me” time?
And so, because we are so quick to grow weary, Paul motivates us; motivation that has two sides: law and gospel. First, he addresses the very real reaction to a sermon like this: that we can sit here, listen, and simply dismiss it as either just hot-air or a message others need to hear as we walk out those doors. To anyone who might harbor such an attitude, Paul says do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. It is certainly possible for you to ignore and reject this sermon, and I would never know any better. But you do so at your own risk. Because, make no mistake, God sees all. God knows all. In the end, God will judge all. What we sow now is exactly what we will reap in eternity. If I dare to ignore God’s direction for my life today, if I instead sow to please my own sinful nature, I will reap destruction on the Last Day. So does that mean that I am responsible for earning my salvation? NO! The only way we can sow to please the Spirit is if we have already received salvation from the Spirit. We love because God first loved us (1 John 4:19)! The point is that my time, my energy, my money, my life are not my own. They are gifts from God. They are gifts he has given me to serve others and how I use them will have eternal consequences.
“That sounds like a threat!” It is. It’s the Law. Do Christians need to be threatened? Yes. For two reasons. First, the Law is the only language our sinful nature understands. Like a lazy, obstinate teenager, the sinful nature is not to be coddled or reasoned with but warned and restrained. Second, Paul knows how quick we are to grow weary of doing good. “I’ve been giving, cleaning, counting, mowing, parenting, leading, teaching, preaching, serving others for so long – no matter how hard I work, nothing seems to change or get any better – I’m tired, I’m old, I’m worn out…I’m done, let someone else take over!” I know – and you know – how often those thoughts arise in our hearts. Relative to all that God has done for us and relative to the eternity Christ won for us, we are lacking spiritual stamina. We, the part of us that remains corrupted by sin, needs to be warned and threatened against giving up. It needs to be beaten and disciplined like an athlete’s body (1 Corinthians 9:27).
And yet, while the flesh will only respond to threats, our spiritual nature is energized by the Gospel: may I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. In the end, what drives us to do good is not the Law, but the Gospel – not what we must do, but what Christ has done. When Christ died, there were three deaths: his, yours, and the world’s. Christ died for your sin. You died to the world. And the world died to you. Crucifixion means death and death means separation, the end of a relationship. That means that you are free! Christ has set you free from the wicked, lazy sinful flesh. He has freed you from the values and priorities and ways of the world. Because Christ has freed you from your burden of sin you are free to turn your attention to bearing the burdens of others. In other words, the fact that Christ has made you “good” with God frees you to do “good” for others.
And so Paul closes his letter with virtually the same blessing with which he began (Galatians 1:3): peace and mercy to all who follow this rule, even to the Israel of God. This “rule” is the balance, the tension in which we live as Christians: the rule of first receiving and then giving. It is faith that receives all that God wants us to have in Christ without any strings attached and it is faith that serves and gives and bears burdens for others without any strings attached. When the cross of Christ is your only boast, when you embrace the balance between receiving everything freely from him and giving freely to others, you will have two of the rarest things in the world: peace and purpose. Amen.
 LW 27:112