January 11, 2018 Chapel Service — Dr. Derek Thomas

Posted On January 16, 2018

Derek Thomas

“Keeping in Step with the Spirit”
—Galatians 5:26-6:5

Dr. Derek Thomas is senior minister of First Presbyterian Church in Columbia, S.C., and Robert Strong Professor of Systematic and Practical Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Atlanta. He is a Ligonier Ministries teaching fellow, and author of many books, including How the Gospel Brings Us All the Way Home.



Now, turn with me, if you would, to Galatians chapter Five. We will pick it up at verse twenty-five and read through into the first few verses of chapter six. Galatians chapter five and verse twenty five:

If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another. 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.

If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit. This is Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Paul is dealing with a particular misunderstanding under deliberate, perhaps, misconstruing of the centrality of the Gospel; justification by faith alone in Jesus Christ alone. He’s dealing with a group of people, and for now let’s just call them Judaizers, who have infiltrated the church in the region of Galatia. They are insisting that it isn’t enough to believe in Jesus but that you also need to keep the ceremonial law. Gentiles, in particular, need to be circumcised, they need to obey the kosher laws, the food laws, and, perhaps, certain observances of feast days. Paul sees this as a denial of the very essence of the Gospel. What they are saying is that you are justified by faith in Christ, plus, the keeping of the law. This plus for the apostle Paul is a damnable plus. It is a plus that gets in the way of the gospel. Paul is exercised here as you read Galatians we see something of his theological anger at unbelief. His theological anger at something that he regards as an error and that is going to lead them astray and that is going to lead others astray.

We’d remember that he cites a similar incident in the church in Antioch. We’re not sure exactly when that incident took place. I surmise that it took place before Acts fifteen. In Antioch, you’ll remember, Peter had been, I was telling my class earlier that there’s something of a reformation issue about it, and the Antioch church is the church that’s sending out missionaries. Then there’s the mother church, there’s Jerusalem church, there’s the church that is largely consisting of converted Jews. But in Antioch, it is very different and the majority of the people in Antioch are Gentiles and Peter has been having fellowship and he’s been eating barbecue; pork barbecue with his Gentile buddies in Antioch, And fraternizing with Gentile brothers and sisters until the men of James come from Jerusalem and then all of the sudden Peter withdraws table fellowship. He no longer eats pork, he’s eating kosher food. He no longer eats with his Gentile brothers and sisters and he sits only with those Jews. It is a racial issue on one level but it is also ,on another level, a denial of the Gospel. What Peter is saying is that it’s no longer sufficient to simply believe in Jesus but you also need to keep aspects of the ceremonial law in order to be right with God, in order to be justified. Paul withstood him to his face. It’s one of those moments as I think that you would like to go back and witness. I would like to see the clash of the titans, the showdown between the apostle Paul and the apostle Peter. You must remember that at that stage in the development of the church, Peter was probably the chief apostle. And certainly in the first twelve chapters of the Acts of the apostles, Peter is the number one apostle. It was after all to Peter, Catholic claims notwithstanding, that Jesus had said, “I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against me.”

Well, something similar is taking place in the church in Galatia, a denial of the Gospel, a denial of justification by faith. Paul has been dealing with it throughout this epistle and he’s come in this closing section to talk about some of the benefits of what it means to be justified and one of the benefits is the indwelling Holy Spirit and the testimony of the Spirit, testifying with our spirits that we are the children of God. And, if children heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Jesus Christ that one of the blessings of the Gospel is our adoption into the household and family of God whereby we are enabled to refer to God as Abba, our Heavenly Father. And, it’s in that spirit that he speaks in verse twenty-five about the Holy Spirit. If we live by the Spirit, if we are justified by faith alone in Jesus Christ alone it is because the Holy Spirit has drawn us to Christ and He indwells us and he’s witnessing with us and He’s equipping us and guiding us and directing us and so on.

And, if we live by the Spirit let us also keep in step with the Spirit. He uses a Greek verb here that is taken from the realm of the military. You can imagine that what Paul is saying, I don’t think you’d be very far from the truth, that what he’s saying is you need to keep in step like soldiers on a parade ground. In their marching and their keeping in step their legs and their arms are moving with some kind of synchronous fashion. Well, you need to keep in step with the Holy Spirit.

The implication is that it is possible to be out of step with the Holy Spirit. To be out of step with the Holy Spirit in your thinking and to be out of step with the Holy Spirit in your practice. Here, in particular, its not so much your thinking, it is your practice that Paul is addressing. It’s the closing of the epistle, and like many if not most of Paul’s epistles at the end of the epistle, he draws out the implications of what it means to be a Christian. Of what it means to be in union with Christ, or in this case, what it means to be indwelt by the Holy Spirit and to be led by the Spirit. You need to keep in step with the spirit. Well, what does that look like? And Paul’s answer, and perhaps the division of the chapter here is somewhat unfortunate as it so often actually is, that the train of thought follows immediately, I think, from verse twenty-six into the first verse of chapter six. Paul is dealing here with the implications of what it means to keep in step with the spirit in two different directions.

First of all in how you think about yourself, and secondly, how you think about others. And, in the closing verse of chapter five he’s thinking primarily about how it is that you think about yourself. “Let us not become conceited.” The Greek word is a word that could be rendered, “vain glorious.” We might more euphemistically say, “full of yourself.” Don’t think of yourself with vanity. Don’t think of yourself more highly than you ought to think. Don’t become vain glorious, that it’s all about you. And then he goes on immediately to say, “Provoking one another, envying one another,” and these are two opposites. There is the tendency, perhaps on our part, to provoke others. To think of ourselves as better than others. To think of ourselves as more worthy of praise than others, and we provoke them. We are full of ourselves, that’s what Paul, I think, is thinking about here.

And, if we are guided, you see, by a view that we are made right with God by virtue of our obedience, by virtue of our good works, by virtue of our adherence to certain ceremonial markers, whatever they might be. Then, there is a tendency in us to see those markers in us more than we see them in others. And, we are full of ourselves. Paul is thinking about the person that, perhaps, of the person that is overly confident. And, I don’t wish to bring Paul down to the level of the therapist’s chair here, or in terms of modern psychoanalysis or something like that, but Paul is, I think, thinking along some of those lines here.

Here’s a person and he thinks he obeys the law and he thinks he obeys the law better than someone else. And, he thinks he obeys the law to a greater degree and to a greater extent and with greater exactitude than someone else and so, when he thinks about someone else and when he converses with someone else, he provokes them. Because he feels himself to be superior. He has a, he has a superior self confidence and it’s entirely based on an attitude that he has to his own works. And, to how he thinks those works are meritorious and how he thinks those works operate in the sight of God. And Paul is saying, if you’re keeping in step with the Spirit, don’t provoke other people, don’t think of yourself as better than other people. You have this, well you have this holier than thou attitude about yourself. You have this view of yourself that sees yourself as better and more superior.

Well then he does the very opposite, and then he talks about envying one another and this is the opposite. This is the person who doesn’t have a great deal of self confidence. This person too is governed by a works mentality, you understand. He thinks that in order to be right with God he has to obey certain rules and certain regulations. And, in order for God to love Him he needs to obey these rules and, and he doesn’t do them and he knows he doesn’t do them and he has a low, well, we might even say he has a low self esteem. I know you might have problems with that in terms of how modern society uses those expressions, but we all know what it means to have a low opinion about ourselves. And, you can have that low opinion about yourself in a way that invalidates the gospel. Because your opinion of yourself, in one sense, doesn’t really matter it’s God’s opinion about you that matters. It’s not your obedience or your lack of obedience. It’s not your good works or your lack of good works that matters, it is God’s word about you in Jesus Christ. That when you believe in Jesus, when you believe in the gospel, you are a child of God, you are an heir of God, you are a co-heir with Jesus Christ, that’s who you are, that’s your identity. Your sins, though they be red like crimson, are as white as snow. Your obedience or lack of obedience, it doesn’t matter, because it’s not based on your obedience or your lack of obedience it’s based entirely upon God’s verdict about you in Jesus Christ.

I think Paul is applying here what he’s been talking about throughout the entire epistle, the importance of the Gospel and the importance of justification by faith alone in Jesus Christ alone apart from the works of the law and how that operates in view of ourselves and how we treat others. Some of you have been thrown into a society that’s relatively new and you’ve been thrown into a society where you are now going to operate as adults. And, you have to relate to other people and there are all kinds of people. And, there are people who are confident and there are people who are not confident. And, this may be you. The call here is to keep in step with the Spirit. The Spirit who, in one sense, equalizes us, you understand that’s what the gospel does, it equalizes us. It equalizes the great and the small. And, those who have and those who have not. And, we are all one in Jesus Christ and we are all accepted in precisely the same way. And, that’s why faith alone in Jesus Christ alone, “nothing in my hands I bring simply to thy cross I cling, naked come to thee for dress, helpless look to thee for grace. Foul, I to the fountain fly, wash me Saviour or I die.

You see how Paul is making an application here but it’s an application to ourselves and how we view others. And, we can provoke them and we can envy them. And, both are wrong, both are errors in the gospel, both are errors in our understanding of justification by faith.

Well then, he goes on, and I don’t think there’s meant to be a break here as the chapter division suggests. And he goes on to talk about not just our view about ourselves but our view about other people. “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 also be tempted.” Paul is doing exactly the same thing now, he’s talking about somebody who’s been caught in a sin, and I don’t think he’s talking about trivial sins. And, there are trivial sins, now I know from one sense, there is no such thing as a trivial sin and every sin deserves to be punished in hell, I understand that, but there are degrees of sin, and I think we all understand that. There are trivial sins, and there are some sins to which we should apply the principal in 1 Peter 4 that, “love covers a multitude of sins.” If you don’t get that, you’re never going to enjoy a good marriage, or a good relationship. If you’re going to expose every single sin you’re going to have a difficult life, and, folks are going to find you difficult. So the principal of a good marriage is love covers a multitude of sins. Now, there are sins and you have to sort of say stop, halt, time-out, and we need to stop and we need to talk about this but there are sins and you just cover them, and you move on, and you embrace them. That’s not to say they are not sins, they are still sins, but love covers a multitude of sins.

Or, there’s a translation of a verse in 1 Corinthians 13 that, “love keeps no record of wrongdoing.” Love keeps no record of wrongdoing. Well, there’s that. And then there is, what I think is in view here, someone who is caught in a sin and I think the sense here is a habitual sin, this sin isn’t a one off thing, it has become a habit. It has become a standard and a mark of an individual, and then what? And Paul says, well be careful how you do this. Do it inline with the gospel, do it inline with justification by faith alone. Do it inline with the way in which God forgave you and the way in which God deals with you. Remember that you too are a sinner. Remember that you too have sins in your life so you deal gently. It’s a beautiful word isn’t it? “Gently”. We reformed Christians are not always known for our gentility. We’re out in the marketplace and we’re striving, we are striving for the truth and we’re contending for the gospel and we’re contending for worldviews and we’re contending for a right understanding of this that or the other and we’ll betide you if you come at me with a misunderstanding of Calvin’s view on the Lord’s supper because I’m going to come after you. And, I’m going to come after you with hopefully some knowledge and some insight, and some reflection, and some thought and it’s very easy to become contentious in a way that isn’t gentle. It isn’t often that Jesus, for example, gives a character evaluation of himself. You can read through the gospels and you won’t find Jesus making a self-referential comment about His character much. Except, when he says, “come unto me all ye that are weary and heavy laden,” and, you remember, he goes on to say, “I am meek and gentle of heart.” There’s a hymn, and we often attribute it to John Calvin, whether he wrote it or not is debatable, but, in which there is a wonderful reference in that hymn to the gentleness of Christ. There’s a gentleness about Him. Now, Jesus can also be a firebrand in certain contexts, but there’s also a gentleness about Him in His relationship to us.

So, Paul is saying, what does it mean to keep in step with the Spirit? What does it mean to march in step, in conformity, in synchronicity with the Holy Spirit? And it means this, that when you encounter someone who has fallen into sin, into a habit of sin, be gentle with that person. And, be gentle with that person for your own sake. And, remember who you are and remember what you are and remember what you are capable of. Remember that you too could be tempted, you understand don’t you? That the reason why some of us have not fallen into certain sins is not because we didn’t want to, it’s not because of a lack of desire on our part, it’s because we lacked the opportunity. God has hedged us in, God has so ordered providence that it hasn’t found an opportunity to manifest itself. But, in the right circumstances, in the right environment, if providence were to be so ordered in a certain way, things could look very different for you and for me. Thank God for the times when God closes a door. Thank God for times when God raises a barrier. Thank God for business. Yes, thank God for days when you are consumed with quizzes, and exams, and papers, and commitments, and jobs, and shifts that end at two in the morning and you’re so tired that all you can do is go home and sleep. Thank God for those days because it has probably kept you from something and God is keeping you from sinning.

Now, you see what Paul is doing? He’s talking about justification by faith but he’s talking about the practical effects of it and one of the practical effects of it is how you deal with someone who’s fallen into sin and you must do so gently; remembering yourself and remembering of what you’re capable of and the only reason you are  a Christian is not because of anything that is in you, it’s entirely due to Him and HIs grace. And then he says, “Bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ.” There’s a sense, I don’t think this is the full meaning of the text and I don’t have time now to expand upon the full meaning of the text, but, there’s a sense in which what is it that Jesus requires of you and me? It’s not a set of rules. Here are the four hundred and eighty six things that you must now do. How do you fulfill the law of Christ? By loving others in the way that Jesus has loved you. That’s it. By loving others in the way that Jesus has loved you. So, bear one another’s burdens, be Jesus like, and what was Jesus like? “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who being in the form of God emptied Himself.”

Now you might have a euphemistic translation, as the ESV did until recently, and you might have a translation that says, “made himself nothing,” or, “made himself of no reputation.” And that’s, I think, the meaning and intent, but the actual word he uses is “empty.” Ekenōsen (ἐκένωσεν). The problem with empty is that you’re going to ask the question what did he empty Himself of? Or, if you want to be a strict grammarian, of what did He empty Himself? And, if you answer that question you’re going to commit a heresy. And if you answer that question, Dr. Sproul is going to come after you with his Christology statement. If you answer that question, you are violating fundamental tenets of the Chalcedonian creed. So, let’s read the text again, “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who being in the form of God emptied Himself, taking-“ It’s actually not emptying by subtraction, it’s emptying by addition because in addition to being the Son of God and in addition to being divine, He took the form of a servant. He was in the form of God and He took the form of a servant. He had the form of God (morphe theou) and he took the form of a servant (morphe doulos). A form, well, of a slave literally. Someone who has no rights. Jesus had no rights, He took the form of a lowly servant, a lowly slave to wash the disciples feet, humbled Himself; Even to, right up to the point of death.

What does it mean to keep in step with the spirit? It means to bear with each other and sometimes we’re not likable, aren’t we? That’s the truth of it. Sometimes we’re not likable. So, what is the Jesus thing? Bear with one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ. And, if you’re going to boast about anything, boast about your relationship to Jesus and not about yourself and who you are in yourself and by yourself and by your efforts.

So, Galatians is a book about, well, what did Luther call justification? It is what makes the difference between a standing and a falling church. It is the hinge, Calvin said, on which the whole door of the Gospel turns. And, it’s absolutely vital for you to get a right understanding of justification by faith, today more than any other day perhaps. But, it’s also important that you understand what it means on a practical level in how you view yourself and how you treat others and may God help us to keep in step with the Spirit today.

Transcripts are lightly edited.