How Should I Respond to Someone Else's Sin?

There are two options.

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Caught in a Trap

I’m a fan of the television show Life Below Zero, which chronicles the lives of several people who live near or above the arctic circle in Alaska. It is really cold up there. Thus, the name of the show—Life Below Zero. As in zero degrees

These folks talk about subsistence living. Rather than holding down typical day jobs, most of the Below Zeroers survive by hunting, fishing, and trapping animals for food. Some of them have built their homes by hand. It is old-school frontier living.

In one episode, a snow hare is caught in a steel trap. The trapper is thrilled. The rabbit, not so much. Apart from the mercy of the trapper, Mr. Rabbit is going to be stew for supper. 

This is the image Paul paints for us in the first five verses of Galatians 6. But it is not a rabbit that is caught in a trap. It is a fellow believer. And the trap is not steel; it is sin. 

The specific sin is not the issue. 

The question for us is how we will react to someone else’s sin. Will I feel anger and contempt? Maybe, like the survivalist, I’ll be thrilled to see someone else caught in the trap, savoring their thrashing as a holier-than-thou moment of self-righteous satisfaction. Under the guise of a “concern” or prayer request, maybe I will share their demise with others as a juicy morsel of Satan-glazed gossip.

Or will I feel compassion and sadness, knowing that it very well could be me caught in the trap? 

Those are our options, contempt or compassion. Of course, we know that the call of the gospel is to help heal wounded sinners. Not kick them when they are down. This is Paul’s counsel in Galatians 6:1-5.

Galatians 6:1-5

Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted. 2 Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. 3 If anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself. 4 Each one should test his own actions. Then he can take pride in himself, without comparing himself to somebody else, 5 for each one should carry his own load.

Galatians 5 introduced the theme of living according to the influence of the Spirit in contrast to living according to the influence of the flesh. If the flesh produces dead works of sin the Spirit produces the good fruit of sanctification. And of all the fruit of the Spirit, the first in line is love, what Paul calls in verse 2, “the law of Christ.” 

The apostle John records Jesus in John 13:34, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” Love is the “law” or command of Christ, because to love is to be like Jesus. In Galatians 6, Paul simply provides an application for what it looks like to love a fellow believer in a practical way by laying out a process for helping set believers free from the snare. 


A Gentle, Humble Approach

This process begins with a gentle, humble approach, as verse 1 says, “Restore him gently.” The noun form of the Greek word used for gently is translated in the Beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount as “meek.” To be “meek” is to be humble and lowly.

We may think of Jesus’ own words concerning how he treats the bruised and broken, ensnared, and burdened sinner in Matthew 11:28-30, where he says, “28 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble (or lowly) in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” The word Jesus uses, “gentle,” is the same word in Galatians 6:1, “restore him gently.” In other words, unlike a Pharisee, treat the sinner like Jesus would treat the sinner. 

As I consider my approach, my attitude toward my brother or sister caught in sin is of paramount importance. Rather than focus on their condition, I probably ought to check my own. Am I feeling anger and contempt or, like Jesus, filled with sympathy, sadness, and compassion? Is my motive to gloat or to administer grace

The Greek word for restore is katartizō (καταρτίζω), from which we get the English word, cauterize. Even back in antiquity, cauterization was used as a medical treatment to close open wounds by means of a hot branding iron. While cauterization may be painful, the result stops the bleeding, prevents infection, and potentially saves the life of the injured. In extra-biblical Greek texts, katartizō is also used for setting broken bones, while in the Gospels, it refers to mending torn fishing nets.  

Whether we go with the image of cauterization, setting broken bones, or mending torn nets, katartizō provides a helpful context for deciding what kinds of sins require another believer to intervene. We are not to nit-pick or deputize ourselves as part of the sin police. I think Paul envisions something significant, as if the person trapped is bleeding out and in desperate need of having their soul mended.


Burden Bearing

Obviously, we are not talking about a literal physical injury. But if you have ever been exposed for a public sin, especially one that hurts someone else, you know how powerful thoughts of condemnation, failure, and regret can weigh upon you. This is the burden of verse 2, where Paul exhorts us, “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way, you will fulfill the law of Christ.”

The way a burden-bearing believer helps set a trapped believer free is by applying the cauterizing blood of Jesus to the sin. The goal of restoration is not just to change their behavior but to convince the wounded that God’s grace is greater than their sin. For believers, the cross gets the final word on all of our failures because the burden of condemnation we feel already has been borne by Jesus on that cross. 

Maybe we can see why Paul provides a caveat for those qualified to administer the cauterization, saying in verse 1, “You who are spiritual should restore him.” Like a surgeon, it takes someone with care and skill to cauterize a wound. It takes a mature believer who has had his own wounds cauterized by the blood of Christ.

The Greek word for spiritual is pneumatikos (πνευματικός). The root of the word is pneuma, which means spirit. When we put holy (hagio) with pneuma, we get Holy Spirit.

The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament defines the Holy Spirit as “[The person in the godhead] who mediates understanding of the gospel of the cross… [a] knowledge relates to the act of divine love... and the miracle of believing that God is for us in Jesus Christ. Hence the Spirit is the Spirit of faith.” (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Abridged

Therefore, “the one who is spiritual” is someone who has received knowledge of the cross and is functionally living out the implications of God’s grace to himself as a sinner. For him, grace is not something that was needed in the past but is his primary need in the present. His testimony is not that he was a sinner but that he is a sinner. 

While it is true that sin no longer defines the believer’s identity, the flesh remains, and the mature believer is well aware of the danger that lurks within himself. It is this self-awareness that enables the consciously Spirit-led believer to heed the warning in verse 1 to “watch yourself, or you also may be tempted.” 

The Greek word for “watch” carries the sense of observing carefully. In spiritual terms, we are talking about what Paul emphasized in the previous chapter of Galatians: self-awareness of the flesh and the need to walk step by step guided by the Spirit. The “spiritual” or mature believer is well aware that he or she could easily fall into the same trap, regardless of the sin. They do not approach the ensnared with a sense of spiritual superiority, religious haughtiness, or moral holier-than-thouness, but with a discernible humility and gentleness.


The Process of Restoration

A gentle approach may begin with a simple acknowledgment of the situation. “I heard about [the incident]. How are you?” If they are immediately defensive and not yet feeling the pain of their condition, let them know you are there for them and want to help in any way possible. But there is not much you can do if someone is not under conviction of sin. It is not your job to bring someone else to conviction and feel their need for the blood of Jesus. That is the job of the Holy Spirit.

But if they give evidence of being under conviction by expressing remorse and regret, you may have the opportunity to help. Consider requesting permission to ask a few questions. If they grant permission, a starting place might look like this:

  • How are you feeling about what happened?

  • What voices are you hearing? 

  • What do you think Jesus would say?

It is possible that the believer under conviction will be dripping with guilt, feeling as if Jesus is disappointed, maybe even angry and disgusted. But that is a lie from the enemy. We know this because Jesus told a parable about a son who left home to squander his inheritance and found himself ensnared by sin. 

What was the Father’s heart toward this sinful son when he caught a glimpse of him on the horizon walking home, dressed in rags and literally smelling like a pigsty? Did he turn his son away? Did he lecture him? Did he make him grovel and do penance? 

No. A thousand times, no! 

He ran to meet him, embrace him, and kiss him. The Father threw a party, giving his returned-home son new sandals, a ring of belonging, and a robe of honor. 

This is not what we expect because this kind of dealing with a sinner is so rarely experienced. But such is the staggering kindness, compassion, grace, mercy, and love of God. This is the power of the gospel.


Evaluating Our Experience

Coaches know that there is little progress made in athletics without review and evaluation of the previous game. As someone has said, “Sometimes you win and sometimes you learn.” I like that a lot. 

Verse 4 is Paul’s way of calling for a performance review and evaluation. That is the meaning of the word “test,” when he writes, “4 Each one should test his own actions. Then he can take pride in himself, without comparing himself to somebody else.” 

Wait just a minute. Did he just say it is okay for us to be prideful? Well, yes and no. The Greek word for “take pride” has both a negative and a positive connotation. For example, in 1 Corinthians 5:6, Paul rebukes the church, saying, “Your boasting is not good.” Then, using the same word in 2 Corinthians 1:14, he writes, “On the day when the Lord Jesus returns, you will boast in us in the same way we boast in you.” The idea of the second type of boasting is a kind of thankful celebration. 

In context, when we evaluate our engagement with a believer trapped under the weight of condemnation, if we have been able to bring relief and restoration of grace to their lives, we should celebrate with gratitude that the Spirit enabled us to participate in such a glorious occasion as a repentant son or daughter coming home.

The New Living Translation captures the essence of what Paul is trying to communicate in verses 4-5. Using colloquial language, the NLT reads, “Pay careful attention to your own work, for then you will get the satisfaction of a job well done, and you won’t need to compare yourself to anyone else. 5 For we are each responsible for our own conduct.” 


Coming Home

It may very well be that consideration of your own actions has brought you to a point of conviction. You are the one trapped in sin. And maybe nobody else knows. Except for Jesus. 

If you are in that place of feeling the weight of your guilt, do not believe the lies of the enemy. Look to the burden-bearer whose mission was to rescue you, heal you, and set you free from the crushing load of sin by shedding his own blood in your place. 

Will you be the prodigal son? As you crest the hill, will you look into your Father’s eyes and behold his thrill of joy at your return? Will you let him give you the ring of belonging and clothe you in your elder brother’s robe of perfect righteousness? Will you let the blood of Jesus be your life right here and now? 

O sinner, please just come home and be his. 


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