Have we misunderstood sowing and reaping?

If someone asked you to explain how we could have eternal life, would you answer him by saying, “whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life” (Galatians 6:8)?

Most Christians would be uncomfortable with this answer because it appears to imply a works-based salvation.

So what does this verse teach?

The words “to please” used by the New International Version are not in the original text. The New Living Translation translates this verse more explicitly as a lifestyle, “those who live to please the Spirit will harvest everlasting life from the Spirit” (Galatians 6:8).

Is this what Paul meant by “sowing to the Spirit”?

Both versions translate Paul’s words in reference to lifestyle or personal choices (flesh or Spirit). Yet the end of the verse is clearly about outcome in terms of eternal destiny.

How should we understand the original intention?

“Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life” (Galatians 6:7-8, ESV).

These are familiar verses reminding us of a general truth about reaping what you sow. But what was the intended application when these words were written to the believers in Galatia? 

Is there a purpose to these words (in the context of the book of Galatians) that has been overlooked?

The difficulty is not really with what is presented in verse 7 where the Apostle Paul simply issues three warnings that are applicable in many circumstances. In a kind of staccato form, the apostle warned,

  1. Do not be deceived (cf. I Corinthians 6:9;15:33; James 1:6, 22)
  2. God is not mocked (cf. Genesis 3:1-6; II Chron. 36:16; Ezek. 8:17;Pr. 1:26-27)
  3. You reap what you sow (cf. II Corinthians 9:6; James 1:13-18)

Each warning has broad application to many areas of life. The question in context, however, is why the warnings were given to the believers in Galatia. Why do they appear at this point in the letter?

The opening of verse 7 has an abrupt and unexpected feel to it following verse 6. Why such a seemingly significant shift of tone and focus?

The apostle had already issued strong words of rebuke and dismay about how easily the believers drifted from the true gospel toward a blend of gospel and law (Galatians 1:6-9). He referred to them as “foolish” and “bewitched” (3:1-3) and said he was “perplexed” by their actions (4:20).

False teachers had gained influence in the Churches by teaching that believers could not have acceptance with God unless they were circumcised. This was a direct assault on the gospel because it required works of the law as an addition to faith in Christ.

This is the primary concern of the book of Galatians and is addressed pointedly in Galatians 5:2-4.

“Listen! I, Paul, tell you this: If you are counting on circumcision to make you right with God, then Christ will be of no benefit to you. I’ll say it again. If you are trying to find favor with God by being circumcised, you must obey every regulation in the whole law of Moses. For if you are trying to make yourselves right with God by keeping the law, you have been cut off from Christ! You have fallen away from God’s grace” (Galatians 5:2-4, NLT).

Earlier he wrote,  “Yet we know that a person is made right with God by faith in Jesus Christ, not by obeying the law. And we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we might be made right with God because of our faith in Christ, not because we have obeyed the law. For no one will ever be made right with God by obeying the law…. I do not treat the grace of God as meaningless. For if keeping the law could make us right with God, then there was no need for Christ to die” (Galatians 2:16,21, NLT).

This concern had eternal implications because it was an assault on the very basis of salvation. “… those who depend on the law to make them right with God are under his curse, for the Scriptures say, ‘Cursed is everyone who does not observe and obey all the commands that are written in God’s Book of the Law’” (3:10, NLT).

The part of the law that the false teachers were pushing was a need to be circumcised. This was perhaps a way to elevate Jewish identity as necessary for acceptance with God. They wanted the Gentile believers to honor the sign of the old covenant.

This is the issue behind the contrast that dominates the book between faith and Law in the first half and Spirit and Flesh in the second. Reference to flesh has a range of meanings from physical flesh (as in circumcision), to relying on human effort instead of God; to works of the flesh in moral terms.

Toward the close of Galatians, the apostle exposes the motivation of the false teachers,

“Those who want to impress people by means of the flesh are trying to compel you to be circumcised. The only reason they do this is to avoid being persecuted for the cross of Christ. Not even those who are circumcised keep the law, yet they want you to be circumcised that they may boast about your circumcision in the flesh” (Galatians 6:12-13, NIV).

How then should all of this help our understanding of Galatians 6:7-8?

Is the apostle primarily concerned about sowing to the flesh in terms of salvation or way of living? Recent translations like the New International Version and the New Living Translation make the decision or the readers by applying these verses to Christian living. The more contemporary translations involve more interpretation in the process of translation.

This is done to help the reader understand what is being said in a way that they can apply more readily to their lives.

These two versions have done a helpful job in many places. The tricky point for the teacher of Scripture is to decide if he agrees with the interpretation reflected in the translation. (Remember that all translation involves some interpretation). For example, Galatians 6:7-8 are translated as follows:

  • “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life” (Galatians 6:7-8, NIV).
  • “Don’t be misled—you cannot mock the justice of God. You will always harvest what you plant. Those who live only to satisfy their own sinful nature will harvest decay and death from that sinful nature. But those who live to please the Spirit will harvest everlasting life from the Spirit” (Galatians 6:7-8, NLT).

“Sowing to the flesh” is applied in these translations as “sowing to please the flesh” (NIV) and “Those who live only to satisfy their own sinful nature.” The English words “please” and “satisfy” (although not in the original) are used by the translators to explain the intended meaning. They both imply lifestyle choices that reach back to a contrast between the works of the flesh and the fruit of the spirit (5:19-23).

This is the way most people have understood and applied these verses. But there is possibility that the original intention was an application to the gospel itself — a reference to eternal salvation. The verses end with this in view. Consider the way the English Standard Version translates these verses:

“Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life” (Galatians 6:7-8, ESV).

As with the New American Standard, the ESV tends to render more of a word for word movement from Greek to English. In verse 8, the concern is about “the one who sows to his own flesh.” The word “own” translates the Greek reflexive pronoun and raises a question as to why “his own flesh” is emphasized.

Could this be a reference to the primary concern about these believers being deceived into thinking that salvation requires “works of the Law” in relation to the act of circumcision of the flesh?

Earlier the apostle used rhetorical questions with salvation in view, “I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh?” (Galatians 3:2-3)

If “sowing to the flesh” is about distorting the gospel by adding law to grace, we understand more clearly the contrast at the end of verse 8 between reaping “corruption” or “eternal life”? The term corruption or destruction could have a more general meaning than eternal ruin (II Corinthians 4:16-18), but when placed in contrast with eternal life, it likely refers to ultimate destiny in contrast with eternal life.

One could argue that those who live lives of sowing to the flesh show by their actions the eternal destiny that awaits them. After listing the works of the flesh, Paul clearly stated that, “those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God” (5:21).

It is possible that a choice of “sowing to the Spirit” involves both a rejection of salvation in Christ alone and an expected lifestyle of the works of the flesh resulting in destruction rather than eternal life. But we must always be sure that this is what the text means and is not our effort to rescue the text with our theology from what we don’t want it to mean.

The hard-hitting warnings of Galatians 6:7 about deception, mocking God and reaping what one sows, along with the implied responsibility and accountability in sowing and reaping, could be aimed at the issue of how one approaches God regarding salvation. The close reference to “flesh” in Galatians 6:12-13 draws the focus back on circumcision.

“Those who want to impress people by means of the flesh are trying to compel you to be circumcised. The only reason they do this is to avoid being persecuted for the cross of Christ. Not even those who are circumcised keep the law, yet they want you to be circumcised that they may boast about your circumcision in the flesh” (Galatians 6:12-13, NIV).

Conclusion

While I see how one could apply sowing and reaping to lifestyle choices about flesh and Spirit (cf. Romans 8:5-9; 13:14, see: You harvest what you plant), the focus at the end of v. 8 is clearly on eternal salvation. This is what requires careful explanation.   However we choose to apply Galatians 6:7-8, the clear appeal to personal accountability reminds us that we are not passive recipients of God’s work in our lives. We are unworthy recipients.

And we cannot attract God to us by personal worthiness.

He loved us while we were yet sinners (Romans 5:8) and we can only love Him because he first loved us (I John 4:19). But we are called to believe (John 3:16) and to work out our salvation with fear and trembling because God works in us (Philippians 2:12-13).

Steve Cornell

This entry was posted in Galatians, Gospel, Gospel-centered, Hermeneutics, Interpretation of bible and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Have we misunderstood sowing and reaping?

  1. I had been reading Galatians for the past days and when I read chapter 6, I realized I have misused verse 7 many times, thinking that it applies only to our moral behavior–that if we do good now, we will reap good in the future. However, reading the whole chapter and the whole book made me rethink this verse. Others interpret it in the light of giving because of verse 6. They interpret “communicate unto…all good things” as sharing material things. But really, after reading the whole book and what Paul has been discussing since chapter 1, I would have to agree with this post regarding the importance of verse 8 as a way to interpret verse 7. Your insight that it deals with one’s eternal destiny was an eye-opener also. Thanks!

    My interpretation of this is that Paul is again contrasting sowing in the flesh (fulfilling the Mosaic law by human effort, imposing circumcision on others as in v. 12 and in so many sections of the book), and sowing in the Spirit by faith.

    He seems to say that God cannot be mocked because He will always see the intentions of our good works. Those who trouble the Galatians with merit-salvation are geared towards putting on a show (v. 12). They think that by obeying the law, they can fulfill the whole law. They seek vain glories by glorying in making others obey the law or circumcision (v. 13).

    It is ironic that those who are circumcised do not keep the law yet they can afford to impose circumcision on others (v. 13). I guess this is very much related to vv. 3-5 where Paul is admonishing each one to check himself/herself.

    Despite our inability to obey the whole law, we are justified by faith and sanctified by the Holy Spirit (the whole point of Galatians), not by works. That is why he says in v. 17 that let not any man trouble him anymore. I believe he was referring to troubling the believers with the lie that circumcision is necessary for justification and sanctification.

    The false teachers keep trying to fulfill the law by a means that can never fulfill it. However, Paul remarks in verse 3 that we fulfill the law by bearing one another’s burdens. I associate this with love. As Paul says in Galatians 5:14 and even in Romans 13:10, love is the fulfillment of the law. Paul is exhorting us to do good and not be weary in doing it (vv. 9-10), especially to those in the household of faith.

    And sowing in the Spirit will really show our intentions (if we are only seeking vain glories and are putting up a show by glorying in the flesh) because the Spirit will always bear the fruit of love (Gal. 5:22).

    Oh, that we will be united and known by our love, just as Jesus prayed we would be.🙂

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