In a sermon the late John Webster preached in July of 2001 as one of the pastors of Christ Church, in Oxford, UK, he took as his text Paul’s injunction to the church at Galatia, Galatians 6:1–3:
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.
In the course of this short sermon (it likely could be delivered in under ten minutes), Webster elaborates the meaning and implication of this text for our lives as Christians — the life we live together in the society called the church. He wisely understands that the “way in which it deals with failure” is one of the “hallmarks of the genuine Christian community.” One of Webster’s motivations here is to help us to share a common gospel life in Christ empowered by the Spirit by “finding a way of being together that does indeed face up to sin’s reality but which is not crushed by it.” This requires not only truthfulness but gentleness.
The way Webster understands “gentleness” is instructive. It is “truthful, realistic, looks failure in the eye and sees it for what it is.” Gentleness is not “indifference to sin. It’s not mere softness, pretending that sin isn’t sin. . .[gentleness is not] a way of avoidance.” It “doesn’t fall into the hostility that so often threatens to engulf us when we try to deal with the sins of others. It is the opposite of the fierce, bitter, censorious, accusatory attitude that very quickly mars the way in which we handle failure.” Rather, gentleness “deals gently with failure, not because it underestimates the seriousness of sin, but because gentleness is in accordance with the deep truth of the gospel.”
This might seem quite remarkable to us. Yet, Paul is insistent on this point, and Webster exhorts us to be as well. For them, “gentleness is a requirement of the gospel of Christ.” Why is this so? Why does the Bible enjoin this of us and our pastors? Webster gives three reasons. First, we act gently because these sinning Christians “have been overtaken in trespass. They are those who have fallen into a snare and got themselves in a mess.” Webster is aware that this does not mean they are innocent victims, but simply that indwelling sin is a reality with which all of us must deal in this age.
Second, we are to be gentle because “we must bear in mind our own weaknesses.” Webster sees Paul warning us against self-righteousness: “Excessive severity in criticizing others usually goes hand in hand with a basic incapacity to see ourselves as we really are.” If we would like to be handled with care in our sinful failure, then we should extend the same to others. That is the shape of the gospel which proclaims that our life, righteousness, and adoption are gift — grace rather than “due.” If this is so, Webster declares, “then contempt for others when they fall is fundamentally false. The gospel is about grace, and because it’s about grace, it is about compassion.”
Third, we are to deal gently with failure because Paul commands us “to bear one another’s burdens.” Webster points to Christ’s example but distinguishes us from Him: “we cannot bear away a person’s sins, for that is the work of God alone. And we need not bear another person’s sins, because God has already done so.” Our gentleness toward sisters and brothers who fail is grounded in God’s infinite gentleness toward us, that kindness of his Son Jesus on whom he laid our own failures through no effort or desert of our own. What can we then do in the church? We can, Webster preaches, “in speech and action say the one thing that must be said to our sinful companion in the church: Christ has borne your sin. He has taken it away. And as we say that. . . then we restore our companion to fellowship.”
That is the goal of such gentleness: reconciliation, “the rebuilding of the life and fellowship of the church.” The aim is “not to publicize the faults of others; it’s not to run some terrible, self-righteous campaign.” It is to become a people marked out by — who live by — the gentleness of God in the gospel of Jesus Christ on a daily basis. Webster is under no illusions that this is easy; indeed, he says even imagining such a society of people is nearly impossible. But, importantly, “we are not called to imagine it. We’re called to ask for the gift of God’s Spirit to make it so, to give us gentleness, to teach us the law of Christ, to help us bear one another’s burdens.” Such a way of life is a fruit that only comes from the Holy Spirit poured out for all believers by the risen Jesus Christ. Therefore, we must request such fruit — to see our fellows and ourselves aright, and then the gospel wherewithal to act in accordance with that sight.
Let us pray—for our churches, even for our school—as Webster did to end this sermon: “May God give us grace to learn these things, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”
Assistant Professor of Theology
- Pray that we each would grow in gentleness.
- Praise the Lord for all he did in and will do through those who attended Serious Joy: The Bethlehem Conference for Pastors this week.
- Pray for the students considering where God would have them attend school.
- Pray for the full funding of the Serious Joy Scholarships that support our students and their teachers.