Editors’ note: 

This is an adapted excerpt from the new book Christ Has Set Us Free: Preaching & Teaching Galatians (Crossway/TGC) edited by D. A. Carson and Jeff Robinson Sr.

Galatians 6:3 is often read as a stand-alone statement, but I think it should be read as one idea. Paul says, “For if anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself.” That’s true on its own, of course; it’s true as a stand-alone proverb. If you think you’re better than you really are, you’re self-deceived. But Paul is connecting it here and saying you’re never going to live this kind of servant life—you’re never going to move out into relationships really trying to serve others rather than trying to use others to build up your self-image—unless there’s a deep humility in you.

I love how categorical the Bible is about this point. In effect, Paul says, “Now, as a Christian, remember what the gospel says: You’re nothing.” It’s like the drive-by teaching Jesus does in Luke 11:9–13. He’s talking to his disciples about prayer, essentially telling them, “My Father will give you things if you ask for them.” But then he says, “After all, if you who are evil give good gifts to your children when they ask you, how much more would your heavenly Father . . . ?” Wait. You who are evil? He’s talking to the apostles! “Oh, by the way . . . you’re evil. Yes, you, the apostles, you’re evil.”

And that’s half the gospel: You’re evil; you’re nothing. But you don’t overcome that by seeking relationships that make you feel good about yourself. It isn’t by moving out into every relationship figuring out how that person, that relationship, can build up your flagging, fragile sense of self-worth. That’s desperate; that’s sad.

And it isn’t going to work, because your fundamental problem isn’t with other people. Your sense of self-worth is flagging and fragile because you’re not related to God like you should be. No amount of acclamation, no amount of applause or accolades from everyone in the world, will fill that hole. Nothing will heal your heart except God himself looking at you and saying, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

Each Has His Own Load

Verses 4 and 5 are almost a footnote: “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.” Every commentator or preacher I’ve ever heard takes these two verses a little bit differently.

Paul is trying to say that if you really were healed in your heart—if you didn’t need to always compare yourself to other people as a way of bolstering your fragile ego—then you could still have a sense in which you make progress. Not because you’re better than him or better than her, but because you’ve progressed in bearing your own load.

The word “load” here is not the same as the word “burden” in verse 2. “Burden” gets across the idea of a crushing weight, while “load” is more like cargo or luggage, something you have to take on a trip.

Many years ago, an older pastor helped me see what this means. There was a family in my church who were professing Christians, but it was a very flawed family. I expressed a certain amount of irritation with one of them, and the pastor responded to me like this:

There’s special grace, and there’s common grace. Some of us, because of God’s common grace, have had great families. We received a lot of love growing up. And now we have a fair amount of self-control and are relatively well-adjusted. So, when we become Christians, we come in, say, at about a 3 on a character scale from 0 to 10. After five years of growing in Christ, we’ve improved to a 3.5. Now, here’s this family, and they’ve had a very rough go of it. Both the husband and the wife come from terrible families themselves. Then they give their lives to Christ, and they come into the Christian faith, at the common grace level, at about 0. They’re wrecks. And after five years in the faith, they’re now at 1.5. They have made some significant changes, even more so than us. But when you look at them and say, “I’m twice as loving as they are and have twice the self-control,” what you’re forgetting is that they have their load, and you have yours.

At the end of John’s Gospel, Jesus is speaking to Peter and hints that Peter is going to die for his faith. I don’t know whether Peter quite gets what Jesus is saying, but Jesus basically says to him, “There’s some bad stuff coming.” Peter looks at Jesus, sees John walking along, and says, “What about him?” And I just love how Jesus says, “What is that to you? Follow me.”

I’m almost sure that’s what C. S. Lewis had in mind when Aslan in the Chronicles of Narnia constantly says to people, “I only tell you your own story.” Don’t ask me about that person’s story. That person has their own load. So what Paul’s saying here is, “Get your eyes on God. Stop looking at everybody else. Stop using everybody else.”

Some years ago, I read a meditation by Tom Howard, a Catholic writer and brother of the famous missionary Elisabeth Elliot, that really made a difference to me. I want to paraphrase it as best I remember it. Howard said to look at the temple. God planned every little architectural detail about the temple (or tabernacle), and everything is laid out precisely to his specs. But when you get to the center—which in a certain sense is the center of the universe, the very center of reality—what do you get? No image. There’s no image to bow down to. In fact, as Howard said, there’s really not a person at all; there’s an event. Because at the heart of reality is a gold slab—the mercy seat—on the top of the ark of the covenant, over the law, where the blood is sprinkled. God is saying to us that the very heart of reality, the very heart of creation and redemption, is “My life for yours.”

My Life for Yours

Sin makes us operate on this principle: “Your life for me. I’m going to make you sacrifice for me, for my interests, for my self-image. You must sacrifice your needs to serve mine.” But Jesus Christ came into the world saying, “My life for you. My life to serve you. My life poured out for you. I sacrifice for you.” He says those are the two ways you can live your life, and every single day—every hour—you decide to operate on one of those principles.

All real love is a substitutionary sacrifice—my life for yours.

Parents, you’ve seen this. You have this wonderful plan for the day, and then something happens—your kid gets sick, has a need, melts down—and you really need to spend time with your child. Which is it going to be? You can die and say, “My life for you.” You can sacrifice yourself for that child, in a sense, and have that child grow up feeling loved. In other words, you can die so your child will live. Or you can never sacrifice; you can never die to yourself in your parenting life. You can constantly say, “Sorry, I have my needs, I have my schedule, I have my goals, and you can’t get in the way”—and your child will grow up broken.

All real love is a substitutionary sacrifice—my life for yours. And essentially that’s what Paul tells us: “You can live life that way, and you can go into relationships that way—my life for yours. Or you can go the old way, the vainglorious way—your life for mine.”