The Powerful Biblical Meaning of 'Reap What You Sow'
When the apostle Paul writes to the Galatian church, “Whatever one sows, that will he also reap” (Gal. 6:7), the agrarian community would have understood the process of sowing, the patience required for growth, and the joy when crop was available for plentiful reaping.
The concept of you reap what you sow comes from farming. For modern readers unfamiliar with farming, James A. Patch explains the amount of work required in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. In biblical times, farmers would till their fields to prepare for sowing and plowing in hilly regions or where ground had not recently been used. The plains, by contrast, often needed little preparation for plowing.
When sowing, seed would be carried through the field in a jar, basket, or loose pocket. Once scattered, seed would be plowed again so that it would not become food for birds. The fields would sit for the winter rains, after which a second sowing would be made.
Then, in early summer—the dry season—reaping would begin. Families would travel to the fields and be there until the conclusion of harvest. A section of grain crop would be held by a sickle in the right hand, near the earth. The left hand would clutch the grain and simultaneously the crop would be yanked, slicing it and detaching it from the roots. These handfuls would be gathered by helpers, typically children, and placed in mounds. These piles would later be removed to the threshing-floor.
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"A Man Reaps What He Sows" Biblical Context
Prior to instructing that you will reap what you sow, the apostle Paul writes to the Galatians that they cannot look to the law for salvation. Instead, he commends to them the freedom that comes through faith and following the law of Christ (Gal. 6:2). Knowing Christ brings obedience to Him out of love through the inner transformation of the Holy Spirit.
Now, in teaching that Christians are freed from the law unto the joyous “law of Christ,” Paul does not want believers to be confused about what life springs from genuine salvation. So, Paul differentiates between living according to the flesh and living according to the Spirit in Galatians 5:13-26. Being freed from seeking salvation according to the law does not mean that Christians are “freed” to live as they please, according to all impulses and desires.
Paul first gives examples of works of the flesh: “sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these” (Gal. 5:19a-21a). By contrast, he then lists the fruits of the Spirit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Gal. 5:22a-23a).
When Paul discusses sowing and reaping, he continues the theme of contrasts. He discusses the kind of life that rejects the law as bringing salvation in favor of the Spirit’s rebirth versus the kind of life that rejects the law in favor of the flesh. He employs the language of sowing to the flesh versus sowing to the Spirit (Gal. 6:8).
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Reap What You Sow Warnings
Even in the church may be found those sowing to the flesh. The phrase “whatever one sows, that will he also reap” is third within a series of three statements by Paul in Galatians 6:7. The first statement is, “Do not be deceived,” and the second is, “God is not mocked.”
Some, whom Paul is warning in this passage, might appear to forsake the law in favor of the Spirit when they are secretly serving the flesh. In fact, this disposition might even apply to a group of those hearing the letter as it is read aloud in the churches in Galatia. Despite appearances, unrepentant evildoers put corrupt seed into the ground that will inevitably bring forth the yield of their eternal corruption, or punishment.
As Paul indicates in his triad of statements, God is not mocked by the activities of those who reject Him—whether those rejecting Him outright, or those rejecting Him in the secret places of their hearts while appearing to follow Him. People who reject God turn their noses up at Him in derision—dismissing His ownership of them. But the gesture is ultimately empty of effect. The omnipotent, worthy, holy God who will accomplish all of His purposes accurately holds in derision those who reject Him (Psalm 2:4).
Is Sowing and Reaping Like Karma?
Paul’s warning may sound to our ears akin to the teaching of Karma. With roots in Indian religions, like Hinduism and Buddhism, the “law of Karma” employs cause and effect, similar to Paul’s “you reap what you sow” theology. One’s own good or bad actions are said to offer liberation from cycles of rebirth.
Yet, the biblical principle of sowing and reaping is not Karma; a believer’s works are not the grounds of salvation. Instead, believers reap by grace from the work of Jesus Christ on their behalf for the salvation they could never earn. A believer works in response to Christ’s sacrifice.
In these Indian religions, there is no Jesus Christ. So there is no ultimate justice in this world where God in perfect goodness judges all evil; no Lord who sacrifices Himself in His love for the world; no explanation of how sins are forgiven; no historical reality of bodily resurrection from the dead by Jesus Christ who enables our hope of future resurrection of like kind; and no Spirit who indwells and enables the good works of those who believe.
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Principles for Sowing to the Spirit
Through the work of Jesus Christ and the rebirth of the Spirit, God has given believers capacities and abilities for living out our salvation. We are able to act upon the truth that is within us. We can lean into faith in Jesus Christ in trials. And, we can invest time and effort into spiritual matters of eternal consequence. To sow to the Spirit, we use any means God has given to us to invest ourselves in Him; we use our freedom in Christ from the law for deliberate, heartfelt, devoted, and marked obedience that is not accepting of any attitude, desire, or action outside of God’s holy will.
We may look out to the fields of our lives and envision how we may utilize all that God has given into our hands—like time, seasons, abilities, or gifts. We conform our ways to the Scriptures. We submit our prayers for harvest to the Lord. We act in concert with other believers. We ask that our hearts be steered by His sovereign hand. We heed the guidance and experience of the faithful who have gone before us. We train and learn in order to develop innate abilities. We keep ourselves connected to the Lord. And we spread spiritual seed.
While some of the growth before the harvest is available to our sights, we wait until glory to reap. We pray that one day, we might be taken to fields of abundance. Scripture provides key principles for this sowing to the Spirit: choosing good seed, sowing liberally, expecting toil, and keeping ourselves from fainting.
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Choosing Good Seed to Sow
The principle of sowing involves selection—we choose what kind of seed we want to eventually reap, whether seed in conformity with faith and life in Christ, or in conformity with the flesh and corruption. In addition to the fruits of the Spirit, Paul gives various examples of how to sow to the Spirit, like “serving one another in love” (Gal. 5:13), the gentle restoration of those who are caught in sin (Gal. 6:1), and carrying each other’s burdens (Gal. 6:2).
Paul emphasizes the support of those who teach the church (Gal. 6:6). For, if we value the work of the Spirit as God desires, we will honor those who teach the Scripture to us. We will even consider our pastors’ work of teaching to have a part in our own future harvest, as Scripture is the living means for doing the work of God. So, naturally, we would want to support our teachers’ work with all of our hearts. Paul confirms this mindset, that supporting church pastors is a basic and essential milestone in the formation of spiritual thinking – or, of sowing good seed.
In addition to sowing wisely, in accordance with Paul’s examples, we are also to sow much. For, we reap in proportion to what we sow (see 2 Corinthians 9:6). The time for sowing is now—the opportunity is now.
If Satan is propelled to his evil, destructive work because he knows that his time is short (Revelation 12:12), how much more does Christ compel us to turn ourselves to the work of the Spirit of life during the brevity of our days? Paul described his ministry as spending and being spent for the souls of others, and he was “very glad” to extend himself liberally (1 Corinthians 12:15).
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Expect Toil As You Sow
Sowing and reaping—oh, the effort, waiting, and working the first listeners would have heard in this analogy! Early church father Theodore of Mopsuestia observed in people a willingness to toil for both sowing and reaping for earthly gains. Yet, he noted that people can be unwilling to endure toil for spiritual sowing, even the sowing whose harvest we will not even work to reap. For, we will reap upon entering into the rest of our Lord.
Scripture describes the spiritual life as one that is full of toil—but this toil is a good sacrifice, all for the Lord. The author of Hebrews writes, “Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God” (Hebrews 13:16). The Old Testament also rejoices in the principle that because of God’s promises, “Those who sow in tears shall reap with shouts of joy!” (Psalm 126:5).
In the toil, we need not spiritually faint. Paul compliments the church at Thessalonica for their “work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope” (1 Thessalonians 1:3). They worked in devotion to the Lord, not allowing their spiritual purposefulness to wane. As Warren Wiersbe writes, they possessed, “Not just work, labor, and patience, but the proper motivation: ‘faith, love, and hope.’”
By contrast, Wiersbe continues, the priests of Israel that the prophet Malachi addressed in Old Testament times served the Lord, but said, “What a weariness this is” (Malachi 1:13). We expect toil, yes—but not a toil more powerful than the spiritual strength available to us in the Lord who gives rest to the weary (Matthew 11:28). Continually renewing ourselves in Him through the ministry of the Word and Spirit—keeping proper motivation—we will not spiritually faint.
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God’s Grace in the Believer’s Sowing and Reaping
John Calvin notes the grace of God in the believer’s sowing and reaping: “The undeserved kindness of God appears in the very act of honoring the works which his grace has enabled us to perform, by promising to them a reward to which they are not entitled.” He describes that good works are derived from God’s grace through the Spirit and that the believer can anticipate rewards for his works despite each one on this earth being tainted by the believer’s remaining sin.
Because reaping the reward of heaven, of God’s own goodness, and of future rewards is not owed to the believer, this too will be a source of praise to God. The believer reaps not only of his own sowing (enabled by God), but also of Christ’s righteousness and work.
No living person is reduced to being a passive sufferer of poor choice in a “past life” or of some deterministic luck or fate. A choice is clearly before us. Will we sow foolishly to the flesh—sow the wind and reap the whirlwind (Hosea 8:7)? Or, with faith in Christ, will we sow to the Spirit with patience and hope that “in due season we will reap, if we do not give up” (Galatians 6:9)?
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Lianna Davis is author of Keeping the Faith: A Study in Jude and Made for a Different Land: Eternal Hope for Baby Loss. She is also a contributor to We Evangelicals and Our Mission with Cascade Books. Lianna is a graduate of Moody Bible Institute and a student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. She lives in Illinois with her husband and daughter. You can learn more about her writing at her website.