Question: "What does it mean that a man reaps what he sows (Galatians 6:7)?"
Answer: In the first few verses of Galatians 6, Paul emphasizes that individuals are responsible for their actions and should be gentle when others fail (Galatians 6:1). Besides gentleness being an expression of love and a fulfillment of the law of Christ (Galatians 6:2), a gentle response to others is one way we can keep ourselves out of trouble, because it can help us to avoid being hyper-critical. Even as the passage encourages readers to be considerate of others, the truth remains that whatever a man sows that he also reaps (Galatians 6:7). So, while we should bear each other’s burdens (Galatians 6:2), we are still accountable to carry our own load (Galatians 6:5).
In Galatians 6:7 Paul reminds readers that “whatever a man sows, that he will also reap” (NKJV). God is a just God and has instituted throughout human experience the concept of sowing and reaping. When a farmer plants seeds and cares for those seeds, they will usually sprout and produce growth. In the same way, whatever a person “plants” in his own thinking and behavior will later bear fruit—either good or bad. If a person is focused on fulfilling the desires of the flesh, and that is what he invests in, then that person will reap fruit of that investment. Paul describes this fruit in Galatians 5:19–21, and the list is not pretty. On the other hand, if one invests in spiritual things, then the “fruit” in his life will be spiritual and wholesome (Galatians 6:8). Paul explains how the Holy Spirit produces fruit in people and what it looks like (Galatians 5:22–23).
Paul introduces the truth that a what a man sows that he also reaps with a somber warning: “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked” (Galatians 6:7). Wise readers will take heed to their own lives and take steps to ensure they live according to this principle. Let no one entertain the idea that he or she is the exception to the rule. Reaping follows sowing, and it matters what you sow. God searches the heart and knows every circumstance, and His decree that the harvest will match the planting will not be set aside.
Elsewhere, Paul further explains the concept that whatever a man sows that he also reaps. In 1 Corinthians 3:8 he asserts that each person will be rewarded according to his or her own work. Neither the one who plants nor the one who waters are the most significant factors in the equation, because God causes the growth (1 Corinthians 3:7–8). So, even when we are planting and watering well—focusing on the things related to our new life in Christ—it is still God who causes the growth. And even though God rewards the one who works, we understand that even our opportunity to work is a gift from God. In other words, the principle that whatever a man sows that he also reaps teaches both God’s justice and His mercy.
We can apply the principle of reaping what we sow to the matter of salvation. If we do not know Jesus Christ as our Savior, then we are still dead in our sin, or separated from having a right relationship with God (see Ephesians 2:1–5). If we are in that state, then even our righteous deeds are as unclean rags in comparison with God’s standard of righteousness (Isaiah 64:6). If we are in that condition, then the truth that whatever a man sows that he also reaps (Galatians 6:7) is actually terrifying because we are sowing according to sin and death, and the fruit will reflect that. On the other hand, if in His mercy God has made us alive together with Christ by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8–10), then we have the opportunity to sow according to newness of life. Because of His grace we can now invest in things that have eternal value and see fruit that also has eternal value. The fact that whatever a man sows that he also reaps is not only about justice, but about God’s magnificent mercy. God hasn’t given us what we deserved; in His amazing grace God has given us what we did not deserve—the opportunity to sow the seed of righteousness so that we can see the fruit of His righteousness in our lives.