“Overtaken In Any Trespass”

By Ron Daly

Paul, in the immediate context into which the phrase “overtaken in any trespass” is woven commands the Galatians to “walk by the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfill the lusts of the flesh . . . The works of the flesh are manifest . . . of which I forewarn you, even as I did forewarn you, that they who practice such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God. . . If we live by the Spirit, by the Spirit let us also walk” (Gal. 5:16-26).

These statements of the apostle have a direct connection with his exhortation, “Use not your freedom for an occasion of the flesh” (Gal. 5:13), lest they assume that Paul’s statement “for freedom did Christ set us free” (Gal. 5:1) was intended to loose them from the moral, religious, and restrictive requirements of law.

On the other hand, to preclude the thought of the impossibility of sin, and to guard against pride, vainglory, and jealousy in dealing with the violator of God’s law, the Spirit, through Paul declares, “Brethren, e4n if (this shows the possibility) a man (it could have been any of them, and can be any of us) be overtaken in any trespass, ye who are spiritual (they all should have been spiritual, i.e. people gifted with a spiritual frame of mind, but not all of them were) restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness (in contrast to “provoking one another, envying one another,” (Gal. 5:26); looking to thyself (instead of becoming “vainglorious”), lest thou also be tempted (to be enticed to commit his sin or some other – a distinct possibility)” (Gal. 6:1).

The word “overtaken” is used in the text to translate the Greek term prolambano. Prolambano describes a man “being caught by the trespass, through his being off guard. . . (in) contrast (to) the premeditated practice of evil” (Vine, An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, p. 454). Thayer, in the lexicon which he translated, cites a source indicating that one meaning of prolambano is “to take one by forestalling (i.e. before he can flee or conceal his crime), i.e. surprise, detect, (Sap. XVII. 16). . .” (Thayer’s Lexicon, p. 540, definition 3).

There are contextual reasons why we can properly conclude that to “be overtaken in any trespass” is a situation of being “caught off guard by surprise,” and not of “blunders, misdeeds, or sins” of a willful, deliberate, premeditation. Notice how the context corroborates the aforementioned conclusion. First, the actual word in the Greek Testament is prolemphthe which is passive in form, implying here a sudden onslaught. Second, the “spiritual ones,” pneumatikoi, are specifically instructed to restore (katartizo, “mend, using great caution to prevent further injury”) “such a one,” implying that the pneumatikoi possess the “wisdom from above,” “being wise and understanding . . . pure, then peaceable, gentle, easy to be entreated, full of mercy and good fruits” (Jas. 5:13ff), and would understand that this is one having been “caught by surprise” and must be restored using extreme caution, lest he be treated rudely or antagonistically as the asophos, unwise, are prone to do. Third, the spiritual ones are admonished, that while preparing to and actually engaging in the process of restoring the overtaken one, to do so “in a spirit of gentleness: looking to thyself, lest thou also be tempted.” The evident point here is, it is possible for spiritual ones to be caught off guard, so handle this “broken body part” gently, for you have not yet so attained as to drop your guard even for one moment! Beware lest the stealthily approaching black leopard pounce upon us, ravaging and devouring your life.

Let us give careful attention to the fact that, even though Paul uses a word that portrays “one who is overtaken – caught by surprise,” this man is nonetheless said to be “in a trespass,” and needs to be “restored.” The fact that he did not determine to sin is no excuse for the fact that he did sin! The consequences of sins committed in ignorance or weakness are as grave as those committed with the full knowledge of the transgressor. The difference is not in how God categorizes sin, but in the attitude of the one sinning; unforgiven sin’s end is eternal separation from God (Rom. 6:23; et. al.)

May God grant us the wisdom, love, and concern needed to “work that which is good toward all men, and especially toward them that are of the household of the faith,” in making the way of salvation known to all, and especially by restoring (thereby saving) a brother “overtaken in any trespass”‘ (Gal. 6:1-10).

Guardian of Truth XXXIII: 7, p. 201
April 6, 1989