Galatians 4:1-7

June 20, 1999

Text Comment

v.1       “What I am saying” indicates that we have in 4:1ff. a recapitulation or a restatement of the argument he has made in the previous verses. But since it has been some weeks since we considered those verses let me summarize. From v. 19 of chapter 3 Paul has said that all men, but especially himself and these mostly Gentile Christian converts in Galatia, were in bondage to sin and the condemnation of the law. We cannot escape it. The more we try, the worse we get. The law not only demonstrates how far from God’s standard we have fallen, but its demands produce rebellion in us and increase our transgressions. But the law’s ministry of shutting us up to our unrighteousness is designed, in the case of God’s elect, to lead us to Christ, to show us our need of him. It is a short form of the same argument Paul gives at length in Romans 1-3: “through the law comes the knowledge of sin.” But once faith in Christ comes, once we forsake all thought of earning our peace with God and come, instead, to find it in the righteousness which Christ made for us and gives to us when we believe in him, we are delivered from that bondage into the freedom of the sons of God. His main point, remember, from the beginning of chapter 3, has been to prove that justification is by faith and not by works, as the judaizers have claimed. Or, as he puts it in v. 29, one becomes a son of Abraham — even if one is a Gentile — by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law (and, in particular, those works that have long distinguished Jews from Gentiles, such as circumcision, the food laws, the holy days, etc.).

            Now he is going to go over the same ground again, to reinforce the point. He is going to speak of our bondage or slavery and of our deliverance from it through Christ and faith in Christ. But he is going to use different images. In 3:23 he spoke of the law as our prison warden; in 3:24 he spoke of the law as a pedagogue to lead us to Christ. Here he is now going to speak of the law as the trustee or a guardian who controls an heir until the time of his majority. God’s elect before they came to faith and salvation are described as heirs before their majority: they are slaves not freemen, even though they own everything, because they are subject to the rule of others. Remember it’s an illustration only and it applies only to those who would later believe. Paul would not use the same illustration to describe the situation of the unbeliever who never believes. He doesn’t own everything. There is no time set by his father in which he comes into the possession of his estate.

v.3       When “we” were children. A lot hangs on whether one takes Paul to be including the Gentile converts in Galatia in the “we” or just Paul and his fellow Jews. Many speak of the OT and the religion of Israel and the Mosaic economy as the time of slavery, brought to an end by the appearance of Christ and the apostles and the new situation they introduced. They see here a contrast between two epochs in the history of salvation, not two situations in a human life, the time of unbelief and the time of faith. It seems to me, however, that the context demands that we do not restrict the “we” to Jews such as Paul but take it to include the Gentiles who became Christians in Galatia. He has included the Gentiles in the immediately preceding verses and, as 4:9 conclusively demonstrates, the Gentiles had been in the same bondage he is describing here in v. 3. This is also demonstrated by the progress of the pronouns: “we” in v. 3; “we” in v. 5; “you” in its plural form in v. 6; and “you” in its singular form in v. 7. The singular “you” at the last — which is certainly Paul’s Gentile reader — was part of the “we” at the beginning. The focus narrows to bring the application to a point. This applies to all of us; but in so doing it applies to “you” (with pointed finger!).

            The NIV’s “basic principles of the world” is an excellent translation. Some time ago it was de rigueur to translate this phrase (stoicheia tou kosmou) as if it were a reference to spiritual beings. The RSV, for example, has “elemental spirits of the universe” and doesn’t even offer an alternative in the margin. That translation has fallen on hard times of late and there is, to be honest, not very much to commend it.

            [My pastor in Aberdeen used to prefer it and make much of this reference to evil spirits controlling the spiritual situation of men, because the recovery of a sense of the Christian’s struggle against principalities and powers was one of the great emphases of his preaching. A friend of mine in Aberdeen, Gordon Anderson Smith, was doing a doctoral dissertation on the meaning of this phrase with F.F. Bruce at Manchester, and shortly after beginning his research had suffered a debilitating condition in his brain, though a comparatively young man. Mr. Still was sure that this was the Devil’s attack because Gordon was planning to work on this reference to evil spirits.]

            I won’t weary you with the details, but a better translation of the phrase is what you have in the NIV and the reference is to those basic principles of unregenerate human life that lie at the bottom of all false religion. If you look at v. 9, where there is another reference to these same stoicheia or principles you will see it refers to the false idolatries of paganism from which these Gentile Christians have come, as Paul says in v. 8. But here in v. 3 these principles are also said to lie beneath the practice of Jewish legalism. That was a daring thing for Paul to suggest: that Judaism in the first century and pagan idolatry were resting on the same foundation! That would have infuriated Jews who saw their faith as the complete repudiation of the idolatry of paganism.

            Paul is talking about those basic principles of man’s self-made religions: the ABCs of human natural religion: self-righteous, legalistic, idolatrous (for remaking God in man’s own image). These principles lie at the bottom of every “faith” in the world except true biblical Christianity: the great religions, new age silliness, pop psychology, even atheism, which is, after all, simply another man-made religion. These principles cover everything that man puts his trust in apart from God. They become his “gods” and he becomes their “slave.”

v.4       “Time had fully come”  Christ arrived at the time fixed by the father, the right and perfect time. We can think of many things that might have contributed to its being the “right” time, but the Bible does not tell us why it was.

            “God sent forth his Son…”  Pre-existence = deity!

            “Born of a woman…” = humanity.

            Francis Turretin, the great Reformed theologian of the second

            half of the 17th century, explained the necessity of Christ being both God and man if he were to redeem us in this beautiful paragraph.

            “For since to redeem us, two things were most especially required — the acquisition of salvation and the application of the same; the endurance of death for satisfaction and victory over the same for the enjoyment of life — our mediator ought to be God-man…to accomplish these things: man to suffer, God to overcome; man to receive the punishment we deserved, God to endure and drink it to the dregs; man to acquire salvation for us by dying, God to apply it to us by overcoming; man to become ours by the assumption of flesh, God to make us like himself by the bestowal of the Spirit. This neither a mere man nor God alone could do. For neither could God alone be subject to death, nor could man alone conquer it. Man alone could die for men; God alone could vanquish death. Both natures, therefore, should be associated that in both conjoined, both the highest weakness of humanity might exert itself for suffering and the highest power and majesty of the divinity might exert itself for the victory.” [XIII, iii, xix.]

            “Born under law” in the sense already indicated in 3:13, that

            is, subject to the law’s demands and its curse on our behalf, in our place.

v.5       He has already mentioned Christ’s redeeming us by bearing the curse of the law in 3:13 and of our becoming, by faith, sons of God, in 3:26-29.

v.6       Now all three members of the Trinity are present in this statement about how salvation comes to us. The Father sent his Son into the world, and now the Spirit of his Son into our hearts. This closely approximates Paul’s statement in Romans 8:9-17: in Christ we receive the Spirit who testifies to our spirits that we are the children of God, and if we are children, Paul says both here and there, then we are also heirs. That is, someone to whom something wonderful is still to come. (Here the analogy or illustration of vv. 1-3 is forgotten. We are not heirs in the sense that we are still slaves, but in the sense that we have an inheritance guaranteed us.)

Now this is one of the great, programmatic statements of salvation in the Bible and we could profitably “unpack” its meaning and its application for Sundays on end. This is the kind of text Puritans would preach on for years and their sermons would fill huge folios. But much that Paul has said here he has already said; this is a summary recapitulation or restatement. So I want to draw attention to two points only.

The first is the striking interruption of the subjective with the objective in v. 4.

Paul had been speaking, in vv. 1-3 of Paul and the Gentile believers’ former bondage in sin, under the curse of the law, unable to escape because still locked into a legalistic understanding of salvation. We fully expect that he would then say, but then we came to faith in Christ and were delivered from this bondage. That is what he has already said in several different ways in 3:22-29. After all, it wasn’t Christ’s coming that marked the change for them. Paul was an unbeliever long after Jesus appeared and so were these Gentiles in Galatia.

What is more, in vv. 8-9 he does say that for these Gentiles the frontier was crossed, they escaped their bondage, not when Christ appeared, but when they believed in him, or when they came to know him, which is the same thing.

So, what are we to do with the fact that Paul begins v. 4 with “But when the time had fully come, God sent forth his son…” and regards these great events as the answer to that bondage in which both Paul and the Gentiles in Galatia formerly lived.

Well this is not the only place where Paul makes this surprising transition from the subjective to the objective. Take, for example, Romans 5:1-9. The passage begins simply enough:

            “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand.” Then Paul goes on to talk about how Christians can rejoice in their trials.

But then Paul writes,

            “You see, at just the right time [cf. Galatians 4:4’s “in the fullness of time”], when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. … God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

And then he goes on back in the subjective:

            “Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him.”

Well, might not someone say. There were people in the Roman church to whom Paul was writing those words who weren’t even born when Christ died on the cross. How can Paul say, “when we were still powerless… or, while we were still sinners, Christ died for us”?

But that is precisely Paul’s perspective here and everywhere. It doesn’t matter whether you are speaking of one’s justification when he believed in Christ or his redemption when Christ died for him. And it doesn’t matter to Paul — at least he never raises the point at all — whether the person believed in Christ two thousand years before the incarnation (Abraham), twenty years after (the Galatian Gentiles) or two thousand years later (we ourselves). It is the same salvation and means the same thing: the cross and a person’s coming to faith. The one is the fruit and the consequence of the other. We get faith, we get justification, we get the Holy Spirit precisely because Christ died for us and redeemed us from the curse of the law. The two moments, at the cross and our coming to faith, are inseparably joined.

In fact, in verse 6  we become “sons of God” because of Christ’s redeeming us by his death. Our believing in Christ is not mentioned at all. In v. 8 (and in 3:22-29) we become sons by believing in Christ in our own time and space. Both are true.

In one sense we were saved when Christ died for us; in another, we were saved when we believed. It is the same salvation looked at from two different vantage points: its purchase in the one case and its application in the other. Someone may buy you a gift, wrap it up, attach a card, and stick it in her closet because it isn’t your birthday yet. It is for you, it is your gift. But it doesn’t become yours in your own recognition and appreciation until it is given to you and you open it up. But you can say you got the gift when it was bought for you – the receipt says so, or when it was given.

Now, take note of the sovereignty of grace in all of this. Paul’s perspective can be a true perspective precisely because Christ does not indeterminedly die for everyone. As Paul said already in 2:20, “he loved me and gave himself for me.” As the Lord says so often in John’s Gospel, “those that the father gave me shall come to me and I will raise them up at the last day [nb “heirs”]”; “I lay down my life for the sheep and they shall never perish; I have other sheep that are not of this fold, they too will hear my voice and follow me”; and, from the Lord’s great prayer in John 17 which we read last week, “I pray for them. I am not praying for the world, but for those you have given me, for they are yours.”

The Bible could not speak this way, as it so often does, if Christ’s work were indeterminate: if Christ died for everyone but only so as to make salvation a possibility for everyone, not an actuality for anyone. Paul could not then say as he so often says that Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, or reconciled us to God, or broke the back of our bondage to sin and the law by his death. For that would not be true if vast multitudes of people for whom Christ also supposedly died remain in bondage. It is only Calvinism that can explain the way the Bible speaks in countless places.

It is because Paul is a champion of sovereign grace, discriminating, electing grace, that Paul’s thinking about salvation can so naturally oscillate between the objective and the subjective, between what Christ did when he was in the world, and what he does in our hearts by the Spirit when we come to faith in Christ, between what happened in A.D. 27 or 29 or thereabouts and what happens in 1999 when a sinner believes in Christ and is justified before God. The latter is the inevitable consequence of the former. The former is the guarantee of the latter. Whether you are talking about the accomplishment of the atonement or its application to individual human hearts, it is the same Savior, the same salvation, the same grace, the same love, the same righteousness.

You are a Christian because Christ died for you. You are also a Christian because you believe in Christ. But it is impossible that the one thing should be true and the other not. Those for whom Christ gave up his life, hear his voice and follow him. It is this that makes Christ completely our Savior. It is not that Christ does some of the things that bring us salvation: he does them all. He dies for our sins, and because our sins have been atoned for, because we have been redeemed, faith is given to us and the Holy Spirit, by which we come into the actual possession of our peace with God and eternal life and the knowledge of our salvation. (Karl Barth’s view of election – just don’t yet know!)

Finally, a few words about “sonship” or, more properly “adoption.”

Paul has been talking about justification, which is a matter of acquittal in God’s judgment, vindication and peace with God. But he has also already gone beyond that to say that, by faith in Christ, one does not merely gain peace with God — extraordinary blessing that that is — but actually becomes God’s son or daughter. These are two different models by which salvation is described to us in the Bible. Justification is one model, sonship/adoption another, though obviously, as here, they overlap. (You are justified by faith, but you become sons of God by faith [so 3:26] etc.) No model can do full justice to the salvation of God which has so many dimensions and can be looked at in so many fruitful ways.

The NIV’s “full rights of sons” in v. 5 is literally, “that we might receive adoption.” The idea that in salvation, the elect get more than peace with God, but are actually brought into a family relationship with God goes way back in the Bible. In the Lord’s genealogy in Luke, Adam is actually called “the son of God” (3:38). There is a debate about what that means precisely, but given what the Bible elsewhere says, it seems at least that already at the beginning of the history of salvation, if not in creation itself, God related to his creatures, made in his image, at least to those right with him, as sons.

Israel later is referred to by the Lord as “my firstborn son” and he tells Moses to tell Pharaoh, “let my son go, that he may worship me…” [Exodus 4:22-23] And Moses tells Israel at the beginning of Deuteronomy [1:31], “You saw how the Lord your God carried you, as a father carries his son, all the way you went until you reached this place.”

The relationship is not explicitly said to be one of adoption in the OT, though it is implied. In Ezekiel 16:3-8 the Lord tells Israel that her father was an Amorite and her mother a Hittite; that God had found her by the side of the road, abandoned and left to die, for on the day you were born you were despised, but that he had taken her up and cared for her and she became the Lord’s. Salvation is God’s taking up a fondling child and making her his own beloved daughter.

And this way of thinking about salvation is elaborated by Paul as well as other NT writers. We are being conformed to the image of Christ, Paul says in Romans 8, that Christ might be the firstborn of many brothers — a family! This sonship, or adoption, describes our relationship with God (tender, familial, as here in Galatians 4, we call him ‘Abba’), with one another (we are brethren in the same family), and with the future, we are heirs together of the grace of life and the entire creation groans waiting for the sons of God to be revealed.

John (1 John 3:1) writes: “How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!” This is the most amazing thing of all. Justification is wonderful, to be sure — to have our Judge declare us righteous before the bar of God, free from the punishments our sins deserve.

But this is greater still. That God should love us into his own family and be a father to us and care for us as a father, a most perfect father. This is perhaps the “richest” [Packer] way of thinking about what it means to be a Christian: to have God for your father and to be his son or daughter. John Owen calls our sonship, or membership in God’s family, “our great and fountain privilege” [ii, 207]. And John Bunyan once said, “I have often found that when I can say but this word ‘father,’ it doth me more good than if I called him by any other Scripture name.” [Cited in Shedd, Sermons to the Natural Man, 55.] That is the way our Savior taught us to address our God: “Our Father, who art in heaven…”

That sonship is the apex of salvation, even above justification, is not an idea to which Luther would have warmed. Interestingly his commentary on Galatians is not rich in reflection on this sonship. His heart and mind were devoted to justification. He could see sonship only as another way of speaking about justification. [Sinclair Ferguson, “The Reformed Doctrine of Sonship,” Pulpit and People, 81-82]

But Paul and the Bible regularly take the privileges of the gospel one step beyond peace with God and acquittal at the bar of divine judgment. There is something more. We are made God’s children and he becomes our father. The life of heaven is the life of a loving family ruled and blessed and provided for by the most gracious, strong, and tender father, with brothers and sisters living in that loving harmony and tender intimacy that is known and so fondly remembered by those who have been brought up in the closest and happiest families. We are already in that family, by faith in Christ, but we are heirs of its full disclosure and perfect life in the world to come.

As the Lord himself says, in describing heaven, in Revelation 21:7: “He who overcomes will inherit all this, and I will be his God and he will be my son.”