Galatians is Paul’s magnum opus—second only to Romans—on the gospel. While Romans gives more of a big-picture examination of the gospel and its implications (and even then taking several chapters to explain in detail the doctrine of justification), Galatians is unique in that it is a sustained attack on any notion of corrupting the gospel through meritorious human works. While Paul was firmly committed to a final judgment of all people, at which believers would be acquitted (or “justified”) with their obedient lives as the crowning, utterly necessary evidence of their union with Christ, he was equally committed to the ground of our justification being ever and only the blood and righteousness of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the instrument of our justification being faith alone apart from works. Defending this, of course, is the context and purpose of the book of Galatians. To use John MacArthur’s outline of Galatians, chapters 1 and 2 concern the preacher of justification, where Paul ably defends his apostleship, so that he can speak on behalf of Christ with His full authority about His gospel. Chapters 3 and 4 detail the principles of justification. They answer the question, What is the gospel? Finally, chapters 5 and 6 concern the privileges of justification—what God has done for us in saving us, and how we are invited by our Savior to live in light of His gift of free grace.
4:1-7 reveals our glorious transition from slaves to sin and the world to our status as beloved sons of God and heirs of all that is His. More specifically, this paragraph gives us three reminders to help us rejoice in our salvation as the treasure it is.
A. Remember What You Were: Slaves (vv. 1-3)
Many commentators understand Paul’s words “Now I say” to mean he intends 4:1-7 as an elaboration and expansion upon what he has just written in 3:23-29. Indeed, “heir” is immediately picked up from verse 29, continuing the thought. Here, Paul uses the illustration of inheritance in the Roman world (with some intended modifications because if his intended application) to make an important point about our status prior to conversion. Legally, a son was set to inherit everything his father owned, or at least what the father appointed for him—but not until he became a legal adult. Until that time, he had as much control over what was one day his as a slave would. Though he owned (lit. “is master”!) of everything, he cannot use or enjoy it. The privileges are not his. The blessings are not his. The security and authority are not his. They will be, one day, in the father’s timing. But for now, the son is only an heir de jure, not de facto, as Hendriksen says.
Indeed, not only does the rightful heir have no liberty over his inheritance, but he is even under “guardians and managers” (cf. 3:23-25) until the time of possession of the inheritance. Paul moves from this illustration to the reality: This is what we were before the “fullness of time came.” Commenting on verse three, Doug Moo writes that those serving as our slave masters (our “guardians and managers”) are not sin (cf. 3:22) or the law (3:23-25), but “the elemental things of the world.” Gloriously, the grammatical construction of “were slaves” indicates a past state of affairs that has now ceased. But the slavery to all three things prior to our liberation by the Son of God was very real.
So then, what are the “elemental things of the world” to which we were enslaved? I believe Paul is referring to a general idea with a particular application in the context of the book. From the general perspective, all unsaved people are slaves of the world system—that spiritual system inhabited by unsaved people, ruled by Satan, where unbiblical and ungodly values are loved and lived out, and where various cultural expressions (music, trends, modes of dress, etc.) are created to express those values. (This latter point is important because worldliness is not merely an attitude. It is a whole value system expressed by embodied people who live in a cultural context and in community with other worldly people. As such, the common notion that cultural expression and forms are neutral is not one that can be supported by the New Testament.) This enslavement to the world is residual in Christians, which is why the New Testament so frequently exhorts believers to complete separation from the world and its values and expressions (e.g., Romans 12:1, James 1:27, 1 John 2:15-17). “Elemental things” refers to the basics of something—the fundamentals, the building blocks, what we might refer to as the foundational elements or even the DNA of something. Here, it refers to the basic building blocks of an utterly human fallen viewpoint and worldview—those fundamental presuppositions that create a worldview that leaves God, especially His lordship, immanence, transcendence, and sovereignty, out.
I said that Paul refers to a general principle and a specific application. What is the specific application? In the context of Galatians, it is likely he refers to the attitude of self-righteous meritorious works that pervaded Judaism in his day. This is the particular (and very religious!) expression worldliness took in the lived of the unsaved Jewish people. After all, is it not the height of human autonomous thinking, of arrogance, of religion engaged in apart from the Lordship of God and the right understanding of His Word, to assume that by obeying His commands you can somehow merit and earn your way to a right relationship with Him—and think yourself quite important and smug and self-righteous for so doing? Surely this is the essence of the mind of hell! Yet it was everywhere in the context in which Paul ministered, and it was the heart of the attack on the glorious gospel to which he responds in this letter.
B. Recognize What God Has Done in Your Salvation (vv. 4-5)
Many observations, implications, and applications can be made from realizing that prior to our personal salvation (and more generally, prior to the new era inaugurated by Christ) we were enslaved to the world, that system in which we lived and breathed, that wicked system which is everywhere all the time. But the most pivotal one is that slaves cannot free themselves. Certainly, some slaves in history have earned the money to purchase their own freedom, but this is categorically impossible in Paul’s theology. For him, slavery means helplessness, utter inability, indeed a willing eagerness to wear the chains that bind us to our well-loved sin and autonomy, and keep us from our hated Enemy, God. If we are to think biblically, we must recognize that we cannot save ourselves. We cannot recuse ourselves from our enslavement. Someone more powerful, someone sovereign, someone omnipotent must save us. And gloriously, that is exactly what Paul describes in these verses.
The concept of Jesus being “sent” to accomplish the Father’s program is one with rich basis in Scripture, especially in John (too many references to list). Here, Paul emphasizes important details of right Christology. It is noteworthy he says God sent “His Son.” This is a clear affirmation of the preexistence of Jesus as the Son of the Father—He did not become Son at His incarnation, much less was He created then. No, the Person of the Son was sent forth from heaven to earth. Other passages teach the Son’s eternality (John 1:1-3, 8:58; Matt. 23:37), absolute deity (Phil. 2:6; Titus 2:13) and utter equality in nature with the Father (John 17:1, 5). But here, Paul makes an equally important point: The Person of the Son already existed as a heavenly person who came to earth…just as He said (John 3:34-35, 6:38; cf. 1 John 4:14). This Son was born of a woman (He is human!) and born under the law. This is massively important. Because humans rebelled against the moral law of God, Jesus became a human and lived under that moral law (in its Mosaic form) as the representative of humanity. He obeyed where we rebelled. He listened where we ignored. He submitted where we committed mutiny. Under the law’s authority, Jesus did not go His “own way,” but yielded Himself fully to the Father, for us.
This was done for a purpose: “so that He might redeem those under the law, so that we might receive the adoption” (v. 5). Jesus became a man under the law to effectively buy back those who are in bondage to its unyielding requirement for holiness. This redemption, in turn, is so we can be adopted as sons of God.
C. Realize What You Now Are: Sons and Daughters (vv. 6-7)
Having been adopted by the powerful, regenerating work of a sovereign God, believers are indeed sons and daughters of God. Indeed, God has sent forth His Holy Spirit into us, so the Third Person of the Triune God can give us the wonderful realization that we are God’s beloved children and respond to Him with cries of “papa!” (Paul makes this point eloquently at length in Romans 8:13-17.) This Spirit, the One who regenerated us by His omnipotent grace, now lives within us to lead us in the will of God (Rom. 8:15) that we might bear His wonderful fruit (Gal. 5:22-23). Because He is the same Spirit who empowered and anointed the Only Begotten Son without measure, He gives us the disposition of intimate, unhindered, perfectly accepted children! This is truly glorious for those who were once God-hating rebels!
“Therefore”—in light of all Paul has said in this paragraph and the longer section beginning in chapter 3—therefore, we are no longer slaves to sin, the law, and the world, but sons of the eternal Father, and if we are His sons, then we are heirs of all that is His (the world and all it contains; Rom. 4:19; cf., 1 Cor 3:21-23) “through God” (v. 7). Through God! Not self! Not earning! Not meriting! Not to our own praise and glory, but to the “praise of His glorious grace” (Eph. 1:6). God has taken dead, blind, hard-hearted rebels and transformed them into obedient, God-loving, growing children. Children who, only because of who their Father is and who He has created (and recreated) them to be, have a glorious hope and future strong enough to sustain the hardest sacrifices of love and in the most painful of trials. May we press into all that God has for us here and unto the day of eternity!