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"Not Slaves, ...Sons!"


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This week, we move into chapter four of Galatians only to find that Paul, in these first few verses, reiterating the truths we looked at last week.  Last week, we saw that it was foolish for the Galatians to live under the law—that is, try to find acceptance with God by obeying the law, because God had replaced living under the law with living in Christ.  We saw that the law was a guardian God put in place for his people in salvation history.  That is, the law was the “babysitter,” to prepare God’s people until Christ came.  The law played only a temporary role in God’s progressive plan of salvation.  When Christ came, he initiated a totally new kind of relationship a person can have with God and that relationship is summarized in this nuclear-powered phrase, “in Christ.”  This glorious truth that the believer has been placed into union with Christ indicates that God has opened up a new chapter in how he relates to his people.  We saw last week that if we are in Christ we share in Christ’s obedience to the Father.  In Christ, we share in his victory over sin won at the cross.  There he defeated sin’s controlling power and because we are in him, we share in his defeat of sin.  Anyone in Christ will also share in his bodily resurrection.  He was raised bodily and therefore anyone placed into Christ will be raised in him.  If we have placed our trust in Christ, we have all that and more because it is our faith alone, not the law that brings us into union with Christ.

Perhaps the most extravagant blessing we have by being placed into Christ is what we saw in 3:26.  That is, “for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith.”  The wonder of this truth is that our sonship with God is directly tied to Christ’s Sonship.  Our sonship is…in Christ.  What that means is--because we are in Christ we share in his divine Sonship.  We saw from John 17 that the love God the Father has for the children he has adopted through Christ is the same love he has for his firstborn natural Son, Jesus.  As we begin chapter four, Paul brings into clearer focus this truth that in Christ, we have been liberated from the temporary and enslaving guardianship of the law and have been redeemed to become sons of God through Christ.  The point Paul is getting at and the main truth of verses one through seven is:  For a believer in Christ to live under the law is to live as a slave and not a child of God.

Let’s read this first section of chapter four beginning with verse one.  Paul is speaking to these Galatians who were in Christ and had been liberated from the law, but who were choosing to live as slaves under its guardianship.  He illustrates what they were doing spiritually by again tracing the parallels between being under the law and a child being under a guardian.  He says that a child under a guardian or babysitter is no different than being a slave.  He has no freedom—everything in his life is slavishly controlled by someone outside of him who has no parental love for him.  Paul begins this way.  I mean that the heir, as long as he is a child, is no different from a slave, though he is the owner of everything,  2but he is under guardians and managers until the date set by his father.”  In these first two verses, Paul is laboring to get the Galatians to see the foolishness of, on the one hand, being full grown sons of God by virtue of being in Christ and on the other, living as slaves under the law.  He’s saying that living like that is like a full grown son who, instead of claiming his legal rights as the heir, chooses to live like he did as a child when he lived under a guardian who treated him like a slave and not son. 

Here’s an illustration that gets at a part of this.  When I was a kid, one of my friends had a wealthy father.  The man was a pioneer in preventive dentistry who travelled all over the world and did very well for himself.  This man was killed in a plane crash when my friend was still a minor and he became an heir to this large estate.  The terms of this man’s will however stipulated that the son could not claim that inheritance until he reached the age of 18. A legal entity that had no personal relationship to my friend had complete control over that part of his life until his 18th birthday.  Can you imagine how foolish it would have been for my friend—who would now be in his 40’s, to have denied himself all access to his father’s estate all these years, living as if the temporary legal agreement was still in place.  In that limited sense, this full grown son would be living as a “slave” under the control of this now expired legal agreement. 

Paul is saying that when we as believers live under the slavery of the law—trying to win God’s acceptance by working to obey the law and experiencing the inevitable failure and discouragement that comes from that—we are making ourselves slaves to (if you will) an expired legal agreement, when in fact in Christ, we have been made sons of God.  In verse three, Paul takes his illustration from the secular world of first century guardianship and applies it to the spiritual realm as he explains the spiritual nature of enslavement under the law.  In other words, he explains the spiritual nature of the enslavement we put ourselves under when we try to gain acceptance with God by living under the law.  He says in verse three, “  3In the same way we also, when we were children, were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world. 

This verse is a challenge to interpret.  In light of the context of being under the law, we expect Paul to simply restate what he has said in the previous verses saying, “In the same way we also, when we were children, were enslaved to the law.”  Being a child is something he has compared to being under the law.  That fits. That’s what we expect to read, but instead here--Paul tells us that when we were immature children we were enslaved, not to the law, but to the “elementary principles of the world.”  When a Biblical author like Paul makes that kind of an abrupt shift in his argument, inserting a new word like he does here, it’s not because he’s tired of the old one.  He’s not just trying to simply freshen up his phraseology or worse, to confuse us here.  He is using this new phrase to bring out a new truth that builds upon what he has already told us.  When we live under the law, we are not only enslaved to the law, we become a slave to the “elementary principles of the world.”

What does Paul mean here by that phrase?   We get some help from how he uses that same phrase a few verses later in chapter four.  There he says, “Formerly when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods.  But now that you have come to know God, or rather be known by God, how can you turn back to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more?  You observe days and months and seasons and years!  I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain.”

          Notice that Paul equates being enslaved to the “elementary principles of the world” to being enslaved to “those that by nature are not gods.” He’s referring to these Galatian Gentiles’ pagan background.  Their spiritual life before Christ was filled with Greek and Roman gods and goddesses.  These idols were heralded as gods, but Paul says they are “by nature not gods.”  These Gentiles idolatrously worshipped the false gods of the Greek and Roman pantheon and Paul says that they were enslaved to those false gods.  How can a mythical god enslave you?  First, it can enslave because it’s a lie.  Jesus says in John 8:32, “and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free."  Lies enslave and truth liberates from the enslavement of the lie.

          There is an even more diabolical way in which false gods enslave you that Paul expresses in this phrase “the elementary principles of the world.”  We see that kind of enslavement in another text about false gods and idols.  In First Corinthians chapter 10:20 Paul is speaking of the pagans who sacrifice animals in their worship of these false gods.  He says, “...what pagans sacrifice [to their idols] they offer to demons and not to God.  I do not want you to be participants with demons.” When a person or people worship false gods, they are not merely mentally or intellectually mistaken—in need only of a rational explanation of the truth.  No, there are demons behind those false gods that spiritually enslave those who worship them.  God must spiritually deliver those people from the spiritual powers behind the idols they have worshipped.

          What that means for chapter four is that when Paul equates enslavement to idol worship with enslavement to the “elementary principles of the world,” the common denominator is the enslaving power of demons.  Paul equates the enslavement to the “elementary principles of the world” with the demonic enslavement to the false gods.  You may think, “I can understand how worshipping idols brings demonic enslavement, but how does living under the law bring demonic enslavement?”  We get the answer in verse ten where, immediately following Paul’s mention of the Galatians’ former enslavement to idol worship he says, “You observe days and months and seasons and years!”  Huh?  Paul makes what seems like a violent shift from the demonic enslavement that comes from worshipping idols to the topic of the false teaching of the Judaizers who were calling on the Galatians to observe Jewish holidays.  That may seem like a violent shift for us, but it was no shift at all for Paul.

He sees an unbreakable continuity between the demonic enslavement they lived under as idol worshipping pagans and the demonic enslavement they were experiencing as they worked to be acceptable to God by living under the Jewish law.  How can Paul put together these things that are so seemingly different?  How can demons be connected to the Law of God?  Paul says in Romans 7:12, “So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.”  Yet here, he says that when the Galatians try to live under the law, they are returning to the same demonically charged enslavement they were under within their former pagan religion.

What the Holy Spirit wants us to see is that whether you are trying to please God by living under the law, or are under the bondage of pagan idol worship—it is ALL living under the “elementary principles of this world.”  Living under the law is only one expression of living under the “elementary principles of this world.  Living under the enslavement of idol worship is another. Both are false religions.  The gospel of Jesus Christ is the only way to God—all other religions are false and this passage implies that there really is just one major heading over all false religion—it just has many varied expressions under it.  Think about it.  There are the tribal worshippers who practice animism, attributing souls to things like plants and animals and to whom they pay homage or in some way worship.  There are those who look to the “ancients” who came before them for wisdom and guidance.  There are those who practice witchcraft and attempt to wield supernatural power in order to control their environment and give them fulfillment.  All of those are part of the “elementary principles of the world.”

We see Paul’s broad understanding of spiritually enslaving false religion in another use of this same phrase in Colossians 2:8. He warns the believers in Colossae, “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.”  There, the ESV translates the same phrase we see in Galatians chapter four as the “elemental spirits of the world.”  Philosophy and human traditions, when sought after for spiritual fulfillment are, like every other false religion, demonically enslaving.  They are lies and therefore a product of the father of all lies, Satan.  It’s perhaps helpful to think of all false religions as different strands at the end of along rope.  You can separate those strands and they appear distinct from one another.  Paint one strand brown, another orange, another white, another green and so on.  When you lay them out like that on a table, they appear to be very distinct from one another.  But if you follow those strands to where they all come together, they all merge into the same source.  They are all the “elementary principles/spirits of this world.” 

One false religion appeals to people who are in search of power, another appeals to those who want protection from an angry God or the forces of nature.  Another appeals to a person’s need for relationship with others.  Still another elementary principle of this world appeals to those who are deceived into thinking they can be fulfilled in what they can buy.  Living under the law promises to meet our tremendous need as sinners for acceptance before a holy God, but it never delivers on that false promise.  It only brings us into more and more demonic enslavement. They all have different appeals to different people and cultures, but because they are not the gospel of faith alone in Jesus Christ, they are all lies and are the “elementary principles of this world” that are part of this dark world’s armada of enslaving deceptions.  They do not lead to God or joy or peace or protection or contentment or soul-satisfying prosperity.  The fact that the demons use the law, doesn’t mean the law is bad, it simply means that demons take delight in using what is holy and sacred and blasphemously twisting it to destroy people through spiritual slavery. 

One reason I have labored this is because it has a very serious implication.  That is-- when you as a believer try to be pleasing to God on the basis of your performance and you experience the inevitable frustration, misery, agonizing shame and the sense of utter defeat and you are tempted to just give up on Jesus and throw it all in, you are not simply experiencing psychological trauma or remorse, you are experiencing the enslaving onslaught of demonic powers who diabolically use the law of God to condemn and batter and brutally bind the souls of those who are believing the lie—THEIR lie--that it is possible to be acceptable to God apart from faith alone in Jesus Christ.  In verses four and five, Paul shows us how unnecessary and foolish it is for those in Christ to live this way.  He says, “4But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, 5to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.” 

God has sent a Deliverer who had all that was necessary to set us free from the enslaving power of the law.  First, he was “born of woman.” That is, he was a man and that was crucial because the first man, Adam brought us into slavery to sin.  Therefore, only a man could bring us out of slavery to sin.  Second, he was “born under law.”  That is, as a Jew he was under the authority of the law of God.  That’s important because in order for humanity to be made free from the law, someone had to keep it perfectly so that God could then legally transfer his performance of the law to our bankrupt accounts.  He couldn’t redeem us from the curse of the law unless he had himself kept the law and could then, by the mercy of God, offer his perfect performance of the law to us.  Third, he redeemed us “so that we might receive adoption as sons.” This Redeemer could do that because he is Jesus Christ, the first-born Son of God and in him, we share in his Sonship.  In Christ the law keeper, we have fulfilled the law’s requirements and in Christ the Son, we have received the adoption as fellow sons and heirs of God.

In verse six Paul explains that this adoption into sonship is not simply a legal relationship.  If you think about adoption in this world, there is a legal element to it.  Lawyers need to be hired, papers need to be signed.  But adoption is not only or even fundamentally legal, it’s relational—a new relationship is formed between the parent and the child that is marked by love and intimacy.  As Paul continues, he wants the Galatians to know that when you are adopted by God through the shared Sonship of Christ, it is not only a sterile legal relationship.  It is intended to be experienced.  Here’s the way this works.  The Father, before the foundation of the world “predestined us for adoption” according to Ephesians 1:5.  Jesus the Son made that adoption possible first, because he cleansed us of our sins so that the family resemblance between the Father and the sons of God could be restored and second, because when we were placed in Christ, we shared in his Sonship. Those things we have seen, but Paul now brings in the Spirit’s role in our adoption as sons.  What he says here in verse six is that it is the Spirit who takes the reality of this new sonship relationship and moves it beyond the legal element and into our day-to-day experience of God as our Father.

Verse six says.  6And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, "Abba! Father!"  7So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.”  His main point in verse six is to reveal the experiential nature of our sonship.  Jesus the Son of God purchased our sonship, but it is the Holy Spirit who makes that a reality for us.  Notice how Paul refers to the Holy Spirit here as the “Spirit of his Son.”  The Holy Spirit brings us into the Sonship of God’s Son, Jesus.  Under the law, we were under the influence of the elementary spirits of this world that makes us slaves, but in Christ, we are under the influence of the Holy Spirit who makes us sons. 

Because it is the Spirit of the Son, it only makes sense that this Spirit would cry out to the Father using the same word the Son uses toward his Father, “Abba.”  When Jesus is in Gethsemane and is in sheer agony of Spirit, how does he cry out to his Father?  Mark 14:36 tells us. “And he said, "Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will."  In the depths of his despair, when he is the most vulnerable and intimate with the Father he cries out, “Abba, Father.  No one else in all of Jewish literature had personally addressed God as their “Abba.” (Fee, God’s Empowering Preence, p. 410)  This is the unique cry of the Son of God to his Father.  Because this is the cry of the Son of God and we are in Christ, having the Spirit of the Son in our hearts, we too will cry out to our Father with the same Christ-like intimacy communicated by this word, “Abba.” 

Paul says in Romans 8:14-17, “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.  15For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, "Abba! Father!"  16The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God,  17and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.”

Do you see more clearly why Paul is so violently opposed to the Galatians living under the law?  They had chosen to live under the constant demonic condemnation and destructive lies of the elementary principles of this world that made them slaves when they could have and should have been living in intimacy with the Father as sons in Christ.  They were sons of God with the Holy Spirit in them to make the very Sonship of Jesus Christ part of their eperience with all the intimacy and love conveyed by the Abba cry of the Son.  Are you experiencing this?  If you are not, you need to know why because this kind of Father-son intimacy should be part of our existence. 

Here are three possible reasons why you are not experiencing this.  First, you have a lousy prayer life.  Don’t miss that this intimacy with the Father is experienced in the context of crying out to God.  It’s as we meet with God primarily in prayer that we experience this.  If you are not spending time with your Father, how can you experience this Spirit-inspired Abba cry of intimacy within you?  If we are sons of God and if we need intimacy with our Father and can through the Spirit actually experience intimacy with the Father, the question is not—why must I pray, but rather, why wouldn’t I want to pray?  Prayer isn’t just about asking God for things—it’s about spending time in your Father’s presence, enjoying him as his child.  Do you enjoy God in prayer?  If you are a son, you should.  Do you love your Father?  Jack Miller asks the questions, “What have you done in your life just because you love God?  That diagnostic question gets to the heart of whether or not we are living out the gospel and relating to God with the intimacy of a child, given to those who trust in Christ.

A second reason you may not be experiencing this is because you have believed lies that are enslaving you.  One of the implications of this passage is that it is possible to live as a slave under the law when you are a really a son.  So how do you get free?  Believe the gospel—internalize it.  Keep soaking your head in the cleansing water of these gospel promises and truths. Meditate on the wonders of life in Christ—justification, the Holy Spirit, sharing in the law-keeping, sin-defeating, body-resurrecting, son-adopting glories of the gospel.  You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.”  If it seems like a battle to really believe these truths it’s because it is a battle!  We should not be surprised that winning this liberty is a fight.  The fact that we are, at the same time said in the Scriptures to be both victors and warriors is not a contradiction.  Remember God’s people and their fight for the Promised Land.  He had already given them the land—it was theirs.  Yet, they had to go in and fight for it.  That’s the way God works for his glory.  Satan and his demonic horde do not give up those they have spent years enslaving without a scrap. He will work to keep you from believing the truth and from experiencing it in your prayer closet, but God has purchased our victory in Christ. Keep fighting to believe the promises and don’t try to fight alone.  Humble yourself and tell others of your struggles and enlist them in your fight.

          A third reason for not experiencing the Abba-cry intimacy of  sonship through the Holy Spirit may be because you do not have the Holy Spirit living in you.  If you do not have the Spirit, there is no way you can experience this sonship because the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of adoption who cries out, “Abba, Father.”  There are so many nice people who sit in evangelical churches but who have never truly believed the gospel.  Ask God to reveal himself to you by his Spirit.  Ask him to allow you the experience of the genuine, Spirit-induced conviction that you are a sinner and in desperate need of a Savior.  Seek after God to experientially show you your devastating need of Christ and then wait upon him to give you the saving faith to place your trust in him.  Whatever the cause for not experiencing this intimate sonship relationship with God, may God give us the grace to live out this Christ-bought, Spirit actualized sonship that is ours in Christ.

Page last modified on 08/17/2008

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