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, but he is under guardians and managers until the date set by his father. In the same way we also, when we were children, were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world. But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God. – Galatians 4:1-7 ESV
Here in chapter four, Paul continues to contrast law and grace. More specifically, he will show how faith alone is the means by which men must be saved. And to make his point, he uses yet another analogy. He has already compared the law to a jail, imprisoning everything under sin (Galatians 2:22). He also referred to it as a guardian, watching over us and managing our affairs until Christ came. The Greek word he used was παιδαγωγός (paidagōgos), which “was applied to trustworthy slaves who were charged with the duty of supervising the life and morals of boys belonging to the better class” (“G3807 – paidagōgos – Strong’s Greek Lexicon (KJV).” Blue Letter Bible). Here in chapter four, he uses the term, “guardian”, again, but it is a different Greek word. It is ἐπίτροπος (epitropos) and it refers to “one to whose care or honor anything has been instructed” (“G2012 – epitropos – Strong’s Greek Lexicon (KJV).” Blue Letter Bible). It was commonly used to refer to a steward or overseer of one’s estate or children. Paul also compares the law to a manager. He uses the Greek word, οἰκονόμος (oikonomos), which refers to a steward, manager or superintendent, who was responsible for overseeing the affairs of another (“G3623 – oikonomos – Strong’s Greek Lexicon (KJV).” Blue Letter Bible).
In Paul’s day, this guardian or overseer was appointed by a father and given the responsibility to care for his child, overseeing his well-being and managing his inheritance. This, as Paul points out, was to be the arrangement “until the date set by his father” (Galatians 4:2 ESV). In a sense, the son was no different than a slave as long as he was under the responsibility of his guardian or steward. He was expected to do exactly what the guardian told him to do. He had no access to his inheritance, except through the guardian, who managed all his affairs. He was under the watchful eye of his guardian at all times, until the day appointed by his father arrived.
Paul tells his readers that this was their former situation. They were under the guardianship of the law until faith came (Galatians 3:23). Up until the time that Jesus came, they had been “enslaved to the elementary principles of the world” (Galatians 4:3 ESV). Paul does not explain what he means by this phrase, but it most certainly conveys the idea of the limited understanding available to men without the help of God. In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul wrote, “Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God” (1 Corinthians 2:12 ESV). Without the Spirit of God in them, men cannot understand the truths of God. They are incapable. Paul went on to say, “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Corinthians 2:14 ESV). Those without Christ are limited and stunted in their understanding, incapable of grasping the truth about God or the mysteries of spirituality. In speaking of the coming Holy Spirit, Jesus told His disciples, “He is the Holy Spirit, who leads into all truth. The world cannot receive him, because it isn’t looking for him and doesn’t recognize him” (John 14:17 NLT). Paul also said that “God in his wisdom saw to it that the world would never know him through human wisdom” (1 Corinthians 1:21 NLT).
Man, no matter how smart he may be, cannot understand or comprehend the truth regarding God. He is “enslaved to the elementary principles of the world.” But Paul reminds his readers that, “when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son” (Galatians 4:4 ESV). At just the right time, according to His eternal plan, God sent Jesus “to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Galatians 4:5 ESV). The amazing thing is that God, in His mercy and kindness, chose to adopt those who were not even His own. The audience to whom Paul was writing was made up primarily of Gentiles. They had not been part of the chosen people of God, the Jews. They were outsiders, aliens and strangers to the family of God. Paul told the Gentile believers in Ephesus, “remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (Ephesians 2:12 ESV). But he went on to tell them the good news that “you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (Ephesians 2:19 ESV).
The amazing thing, Paul tells his readers, is that they were now sons and daughters of God. Because He had sent His Son into the world, “born of woman, born under the law” (Galatians 4:4 ESV), and His Son had kept the law to perfection, He had qualified Himself to be the sinless substitute to die in the place of sinful men. He took our place on the cross and died the death we deserved, so that we might be redeemed and restored to a right relationship with God. And those who place their faith in Christ become sons of God and receive the Spirit of God, which gives them the right to call on God as their Father. They are miraculously transformed from slaves to sons. They become princes, instead of paupers, and heirs of all the riches of God’s grace. But Paul’s point was that none of this was possible through the keeping of the law. Sonship was not achievable through hard work. The inheritance was not accessible through diligent rule-keeping. It was the gift of God made possible through faith in the Son of God and His sacrificial death on the cross. Man cannot earn a right standing with God. He cannot merit God’s favor through hard work. In fact, Paul will go on to say that, before placing their faith in Christ, his audience didn’t even know God (Galatians 4:8). They had been incapable of knowing Him. They were enemies of God. And so were we. You cannot pursue that which you do not know. Natural man cannot know the things of God. Sinful men cannot seek the things of God. But God, in His great mercy and kindness, sent His Son to make Himself known.
No one has ever seen God. But the unique One, who is himself God, is near to the Father’s heart. He has revealed God to us. – John 1:18 NLT
This is not about law versus grace. Paul is not pitting one against the other. He is not saying that the law was flawed, but only that the law was a temporary guardian or guide, intended to display God’s holiness and expose man’s sinfulness. But when Jesus came, He did what no other man could have done: He kept the law perfectly. He lived up to God’s holy standards, living a sinless life and proving worthy to offer Himself as the payment for the sins of mankind. We are heirs of God, not because we kept the law of God, but because His Son did so on our behalf.