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 to be known by God, how can you turn back again 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. – Galatians 4:8-11 ESV
There is a common belief, even among evangelical Christians, that all people are seeking after God. But the Bible seems to paint a distinctively different picture of mankind. Ever since the fall, humanity has been on a trajectory away from God, not toward Him. Men have not been seeking after God, but for anything and everything but Him. They have sought to make their own gods. Adam and Eve knew God intimately and personally. They had a daily and uninterrupted relationship with Him. But after the fall, they found themselves cast out of His presence. And the further mankind got from Eden, the more distant their recollection of God became. Paul paints a vivid picture of this fading knowledge of God in his letter to the Romans:
For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. – Romans 1:21-23 ESV
God’s character was visible through His creation. Paul writes, “his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made” (Romans 1:20 ESV). But as time passed, men began to lose their perception of God and their ability to recognize His attributes in the world He had made. They lost their knowledge of the one true God and began to create gods that reflected the qualities and characteristics they deemed necessary for deity. Paul says they worshiped the creation rather than the creator. They even worshiped other men.
But Paul reminds the Galatians that they have had their knowledge of God restored, and it was not something they had achieved. It was not as a result of their own searching or seeking. He emphasizes the fact that they have come to be known by God. It was God who had sought them out and not the other way around. He had chosen to know them and have a relationship with them. He had determined to make Himself known to them through His Son. As the apostle John put it, “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” (1 John 1:18 NLT). As a result of placing their faith in Jesus Christ, they had come to truly know God for the very first time. Up until that point, they had been “enslaved to those that by nature are not gods” (Galatians 4:8 ESV). They had been worshiping false gods. They had been limited in their spiritual understanding and were stuck worshiping the “weak and worthless elementary principles of the world” (Galatians 4:9 ESV). Their spirituality was of this world and not of heaven. While thinking they were seeking and coming to know God, they were actually moving away from Him.
But God had chosen to seek them out. He had called them to Himself and opened their eyes so that they could see the truth found in His Son’s death, burial and resurrection. For the first time they had been able to see the depth of their own sin, the hopelessness of their condition, and their need for a Savior. Rather than attempting to earn their way into God’s good graces, they relied on the grace of God as expressed in the finished work of Christ. But Paul was concerned that these very same people, who had discovered the secret of justification by faith in Christ alone, were allowing themselves to become enslaved again. They were listening to the false teachers who were preaching justification by works. Suddenly, grace was not enough. The death and resurrection of Christ was insufficient. More was required. Human effort was necessary. But Paul completely disagreed.
There were those who were trying to convince the Gentile converts in Galatia that they were not truly saved unless they became circumcised and began to keep all the Jewish rituals, feasts and festivals. That is what Paul means when he refers to observing days and months and seasons and years. These outsiders were convincing the Gentile believers that their salvation was incomplete. They needed to do more. Their faith in Christ was insufficient. And it was this false teaching, a form of legalism, that Paul stood against so strongly. He would not tolerate it or allow it to take root among the churches in Galatia. Earlier in his letter to the Galatians, Paul had stated his amazement at how quickly and easily the believers there had turned their back on justification by faith alone.
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel — not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. – Galatians 1:6-7 ESV
There was no other gospel. There were no other requirements. The salvation offered by God was not based on human effort, but on faith in Christ alone. The works of men had never made God known to them. Self-righteousness had never earned anyone access to God. The righteousness God required was only available through faith in Christ. As Paul told the Romans:
For I am not ashamed of this Good News about Christ. It is the power of God at work, saving everyone who believes—the Jew first and also the Gentile. This Good News tells us how God makes us right in his sight. This is accomplished from start to finish by faith. As the Scriptures say, “It is through faith that a righteous person has life.” – Romans 1:16-17 NLT
We don’t seek God. He seeks us. We can’t earn God’s favor. He must willingly extend it to us through His Son. When it comes to our justification before God, self-effort is self-delusional. We would do well to remember the personal testimony of Paul to the believers in Philippi: “I no longer count on my own righteousness through obeying the law; rather, I become righteous through faith in Christ. For God’s way of making us right with himself depends on faith” (Philippians 3:9 NLT).