1 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, 2 but he is under guardians and managers until the date set by his father. 3 In the same way we also, when we were children, were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world. 4 But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, 5 to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. 6 And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” 7 So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God. – Galatians 4:1-7 ESV
Captive. Imprisoned. Under the authority of another. Incapable of setting yourself free and unable to escape from the wrath of God and His just condemnation. That was the former state of those to whom Paul wrote. At one time they had been unbelievers and enemies of God. Long before Jesus came and died, all mankind had been held captive by sin. God had provided the law through Moses to the people of Israel to make known to them His requirements for living in obedience to His righteous will. But as Paul has already made abundantly clear, the law was not intended to provide a means of justification for the Jews. It simply made clear to them God’s revealed will and exposed their complete inability to live up to it.
In his letter to the Romans, Paul wrote, “For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law” (Romans 2:12 ESV). The Gentiles were held captive by sin even though they did not have the law of God. But the Jews, who had been the recipients of God’s law, found themselves in the same sad state. Paul explained why: “For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified” (Romans 2:13 ESV). Simply having knowledge of the law was not enough. It had to be obeyed – perfectly and completely, and the Jews had failed. So, all men were under God’s condemnation for their rebellion against Him. But through the law, He had given the Jews a description of what they would have to do to justify themselves before Him. The reality was, they would never be able to pull it off and God knew it. He had a better, more perfect means of justification prepared.
He would one day send His Son to take on human flesh, live a sinless life, and die a sinner’s death as a sacrifice and substitute for men. His death would satisfy God’s need as a holy, righteous judge to pronounce judgment and allow Him to pour out His wrath as a punishment for mankind’s sin.
Paul uses the statement, “Now before faith came…” (Galatians 3:23 ESV). He is referring to the coming of Christ and, more specifically, to His death, burial, and resurrection. Jesus provided a means by which men could be made right with God, but it was only available through faith in Him. Paul says, “the law was our guardian until Christ came” (Galatians 3:24 ESV). The law functioned as a kind of tutor or teacher, educating the Jews as to God’s expectations for holy and acceptable living. It was intended to show them what God demanded of them and provide them with boundaries for life until “the coming of faith would be revealed” (Galatians 3:23 ESV). But once Jesus came and accomplished His God-given task of dying on behalf of sinful men, the law took a backseat. Justification with God became a reality, not a pipe dream. Through faith in Jesus Christ as their sin substitute, men and women could be made right with God.
Five times in these verses Paul uses the word, “faith.” The entire redemption plan of God, including man’s salvation, justification, and sanctification, is according to faith, not works. It is by faith that we move from enemies to sons and daughters of God. It is by faith that our sins are transferred to Christ and we receive His righteousness. It is by faith that we inherit the riches of eternal life. It is by faith that our sins are forgiven. It is by faith that we receive the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. It is by faith that we become heirs of the promises of God.
Faith has come. Jesus has accomplished the will of His Father and provided a means by which men can be saved. And now that faith has come, we are to live by faith. There is no going back to religious rule-keeping. Those who have been made righteous by God through faith in Christ are to live by faith. Now that faith has come, faith is to be our sole means of living. As Paul stated earlier in this same letter, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20 ESV). We are saved by faith. We are to live by faith. We are to do all by faith. We are to be a people of faith.
So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith. – Galatians 3:9 ESV
And yet, as people of faith, we can find ourselves living by sight rather than by faith. We can easily fall back into the trap of thinking that maintaining our right standing before God is somehow up to us. While we can easily accept the concept of salvation by faith, we find it difficult to understand that even our sanctification is a byproduct of faith. This doesn’t mean we play no role. It simply means that even any works of righteousness we do in this life are totally dependent upon our ongoing faith in Christ and His Spirit’s work within us. This is why Paul said the life he lived after coming to faith in Christ, he lived by faith in Christ. Now that faith has come, faith is all we need.
Here in chapter four, Paul continues to contrast law and grace. More specifically, he shows how faith alone is how 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 oversee the well-being of a child and manage 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 set 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 assistance of the indwelling Spirit of God, 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 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 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 who had not been part of the chosen people of God. 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).
Paul wants the Galatian believers to be blown away by the fact 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 comprehending or coming to a true knowledge of God. In fact, they were his enemies.
You cannot pursue that which you do not know. The 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
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.