Sons, Not Slaves (Galatians 3:26-4:11)

Paul wrote his letter to the churches of Galatia in response to their being told by people whom we call Judaizers that to be saved they had to be circumcised and obey the law of Moses in addition to believing in Jesus Christ. In my last article in this series of articles on Galatians I considered 3:15-25, in which Paul demonstrated the priority of God’s promise to Abraham, “[I]n you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3), over the law and considered why God gave the law if it were to have no effect on the promise. He concluded his consideration of why the law was given by comparing those under the law to children under a guardian, and now he goes on to argue that the Galatians are sons rather than children and thus are not under the guardianship of the law.

He begins by stating that all can be sons and heirs by faith (3:26-29). Then he gives an analogy and applies that analogy to the Galatians (4:1-7). He closes by expressing his concern for the Galatians (4:8-11).

Sons of God in Christ

26 for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. 27 For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise. (ESV; all Biblical quotations are from the ESV)

How did the Galatians become sons of God? They became sons of God (1) through faith and (2) in Christ Jesus. Although in the Greek text both phrases follow “you are all sons of God,” the ESV moves “in Christ Jesus” to before “you are sons of God,” implying that “in Christ Jesus” modifies “you are sons of God” rather than modifying “faith.” Most commentaries which I consulted agree with the implication, Ernest De Witt Burton’s arguing, for example, “That [‘in Christ Jesus’] does not limit [‘faith’] is evident because Paul rarely employs [‘in’] after [‘faith’] (see, however, Col. 1:4, Eph. 1:15), and in this letter always uses the genitive (2:16, 20; 3:22), but especially because vv. 27, 28 take up and dwell upon the fact that the Galatians are in Christ Jesus” (A Critical and Exegetical Commentary of the Epistle to the Galatians, Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1921, page 202). Note that Paul changes from “we” in verse 25 (“we are no longer under a guardian”) to “you” in verse 26 to apply the thought of verse 25 specifically to his Galatian readers, who are Gentile Christians.

As an outward sign to others of their having becoming sons of God by believing in Christ Jesus and being united with him by the Holy Spirit, the Galatians were baptized by immersion in water. “Baptism was not necessary for salvation, but faith without baptism was not faith for the early church. The Galatians knew this, and so Paul appealed to their experience” (Scot McKight, The NIV Application Commentary: Galatians, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1995, page 198). Apparently after being baptized they put on new clothes, symbolizing the change that had taken place in them which is described in Romans 6:3-4, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” Here Paul describes it as “put[ting] on Christ.”

Because sons of God are equal in His sight, within His church “there is neither Jew nor Greek” and thus Gentile believers should not have to become Jews to be part of it. Clearly Paul made this assertion against the claim of the Judaizers that the Galatian believers had to be circumcised and obey the law of Moses in addition to believing in Jesus Christ to be saved. He adds, perhaps having in mind the prayer in which the male Jew thanks God that he was not made a Gentile, a slave, or a woman, that “there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female” in the church. Obviously he didn’t mean that differences in nationality, social status, and sex ceased to exist when Jews/Gentiles, freemen/slaves, and men/women became Christians. Rather he meant that because of their being “all one in Christ Jesus” the distinctions should have no significance within the church. Nevertheless it portrays, as Ben Witherington III observes, “a vision of humankind and human unity that still challenges us today” (Grace in Galatia, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1998, page 281).

In Galatians 3:8 Paul referred to God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis 12:3, “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” Subsequently God had applied His promises to Abraham to his offspring as well (12:7; 13:15-16; 17:7-8). Naturally the Jews claimed that they were the offspring to whom the promises applied. However in Galatians 3:16 Paul argued that since “offspring” is singular and not plural the promise was to be inherited by one person, Christ, rather than by many people, the Jews. Now he tells the Galatians, “If you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.” Thus, in response to the Judaizers’ telling the Galatians that they could not share in the blessings promised to Abraham and his offspring without being circumcised (and following the law of Moses), Paul assures them that by being united with Christ Jesus through faith they became heirs of the promises without having to do anything more.

From Slaves to Sons of God

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.

Paul now presents another analogy to show the change brought about in a person’s relationship with God brought about by his or her acceptance of the gospel, this time comparing the law’s role to that of those appointed to take care of a minor and his property. He opens it by observing that as long as an heir is too young to receive his inheritance, he is under guardians and managers and thus no better than a slave. Although commentators disagree on whether Paul was referring to Roman or Greek customs, most agree that “guardians” refers to ones responsible for looking after the child and “managers” to ones responsible for administering his property.

Commentators also disagree on who and what Paul was referring to by “we” and “elementary principles of the world” in verse 3. Some think that he was referring to Jewish Christians and the law, and others think that he was referring to all Christians and whatever elementary teachings they had been under. Here are parts of Richard N. Longenecker’s argument in favour of the former and Ronald Y. K. Fung’s argument in favour of the latter.

[Although] it may be that “we” is used here inclusively for both Jewish and Gentile believers … it is important to note … that in the three earlier passages where the first person plural occurs, it either (1) specifically refers to those who are Jewish (so 2:15-16 … and 3:23-25 …) or (2) can be read as a portion stemming from earlier Jewish Christianity, either in whole or in part (so 3:13-14). Likewise here, we believe, the first person plural of 4:3, as well as that of 4:5, ought to be understood as referring primarily to Jewish believers: in v 3 as Paul’s application of his illustration of the Jewish experience under the custodianship of the law and in vv 4-5 as Paul’s quotation of an earlier Jewish Christian confessional portion, with vv 6-7, then, applying the thrust of the confession cited in vv 4-5 to his Gentile converts’ situation and therefore reverting back to his usual second person plural “you.” (Longenecker, Galatians, Dallas, Texas: Word Books, 1990, page 164)

To the legal minority of the heir, Paul likens the spiritual infancy of all people: the emphatic “we” here …, like the first person plural in 3:13f., probably embraces both Jews and Gentiles, since the transition from “we might attain the status of sons” (v. 5) to “because you are sons” (v. 6, RSV) suggests that the “we” of vv. 3-5 includes the “you,” the Galatian converts of Gentile origin. During this period they were enslaved under “the elemental spirits of the universe” [NEB]. This rendering takes the Greek phrase ta stoicheia tou kosmou in a cosmological sense; an alternative translation renders it as “the basic principles of the world” (NIV). (Fung, The Epistle to the Galatians, Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988, page 181)

Personally, I can’t decide between the two views, the switch from “we” in verses 3-5 to “you” in verses 6-7 suggesting to me that “we” refers to the Jews but the use of “the elementary principles of the world” instead of “the law” in verse 3 suggesting to me that that verse (and thus “we”) refers to all Christians. Whichever view one takes, the passage as a whole attributes Christians’ becoming sons of God to God’s sending his Son at the right time in human history to free them from slavery and make them sons and heirs.

Paul describes Christ as being “born of woman” and “born under the law.” “Though he was in the form of God, [he] did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Philippians 2:6-7). And, being born a Jew, he put himself under the regulations of the law, although he himself was sinless and not in need of a guardian or manager, so that he could set his people free from its supervision (3:23-25) and condemnation (3:13) and enable them to enter a new relationship with God through “adoption as sons.”

“Because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts” seems to indicate that our becoming sons of God precedes God’s imparting the Holy Spirit to us. However Romans 8:14-17 seems to indicate that our receiving the Holy Spirit precedes our becoming sons of God. The apparent contradiction suggests that Paul viewed the two experiences as being so closely related that they can be spoken of as occurring in either order. Thus, as J. B. Lightfoot points out, “The presence of the Spirit is … a witness of their sonship” (The Epistle of St. Paul to the Galatians, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1957 reprint of 1865 publication, page 169).

“God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!'” seems to say that it is the Holy Spirit himself who cries out “Abba! Father!”. However Paul makes it clear in the passage in Romans referred to above that it is we who do so, his saying there, “You have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’,” and going on to explain, “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Romans 8:15,16). “Abba” is the Aramaic word for “Father.” Jesus addressed God as “Abba” and in the Lord’s Prayer taught his disciples (and us) similarly to call God “Abba” and look to him as children look to their fathers to provide for them. As Paul observes here, it is the Holy Spirit within us which enables us view and approach God as our Father.

Thus, as F. F. Bruce observes:

Instead of being imprisoned under law (or enslaved by the [elementary principles] of the world), instead of being under the control of a slave-attendant or in care of guardians or stewards, believers are now now full-grown sons and daughters of God; they have been given their freedom and the power to use it responsibly. (Commentary on Galatians, Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1982, page 200)

Paul’s Concern for the Galatians

8 Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods. 9 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? 10 You observe days and months and seasons and years! 11 I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain.

Paul reminds the Galatians that before entering into a relationship with God they had served “those that by nature are not gods.” It is unclear whether Paul means that the “gods” whom the Galatians had worshipped were unreal, as he implies in 1 Corinthians 8:4-6 by describing them as “so-called gods,” or whether he means that they were demons, as he calls them in 1 Corinthians 10:20-21. Whichever he meant, clearly he viewed the Galatians as having been enslaved to those “gods” before their conversion.

Paul then questions how ones who have entered into a relationship with God in which they are “known by” and thus “know” Him could begin to observe aspects of the law (“days and months and seasons and years”). He himself continued to observe some of them, such as Pentecost (Acts 20:16), but he considered it an another matter for Gentile Christians to adopt them as matter of legal obligation, describing their doing so as a return to enslavement.

Although by “I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain” Paul may have just been expressing concern that his ministry over the Galatians was wasted, he may have meant more; namely, as Gordon D. Fee puts it, “that if they capitulate to circumcision he will indeed have ‘labored in vain’ among them — because they will have severed themselves from Christ (5:4)” (Galatians Pentecostal Commentary, Blandford Forum: Deo Publishing, 2007, page 161). Thus Douglas J. Moo concludes his explanation of the passage with:

Here Paul may intend to evoke particularly Gal. 3:4, “Have you experienced so much in vain [the same word used here]?” The various expressions of the Galatians’ commitment to Christ along with Paul’s ministry among them will prove “empty,” “without purpose,” if the Galatians should succumb to the message of the agitators by submitting to the law.” (Galatians, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2013, page 279)


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