I have often heard whispered, the stories of former slaves who, though having been freed, choosing to remain with their masters. I don’t know how true the stories are, but I do know that many found it hard to escape the grip and reach of their former masters and the remnants of the enslavement system. I also know that many found they had no means to support themselves in their newfound freedom, as slavery gave way to new forms of bondage, like sharecropping and convict leasing.
I’d like to believe that the stories are whispered because they are not true. But more than likely they are whispered because their woeful reality is too regrettable for the ears of many. The stories can only survive in dark and hushed tones.
Paul uses this sad historical reality to cement in the minds of the Galatians the folly of their attempts to live by the law. He has already made known the fact that those in Christ are no longer under the law; that Christ has redeemed us from the law. The purpose here is to get the Galatians, and us by extension, to see that living by the law is to be set free by the glorious work of Christ and choose to return to the weak and worthless things of bondage.
Galatians 4:1 (NAS): 1 Now I say, as long as the heir is a child, he does not differ at all from a slave although he is owner of everything,
The Heir and the Slave
Paul begins with the analogy. Before faith in Christ we too were like an heir who, while a child, does not differ at all from a slave. We were placed under the guardianship and management of the law. As weak as the law was through the flesh, we were indeed born under the law. My memory is not what it used to be, but I remember well the futility of my best efforts to obey God. Every renewed exertion of effort to obey the law set before me, brought the greater weight of the curse of the law, to obey all things written in the book, down upon my head. Any attempt to live honestly, only brought guilt, fear, and failure. And there was always the fearful expectation of judgement looming behind each failure.
Our slavery, however, had an expiration date. Just as with the heir, we would be in every way a slave, guarded and managed by the law, but only until the time set by the Father. At just the right time, God sent His Son, born under the same law, to redeem us from under the law’s guardianship. So that we would no longer be slaves, but sons.
This part is important. Because we have been taught to see our salvation as personal, our understanding of it is usually disconnected from redemptive history. But Paul envisions the Galatians’ adoption as coming out of history. The time set by the Father, was not when they came to faith, the right time was when the Father sent the Son. Our adoption as sons arrived when the only begotten Son arrived.
Galatians 4:8 (NAS): 8 However at that time, when you did not know God, you were slaves to those which by nature are no gods.
As wonderful as this analogy is, it’s not the point of this passage. With the glory and wonder of our freedom and sonship still filling our eyes, Paul masterfully reminds us of the slavery out of which we’ve come. So that with the glorious image of our freedom in Christ in one eye and the pitiable condition of our former slavery to the law in the other, his next question would be made more poignant. Why turn back to slavery? Why turn from freedom, sonship, adoption, and inheritance to return to weak, worthless, and rudimentary things to be enslaved all over again?
While there is no good answer, I doubt that most of us, who have lived by the law since the time set by the Father, even knew we were turning back to enslavement. I know I didn’t. I thought, to live in obedience to the law of God, was the next step in maturity. I thought the key to my sonship was my obedience. But Paul says that my sonship came with Christ. It came because He redeemed me from the law.
Yet even as a write this, I hear some who will say I’m giving you permission to live in disobedience. As if you needed permission from me to do what Paul has been arguing you do already, thus the bondage. With this sort of thinking, Paul is right to fear having labored over us in vain.
Here it is, as simply as I can put it. A son and an heir does not live by the law, like a slave. He lives by faith in the Son, who died to redeem us from the curse of the law. Living by faith does not lead to disobedience, but by faith we fulfill the righteous requirement of the law through Christ.
So we herald the freedom Christ brings, and shout His Gospel from the hilltops. And as we do, we turn down the volume on living by the law. So like choosing to remain in slavery, living by the law is more and more relegated to the dark and hushed tones of a whisper. For the righteous will live by faith.