March 31, 2005

Galatians VII: Sons, not slaves

(This blog post makes use of the BWGRKL font for some Greek text, available for download from BibleWorks at no charge.)

The doctrine of some professing Christians of Jewish descent, the so-called "Judaizers," was undermining the most fundamental question of Christian doctrine: What is the true Gospel? How are we made right with God? The Judaizers were telling the Galatians that in order to become a Christian, it was not enough merely to have faith; they also had to obey the Law. This teaching alarmed the Apostle Paul, who wrote to the churches of Galatia in Asia Minor to tell them that we are not saved on the basis of our obedience, but by our faith. In fact, faith and Law are antitheses, opposites. What one is, the other is not - if the Law could justify, then Christ died for no reason. Moreover, he argues from their own experience that they received the Holy Spirit after they heard the Gospel from Paul, not after obeying the Law.

Anyone who seeks to obey the Law is under a curse, because no man is able to keep the Law, and therefore all men are subject to condemnation. But, he says, Christ became accursed for our sakes. We are made right with God, not because of our own obedience, but because of Christ's obedience on our behalf. The covenant blessings promised to Abraham and his seed find their culmination in Abraham's descendant, Jesus Christ, and because we are united with him through faith, we too are children of promise.

Why the Law, then? If it cannot save, and it cannot create righteousness, what is its purpose? Paul answers that the Law shows the sinfulness of sin. In his letter to the Romans, for example, Paul says how he had no desire to covet until he heard the commandment: "Thou shalt not covet" (Rom. 7:8-9). He used the everyday illustration of the paidagwgo.j (paidagogos), a trusted slave responsibile for the upbringing of the male children of the household. He was a harsh disciplinarian, authorized to administer corporal punishment. His job was to teach right conduct and supervise the boys' daily life, staying with him at all times, including leading him back and forth from school every day. This is the picture of the Law Paul wants the Galatians to have: a stern taskmaster that teaches right and wrong but whose ultimate purpose is to bring us by faith to Jesus Christ. Now that faith has come, we believers have "come of age," as it were, and we are no longer subject to the paidagwgo.j.

Having said all that, it appears as though another analogy drawn from everyday life occurred to Paul: the difference between sons and slaves.

Now I say, That the heir, as long as he is a child, differeth nothing from a servant, though he be lord of all; but is under tutors and governors until the time appointed of the father. Even so we, when we were children, were in bondage under the elements of the world: But when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, to redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons. And because ye are sons, God hath sent forth the Spirit of his Son into your hearts, crying, Abba, Father. Wherefore thou art no more a servant, but a son; and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ.

A quick digression: Paul specifically has sons in mind here. These rights and privileges applied to male children only. This sounds archaic, if you think about it from the perspective of contemporary sensibilities. But male privilege was a fact of life in Paul's day; he doesn't pass judgment on it, he simply takes it for what it is. Nonetheless, we have already seen that Paul goes to some length to make sure his readers understand that in Christ; all people have equal standing without distinction: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3:28).

Coming of age

In the Roman empire, extended families often lived together under the same roof, and the head of the household was the paterfamilias, the "father of the household." The paterfamilias was the king of his domain - his power extended even to determining the fate of newborn babies lived and died, or the discipline that a disobedient family member would receive, which could range from a mild punishment to slavery or even death.

Don't make the mistake of assuming this was a cruel, callous society. Just because the paterfamilias had this legal entitlement doesn't mean that in practice he was any more of a tyrant than our fathers are today. Nonetheless, I think we can see where Paul is coming from when he says that the son "differeth nothing from a servant" (Gal. 4:1). He was the property of the father. He was unable to tend to his own business affairs - in fact, he was not even allowed out of the house without the paidagwgo.j to keep an eye on him. But Paul says that he was "lord of all." Despite his current low status, he was still the legal heir, and the ownership of the estate would eventually pass to him.

But this state of affairs did not last forever; as Paul says, there was a "time appointed by the father" (Gal. 4:2) at which the boy came of age. Typically, this occurred between the ages of 14 and 17. At that time, the boy became an adult, receiving the right to manage his own affairs, to marry, and to take part in Roman public life. He was entitled to set aside the clothing of his childhood, a simple tunic or robe or, in upper-class families, the toga praetextis that had a coloured hem and imitated the robes of civil magistrates. The son exchanged these childish outfits for the pure white toga virilis, the symbol of Roman citizenship. He had to wear this garment to conduct business or to participate in public functions. Think back to what Paul said in Gal. 3:27: "For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ." Perhaps, being a Roman citizen himself by birth, when Paul wrote about Christian baptism being the symbol of citizenship in the Kingdom of God, he had the toga virilis in mind.

Adopted heirs

Paul doesn't just liken being in Christ to coming of age. He adds yet another analogy from Roman custom. The Romans held to a form of filial piety, or ancestor worship; they believed that the spirits of their ancestors kept watch over them and their property. Thus it was very important for a man to have an heir; in fact, it was considered disgraceful to die without one.

If a man had no offspring, he might try to become adopted by another family. In that case, his goods were transferred to the heir of his new family, and his own ancestors would supposedly be satisfied. Better yet, though, he might adopt an heir himself. Typically this was the son of another family of lesser status, and there was a ceremony by which he was formally separated from his natural family and legally bound to his adoptive father. He might also adopt a slave as his son.

There's a good instance of this practice in that traditional Easter movie, Ben-Hur. Judah ben-Hur is a Jewish merchant and a close friend of the local Roman tribune, Masala. They have a falling out when Masala misinterprets an accident as an attempt on his life, and as a consequence he sells ben-Hur into slavery, where he spends three years chained to the oar of a Roman galley. When the galley is sunk, only ben-Hur and the captain, Arius, survive, the latter because ben-Hur saved his life. In gratitude, Arius redeems ben-Hur from his slavery, and adopts him as his own son and heir.

This is the kind of relationship that Paul is speaking about. He writes that "God sent forth his Son . . . to redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons" (Gal. 4:4-5).

The essence of the true Gospel

This is the climax of Paul's letter. It is the very heart and soul of the Gospel. God loves sinners. We know this because God has taken the initiative to reconcile sinners to himself. We were slaves: slaves to sin, slaves to an external code of righteousness that could not save us. Paul says that "we were children . . . in bondage under the elements of the world" (Gal. 4:3). In Greek, the word stoicei/on (stoicheion), which the KJV translators rendered "elements," might also be translated as "elementary rudiments": in other words, so to speak, the ABCs. Specifically by "we" Paul means those who received the Gospel first, his own people the Jews, and their Law. But the Gospel has become an inclusive thing embracing Jew and Gentile both, so by logical extension his meaning can mean any worldly code of righteousness other than faith in Christ. God has redeemed us from slavery to the ABCs of a righteousness by which we cannot redeem ourselves. Jesus Christ - the eternal Son of God - condescended to be "made of a woman, made under the Law" (Gal. 4:4). He who was ruler and master of all, consented to be a servant to his own creation. At the appointed time, he lived a life of active obedience to the Law to satisfy the demands of the Law upon us, and died on a cross to make satisfaction for our sins. That is the price of our redemption. It is the basis upon which we are no longer slaves to sin, but adopted children of the Father. It is on the basis of Christ's life, death, and resurrection that we are justified - counted righteous - accepted by God. Though by nature we are children of wrath, by God's grace we are children of love.

Because we are now sons, Paul says that "God hath sent forth the Spirit of his Son into your hearts, crying, Abba, Father" (Gal. 4:6). Read also what he writes in Romans 8:

For ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father. The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God: and if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together.

We are now on intimate terms with the heavenly Father; we are able to call him "Abba," which as everyone knows by now, is a term of endearment used between a small child and his father: Daddy. Papa.

Paul continues to list the privileges of adoption: "Wherefore thou art no more a servant, but a son; and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ" (Gal. 4:7). In Roman society, there was only one heir who got the estate. But in the family of God, we are all entitled to share in the inheritance. What is this inheritance? Nothing less than the resurrection of the body, eternal life, and eternal life.

(By the way, take note of the Trinitarian nature of adoption. The Father sends the Son and the Holy Spirit. The Son redeems us from the curse of the Law. And the Holy Spirit guarantees our adoption.)

The responsibilities of Kingdom citizenship

Naturally, along with the privilege of being a citizen of Rome, there were responsibilities. And there are responsibilities that go along with the privilege of citizenship in heaven as well. I want to finish by highlighting three of these.

Our adoption should produce a likeness to God. "Be ye therefore followers of God, as dear children" (Eph. 5:1). What does Paul mean by this? He continues: "And walk in love, as Christ also hath loved us, and hath given himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweetsmelling savour" (5:2). Compare Jesus' words in the Sermon on the Mount:

Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; that ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust. For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same?

A likeness to God entails two things: to pursue love as God loves, and to pursue the righteousness that God commands.

Our adoption should produce a love of peace. Jesus said in the Beatitudes, "Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God" (Matt. 5:9). The children of God pursue peace. By this I don't necessarily mean pacifism. I have friends who can argue passionately for Christian pacifism. But I respectfully disagree with their conclusions: I believe there are times when self-defense or justice are, at that particular moment, greater virtues than the lack of conflict. Nonetheless, the Bible does say that the children of God are to be characterized by peaceful lives. The New Testament speaks of peace in at least three ways. For example, Paul says, in Philippians, to be anxious for nothing, and then "the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus." (Phil. 4:7). So peace is partly the personal, inner peace that comes from contentment. There is also peace within the church: "[A]bove all these things put on charity, which is the bond of perfectness. And let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to the which also ye are called in one body; and be ye thankful (Col. 3:14-15). And third, there is also with the world around you: "Recompense to no man evil for evil. Provide things honest in the sight of all men. If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men" (Rom. 12:17-18).

Last, our adoption should produce a spirit of prayer. Again, I turn to the Sermon on the Mount, this time in Chapter 7:

Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened. Or what man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone? Or if he ask a fish, will he give him a serpent? If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him? (Matt. 7:7-11)

Remember that this follows practically on the heels of Matthew 6, in which Jesus has just taught the proper way of praying. Here in Chapter 7, he tells us that our prayer ought to be persistent. The great preacher Matthew Henry put it this way:

Ask, Seek, Knock; that is, in one word, "Pray; pray often; pray with sincerity and seriousness; pray, and pray again; make conscience of prayer, and be constant in it; make a business of prayer, and be earnest in it. Ask, as a beggar asks alms." Those that would be rich in grace, must betake themselves to the poor trade of begging, and they shall find it a thriving trade.1

Jesus draws the analogy of an earthly father and his children: if we can openly approach our own earthly fathers and ask for food, we will receive it, won't we? Therefore, how much more should we expect the same of our heavenly Father? Just as we can communicate freely with our earthly fathers, so can we with our heavenly Father.

Overall, I believe that when we contemplate what it is that God has done for us - taken us children of wrath and adopted us as his own children - above all else I think what we should have on our minds is gratitude. How can we not? As the last stanza of the hymn "The Love of God," quite possibly the greatest piece of sacred verse ever penned, says:

Could we with ink the ocean fill,
And were the skies of parchment made,
Were every stalk on earth a quill,
And every man a scribe by trade,
To write the love of God above,
Would drain the ocean dry.
Nor could the scroll contain the whole,
Though stretched from sky to sky.


1 Matthew Henry, Commentary on the Whole Bible, vol. 4, Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 22 Mar 2005, 31 Mar 2005 <>.


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