Sons, Not Slaves
by Tom Ascol
Have you ever stopped to consider that Christians who live after the coming of Christ are in a more privileged position than Jews who lived before the coming of Christ and even those believers who lived during His first advent? Jesus taught this very thing. He said, “Among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he” (Matt. 11:11). He also said that it was to His disciples’ “advantage” that He leave them because, if He did not go, then the “Helper” (Holy Spirit) would not come (John 16:7).
Old Testament believers and those who trusted Christ during His first advent were no less saved than any Christian since the coming of Christ, yet those who live on this side of the cross and resurrection are in a much better position than any of God’s people who died before those events. We can see that all of God’s promises have been guaranteed through the person and work of Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 1:20).
In his letter to the Galatians, the apostle Paul shows the superiority of our current status as followers of Christ to that of our Old Testament brothers and sisters whose faith was grounded in the Savior who was yet to come. They were compelled to live under the rigors of the Mosaic law with all of its exacting details and ceremonial requirements. Every aspect of their lives was prescribed for them by the stipulations and codes that God gave to His Old Testament people through Moses.
Can you imagine having the type of fabric that your clothes are made of being a religious requirement? Yet, under the Old Testament codes, it was (Lev. 19:19). These and other ceremonial laws were given by God to His people to “box them up” to Himself — to mark them out as His own and provide opportunities for them to display their allegiance to Him.
Many Jews — especially many of their religious leaders in the first century — came to misunderstand the purpose of all of the detailed prescriptions of their lives and began to teach that they could earn their way to God through their own righteousness and good works.
In Galatians Paul completely destroys that idea by repeatedly stressing that by the works of the Law, no flesh can ever be justified. The only way any Old Testament Jew was made right with God was on the basis of God’s grace, which was received through faith.
All of the requirements that God put on His people during the Old Testament era served an important purpose — they prepared the way for the full and final revelation of God’s salvation in Jesus Christ. But now that Christ has come, there is no longer any need for them. Christians do not need to live like Jews — submitting to Jewish ceremonies — in order to be right with God. In fact, for anyone to think otherwise is to forfeit the gospel of God’s grace.
This is what caused Paul’s anger to burn against the false teachers who had infiltrated the Galatians, trying to get them to submit to circumcision. Their teaching denied the grace of God in Jesus Christ. It was a rejection of the most fundamental element of salvation — that the only way a sinner can ever be justified before God is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.
That has always been true, and now that Jesus has lived and died and been raised from the dead, it has been fully and finally revealed. That is what places those of us who live on this side of Christ’s first coming in a more privileged position than even the greatest of our Old Testament brothers and sisters.
Paul makes this point in Galatians 4:1–7 by contrasting the roles of slaves and sons in an ancient Roman household. Collectively, as the one people of God, during the Old Testament era we differed little from slaves though we were indeed sons. “The heir, as long as he is a child, is no different from a slave, though he is the owner of everything, but he is under guardians and managers until the date set by his father” (vv. 1–2).
In the same way, before the coming of Christ, God’s people were regarded as minor children, “enslaved to the elementary principles of the world” (v. 3). “But,” he immediately adds, “when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (vv. 4–5).
Now we enjoy the fullness of the Spirit whose indwelling presence enables us to cry out to God in the most intimate of paternal terms: “Abba! Father!” (v. 6). Because of this, God no longer relates to us as minor children, or those whose status differs practically little from slaves. Rather, He now relates to believers as full-grown sons, with all of the blessings, benefits, and responsibilities that go with being an heir of the living God.
In this exalted status God calls us to live up to our privileges and bear the family image well.