Post last updated on April 24, 2022
Image credit: The National Gallery, London via Wikimedia Commons
Galatians chapter four proceeds upon the promise repeated at the end of chapter three: those who belong to Jesus Christ—whether Jew of Gentile—are become heirs to the promise first made to Abraham. This is the conclusion to which Paul deliberately leads his readers, but he takes them upon a wandering route to get there. The route is not unnecessary.
Paul first confirms that the intended beneficiaries of the promise are both Abraham and Jesus Christ himself. Jesus Christ, he writes, is the seed of Genesis 17:7 (Galatians 3:16). This ancient promise is made good news to believers, once they understand that its unretractable offer—made to Abraham and the Son—is now also their own, but only because of their new-found relation to Jesus Christ (Galatians 3:26). Happily, then, the promise carries the expectation of an inheritance from the distant past into the future, even to us. This is the essence of hope: What is decided in the past is extended and fixed into an otherwise uncertain future.
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That said, a recurring confusion found root among some in the Galatian churches, mainly because they associated the enjoyment of this promised inheritance with obedience to aspects of the Mosaic Law. This had the sad consequence of confounding a blessing—one God unilaterally promised to Abraham and his seed without condition—with a blessing acquired through obedience to whatever was later commanded through Moses. In this way, the salvation offered through faith in Jesus Christ became falsely tied to obedience to the conditions of the Sinai Covenant.
This error found its fullest expression when some Jewish Christians in Galatia (they, at least, professed to be believers) wrongly required Gentile converts to be circumcised (Galatians 6:12-13. See also Acts 15:1, 24.). Against this, Paul elsewhere reminds believers of the independence of the Abrahamic promise to the command regarding circumcision. His reason is that God’s promise to Abraham was made before Abraham was circumcised. As such, the promise was never a condition of circumcision or the Sinai Covenant (Romans 4:8-13).
The assembly of errors that eventually circulated in the Galatian churches endangered the very hope of the gospel, so much so that Paul called it another gospel, which was really no gospel at all (Galatians 1:6-7). And why was that? Because it reappropriated a universal offer to all people (cf. Genesis 12:2-3, Genesis 17:7) with a set of stipulations that was determined for one people, only—Israel, whose people had been made subject and participants in the Sinai Covenant.
This is the substance of the error and the source of its offense. In its misperceived, perverted form, the promise could not be good news to all people, for it was enjoined to commands that had been given to some people. Once the universal scope and offer of the gospel was hidden by this heresy, Paul was swift and courageous to correct the error. Paul’s letter, then, is his correction.
As such, Paul confirms the universal offer of the gospel by rooting it in the promise made to Abraham, a promise that God made to Abraham before Israel was ever separated from the nations. This fact, developed in Romans, also remains a central assumption in Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians. It causes Paul to make the strongest contrast between the law and this promise. Only promise, he writes, can be the source and foundation of the inheritance: “For if the inheritance be of the law, it is no more of promise: but God gave it to Abraham by promise” (Galatians 3:18).1This is not reason to imagine an absolute antithesis between law and promise, as if a promise could never be conditional, or as if a law is not a gracious dispensation of God to men; but this is to say that this promise was not effected by the Sinai covenant, for it preceded it.
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Galatians 3, then, regards differences inherent in the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants, differences that rendered it impossible for the promise to Abraham to in any part depend upon the law that followed afterwards. Accordingly, we might also say that Paul, in chapter 3, first proves his point by a negative statement: the promise to Abraham cannot be identified and conditioned upon the law that followed it. Chapter four, however, supports and proves the same truth, but by the way of a positive principle. The inheritance that was promised to Abraham and his seed is now given to believers in Jesus Christ, including those who never received the Law. This, I think, is the fact that explains the content and form of the Galatians 4:1-11. The older promise, we find, can serve the positive principle of redemption, and it serve it to all people. How so? Because (as we shall see) a salvation that is offered to all people does not require the repentant to observe an obsolete covenant (Galatians 3:23-25, Hebrews 8:13), but only believe upon the Father’s heir.
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To confirm this positive fact in his reader’s minds, Paul employs an analogy. We see this at the beginning of the fourth chapter. Paul writes of an heir, who is instructed by tutors and governors until his father’s appointment of his promised inheritance. By this analogy we are able to appreciate that an inheritance may remain unpossessed for reason of youth and inexperience, but nevertheless already be granted in the mind of the father. This is because the father’s possession is promised to the son, simply because he is a son. Consequently, the heir is the father’s son and will receive the inheritance without any other mediating facts or influences. This analogy is given to demonstrate how that the promise to Abraham remained independent of the Mosaic covenant and law.
This analogy depended upon facts of inheritance that were recognizable to Paul’s readers. It is also important to mention that the central feature of the analogy remains intelligible to modern readers in communicating the privilege of a son; but this first analogy is what makes Paul’s subsequent claim so wonderful. That is found in Galatians 4:5, where Paul applies the expectation of sons—an inheritance—to those who are not natural sons. Paul shows, instead, that the hope is extended to adopted sons. In other words, we need only recognize the conclusion of Paul’s argument to perceive how he is employing the analogy at the beginning of the chapter. He writes that Jesus Christ was sent,
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 (Galatians 4:5-7).
With this, Paul is doing nothing less than affirming the faithfulness of God according to his ancient promise, now confirmed by the heartfelt work of the Spirit. That work is described in the way that the Holy Spirit relates a heavenly Father to one who was not a son, but rather a servant—a servant who then obtains a better distinction by way of adoption. In Paul’s use of his analogy, the reader must come to grips with the strikingly new aspect of the New Testament gospel. It holds out to all believers—never sons before they believed—the offer of an inheritance that normally belongs only to natural sons.2This language and doctrine is similar to what we read in Romans 8, especially in verses 14-17: “For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God. 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.” The Spirit is the power that extends the former promise to those who believe on the Father’s heir, the Son of God.
Discussion of this passage continues in another post, A Surprising Application of a Familiar Situation.
Notes & References
|↑1||This is not reason to imagine an absolute antithesis between law and promise, as if a promise could never be conditional, or as if a law is not a gracious dispensation of God to men; but this is to say that this promise was not effected by the Sinai covenant, for it preceded it.|
|↑2||This language and doctrine is similar to what we read in Romans 8, especially in verses 14-17: “For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God. 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.”|