In Galatians 4:1-7, which I covered in my sermon last week, Paul writes, “But 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.” Paul here describes something objective that God has done to ensure that through faith in Christ we can have forgiveness of sins and a right relationship with God.
The objective character of what God has done for us on the cross cannot, in my opinion, be overemphasized. I have little patience, therefore, with subjective theories of atonement such as Abelard’s Moral Influence theory, which argues that the cross isn’t so much about what God has done for us—once for all, objectively, to take care of our problem with sin—as our response to it: “See how much God loves you that he was willing to suffer death for you? Doesn’t this melt your heart? If so, what are you going to do in response? Don’t you want to give your life to Jesus now?”
If that’s what the cross means, God help me!
Because I am—apart from the work of the Holy Spirit—a hopeless and helpless sinner. If my salvation depends even an iota on what I do in response to what God has done on the cross, I am lost! There are moments, even now, having been a Christian for a few decades, when I feel the weight of my sin, when I need reassurance. And in those moments my only recourse is to the cross: here is what God has done for me—objectively—to deal with my problem with sin. Sometimes I need to convince myself of this, intellectually.
I need to tell my soul something like this: “Brent, it’s true that you continue to sin, and you sometimes feel as if God won’t forgive you. But remember the cross. Remember the great exchange that took place. Remember that your sins were imputed to Christ, who paid the penalty for them in full. Every single one of them! There is no sin that you have ever committed or ever will commit that wasn’t ‘nailed to the cross’ (Colossians 2:14) with Christ. Also remember that his righteousness was imputed to you, meaning that you’re only able to have a right relationship with God because of the gift of Christ’s righteousness, not your own. Now, because of this double imputation, what’s true of Jesus is true of you: You, Brent, are God’s beloved son, with whom your Father is well-pleased.”
I can tell myself words such as these even when I’m not feeling it.
Not that this is usually the case. Usually, I do feel a sense of assurance that I’m a child of God. See Romans 8:16. Where does this feeling of assurance come from? Paul tells us Galatians 4:6: “And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’”
There was a period of time—from what I’ve read, in the middle of the 20th century—when many preachers would talk about how Abba, the Aramaic word for father, was literally baby talk—the equivalent of “Daddy” or “Papa.” It’s a word for “father” that’s easy for an infant to say—among a child’s first words. But we preachers aren’t supposed to say this anymore: In fact, while it’s true very young children called their fathers “Abba,” so did grown children. It just means “Father,” no more, no less. Don’t make more of it than that, scholars tell us.
But not so fast… If Abba doesn’t suggest or imply something more than simply “Father,” why does Paul distinguish it from “Father” (Greek: patēr) at all? Of course Abba means more than “Father”! It suggests a greater intimacy with God—the same intimacy that Jesus himself had with his Father; indeed, Abba is the word Jesus used. J.B. Phillips put it nicely in his translation: “Father, dear Father.”
So we enjoy this same intimacy with the Father. And this intimacy ought to penetrate our emotions. This goes beyond a faith that resides only in our heads!
So Paul is giving us something in these verses, Galatians 4:4-7, to feed both head and heart. If we are authentically Christian, we should normally feel a sense of intimacy with our Father. But when our emotions fail, we have the objective certainty that God has done everything necessary—objectively—to bring us into a right relationship.
In my sermon on this text, I also made a point that I had never previously made about Paul’s contrast between living as a slave versus living as a son and heir. I received this insight from Tim Keller. He made his point by talking about the prodigal son: Keller said that it seems very humble on his part to ask his father to “treat me as one of your hired servants,” but it isn’t; it betrays a lack of faith in his father’s love and mercy.
To illustrate this point, he writes the following:
Alexander the Great had a general whose daughter was getting married. Alexander valued this soldier greatly and offered to pay for the wedding. When the general gave Alexander’s steward the bill, it was absolutely enormous. The steward came to Alexander and named the sum. To his surprise Alexander smiled and said, “Pay it! Don’t you see–by asking me for such an enormous sum he does me great honor. He shows that he believes I am both rich and generous.”
So, when our hearts convict us and we’re tempted to doubt that God loves or forgives us—or that he does so only grudgingly—the problem may be a lack of faith on our part, not excessive humility! So we need to repent.