The difference between living as a “son” and a “slave” in Galatians 4

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.

16 thoughts on “The difference between living as a “son” and a “slave” in Galatians 4”

  1. Brent, this is a very powerful message. Thank you.

    Christians are to have confidence that “Jesus paid it all”, as the old hymn says, but we are foolish if we treat that lightly. The payment for our sins was of the greatest cost conceivable. The love is simply astounding. How can anyone take such love lightly when they accept it?

  2. I see your point, but don’t you think it is a little of “both/and” as opposed to a stark “either/or”? I mean, it is true that Jesus has accomplished what is needed for our salvation–an “objective” fact, as you put it. But certainly some type of response is needed on our part to “appropriate” it, right? (I may be misreading you in this regard.) As I sometimes put it, there is a :”My life for your life” exchange: God wants my life so much that he was willing to give His life for me; I want His life so much that I am willing to give my life for His. I would readily concur with you that our side of that “equation” is “weak and sickly” as compared to that of God, but I really think something along this order is ultimately what salvation is all about.

    1. Our response of faith is something, but not anything that merits any part of our salvation. I believe, along with the Reformers, that saving faith itself is a gift, albeit one we receive only after we ask for it. The Holy Spirit makes possible our asking, yet does not determine it.

      Sorry, I feel like a lawyer answering this question. But I want to be careful to give full credit to God for salvation while at the same time acknowledging the necessity of human response. As an Arminian, I would say God foreknows our response and therefore elects or predestines on that basis. What God “foreknows” is something, but not anything about which we could say, “I deserve credit for repenting and believing.”

      1. I can’t really follow this, I don’t think. Regardless of what is done by us, however great or small, it is still something that is the necessary “click” which determines whether one person receives salvation and another does not. So even if all we do is in some fashion “ask” for saving faith to be provided to us, so that we can believe and be saved, that is still “something” and it is a necessary “something” that we “add to the equation.” Salvation is still by mercy and grace (clearly such an “asking” is not any efficacious “earning” or “meriting” salvation), but we “do something.” Consider the tax collector and the Pharisee. The tax collector ASKED God to have mercy on him, a sinner, as a result of which Jesus said he went home justified.

      2. My main point is this: “clearly such an ‘asking’ is not any efficacious ‘earning’ or “meriting” salvation.” I agree.

      3. If God “foreknows” something will happen, isn’t that the same as saying it’s fore-destined? If He can see that our choice can only be one way then it must be.

      4. Perhaps so, but God doesn’t therefore “determine” the choice. Isn’t that the only thing at stake in the discussion? I’m delighted God wont be surprised by anything I do! William Lane Craig explains this perfectly well. See the Reasonable Faith website. Logically, our choice precedes God’s foreknowledge, even if, temporally, God’s foreknowledge comes first. It’s not like God is “waiting around” for us to do things (at least according to the traditional view of God’s timelessness). God can (eternally) see everything all at once.

      5. Now that will bend your brain!

        I guess I still have one foot in each camp. (a) Yes, we are accountable for every decision we make and that means that, as thinking beings, we feel the weight of those decisions. and, (b) God/Jesus said that he already knew which sheep were “of His flock and which were not. “Free will” AND “God’s Elect”.

        Can’t explain it completely, but completely believe it.

      6. Grant, I too believe in human responsibility and “God’s elect,” but along the lines in my comment below about “middle knowledge.” We do have to be careful in this discussion that we don’t end up saying things like “this square circle” or “2 + 2 = 5,” and the like–nonsense statements because the two sides of the “equation” contradict each other. I can’t say absolutely that God is bound by the “law of non-contradiction,” but we certainly are, and therefore I don’t think we are capable of “believing it” as to two contradictory propositions at once, any more than we can “believe” my two examples are true. The best we can do is to “hold these claims in suspension”; i.e., recognize that we are not capable of affirming both to be true, but we don’t know which is true, and we trust that God will ultimately let us in on which one is the case (or some variant from either of them that we haven’t thought of at this point).

        For me, my “leaning” is to extol God’s CHARACTER more than my understanding of God’s CAPACITY. Thus, if I have to choose between two competing claims that I cannot see how both can be true, and the matter seems to me to be of sufficient import that I can’t just be “neutral” about it (as I see it), then I fall back on “God is love.” So, which of the two options strike me as more “loving”? For me this is free choice. HOW can free choice work? I can theorize about that (as I have tried to do), but ultimately I come down with, free choice is more compatible with God’s love (as I see it) than “absolute predestination” is. So, unless the scriptures are simply “categorically clear across the board,” which they are not, I go with some variant of free choice.

  3. Hi Brent!! Wow this being unemployed-thing keeps me pretty busy.
    So, our God is both rich and generous? But there’s nothing I can do that adds to either? But, I can honor Him just by saying “God, pay my debt”? (Which by the way is not a command, but as you say, an acknowledgement that He can and, in fact, has paid it.) And then He says “Because of Jesus’ work it is paid. In Him, thus in you, I am well pleased.” I started reading Twain’s “Prince and Pauper” to my grand kids, and I am sure there’s a parallel in there somewhere. I’ll let you know if I find it.

  4. I like BobBob’s comment. It is right to give thanks. It reminds me of the story of Jesus cleansing the lepers. (And one was actually healed.)

    Jesus Heals Ten Men With Leprosy

    11 Now on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus traveled along the border between Samaria and Galilee. 12 As he was going into a village, ten men who had leprosy[a] met him. They stood at a distance 13 and called out in a loud voice, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!”

    14 When he saw them, he said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were cleansed.

    15 One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. 16 He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him—and he was a Samaritan.

    17 Jesus asked, “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? 18 Has no one returned to give praise to God except this foreigner?” 19 Then he said to him, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.”

    1. Grant, this comment reminds me of a point I have heard others urge that nothing we can do or not do makes God feel any differently about us, good or bad. I don’t buy that. While I do believe God does not stop loving us once we become his children, I do think his “attitude” varies. To give an earthly analogy, I believe my wife continues to love me even when I slip up. But I can tell you that what I do and don’t do affects how she feels about me at any given time (which she sometimes demonstrates!). And I don’t think that our own reactions are irrelevant to understanding God’s–we are made in the image of God and as Christians have his Holy Spirit dwelling within.

      As to scriptural accounts about God, note that he says, “Consider my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth!” He was angry with Aaron and Miriam for confronting Moses, “with whom I speak face to face.” When David committed adultery with Bathsheba, “the thing that David did displeased the Lord.” And see God’s reaction to Solomon when he let his foreign wives lead him into idolatry. As to Daniel, he was either “greatly beloved” or “highly regarded” (according to which version you read), Ezekiel quotes God as saying, “Even if these three men lived here, they would save only themselves, and not the rest.”

      Turning to the New Testament, in the Letters to the Seven Churches in Revelation, Jesus certainly appears to be upset with some believers and not with others. It is hard to me to see those statements as being made “dispassionately.” Paul says that some have “fallen asleep” as a result of their abuse of the Lord’s Supper.

      So, our gratefulness to God for what he has done for us is something that pleases him, as compared to, “Where are the other nine?”

      1. I agree: God is not “a-emotional” nor is He disinterested in our welfare or our own emotional state. He is deeply interested. One might say His interest in us was nakedly displayed for all to see. On that Cross thing.

  5. Grant, your comment is why I believe in something like what some people call “middle knowledge.” I believe God is so awesome that he could consider all possible universes and see how all people would choose in any one of them, then went with the one he wanted. Thus, he is not “making us choose” in any particular way, but he “determined” same by, as it were, “flipping the switch” to go with the universe in which those choices would be made by us. That is a bit of an oversimplification, and God is actively involved in the universe he selected (as he foresaw that he would be), but my point is that God foreseeing something does not mean he “made the choices for the person.” He “simply” chose by choosing the universe in which he knew we would choose to make the choices that we do. In this sense, “Jacob have I loved and Esau have I hated” because he went with the universe in which he foresaw that in it Jacob would say yes and Esau would say no. What we can’t “second guess” God about or demand an answer regarding is why God would choose this type of “love” universe that he did. This is generally what I take Paul to be saying in the enigmatic Romans 9 discussion.

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