Bible boy_reading_bibleThe three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.

Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

Galatians 4:1-3

Sons and Heirs

I mean that the heir, as long as he is a child, is no different from a slave,[a] though he is the owner of everything, but he is under guardians and managers until the date set by his father. In the same way we also, when we were children, were enslaved to the elementary principles[b] of the world.


Last week’s post looked at the curse of being under the law rather than in freedom in and salvation through faith in Jesus Christ.

Readers who have been following this series on Galatians will recall that a group of Judaisers went to them to say that, in order to be a good Christian, they had to obey Mosaic law, which, for the men, meant being circumcised.

Paul told the Galatians that they were ‘bewitched’ by this false teaching of faith through works when they should have continued believing in justification by faith, which requires no works. The fruits of faith are different to our own works, because, as we become regenerated through our belief in Christ, we spontaneously want to do things that glorify Him and His Father. We cannot produce fruits of faith by ourselves; we need God’s grace working through us as part of our sanctification.

Matthew Henry’s commentary summarises Galatians 4, which we will explore in depth:

In this chapter the apostle deals plainly with those who hearkened to the judaizing teachers, who cried up the law of Moses in competition with the gospel of Christ, and endeavored to bring them under the bondage of it. To convince them of their folly, and to rectify their mistake herein, in these verses he prosecutes the comparison of a child under age, which he had touched upon in the foregoing chapter, and thence shows what great advantages we have now, under the gospel, above what they had under the law.

The law means one thing only: death. No one can live up to 613 of God’s commands to Moses. Therefore, if salvation were dependent on a perfect and perpetual obedience to the law, we would all be cast into hellfire. We all sin. Because we all sin, we die. However, we will be with God if we believe in Jesus Christ. Unbelievers will endure eternal torment. That is how much God hates sin.

Yet, there are Christians who believe that we need more than faith. We need works, they say. A lot of Catholics and Evangelicals believe that very thing. There might be some confusion over works and fruits of faith.

However, MacArthur warns us against this train of thought (emphases mine):

By way of reminder, all religions, all religions without exception, all religions, as well as false forms of Christianity – and there are many of those – teach that people are delivered from judgment, saved from divine punishment by their own works: works of morality, works of religion. And that, of course, is Satan’s big lie, and it has covered the planet through all of human history since the fallWe must understand the true gospel. Here we are five hundred years after the Reformation and the church of Jesus Christ, professing church of Jesus Christ is still trying to figure out the gospel; not surprising since Satan works very hard to overthrow the truth and place error where the truth has been removed. So we’re always in every generation fighting for the true gospel. The majority of evangelical Protestants think salvation is by faith and works. That’s why there was a Reformation to undo that heresy. Here we are again needing that new Reformation.

Paul begins Galatians 4 with a discussion on sons and heirs.

He gives his audience a simple way to understand the maturity of the Church from the days of Mosaic law.

He begins by saying that the child, although an eventual heir to his father’s estate, is at that point no more than a slave, or a bondservant (verse 1).

Henry says that the child in this case was the nation of Israel under religious and ceremonial law:

He acquaints us with the state of the Old-Testament church: it was like a child under age, and it was used accordingly, being kept in a state of darkness and bondage, in comparison of the greater light and liberty which we enjoy under the gospel.

A child is under the care of guardians and managers until his father decides that he is ready to be independent (verse 2).

Henry explains that such a childhood of the Old Testament church was both a promise and a curse:

That was indeed a dispensation of grace, and yet it was comparatively a dispensation of darkness; for as the heir, in his minority, is under tutors and governors till the time appointed of his father, by whom he is educated and instructed in those things which at present he knows little of the meaning of, though afterwards they are likely to be of great use to him; so it was with the Old-Testament church–the Mosaic economy, which they were under, was what they could not fully understand the meaning of …

Paul then brings his train of thought to the Galatians’ situation while still referring to the Old Testament church, yet with a look ahead to the church of the New Covenant: they were obliged to ‘the elementary principles of the world’ — meaning the law — in a spiritual sense (verse 3).

Henry explains:

they were in bondage under the elements of the world, being tied to a great number of burdensome rites and observances, by which, as by a kind of first rudiments, they were taught and instructed, and whereby they were kept in a state of subjection, like a child under tutors and governors. The church then lay more under the character of a servant, being obliged to do every thing according to the command of God, without being fully acquainted with the reason of it; but the service under the gospel appears to be more reasonable than that was. The time appointed of the Father having come, when the church was to arrive at its full age, the darkness and bondage under which it before lay are removed, and we are under a dispensation of greater light and liberty.

The next four verses are in the Lectionary:

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. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.

MacArthur explains why God sent Jesus to us when He did:

The law was known by the Jews, and after the Babylonian captivity when they came back into the land they never again worshiped an idol. Idolatry had been literally taken from them in their captivity. So religiously, the Babylonian captivity had resulted in Israel’s final turning from idols and focusing on the one true God. That cleared the way, in some sense, for the coming of Christ.

Also, the Canon of the Old Testament had long been completed, and they had the Law and the Prophets and the Holy Writings. So necessary to understand Christ, that’s why He said, “If you knew the Scriptures you’d know who I am.”

Culturally Alexander the Great had made it a Greek world, which meant there was a common language stretching across all those multiple ethnic groups in the Mediterranean area. They all knew a common language, Greek, which then allowed for the New Testament books to be written in a language that everybody could read. And then politically the pax Romana, the sweeping power of the Roman Empire had built roads everywhere so that the gospel could then be taken to the world. We read about that in the book of Acts. So from even the standpoint of just looking at what was going on in the world, it was a great time.

More importantly than that, it was God’s perfect time. He sent forth His Son. It doesn’t say He created His Son, it says He sent Him forth. He already existed. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” But John 1:14 says, “The Word became flesh.” The eternal Son became man. God sent forth His Son. He is God. He is the exact representation of God. He is God in human flesh.

MacArthur gives us two illustrations of the impact that the Book of Galatians, particularly Galatians 4, had on Martin Luther and John Wesley.

Luther’s reading of Galatians gave him further insight into the doctrine of justification by faith:

Luther was reading a couple of years after he posted his theses on the door at the church at Wittenberg. He was reading Galatians, and it was then reading Galatians and also Romans when he was converted a couple of years after he had posted his thesis of protest. He knew the religious system was wrong, but he was not yet converted until the power of the book of Romans and Galatians swept over his soul in the hands of the Holy Spirit. We have to go back and be sure we understand the gospel, and so the book of Galatians is a book for all believers in all places and all times in the history of the church to make sure we’re clinging to the truth and proclaiming the truth alone which saves.

Wesley later renounced the Holy Club he had created at Oxford University. The Holy Club revolved around a lot of good works, rather than faith alone:

John Wesley was the initiator of a group of people in England called the Holy Club. That’s a pretty bold name to take, a sort of self-declaration. In his post-graduate Oxford days, he was part of the Holy Club. John Wesley was the son of a preacher. He was very religious in his personal life and practice. He was moral externally in his conduct, and he was full of external good works.

He and his friends, he says, visited the prisons and the prisoners. They went to the workhouses where the poor were; they tried to bring relief to the poor. He took pity on slum children, provided food for them, clothing for them, and even funded education for the horrendous poverty that was exhibited in the slum children, many of whom were orphans.

He and his friends observed Sabbath on Saturday, and they kept the Lord’s Day on Sunday. So both Saturday and Sunday they fastidiously adhered to religious preoccupations. They gave generously alms to the poor and to the church. They read the Bible, they fasted, they said prayers; thus they were the Holy Club.

But John Wesley said that he and his companions were bound in the chains of their own self-righteous religion and not fully trusting Christ. What a statement. Bound in the chains of their own self-righteous religion and not fully trusting Christ. What were they trusting? They were trusting in their works for their salvation.

A few years later, John Wesley in his own words, quote: “Came to trust in Christ, in Christ only for salvation.” End quote. And then it was that he experienced for the first time in his life what he says was the assurance that his sins had been forgiven.

At that point, the point of his conversion, he looked back to his days in the Holy Club and he wrote this: “I had then the faith of a slave and not of a son.” What did he mean by that? “I had the faith of a slave, because I was in bondage to the law. I did not have the experience of the freedom of being a son.” He was referring to Galatians 4 …

John Wesley said, “We were slaves and not sons”

What does that mean? What does it mean when he says, “I was a slave”? He means he was a slave to the law. And the law is a brutal and cruel taskmaster, because no matter how you endeavor to do good works, you can’t do enough, and you can’t avoid sin. And so the law becomes, essentially, your executioner. You violate the law, and the sentence of death is passed on you.

In closing, MacArthur summarises Paul’s message to the Galatians — and to us:

This is the wondrous heart of salvation. It’s not something you earn, it is a gift you receive by believing. We are justified by faith. Justified means that God declares the sinner righteous in His eyes because the sinners believes in the Lord Jesus Christ. God considers such a believing sinner to be the recipient of His own righteousness. This is a remarkable reality that God justifies the ungodly who believe.

How can God do that? He can do that because Christ paid the penalty for our sins. Go back to chapter 3, be reminded, verse 10: “As many as are of the works of the Law are under a curse; it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who doesn’t abide by all things written in the book of the law, to perform them.’” If you’d ever broken the law of God you’re cursed …

If you live apart from the gospel of Christ, if you live apart from faith in Jesus Christ, I don’t care how religious you are, how moral you are, you are in bondage. You are under the law, you are under sin, you are under a curse, and you’re captive to the elemental things of this world that have no power to restrain or subdue your evil flesh, and can do nothing but deliver you to eternal judgment. You are a slave. There is promise there, but you can’t enter into it until you become a son, a fully mature son; and that happens only when you come in faith to Jesus Christ.

And then the generosity of God is staggering. You literally sit with Christ on His throne in glory, Scripture says, and become a joint heir with Him of all that God possesses. Staggering grace to sinners.

From three verses, who could imagine there is so much upon which to reflect?

I wish everyone reading this a blessed week ahead.

Next time — Galatians 4:8-11