Sons, Heirs, and Adoption – Galatians 4

Read the passage: Galatians 4

Paul’s Rebuke (4:1–7)

In Gal. 3:24–26 Paul discussed the convictional use of the law, as he described its use as “a tutor to bring us to Christ” (Gal. 3:24). Yet, he noted that as believers, “We are no longer under a tutor . . . . [We] are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:25–26). Further, Paul had described believers as “heirs according to the promise” (Gal. 3:29). In Gal. 4:1–3 Paul continues this illustration writing that even though we are chosen heirs (cf. Eph. 1:4–6), before our adoption, we were the same as slaves. Paul says, “We were children . . . in bondage under the elements of the world” (Gal. 4:3). The term “elements” refers to basic, foundational things—such as the letters of the alphabet, which would have been taught by a tutor (cf. Gal. 3:24). Paul is referring, then, to the weight of the bondage of the law, which lost men cannot escape apart from Christ (cf. Gal. 4:9).

Continuing his illustration of a child coming of age, in Gal. 4:4–7 Paul writes of the glorious adoption of believers made possible through Jesus’ substitutionary atonement. Indeed, from our perspective we are “heirs” (Gal. 3:29; 4:1) and from Christ’s perspective we are “His inheritance” (Eph. 1:18). In Gal. 4:4-5 several important facts about Jesus and His incarnation are discussed by Paul. First, Paul writes that the Father sovereignly engineered “the fullness of time [of Christ’s birth]” (Gal. 4:4a); second, it is recorded that Jesus was fully, one hundred percent man “born of a woman” (Gal. 4:4b); third, Paul notes that like all men, Jesus was “born under law” (Gal. 4:4c); fourth, the purpose of Christ’s incarnation was “to redeem those who were under the law” (Gal. 4:5a); and fifth, Paul asserts that we can be “adopted as sons” because of Jesus’ atonement (Gal. 4:5b). In Gal. 4:6–7 Paul unpacked these thoughts further as he describes the benefits of this great adoption.

Paul’s Example (4:8–20)

In Gal. 4:8–11 Paul again reiterates the fact that the Galatians were no longer under the law in a convictional sense, as they were now professing believers and heirs with Jesus Christ. Indeed, the fact that they were still trying to keep the law as a means or measure of righteousness gave Paul great cause for concern. The apostle wrote, “I am afraid for you, lest I have labored for you in vain. . . . I have doubts about you” (Gal. 4:11, 20). Note that Paul had mentioned this concern earlier when he rhetorically asked if the Galatians’ faith was “in vain” (Gal. 3:4). The reference here to “days and months and seasons and years” (Gal. 4:10) is a reference to the dictates of the ceremonial laws that were being advocated by the Judaizers (cf. Col. 2:16–17). Note, again, Paul’s emphasis on God’s sovereignty in salvation as he refers to the Galatians being “known by God” (Gal. 4:9).

After giving a rebuke in Gal. 4:1–11, Paul gave more of a personal argument in Gal. 4:12–20. Here Paul simply urged his readers, “Become like me, for I became like you” (Gal. 4:12). Paul was not only referring to his example of holiness among them, but also his salvation experience, which entailed abandoning his self-salvation project and following Jesus Christ (cf. Phil. 3:4–9). After this exhortation, as he had done earlier in Gal. 1–2, Paul revealed some biographical information that is absent from the book of Acts—namely, that he was ill during his visit to Galatia. Apparently, Paul’s illness related to or at least affected his vision (cf. Gal. 4:15; 6:11). Further, Paul reiterates his affection for the Galatians and notes that the Judaizers had evil motives—that is, they sought to exclude the Galatians from the kingdom and to win self-recognition.

Paul’s Illustration (4:21–31)

In Gal. 4:21–31 Paul wraps up his doctrinal argument against the Judaizers by giving an illustration, by way of an allegory. Specifically, the apostle refers to the two sons of Abraham: Ishmael who was born to Hagar, and Isaac who was born to Sarah. Paul explains that these two sons were “symbolic” (Gal. 4:24) of two ways to approach the Lord. Ishmael was of the “bondwoman” (Gal. 4:22a), was “born according to the flesh” (Gal. 4:23a), and is equated with “Sinai which gives birth to death” (Gal. 4:24). Isaac, on the other hand, was of the “free-woman” (Gal. 4:22b), was “born . . . through promise” (Gal. 4:23b), and is to be equated with “Jerusalem which . . . is free” (Gal. 4:26). This illustration is not only a commentary on the lives of Ishmael and Isaac, but also it is a description of their conception. Ishmael was conceived through Abraham’s own efforts, while Isaac was a gift from God who came unexpectedly and by promise.

Application Questions:

  1. How can we tell the difference between true believers and false believers (cf. Matt. 7:15–23)? Is there such thing as a lifelong carnal Christian?
  2. What is true freedom? The world defined freedom as the ability to make unhindered choices. Is this correct?
  3. Why did God need to adopt us (cf. Matt. 13:38; John 8:38, 41, 44)? What is the spiritual significance of the adoption language in Scripture?
  4. Why do so many professing and confessing believers distort the gospel by slipping into works based justification and sanctification schemes?
  5. When is it permissible to allegorize Scripture? Ought we to expect to find hidden meanings or Bible codes behind many texts of Scripture?