Bible Text: Galatians 4:1-20 | Preacher: Grant Borg | Series: grace alone | In this amazing passage of the Bible the Apostle Paul reminds this church of who they are as children of God. This privilege also comes with a warning not to slip back into slavery – trying to earn God’s approval by what they do, instead of trusting in what Jesus has done. It’s a great reminder of who we are, and what our future holds if we hold fast to Jesus.
Paul is stressed out because of this church. They started with Jesus, but he feared that they were about to lose him. And if you’ve started your journey with Jesus, there’s only one way to lose him, and that’s by pulling your trust from him, and believing you’ll get to heaven by trusting in another saviour.
The saviour who most often takes the place of Jesus isn’t Batman or Wonder Woman or the Pope—it’s ourselves. We trust Jesus to start our journey with God, but then we fall back into our old ways by trying to keep God’s approval by what we say and do. That is the very thing that Jesus set us free from, because it is a dead end.
Good things are good to do, but if you do them to try to earn God’s approval, or even keep it, they become their own form of slavery. And anyone who’s had to work for their father’s approval will tell you what kind of slavery that is. It’s cruel and it’s a dead end, because we can’t work our way to heaven and we can’t work our way into the family of God. That’s not the way you get there.
Jesus met a young guy one day who asked him, ‘What must I do to inherit eternal life?’ This man is right about one thing, and that is that heaven is an inheritance for the children of God. But in his question, we see the typical mistake that people make when they think about themselves in relation to heaven. You can see the problem in the way that he asked the question. The problem is that you can’t earn an inheritance. It’s either yours because you’re the son or daughter of the bloke who owns the asset, or it’s someone else’s inheritance. And if it’s someone else’s inheritance, you can work all you like, but it’ll never end up in your hands.
Think of the Packer empire. There were plenty of people working for Kerry Packer when he died, but only one man got full control of his estate, and that was James Packer, Kerry’s son. No surprise there! The inheritance is for the children.
So the million dollar question is, ‘How do we become the children of God?’ Note that the question is not, ‘What must I do to earn something that isn’t rightfully mine’, but ‘how do I become a child of God and so rightly and properly receive my inheritance in the kingdom of God.’
If you’re here today and you don’t know the answer to that question, the good news that we celebrate every week here at MBM is that God has made a way for us to know how we can become children of God and rightfully receive that inheritance. John chapter 1 verses 9 to 12 tells us how:
9 The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. 11 He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. 12 Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God. (NIV)
That’s why Jesus came.
The church in Galatia knew this. They knew that they weren’t reconciled to God because of anything they did. They simply trusted in Jesus and they were brought into God’s family.
Jesus explained this himself when he said in John chapter 8 verses 34 to 36:
Very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. 35 Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. 36 So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. (NIV)
The problem for the church in Galatia is that old habits die hard. These Christians were falling back into their old ways, back into this slavish habit of trying to earn God’s approval as if that was even possible in the first place.
It’s not a surprise, because all human attempts at religion end up focusing on oneself, on the individual, on me and what I have to do to impress God. But that’s the way of the slave, not the son. Jesus came to set us free from that.
And so Paul reminds them of who the Galatian Christians are, to remind them what they already have as heirs of all that God has made, because Jesus has made them sons and daughters of God.
Paul first explains how receiving an inheritance works on a human level, in Galatians chapter 4 verses 1 and 2:
1 What I am saying is that as long as an heir is underage, he is no different from a slave, although he owns the whole estate. 2 The heir is subject to guardians and trustees until the time set by his father. (NIV)
And then in verses 3 to 5, Paul applies it as it relates to the Christian:
3 So also, when we were underage, we were in slavery under the basic spiritual forces of the world. 4 But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, 5 to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship. (NIV)
You might have already heard that Christianity is a rescue religion. That is exactly what it is. Paul here talks about being in slavery under the basic spiritual forces of the world (v. 4). You might think, ‘That’s not me! I was nobody’s slave, I am my own man!’ But in our relationship to God, we were all in slavery at one time and in one way or another. Paul says it in verse 3, ‘we were in slavery under the basic spiritual forces of the world’ (NIV).
In another of Paul’s letters in the New Testament, he describes these basic spiritual forces as, ‘hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition’ (Col 2:8). And unfortunately, that is a net that’s wide enough to catch us all. Hollow and deceptive philosophy is basically any idea about God that’s not accurate to who he is. We’re all caught in that one, one way or another. And it includes any idea about heaven that makes us think that it’s ours by rite of passage or ours by way of effort. Paul says that these philosophies are hollow and deceptive, and that at one time we were all enslaved by them.
The other example Paul uses is ‘human tradition’. This is really any idea about how to relate to God that’s been handed down to us from our family or our culture that never actually came from God. Paul says that kind of tradition is hollow and deceptive.
Not all tradition is bad. If your tradition is to get together and have lunch with the family after church every second Sunday, or your tradition is to read your kids a book before you put them to bed, then they are good. But just don’t mix your traditions with the way you relate to God. They don’t mix. Jesus made this one clear when he said this in Matthew chapter 15 verses 8 and 9:
8 “These people honour me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
9 They worship me in vain;
their teachings are merely human rules.”
The warning here for those who haven’t yet given their lives to Jesus is that we must listen to Jesus and not your parents. Listen to God and not your grandmother. And the warning for those of us who have put our trust in Jesus and who have become children of God is, ‘Don’t slip back into your old way of thinking.’
I know we’ve looked at this already but remember that our life with God begins by trusting in Jesus, and we stand by trusting in Jesus. And on the day when those who have trusted in him stand before him as the great judge, and are welcomed into his kingdom with a ‘Well done, son, well done daughter’, it will only be because we have persevered by trusting in Jesus till the end.
But we need to be careful. Even God’s own law can enslave us if we trust in it and not in Jesus himself to bring us to God.
This happened to a man named John Wesley back in the 1700s. Wesley was the son of a preacher. He went to Oxford University in the 1700s and with his brother Charles was part of a group that called itself the Holy Club. That wouldn’t go down so well at Miller TAFE, but those were different days back then. These guys knew their Bibles, spoke with grace, visited the sick, and preached in the gaols. They spent time with orphaned children, fed them, clothed them, and educated them. They didn’t work on Saturday in obedience to the fourth commandment, nor did they work on Sunday because on that day Jesus rose from the dead. They gave money to the poor, fasted, and prayed. And it was some time after all this that John Wesley said that he became a Christian.
Now that begs the question, what the hell was he if he wasn’t a Christian? In reflection upon those days, John Wesley later said that he was a slave to God’s law. Note that it was not that anything he was doing was bad in and of itself. But Wesley was a slave to God’s law because he thought that God would accept him based on what he was doing. He said, ‘I had faith, but it was the faith of a slave and not a son.’ And when he realized that he was in slavery to God’s law, and that it was Jesus who died to forgive him, and make him a son, he said that ‘he felt his heart strangely warmed’. And as he let go of his effort to earn God’s approval, and trusted in Jesus and him alone, John Wesley said that for the first time he felt confident that heaven was his home, and that God had accepted him as he was in Christ. He’d been adopted. He’d moved from being a slave to being a son.
But do you see how careful we’ve got to be? We’ve got to remember that Jesus is the saviour, not us. Thank God for that, because we can be confident that he did enough to make us children of God, and to secure our inheritance as his sons. Paul tells us this in verses 6 to 7:
6 Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.” 7 So you are no longer a slave, but God’s child; and since you are his child, God has made you also an heir. (NIV)
That’s how you get right with God. You don’t earn his approval, but he offers forgiveness through Jesus. This means we can rest in 3 ways:
I don’t know how many times I see TV shows and movies made about people busting their guts to build businesses and careers motivated by trying to earn their parent’s approval, most often their dad’s. That might be you. They say most fathers are either too hard or too distant, and the truth is that this is most of us. This is often the cause of sibling rivalry, a lack of confidence in what other people might think of us, and a lack of confidence in who we are as people. But it’s deadly and it’s slavery. Jesus has set us free from that. What he did on the cross was enough for God to forgive you, accept you, adopt you, and approve of you. We can rest in God’s approval.
We can rest in God’s love because God’s love it’s not based on our performance, but on Jesus, and that what he did was enough. So Paul says elsewhere that nothing can separate us from the love of God that is in Jesus.
38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39 NIV)
We can rest in that love. Every time we ask the question, ‘Does God really love me?’, we can look to the cross that casts a shadow over all of human history, and we can remember that ‘he died for me’.
Every time I break the law and I think, ‘Does God still love me?’, I see Jesus on the cross in my minds eye and remember that my sin was the very reason why he went there—not because I was perfect, but because I’m not. His love motivated him to do that. And we can rest secure in that love.
We can rest secure in our future because eternal life is not based on our performance—on how well we keep the law, how smart we are, how moral we become, what we look like, or anything else—but because Jesus made us sons and daughters of God. He says, “And if we are children, then we are also heirs.” We can rest secure in that.
People are future orientated, which means we make decisions now, based on where we’re going. We sacrifice now, for the future. We live with hope now, based on what our future will be. That is why the last week of the school term isn’t such a drag – holidays pull them through. That’s why a trip to Europe pulls you through an entire month of work. We live in light of what’s to come.
In Christ, our future is set in stone. We will receive eternal life so long as we trust in Jesus. That changes the way we live, the way we think, the way we deal with tragedy, and the way we support one another as we go through it. And it should set the direction of our hearts, so that in everything that we do, we do it in light of that day, when we take our last breath and open our eyes, and step into a kingdom that will never perish, spoil, or fade. And in that place, our feet will stand firm, our legs are strong, our eyes will see clearly. Crying is heard no more, death is a thing of the past, pain is a distant memory, and Jesus in the flesh is forever before us. We can rest secure in that because that future is secure in Jesus, and it is ours.
No one in their right mind would want to go back into slavery after becoming a son. So Paul says this in verses 8 and 9:
8 Formerly, when you did not know God, you were slaves to those who by nature are not gods. 9 But now that you know God—or rather are known by God—how is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable forces? Do you wish to be enslaved by them all over again? (NIV)
Jesus tells a story of a young man who blew his father’s inheritance and comes back to his father saying, ‘I am not worthy to be called your son, make me like one of your slaves’ (Luke 15). That makes sense cause the kid doesn’t feel like he deserves to be called ‘son’ anymore. And the father in that story who resembles God, slaps him out of it and puts a ring on his finger, and a cloak on his back and says, ‘You are my son, I’m just so glad you came back to me.’ Becoming a slave would make sense if someone like that didn’t feel like they deserved the name of ‘son’. What wouldn’t make sense is that the son came back to his father some time after this warm acceptance from his father, and saying, ‘I know you’ve reinstated me as your son, but I’d prefer to be your slave.’ It’s one thing to say ‘I don’t deserve it’. It’s quite another thing to say, ‘I don’t want it’.
And that’s what a Christian does when they go from trusting in Jesus, to trusting in what they do to keep God’s approval. They go from acting like a son, to acting like a slave. And Paul here is saying, ‘Seriously boys, you want to go back to that?’
Paul ends this passage by saying in verse 10, ’You are observing special days and months and seasons and years!’ These were some of the things the Galatians were doing to impress God. Verse 11, Paul says, ‘I fear for you, that somehow I have wasted my efforts on you.’
This can happen for us when our religion becomes a formality, rather than a relationship with Jesus. So for example, we think that it is something we do on Sundays, and then forget about on Monday, or something we feel like doing during Easter, but not during winter, or something we celebrate at Christmas, but not every other day. Paul says that when that sort of thing starts to happen, ‘I fear for you, that I have wasted my efforts on you.’
Jesus made us sons not slaves. This is not a once a week thing, it’s not only during lent, it’s not only when you’re here at church , it’s not even three times a day. It’s an all of life thing, because it is now who you are. And the only thing that can stop you from being who are is letting yourself become what you were.
I’ll finish with one more story of another Englishman named John Newton who lived around the same time as John Wesley. John Newton lost his mum at an early age and ended up becoming a human slave trader. He did this for years before he asked God for mercy. Newton found mercy when he gave his life to Jesus. He was very aware of how cunning the devil could be, and he was still very well aware of the devil he himself used to be. So to help him from going back into any form of slavery from which he had been saved, he had a verse from the Bible written in bold letters and fastened to the wall of his study. It was Deuteronomy 15:15, ‘Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you.’ (NIV)
The point of it is, remember what you were, and the slavery you were in, remember who you are now and the freedom that you have, and never forget what Jesus did to bring you out of one and into the other. Fix these things upon your minds and enjoy them, or else we’re likely to forget them.