Gal. 3:26–29, “For in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.”

Sometime in the late 1990s Philadelphia motorists were startled to read a prominent billboard that asked: “Who’s the Father?” The ad was sponsored by Precise Paternity—a company that uses DNA testing to establish identity. It was a sign for postmodern times, when people are unsure who they are or where they came from.

Human beings have always needed to know their identity. The Christian answer to humanity’s search for meaning is given at the end of Galatians 3, which explains who the Christian is in relation to God (Gal. 3:26–27), humanity (Gal. 3:28), and history (Gal. 3:29).

Sons of God

When it comes to personal identity, the first thing to know is who the father is. So the apostle Paul establishes the Christian’s paternity: “for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith” (Gal. 3:26). If you know Jesus Christ, then you know who you are, because you know to whom you belong. A Christian is a child of God. Back in verse 7 Paul said that every believer is a child of Abraham. Now he takes it one step further: every believer is a son or a daughter of the Most High God.

This is the climax of Paul’s argument. He has just finished explaining how the law is a pedagogue for underage children. But eventually children outgrow their need for a guardian, so the law lasts only until the coming of Christ. Now we have the full rights of sons and daughters. We are no longer minors, under the restraint of a tutor, but sons of God and heirs of His glorious kingdom, enjoying the status and privileges of grown-up sons.

This was a message that the Galatians especially needed to hear. Remember what the Judaizers were saying. Since they were Jews, they had always thought of themselves as God’s only children, so they treated Gentile Christians like second-rate members of the family. Until they got circumcised, Gentiles could not be siblings; at most, they were only cousins.

Paul responded to this teaching by welcoming the Gentiles within the full embrace of God’s family: “in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith” (Gal. 3:26). His emphasis falls on what is the first word of the verse in Greek: “all,” meaning both Jews and Gentiles. The gospel is for Gentiles as much as for Jews, and therefore the privilege of sonship is for all God’s children.

The way anyone becomes a member of God’s family is by legal adoption, which the Westminster Shorter Catechism defines as follows: “Adoption is an act of God’s free grace, whereby we are received into the number, and have a right to all the privileges of the sons of God” (A. 34). Legally speaking, an adopted child is a true son or daughter. He or she has the same rights and privileges as a natural-born child. There is someone to call “Father.” There is someone to care for every need. There is someone to give fatherly affection and discipline. In addition, the adopted child will receive a full share of the family inheritance.

The Christian gains all these rights and privileges by becoming a child of God. There is someone to call “Father,” for we pray to our Father in heaven (Matt. 6:9). There is someone to care for us, for our heavenly Father knows exactly what we need (Matt. 6:32). He loves us with tender affection. “See what kind of love the Father has given to us,” marveled the apostle John, “that we should be called children of God; and so we are” (1 John 3:1).

Our Father loves us so much that he refuses to let us go our own way. Instead, he disciplines us to make us holy: “It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline?” (Heb. 12:7). Best of all, God has promised his children a full share of his infinite and eternal inheritance. If we are God’s children, Paul reasoned with the Romans, then we are heirs—“heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ” (Rom. 8:17). A good father gives everything he is and everything he has to his children. God, who has the most to give, is the best Father of all. Thus there is no higher status a human being can ever achieve than to be called a son or a daughter of the Most High God.

The way to gain this high status is simply through faith in Jesus Christ: “for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith” (Gal. 3:26). Throughout this letter Paul has argued that God’s blessings come only by faith: justification is by faith (Gal. 2:16; 3:6); union with Christ is by faith (Gal. 2:20); the blessings of Abraham come by faith (Gal. 3:9); and the promise of the Holy Spirit is received by faith (Gal. 3:14). Everything God has to offer comes by faith, and adoption is no exception. This blessing, too, comes through faith in Christ. In the words of the apostle John, “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12).

Adoption shows the contrast between faith and works in the most vivid way, for no one ever works his way into a family. The highest position one can achieve simply by working in a household is servant. A servant may live with a family. A servant may do the family’s laundry, cook the family’s meals, clean the family’s house, and feed the family’s dog. But the servant could do all these things day after day for decades without ever becoming a member of the family (in much the same way that someone who is not a relative could not expect to rise to the top of a family business). In such a case, the only way to become a son or a daughter is by adoption. This can be granted only by the will of the father; it can never be gained by the works of the servant. And when it comes to God’s family, the Father is willing to adopt anyone who believes in his Son, Jesus Christ.

It is true that Jesus was faithful. In fact, our salvation depends on his faithfulness to obey the law and suffer the punishment for our sins. But even if Christ is the one who is faithful, we still need to put our faith in his faithfulness. Galatians 3:26 leaves no question as to the kind of faith that Paul is talking about: “You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:26 niv). Here there is no ambiguity because Paul explicitly uses the preposition “in.” The only way to get into God’s family is by personally trusting in Jesus Christ. This confirms the truth and indeed the necessity of justifying faith. It is by putting our own personal faith in Christ that we are saved into the family of God.

Liberal theology used to teach “the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man.” The idea was that since every single human being is a son or a daughter of God, we are all brothers and sisters. In one sense this is true. God exercises his care over all his creatures, and we all belong to a common humanity. Yet sonship is a privilege granted specifically to those who come to God through faith in Jesus Christ. Although God is Creator of all, Ruler of all, and Judge of all, he is the Father only of his Son Jesus Christ and of those who are in Christ by faith.

Baptized into Christ

Those who do come to Christ in faith are to be baptized: “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Gal. 3:27). Here Paul is referring to the inward reality of spiritual cleansing by faith, and not simply to the outward sign of water baptism.

Water baptism is a sacrament instituted by the Lord Jesus Christ. It is administered with water, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (Matt. 28:19). It is a sign in which the washing with water signifies cleansing from sin. It is also a seal, like the official mark on a public document, visibly confirming that we belong to God by faith. But this does not mean that believers are saved merely by the act of water baptism.

We enter the family of God by faith in Jesus. We are given a sign and a seal of our adoption, namely, baptism. This sacrament is not the method of our salvation, any more than circumcision ever was. By itself, water baptism—whether administered to children or to adults—does not make us children of God. But it is an outward sign of our adoption, which we receive by faith in Jesus Christ.

Faith and baptism go together. Often, but not always, they occur in close proximity. Paul himself is a good example. His initiation came after his conversion. He was saved when he called Jesus “Lord” on the Damascus road (Acts 9:5), but he was baptized several days later (Acts 9:18). What elsewhere he calls “the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5) was part of his becoming a child of God. Paul was saved by the baptism of the Holy Spirit, not water baptism; yet baptism was the sign of his salvation.

In effect, baptism grants the Christian his or her adoption papers. Perhaps this is why many churches give baptismal certificates to children and adults who receive this sacrament. It also explains why baptism is so important, even if it is not absolutely necessary. The thief who was converted on the cross went to paradise without ever getting baptized. But baptism is the sign and seal of being a child of God, and therefore under ordinary circumstances it is unthinkable for a Christian not to be baptized.

What baptism especially symbolizes is the believer’s union with Christ. As Paul told the Galatians, “you … were baptized into Christ” (Gal. 3:27). Here again we encounter one of the central doctrines of Paul’s theology: union with Christ. The Christian really is joined to Christ. Christ is in the Christian; the Christian is in Christ. The way we get into Christ is by faith, and the sign and seal of our being in him is baptism. This is why the first Christians were said to be baptized “in the name of Jesus Christ” (Acts 2:38). They were baptized into God’s triune name, of course, but they were being incorporated into Christ.

Being united to Christ means that we are connected to everything Christ ever did for our salvation. We participate in his obedient life, his suffering death, and his glorious resurrection. This is all symbolized in baptism, which is the sign and seal of our union with Christ: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:3–4). The message of Galatians, like the message of Romans, is the gospel message of the cross and the empty tomb—Christ crucified and Christ risen. Baptism signifies our personal connection to Christ in these saving events. We are united to the Savior who died and rose again; we have a new identity in Christ.

Another way of describing this union is to say that we are clothed with Christ: “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Gal. 3:27). It is sometimes said that the clothes make the man. This is especially true in baptism, where Jesus Christ becomes the garment of our righteousness. Here the apostle may have in mind one early Christian practice for baptism. When adult converts came for baptism, they stripped off their clothes. Once they had been baptized, they were handed a white robe to symbolize their new life in Christ. Or Paul may have in mind the ritual for the adoption of a slave, which also called for a new white robe. Either way, a Christian is someone who has put on Christ, and now stands as a free, pure child of God.

The Walls That Divide

What is your relationship to God? If you are a Christian, then you are one of God’s sons or daughters. This family relationship has one rather obvious implication: Everyone who belongs to God belongs to everyone else who belongs to God. All of God’s sons and daughters are brothers and sisters.

The Scripture emphasizes that within this new spiritual family no one is excluded: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28; cf. 1 Cor. 12:13; Col. 3:11). Being in Christ transcends and transforms our social categories. To put it another way, union with Christ establishes our communion as saints.

Here Paul mentions the very things that divide us most: race, rank, and sex. These three divisions polarized the ancient world. Consider the prayer, sometimes attributed to Socrates, in which a Greek man gave thanks to God “that I was born a human being and not a beast, next a man and not a woman, thirdly, a Greek and not a barbarian.” Pagans generally despised their slaves and mistreated their women. In some places slaves were forbidden to enter pagan temples, while women were treated as chattel.

A similar prejudice often prevailed in Israel, where some men thanked God every day that they were not Gentiles, slaves, or women. Listen to these Jewish benedictions from the first century: “Blessed art thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who hast not made me a foreigner. Blessed art thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who hast not made me a slave. Blessed art thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who hast not made me a woman.”

Of these three distinctions—race, rank, and sex—ethnicity was the most divisive. As far as the Jews were concerned, the whole world was divided into two parts. The distinction between Jews and Gentiles governed worship, marriage, commerce, even table fellowship. F. F. Bruce writes, “The cleavage between Jew and Gentile was for Judaism the most radical within the human race. It was indeed possible for a Gentile to become a Jewish proselyte.… But a Gentile who became a proselyte crossed over to the Jewish side of the gulf; the gulf remained.”

This gulf is precisely what the Judaizers wanted to maintain. They were dividing the Galatian church along racial lines, forcing Gentile Christians to choose sides. Would they remain Greek or did they have to become culturally Jewish? There are signs of this struggle throughout the New Testament.

There are also signs of this struggle throughout human history. Jew against Greek. Slave against free. Man against woman. Timothy George writes: “Race, money, and sex are the primal powers in human life. No one of them is inherently evil; rather, they are the stuff of which life itself is made.… Yet each of these spheres of human creativity has become degraded and soiled through the perversity of sin. Nationality and ethnicity have been corrupted by pride, material blessings by greed, and sexuality by lust.” Much of what we call history is the story of these three conflicts. Consider the long, tragic history of the persecution of the Jews, or the lingering effects of slavery in the United States, or the oppression of a women in so many places around the world. The history department at any local college or university will tell at least part of the truth about these evils. The multiculturalists will base everything on racial conflict. The Marxists will view history as a perpetual class struggle. The feminists will look at human relationships through the lens of gender.

Christians usually reject those worldviews because they are too simplistic, but each of them has correctly identified part of the problem. The greatest barriers to the harmony of humanity are ethnic, economic, and gender distinctions. What color is your skin? What language do you speak? How much money do you earn, and how do you earn it? Do you have a Y-chromosome? These are the questions that have always divided us.

The walls are everywhere: race against race, class against class, gender against gender. Most armed conflicts around the globe have a strong ethnic component. In America, the reason the race card sometimes gets played is that it is still in the deck. Legislation has done all it can to achieve integration, but where is the reconciliation? Meanwhile, the battle of the sexes rages on: divorce, rape, abuse, sexual harassment, radical feminism.

The problems of race, rank, and sex also disturb our peace within the church. In Paul’s day, the Jews hindered the apostolic mission to the Gentiles. But for the rest of church history, it has been the Gentiles who have discouraged the Jews from receiving the gospel. Our legacy includes not only anti-Semitism, but also slavery.

United in Christ

The Bible teaches that divisions of race, rank, and gender can be overcome only in Christ: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). More literally, “you are all one person in Christ.” Here again the emphasis falls on the “all.” Jews and Gentiles, slaves and free, men and women—we are all God’s children. The church of Jesus Christ is our first family, and in that family there are no second-class children.

What God has established in Christ is nothing less than a new humanity. Our relationship to one another is based entirely on our relationship to him. As we are united to him, we become united to one another; union with Christ is the basis for our communion as saints. According to the seventeenth-century German Reformed theologian Johan Heidegger, the communion of saints is “the union, society and assembly of all believers who have something in common with each other. Now this common thing is Christ the Head of the Church, as well as the gifts which flow down from Him as Head to the Body.”

When it comes to salvation, there are no differences among us. We are equal under the law and equal in the gospel. We are all equally in need of salvation and equally unable to save ourselves because of our sin. We all need the same cross and the same empty tomb. We all need the same atoning death and the same bodily resurrection. In a word, we all need the same Christ. Once we have come to him by the same faith, it is Christ for all and all in Christ.

This is one reason why Paul opposed the Judaizers so strenuously. They were drawing boundaries inside the church—Jews on one side, Gentiles on the other. By imposing circumcision, which was only for men, they were also excluding the women. Indeed, part of the wisdom of baptism is that it is a sacrament for everyone. All God’s children are baptized into Christ.

Regardless of race, rank, or sex, we are all united in Christ. Jews and Gentiles are united in Christ. Christ has destroyed the barrier between Jew and Gentile, reconciling both to God through the cross (Eph. 2:15–17). Slaves and free citizens are also united in Christ: “For he who was called in the Lord as a slave is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a slave of Christ” (1 Cor. 7:22). The free person has become a slave for Christ, while in Christ the slave finds his freedom.

Men and women are united in Christ as well. The apostle Paul is often slandered for his attitude toward women, but he was no chauvinist. Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, he recognized that women were made in the image of God and could be remade in the image of Christ. He welcomed them as first-class members of God’s family and praised them for their partnership in ministry. The remarkable thing about Paul was not what a chauvinist he was, but how much of a feminist he was, in the sense that he promoted the full recognition of the gifts and status of women in Christ. His teaching about gender created as much controversy then as it does now, but for exactly the opposite reason. Over against the common view that women were inferior, Paul liberated women within the life of the church. The radical edge of apostolic teaching on gender is the fundamental equality of all God’s sons and daughters.

The kind of equality Paul has in mind is not the kind that obliterates every racial, social, or sexual distinction. Galatians 3:28 is sometimes misused so as to contradict what the New Testament says elsewhere about Jews and Gentiles, slaves and masters, or men and women. The church is not a raceless, classless, androgynous society. When we come to Christ, we do not cease to be Asians or Africans, bosses or employees, or girls and boys. With regard to our physical and social identity, we continue to be what we have always been, only now we are what we are in Christ.

Being in Christ establishes a fundamental unity within which our diversity can be cherished. Ethnic distinctions remain. Paul did not cease to be a Jew when he became a Christian, but continued to value his ethnic heritage. Economic differences remain, too. Although the New Testament forbids the kidnapping of someone into slavery (1 Tim. 1:10), it does not explicitly abolish slavery in all its forms. This is partly because slavery in the ancient world was sometimes voluntary. But whether slavery was voluntary or not, the important thing was for Christian slaves and Christian masters to treat one another as brothers and sisters in Christ (Col. 3:22–4:1). So Philemon was to welcome the runaway Onesimus “no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother” (Philem. 16).

Gender differences remain as well. Here Paul’s grammar is significant, for Galatians 3:28 reads literally, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male and female.” This may be a deliberate echo of Genesis 1:27: “male and female he created them.” It reminds us that the difference between the male and the female goes back to the creation itself. Our God-given gender has implications for our unique spiritual responsibilities in the home and in the church, without threatening our fundamental equality in Christ. To be specific, God calls men to exercise servant leadership as husbands and as officers in the church, while he calls women to submit to this leadership as wives and as members of the church. But it is a mistake to think of our service as men or our submission as women in terms of status, for in Christ there is no status.

To summarize: Our ethnic, social, and sexual distinctions continue to exist. But since we are in Christ, these distinctions do not divide us. They do not determine our standing in God’s family. Therefore, we should see our oneness in Christ not as a leveling and abolishing of all racial, social or gender differences, but as an integration of just such differences into a common participation “in Christ,” wherein they enhance (rather than detract from) the unity of the body, and enrich the mutual interdependence and service of its members. In other words, it is a oneness, because such differences cease to be a barrier and cause of pride or regret or embarrassment, and become rather a means to display the diverse richness of God’s creation and grace, both in the acceptance of the “all” and in the gifting of each.

We have the best and the truest fellowship when we recognize our diversity, but see it as less important than our unity in Christ.

The church has a long way to go before becoming God’s new humanity in Christ. By and large, the church remains racially and socially segregated. Evangelical churches, especially, are divided over the role of women in the church. Galatians 3:28 gives an indication of what our problem is: The reason we so often fail to treat one another as we should is that we are not yet far enough into Christ. There is no segregation in Christ. If there are still snobbery, prejudice, and even hatred in us, it is because we are not all the way into Christ.

It is only when we are in Christ that we become able to see people the way Jesus sees them and treat them the way he treats them. A good example is the way Jesus treated the woman at the well (John 4). She was a poor Samaritan woman, so Jesus was separated from her ethnically, socially, and sexually. But that did not stop him from loving her and dying for her sins. Now we are called to reach out to those who are different from us with the love of Christ.

What would this look like? It would change the way we think and talk about one another. We could never refer to “those people”; we would always have to say “us.” It would change the way we treat one another, too. Jews would love Gentiles (and vice versa). African Americans would show hospitality to whites (and vice versa). The disabled would seek friendships with the able-bodied (and vice versa). Internationals would welcome nationals (and vice versa). The poor would love the rich (and vice versa). Women would respect men (and vice versa). Then, rather than hindering our unity, differences of race, rank, and sex would become an opportunity to show the world what it means to be in Christ.

Heirs of the Promise

God’s new humanity in Christ is not just for the here and now; it is for all eternity: “And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise” (Gal. 3:29). This verse establishes the Christian’s identity in relation to history. In relation to God’s deity, I am a son or a daughter—a child of God. In relation to humanity, I am a brother or a sister of all God’s children. In relation to history, I belong to the one family God began in time and will keep for all eternity. John Stott explains that Christians “find their place in eternity (related first and foremost to God as His sons and daughters), in society (related to each other as brothers and sisters in the same family) and in history (related also to the succession of God’s people down through the ages).”

“If you are Christ’s,” Paul says. Literally, “if you are of Christ.” To be in Christ is to be of Christ. It is to belong to him, so that once we come to him in faith, we have the right to wear a T-shirt that reads “Property of Jesus Christ.”

To belong to Christ is to belong not only to one another, but also to Abraham. Remember that God made his promise to both Abraham and his offspring. The word “offspring” referred specifically to Abraham’s true son Jesus Christ (Gal. 3:16). If we are in Christ, then we are God’s offspring—sons of Abraham. This is important because in the ancient world only the son received the inheritance. To say that we are all sons of God has nothing to do with being masculine. Sonship means that we will inherit everything God has ever promised to give his children—forgiveness of sin, heaven, eternal life, and all the rest of it.

The Judaizers understood that God intended to establish one people, in history, that would last for all eternity, but they were wrong about the entrance requirements. They told the Galatians that they could not become children of Abraham until they became Jews. Paul’s response was that they were children of Abraham already, simply by coming to Christ. All it takes to become one of God’s heirs is faith in Jesus Christ.

Are you a member of the family? If you are not sure who you are, it must be because you have not yet found your true self in Jesus Christ. Perhaps you have never come to him in faith, trusting him to save you from your sins and make you a child of God. Or perhaps you do trust in Christ, but you are still looking for your identity somewhere else.

The only way to find ourselves is to come to God in Christ. Those who are in Christ know exactly who they are. We know who our Father is, for we are sons and daughters of the Most High God. We know who our siblings are, for we are brothers and sisters of all God’s children. If you are a Christian, that is who you are, and who you will be, forever.