Gal. 4:3–5, “In the same way we also, when we were children, were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world. 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.”

In the spring of 1999, the duke and duchess of Northumberland went to court to block their son from inheriting his fortune when he turned eighteen. Their son, the young Earl Percy, was only fourteen years old at the time, and his parents had his best interests in mind. One day the earl was to inherit a vast fortune, including Alnwick Castle, a one-million-pound inheritance, and almost half a million dollars in annual income. But his parents did not want him to inherit too much too soon. They were well aware that other British noblemen had squandered their fortunes on drugs and riotous living. So they set up a trust to manage the young earl’s fortune until his twenty-fifth birthday.

Treated Like a Slave, but Still a Son

What happened to young Percy is akin to the paradoxical situation the apostle Paul describes at the outset of Galatians 4. He has been drawing a contrast between the old covenant and the new, between the era of Moses and the time of Christ, between living under the law and living by faith. The law, he explained in chapter 3, is like a prison warden (Gal. 3:23) or a pedagogue (Gal. 3:24) to control God’s people until they come to Christ. Now he makes a slightly different comparison: “I mean that the heir, as long as he is a child, is no different from a slave, though he is the owner of everything” (Gal. 4:1).

Here it helps to know something about Greek civil law, which seems to be what the apostle has in mind. In those days, it was customary for a wealthy man to hand his heir over to the care of guardians. Throughout his childhood, the eldest son knew he would inherit his father’s estate, but he did not own it yet. The English Standard Version is somewhat misleading when it says that the child “is the owner of everything” (Gal. 4:1). More accurately, the heir apparent is “Lord of all,” meaning that his father’s land belongs to him by title, but not yet by actual possession.

In the meantime, the heir had about as much liberty as a common slave. He had no legal or property rights. His guardian kept him under discipline. He was told when to wake up, when to go to school, what to wear, how to behave, and when to go to bed. He also had a trustee to manage his property, especially if his father was deceased. Until he came of age he was called “the young master”—“master” because one day he would inherit the estate, but “young” to keep him firmly in his place.

Under this system, the young master sometimes felt more like a slave than a son. But it was all for his own good. What seemed at times like bondage was necessary to bring him to full maturity. Nor did his minority last forever. Eventually he received his inheritance, in keeping with the date legally established by his father.

The point of Paul’s analogy is that the law plays a similar role in the story of salvation: “In the same way we also, when we were children, were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world” (Gal. 4:3). What makes this verse difficult to interpret is the phrase “the elementary principles of the world.” It would seem that Paul is talking about the law given to Moses, for he will use the phrase “under the law” in both of the next two verses (Gal. 4:4–5).

Perhaps, then, “elementary principles of the world” is another way of describing the law. The laws of God are indeed the basic principles of the world. In Greek, “basic principles” means “essential components” or “elementary things.” The term was sometimes used to refer to basic teachings like the ABCs (or the “alpha, beta, gammas,” as they were called back then). This is one good way to describe God’s law. To study the law is to learn the alphabet of God’s will.

To follow the analogy through, the Old Testament law was like elementary school for the people of God. The Jews had specific rules to govern their conduct, what the writer to the Hebrews called “regulations for the body imposed until the time of reformation” (Heb. 9:10). When it came to worship, the Jews had to go to a particular place and offer particular sacrifices in a particular way. Keeping all these requirements was like being in grammar school, tracing the ABCs that were first written by the hand of God.

Eventually, schoolchildren outgrow their elementary education. They master the alphabet and move on to composition. In the same way, God raised his people on the law to prepare them for the gospel. The Puritan William Perkins thus described Israel as “a little school set up in a corner of the world; the law of Moses was, as it were, an ABC, or primer, in which Christ was revealed to the world, in dark and obscure manner, specially to the Jews.”

By calling the law an “elementary principle,” Paul was giving the law teachers from Jerusalem a remedial education. Those Judaizers had been telling the Galatians that the law was a graduate school for the gospel. But Paul insisted that being under the law was actually a sign of spiritual immaturity. For the Galatians to go back to the law would be like a Ph. D.repeating kindergarten to work on his alphabet. If they wanted to be spiritual grown-ups, they would have to advance beyond the law.

There is another way to interpret “elementary principles,” however, which also includes the Gentiles, who “were just as enslaved in their pagan idolatry as the Jews had been in their servitude to the law.” The term “elementary principles” shows up again in Galatians 4:9, where Paul is clearly talking about pagan worship. Among the pagans, “elementary principles” could refer to spiritual beings, such as the elemental spirits of earth, air, fire, and water. So perhaps when Paul spoke of being “enslaved to the elementary principles of the world” (Gal. 4:3), he was referring to demonic powers. There was a time when the Galatians themselves were in bondage to precisely such gods and goddesses.

Whether the term “elementary principles” refers to God’s law for the Jews (which seems more probable) or to Satan’s control of the Gentiles, the point is that eventually God’s people needed to grow up. For a time, they were no better off than slaves. Indeed, while they were children, they practically had to be treated as slaves. But in truth they had always been sons, so the day finally came when they left their religious infancy behind and grew into full spiritual maturity.

The Coming of God’s Son

What brought God’s people from slavery to sonship was the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We were under the law until the coming of Christ, which Paul describes in these beautiful, almost poetic words: “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” (Gal. 4:4–5).

As these verses outline the plan of salvation, they give six central teachings about the coming of Christ. The first concerns the timing of his coming. Jesus came “when the fullness of time had come” (Gal. 4:4). Under ancient law, the father had the right to fix the time when his son would receive his estate. In the same way, God the Father determined when God the Son would come to give all God’s children their inheritance.

Jesus himself knew that he had come at just the right time: “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel’ ” (Mark 1:14–15). Jesus came at the exact point in human history when God was ready for his coming. Right at the center of it, dividing B.C. from A.D. in the timetable of God’s eternal counsel, was the cross of Christ. Jesus came, wrote John Calvin, “when the time which had been ordained by the providence of God was seasonable and fit.”

Christ came when the world was ready for his coming, too. The Greeks had provided a common language and culture for sharing the gospel. Through the might of the Romans, there was safe transport for spreading the gospel. But most of all, sinners were ready to be released from their bondage. The Gentiles were tired of serving the old pagan gods. The Jews were weary of being held prisoner by the law they had tried (and failed) to keep for over a thousand years. So it was at just the right time—not a moment too soon, not a moment too late—that Christ came to make us God’s sons and daughters.

The second teaching concerns the origin of Christ’s coming and testifies to his eternal deity. The Bible says, “God sent forth his Son” (Gal. 4:4), and the fact that the Son was sent shows that he existed before he was born in Bethlehem. His sending from heaven thus declares his divine nature. Jesus Christ is God the Son, fully equal to the Father in glory and might. His sonship is eternal. He is the only-begotten Son of the Father, the second person of the Trinity, who lived with his Father in glory from eternity past. When the time had fully come, the eternally divine Son of God came down from heaven into the world.

The third teaching concerns the manner of Christ’s coming. God the Son was “born of woman” (Gal. 4:4). Whereas the word “sent” implies his eternal deity, the word “born” declares his true humanity. Jesus had an ordinary birth. To say that a human mother gave him birth is to say that God the Son became a human being. This is the doctrine of the incarnation: God became man. What better way to emphasize the true humanity of Jesus Christ than to say that he was born of a woman?

When Jesus was delivered by the Virgin Mary and laid in a manger, God the Son took on our flesh and our nature, with all its temptations and aggravations. The Christ who came to save is the God-Man; he is one person in two natures, a divine nature and a human nature. In the words of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, “Christ, the Son of God, became man, by taking to himself a true body, and a reasonable soul, being conceived by the power of the Holy Ghost, in the womb of the Virgin Mary, and born of her, yet without sin” (A. 22). And it was just because Jesus is a true man that he can be our Savior. According to Luther, Christianity

does not begin at the top, as all other religions do; it begins at the bottom.… Therefore, whenever you are concerned to think and act about your salvation, you must put away all speculations about the Majesty, all thoughts of works, traditions, and philosophy—indeed, of the Law of God itself. And you must run directly to the manger and the mother’s womb, embrace this Infant and Virgin’s Child in your arms, and look at Him—born, being nursed, growing up, going about in human society, teaching, dying, rising again, ascending above all the heavens, and having authority over all things. In this way you can shake off all terrors and errors, as the sun dispels the clouds.

The fourth important teaching concerns the condition of Christ’s coming, which was perfect obedience. Jesus was born a Jew, and therefore he was bound to obey God’s law in its entirety. He was “born under the law” (Gal. 4:4). By his birth he was required to keep Torah, which he did with total perfection. Jesus kept the whole law for his people. He was circumcised on the eighth day, as the law required. He never broke even one of the Ten Commandments. He followed the biblical pattern for worship. He went to Jerusalem to keep the feasts. He celebrated Passover. He did everything the law required.

Jesus even died under the law. For God’s Son, coming under the law included accepting the death penalty his people deserved for breaking it. This is what Paul explained back in chapter 3, when he said, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (Gal. 3:13). When Christ came under the law, he also came under its curse. He not only kept the whole law for his people, but also suffered the punishment due to their sins.

The Reason for His Coming

The fifth teaching concerns the first element of the twofold purpose of Christ’s coming, which was “to redeem those who were under the law” (Gal. 4:5). Here Paul refers specifically to the atonement that Christ provided on the cross. He first mentioned Christ’s death at the very beginning of his letter, when he said that Jesus “gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age” (Gal. 1:4). But Christ’s death was more than a rescue; it was also a redemption. In the ancient world, redemption ordinarily referred to the release of a slave by the payment of a price. Provided that someone was willing to make the payment, a slave’s freedom could be purchased. This is precisely what Christ did for his people. Although we were enslaved to the basic principles of the world (Gal. 4:3), Jesus paid the price for our freedom when he died on the cross. He paid the ultimate price. When God sent his Son, he sent him to die.

The death of Christ makes some people uncomfortable, including some people who call themselves Christians. In the spring of 1999, for example, a Lutheran pastor in Germany gained notoriety by arguing that the manger and not the cross should be the symbol of Christianity. The cross, she said, is too threatening; it certainly is not as inviting as baby Jesus asleep on the hay.

Christ had to be born before he could die, of course; there could be no Easter without Christmas. But God the Son was born of the Virgin in order to die on the cross. Christianity is not a religion of stable and straw; it is a religion of thorns and nails, wood and blood. The incarnation cannot save us without the crucifixion. Christ did not redeem us by his life alone; he redeemed us through his death.

What Christ redeemed us from is the law, with its deadly curse. This is why it was necessary for him to be born under the law. What qualified him to redeem us from the law was the fact that he kept it perfectly. Indeed, everything Paul has said so far about Christ’s coming—his timely arrival, his eternal deity, his true humanity, and his perfect obedience—qualified him to be our redeemer. John Stott writes, “So the divinity of Christ, the humanity of Christ and the righteousness of Christ uniquely qualified Him to be man’s redeemer. If He had not been man, He could not have redeemed men. If He had not been a righteous man, He could not have redeemed unrighteous men. And if He had not been God’s Son, He could not have redeemed men for God or made them the sons of God.” But Christ did redeem us, and he did it as the perfect God-man who died on the cross to save sinners.

The sixth teaching and second purpose for Christ’s coming was “that we might receive adoption as sons” (Gal. 4:5). Christ’s coming had an adopting purpose as well as atoning purpose. God sent his Son to make us all his sons and daughters. Christ accomplished our adoption as well as our redemption. It would be enough for God to release us from slavery, to rescue us from our captivity to the law, and so to redeem us from its curse. But God did not stop there. Once Christ had gained our freedom, he gathered us into his family. He went beyond redemption to adoption, turning slaves into sons.

Remember that Paul was not being sexist when he called the Galatians God’s sons. In the ancient world, a father’s inheritance was only for his sons. By calling his children sons, therefore, God guaranteed that all his sons and daughters would be included in his will and testament: “So you are no longer a slave, but a son; and if a son, then an heir through God” (Gal. 4:7). The promise of eternal life with God in heaven is for everyone who becomes a child of God through faith in Jesus Christ.

When Jesus died and rose again, he not only paid for our freedom, but also provided us with our adoption papers, making us sons and daughters of the Most High God. There is a hint of this in the story of his resurrection. The women ran away from the tomb to tell the disciples that Jesus had risen from the dead. Suddenly, Jesus was standing right in front of them, and they fell down to worship him. He greeted them with these words: “go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee, and there they will see me” (Matt. 28:10). Jesus called the disciples “brothers” because he had brought them into God’s family by his death and resurrection.

Now everyone who believes in the risen Christ is God’s own dear child. If we continue to serve God out of fear or duty, however, we show that we do not understand what Christ has done on our behalf. Christianity is not a bondage, but a freedom, for Christ has brought us from slavery into sonship. Our ongoing membership in God’s family does not depend on our works, as if somehow we had to earn our keep.

A good example of what this means in practical terms comes from the life of John Wesley. Before Wesley came to Christ, he was a better Christian than most believers, at least as far as his outward behavior was concerned. During his days at Oxford he helped establish a group called “the Holy Club.” The students in the club went to church, studied their Bibles, fasted, and prayed. They went into the prisons and workhouses to do evangelism. They provided food, clothing, and education for the poor children of the city. Yet all the while they were spiritual orphans, in bondage to their own religiosity. It was not until years later that Wesley finally came to “trust in Christ only for salvation.” As he looked back on everything he had done for God before he came to Christ, he wrote, “I had even then the faith of a servant, though not that of a son.”

The Spirit of Sonship

A Christian is someone, like John Wesley, who has been brought from slavery into sonship. Yet even after we become God’s sons and daughters, we sometimes forget our Father’s love. We start thinking of ourselves as slaves rather than as sons, which grieves our Father’s heart.

Children have a way of testing their parents’ love. Without even realizing what they are doing, sometimes they wound their mothers or their fathers to see if they will still be loved. Adopted children often struggle with their parentage. They wonder if their parents really love them. And of course their parents do love them, so it brings them great anguish when their children refuse simply to rest in their affection.

Like any good parent, God wants his children to receive and to rest in his fatherly love. He wants his adopted children to know for certain that they are beloved. For this reason, he has sent his Spirit into our hearts. “And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ ” (Gal. 4:6).

The Galatians had indeed received the Spirit (Gal. 3:2); and when they did, they also received the assurance that they were God’s sons. For God sent his Spirit as well as his Son. First, he sent his Son to make us his children (Gal. 4:4); then he sent us his Spirit to let us know that we really are his children (Gal. 4:6). The adoption that was accomplished by the Son is applied by the Spirit.

Here we are drawn into the mystery of the Trinity. The one true God exists in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Adoption is the work of the Triune God. God the Father, just because he is the Father, is the one who adopts us. He did this by first sending his Son to redeem us from bondage, so that we are no longer slaves but sons. Then the Father sent his Spirit to convince us that we are indeed the sons and daughters of God.

The Spirit whom God sends is specifically “the Spirit of his Son” (Gal. 4:6), which shows the intimacy between the Son and the Spirit within the Godhead. The work of the Son is to bring us into relationship with the Father, while the work of the Spirit is to seal that family tie. Thus the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit all work together to make us God’s true sons and daughters.

The way we know that we really are God’s sons and daughters is by calling him “Father.” And not just calling him “Father,” as if we could be saved by a mere word, but crying out to him as our Father. The biblical word for crying out (krazon) is full of the most intense feeling. When in the midst of this lost and dying world a sinner calls out to God for salvation, it is a cry of the heart.

When we cry out to God, we use the very word Jesus used when he called to his Father in the hours before his death: “Abba, Father” (Mark 14:36). “Abba” is a term of respect as well as endearment. It means “Dear Dad,” or “Dearest Father.” It is the special work of God’s Holy Spirit to put this filial word into our hearts and onto our lips. It is the Spirit who assures our sonship by enabling us to call God “Abba, Father.” Elsewhere Paul writes, “For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Rom. 8:15–16). F. F. Bruce thus describes “Abba” as “the voice of the Spirit of Jesus (on the lips of his people).”

For the Galatians this meant that since they had the Spirit of the Son, they already had the full rights of sons. James Dunn explains it like this: “If Paul was correct, the Gentile Galatian believers need do or receive nothing more in order to be sure of belonging to God’s family; they were sons already, and so their share in the inheritance of Abraham was secure, even if they were only adopted sons.” The inheritance is for sons, not for slaves. It does not come by keeping the law, but by living in the Spirit.

Through Christ we can receive the same inheritance. How do I know that God is my Father, and that I have a share in his eternal estate? Not by trying to work my way into his family. Certainly not by getting circumcised or by keeping God’s law. Not by anything I do at all. Luther said, “There is no slavery in Christ, but only sonship.” My obedience can prove that I am a servant, but not that I am a son. My sonship is based entirely on the redemption accomplished by the Son of God. God’s Spirit confirms this by enabling me to call God “Father.” Servants can only say “Lord,” but sons are able to say “Abba! Father!”

One implication of this new family relationship is that our prayers help us know that we are God’s children. Undoubtedly this is one of the reasons Jesus taught us to begin our prayers by addressing God as Father. John Stott writes, “God’s purpose was not only to secure our sonship by His Son, but to assure us of it by His Spirit. He sent His Son that we might have the status of sonship, and He sent His Spirit that we might have an experience of it. This comes through the affectionate, confidential intimacy of our access to God in prayer, in which we find ourselves assuming the attitude and using the language not of slaves, but of sons.”

A simple illustration may help to drive home the point of this passage. Often, when I hold my daughter on my lap, I lean over and whisper in her ear, “You will always be my special girl!” She usually responds to those words by snuggling closer and saying, “You’re my special daddy!”

This is a picture of the relationship our Father God has with his children. First God sent his Son to save us from our sins and to make us all his sons and daughters. The Son is the elder brother who picks us up and sets us down on God’s lap. Then God sent his Holy Spirit—the Divine Whisper—who tells us that we will always be God’s special children. When we hear the Spirit’s whisper, our hearts cry out to God, “You will always be my Father.”