Galatians 4:8–11, “8 Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods. 9 But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more? 10 You observe days and months and seasons and years! 11 I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain.”
Forgetting the bondage from which God has liberated us is a quick way to fall back into slavery and destruction. Israel’s grumbling in the wilderness and longing to enjoy the cucumbers, melons, and leeks of Egypt illustrates this principle since disaster came upon the people for their insolence (Num. 11).
Galatians 4:8–11 tells us that even professing new covenant believers can forget their past slavery and return to the cruel master of sin. Paul reminds the Galatians of their former enslavement to “those that by nature are not gods,” standard first-century Jewish terminology for idols so that the Galatians would recall how better off they were after conversion than before they knew Jesus. Prior to Paul’s mission, the Galatians did not know the one, true creator God (Gal. 4:8–9). This move from ignorance to faith in Yahweh, the covenant Lord of Israel, was not their own doing; the Galatians were known by God, which stresses the divine initiative in salvation. John Calvin says they did not know God “by the acuteness or industry of their own minds, but because, when they were at the farthest possible remove from thinking of him, God visited them in his mercy.” Those whom the Lord foreknew He predestined for conformity to Jesus (Rom. 8:29), and no one is saved apart from His gracious election.
The Gentile Galatians would turn away from their Creator if they took upon themselves the yoke of the Mosaic law. They would serve again the “weak and worthless elementary principles” (Gal. 4:9) as they tried to “complete” their salvation by observing the Jewish calendar and other works of the Law (vv. 10–11). These “elementary principles,” we have seen, are the evil powers such as sin and death that lurk behind pagan idols (v. 3). To look to the Law to make oneself a true Christian would be to commit the same error many Jews committed to pursuing Torah as a means to secure one’s own righteousness before the Father (Rom. 9:30–33). This would lead only to bondage to sin (5:20–21) and, thus, a return to slavery to the evil powers that kept the Galatians in darkness before their conversion. It is not the Law’s fault that such slavery ensues but trying to earn righteousness through it only brings people back into bondage.
Martin Luther writes, “Whoever then seeketh righteousness by the law, imagining that God being angry and threatening must be pacified with works, can never find so many good works as are able to quiet his conscience, but still desires more.” In addition to being bound to sin, those who try earning their justification through works are enslaved to a guilty conscience that never lets up. Only if we confess our inability to please God can we find freedom in Christ.