Children of Freedom
Topic: Galatians Scripture: Galatians 4:21–4:31
The following are Pastor Kevin's unedited sermon notes. They are not a transcript, but are provided for personal study and encouragement.
21 Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not listen to the law? 22 For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and one by a free woman. 23 But the son of the slave was born according to the flesh, while the son of the free woman was born through promise. 24 Now this may be interpreted allegorically: these women are two covenants. One is from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery; she is Hagar. 25 Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia; she corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. 26 But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother. 27 For it is written,
“Rejoice, O barren one who does not bear;
break forth and cry aloud, you who are not in labor!
For the children of the desolate one will be more
than those of the one who has a husband.”
28 Now you,[f] brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise. 29 But just as at that time he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, so also it is now. 30 But what does the Scripture say? “Cast out the slave woman and her son, for the son of the slave woman shall not inherit with the son of the free woman.” 31 So, brothers, we are not children of the slave but of the free woman.
- Galatians 4:21-31 (ESV)
THE PRAYER FOR ILLUMINATION
Lord, please open our hearts and minds by the power of your Holy Spirit, that as the Scriptures are read and your Word is proclaimed, we may hear with joy what you say to us today. Amen.
If you’ve been with us these past few months, you know that the author of these words, the Apostle Paul, has been really hammering the Christians in the ancient region of Galatia (modern Turkey). They turned from the essential truths of the Christian faith to false teaching. They turned away from the message that salvation (deliverance from the power of sin and death) is by grace alone through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone. Instead, they started to believe that salvation is a cooperative effort; God did his part in Jesus and now we must do ours. In other words, they taught that Jesus is not enough.
That’s the way many of us grew up, even in the church. We were taught that the performance of Jesus Christ got us into the Kingdom of God, but it would be our performance that kept us in it. As some have said, we viewed the gospel as the “A-B-Cs," not the “A-Zs” of the Christian faith. We viewed God like a landlord who waived our security deposit and paid our first month’s rent. From then onward, if we wanted to “come up” to heaven, we knew that we better “pay up” here on earth. So we tried to say the right things, think the right things, and do the right things - all in an attempt to keep our accounts current and strengthen our position with God.
Back in ancient Galatia, according to these false teachers, one's part in salvation involved keeping the religious laws of the Old Testament (strict dietary codes, religious observances, circumcision, etc.). If you did those things, you helped keep yourself right with God. In other words, these Judaizers (their official name) were legalists.
Today, we don’t find too many preachers in the church advocating Old Testament religious/ceremonial law keeping. Few pastors are going to attempt to grow a church by making circumcision part of the membership process (though that would certainly help clean up the membership roll!).
Joe, we have the mohel. One last time: how sure are you that you want to become a member of our church?
That seems absurd to us, and it should. However, we accept other, more insidious forms of legalism all too often. Ask yourself some questions this morning.
- Do you affirm that God loves you (theologically), but have a very difficult time believing that he actually likes you (practically)?
- Do you find assurance of your salvation elusive, sometimes you feel it - and other times you don’t?
- Do you play comparative righteousness games with others, judging yourself either superior or inferior to others around you? Do you practice comparative acceptability, constantly worrying if you "fit in?"
- Do you struggle to live authentically before others? Do you feel the need to hide, performing or pretending to be better than you actually are from fear of rejection or being “found out?”
Does any of that resonate with you? If so, you’re not alone. That’s where we all, if we’re honest, live most of our lives. We are almost inescapably legalistic in that sense. We think that our acceptance and security before God rests, in whole or in part, on the foundation of what we do. We live in an atmosphere of conditionality.
This works not only vertically before God, but also horizontally, before one another. We long for acceptance in our families, our schools, our workplaces, our communities and - yes - our churches. We want to know that we’re enough in their eyes, maybe even to be envied. We want to fit in, maybe even lead the pack. But first we want to know the price of admission so that we can pay it.
So, it’s an old problem. How does Paul confront the lie of works-based salvation with the truth of the gospel?
Well, for one, he is vehement. He was vehement because he loved the Galatians, and - in love - he feared for them. In a passionate response of deep concern, Paul called the Galatians fools. Sometimes, when my kids are misbehaving in ways eliciting disbelief, I'll say something like, "What are you knuckleheads doing?!" Paul is incredulous in this letter.
Paul didn't stop there though. He also said they were bewitched. To Paul, it was almost as though someone cast a spell over them. In the next chapter, full of heat, he went full throttle, openly wishing the false teachers a full emasculation (we'll see why in just a second).
Clearly, Paul did not mince words. He knew that the salvation of souls and the possibility of assurance before God was on the line, and he was willing to fight for it. And so, second, he took them back to the basics time and again.
THE LAW POINTS US TO JESUS (4:21)
21 Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not listen to the law?
So, Paul starts this passage by pointing out the absurdity of this whole debate. He’s saying to these false teachers, “Are you even listening to what you’re saying? The law? Keeping it? Really?! Are you crazy?!” The law doesn’t point us to itself as a means of justification; it doesn’t point us to ourselves; its first design is really simple: expose our need of a Savior, point us to Jesus. That's it.
I remember my car breaking down years ago. I thought that I could fix it. I went to Advance Auto. I got the parts and directions. It wasn’t more than a few seconds and feeble attempts in my driveway before I realized that I didn’t have the tools or understanding necessary to do it. I was powerless. The directions alone brought me to the end of myself.
And the law should have brought these men to the end of themselves, too. But it didn’t. Why? Because they twisted it to puff themselves up, to think that they could pull themselves up to a seat at God’s table and that the Galatians needed them to show the way.
Well, what does the Bible say concerning the law? Let’s look at three principal teachings.
First, it says that we can’t keep the law in our own strength.
Consider the words of James when he says, "For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it (James 2:10 ESV). God's standard is perfection. The scope of his law is all-inclusive. He demands not only external obedience, but perfect obedience from the heart. Who does that? Only One - and he’s God.
Therefore, it also says that we can’t be saved by our law keeping.
Listen to the words of Paul writing to the Roman church: "For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin (Romans 3:20 ESV). God says it openly, plainly: you can’t be saved by keeping the law. You can’t. Won’t happen. Ever.
The law’s first purpose is not to give you a ladder, every commandment like a rung to climb, en route to heaven. It’s to give you a bright light and a magnifying mirror so you can see just how sinful you are, how contemptible you are, how guilty you are, how condemned you are before the throne of God apart from his mercy.
Thankfully, it also says that God sent Jesus Christ to be for us what we could not be for ourselves - that is, perectly obedient to the law of God.
Paul describes the work of Jesus on our behalf in Philippians 3:9-10, a work imparting to us the righteous record of Jesus Christ by grace through faith. Autobiographically, he recounts, "For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith."
This means several things, and I want to share a few of them with you this morning.
IT MEANS THAT WE BELONG BEFORE WE BEHAVE (4:22-26)
22 For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and one by a free woman. 23 But the son of the slave was born according to the flesh, while the son of the free woman was born through promise. 24 Now this may be interpreted allegorically: these women are two covenants. One is from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery; she is Hagar. 25 Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia; she corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. 26 But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother.
Let me take just a second to explain a secondary issue raised by this passage. The way that you interpret the Bible is important, in a very real way a matter of spiritual life and death. If you get what the Bible says of Jesus wrong, you have no ordinary hope of salvation. Listen to what the Apostle Peter called the words of Jesus. Look quickly with me at John 6:66-68 (ESV):
66 After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him. 67 So Jesus said to the twelve, “Do you want to go away as well?” 68 Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, 69 and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.”
So, yes - interpreting the Bible rightly is a matter of supreme importance. Thankfully, and ultimately, the Spirit illuminates the meaning of Scripture (see 1 Corinthians 2:6-16), and guides us in our faithful understanding that “Scripture interprets Scripture” (a principle known as "the analogy of faith” - i.e. the principle that a particular text of Scripture must be interpreted according to the overall teaching of the Bible). For instance, we interpret what is unclear in light of what is abundantly clear. We understand passages in their context, and so on.
I mention that because this is a tricky passage. Here, Paul interprets something from the Old Testament allegorically. He says that Hagar represents slavery and Sarah represents freedom. You might then wonder, “Well, what else should I interpret in the Bible allegorically?" My answer is nothing, unless the Bible - as it does here - specifically tells you that it’s meant to be taken allegorically. Otherwise, we open the door to highly speculative and potentially dangerous theology rooted in self-serving proof-texting.
So, what does Paul say here? Basically, he alludes to the Old Testament story of Abraham. If you didn’t grow up in the church or aren’t yet a big student of the Bible, you might not know this story. That’s OK. Basically, God comes to a man named Abram (see Genesis 12-17). He changes his name (reflecting God’s dominion over and relationship with him), enters into a covenant with him, and promises him four things (land, protection, many descendants, and that a blessing would come to all nations through him - i.e. the Messiah).
Now, this is a huge problem because all of this rests on Abraham becoming a great nation, something he cannot do in his own power. He’s old. His wife is old. She’s beyond childbearing years. They’re childless. This reality prompts Abraham and his wife, Sarah, to question the way in which these promises will come to fruition. Will they trust God’s strength or their own? They first choose the latter. They hatch a scheme, quite common in those days: Abraham will have a child (an heir) with Sarah’s maidservant (Hagar). In other words, they attempt to realize God’s promises through their own wisdom and strength.
Paul likens this to woman, Hagar, to the covenant from Mount Sinai (the law), corresponding with the earthly Jerusalem (and its people who, rejecting God’s grace in Jesus Christ and relying upon salvation through works of the law, are still enslaved to sin and death). This is offensive in ways a casual reading might not reveal immediately. Hagar is the mother of Israel’s enemies; there is animosity persisting between the Jews and the Ishmaelites to this day. However, here, Paul says that those whose trust is in the law, whether Jewish or Gentile converts who accept this false teaching, are enslaved children of Hagar (the product of human strength and scheming independent of God).
So, if you know the story, you know that God’s plan was not to fulfill this promise through human wisdom and strength, but rather through gracious supernatural blessing. Sarah would have a son after all, a miraculous child of promise. God would open her womb, and provide the line of our Messiah, Jesus Christ. This would not be human effort, but by God’s grace.
Matt Chandler, one of my favorite preachers, does a great job noting that Paul underscores this powerfully by then quoting from Isaiah 54.
27 For it is written,
“Rejoice, O barren one who does not bear;
break forth and cry aloud, you who are not in labor!
For the children of the desolate one will be more
than those of the one who has a husband.”
This was written to console Israel during the time of exile that, even though they’d been crushed as a nation and are scattered to the wind, God was not done with them. He would cause them to be fruitful again, not in their own effort but by his grace.
So, what’s the larger point? Most generally, Paul is saying that there are two ways to live your life - one as a slave to works and the other as a son born of grace. If we trust in our own efforts, we’re not acting as true sons and daughters; we’re acting as slaves.
And this is critical. If we view ourselves as slaves, we’re never at home in God’s presence and the presence of others. We’re always trying to prove that we really belong, that we’re worthy of acceptance.
However, if we view ourselves rightly, as sons and daughters - as princes and princesses - we see behaving as the fruit of first belonging, not the other way around.
This changes everything.
IT MEANS THAT WE’LL BE BOTHERED (4:28-30)
28 Now you,[f] brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise. 29 But just as at that time he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, so also it is now. 30 But what does the Scripture say? “Cast out the slave woman and her son, for the son of the slave woman shall not inherit with the son of the free woman.”
One thing that it changes is our relationship with a world characterized by self-reliance and self-righteousness. Just as Ishmael (representing the work of the flesh) and Isaac (representing the gracious work of the Spirit) were at enmity, Paul says that those resting in the grace of God can expect persecution from a world characterized by works-righteousness. This can take two forms because self-reliance/self-righteousness takes two principal forms: religious and irreligious.
It’s always good for Christians to remember that two groups conspired to murder Jesus: the religious leadership of Israel and the political leadership of Rome. The former sought heavenly salvation through their religious performance. The latter sought earthly salvation through their political performance. When Jesus got in the way of both, they conspired together to persecute and murder him. Even though they appeared different in so many ways externally, they were inwardly the same: people trying to manufacture their own source of security, significance, satisfaction, etc. in self-righteous self-reliance.
Likewise, those who live in the joy and peace of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone should expect persecution - both outside the church and inside it. We might easily expect it outside, after all that’s the world. However, we can also expect persecution inside the church because the self-reliant religious within the church anchor their confidence in their performance. And in order to know that their performance is sufficient, they need to keep score. That makes them neurotic and judgmental. When someone comes along preaching that their fastidious law-keeping might be an exercise in self-reliant futility, a way of keeping God at a distance (and not a way of drawing near to him as they suppose), it strikes them at the core. They feel threatened. In response, they strive to defend their anchor, and that can mean persecution in the form of accusations, slander, gossip, and - in extreme cases - whatever else necessary to remove the threat.
Jesus warned his disciples of the reality and certainty of persecution (John 15:18-19 ESV):
18 “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. 19 If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. 20 Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours.
Paul faced this form of persecution in his ministry continually. He was routinely accused of preaching a message of grace to the apparent exclusion of obedience, a theme we’ve seen repeatedly in Galatians but also see in Romans (6:1ff) and Colossians (2:20ff). Of course, he was doing no such thing. Paul wasn’t lawless. He just knew what the law could and could not do for unsaved sinners, that it could expose their sin but could never empower their obedience. He understood that the first use of God’s law is to point us to our need of Christ, not ourselves. There are other right uses of God’s law, but we’ll need to unpack those later.
For now, note that it’s interesting that only preachers of the true gospel of Jesus Christ are open to the charge faced by the Apostle Paul. The famed preacher, Martin Lloyd Jones commented on this when he said:
If a man preaches justification by works, no one would ever raise this question. If a man’s preaching is, ‘If you want to be Christians, and if you want to go to heaven, you must stop committing sins, you must take up good works, and if you do so regularly and constantly, and do not fail to keep on at it, you will make yourselves Christians, you will reconcile yourselves to God and you will go to heaven’. Obviously a man who preaches in that strain would never be liable to this misunderstanding. Nobody would say to such a man, ‘Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound?’, because the man’s whole emphasis is just this, that if you go on sinning you are certain to be damned, and only if you stop sinning can you save yourselves. So that misunderstanding could never arise...
Nobody has ever brought this charge against the Church of Rome, but it was brought frequently against Martin Luther; indeed that was precisely what the Church of Rome said about the preaching of Martin Luther. They said, ‘This man who was a priest has changed the doctrine in order to justify his own marriage and his own lust’, and so on. ‘This man’, they said, ‘is an antinomian; and that is heresy.’ That is the very charge they brought against him. It was also brought George Whitfield two hundred years ago. It is the charge that formal dead Christianity – if there is such a thing – has always brought against this startling, staggering message, that God ‘justifies the ungodly’ . . .
That is my comment and it is a very important comment for preachers. I would say to all preachers: If your preaching of salvation has not been misunderstood in that way, then you had better examine your sermons again, and you had better make sure that you are really preaching the salvation that is offered in the New Testament to the ungodly, the sinner, to those who are dead in trespasses and sins, to those who are enemies of God. There is this kind of dangerous element about the true presentation of the doctrine of salvation.
Lloyd-Jones was right: Beware the preacher or the teacher who never hears the charges leveled against Paul and, for that matter, Jesus Christ himself. They are no preacher or teacher of the true gospel of Jesus Christ.
IT MEANS THAT WE’LL BE BLESSED AS WE STAND FIRM (4:31)
31 So, brothers, we are not children of the slave but of the free woman.
For this reason, Paul wants the Galatians to fight for the truth, to expel these legalistic poser-charlatans from their church. Why? Because he knows that freedom leads to flourishing, and slavery to suffering. He knows that there is only one pathway to peace with God and before others: the gospel of Jesus Christ. He knows that if they don’t expel these men, they’ll be disturbed and maybe even destroyed. However, if they do, they’ll preserve the true peace and purity of their church and experience the fuller freedom and flourishing of their souls.
You are free. And you are loved. Don’t forget it.
Let us pray.
Martyn Lloyd-Jones' quote taken from Romans: Exposition of Chapter 6 (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1989) pp. 8-9.