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Bible: What Does Galatians 4 Teach Us About Salvation by Grace Alone and Legalism?

Updated on September 15, 2016

Self-Righteous Law Keeping



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Galatians 4: Salvation by Grace Alone/Paul Battles Judaizing Doctrine

Legalism Explained

Paul next draws upon the customary procedure in matters of human inheritance as an analogy to Christians’ relationship to the Father (vv. 1-7).

Roman or Greek children who have not yet come into their inheritance must submit themselves to the care of guardians and stewards until that time arrives (vv. 1-2).

Likewise, the legalistic practices of Judaism (“elements of the world”) shackled former Jews (“children”) until the virgin-born Son of God entered the world, God having fully prepared the people for the Messiah’s arrival (vv. 3-4a).

Reared in an orthodox Jewish home, Jesus conformed Himself to the Mosaic Law’s teachings.

Not being a sinner against that Law, He paid the ransom to buy back from the slave market of sin (redeem) those who were under the Law’s condemnation for having transgressed it.

Not only did this transaction free sinners from bondage, but it also opened the way for God to adopt believers in Christ into His family and to send His Spirit by Whom they could now address Him as Father (vv. 4b-6).

Paul concludes that the Galatians have left legal obedience behind as a supposed means of attaining salvation (“no longer a slave”), and have become male heirs of God by trusting the Lord Jesus as their personal Savior (v. 7).

The apostle provides the Galatians with a “before-after” picture of their lives that showed them where they now stood spiritually.

Before they knew God personally, they served (worshiped?) other “gods,” which were actually not gods (v. 8).

Paul wonders why, after starting a relationship with the true God the right way (that is, through faith), the Galatians had begun to revert to “the weak and beggarly elements” of legal obedience (v. 9).

He notes that, by starting to keep special calendar events again, they demonstrate their backsliding (v. 10).

[“Weak and beggarly elements,” therefore, equate to “days and months and seasons and years.”]

Such inconsistent behavior causes Paul to fear that he had wasted his time working with them (v. 11).

Verse 12 requires some speculative unpacking, for Paul does not explain what he means.

Addressing the Galatians as brethren, Paul strongly advises them “to become like me, for I became like you.”

[Perhaps the NASB expresses Paul’s words more clearly: “become as I am, for I have also become as you are.”

Three questions arise:

(1) How did Paul become as the Galatians are?;

(2) In what specific way does he want them to become as he is, because he became as they are?; and

(3) What significance does his statement “you have not injured me at all” have in this context?

Three possible answers follow:

(1) In order to reach the Galatians with the gospel, Paul had to adopt their ways for the time he was with them; in a sense, he became as they were;

(2) Because he was willing to change his lifestyle for their spiritual welfare, he wanted them to follow his teachings and imitate his life as he follows Christ; and

(3) Their reversion to Judaistic practices concerns him, but they have never harmed him personally.]

The next sentence (v. 13) also contains an element that makes Paul’s meaning unclear.

How could physical illness be the cause of the apostle’s preaching the gospel to the Galatians?

Paul’s physical infirmity at the time did not cause them to shun him or his message; instead, it apparently motivated them to receive him as warmly as they would have received Jesus (v. 14).

The apostle comments upon the childlike, generous attitude they showed him the first time they met (v. 15).

Now, however, he thinks that some of them regard him as their enemy because he told them the plain truth of the gospel (v. 16).

He asserts that the Judaizers (“they”) manipulate the Galatians’ emotions, and then threaten to exclude them from fellowship unless they follow their dictates (v. 17).

Paul’s opponents appear to care about the Galatians when he is present; however, when the apostle is not among them, their zeal for the churches wanes (v. 18).

Addressing them warmly as “my little children” and acknowledging that he must continue to work with them until they become mature believers, Paul nevertheless expresses dismay about their present spiritual condition (vv. 19-20).

Mount Sinai


The New Jerusalem


Paul's Use of an Allegory

To illustrate why the Galatians should not want to be under the Law, Paul uses allegory to depict a true condition in the lives of certain Old Testament characters (v. 21).

The apostle employs the historical reality of Abraham having two sons (Isaac and Ishmael)—the former being born through the promise to a free woman and the latter according to the flesh to a bondwoman (vv. 22-23)—and makes this reality symbolize the Older and the New Covenants (v. 24a).

On the one hand, Hagar, the bondwoman who gave birth to Ishmael, represents Mount Sinai in Arabia, the place where Moses received the Law (the instrument that led God’s people into bondage to sin because they perverted its purpose).

Mount Sinai corresponds to the earthly Jerusalem of Paul’s day where the Jews are likewise in bondage (vv. 24b-25).

On the other hand, “the Jerusalem above,” referring to the New Jerusalem, symbolizes the New Covenant and is free from sin’s condemnation (v. 26).

Paul quotes Isaiah 54:1—a verse which depicts a millennial scene in which Israel, represented as barren, will bear “many more children than she who has a husband” (v. 27).

[Having many children signifies God’s blessing; barrenness points to His curse.]

The apostle explains to the Galatians that just as Isaac occupied the position of a child of promise, so do they (v. 28).

As Ishmael (“he who was born according to the flesh”) persecuted Isaac (“him who was born according to the Spirit”) then, so unbelievers persecute Christians in Paul’s day (v. 29).

Paul points out from Genesis 21:10, 12—actually, God spoke these words to Abraham, indicating the apostle’s belief that the spoken word of God and Scripture possess the same authority—that the people of the promise should not accept the son of the bondwoman (v. 30).

He concludes this lesson by implying that, as children of the free woman, the Galatians should reject the children of the bondwoman (the Judaizers) [v. 31].

© 2013 glynch1


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