Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
What were some of the most important events of your life? What events changed everything – things after which your life was never the same? Was it your marriage? Your first child? Graduation? Maybe it was your first car! There was an event which changed things. You said, “I do.” The doctor handed you the newborn. You were given the keys to the car. You received your diploma. These events changed things, and now everything is different, and going back feels like a step backwards in life. A certain freedom comes from getting your first car; many feel like they lose that freedom if their vehicle is taken away.
In our epistle reading, Paul is instructing the Galatians about the Law. The Law is intended to be temporary and serves a specific purpose. It’s temporary because something happened. There has been a life-changing event, and now everything is different. Paul sketches a “before-and-after” picture. First, he describes what used to be the case under the Law. Then Paul tells us what came and changed it all and what is now the case. Paul does this to instruct us about what the Law is and how we relate to it.
I. Our time under the Law (3:23-24; 4:1-3)
Paul talks first about our time under the Law. The apostle uses two images. First, the Law is like a jailer who imprisoned us. Then the law is like a guardian whose discipline was harsh and severe. A guardian was a slave with the job of getting the children to and from school and making sure they don’t get into trouble on the way. In our context, we might call this a “babysitter” or “a strict governess.” He governs the child’s behaviour until the child is of age.
What does Paul mean? How is the Law like a prison jailer or a child’s guardian? First, it might help to review what the Law is. Law tells us the will of God. It tells us what to do and what not to do, and threatens to punish all who break God’s Commandments. The problem is, we have all disobeyed. And so, we all deserve its just condemnation. We are all ‘under sin’ (3:22), and that’s why we are all ‘under the law’ (3:23). The Law places us ‘under a curse’ (3:10, 13). There is nothing we can do to escape. Like a jailer, it has thrown us into prison. Everyone without exception is a prisoner under sentence. We will all have our day in court and will be condemned to pay the penalty of sin. There is no one who can deny his guilt.
The purpose of the Law is to show what we are really like underneath—sinful, rebellious, guilty, and helpless to save ourselves. The Law helps us see that we cannot inherit eternal life by keeping it. We need the Gospel because we cannot keep the Law. That’s why Paul adds a time reference: ‘Before faith came, we were held captive under the Law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed (verse 23). Again, ‘the law was our guardian until Christ came’ (verse 24). The work of the Law is temporary and its ultimately intended not to hurt you. Its purpose is to shut us up in prison until Christ sets us free or put us under a guardian until Christ makes us sons.
We can’t skip the Law and go straight to the Gospel. One big problem of the contemporary Church is the tendency to go light sin and judgment. It doesn’t make us feel good. A sermon that goes hard on sin is hard to hear. (Some of you have expressed that to me). But isn’t that why the Gospel is not appreciated today? People cannot see the beauty of the Gospel because they have not seen the horror of their sin. No one has ever appreciated the Gospel until the Law exposes his sin. It is only against the blackness of the night sky that the stars begin to appear, and it is only against the dark background of sin and judgment that the Gospel shines forth. Not until the Law has arrested and imprisoned us for our sins will we long for Christ to set us free. Not until the Law has condemned and killed us will we call upon Christ for justification and life. Not until the Law has driven us to despair of ourselves will we ever believe in Jesus.
II. God’s action through Christ (3:25-29; 4:4-7)
The goal is not to leave us under the Law. So, what changed it all? God sent his Son. The purpose of the Law is to convict us of sin so that we would be driven to Christ. The Law cannot save you, but Christ can and does. With the death of Christ, everything changes. It’s one of those life-changing events. The crucifixion of Christ bought our redemption. If the law keeps us imprisoned, only Christ can deliver us from there. He can free us from the Law because He was made a curse for us.
Because of Jesus God the Law cannot condemn and imprison us. The Law is no longer a guardian who restrains and chastises us. God sent His Son to purchase our freedom from slavery. Jesus was sent so freedom could be won and the slaves could be set free through his death. And God does not just rescue us from slavery, but he also forgives us and makes slaves into sons. God is now our Father, who has accepted and forgiven us in Christ. We no longer fear Him. Do not dread the punishment you deserve. We are not prisoners awaiting the final execution of our sentence. Neither are we minors, under the restraint of a guardian. We are adopted sons of God and heirs of His glorious kingdom, enjoying the status and privileges of grown-up sons.
Since we are no longer under the jurisdiction of the Law, we are now spiritually of age. We have grown up; we are adult children of God. The babysitter’s services are no longer required. We have entered into a beautiful relationship with God the Father through faith in Christ. Faith is laying hold of Jesus Christ personally. It has no merit; it is not another ‘work’. The value is not in faith but entirely in its object, Jesus Christ. As Luther put it, ‘faith … apprehends nothing else but that precious jewel Christ Jesus.’ Christ is the Bread of life; faith feeds upon Him. Christ was lifted up on the cross; faith gazes at Him there.
We are not ‘under the law’, which means we are not condemned and imprisoned by it. We don’t have to earn God’s favour by trying to keep it. We are ‘in Christ’ (verse 26), united to Him by faith. Despite your grievous law-breaking, God has accepted you for Christ’s sake. How do we know we are “in Christ”? Paul answers: we were all baptized into Christ. We become children of God by faith through the Sacrament of Baptism. Our baptism was done in Christ. Our baptism is the means of our union with Christ. All the benefits of Christ’s death are applied to us in Holy Baptism. We have entered into the most intimate relation to Christ since we are clothed with Christ’s innocence, righteousness, wisdom, power, salvation, and life in baptism.
Paul also says that we are all Abraham’s heirs. God made a promise to Abraham after Abraham asked who his heir would be. God replied with the promise of a vast family. Paul insists that all the baptized are part of that family. We are part of God’s family, and every possible ground for boasting is removed, whether we boast about race, social status, or sex. We are all utterly dependent on the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, not what makes us different. We are full members in Abraham’s family with all the rights of an eldest son. That’s why we are “heirs.” If Abraham was promised the world, then that is what we will inherit. You are heirs, not by nature, not by merit, certainly not by the Law, but according to the promise. Your inheritance is righteousness before God, everlasting life, and salvation because of the promise proclaimed to Abraham. Not by the works of the Law, but by faith, these gifts become yours.
It would be an insult to Christ, our Savior, if we would voluntarily place ourselves under the Law with the idea that we can fulfil it. This passage challenges us to take comfort in what God has already graciously done for us in Christ. He has forgiven our sins. He has adopted us into his family. If you think you earn God’s favour by reading Scripture, praying, worshipping with others, or doing works of service, then you are still under the Law. We do not need to do anything to win God over. He is already on our side. God has freely adopted each one of his people into his family. God the Father has sent Christ Jesus to redeem us and “sent forth” God the Holy Spirit to assure us of his tender, fatherly care.
Paul painted a vivid contrast between those who are ‘under the law’ and those who are ‘in Christ’. Those under the Law are in custody, like prisoners in jail or children under a babysitter. We cannot come to Christ to be forgiven until the Law has first condemned us. But once we have gone to Law and acknowledged our sin, guilt and condemnation, we must not stay there. If we stay ‘under the law’, we are enslaved. We would not know forgiveness. It is sad to be in prison and the nursery when we could be grown up and free. And our time under the Law ends with Christ. We relate to God, not by what we do, but by what his Son has done for us. Because of Christ, God has forgiven us, and adopted us as heirs of all God’s promises. In baptism we put on Jesus like a robe. We are covered with His perfection and holiness. If we are ‘in Christ’, we have been set free. That’s how the Father sees you, and how He delights in you. God’s Law is no longer our jailer or babysitter, instead it has pointed us towards Christ where we have found forgiveness, life, and salvation.
May, the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.