From Slavery to Sonship (Galatians 4:1-7) 

From Slavery to Sonship

Growing from infant to inheritance–Galatians 4:1-7

The doctrine of salvation clarified, verses 3-4

How many of you are under 40 years old? Under 24 years old? Under 18 years old? Under 13 years old? Have you noticed that as a culture, we do not have a clearly determined moment–an age when a child officially becomes an adult? We still have 30-year-olds longing to be Peter Pan, singing, “I don’t wanna grow up.” We have an increasing number of adults who continue to behave more like children. So when do boys become men, and when do girls become women?

In our culture typically, people are considered adults when they become responsible for themselves and others—if that ever happens, at whatever age that is. But that was not the case during the first century–no matter what culture you were a part of, Jewish, Greek or Roman, there was a clear line, a distinct moment, even a specific day when you moved from childhood to adulthood. Ancient customs did vary, but there was usually a prescribed age when a child, especially a boy, would officially come of age and take on the privileges and responsibilities of adulthood.

A 12-year-old Jewish boy would go to synagogue with his father on the first sabbath past his 12th birthday, and the boy would pray a prayer of responsibility, embracing full adulthood. His family would celebrate with a Bar Mitzvah party–and overnight he’d now function as a man in every way. In Greece, the boy was under his father until 18–the family would then celebrate and that boy would function as a cadet to society, with special responsibilities to his city for a period of two years. They would cut his hair, offer it to the gods, and once he completed his duties to his city, he was considered an adult in every way.

In Rome, somewhere between 14 and 17, but always by 17, the boys would take their toys, and the girls would take their dolls and offer them in a sacrifice to the gods as a symbol of putting childhood behind them—no more blankies or barbies. At the ceremony, they would take off their toga with the purple band at the bottom indicating youth, and replace it with the all-white toga of the adult. In the first century society, everyone understood there was a specific time when a child was under his parents–then a specific time when they became an adult.

For us, this transition is fuzzier than ever–but for the cultures of the first century, it was clear, which is why they could understand Galatians 4:1 to 7. But you might wonder what Paul is talking about. Open your Bibles to Galatians 4:1 to 7. If you’re new, we’re studying the letter to the Galatian churches. We believe God’s Word is powerful when taught seeking the author’s intended meaning. We believe as a church, you and I need to hear God’s Word in order to please our Lord. In Galatians 4:1 to 7, Paul pictures a minor child who, though he’s the heir of a great estate, was still under the authority of “guardians and managers” until his father bestows upon him the full rights, privileges, and authority of a mature man. As a child, this minor was no different than a slave in many ways–yet as an adult, he is now free to enjoy the intimacy of relationship and the blessing of inheritance.

You and I need verses 1 to 7 because, like the Galatians, some of you are stuck trying to earn your salvation through obedience, instead of enjoying a relationship with Christ. Others act more like slaves of Christianity than sons of Christ. Many of us have allowed our busyness with secondary commitments to rob us of our intimacy with Christ. And there are those in our midst right now who’ve forgotten that intimacy with Christ is what should drive our prayers, our service, and our daily behavior.

Genuine salvation moves you from slavery to sonship. Being born again moves you from Infancy to Inheritance. But many of us don’t live as sons who have inherited. Today, let’s return to being intimate children of our heavenly daddy. If you struggle with that, then you need to read Galatians 4:1 to 7 aloud with me.

Now I say, as long as the heir is a child, he does not differ at all from a slave although he is owner of everything, 2but he is under guardians and managers until the date set by the father. 3So also we, while we were children, were held in bondage under the elemental things of the world. 4But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, 5so that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons. 6Because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ 7Therefore you are no longer a slave, but a son; and if a son, then an heir through God.”

Paul expands on the analogy of a child’s coming of age by contrasting a believer’s life before salvation (as a child or slave) with their lives after salvation (as an adult and son). Both the Jewish and Gentile readers easily understood this imagery, since all the first century readers–Greek, Roman or Jew all had a ceremony to mark a child’s coming of age. If you read the news, maybe you will get an idea of what’s going on in these verses.

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 a castle, a one-million-pound inheritance, and almost a half-million pounds 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.

Today’s British nobility can illustrate a little of what Paul is describing here in verses 1 to 7. Paul 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. So now Paul will contrast the infant child, who then becomes a man in Christ. Paul will use the understanding of the infant, not yet an adult, living under tutors, managers and guardians, living like a slave–to describe those who are trying to be saved by the Law. Then in contrast, Paul will describe how Christ redeems you, makes you a son–a man, a child of God who now enjoys intimacy and inheritance.

ONE  Don’t remain an enslaved INFANT

Verses 1 to 3, “Now I say, as long as the heir is a child, he does not differ at all from a slave although he is owner of everything, 2but he is under guardians and managers until the date set by the father. 3So also we, while we were children, were held in bondage under the elemental things of the world.” With the phrase, “as long as the heir is a child,” Paul is describing a child who is too young to talk–a minor, spiritually and intellectually immature, and not ready for the privileges and responsibilities of adulthood.

Throughout his childhood, this eldest son knew that someday he would inherit his father’s estate, but he did not own it yet. Look at verse 1–the translation of “although he is owner of everything” is somewhat misleading. More accurately, this young child is the heir apparent, literally the lord of all, or master of all–meaning his father’s land and estate belongs to him by title, but not yet by actual possession. It was all awaiting (verse 2) the date set by the father–when he came of age.

In the meantime, this young heir had about as much liberty as a common slave. Verse 1, “he does not differ at all from a slave.” He had no legal right or property rights. He was under the oversight of a tutor (chapter 3), and now chapter 4 verse 2, “guardians and managers”. 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 trustee or steward to manage his property–especially if his father was deceased.

You British and Batman fans already know until he came of age, the child was called the young master—master or lord, because one day he would inherit the estate. But young was used to keep him firmly in his place. Even though (verse 1) “he is owner of everything.” 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. This season did not last forever. Eventually he received his inheritance, in keeping with the date legally established by his father (verse 2)—”until the date set by the father.”

The point of Paul’s analogy is this–the Law plays a similar role in the story of salvation. The false teachers in Galatia were trying to convince the believers in these baby churches that to grow up and inherit the blessings of God, they must start keeping the Law in order to be saved–get circumcised, go to the Jewish festivals. But verse 3 says it a little more clearly in the ESV, “In the same way we also, when we were children, were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world.” When we were children, pre Christ, we were (NASB verse 3) “in bondage”–enslaved.

Before you finally came to saving faith in Christ, before your coming of age–before that you were in bondage, enslaved to the elemental things of the world. This is a difficult phrase, but I believe it refers to both Jews and Gentiles here. “Elements” is from a Greek word meaning row or rank, and was used  to speak of basic, foundational things like the letters of the alphabet. In light of the Greek word element being also used in verse 9, it is best to see it here as a reference to the basic elements and rituals of human religion, like Colossians 2:8, “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.”

Verse 3, “elemental things of the world” is Paul describing both the Jewish and the Gentile religions as elemental, basic–the ABC’s of belief, because they are all merely human, never rising to the level of the divine. Both Jewish religion and Gentile religion–in fact all the world’s religions center on man-made systems of works. They are filled with laws and ceremonies to be performed so as to achieve divine acceptance. All such rudimentary elements are immature, like the behaviors of children under bondage to a guardian. They are tracing over the letters of the alphabet to learn their ABC’s. They are incomplete–not enough for genuine relationship.

Elemental things of the world” is trying to follow Gentile paganism or Jewish Law. Paul is definitely using this elemental phrase to talk about the Law given to Moses, since he uses the phrase “under the law” in both of the next two verses, verses 4 and 5. So Paul is charging his readers, do not remain an enslaved infant. 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. While we were under the Law as unbelieving infants, we were held in bondage. But each of you can be made free and inherit, if you turn to Christ by faith.

TWO  Pursue Christ to be made into a 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 poetic words. Verses 4 to 5, “But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, 5so that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons.”

Look at this verse, phrase by phrase–each phrase contains incredible truth. Paul speaks of

First  The TIMING of Christ’s coming–the fullness of the time

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 the time when God the Son would come to give all God’s children their inheritance. In God’s timetable, when the exact religious, cultural, and political conditions (required by God’s perfect plan) were in place, Jesus came into the world.

Second  The ORIGIN of Christ’s coming–God sent forth His Son

This celebrates Christ’s eternal deity. Paul says in verse 4, the fact that the Son was sent demonstrates that Christ existed before He was born in Bethlehem. His sending from Heaven declares Christ’s divine nature–the second person of the Trinity, who lived with His Father in glory from eternity past, came from Heaven.

God sent forth His Son.” As the earthly father set the time for the ceremony of his son becoming of age and being released from the guardians and tutors–so God sent His Son at the precise moment, to bring all who believe out from under bondage to the Law. John 6:44a, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.” So eternal God comes to Earth, and is physically (verse 4) “born of a woman”.

Third  The MANNER of Christ’s coming–born of a woman

Whereas the word “sent” implies His eternal deity. The word “born” declares His true humanity. Jesus, eternal God, had an ordinary human 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. Christ is the God-man. Jesus is God in a bod. What better way to emphasize the true humanity of Jesus Christ than to say He was born of a woman?

Paul is emphasizing Jesus’ full humanity, not merely His virgin birth. Christ is one person with two natures–a divine nature and a human nature. And with that human nature, Christ had all the temptations and aggravations you experience without sin. Christ understands you. Jesus had to be fully God for His sacrifice to atone for sin to be acceptable to God, and Christ also had to be fully man so He could embrace the penalty for sin that you deserved and truly be your substitute to take your place–which He did.

Fourth  The CONDITION of Christ’s coming–born under the Law

Like all men, Christ was bound to obey God’s Law. Unlike anyone else, He perfectly obeyed that Law–circumcised the eighth day, He kept all the feasts, obeyed all 613 commandments, celebrated the Passover and He did everything the Law required. Second Corinthians 5:21, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Christ’s sinlessness made Him the final, forever, unblemished sacrifice for sins, who “fulfilled all righteousness,” perfectly obeying God in everything.

And that perfect righteousness is what is imputed to all those who believe in Him, making you able to stand in God’s presence. To live for God now, to stand in God’s presence forever, you have to be perfect. You can’t be, so God did it for you. When you turn to Christ in repentance and faith, He takes your sin upon the cross and He covers you with His perfect righteousness. Verse 5 gives you two purposes for this.

Fifth  ONE PURPOSE of Christ’s coming–so that He might redeem those who were under the Law

Guilty sinners who are under the Law’s demands have disobeyed and now are under the curses of the Law, are in need of a Savior. Christ’s death was more than a rescue–it was also a redemption. In the ancient world, redemption referred to the release of a slave by the payment of a price. If someone was willing to make the payment, a slave’s freedom could be purchased. This is precisely what Christ did for His people. Although you were enslaved to sin, guilt, false religion, idols and the elemental religious things of the world, Jesus paid the price for your freedom when He died on the cross.

God paid the ultimate price when He sent His Son–He sent Christ to die so you could be free, and so you could be family. Which is what Paul says in the second purpose of verse 5.

Sixth  Another PURPOSE of Christ’s coming–that we might receive the adoption as sons

Adoption” is the act of bringing someone who is the offspring of another family into one’s own family. Since unregenerate people are by nature children of the devil, the only way you can become God’s child is by spiritual adoption. And Christ’s coming had an adopting purpose. God sent His Son to make us all His sons and daughters. 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 our God did not stop there. Once Christ had gained our freedom, God gathered us into His family. The Lord went beyond redemption to adoption, turning slaves into sons. It was so awesome, look what it does to us internally in Romans 8:15, “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!’” Leading to . . .

THREE  Enjoy the intimacy and inheritance of FAMILY

God confirms your relationship with you in verse 6, and God blesses your relationship with you now and forever in verse 7. Read them both, “Because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ 7Therefore you are no longer a slave, but a son; and if a son, then an heir through God” (verses 6 and 7). God confirms every one of you who believes as His adopted sons through the gift of the Holy Spirit. Paul calls Him the Spirit of His Son.

You not only have the knowledge of your own sonship through the truth of God’s Word in their mind, but the very essence of sonship through His indwelling Spirit in your heart. You know it and you can feel it as you dependently are filled with his Spirit.

A human father cannot give his own nature to an adopted child, but God the Father can and does, by sending His Holy Spirit to dwell in the hearts of believers. It is the Holy Spirit’s work to confirm to believers their adoption as God’s children. Assurance of salvation is a gracious work of the Holy Spirit and does not come from any human source. It comes to the dependent obedient. It comes to those who want God’s will. Assurance comes to those who seek to follow Christ in all things–not perfectly, but progressively.

God’s true children will cry out to Him as Abba Father. Abba is an Aramaic term of endearment, used by young children to speak to their fathers. Today it would be the equivalent of the word Papa, or Daddy. Abba conveys a sense of intimacy, and Abba points to tenderness, dependence, and a relationship free of fear or anxiety. God the Father confirms His relationship with you, that came only by faith–not Law, not works, or religion. He assures you of your salvation in many ways. One of them is giving you a heart of intimacy with God that is so close, God is your Abba.

For the Galatians, since they had the Spirit of the Son in verse 6, they already had the full rights of sons in verse 7, which says, “Therefore you are no longer a slave, but a son; and if a son, then an heir through God.” Christ is the only one who can transition you from infant under the bondage of the Law, tutors, managers and guardians–to making you a true son, a true child of God. When God adopts you as His child, He promises you an inheritance with Christ. The ultimate outcome of your relationship with God through Christ is inheritance of the Father’s estate.

In the spiritual realm, a person who believes in Jesus Christ is no longer under the Law, no longer its slave–no longer the infant who cannot inherit. Now in Christ, you and I are in the Son and adopted as sons. And if a son, then you’re an heir through God. You’re going to inherit. For some of you, a parent passing away or a will being read, or a promise of inheritance is not a big deal–why? Because you already know the parent is not wealthy and has little to pass on. But when your earthly father had millions, massive possessions, and wants to pass that on to his children who he loved, then that inheritance is a very big deal–you could get excited.

So Christian, what about the inheritance from the one who owns everything that exists. What about inheritance from the one who can offer internal changes and eternal gifts. Are you excited–yet? You should be, you must–this is your focus, not here on Earth. Because just as it was with the ancient laws of adoption, so it is in the family of God. Sonship means heirship. Because every believer is God’s child, you are also. Romans 8:17b, “heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ.” This should cause you to gasp–this is an incomprehensible truth, by giving ourselves to Jesus Christ in faith. God gives us everything His Son possesses.


A  Are you approaching your salvation as a RELATIONSHIP?

You are so close to your heavenly Father, you are free to call Him Papa or Daddy. But just like your relationship with your natural parents, your heart-to-heart relationship with the Lord requires time and effort to season and deepen. Not because you have to, but because you want to. Like a girl you want to marry, you make time and you put out effort. Why? Because of love.

What do you do during this time? If you look at Christ’s own personal relationship with His Father, you see several key attitudes and actions that point you toward intimacy with our almighty Abba. Chuck Swindoll boiled them down to several key commitments which breathe life into your personal relationship with Christ.

•         simplicity—uncluttering your life and mind from things that distract you from God

•         silence and solitude—slowing your pace and making space in your schedules for the Lord

•         surrender—releasing your grip on things that take your attention from Abba

•         prayer—calling out to your Father with our praise, thanksgiving, and petitions

•         humility—bowing your entire life before the will of God, following the Word of God

•         self-control—holding back your own priorities, in favor of God’s priorities

•         sacrifice—giving up all those things God expects you to surrender to Him

To make it happen, you have to stop doing the unnecessary and start doing the necessary. Those activities won’t cause you to be children of God. They don’t earn God’s favor. You must steer clear of a legalistic attitude toward these actions. But if you are going to cultivate a meaningful intimacy with your Father, you will pursue the habits Christ pursued.

B  Are you allowing the Spirit to woo you toward greater INTIMACY?

Did you notice this in verse 6? Look—”God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!”

1  The Spirit leads you to call out “Abba, Father”. The Greek word for crying is a strong word that means a rending, loud cry. It refers to a deep and profound feeling.

2  Crying refers to your prayer life. Just like a normal child does not prepare speeches for his or her parents, so Christians experiencing the work of the Spirit will find a great spontaneity and reality in prayer. Christian praying is never mechanical, and most often not formal, but filled with warmth, passion and freedom.

3  The Greek word for crying describes a sense of God’s real presence. Just as a child calls out automatically to the nearby daddy when there’s a problem or a question, so believers experiencing the work of the Spirit feel the remarkable reality of nearness to God.

4  Abba–which is a babytalk word for Papa or Daddy, signifies a confidence of love and assurance of welcome. Just as a young child simply assumes a parent loves them and is there for them and never doubts the security of daddy’s strong arms, so Christians can have an overwhelming boldness and certainty that God loves them endlessly.

The work of the Son is done externally to us, and is something we can have without feeling. But the work of the Spirit is done internally in us, and consists of us being moved emotionally as well as intellectually by the love of the Father. Are you allowing the Spirit to woo you toward greater intimacy?

C  Have you moved from slave to SON?

This passage makes a contrast between the infant child enslaved, to a son who is an heir. The contrast can help you determine whether you’re an unsaved slave, or an adopted heir. The son has the same nature as the father, while the slave does not. When you trust Christ, the Holy Spirit comes to live within you and you become (2 Peter 1:4), “partakers of the divine nature”. The Law can never give a person God’s nature within. All the Law can do is reveal your desperate need for God’s nature.

The son has a father, while the slave has only a master. Now it’s true, we are slaves of Christ, but it goes beyond that. And in this comparison, no slave could ever say “Father” to his master. When the sinner trusts Christ, he receives the Holy Spirit within, and the Spirit tells him he is a child of his Abba Father. The slave under the Law will never have this relationship. The son obeys out of love, while the slave obeys out of fear. The Spirit works in the heart of the believer to increase his love for God–“The fruit of the Spirit is love.”

The Judaizers told the Galatians they would become better Christians by submitting to the Law, but the Law can never produce obedience–only love can do that. John 14:15, “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments.” The son is rich, while the slave is poor. True Christians are both “sons and heirs.” And since we are adopted–placed as adult sons in the family, we may begin drawing on our inheritance right now. God has made available to us the riches of His grace (Ephesians 1:7 and  2:7), the riches of His glory (Philippians 4:19), the riches of His goodness (Romans 2:4), and the riches of His wisdom (Romans 11:33ff)–and all of the riches of God are found in Christ (Colossians 1:19 and 2:3).

The son has a future, while the slave does not. While many kind masters did provide for their slaves in old age, it was not required of them. But your heavenly Father always provides for His sons and gives them a lavish inheritance (2 Corinthians 12:14). Are the truths of a son found in you, or are you more like the slave? Turn to Christ. Beg to be adopted–become the true child of God.

D  Are you longing for your FINAL redemption?

In one sense, your adoption is not yet final, because you are waiting for the return of Christ and Romans 8:23, “the redemption of your body”. Some scholars believe this second stage in our adoption corresponds to the Roman practice when a man adopted someone outside his family to be his son. First, there was a private ceremony at which the son was purchased. Then there was a public ceremony at which the adoption was declared openly before the officials.

Christians have experienced the first stage–we have been purchased by Christ and indwelt by the Spirit. We’re awaiting the second stage–the public declaration at the return of Christ when, 1 John 3, “we shall be like Him.” We are “sons and heirs,” and the best part of our inheritance is yet to come. By giving ourselves to Jesus Christ in faith, God gives us everything His Son possesses. Let’s pray.

About Chris Mueller

Chris is the teaching pastor at Faith Bible Church - Murrieta.

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