Returning to the example of Abraham, Paul launches into an allegorical look at the two sons of Abraham, Ishmael and Isaac. This is considered by many to be the letter’s most difficult passage. Paul addresses those who desire to be under the law. Do they even understand the law? If they did, they’d see that by desiring to be under the law they desire to come under something that can and will judge them and condemn them. Why would they want condemnation when they could have freedom? Why be the son of slavery when they could be the son of freedom?
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, 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.
Sin makes us illogical. It muddies our mind, causing us to choose things contrary to the right path. Paul highlights this lack of logic in selecting the law over Christ. This passage is difficult to understand because Paul is using allegory. He’s looking back into the Old Testament and finding the hidden meaning in this story. Hagar was an Egyptian slave of Abraham. Sarah was the rightfully married wife of Abraham. There is a stark contrast between the two sons they bear.
“According to the flesh” “Through the promise”
Old Covenant New Covenant
Mount Sinai Mount Zion
Present Jerusalem Heavenly Jerusalem
In these contrasts, Paul is showing the difference between associating ourselves with the law vs. the gospel. Hagar was part of Abraham’s house as a slave, not as a recipient of the law. Sarah, however, was Abraham’s wife, one flesh with Abraham in the promise and, as the mother of the Jewish race, the eventual recipient of the law through her progeny. It is Hagar, however, whom Paul associates with the law rather than Sarah. Why is this? Paul aims to show the spiritual reality that lies underneath our attempts to take matters into our own hands. Paul’s point is less about the persons of Sarah and Hagar, or even Isaac and Ishmael. It is more about the calamity of what results when we take the reigns of our life. When we step into the promise God has made, hurrying it along to fulfillment, we undercut the glory and birth tragedy.
Remember the story. God promises Abraham and Sarah a son. But it feels to them as if God is taking too long. Rather than patiently waiting, as they’ve been doing, they decide it’s time to help God bring about the promise. Their mindset is, as Timothy George has pointed out, “the result of the outworking of the philosophy that God helps those who help themselves.”
Paul is showing us that whenever we believe we must help God achieve his promises, we ruin them. Whenever we step in with our ability, we step out of the place of blessing and into the place of destruction. We trade freedom for slavery. We must be careful how we treat the promises of God. We may treat them like a grand potential rather than a divine grace. This isn’t a slight deviation from faith, nor is it a truer definition of it. Rather, it is the repudiation of faith altogether. It’s our prideful conclusion that God needs us to bring about his divine purpose.
But God doesn't need our assistance to fulfill his promises. Abraham and Sarah's interference resulted in Ishmael, a child of the slave, the father of the Arab race, the opponent of God’s people. When Abraham and Sarah decided they’d help God do what God said he’d do, they undercut the promise and birthed a problem.
Therefore, when we believe adding our works to God’s grace gives us extra credit on his salvation test, our perfect score turns into a failing one. The gospel, if it shows us anything at all, proves God needs only himself to fulfill the promises. The only thing we add to the salvation story is the sin that makes it necessary, not the remedy that makes it achievable.
The false teachers in Galatia stand in a long line of works righteousness soldiers. They believed the same thing as the Jews in the days of John the Baptist. When John the Baptist appeared to prepare the way for Christ, he confronted the Jews, “Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham.” The Jews rested in their lineage, thinking an association was enough to save when it took a new birth altogether. It’s not physical lineage but spiritual lineage that matters. These Jews, thinking they were Isaac’s brothers were, in fact, Ishmael's.
The truth is, we are all either an Ishmael or an Isaac. We are either a child of slavery or a child of freedom. How we relate to God’s word determines which we are. If we, like Paul, hold to the gospel message as God himself first proclaimed it in the person of Jesus Christ, we are Isaac. But if we, like the false teachers, believe the gospel needs our works to gain full righteousness before God, we are Ishmael.
In Galatians 4, however, Paul isn’t talking primarily to the false teachers who were unwilling to throw off the law for grace. He was talking to the Isaacs of the church. The emphatic word in verse 28 is you. Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise. Their identification with Isaac runs the full gamut. Not only are they inheritors of the promise, but they are also persecuted by those who aren’t. Ishmael troubled Isaac when he was a child. In adulthood, his progeny continued the persecuted. All the way down to the present day, Ishmael’s pestering influence is felt. But we know how the story turned out. We know where the place of blessing resides. It’s in the child of the promise, not the slave. We can expect the same treatment from Ishmael that Isaac received. Even so, we can also expect the same treatment from God Isaac received. The world will hate us, but God will love us. Are we ok with that?
1 For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.
2 Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. 3 I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. 4 You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace. 5 For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. 6 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.
7 You were running well. Who hindered you from obeying the truth? 8 This persuasion is not from him who calls you. 9 A little leaven leavens the whole lump. 10 I have confidence in the Lord that you will take no other view, and the one who is troubling you will bear the penalty, whoever he is. 11 But if I, brothers, still preach circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been removed. 12 I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves!
Throughout the letter, Paul is emphasizing freedom in the gospel of Christ. He makes the point again in 5:1. The freedom Paul is explaining here is not so much the freedom from sin regarding bondage but regarding conscience. The writer to the Hebrews tells us that the blood of Christ purifies our conscience from dead works to serve the living God (Hebrews 9:14). Paul’s emphasis is the same—Christ has set us free from a guilty conscience. We do not have to go back under the slavery of the law, performing works to ease our troubled mind. We can take our troubled mind to Jesus and experience his cleansing effect, a cleansing far more thorough than we could ever achieve by obedience to the law.
By telling us not to submit again to a yoke of slavery, Paul is speaking against the false teachers and speaking to those who have passively allowed their rules to weigh them down. Christ did not come to place a heavier yoke on us. He came to remove the yoke. “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)
Jesus’ yoke is indeed easy and his burden light, but his anger toward those who would convince otherwise is hard and heavy. When Jesus entered the temple and found the money-changers and various sellers of goods, he became enraged. He drove them out of the temple court with a whip made with his own hands (John 2:15). The outer court, where these peddlers sat, was the only place in the temple Gentiles could enter. It was there that the Jewish priests should have gone out to the Gentiles, helping them find their way to God. But when Jesus came, he saw no priests helping the Gentiles. Instead, he saw them hindering. They were placing obstacles in the way, saying to them, “Oh, I’m so glad you’re here. Let me sell you an offering that will surely set you right with God.” They complicated things. But Jesus wouldn’t have it. He didn’t come to complicate, but to simplify. He came to remove the barriers to God, and his anger at those in the temple is the same Paul has with the false teachers in Galatia because their methods are the same. They sought to complicate the Gentiles’ coming to God through Jesus by placing the law on top of the gospel of grace. Circumcision and law abiding became for them the oxen, sheep, and pigeons in the court, the sacrifices pleasing to God.
Paul homes in on the issue at hand. These false teachers said the only way to truly come to God is through circumcision. Paul would not have it. John Stott comments:
The slogan of the false teachers was: ‘Unless you are circumcised and keep the law, you cannot be saved’ (Acts 15:1, 5). They were thus declaring that faith in Christ was insufficient for salvation. Circumcision and law-obedience must be added to it. This was tantamount to saying that Moses must be allowed to finish what Christ had begun.
To add circumcision is to lose Christ. Seeking justification by the law is losing justification by grace. The law cannot be parsed, obeying parts and ignoring others. It must be followed entirely or not at all. There is no middle ground. And due to its high standard, no one can fully keep it. God gave it as a driver to God’s grace, yet these false teachers aim to use it as a ladder to him.
We all like the idea of working our way into something. But working out way into Christ is not an option. We can’t achieve our salvation; we must receive our salvation. Like a drowning man in the ocean, we need not just swim harder. We need a rescuer. So, we wait for salvation by faith. “In Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.” If we are in Christ, it does not matter if we are circumcised or uncircumcised. What matters is if we’ve allowed Jesus to set us right with God. If we have, we can disregard the false teacher’s call to justification by law-keeping and rest in the gospel’s call to justification by grace.
Contrary to what we often believe, it is through this right understanding of salvation by grace that produces the proper kind of obedience to the law. Faith works itself out through love. The Spirit given to us in our redemption creates in us a heart that longs to obey God out of love for him and for others. The false teachers’ attempt to get the Galatians to fall in line takes them further from obedience. Paul’s insistence that they come to Christ by grace takes them further in.
We may think a little law is good for us. We shouldn’t get too obsessed with grace. But you can’t add a little law to grace and it all turn out ok in the end. Like adding leaven to a lump, it spreads. The addition of law doesn’t add flavor to the Christian life. It changes the entire form of the Christian life. It looks different, tastes different, is different.
This different gospel the false teachers are spreading is no small problem. They’re ruining the entire church. Paul’s anger burns, and he wishes that those who hold circumcision up as the path toward God would go ahead and cut it all off. If you can gain righteousness by such an act, why not go all in? Why stop there with circumcision. Cut it all away and become super-righteous, if that’s what you think God requires.
Every message is both received and preached. When it comes to religion, there are two, and only two, options. Either we are preaching, and therefore receiving, law, or we are preaching and therefore receiving grace. There is no middle ground. Those who seek it are as lost as the false teachers. You don’t have to emasculate yourself to come to God, but you do have to emasculate the demands of the law as your path to righteousness. Cut it away and receive the healing touch of Jesus.
13 For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. 14 For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 15 But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another.
What is true freedom? In our day, everyone wants it, but no one can find it. To some, it means the ability to choose who you love and marry. For others, it means living apart from dependence on the government. For yet others the definition is fluid: the autonomy to do whatever you want without any hindrance whatsoever. But Christianity alone offers the path to freedom. And, surprisingly to many, that freedom comes through submitting yourself to the rule of Christ. The truth of the matter is this: no matter what we may believe about our experience of freedom, until we have given ourselves as slaves to Christ, we will be bound to the slavery of our desires. We are not wonderful masters. We are oppressors. What we need is an exodus out of slavery—even the slavery of our own making.
What we need is not the fulfillment of our desires but the crucifixion of our desires. We need the Holy Spirit to awaken us to God, and in doing so, awaken us to real freedom—the freedom of God himself. When that happens, we stop treating other people are stepping stones to our freedom and begin serving other people in humility that they might experience the same freedom we’ve found in Christ.
Many misunderstand the freedom Christianity offers. Law-keepers see grace as the pathway to sin. But the Christianity is not freedom to sin. Christianity is freedom from sin. It is possible to use our freedom as a soldier would a base of operations. We can use the freedom we’ve gained as an excuse to go on the offensive, hurtling ourselves toward whatever we want. But to use our freedom in that way is to use freedom as the launch pad back into slavery. If a fish bound to the ocean chooses to use his freedom to jump onto the shore, he will become a slave to the air, and he will begin to die. If he stays inside the ocean, however, he can go and do whatever he wants. Real freedom is not the absence of all boundaries. Real freedom is the presence of proper boundaries. And the only place we can find proper boundaries is in the person who created the borders of the universe.
The false teachers’ self-righteous law-keeping persecuted the believers in the church, including Paul. Since they could not grasp the grace of Christ and the freedom thereof, they captured the Galatians in the snare of the law. Thinking they were obeying it, they instead violated it. They wanted only to make much of themselves, and so they used the members of the church as stepping stones to their personal glory. They took the second table of the law and smashed it on the heads of their fellow church members. To obey the law is to love your neighbor as yourself. They loved only themselves. Whatever good intentions they had, they disobeyed the law because they failed to love others.
The gospel has logic to it, though this isn’t apparent to the merely moral man. The moral man wants only to obey the rules so that he feels good about himself. He aims at the end of his life only to look back and be able to say, “I was a good man. I did some good—more good than bad. I earned my way. I am ok.” But morality is not the life Jesus came and died to give.
The logic of the gospel tells us that our goodness cannot come from us. Adam ruined or chance before we were born. But Jesus Christ entered our world, lived the obedient life we couldn’t live, died the guilty death we deserved, and rose to new life, showing us our future glorification if we will only follow him. The gospel says that we can’t obey because our heart is of the wrong sort. We need a new one. By grace, Jesus has purchased the new heart for us and through the Spirit, regenerates us, removing our hardened heart of stone and replacing it with a tender heart of flesh. This new heart has new capacities of love and obedience the stoney heart could only hope for.
This new heart not only longs to obey God (and since it’s God-given, it has God’s instincts included), it also longs to love others because in doing so, we fulfill the law. The redeemed heart does not despise obedience to God. The redeemed heart is the only heart that truly wants to obey God because its desire is born of God. The unredeemed heart, no matter how “good” the intentions, leads to biting and devouring because only one man can stand on top. But the redeemed heart is willing to lose it all because he has already gained Christ. He needs not bite and devour but humble and serve. In doing so, he finds not a loss of joy but the discovery of it. He’s following his Master’s footsteps all the way to glory.