TEXT: Galatians 4:7-31
As we continue in the Letter to the Galatians this week, we are going to look at the topic of freedom. This isn’t just any freedom; it’s a particular freedom that comes from trusting and receiving God’s promises and living out the blessing of God’s grace in our lives. This whole letter is written to caution the young Christian movement in Galatia that their salvation and life is not a system of rules and behaviors, but freedom rooted in trusting God’s promises.
Paul has cautioned against the influence of some who are peddling a “wooden nickel” religion, an add-on that says salvation is Jesus plus something… in this case, adherence to the Jewish religious law. Paul makes it clear, with the agreement of the Apostles in Jerusalem, that it’s only Jesus, not Jesus plus the Law. Yet we saw last week that the Law is good, it has good uses of restraining evil, showing us our need for God, and guiding us toward Christ. It just can’t save us. If we look to it for that purpose, we are not free, but living under a heavy burden.
In today’s text Paul is going to remind his readers again of the better way of trusting God. He is going to remind them of their early experience of faith in Christ. And he is going to offer an extended illustration from Genesis. Finally, I want to offer a real-life application to try to better explain the importance of understanding the freedom of grace.
Why Go Back? (vv.7-11)
I went back to pick up verse 7, which we ended on last week. It really is the starting point for today’s text. Paul writes, “Therefore you are no longer a slave, but a child; and if a child, then an heir through God.” We are no longer slaves to sin nor children being tutored by the Law. Rather, in trusting God’s promises in Christ, we have been adopted into God’s family as children and God has declared us heirs to all the riches of God’s grace.
So in vv. 7-11 Paul invites his readers to recall the time before they knew God. They were slaves to sin and other “weak and worthless elemental things.” (v.9) He asks how it is that they now keep returning to those things now that they know and are known by God. What are these other things? He mentions observing days and months and seasons and years. Given the context of his teaching on Jewish Law, this is probably a reference to the various feasts and festivals, perhaps being additional requirements being put on Gentile believers in addition to circumcision and kosher food laws. Again, Paul’s argument isn’t that the Law is bad; it has good purposes. But it cannot save or give life.
The ready modern application for us is missing the singular importance of trusting Jesus Christ and equating our faith and salvation with being a good church member. The “stuff” of active membership is not bad unless it serves as a substitute or required add-on for trusting God.
Remember the Blessing (vv.12-20)
In verses 12-20 Paul goes on to remind them that this is not new news to them. He was present among the Galatians when their faith was new and alive with trust in God. He personally experienced the fruit of their faith and ministry when they tended to him during a time of sickness. Though he was sick when he first brought the Good News to them, they tended him and received the message joyfully and faithfully.
But now? He asks, “Where then is that sense of blessing you had?” (v.15) It reminds me of one of the letters in Revelation where the Ephesian church is confronted about losing their first love. Paul is pleading with the Galatians not to let a mis-guided view of the Law burden them and lead them away from freedom and into a spiritual slavery. Again, Paul has noted the good uses of the Law, but what he is seeing is not it!
And so he turns to a story from scripture that they all should know. Again he goes back to God’s promise to Abraham, which came 430 years BEFORE the Law. But as I noted a few weeks ago, even faithful trusting Abraham struggled with trusting God and making his own way. It’s the stories of Sarah and Hagar, found in Genesis 16 and following.
God’s Promise of Freedom (vv.21-31)
God had promised Abraham and Sarah a son… in fact, many descendants (like the stars). This was part of the covenant promises, which also included land and blessing, first to Abraham’s children and then to the whole world. But it all had to start with a son, and Abraham and Sarah were old and Sarah was not able to have children. Yet this was God’s promise.
As they waited for God’s promise to be fulfilled, Sarah and Abraham decided for Abraham to try to have a child with Sarah’s servant, Hagar. This was a common practice in those days, and the son would have some legal bearing as Abraham’s son. God did not tell Abraham and Sarah to do this; they were making their own plan as if to bring God’s promise to fruition on their own. And so Ishmael was born to Hagar and Abraham. Later Sarah did give birth, miraculously, to Isaac and God’s promise was fulfilled.
Paul uses this story in Galatians to illustrate the difference between grace and works. Grace is God’s gift, experienced through trusting God’s promises to us. Works intended to bring about those promises are a form of slavery, illustrated by Hagar’s role as servant, with no choice but to be a part of Abraham’s back-up plan. (Again, there is a proper place for good works that flow out of our obedience to Christ.)
Paul’s point in Galatians with this illustration is simply to say: trust in God’s promises; that’s where Gospel freedom lies!
So what is that freedom like? What does it look like in everyday terms we might understand?
I’d like to share a short reflection by a musician named Ron Block. Ron is a banjo virtuoso (and plays a number of other instruments as well). Among other things he plays with Allison Krauss and Union Station. Ruth Ruane brought him to my attention a number of years ago. I read this reflection called “Thoughts on Practicing Guitar” and thought it was a great illustration of what Paul is teaching here in Galatians 4. And as Ron noted, this could apply to any art form, or to life itself. So even if you aren’t a musician, I hope you can glean the application point here. He mentions two virtuoso musicians in the piece; I’ve substituted one so that they are the two people I showed video clips of at the beginning of the service.
He mentions a “legalism attitude” which is over-dependence on Law, on rules, on me. He mentions “license attitude” which is a false kind of freedom – more like “freedom to do what I want.” And then the “Gospel attitude” which is the freedom to trust God in Christ that Paul writes about in Galatians.
“Thoughts On Practicing Guitar “ (or any art form. or life)
By Ron Block
1. Legalism attitude
“I know I’m not a good player and have very little talent for music. But I have to learn to play just like [John Mayer] or Tommy Emmanuel within a couple of years or people are going to think I’m no good. Guitar is so hard. But I’ll keep trying harder and harder, and I’ll study a bunch of music theory for sixteen hours a day and see if that helps. But that’s all so complicated and hard, too. Music is infinite, so there’s no way to learn it all. It’s so depressing.”
Legalism attitude when practicing and messing up:
“#%&$#! I keep messing up that part! I’m so stupid! <Plays it again, super-hard, in anger>. See, I knew I wasn’t any good. My parents were right. I don’t have any talent, and I can’t understand all this theory. I think I’ll go eat a chocolate bar. I need to study more theory, watch a bunch of guitar videos, and take a break from playing for a few days.” <days of procrastination follow>.
2. License attitude
“I’m not very good, but it’s not my fault. My parents had no musical ability. There’s no way I could ever play like [John Mayer] or Tommy Emmanuel. That’s too hard. What really counts is my sincere intent when I play; it doesn’t matter if my technique is weak. Music is all relative, anyway. Musicians who know a lot and can play really well always think they’re better than other people…..Anyone up for binge-watching Netflix?”
License attitude when practicing and messing up:
“I’m not messing anything up, really. Whatever I play is self-expression. No regrets! Technique is for those show-offs. They don’t understand me.”
3. Gospel attitude
“God has put a love of music in me, and I love playing my guitar – the feeling of my fingers on the strings, the tone, the smell of an old guitar, seeing how expressive I can be with it. Playing for an audience is great, but I love practicing every bit as much. Working on technique helps my intent, my thoughts, and the emotions of my heart come through more clearly, like cleaning a camera lens. I can learn anything if I give it my focused attention. Guitar isn’t hard; all I need is an attitude of faith that I can grow, improve, and become more expressive. This gives me focus and I become fully present in the moment, and then it’s almost as if the guitar and my hands are teaching me. I love [John Mayer] and Tommy Emmanuel, and I learn a lot from them. I imitate them to learn, and then I play around with their ideas and techniques and make up my own music. Music is infinite and God has given me an infinite appetite, so music is infinitely interesting.”
Gospel attitude when practicing and messing up:
“Hmm…I keep messing up that one bit there. I wonder why? I have all the dexterity I need, so it isn’t my ability. Let me play it again and observe. Oh! My third finger is coming up too far from the fingerboard. I feel tension in that finger. I’ll slow down, clear tension, and retrain my fingers to move with ease. Third finger, stay closer. Okay, good. Feels easy. Now play it fast a few times. Yep, good job, fingers. Moving on.”
“God has put a love of music in me, and I love playing my guitar.”
God has put love in me, and I love living life with God.
That’s Gospel freedom. Amen!
Some Music Used
- Prelude Music
- O For a Thousand Tongues/One Great Love
- Death Was Arrested
- Who You Say I Am
- There is a Balm in Gilead – Rick Bean, piano
- No Longer Slaves
- Amazing Grace/My Chains are Gone
- POSTLUDE: Glory to God (Rick Bean, piano)