The Giving of the Law: Part II (Commentary on Gal. 3:19-4:5) by John Brown

By April 19, 2011 April 12th, 2016 The Law of God

A commentary on Galatians 3:19-4:5, taken from An Exposition of the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Galatians, Edinburgh 1853.

State of the Church after ‘faith has come’

‘But after that faith has come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster: for ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus.’

The meaning of the phrase, ‘the coming of faith,’ has already been illustrated. By ‘faith’ we understand the gospel revelation, not only as given, but received. ‘After that faith is come,’ is, we apprehend, equivalent to, ‘After that the truth about the come Savior, and the completed revelation, has been made known to us, and believed by us.’

‘We are no longer under a schoolmaster.’ These words seem a statement not only of the fact, but of the reason of it. It is as if the apostle had said, ‘We are no longer, and we no longer need be, under such a restrictive system as that of the law. The necessary imperfection of the revelation of the method of salvation, till the Savior appeared and finished his work, and the corresponding limitation of the dispensation of divine influence, rendered such a restrictive system absolutely requisite; but the cause having been removed, the effect must cease. Till faith came, it was necessary that we should be under the tutelage of the law; but now that faith is come, we need our tutor no longer. When the child, in consequence of the development of his faculties, and the completion of his education, becomes a man, and capable of regulating his conduct by internal principles, the tutor is dismissed, and his pupil is freed from external restraints now understood to be superseded by the expanded, instructed, disciplined, rational and moral powers of his nature.’

It is plainly on this principle that the apostle reasons; for he immediately adds, ‘For ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus.’ ‘Faith being come, you no longer need a tutor; for by faith in Christ Jesus ye are all the children of God.’ The change of the person from the first to the second, from we to ye, is easily accounted for. The language in the twenty-fifth verse is strictly applicable to believing Jews only, who once were under the tutelage of the law; the statement made in the twenty-sixth verse is equally applicable to believers, whether Jews or Gentiles, to all the Galatian converts, and is plainly intended to lay a foundation for this conclusion – ‘if the coming of the faith emancipates those believers who were under the tutelage of the law, it surely must prevent those believers who were never subject to it from being brought under its bondage.’

To perceive the force of the apostle’s reasoning it is necessary to observe that the figurative appellation ‘children of God’ is here used with a certain peculiarity of reference and meaning. When Christians are represented in Scripture as the children of God, we have a view given us sometimes of their state, and sometimes of their character, and sometimes of both conjoined. We are taught either that God regards them as his children, or that they regard Him as their father, or both. To speak in technical language, it sometimes represents them as justified, and sometimes as sanctified, and sometimes as both justified and sanctified. In most of the passages where this figurative expression occurs, it describes the state and character of saints, in opposition to the state and character of unconverted, unforgiven, unsanctified sinners. But in the passage before us, it obviously describes the state and character of saints under the Christian dispensation, in contrast with the state and character of saints under the Jewish dispensation. The persons spoken of as having been under the law, previously to the coming of faith, are not represented as aliens from the family of God. They belonged to it; but being under age, they were ‘under tutors and governors till the time appointed of the father,’ when they were to receive, what our translators call, ‘the adoption of sons’ – the privileges of grown-up children. There can be no reasonable doubt then that the phrase ‘children of God’ is here equivalent to grown-up children.

The meaning of this language is not obscure. It is as if the apostle had said, ‘There is as great a difference between the privileges you possess, and the character of love to God, and confidence in Him, and submission to Him, to which you have been formed, and the privileges and character of those who lived under the law, as there is between the state and feelings of a son arrived at maturity, and having finished his education, and those of the same child while an infant or still under the care of the nurse and the tutor; and it were not more incongruous for such a person to insist on still remaining in the nursery or the school – to have all his movements watched and regulated by servants – than it is in you believers in Christ to seek to remain under the bondage of the law, not to speak of your subjecting yourselves to that bondage.’

It is ‘through faith in Christ Jesus’ that they were introduced into the privileges and formed to the character of mature children. ‘Faith in Christ Jesus,’ here as in the whole of the context, is equivalent to the revelation of the truth about Christ Jesus viewed as believed. It is by this revelation believed that Christians obtain that knowledge of the Divine Being as ‘the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,’ and our God and Father in him, which at once fills them with joy and peace, and forms them to that love and confidence in Him which leads them to ‘serve Him without fear,’ and to ‘walk at liberty, keeping his commandments.’ To such persons the restrictions of the Mosaic law are unnecessary, and its carnal ordinances altogether unsuited; and such is the state into which every believer of the gospel is brought, and such is the character to which every believer of the gospel is formed.

We are now prepared to feel the force of the apostle’s reasoning. ‘Now that the gospel revelation has been made, and believed by us, we stand no more in need of such an elementary, restrictive, external dispensation as the law; for through this gospel believed we are introduced into a state, and formed to a character, to which such an introductory institution, however well fitted to serve its own purposes, is utterly unsuited.’

That this high honor of being ‘the children of God’ is not peculiar to any class of believers, but common to them all, is the principle which the apostle states and illustrates in the succeeding verses. ‘For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ.’ This is the privilege of all believers. For the apostle add, ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.’ The general idea obviously is, that under the Christian dispensation our religious privileges depend on nothing but our connection with Christ Jesus, which is formed entirely by faith. External distinctions are here of no avail. It is neither as a Jew nor as a Greek equivalent to a Gentile, as a bondsman nor as a freeman, as a man nor a woman, but purely and solely as a person ‘in Christ’ that the believer enjoys any spiritual blessings. And all who are in Christ Jesus are blessed with the same privileges. Believers when they have put on Christ, put off these external distinctions, and appear, as it were, all one in Christ Jesus.

Figurative illustration of these two states

There is an unhappy disposition in mankind to overlook and underrate the advantages which they enjoy, while at the same time they often attach an utterly disproportioned value to supposed advantages of which they are destitute. It is in consequence of this that they so eagerly, in many cases, exchange real for fancied good; and find, too late, that they have made ‘a senseless bargain.’ It is in consequence of this, too, that in circumstances furnishing everything requisite to substantial comfort we find so many completely miserable, just because they are without something or other which, whether right or wrong, they have imagined to be necessary in order to make them happy. It is quite possible that the attainment of this very something might be productive of pain instead of pleasure – it is absolutely certain it would not produce the effect of perfect satisfaction which is anticipated; but in the meanwhile the want of it embitters every source of enjoyment, and keeps the mind restless and unsatisfied.

It is distance which lends enchantment to supposed advantages and pleasures; and the best way to secure ourselves from this fascination, is to endeavor to bring them near the eye of the mind, and thoroughly scrutinize them alongside of those possessed advantages for which we may be tempted to exchange them. In that case, we shall often find that what was a seeming advantage would be a real and important disadvantage to us; and we shall uniformly find that the most promising of these advantages has its accompanying disadvantages, and is far indeed from that unmingled good which fancy told us of.

The Galatian Christians, chiefly of gentile origins, were in great hazard of being led dangerously astray by that principle in human nature, to the operations of which I have been adverting, at the period the apostle Paul wrote this epistle to them. By the tender mercies of God they had been delivered from a state of heathen ignorance, immorality, and wickedness, and made partakers of that peace and purity which flow from the knowledge and faith of the truth as it is in Jesus. ‘In him they had redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins’; they were ‘sanctified in his name, and by his Spirit’; and, in the enjoyment of his consolations, and the hope of his glory, they were ‘walking in all his commandments and ordinances blameless.’ How happy must they have been, had they been but aware of their happiness! But, yielding a too ready ear to the statements of some Judaizing teachers, they began to think that, to complete their spiritual dignity and happiness, they must submit to the initiatory rite of the Jewish economy, and yield obedience to all its ritual requisitions. Nothing seemed so venerable as this kind of connection with the holy family; and, instead of moving onwards in that holy happy course on which, by the belief of Christian truth, they had entered, they were in extreme hazard of being drawn aside to the by-paths of ceremonial services, in which, whatever exercise for the body they might find, they would experience no improvement to the mind, no rest to the conscience, no peace to the heart.

The apostle, who watched over them with the tender anxiety of a spiritual parent, uses the appropriate remedy. He strips the legal economy, now become obsolete, of the false splendor with which the Judaizing teachers had contrived to surround it. He brings it near to them – fully unfolds its nature and design – distinctly shows that it was an introductory, imperfect, and temporary dispensation – that what they strangely had been led to account dignity was indeed in their case degradation – what they called going forward was indeed going backward – what they gloried in as progress was in reality all but apostasy. He sets the state of Judaism alongside the state of Christianity, and distinctly shows the Galatians that in their case the two were utterly incompatible, and certainly not to be for one moment compared with each other: in plain words, he assures them that if they were determined to be Jews, they must cease to be Christians; and that, if they did make such an exchange, they would have to regret it now and for ever.

To make the thing, as it were, palpable to them, he brings it before their minds in a variety of aspects, and illustrates it by various analogies. One of the most striking of these lies now before us. He illustrates the principles he has laid down by a domestic analogy, showing that it would not be more unnatural or absurd for a family of children arrived at maturity to insist on being again subjected to all the restraints of the nursery, than it would be for them, after being introduced into the glorious freedom of God, voluntarily to subject themselves to the servitude of the Mosaic institution.

There should have been no division of chapters here. The careful reader of the epistles must often find occasion to notice that the division of chapters and verses is far from being uniformly judicious.

‘Now I say, That the heir, as long as he is a child, differeth nothing from a servant, though he be lord of all; but is under tutors and governors, until the time appointed of the father.’

The expression, ‘Now I say,’ is just a phrase of transition. It introduces an explanation or modification of what has been said, as chapter three, verse twenty-six.

The reference here does not seem to be, as we have remarked, to the case of the proprietor of an estate leaving the management of the education and property of an only son in infancy or childhood, the heir of his property – the one to the charge of tutors, the other to the care of governors and stewards – till the period which the father in his will had fixed for his son entering on the uncontrolled possession of his rights. This would not well correspond with what it is intended to express – the state of the children of the ever-living God. The reference seems plainly to be to what ordinarily took place both in Jewish and Greek families, even during the life of the father. In these families, the son, though destined ultimately to be the possessor of the father’s property, and called among the Romans, during his minority, herus minor, as with us, the ‘young master,’ was, in so far as independent management was concerned, in a state not superior to that of a servant. He was obliged to rise and go to bed, to work or rest, to study or amuse himself, according to the will of others. Like the servant, he was altogether a person ‘under authority.’ The management of his time and occupation was committed to slaves, who were themselves entirely subject to the command of the father of the family; and this state was continued till the time fixed by the father for his son being freed from this system of restrictions, and entering on the exercise of his independent right.

‘Son,’ and ‘servant’ or slave, are tacitly opposed to one another. ‘Ye are now children; what were they before? what could they be but slaves? Is not the family made up of these two classes? and it is more than hinted that the situation of those whom he was addressing previously to their becoming Christian was comparatively a servile one. This suggestion could not be very agreeable to the Jewish part of the Galatian church; and they might appeal to the Old Testament Scripture for proof that even under the former economy they were ‘children of God.’ The apostle does not deny that even under the law they had a sonship; but he clearly implies that that state was by its restrictions very similar to a state of servitude.

The word rendered ‘children,’ signifies persons of immature age, whether in infancy or under training. The word rendered ‘tutor,’ denotes one to whom is entrusted the power of management of property or persons. In a civil sense, it is applied to provincial magistrates; in a domestic sense, to the managers of farms and estates. The word rendered ‘governor,’ signifies a house-steward to whom the management of the domestic concerns was entrusted. Such was Eliezer of Damascus in Abraham, the rich Emir’s, establishment. The tutor or governor is not the same as the official styled ‘the schoolmaster,’ whose sole business was to take care of the children; but while under age, the children, as to pecuniary matters, were under the tutor and governor. The expression ‘until the time appointed of the Father,’ is of itself sufficient to prove that the reference is not to the children of a dead proprietor under the care of what we call trustees or tutors; for the period of tutelage was fixed among the Greeks and Romans, not by the testament of the father, but by the civil law. The minor son, though ‘lord of all,’ destined to be the proprietor of the estate, ‘differs,’ so far as restriction is concerned, ‘nothing from a servant’ – a slave.

The condition of the minor son was thus to be borne patiently – it was vastly preferable to abandonment; viewed in contrast to such a state, and in reference to the object in view, the preparing the son for a higher position, it was a condition to be thankful for – but certainly in no point of view was it to be fondly cleaved to when its ends had been answered, or preferred to the liberty for which this state of restriction was intended as a preparation.

Let us now see how dexterously the apostle turns this familiar fact to account, as an illustration of the subject more immediately before him.