A commentary on Galatians 3:19-4:5, taken from An Exposition of the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Galatians, Edinburgh 1853.
‘Even so we, when we were children, were in bondage under the elements of the world: but when the fullness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, to redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons. And because ye are sons, God hath sent forth the Spirit of his Son into your hearts, crying, Abba, Father. Wherefore thou art no more a servant, but a son; and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ.’
The Church’s minor state
‘Even so.’ It is just as if the apostle had said, ‘Analogous to the manner in which human fathers manage the education of their offspring, has the Father of the great ‘family in heaven and earth’ conducted the discipline of his children.’ ‘When we were children, we were in bondage under the elements of this world.’ To the question, Whom are we to understand by the persons in whose name the apostle speaks? the answer plainly is, The family of God, the true church, genuine believers. And to the question, What are we to understand by their being ‘children,’ that is, children under age? the proper reply as obviously is, It refers to the state of the church under the law, as one of imperfection, comparative feebleness, and preparation. It does not, however, so properly refer to its condition of subjection to the law – intimated in the phrase ‘were in bondage under the elements of the world’ – as to its imperfection which rendered subjection to such an economy as the law necessary.
‘When we were children’ is just equivalent to, ‘When our knowledge of divine things was limited and indistinct, and all our spiritual faculties in an unripe and imperfect state.’ Now, when this was the state of their spiritual knowledge and faculties, they were obviously utterly unfit to be left to their own management. Something analogous to ‘the tutors and governors appointed of the Father’ was absolutely necessary, and this was found in what the apostle terms ‘the elements of the world’ under ‘the bondage’ of which they were placed.
There are here two questions to which our attention must be turned, What are ‘the elements of the world’? and, How were the children of God under the law ‘in bondage under these elements’? The word rendered ‘element’ properly signifies an order or series, and thence is transferred in a variety of ways to things which stand in an order or series, or to things which keep other things in a series or order. In the classics, it is used of alphabetical characters or letters, as their order is fixed; and by joining them, syllables and words are formed, and regular orderly languages are produced. In a more extended sense, it is employed of things which in any view are ‘elements’ – things out of which other things are constituted or compounded. Peter uses the word of the component elements of the universe. Some have thought that ‘the elements of the world’ here refer to the sun, moon, stars, and other bodies; but the apostle is plainly speaking of the Judaeo-Christian Galatians (we), and even as to the Ethnico-Christian Galatians it is doubtful how far they had been in bondage to these as objects of worship.
To be ‘in bondage under the elements of the world’ is obviously opposed to the being ‘redeemed from the law,’ so that the reference of the phrase is undoubted. It refers to the commandments and ordinances of the Mosaic law, and they seem to be termed ‘elements,’ as elementary modes of instruction corresponding to the alphabet, and suited to children; and ‘elements of this world,’ as the elementary modes of discipline belonging to, and characteristic of, the preparative Jewish dispensation. Now, by the elements here referred to, I understand the whole system of external observances under the law, which, if I may use the expression, may be considered as elements, rudiments, suited to the comparatively childish state of the church at the period referred to. And they are termed ‘worldly elements’ to mark their sensible and external character. In training children, we are obliged constantly to appeal to their senses; we cannot fix their attention in any other way. It is by sensible representations we convey abstract truth into their minds. In like manner, in the childish state of the church, arising out of the imperfect revelation of the economy of grace, and that, again, proceeding from the nature of the case, the church was taught and disciplined by symbolical representations and external services. This worship, though not destitute of spirituality – for everything had a meaning, and that meaning was by no means all concealed – had a great deal of corporeality. It was very much a thing of time, and place, and circumstance. The constant round of such observances was intended, in some measure, to serve as a substitute for that enlightened spiritual, habitual, service of God, which nothing but a clear revelation, accompanied with a full effusion of divine influence, could have produced.
Under these worldly external elementary institutions, the church, in its childish state, was ‘kept’ as in a state of bondage; that is, its members were kept in a restricted, confined state – they were ‘kept’ ‘shut up under the law.’ This was no doubt a far preferable state to that of the Gentiles; for better be the Lord’s bondmen than our own masters, or, in other words, the devil’s slaves. But though a state preferable to that of the Gentiles, and necessary in the peculiar circumstances in which the church was placed, it was not, as we have already showed, in itself a desirable state. It was only intended to be introductory to something better. It was God’s purpose to bring them, his bondmen-children, into ‘the glorious liberty of his grown-up children’; and accordingly the apostle states, that when God by the accomplishment of his promise disclosed the mystery, when Christ being come, there could with propriety be given a full and plain account of the way of salvation through him – such a view of the Divine character as accompanied with divine influence, was quite sufficient without these artificial and worldly elements to lead the believer to the habitual service of God – then the family of God were delivered from that system of restriction to which they had been so long necessarily subjected, and were introduced into the enjoyment of the privilege of grown-up children. This is what is stated in the next verse, one of the most important in the Book of God.
‘But when the fullness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, to redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons.’
In such a passage as that before us, the first point is to endeavor to ascertain what is the leading idea, and what are the accessory ones – what is the trunk, and what are the branches. That is easily done in the present instance. ‘When we were children, we were under bondage; now when the fullness of time is come, we have obtained the adoption of children.’ To the obtaining of this it was necessary that they who were under the law should be redeemed from it; and in order to gain this, ‘God sent forth his Son, make of a woman, made under the law.’
The State of Mature Sonship into which the Church has been introduced
‘The fullness of time’ is a Hebraism for ‘the full time,’ in the same way as ‘the perfection of beauty’ is ‘perfect beauty,’ and ‘the promise of the Spirit,’ ‘the promised Spirit.’ When the full time was come – when the time appointed of the Father was fully arrived – then we, that is, the church, the family of God, obtained the adoption of sons.
The word ‘adoption,’ here, is not used in the sense in which it is employed in theological writings generally. It does not denote the state of a person newly introduced into the family in opposition to that of a person who is not of the family at all – it describes the state of a member of the family raised to a higher station in the family. ‘Adoption of sons’ is equivalent to, ‘the state of mature sons as opposed to the state of infants and children.’ It describes not the state of saints as opposed to that of sinners, but the state of saints under the Christian dispensation in contrast with that of saints under the Mosaic dispensation.
Now, in what does that state consist? In the possession of a larger portion of knowledge of the character of God as a father, in a higher measure of filial love and confidence towards Him, and in a system of religious observances in their simplicity and spirituality suited to this extended knowledge and improved character. Under the Christian dispensation there is a much clearer revelation of the character of God as ‘rich in mercy and ready to forgive’; ‘just, yet the justifier of him that believeth in Jesus,’ than under the Mosaic. The glory of God is most illustriously displayed ‘in the face of his Son Jesus Christ.’ The natural effect of this revelation believed is to destroy ‘the fear that has torment,’ and to fill the mind with filial confidence and love. These sentiments as naturally draw out the thoughts and affections towards God, and thus render unnecessary, and indeed unsuitable, that complicated system of external religious observances which characterized the former economy. Under the Christian dispensation, the ordinances of religion consist chiefly of the simplest possible expression of the sentiments and feelings due to God, and of the direct and obvious means of religious and moral improvement. There is just so much of positive institute, and no more, as to keep us in mind of our duty implicitly to submit to Divine authority, while even these positive institutions are so simple and significant as to have far more in them of spiritual, than of bodily, service. To use the powerful language of the first of English authors (Milton), ‘The doctrine of the gospel planted by teachers divinely inspired, was by them winnowed and sifted from the chaff of over-dated ceremonies, and refined to such a spiritual height and temper of purity, and knowledge of the Creator, that the body, with all the circumstances of time and place, were purified by the affections of the regenerate soul, and nothing left impure but sin; faith needing not the weak and fallible offices of the senses to be either the ushers or interpreters of heavenly mysteries save where our Lord himself in his sacraments hath ordained.’
The Means by which this favorable Change was effected
In order to the church obtaining this ‘adoption of son’ – this state of mature sonship – it was absolutely necessary that the believers under the law should be ‘redeemed’ from it. We have already seen that the system of religious observances under that economy was rendered necessary by, and was suited to, that imperfection of revelation, limited exertion of divine influence, and corresponding imperfection of spiritual character, which prevailed under it. That service, as the apostle informs us, ‘stood only in meat and drinks, and divers washings, and carnal ordinances,’ which could not make them that performed them perfect as pertaining to the conscience, and was imposed only ‘until the time of reformation.’
The removal of that state of things was necessary both in reference to believing Jews who were already in the family of God, and in reference to those Gentiles who by believing were to be brought into it. It was not meet that those in the family, when admitted to the privilege of mature sonship, should continue subject to the restraints necessary in infancy and children; and it was not meet that those admitted into the family in this advanced state, should be made subject to these restraints. Thus it was necessary for them who were under the law to be redeemed or delivered from the law ‘that we’ – that is, both Jews and Gentiles – ‘might obtain the adoption of sons.’
The manner in which this great and happy change in the state of the church was brought about, is thus stated, – ‘God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law,’ that He might ‘redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons.’ This change in the Christian state was highly important, and its importance is marked by the manner in which it was accomplished. It was not accomplished by a mere revelation of the Divine will by an ordinary messenger either angelic or human. It was accomplished by the only-begotten Son of God becoming incarnate, and subjecting himself to the law that he might deliver his church from under it. To bring his ancient church out of the slavery of Egypt and put them in possession of liberty and peace in Canaan, God raised up Moses and Joshua; but to deliver them from the thralldom of the law, and to introduce them into the glorious liberty of God’s children, ‘He sent forth his Son.’
The law under which Christ is here represented as made is the law under which the church was placed before his coming, and from which it was necessary to deliver her in order to the obtaining the adoption of sons. He was made under that law, inasmuch as he was the substitute of all his believing people who had ever been under it, bound to obey its precepts, and to sustain its curse, which they had incurred. It is not at all unlikely that one of the arguments of the Judaizing teachers was ‘Jesus Christ was himself a Jew; he was under the law, and yielded obedience to all its requisitions; he was circumcised and scrupulously conformed to all its injunctions’; and that the apostle had a reference to this in bringing forward the fact. It is as if he had said, ‘It is very true that Jesus Christ was ‘made under the law,’ but it was ‘to redeem them who were under the law.’ So far was the imposition of the law on the Gentiles from being the object of his coming, one of its designs was to deliver the Jews from under it.’
We have already seen that the state called ‘the adoption of sons’ – the state of New Testament privileges and liberty – could not exist along with the state of legal bondage; and we have seen, too, that the only honorable termination to the legal economy was to be found in its precepts being perfectly obeyed, and its curse fully endured, by the Substitute of those belonging to the spiritual Israel who had lived under it. For this purpose it was obviously necessary that that Divine Substitute should become both a man and a Jew, and in human nature, and subject to the Mosaic law, and as all his people under that law were bound to do, and suffer all they had deserved to suffer, and thus lay a foundation for the honorable termination of a system which had served its purpose, and the continuation of which was inconsistent with the higher and better order of things which was now to take place.
Besides, it was the imperfection of the revelation of the way of salvation, attended with a corresponding limited communication of divine influence, which was the cause of that imperfection of spiritual character which made the law necessary as a restrictive system; and it was the fact that the Savior was yet to come, that the salvation was yet to be accomplished, which rendered the imperfection necessary. Now, when the Savior was come, and had ‘finished transgression, and made an end of sin, and brought in an everlasting righteousness,’ a foundation was laid for a full and plain revelation, and this revelation, attended by the influence of the Holy Spirit, produced that state of thinking and feeling in reference to divine things to which such a system of carnal ordinances as the law contained was at once unnecessary and unsuitable, and which fitted the people of God for that simple spiritual order of things which distinguishes the gospel economy.