Copyright © Rosemary Bardsley 2003



Paul in this section enters into a discussion about covenants. His first point is that, in respect to human covenants it was not possible to set aside or add to what had been 'duly established.' He then turns to the Biblical covenants and contrasts them as follows:

Covenant of law
Covenant of Promise

By inference, and in history, was spoken to many.

Was spoken to Abraham and his seed (singular) - which is Jesus Christ.

Was introduced 430 later than the Promise

Came first by 430 years.

Cannot set the previous covenant aside and therefore cannot do away with the Promise.

Was established by God previously (that is previous to the Law).

Depends on law.

Depends on God's grace and promise.

Was added because of transgressions pending the coming of the Promised Seed.

Was the original covenant.

Was effected by angels and via a mediator.

Was effected by God.

Works with the promises, not contrary to them.

Is not undermined by the Law.

Was never intended to be a means of legal acquittal (righteousness).

Was always the means of acquittal.

Declares the whole world to be a prisoner of sin and so prepares people for the Promise.

Is the purpose of the Law's accusations -so that people will realise their inability and believe the promise.

Held the Jews prisoners in anticipation of the coming of faith.

Was always anticipated by the law.

Had temporary charge - leading people to Christ and to justification by faith.

Ultimate goal of the activity of the Law.

Justification by faith

Is made redundant by the coming of 'faith'.

In the 'coming of faith' this covenant has its ultimate implementation.

We are no longer under the Law's supervision.

We are under the supervision/authority of the Promise.

Paul thus makes it clear that although Law and Promise are contrary and opposed to each other, this is only the case if one is using to the Law as a means of 'righteousness' or legal acquittal in the presence of God. They are not essentially opposed to each other, for the Law Covenant was added with the implementation and fulfilment of the Promise Covenant in mind. The Law Covenant draws its significance and role in God's economy from the Promise Covenant. With the coming of faith in Jesus Christ these roles of the law are made redundant. Its purpose has been fulfilled. It has done its job in driving us to faith in Christ.


B.1 In affirming that the Galatian Christians are 'sons of God' Paul says (3:26-29):

Because of the distinction being made by the false teaching between Jews and Gentiles and between those who observe the law and those who don't Paul attacks this issue from yet another perspective. In 4:1-5 he maintains that the Jews, before faith in Christ, although they might have identified themselves as God's children because they were the physical descendents of Abraham, were even so no better off than slaves, because, in the contemporary society even the heir had no liberty, but was under the authority and instruction of 'guardians and trustees' until he came of age. Paul therefore justifies himself in calling both Jews and Gentiles 'slaves' in their pre-Christian state.

B.2 This common state of pre-faith slavery, and the slavery embraced by the false teaching, consisted of (4:3-9):

B.3 Further description of 'sons' (4:5-9):

Paul has already drawn our attention to the promises given to Abraham, including the promise that through his seed all the nations of the earth would be blessed. Now he tells us that 'when the time had fully come' - that is, the time that all of God's promises, not just this one, were to be fulfilled, were to reach their goal, when all of the Messianic prophecies were to be fulfilled, when the reality behind all the symbols and shadows in ritual, ceremony, history and law was to be revealed - when this time came - God sent his Son 'to redeem those under the law, that we might receive the full rights of sons.'

This statement again points to the slave/son contrast [1] by using the term 'redeem' - that is, to set free from slavery/bondage, and [2] by speaking of receiving 'the full rights of sons' - which were not possessed before. Both the Jewish Christians and the Gentile Christians are involved here as the following verses indicate.

About the 'sons' Paul says:

All of this has become theirs when they believed in Jesus Christ, not by keeping the Law.


C.1 How is it that you are turning back ... ? (4:9)

They now know God - which they did not before - how can they possibly turn back?

They are now known by God - how can they possibly turn back?

What they are turning back to Paul describes as 'those weak and miserable principles' - why turn from God to these?

C.2 Do you wish to be enslaved by them all over again? (4:9)

They have been redeemed - set free from this slavery - why should anyone wish to return to it?

C.3 I fear for you - that somehow I have wasted my efforts on you (4:10,11)

Paul says this because they are submitting themselves to rules about special days, months, seasons and years - as though these things contributed to their salvation, whereas, in reality, such observances were an enslaving bondage. He had literally risked his life in bringing the Gospel of God's grace in Christ to them, and here they are turning back to what the Gospel had rescued them from.

C.4 I plead with you ... become like me, for I became like you (4:12)

Here Paul beseeches the Galatians to become like him - that is, free from bondage to the law. He gives as his reason 'I became like you' - that is, in accepting the grace of God in the Gospel he put aside all the righteousness he had previously thought he had on the basis of law, and became like a Gentile - without these laws. [Read Philippians 3:1-11.] Whereas they, in submitting to the law because of the urging of the false teachers, had become like he was before his encounter with Christ - giving saving/justifying significance to Jewish law and ritual.

Discussion Point #9: Analyse your own relationship with God. To what degree do these concerns of Paul speak to your current perception of your relationship with God? How much significance are you giving to your 'religious' activities and to your ability to keep God's laws? To what degree are you living as a 'slave' rather than a 'son'?

D. A PERSONAL PLEA (4:12-20)

Having urged them to become like he is - not under law but under grace - he says:

Obviously the false teaching has eroded their joy - it has undermined their confidence in Paul and it has undermined their confidence in the message he preached to them. In pulling away from the message, which Paul here identifies as 'the truth', they have also pulled away from Paul, who is now aware of this severance.

He points out to them:

Paul expresses his personal feelings:


To hammer home the stark implications of the choice that the Galatians are making Paul contrasts law and promise, slave and free, the two covenants, and the physical Jerusalem and the spiritual Jerusalem. He says 'You who want to be under the law, are you not aware of what the law says?' Have they really sorted out the implications of putting themselves under the law as a way of salvation?

Under the law
Not under the law

Symbolised by Abraham's son by the slave Hagar, born in the ordinary way.

Symbolised by Abraham's son by Sarah, born according to God's promise.

Represents the Sinai covenant

Represents the new covenant

Corresponds to the 'present city of Jerusalem'

Corresponds to the 'Jerusalem that is above'

This Jerusalem is in slavery - and her children are in slavery

This Jerusalem is free - and so are her children.

Children of promise.



Does not share the inheritance.

Gain the inheritance.

Children of the slave woman.

Children of the free woman.

To our modern, post-slavery ears some of these analogies seem rather coarse and heartless. Nevertheless they forcefully portray the contrast between salvation by law and salvation by grace which Paul wants his readers to come to grips with, and form the basis for the powerful passage that follows in chapter five.