In Galatians 4, Paul teaches us about maturing our relationship with God. In verse 7, he writes, “you are no longer a slave but a child.” For some time, this verse baffled me. I had understood that, if we give ourselves completely to God, then we are His slave, and He our master. Paul himself calls the congregation at Rome “freed from sin and enslaved to God” (Romans 6:22). Jesus warns, “No one can serve two masters… You cannot serve God and wealth” (Matthew 6:24). Psalm 22 ends with a vision of hope for the future: “Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord, and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that he has done it” (Psalm 22:30-31). What, then, are we to make of Galatians 4:7?
The verse’s immediate context reveals the point Paul is making. Paul expounds on what it means to be God’s “heirs according to the promise” (3:29). He writes, “heirs, as long as they are minors, are no better than slaves.” If we put this in the context of an agrarian world in which children contribute labor as best they can, Paul makes complete sense. An eight year old boy will help clean the stalls, but he may not yet decide that the family business needs to buy a yoke of oxen (or a tractor). Even “though they are the owners of all the property,” minors “remain under guardians and trustees until the date set by the father”–that is, until the father grants the children authority over operations (4:1-2).
Paul explains the relevance of this distinction to us. “Because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God” (4:6-7). This does not mean that we are no longer God’s slaves. In verse 7, Paul did not say “you are no longer a slave to God.” In fact, the context indicates that, when Paul refers to our former state of slavery, he is referring to enslavement “to the elemental spirits of the world… beings that by nature are not gods” (4:3, 8). We still serve God with our entire being; indeed, as heirs, we do so with all the more gusto. We are slaves of God, but we are also so much more than that. In pointing to our status as heirs, Paul gives us an enormous amount of freedom, even as God’s slaves.
But here lies something even greater than this freedom. Our existence as heirs and slaves of God, our freedom in serving Him–all this is predicated on the fact that we are, first and foremost, His children. It is easy to become hyper-focused on serving God yet forget that we serve Him because we are His children. Such an attitude blinds us to the plans God has for us. If we see God only as our boss, we will try to serve Him by our own strengths; but God’s “power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). If we map our own plans (which may seem wonderful!) for how we will serve God, no matter how much effort we expend, our service is nothing. Before serving God, we must first cultivate a relationship of learning from God like a son learns his father’s trade.
The scanned manuscript featured at the top of this post is Galatians 4:7 as seen in Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 340. Image taken from the Parker Library on the Web.