The Giving of the Law

John Brown

The following material by John Brown (1784-1858), Professor of Exegetical Theology at the United Presbyterian College, Edinburgh, illustrates the classical Reformed doctrine that under the New Testament there is, in the words of John Murray, a “discontinuance of certain regulatory provisions in the jurisprudence of Israel under the law of Moses.”(1) Professor Murray writes further: “It is true that certain regulations both preceptive and punitive, regulations which governed the observance of the Sabbath under the Mosaic law, do not apply to us under the New Testament. In Israel it was distinctly provided that they were not to kindle a fire throughout their habitations upon the Sabbath day (Exod. 35:3). It was also enacted that whosoever would do any work on the Sabbath would be put to death (Exod. 35:2). . . . Now there is no warrant for supposing that such regulatory provisions both prohibitive and punitive bind us under the New Testament. This is particularly apparent in the case of the capital punishment executed for Sabbath desecration in the matter of labor. . . . There were regulations in connection with the other commandments, regulations which we have no warrant to believe apply to us under the New Testament. For example, in respect of the fifth commandment it was provided that the man who cursed father or mother was to be put to death (Exod. 21:17; Lev. 20:9). In respect of the seventh it was provided that the adulterer and the adulteress were to be put to death (Lev. 20:10). Now, however grievous these sins are, we do not believe that the sanction by which they were punished under the Mosaic law is applicable under the New Testament. Such provisions of the Mosaic law are so closely bound up with an economy which has passed away as to its observance, that we could hold to the continuance of these provisions no more than we could hold to the continuance of the Mosaic economy itself.”(2)

See also Patrick Fairbairn’s treatment of the distinction between the decalogue, the judicial law and the ceremonial law, in Lecture IV of his The Revelation of Law in Scripture. Fairbairn (1805-74) was the author of several Reformed classics in the field of biblical interpretation, such as Typology of Scripture and The Interpretation of Prophecy, and taught at the Free Church Colleges in Aberdeen and Glasgow in the same period that William Cunningham was principal of the college in Edinburgh.

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

Design and Mode of Giving of the Law

What then was the design of the law? This is the question which, in the next paragraph, the apostle considers; and in its discussion he makes it evident, that the Mosaic law, so far from being opposed to the covenant or arrangement revealed to Abraham, was a necessary means of securing the accomplishment of its provisions. Let us look at the passage with that closeness of attention which it at once requires and deserves.

“Wherefore then serveth the law? It was added because of transgressions, till the seed should come to whom the promise was made; and it was ordained by angels in the hand of a mediator.”

There can be no reasonable doubt as to the meaning of the term “the law” here. It is obviously the Mosaic institution viewed as a whole. It is neither what has been termed the moral law, nor the ceremonial law, nor the judicial law, which theologians have been accustomed to treat of as three distinct codes; but it is the whole arrangement or covenant under which the people of Israel were placed at Sinai.

The apostle has showed that that law could not be the means of justification, and that it was never intended for this purpose. Now, if it cannot serve this purpose, what purpose does it serve? I do not think we are to consider the question as an inquiry into the designs and uses of the Mosaic law generally, but as to its design and use in reference to the arrangement that justification was to be by faith through the Messiah; and especially, that justification by faith through the Messiah was to be extended to the Gentiles. If this is not kept in view, the apostle’s account may appear defective, while in reality it is complete, so far as his object required.

The answer is, “It was added because of transgressions.” The law was added or appended. It was a separate subordinate institution, not an alteration of or addition to the original arrangement. Now, in what way was it added? The question is easily answered. The revelation of justification by believing, which was substantially the same revelation that was made to our first parents after the fall, was given to Abraham, and was to be preserved by his descendants. This was a sacred deposit which they were to preserve pure and entire, till the great Deliverer, to whom it referred, should make his appearance. To this revelation, termed “the promise,” committed to the Israelites, “the law” was added or appended. God, who gave the promise to Abraham, thought fit, at least four hundred and thirty years after, to impose the law on his posterity.

For what reason was it imposed? It was, “because of transgressions.” This passage has very generally been considered as parallel with the declaration of the apostle, – “Moreover, the law entered that the offence might abound,” and has been very variously interpreted. The ordinary interpretation is very well given by Barnes. “The meaning is, that the law was given to show the true nature of transgressions, or to show what was sin. It was not to reveal a way of justification, but it was to disclose the true nature of sin; to deter men from committing it; to declare its penalty; to convince men of it, and thus to be ‘ancillary’ to, and preparatory to, the work of redemption through the Redeemer. This is the true account of the law of God as given to apostate man, and this use of the law still exists.” It is strange that so acute an interpreter did not see that the clause, “till the seed should come,” is quite inconsistent with this exegesis. If “the law” referred to could do all this, “why,” as Riccaltoun shrewdly remarks, “why was it limited to the time that the Seed should come who had the promised blessing to bestow, as the apostle plainly says it was?” Without noticing any more of the different ways in which these words have been explained, I shall state as clearly and briefly as I can what appears to me to be the apostle’s meaning.

“The transgressions,” on account of which the law was added, refer, I apprehend, to the criminal conduct of the Israelites, which rendered the introduction of such a system as the law necessary in order to the attainment of the great object of the covenant about Christ, and justification by faith through him. This arrangement was first made known in the first promise, but from the prevalence of human depravity, it seems to have been in the course of ages almost entirely forgotten. “All flesh corrupted its way on the earth.” The deluge swept away the whole inhabitants of the ancient world, with the exception of one family, among whom the true religion was preserved. In the course of no very long period, the great body of their descendants, the inhabitants of the new world, became idolaters. To prevent the utter extinction from among mankind of the knowledge of God and the way of obtaining his favor, Abraham was called, and a plainer revelation made to him of the Divine purposes of mercy, and his descendants by Isaac and Jacob chosen as the depositories of this revelation, till He should come to whom the revelation chiefly referred. In consequence of the descendants of Jacob coming down into Egypt, they gradually contracted a fondness for Egyptian superstitions, and were fast relapsing into a state of idolatry, which must soon have terminated in their being lost among the nations, and the revelation with which they were entrusted being first corrupted and them forgotten, when God raised up Moses as their deliverer, brought them out of Egypt, and placed them under that very peculiar order of things, which we commonly term the Mosaic law – an order of things admirably adapted to preserve them a distinct and peculiar people – and by doing so, to preserve the revelation of mercy through the Messiah, of which they were the depositories, and to prepare abundant and satisfactory stores of evidence and illustration when the great Deliverer appeared – evidence that he was indeed the person to whom the hopes of mankind had from the beginning been directed, and illustration rendering in some measure level to human apprehension what otherwise would have been unintelligible.

Every person acquainted with the principles of depraved human nature, and with the history of the Jews at and subsequent to their deliverances from Egypt, will see that their “transgressions” rendered some such arrangement as the Mosaic law absolutely necessary, on the supposition that the Messiah was not to appear for a course of ages, and that the revelation of salvation through him was to be preserved in the world by means of the Jewish people. We are not so much, if at all, to consider the Mosaic law as a punishment for the transgressions of the descendants of Abraham. We are rather to consider it as the means which their transgressions rendered necessary in order to secure the object of their being chosen to be God’s peculiar people. To be preserved from being involved in the ignorance, and idolatry, and vice in which the surrounding nations were sunk, was a blessing, at whatever expense it might be gained. At the same time, had it not been for the transgressions of the Israelites, the more spiritual and less burdensome order of things under which Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob were placed, might have been continued, and the law as a distinct order of things never have existed because never needed.

The law was for this reason added, “till the seed should come to whom the promise was made.” I have already stated my reasons for understanding “the seed” here of the Messiah, and of course rendering the words “till the seed should come, in reference to whom the promise was made.” The promise referred to is, “in thy seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed” – a promise made not to the Messiah, but in reference to the Messiah. This view of the law being rendered, by the transgressions of the Israelites, necessary to preserve them a separate people, and to gain the ends connected with this till the coming of the Messiah, when the necessity of this order of things should cease, exactly corresponds with what the apostle afterwards says of the Israelitish people, as “kept” imprisoned, confined, “shut up” by the law.

The apostle adds that this law was “ordained” by angels. Perhaps there is a tacit contrast as to the manner in which the promise was given, “not by the ministry of angels,” not “by the hands of a mediator,” in the same sense as the law was. It is obviously the apostle’s design to exalt the promise viewed alongside of the law. The promise is first, the law second in order. The promise is the principal transaction, the law is secondary and subservient. The promise speaks of nothing but blessing. The law is “added because of transgressions,” and curses transgressors. The promise is forever; the law only “till the seed should come.” The promise was made directly by God; the law “given by angels.” The promise was given directly to Abraham – God speaks to him as a man with his friend; the law to Israel by the hand of a mediator, the people not being able to bear the things which were spoken. He comes to them not as to Abraham, as a man comes to converse with his friend, but in awful majesty as an offended, though still merciful and placable sovereign.

State of the Church under the Law

“But before faith came, we were kept under the law, shut up unto the faith which should afterwards be revealed. Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith.”

The first thing to be inquired into here is the meaning of the phrase, “the coming of faith.” By “faith” some interpreters understand the system or order of things in which faith is the grand means of justification. But this mode of interpretation is obviously inadmissible. For in this sense “faith” came immediately after the fall, or in the revelation of the first promise. There has been but one way of justifying sinners all along. Adam, if he was justified, as we have reason to hope he was, was justified by believing. Abraham was justified by believing. It was true under the Old, as well as under the New Testament dispensation, that it was the person justified by faith that lived – enjoyed true happiness in the possession of the Divine favor, which is life.

By faith, I apprehend we are to understand, not the act of believing, but the revelation believed, just as in our language we call the article which a man believes “his creed,” “his belief,” “his faith.” The expression literally rendered is, the faith, and looks back to the phrase, faith of Christ, in the preceding verse. “Before the faith of Christ came,” is just equivalent to, “before the Christian revelation was given.”

Now, what was the state of the Jewish church previously to this period? “We,” says the apostle, “were kept under the law shut up.” The apostle in using the pronoun “we,” plainly speaks of himself as belonging to the Jewish church previously to the coming of the Messiah. ‘We Jews were kept under the law shut up,’ or, ‘shut up under the law.’

It has been common to connect the words “shut up” with the concluding clause “to the faith,” and to consider the words as conveying the idea, that the design and effect of the commands and threatenings of God’s law on the mind of an awakened sinner, is to close every avenue of relief but one, and shut him up to accept of the free and full salvation of Christ by believing the gospel. But though this is a truth, and an important one, it is not the truth taught here.

The apostle is speaking of the design of the law in reference to the Jewish church or people as a body, and their situation under it. They were kept shut up under it. They were kept as under the care of a sentinel; they were shut up as in a fortress, or confined within certain limits. The general idea is, they were in a state of restriction. They were kept from mingling with the rest of mankind, preserved a distinct people; and to gain this object, were subjected to many peculiar usages. The law was “the middle wall of partition” which kept them distinct from the other nations of the world. The making one city the seat of religion, the laws with regard to food and ceremonial pollution, the institutions directly opposed to the prevailing customs of the surrounding nations, and the express prohibition to form alliances with heathen nations, all these formed a more powerful barrier to commixture with the surrounding nations than any physical separation of mountains, or seas, or distance could have done.

The apostle seems obviously to have intended to convey the accessory idea of uneasy confinement. Their state was necessary, and it was happy when compared with that of the heathen nations; but still it was a state of restriction and confinement, and in this point of view not desirable. Their state was, however, never designed to be permanent. It was intended to serve a purpose, and when that purpose was served, it was intended to terminate.

“We were,” says the apostle, “kept under the law, shut up unto the faith which should afterwards be revealed.” “Unto,” is here equivalent to ‘until.’ A parallel mode of expression, though the subject is different, is to be found, I Pet. 1:5. The phrase is parallel, though not quite synonymous, with that used in the nineteenth verse, “till the Seed should come in reference to whom the promise was made.” “The faith” here, is plainly the same thing as the faith in the first clause of the verse. The Jewish church was not without a revelation as to the way of justification, for in that case they could not have been justified by faith. We know that the Divine method of justification is “witnessed by the law and the prophets.” But it was not manifested – fully, clearly, made known – till the fullness of the time, when “the mystery which had been kept secret” was disclosed. The phraseology adopted by the apostle, the revelation of faith, makes it evident that faith here refers to doctrine. He speaks of it as “afterwards to be revealed.” The gospel revelation formed a principal subject of Old Testament prophecy; and the believing Jews under the law were encouraged to look forward to a period when “the glory of the Lord should be revealed, and all flesh should see it together.” When his “salvation should be brought near, and his righteousness should be revealed.” The apostle’s assertion then in this verse is, ‘previously to the Christian revelation, we Jews were kept in a state of separation from other nations by the restrictive ordinances of the Mosaic law, till that revelation was made to which we had been taught to look forward.’ He expresses nearly the same idea under a different figure in the following verse.

“Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith.” “Wherefore” does not here intimate that what is contained in this verse is a logical inference from what has preceded. It is not properly an inference, but a superadded illustration. It is just as if he had said, ‘Thus the law was our schoolmaster,’ etc. “Schoolmaster,” in the modern use of the term, scarcely answers the apostle’s idea. A pedagogue, a tutor, was anciently among the Greeks and Romans – and let it be remembered Paul is writing to a Gentile church – a servant or slave to whom the charge of the children was given while they were under age, and whose business was not solely, or chiefly perhaps, to instruct them, but to keep them from mischief and danger. The pedagogue and the preceptor were two different persons, and had entirely different duties to perform. Now, says the apostle, the law acted to us the part of a tutor or pedagogue, restraining, chastising, and protecting us, and preparing us by its discipline for a higher and better order of things. The apostle’s object is plainly to lower the idea of the Galatians respecting the state of the Jews, and the economy under which they were placed. He intimates that they were in an infantine state, and that the economy they were put under suited it. They were wayward children, put under the care of a faithful, but somewhat severe and strict, tutor – a servant or slave only temporarily employed till the children should arrive at maturity.

“The law was our schoolmaster to bring us to Christ.” These words have often been applied to express this idea, – that it is by the commands and threatenings of God’s law brought home to the conscience of the sinner by the effectual working of the Holy Ghost, that he is induced to believe the revelation of mercy, and gladly to receive Christ Jesus as the only and all-sufficient Savior. But this, though a very important truth, is obviously not what the apostle means. He is speaking of the church as a body, and the law it was subject to. Nor is the somewhat more plausible exegesis, that the apostle means to say, that the law by its typical ordinances introduced the Jews into an acquaintance with the Messiah whom they prefigured, satisfactory, for the leading idea in the word tutor or pedagogue is not teaching, but custody – restriction – correction. You will notice that “to bring us” is a supplement, and is one of the supplements which might as well have been omitted. “Unto Christ” is equivalent to ‘until Christ.’ The three following expressions are obviously parallel, and throw light on each other. “The law was added because of transgressions till the Seed should come to whom the promise was made.” “We were kept shut up under the law till the faith was revealed.” “The law was our tutor till Christ, that we might be justified by faith.” These last words may signify, ‘Thus the law was our tutor till Christ; this was its character; so that if we Jews are justified at all, we are justified by faith. The law restrained, commanded, and punished, but it did not justify. If we Jews are justified, it is not by the law, but by faith.’ The substance of the apostle’s assertion is, that “the law was added because of transgressions till the Seed should come, in reference to whom the promise” of justification to the Gentiles by faith “was made”; that “before faith came,” before the gospel revelation was given, the Jewish church “were shut up under the law,” till the good news promised afore was announced; and that “the law was the tutor or pedagogue” of the infant church “till Christ.” The apostle now proceeds to show that the law, though an institution necessary in and suited to that imperfect and preparatory state, was utterly unnecessary and unsuited to that new and better state into which the church had been brought by the coming of the Savior, and to the full and clear revelation of the way of salvation, and therefore to endeavor to perpetuate it was the height of criminal folly. This is the principle which the apostle lays down in the verse which follows, and which he illustrates down to the close of the eleventh verse of the next chapter.

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.

“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.

(1) John Murray, Collected Writings (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1976-82), 1:211.
(2) Ibid., pp. 211-12.