Menu Close

“The Privilege of Adoption”

Galatians 4:1-7
Bob DeGray
April 8, 2018

Key Sentence

In Jesus we are no longer slaves but adopted sons and daughters.


I. The Period of Enslavement (Galatians 4:1-3)
II. The Process of Adoption (Galatians 4:4-5)
III. The Privilege of Sonship (Galatians 4:6-7)


Our family is one of many at Trinity who have had the privilege of adoption. But all of us, if we’re believers, have had the privilege of being adopted. In today’s text, Galatians 4:1-7, Paul describes our adoption. He says that before we were adopted we were enslaved by the law. When we were adopted we were redeemed from that slavery. And because we have been adopted we have now received the Holy Spirit and through Him we call God “Abba, Father.”

Our family has told our adoption stories often, especially the story of Christina and Michael, their circumstances before adoption, placement in our family and subsequent journey. Nonetheless, I want to use bits of that story, and others, to help us see ourselves through the lens of Galatians 4. This text reminds us that in Jesus we’re no longer slaves, but adopted sons and daughters. The three steps in our story are our state before we were adopted, the process of adoption and the privilege of being in God’s family. Listen for those things as I read.

Galatians 4:1-7 I mean that the heir, as long as he is a child, is no different from a slave, though he is the owner of everything, 2but he is under guardians and managers until the date set by his father. 3In the same way we also, when we were children, were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world. 4But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, 5to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. 6And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” 7So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.

Verse 1-3 tell us that we were guarded by the law and yet enslaved to the elementary principles of the world. “I mean that the heir, as long as he is a child, is no different from a slave, though he is the owner of everything, 2but he is under guardians and managers until the date set by his father.” It’s been a few weeks since we studied Galatians 3, but remember that Paul compared the law to a chaperone or guardian, using a term for a Greek slave who would take a child back and forth to their tutors, and through their daily tasks, keeping the child in line but also guarding them from danger. Galatians 3:24 So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. 25But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, 26for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith.” The emphasis we’ve seen in Galatians is on believing, faith, rather than the works of the law.

But now Paul slightly changes the metaphor, saying that the law is like guardians or managers. The word translated ‘guardian’ is not the same one used in chapter 3. It means ‘one who gives permission,’ and was used of a slave with authority in a Greek household. The other word ‘manager’ is frequently translated ‘steward,’ literally ‘the law of the house.’ The two together mean someone other than the parent was in charge of the child as they grew up. In the same way, before we trust Christ we are under the law, not just the Jewish law but under every human system of right and wrong, morality, or cultural norm and compulsion. As Todd Wilson says “at the beginning of this passage Paul describes what it’s like for us to be not in God’s family but in the orphanage of the world. Prior to being adopted by God, we’re in a state of enslavement.”

The comparison Paul is making was easier in the cultures of his day than in ours. For them the moment of growing up was a very defined moment. For instance, in Judaism a boy passed from adolescence to manhood shortly after his twelfth birthday, at which time he became "a son of the law." In the Greek world the minor came of age at about eighteen, but with the same emphasis on entering into full responsibility as an adult.

The Romans had a different system in which the time for the coming of age was not entirely fixed. The father had some discretion in setting the time of his son's maturity. This is what Paul is referring to when he says that a child is under guardians and managers "until the time set by his father." Boice explains that “a Roman child became an adult at a family festival known as the Liberalia, held annually on the seventeenth of March. At this time the child was formally adopted by the father as his acknowledged son and heir.” The interesting thing is that this ceremony, while usually applied to birth children, was equally valid and often applied to one who had been a true orphan and was brought into the father’s family as his heir. And that’s how Paul is going to apply it.

When the child was a minor in the eyes of the law his status was no different from that of a slave. Though he was the future heir, he could make no decisions; he had no freedom. On the other hand, at the time set by his father the child entered responsibility and freedom. Paul applies this illustration to the inferior condition of a person under law, both a "minor" and a "slave," and to the freedom and responsibility that come to him in Christ.

But Paul goes on to touch on something even more basic to the human condition “In the same way also, when we were children, we were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world” There has been much debate about the proper understanding of this phrase. There are three major interpretations.

First, the reference to "basic principles" or "elemental spirits" may be taken as referring to the elementary stages of religious experience common to all men. The word itself might suggest this, for the word is stoicheia and can mean "alphabet." Paul might be referring to early experiences of Jewish and Gentile religion which his readers have gone through in the past but which have now been superseded by Christ. But it’s hard to see how pagan ideas of religion could be even rudimentary preparation for the coming of the Christian gospel.

The second interpretation is that Paul is referring to the law of Israel. This view is consistent with Paul's teaching about the law—that it holds us in bondage. But there are two problems: First, it doesn’t seem to apply to the Gentiles, for the difficulty of the Gentiles is not that they were under law in the past but that they were in danger of falling under it in the present; and, second, it does not explain why or how Paul could see the law as being an elementary princple ‘of the world.’ The law was not ‘of the world.’ It was of divine origin.

But, the Greek word that Paul uses can also mean "elements" in the same way that we speak of chemical elements. The word is stoicheia, and we have a whole branch of chemistry called stoichiometry. In ancient times, the basic elements, earth, fire, air, and water were associated with the gods. In Paul's time stoicheia also referred to the sun, moon, stars, and planets—all of them seen as gods or goddesses. In other words Paul is saying that Jews are in bondage to the law, Gentiles are in bondage to the gods, and both are like idols.

So how do we understand this bondage today? I think we recognize that anything made into an idol can hold us in bondage. Todd Wilson says “Paul appears to be referring to the basic elements of the created order, the primordial powers at work in the world, which fallen human beings turn into idols and worship as gods. Let me give you three, and you’ll have a better understanding of what Paul is talking about: money, sex, and power. These “elementary principles of the world” are all around us all the time. But more than that, they’re incredibly powerful, so powerful, in fact, that sinful creatures like you and me are constantly tempted to turn them into idols and then worship them as gods.”

We’ve talked about this kind of idolatry before, but the thing that is interesting here is Paul’s assertion that these things enslave us. Don’t miss that: our addictions and characteristic sins and habits are a clear and intense form of slavery. Not only do we have addictions, to our hurt, but our hearts and our consciences, our guardians and managers condemn us for it. Our culture is full of addictions. We’ve got all the old ones like alcohol and drugs. We’ve got characteristic sins like anger and lust, greed and selfishness. These are widely recognized as modern forms of idolatry, but they’re also addictions.

They enslave us like any addiction. This is what Paul talks about so powerfully in Romans 7: “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. 19For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.” That’s enslavement. Finally we have new addictions, like pornography, that are a result of new technology. In fact many now say that screens themselves, media of all kinds are psychologically and even physiologically addictive and lead to extreme anti-social behavior. All of these addictions also lead to guilt and shame as our guardians and managers, the law and the conscience accuse us loudly every time the addiction compels us to sin. “Oh miserable people that we are, who will save us from this body of death?” The answer is Jesus. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”

But I want to stop a minute and compare this enslavement to the situation Tina and Michael were in. Their story, especially as told in Tina’s words, illustrates both aspects of this, being enslaved to guardians and managers and being enslaved to the elementary principles of the world. How so? Well, the child welfare and orphan care system in the U.S. is a lot like the Roman and Greek systems Paul alluded to in these verses. Children are under the care of often harsh strangers until they are formally adopted. My kids were removed from a dysfunctional birth family when Tina was 14 months old. Michael was a newborn. They were placed in the foster care system, which was supposed to take care of them until they were returned to their parents or adopted.

In Tina’s words “When I was in foster care I experienced several things that shaped me. I was not loved, I was hit, and yelled at to “Stop it!” whenever I cried. I was neglected and verbally abused because I was stubborn and strong willed. In later years, this affected me because I thought my strong will was a bad thing. I was left on the toilet to be potty trained, so naturally I refused. It was something I could control when I everything else in my life was out of control. Another sign of my strong will was when I claimed my brother as my own, and I would not let anyone else play with him because he was my family.”

Can you hear the things we’ve identified as enslaving us at work in Tina’s life? Externally she was not in a loving family but in a law enforcing foster home, where any step outside the lines and any cry for help was rewarded with only abuse, neglect and anger. These things shaped her, became expectations. She says “in adjusting to my new family, I struggled to let anyone touch me and especially hug me because I expected any physical contact to be negative.” She was under guardians and managers, not an “Abba” father and mother.

But she also made choices that enslaved her. She recently posted a visit summary written by a social worker. I do have permission to share this: “Tina is a little girl that can be very loving one minute and then not talk for hours if you don't give her her way. She has a hard time playing with others if they come up to her too fast. Though she is doing much better at taking up for herself without being so aggressive, she will still hit, pull hair and bite to get her way.”

Tina, like all of us, was enslaved by sin and under the rule of the law. But for all of us, Tina included, there is forgiveness and freedom because God sent His Son to rescue us. Verses 4 and 5 show us the process of adoption. “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, 5to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.” The great thing about this verse is “the fullness of time,” “when the time had fully come.” In context “the fullness of time” points back to verse 3, “the date set by his father.” Paul is still using Roman adoption as the model or metaphor for our adoption by God our Father.

Only God knew ‘the fullness of time,” when the Jews had been just long enough under the guardianship of the law and when the Greek language and Roman government and the dispersion of the Jews and the disillusionment of the Gentiles came together to create a world prepared for the Messiah. Those things could be called coincidences, but they were really God’s timing and provision. So God sent his son, born of a woman. This refers to the historical truth of the birth narratives in Luke and Matthew. But the verse breaks the metaphor because nowhere in Roman adoption is there any idea of sending a son to rescue an orphan son. Jesus was God the Son, God sent by God, but he was also human, born of a virgin, born of a woman.

But the main point is that “he was born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.” Todd Wilson, whose commentary I’ve been quoting fairly often, gets really personal at this point. He says “When my wife and I adopted twins from Ethiopia, it was an extensive and intensive and indeed expensive process. And we had to travel a remarkably long way to Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, where our boys lived. Once in that country, we still had more work to do, and it wasn’t always easy or straightforward. But imagine if my wife and I would have sent our firstborn son, Ezra, to Ethiopia to adopt our twins for us. And just imagine if we knew the only way we were going to be able to adopt Addis and Rager was to let Ezra be publicly executed while in Ethiopia. What if the only way to adopt our twins was to sacrifice our firstborn? Yet that’s precisely what the Father did in sending the Son into the world and onto the cross.”

Jesus was born under the law, and was the only one to ever fully obey it. He was never enslaved by failure to keep it. But he went further than that. He not only satisfied the law’s demands for himself, he also redeemed those under the law. ‘Redeem’ is the key word, really. The process of our adoption is one and the same as the process of our redemption. We’re bought back from slavery to sin, and slavery to the law or slavery to moralism or slavery to idolatry.

We have chains on chains on chains that bind us and imprison us. But now, in the fullness of time, Christ has come, and he paid the price we owed, paid with his blood, through which, Paul says, “we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” Luke and Donna Reed adopted Josh and Olivia in Kazakhstan. Donna once told me about a conversation that took place among adoptive parents who felt it was terrible that countries like Kazakhstan made the cost so high to rescue their children from misery, malnutrition and poverty. But another parent said it was simply the cost of redemption, and no cost is too high to redeem a life. Jesus knew the cost of our redemption and paid it in blood.

And its only then, having been bought with a price, that we receive the adoption, the full rights of sons. In J.I. Packer’s classic Knowing God I once noticed that his chapter on “Sons of God” was the longest of all his chapters. Packer had more to say on the topic of our adoption than God’s sovereignty, grace, love, anything. In that chapter, Packer says: Adoption is the highest privilege the gospel offers, higher even than justification.” Justification is the primary blessing, the fundamental blessing, but not the highest. Adoption is higher because of the richer relationship with God it involves. Justification, he says, is a forensic, or legal idea, but adoption is a family idea. God takes us into His family and fellowship, and establishes us as his children and heirs. To be right with God the judge is a great thing, but to be loved and cared for by God the Father is greater. As I said the last time we were in Galatians, “we are family.”

When Gail and I adopted Tina and Michael, we didn’t have to go to Eithiopia or Khazakstan, only to San Antonio. We didn’t have tremendous expenses. And yet we still identify with these verses because even in our simple adoption this transition, for Tina and Michael, from ‘slaves under the law’ to the blessing of family was momentous and profound. We have a few pictures from those life-changing days. We met them the day Tina turned four and went back ten days later to make them ours. Tina recently posted one of these pictures and said “First real birthday celebration when I turned 4. First time meeting my sisters. First time going on a trip with my soon-to-be real family. First time making a cake for my brother. First time being celebrated. First time experiencing a real family.”

That’s what God wants for all of us, what God offers all of us because he’s redeemed us from sin, separation, slavery and death through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. But our adoption is Trinitarian. It’s not just the work of the Son, not just the gift of the Father, but is worked out in us by the Holy Spirit. Verses 6-7: And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” 7So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.” Paul lists three benefits of our adoption. First, we have the Holy Spirit to dwell with us. Jesus was Immanuel, God with us, in the stable at Christmas. But the Holy Spirit is Immanuel, he is God with us today. He comforts us, strengthens us, gives us words to say and to pray, He guides, convicts, commends. He sanctifies us, transforming us, over time, from the image of fallen natural man, to the image of Christ.

That’s what Tina has experienced. It took a lot of heart-ache and many years for her to really feel the truth of having a ‘forever family’ as we used to say. She says “I think the biggest struggle for me was letting my parents love me. Whenever they would say, “Tina, I love you.” I would say, “Okay” or “Thank you”. I would never say it back. I was not aware nor did I care that this hurt my mom greatly, but she spoke to me about it. She told me that my refusal to accept her love was hurting her. . . . I had to learn at age fourteen how to let my parents love me and I had to learn how to love them.”

The second benefit of sonship follows naturally from the first. the Spirit who lives in us allows us to cry out “Abba, Father,” to recognize that we are children, and God is our loving, caring daddy. Paul says in Romans 8: Those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, "Abba, Father." The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God's children.” Todd Wilson says that those transformed by the Spirit of God express that changed nature in a changed disposition, toward both God and the circumstances of their lives. From the moment of their new birth they begin to cry like newborn babies. However, theirs is a distinctive cry because it flows from this new Spirit-given nature and disposition. It is a cry of intimacy and dependence, and this is what it sounds like: “Abba! Father!”

But what kind of cry is this? Well, the only other person who cries this way is Jesus. In fact this is the cry he uttered in the garden of Gethsemane as we heard last week. When his soul was in utter anguish, he said “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.” “Abba! Father!” is the Son’s cry of distress, his way of addressing his Father in his time of greatest need. It is a true cry, a response to pain, something one utters in the face of suffering or in the midst of hardship.

Because God sends the Spirit of Christ into the hearts of every one of his adopted children, they learn to cry this same cry when they’re in a time of need. Adopted sons and daughters cry out to their heavenly Father in the same way God’s one and only Son did. God’s adopted children have, then, a very distinctive cry, a distinctive way of responding to life’s challenges. It’s not that God’s children have fewer challenges. Nor is it that God’s children don’t grieve or experience disappointment. Instead the distinctive thing about God’s children is this: when they cry they make a different sound than those who aren’t God’s children. When faced with suffering, whether great or small, God’s children turn to their heavenly Father and cry out , “Abba! Father!”

The third benefit of adoption is inheritance. Verse 7: So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and since you are a son, God has made you also an heir. Again, Packer describes this well. “New Testament Christianity is a religion of hope, a faith that looks forward. For the Christian, the best is always yet to be. But how can we form any notion of that which awaits us at the end of road? Here the doctrine of adoption comes to our aid. To start with, it teaches us to think of our hope not as a possibility, or even a likelihood, but as a guaranteed certainty because it is a promised inheritance. God’s adoption makes us His heirs, and so guarantees to us the inheritance he has in store for us.”

We were slaves and orphans, but in the fullness of time God sent his Son to redeem us from sin and from slavery, and to give us the gift of adoption as sons and daughters in God’s family. Because of Jesus we now have the Holy Spirit who teaches our hearts to own that truth, to cry out “Abba Father” to the God of the universe, who loves us with an everlasting love and a father’s heart.

Let me close with another of Tina’s thoughts, reflecting on a time she was trying to process her desire for and yet anger at her birth mother. She says. “I remember keeping photos of my birth mother around and it simply tortured me and so after a while I had to take them down. But I remember one night crying and my mom telling me she had been praying for her adopted children since she was a little girl. From that moment I began to understand that although I was not conceived in my mom physically I was born in her heart years before she was even married. If that is not Jesus' work, I don't know what is.”

And that is the truth of our adoption. Though you and I are not sons and daughters of God in the same way that Jesus is only begotten Son, yet we were loved by him, conceived in his heart, before the foundation of the world. The whole glorious saga of redemption was written so that we might become adopted sons and daughters of God and full members of his forever family.