Galatians 4:8-20

Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods. But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more? You observe days and months and seasons and years! I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain.

Brothers, I entreat you, become as I am, for I also have become as you are. You did me no wrong. You know it was because of a bodily ailment that I preached the gospel to you at first, and though my condition was a trial to you, you did not scorn or despise me, but received me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus. What then has become of your blessedness? For I testify to you that, if possible, you would have gouged out your eyes and given them to me. Have I then become your enemy by telling you the truth? They make much of you, but for no good purpose. They want to shut you out, that you may make much of them. It is always good to be made much of for a good purpose, and not only when I am present with you, my little children, for whom I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you! I wish I could be present with you now and change my tone, for I am perplexed about you.

Understanding And Applying the Text

Paul was both displeased and confused. Why would the Galatians turn from grace to the law and enslavement? Paul reminded the Galatians at one time they did not know God. They worshiped idols. And the idols were not gods. Now they turned to the law. The Law is another form of idolatry.

All men know God because he reveals himself to all men. (Romans1:19-23) They deny God, but they know He is there. What Paul meant was, there was a time when we all did not know the will of God in Christ.

We worshiped gods of our own making. Gods of our own making, we have to perform religious acts or ceremonies. The “elementary principles of the world” can mean the Law of Moses. It can also refer to any false religion. It refers to anything that takes the place of God. Exchanging the Gospel for the law, any law is the same as those who exchange grace for idolatry. Without Christ all religion is idolatry.

The greater the grace of God is towards us, the greater our guilt is in rejecting Him. Paul reminded the Galatians they received grace from God. They did not come to know God. Instead, God gave them knowledge of Himself. Paul is astounded the Galatians would turn so soon from the doctrine of grace to the law. He says, Do you not know God? That is the only reason I can think of that would cause you to reject God’s grace.

Paul calls the law weak and worthless. Your first reaction may be to say, “Hold on there Paul, the law came from God. It is the holy law of God. So, it cannot be worthless.” Paul is talking in comparative terms. He compares grace to the law. The law cannot save. Nor was it ever intended to save. On salvation the law is not only weak, it is worthless. The law’s value is that it condemns and brings you to despair. The law breaks you. The Gospel heals you. But without the law, we cannot understand the Gospel’s good news.

Paul fears after all his work with the Galatians, they will reject the grace of God. They would rather cling to what they were familiar with, religion. Paul feared they would choose religion over grace.

Partway through this passage, Paul’s tone changes. He takes on a more pastoral tone. He says to be like him. He was like them. Paul knew the false teachers would misuse his concern and harshness. So Paul’s tone changes.

Paul was hoping the Galatians would remember him. They had shown him kindness. He was hoping they would remember his love for them. Paul softens his words but does not take them back. Paul’s concern was not about himself but about the welfare of the Galatians. He believed hell was real and did not want the Galatians to end up there.

Paul reminded the Galatians of his physical condition when he first came to them. And he reminds them of how they cared for him. They loved him and he loved them. He continued to love them. He loved them too much to flatter them. He loved them enough to chasten them. He asks rhetorically, “Am I now your enemy because I tell you the truth?” They were not to think things had changed. Paul had chastised them. But it was because he loved them.

Why would a slave, once freed, return to slavery? Perhaps it is because of feeling comfortable with the familiar. We are comfortable with the bondage of the law. It is familiar. We know what to expect.

With the law, we look back at the end of the day and can count the number of times we have broken the law. We often compare ourselves to previous generations. When we do we tend to think things getting better or worse. We use the laws as a measurement of righteousness. Then we compare ourselves to others using the law as the measuring rod. Of course, we can always find people who are better than us. And we can always find people worse than us. We love the law, even the cruelty of the law.

When we reject grace and revert to the law, it is a form of idolatry. When we rely on the law we are relying on ourselves for righteousness rather than trusting in the grace of God. Justification by grace alone through faith alone. Without that, we only have error, hypocrisy, godlessness, and idolatry.

We can only know God through Christ. “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” John 1:17-18. In Christ, we understand that God is not a cruel taskmaster but a loving and merciful Father. That is knowing God.

Trying to know God without Christ we arrive at erroneous conclusions. “I will serve God in this way or that way. God will bless me because I have done this and not done that.” We try to manipulate God by our actions. This means we believe our actions cause God to behave in a certain manner. This means, though we would deny it, we truly believe we are God’s master. We are the ultimate cause of God’s blessing or cursing.

God never promised to save anyone for his religious observance or acts of piety. If you rely upon such things you do serve a god, but it is a god of your invention. It is not the true God.

False teachers are rampant in the church today. Some will even admit men Christ’s death delivers from. But they attach more importance to acts of charity and works than to faith in Christ. In teaching such things they dishonor Christ and pervert His Gospel. They serve a false god, a god of their invention. God never blessed anyone for charity or virtues. Rather He blesses only for the sake of Christ’s merits and His glory.

Paul’s concern was neither maintaining nor restoring harmony within the church. Paul’s concern was about restoring the correct doctrine of salvation. Many subjects are interesting to discuss but not essential. And while we may disagree about them we should never divide over them. But, some maintain that peace we must maintain within the church at all costs. They state causing disharmony in the church is unchristian. Paul demonstrates that is not true. The doctrine of grace is essential. It is essential even if it causes division. we must correct those who teach a doctrine of works rather than grace. I must agree with Luther.

“They tell me that by my stubbornness in this doctrine of the Sacrament, I am destroying the harmony of the church. They say it would be better if we would make some slight concession rather than cause such commotion and controversy in the Church regarding an article which is not even one of the fundamental doctrines. My reply is, cursed be any love or harmony which demands for its preservation that we place the Word of God in jeopardy!”

Martin Luther’s Commentary on Galatians

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