A Commentary by John Stott
We may learn from this passage both what the Christian life is and how to live it.
a). What the Christian life is.
The Christian life is the life of sons and daughters; it is not the life of slaves. It is freedom, not bondage. Of course, we are slaves of God, of Christ, and one another. (See, e.g., Rom. 6:22; 1 Cor. 7:22, 23; 2Cor.4:5). We belong to God, to Christ, to one another, and we love to serve those to whom we belong. But this kind of service is freedom. What the Christian life is not, is a bondage to the law, as if our salvation hung in the balance and depended on our meticulous and slavish obedience to the letter of the law. As it is, our salvation rests upon the finished work of Christ, on His sin-bearing, curse-bearing death, embraced by faith.
Yet so many religious people are in bondage to their religion! They are like John Wesley in his post-graduate Oxford days in the Holy Club. He was the son of a clergyman and already a clergyman himself. He was orthodox in belief, religious in practice, upright in conduct and full of good works. He and his friends visited the inmates of the prisons and work-houses of Oxford, They took pity on the slum children of the city, providing them with food, clothing and education. They observed Saturday as the Sabbath as well as Sunday. They went to church and to Holy Communion. They gave alms, searched the Scriptures, fasted and prayed. But they were bound in the fetters of their own religion, for they were trusting in themselves that they were righteous, instead of putting their trust in Jesus Christ and Him crucified. A few years later, John Wesley (in this own words) came to ‘trust in Christ, in Christ only for salvation’ and was given an inward assurance that his sins had been taken away. After this, looking back to his pre-conversion experience, he wrote: ‘I had even then the faith of a *servant*, though not that of a son.’ Christianity is a religion of sons, not slaves.
b). How to live the Christian life.
The way to live the Christian life is to remember who and what we are. The essence of Paul’s message here is: ‘Once you were slaves. Now you are sons. So how can you revert to the old slavery?’ His question is an astonished, indignant expostulation. It is not impossible to turn back to the old life; the Galatians had in fact done it. But it is preposterous to do so. It is a fundamental denial of what we have become, of what God has made us if we are in Christ.
The way for us to avoid the Galatian’s folly is to heed Paul’s words. Let God’s word keep telling us who and what we are if we are Christians. We must keep reminding ourselves what we have and are in Christ. One of the great purposes of daily Bible reading, meditation and prayer is just this, to get ourselves correctly orientated, to remember who and what we are. We need to say to ourselves: ‘Once I was a slave, but God has made me His son and put the Spirit of His Son into my heart. How can I turn back to the old slavery?’ Again: ‘Once I did not know God, but now I know Him and have come to be known by Him. How can I turn back to the old ignorance?
By the grace of God we must determine to remember what once we were and never to return to it; to remember what God has made us and to conform our lives to it.
A good example of this is John Newton. He was an only child and lost his mother when he was seven years old. He went to sea at the tender age of eleven and later became involved, in the words of one of his biographers, ‘in the unspeakable atrocities of the African slave trade’. He plumbed the depths of human sin and degradation. When he was twenty-three, on 10 March 1748, when his ship was in imminent peril of foundering in a terrific storm, he cried to God for mercy, and he found it. He was truly converted, and he never forgot how God had had mercy upon him, a former blasphemer, He sought diligently to remember what he had previously been, and what God had done for him. In order to imprint it on his memory, he had written in bold letters and fastened across the wall over the mantelpiece of his study the words of Deuteronomy 15:15: ‘Thou shalt remember that thou wast a bondman (a slave) in the land of Egypt, and the Lord thy God redeemed thee.’
If only we remembered these things, what we once were and what we now are, we would have an increasing desire within us to live accordingly, to be what we are, namely sons of God set free by Christ.