Our Incomprehensible Inheritance

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When we believe in Jesus as the true and better fulfillment of every promise made to Abraham, we, too, are counted as righteous in the same way that he was — by faith.

It is a well-worn fact that Paul’s letter to the Galatians is one of the most explosive books in the entire New Testament. Each line is freighted with a sense of urgency due to the gospel being imperiled by the false doctrines of the Judaizers. They had conceived of a “safer” and more acceptable version of religion that obsessed over laws rather than the unbridled grace of redemption. Paul’s point, though, throughout the first three chapters, was that the discrepancy between his preaching and the Judaizers’ could not be chalked up to a mere difference of opinion. This was not a matter of “You interpret things one way, but I interpret them another way, so let’s just agree to disagree.” The gospel itself was in jeopardy. 

As Paul insists, there is nothing you or I could add to or take away from what God in Christ has done already that would not ruin the whole thing. Amending the gospel nullifies the gospel. To lose justification by faith in Christ is to lose the faith entirely (Gal. 2:16). Therefore, the Judaizers weren’t just interpreting things differently. They were throwing the baby out with the bathwater. What moves Paul’s pen, therefore, is not just a desire to prove the false teachers wrong. He wasn’t a theological mercenary who went around looking to pick fights with heterodox preachers. Paul was a pastor who earnestly and genuinely cared for the lives of those to whom he was writing. His concern was for souls. Accordingly, Paul’s objective throughout this letter is to bring the Galatians back to what is true, sure, solid, and certain — namely, the Word of God. 

The apostle’s tone might appear coarse and gruff. But don’t mistake bluntness for indifference. He calls them fools because he loves them. His fondness for them runs so deep that he will stop at nothing to prevent them from doing or believing something foolish. The folly of the Judaizers was downstream of their failure to understand the Old Testament. Scripture’s abiding testimony showcases God’s unilateral promise of grace given to the faithless and the undeserving, starting with Abraham himself. Long before the law, and long before the institution of circumcision, Abraham “believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness” (Gal. 3:6). Likewise, when we believe in Jesus as the true and better fulfillment of every promise made to Abraham, we, too, are counted as righteous in the same way that he was — by faith

As we are “baptized into Christ” by faith, we are justified and brought into right standing before God the Father. We who have “put on Christ” are now welcomed as those who belong to God’s family. Chapter 4 advances this discussion even further, as Paul aims for the Galatians to realize how unthinkable it is for them to lose sight of who they are “in Christ.” Those who are justified are “heirs according to promise” (Gal. 3:29). They are “heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ,” Paul says elsewhere (Rom. 8:17). This is their identity. But what does it mean to be an “heir”? Generally speaking, it means you are one to whom an inheritance is promised, which is illuminating in this context as well.

Paul had previously employed the analogy of a “last will and testament” being given to inheritors as a way to explain what sinners have been given in the gospel (Gal. 3:15), and this analogy spills over into the beginning of the subsequent chapter, too (Gal. 4:1–2). Imagine the owner of a massive and lucrative estate suddenly dies, leaving everything to his “heir apparent.” But since the heir is too young to take over, the estate is kept in good hands by trustees and stewards until the heir is old enough, that is, “until the date set by his father.” In this scenario, even though the child of the owner is positionally and materially distinct from one of the servants of the house, until he “comes of age,” so to speak, there is no practical difference since he is compelled to answer to the “guardians and managers” who supervise him and the estate for him. The inheritance belongs to him, it’s his and nothing is going to change that, but until the appointed time laid down by his late father, he is compelled to live under the watchful eye of a steward or governess. 

It is in this way that we are to understand the function of the law prior to Christ’s arrival in the flesh: “In the same way we also, when we were children, were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world. But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Gal. 4:3–5).

The children of God, Abraham’s offspring, are “heirs according to [the] promise” made to Abraham. But until “the fullness of time had come,” they were made to be subservient to the law, which functioned as the steward of the promise of God for the people of God. It was the God-ordained structure that kept watch over God’s children. The law’s supervision, then, serves to clarify any lingering doubts we might have concerning how sinners were justified during the days of the Old Testament. Like you and me, and just like Father Abraham, they were justified by faith. But because the appointed time had not yet arrived, they were compelled to live under the rigid edifice of the law, which demanded rites, offerings, and sacrifices. It was a detailed system of strict compliance. But at the heart of the law was the command to slit the throats of lambs and goats on the altar as an unmistakable emblem of absolution. 

For Old Covenant sinners, justification was realized in the most graphic of ways as believers filed into the Tabernacle (or the Temple) with the appropriate sacrifice in hand. After making their way to the front of the line, the priest would slaughter the lamb, spilling its innocent blood all over the altar as a picture of their atonement. And it was at this moment that the people would be made to think of the promise. That’s the point. That’s where their minds were meant to go. This isn’t to say that “the gospel” is somehow found in the law itself. Rather, it is to say that when the law does its job, those under its demands will be driven to a place of no hope, if not for one who would stand for them and die in their stead. This is why a foundational part of the law is the liturgy of the Day of Atonement, which is brimming with substitutionary deaths and scapegoats (Lev. 16). 

This is the way that God, in his inscrutable and unimpeachable wisdom, chose to reveal himself. The law is unflinching and unwavering in its demand for holiness, which reflects who God is. “His holy law,” nineteenth-century Episcopalian minister Stephen H. Tyng notes, “is a description of himself” (12). The Lord Jehovah is perfect in holiness, with the refrain of heaven echoing, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty” (Rev. 4:8). Even still, what Paul demonstrates in Galatians 4 is that the law’s role as steward and supervisor of the promise was never meant to be permanent. Like the estate owner who passes away and leaves his estate to be managed, that time of managerial oversight is temporary. Baked into that system is an appointed time when there would no longer be any need for the “guardians and managers.”

Eventually, the “date set by [the] father” will arrive, and when that day comes, the heir apparent will then receive all that was promised to him. His inheritance will be his. What heir who has inherited his father’s estate and received what was promised puts himself back under the supervision of stewards and managers? What inheritor says, “You know what, on second thought, I’ll go back to being managed and not live like I’m ‘the owner of everything’”? You would likely question that successor’s judgment. You might even be inclined to call them a fool.

With equal parts frustration and confusion, Paul asks the Galatians the same thing: “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?” (Gal. 4:8–9).

The net result of the Judaizers’ preaching was putting the Galatians back into bondage. The worst part, though, was that the Galatians were doing so willingly. For Paul, it was incomprehensible that those who were justified and redeemed would want to revert from grace to what was “weak and worthless,” to what was oppressive and enslaving, especially when they had already been given an inheritance that was infinitely better than what they could have ever imagined. By putting themselves back into bondage to the law, they were fundamentally denying who they were in Christ. They were losing their identity. “You don’t even know who you are!” I can hear Paul say. “You don’t realize what you have in Christ!” If God’s word of promise to Abraham was all about Christ — and it is (Gal. 3:7–9) — then when Christ came, that promise was brought to completion. 

The phrases “fullness of time” and “date set by [the] father” correspond to the same event — a predetermined date when the heirs would receive what was promised. Accordingly, when Jesus came to this Earth to be born to a virgin mother, to live under the law, and to be baptized in our sins, he fulfilled the promise that was made to Abraham. The promise is now no longer under the stewardship of the law because “Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (Rom. 10:4). The law’s pink slip was already hand-delivered on the cross. The time for “guardians and managers” is over. The era of holiness by stewardship is done. In the New Covenant, absolution and atonement are not realized by graphic law-keeping but by bare faith in what the true and better Lamb of God has done on the cross. Because of what he accomplished to redeem you and me “who were under the law” by becoming the curse of the law for us, we are received as sons. 

We are accepted as heirs of the promise because the promise was fulfilled in Christ, and to put his seal on our status as his heirs, he sends his Spirit “into our hearts” (Gal. 4:6–7). Now we are no longer slaves under strict supervision by the law since we’ve been set free from all that through Jesus. We have been adopted as the sons and daughters of the thrice-holy God. We belong to him. We are “heirs according to promise.” We are on the receiving end of an inheritance that is infinitely beyond what we could ever think or imagine. It is an inheritance of full absolution, complete pardon, and free justification. It is an inheritance that reveals “the power of God for salvation,” which is nothing less than the gift of God’s righteousness given to the likes of stinking and sorry sinners, like you and me. It is an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading (1 Pet. 1:4). This inheritance can’t be earned or deserved, nor can it be rescinded or revoked. It is yours by faith

John R. W. Stott puts it like this: “What we are as Christians, as sons and heirs of God, is not through our own merit, nor through our own effort, but ‘through God’, through His initiative of grace, who first sent His Son to die for us and then sent His Spirit to live in us” (107).

The inheritance, God’s word of promise, is not given on the basis of performance. We aren’t servants or employees; we are sons and daughters. We are inheritors who receive the promised inheritance as a gift, through and through. As Paul saw it, the problem with the Judaizers and their commitment to earning their right standing with God by works of the law was that they were putting themselves back under “guardians and managers.” They were reverting to being stewarded by the law when the law had already been sent packing by Christ himself. They were attempting to re-enlist the temporary guardian as a full-time manager for the people of God. The law, of course, has its place; it remains the steward of God’s standard of righteousness. It is “holy and righteous and good” (Rom. 7:12). But the law is not representative of the promise. 

To look to the law as if it is the essence of what God wants to give us or wants us to know about him is more than a little foolish. The promise is all about Christ alone. He is the fulfillment of the promise as well as the substance of the promise itself. It is through him and what he’s done that we are what we are and have what we have. Like the prodigal who returns home to be greeted by the welcoming embrace of his father, every sinner who repents and believes is, likewise, embraced by the Heavenly Father, who gives every single one of his children a robe to cover them in righteousness, a ring to verify that they belong to him, and shoes so that they can live for him (Luke 15:20–24). This is who you are, sinner and saint. You are not slaves but sons; not orphans but heirs. You have been born again into the family of God.