We struggle to live life in freedom under grace because our natural inclination is to do works to try to earn God’s favor.
Galatians 4:8-11: Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods. 9 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? 10 You observe days and months and seasons and years! 11 I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain.
A few years ago, the non-profit I started in Pakistan, Resources and Aid Mobilization, bought the freedom of two young boys by paying a hefty amount. The boys had been forced into modern-day slavery as children when their Christian parents took a loan from a brick kiln owner. The case arrived at our office at the Lahore High Court in Pakistan, because the owner had threatened the boys’ parents that he would take their young daughter, too. My sister, who runs RAM, is a lawyer, but they could not do anything except for negotiate a price for their freedom.
Their freedom was costly, and even when the price for freedom was set, they were not yet free. What they needed was someone who could pay the amount.
God provided the money, but by the time they were freed, the boys had grown into young men who knew only the life of slavery and consequently struggled to live in freedom.
Spiritually speaking, some of us can relate to the young men. We struggle to live life in freedom under grace because our natural inclination is to do works to try to earn God’s favor.
In this passage, Galatians 4:8-11, the Galatians were struggling to live life in freedom under grace because of their natural inclination to the false gospel that required works in addition to Christ.
Many who profess the name of Christ risk abandoning their freedom in Christ, not because they do not believe in Christ the Messiah, but because they struggle to live in the freedom which is against our natural inclination to do works to earn God’s favor.
Why do we struggle? How can we live life in freedom? Paul would argue we struggle because we have not forsaken our former life, the life of idolatry, and the only way we can live life in freedom is by leaning on Christ alone through faith alone and grace alone. Paul tells the Galatians (and us), if the former life is not forsaken, just as they were enslaved in the past, they will be enslaved in the future.
The Past without God
Paul starts by discussing their freedom in the past life without God. Verse 8 says, “ Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods.”
This is the third time that Paul talked about the Galatians’ enslavement before conversion. Previously, he talked about it in 3:23 and 4:1.
Here, he has a different objective. He wanted the Galatians to know that turning from grace to the Law is abandoning freedom in Christ, and he equates that to idolatry, which is the greatest offense one can commit against God.
The first two commandments, “you shall have no other gods before Me” and “you shall not make idols” show God’s seriousness about idolatry. He was so serious that in Exodus 23:13, God commanded, “make no mention of the names of other gods, nor let it be heard on your lips.” Not that other gods were real, but the very thought of other gods was an offense against God.
Often we think idolatry is to worship images or statues, which was a prevalent form of idolatry in Biblical times, but idolatry could be anything or anyone that replaces our devotion and focus that only God deserves. Who and what is in your life that takes the focus and throne that belongs to God only?
Paul acknowledges that in ignorance, the Galatians worshiped idols in the past because they did not know God. The word “formerly” indicates before conversion, and the Greek word for “know” God here in verse 8 is different from to “know” God in verse 9. Here it is οἶδα, oida, which means to get knowledge, or to understand something. The Galatians did not know or understand who God was; therefore, spiritually, they lived in ignorance to God’s love and His power.
The problem was not their worship of idols in the past but their familiarity with and affection for the old practices. When God delivered the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, they complained and wished to be back time and time again. Why? Because that was familiar to them. They even plotted to choose a different leader who could take them back to Egypt to their past life in slavery. It is true that old habits die hard. We always prefer what seems familiar.
What is the application here? If you are regressing spiritually, perhaps you have not forsaken your former life completely. Perhaps you are too attached to your old idols, or they have become attached to you. What I mean by that is this: when you have done something so long, it becomes second nature to you.
The young men that we rescued had to be taught to acclimate to their life in freedom instead of what was normal and familiar to them, namely terrible and inhumane slavery. Paul, too, is teaching, forsake your former life because it was terrible. Paul’s deepest concern is that idolatry in their past without God is affecting the Galatians’ present life with God and their future in Christ.
Present Life with God
Next, Paul discusses the Galatians freedom in their present life with God. Verses 4:8b-9 say, “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?”
It was no surprise that without God the Galatians were enslaved to idols. Logically, how could they worship God if they did not know Him? But now that they do know God, it was illogical for the Galatians to abandon their freedom in Christ and revert to slavery to idols.
They “know God.” Notice how Paul self-corrects and says rather God knows them. This is to make a deeper point: in their total spiritual depravity, they could not desire God. Therefore, in their inability to know God, God took the initiative to know them and be known by them through His electing grace toward them.
The word “know” God in verse 9 is γινώσκω, ginōskō, in Greek, which is to know someone intimately. In the Bible, this word is used to describe a sexual relationship between husband and wife. This is intense. The past is past, but now not only do they know God, they know Him intimately, and more importantly, God knows them intimately. You see, it is not that the Galatians were literally worshiping idols, but by focusing more on things that were not God, especially religious things, they were proving to be idolaters.
I recently talked to a Hindu man, and he said he does not worship idols but rather what the idol represents. Idolatry is not just worshiping an image or statue but also what that figure represents. This is what Paul is getting across. In verse 8b, “those that by nature are not gods” are described as “the elementary principles” in verse 9 and “the elementary principles of the universe” in verse 3. In the Greek text, it is stoicheion ho kosmos—literally the ABCs of the universe, the basic things of the universe. One way to interpret this section would be that Paul is telling the Galatians not to enslave themselves to basic religion because the ABCs of all religions is works and effort. Rather enjoy the advanced religion of grace with no works. But the text says the ABCs of the universe, not religion.
So, what is Paul getting to? For that, we need to know the cultural setting of the text. The Galatians’ culture was Greco-Roman culture, a pagan culture. The pagans believed there was a god behind every element of creation and every human need. Behind earth, sky, fire, war, sea, love, beauty, wine, marriage, family, and so forth, and so on, there was a god. So, depending on what people need, they worship a particular god. A soldier would worship the god of war, Ares. A sailor would worship the god of the sea, Poseidon, and so on and so forth.
In paganism, either something was a god or had a god behind it. Paul’s fear was if they failed to forsake their former life, the elementary principles of the universe that enslaved them in the past would operate their new life in the present. With reference to the law, they cannot know God intimately and continue to know “intimately” the elementary principles that will turn the law into a god. The Galatians’ legalistic obedience to the law of Moses will put them right back into slavery to idols. Paul’s point was if anything occupies a place in our life that only God deserves, even if that is good and righteous, that is an idol.
So, what is the takeaway? Anything good or bad can be an idol. Our devotion to morals and good deeds can be as idolatrous as our sinful behavior and bad deeds. Is there anything in your life that exceeds your devotion to God? I tell you, that is an idol.
Future Life in Christ
Finally, Paul discusses their freedom in their future life in Christ. Verses 4:10-11 say, “You observe days and months and seasons and years! I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain.” Whether Paul’s fear is over the Galatians losing their salvation, not bearing fruit, or the fear that perhaps they were never Christians in the first place, this is the cry of a pastor.
This is why I have been preaching on grace for some months because it is the heart of the gospel, and it is so easy to miss it because it is multi-directional and it affects every aspect of our life, even things as simple as holidays.
The Galatians had replaced their pagan observances of celebrating special days with Jewish feasts and festivals. Just as the Galatians turned good things like water, wind, fire, food, sex, marriage, and other elements of the universe and life into idols, they also turned Jewish feasts and festivals into idolatry.
How did they do that? Well, by overly desiring and devoting themselves to ordinary things more than God. I heard Pastor Keller saying this, “when something good becomes the best, it becomes a deity, and therefore it becomes a demon; it becomes an idol, becomes the integrating focus of your personality, and it is why you are the way you are.” He explained, Paul used stoicheia here for idols because idols are not bad things; they are not sins; rather, idols are good things made the best. Church, when we desire ordinary things so much that our desire resembles lust for what we want, whether good or bad, we turn the basic things into something that we’ve got to have that is idolatry.
A Challenge for 2023
Our freedom cost God everything, so do not throw it away for the weak and worthless basic things of life by overly desiring them. That is idolatry. All our worries, issues, insecurities, brokenness, sins, and failure can be traced back to idolatry because they represent something we overly desire to have or not have. If you want freedom from all of them, put God at the center of your desire, will, and purpose.
Church, the new year is a good time for a new beginning. So, start 2023 by asking yourself what you desire the most and what you want the most. Ask yourself, what holds your attention, what controls your desires and decisions, and what moves, arouses, and attracts you.
To what do you give your time, money, attention, and energy? What does seem to you essentially necessary, and without which you cannot live? If it is anything but God, then know whatever in your life occupies the place that should be occupied by God alone dethrones God in your life.
When God does not rule our lives, we are ruled by the evil one, the very dominion from which Christ delivered us to set us free. Jesus in John 8:36 said, “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” You have been set free, so do not abandon your freedom by returning to your former life of sin, guilt, shame, and work. Rather destroy all the idols of the past.
Don’t trade former slavery of sin and condemnation to new slavery of legalistic, ritualistic religious deeds, and routines. Nor desire things of the world so much so that they rule your heart, mind, and your whole being. Corinthians 6:20 says, “For you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.”
For the full sermon, click here.