When? What? Why? — Part One
return to the main player
Return to the Main Player
return to the main player
Return to the Main Player

When? What? Why? — Part One

Galatians 4:4–7  (ID: 2415)

God gave the promise of a Savior to Abraham. He later gave Moses the law, by which we understand our spiritual need. Finally, He sent Christ, the only one who can truly save us. In Galatians 4, Paul, like a reporter, addressed the crucial questions of Christ’s incarnation: When? What? and Why? Alistair Begg explores the answers, explaining that in a time of security, clarity, and yet futility, God sent His Son to redeem and adopt us.

Series Containing This Sermon

Behind the Scenes of Christmas

Selected Scriptures Series ID: 24901

Sermon Transcript: Print

And I invite you, if you would, to turn to Galatians and chapter 4—Galatians chapter 4. I want this morning to make this the first of four studies through the Sunday mornings in December in which we look together at four key passages which are capable of taking us behind the scenes, as it were, of what we find in the Gospel records themselves. And this is the least familiar of the four, and probably the most unlikely of the four, but I want us to begin here and proceed to others that will become more familiar in the remaining Sundays of December.

Galatians 4:4, and our text is essentially here in verse 4 and 5:

“But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons.” We’ll just read on, the next two verses: “Because [you’re] sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into [your] hearts, the Spirit who calls out, ‘Abba, Father.’ So you are no longer a slave, but a son; and since you are a son, God has made you also an heir.”

You might find it helpful just to keep your Bible open at that passage or prop it up in front of you.

Although the Gospel records will be familiar to many of us, because routinely we turn to them, at least at this time of year, if not on other occasions, many of our friends and neighbors would have to be honest and say that Jesus is to them at the very best something of a mystery, something of an enigma.

Even in our own country, where we tend to think that the Christian message is very familiar to people, many of our friends are once again confused about who Jesus was, who he claimed to be, and certainly they’re unsure if we were to ask them, “Why was it, you believe, that Jesus lived, and more importantly, why did he die?”

Now, we can take core samplings of our culture in a number of ways. One of the most obvious is to ask schoolchildren what they know about these things. I was struck by the fact that someone with a group of schoolchildren had asked them, “Who do you think Jesus was?” One bright spark, believing to be on it, immediately said, “He was the one who took from the rich and gave to the poor.” And, of course, he was wrestling, I think, with 2 Corinthians 8:9—that “though he was rich, yet for [our] sakes he became poor”—but unfortunately, he got Jesus and the disciples mixed up with Robin Hood and his Merry Men. And being asked the question “What is a Christian?” one little girl responded, “Aren’t they the people who grow their own vegetables?”

You just wonder, really, what goes through the minds of people when we think about these things. But it is a salutatory reminder to those of us who believe that this message is not as clear in the minds of our friends and work colleagues as we may think it is. Part of the reason, of course, is because it’s not really too clear in our minds either, and when we come to articulate it, we don’t do a very good job.

When I was a small boy, probably about eleven, I thought that I might become a newspaper journalist. And I was told that if you were going to be a journalist you needed to be able to address the who, what, why, where, when questions, and make sure that you got them into your paragraph very, very quickly. I only had one piece that ever made it into a newspaper in Glasgow, and that was when I saw a large truck drive through the front yard of a house, break down a wall, and stop just inches from the family room window. And I immediately went to a phone box, put in the money, phoned the press office of the city newspaper, and told them that I’d seen a collision and described the who, the what, the when, the where, and the why to them, and as a result of that they sent me a postal order for two and sixpence and an encouragement to tell them any other exciting things that happened to me along the journey. Well, that was both the beginning and the end of my journalistic endeavors, but I have never forgotten those who, when, what, why, where questions. And indeed, I try and employ them as much as I can when I’m reading my Bible, and certainly when I’m trying to understand what’s going on.

I say that this morning because I have just three of them for us that I think will help us to gather our thoughts. That is, first of all, the when question; then, the what question; and then, the why question. So our subject this morning is when, what, why, as it relates to Galatians 4:4–5.


Now, you’ll see, if you allow your eyes to gaze at the text, that the when question is raised for us. Indeed, it is addressed for us: “But when the time had fully come…” Or you may have a different translation, which reads, “When the fulness of … time [had] come,”[1] which gives the idea of time filling up, the way a bathtub might fill up with water, and when it had finally reached its fullness, then that was the moment in time when the intervention took place.

Now, what Paul is referencing here is the moment that was determined by God’s eternal decree. This little phrase “when the time had fully come”—“when the fullness of time had come”—references the fact that God decided to intervene at a moment in time. And Paul, not only here but in the rest of his writings, is clearly convinced that the issues of time are under God’s control and that it is therefore no surprise that the coming of Christ is not regarded by the apostle Paul as an accidental intervention, but it is regarded by him as a divine appointment. 

The eternal God stands outside of time and yet invades time in the person of his Son, Jesus.

In the Romans passage which was read earlier, Paul again uses similar phraseology. You perhaps recall it: “At just the right time … Christ died for the ungodly.”[2] And when he addresses the intelligentsia in Athens in Acts chapter 17, he tells the people listening—to their surprise, no doubt—that God is in charge of both geography and history, and that it was God who established the boundaries and the places for the existence of men and women and nations, and also—and I quote him—it was God who “determined the times set for them.”[3] So you have this vast notion of an eternal God who stands outside of time and yet invades time in the person of his Son, Jesus .

Time, of course, is an issue for all of us. We spend a lot of time trying to find out what time it is. I noticed this morning that I thought it was the fourth, only to discover it was the fifth. I realized I’d missed a day somewhere in the week, and that explains quite a lot.

My favorite anecdote about time—I just throw it in—it involved G. K. Chesterton, who in London was a fairly well-known character, a large gentleman. He wore a cloak more often than a buttoned-up coat. And on one occasion on a windy day in London, as he gathered his coat around him against the breeze, he went round a corner and banged into a gentleman who was walking towards him carrying a grandfather clock under his arm. And as Chesterton lay on the ground looking up at this character, he said to him, “Why can’t you use a wristwatch like everybody else?”—which speaks not just to the issue of time, but also to the good-naturedness of G. K. Chesterton. Some of us could learn from that, I’m sure.

But, of course, literature, poetry, contemporary songs, are not unfamiliar with addressing the issue of time. Jim Croce, whose life was cut short in time, was concerned if he could perhaps contain time or “save time in a bottle.”[4] The Byrds, jumping on Ecclesiastes 3, reckoned that there was “a time to every purpose, under Heaven, a time to be born, [and] a time to die.”[5] And, of course, Chicago spent a fair amount of time trying to answer the question “Does anybody here know what time it is? Does anybody really know what time it is?”[6]

Now, this issue of time is therefore not addressed haphazardly but purposefully. God had determined the time and when that time had fully come. But anybody reading history might be tempted to say, “Well, wasn’t it a rather strange time to come? Don’t you think there would have been, perhaps, a better time to come?”

Tim Rice in Jesus Christ Superstar, all these years ago now, puts that question, that notion, on the lips of Judas. Do you remember that song, which goes like this: “Every time,” says Judas to Jesus,

Every time I look at you, I don’t understand
Why you let the things you did get so out of … hand.
You’d have managed better if you’d had it planned.
[Now] why’d you choose such a backward time and such a strange land?
If you’d come today, you [could] have reached a whole nation;
Israel in 4 BC had no mass communication.
[Now,] don’t … get me wrong.[7]

 “Don’t get me wrong.” Remember that song? No? Okay, that’s fine. You go get the album and listen to it, and you’ll find that it is actually there, and it addresses the question that is here in Galatians 4:4. What a strange time! But it was the time that had reached its fullness.

Now, these questions are not the issues, but they are not inconsequential either. Because even a scant knowledge of the historical context into which Jesus of Nazareth came allows us to see that actually, Palestine was not such a strange place, and this wasn’t actually such a strange time. Palestine, if you take a world map, is uniquely positioned for the spread of the gospel into Asia, into Africa, and into Europe. Indeed, you might say that it is actually the very best place for launching such a worldwide, intercontinental movement.

And the time is interesting. I don’t want to belabor this, but I wrote four things in my notes that you might find helpful in thinking it through. I wrote the word expectancy. The time was marked by expectancy—expectancy particularly in the Jewish world, because the Jews were looking for a Messiah. And in the intertestamental period, they were wondering when these prophetic passages—the story that had come through the lips of Micah, the great pointing forward of Isaiah and others—would finally come to fruition. And children would have asked their parents and their grandparents, “Are we going to have a Messiah, Grandpa? Will there be one who comes and fulfills what the prophets have said?” And “Oh yes,” they would have said before they tucked their little ones into bed, “yes, we’re expecting him any day now.” Expectancy.

It was also a period in history that was marked by security—a security that had come about largely as a result of the impact of the Roman Empire. And they had given the Pax Romana, they had established peace and security, and they had built roadways that made possible the movement of people in a way that hadn’t happened before, not simply within the framework of Palestine itself but stretching way far and beyond that.

At the same time, the era was marked by clarity—a clarity that was unique, essentially, to the Greek language, which had increased its hold and its influence on people at that time. And they’d begun to communicate with one another in a way that crossed their national and ethnic boundaries.

So I think it’s important for us to recognize that: expectancy, security, clarity. But it was also a time that was marked by what we might refer to as futility—futility—and particularly in the religious realm, inasmuch as the old mythological gods of Greece and of Rome, which had held sway in the minds of people for a fair amount of time, they were beginning to lose their hold. People were beginning to grow tired of them. People were beginning to doubt whether these gods could actually do anything. Again, you think of Acts chapter 17, and how Paul says to them, “I can see you’re a very religious group of people. Your place is full of idols; you even have a statue to an unknown god.”[8] And in their search for meaning and significance and purpose, they were looking beyond themselves for some kind of religious experience that was both real and satisfying. 

Now, these four observations, as I suggest to you, do not address the reason that Paul writes as he does here in Galatians 4. We’re going to come to that. The reason that they don’t is because the context doesn’t suggest it, and secondly, because these features are not unique to any period in history. I mean, we could take the issues of expectancy or security or clarity—whatever—and we could argue that today is far better on each of those fronts to a far greater extent than anything that they ever knew. And certainly, the quest for religious meaning and significance, for a purpose beyond ourselves, is certainly part and parcel of contemporary culture.

And this past week, one of the icons of contemporary culture when it comes to being an expert on futility—namely, Woody Allen—had his birthday. As you know, I quote him fairly often, because I’m intrigued by this man. I’m intrigued by what he’s been able to accomplish, and what he’s been able to comment on, and the way in which he has addressed things, and also the obvious pain and difficulty that is part and parcel of his life. And one of my colleagues, knowing my interest in Allen, gave me one or two anecdotes that came out as a result of his birthday—quotes that I hadn’t seen. For example, says Woody, “Life is full of loneliness and misery and suffering and unhappiness, and it’s over much too quickly.”[9] He’s so clever. Or his statement regretting life: he said, “My one regret in life is that I am not someone else”—which ties in with The Talented Mr. Ripley, if you remember that movie, when Matt Damon, playing the part of that individual, takes on the character of somebody else and hides behind the identity of someone. And in the process of that, he declares, “[I’ve] always thought [that] it would be better to be a fake somebody than to be a real nobody.”[10] It’s quite a statement. You could argue that the world of Hollywood, the world of “Cardboard California,” where “nothing is real” and where “just [getting] up brings you down,”[11] according to Neil Sedaka—that that is perhaps the great, striking emblem in our Western culture of the futility that marks so many lives.

And then, with his enigmatic style that is quite perilous, Woody Allen says, “[And after all,] how can I believe in God when just last week I got my tongue caught in the roller of an electric typewriter?”[12] You just have to think about these things.

Now, these external factors are not the issue; they’re not irrelevant. How then do we know, how can we say with any more certainty, the when that is here in verse 4? How can we speak to the actual issue? Well, the way to do that in any book, as well as in any book of the Bible, is to make sure that you don’t launch the verse out of its context.

And you’re gonna have to trust me on this and do the rest for homework, but if you go back into chapter 3, you will see that Paul there draws his thoughts around three historical figures: the figure of Abraham, the figure of Moses, and the figure of Jesus. And in chapter 3, he shows how God gave a promise to Abraham that through his seed all the nations of the earth would be blessed,[13] and that God gave the law to Moses—a law which he intended would reveal sin and which would, in turn, draw men and women to the Lord Jesus Christ , the third historical figure who is mentioned—the Lord Jesus Christ being presented here and elsewhere as the one who is the end of the law, who by his life and by his death has silenced the law’s condemnation.[14] But what has become apparent is that instead of the law serving its purpose—i.e., serving as an avenue that leads people to Jesus—the law had become a cul-de-sac, bringing people to the point of despair.

Now, if you think about that in contemporary terms, it’s not difficult to understand. There are many religious people who are devout in their interest concerning God, concerning Christ, concerning the expressions of religion, who, if pressed, will be honest enough to say that their religious experience does not bring to them forgiveness—any sense of palpable, visceral being forgiven—does not bring to them any sense of security that they belong to God, any sense of peace that all is well with God, and any sense of hope that their future is secure in God. And it is not on account of the fact that they are not engaged in religious pursuit; they are very zealous in these things. But as they confront themselves again and again by the rules and the regulations, it leaves them feeling sad, hopeless, empty, and despairing, because the more they are confronted by the standards of righteousness, the more they are aware of the fact that they do not, cannot, meet those standards.

And unless someone comes to say that this law that was given was not a ladder up which men and women are to climb so as to reach heaven, but it was given as a mirror so as to show men and women the marks and smudges of sin and rebellion on our faces, thereby saying to ourselves, “Then, if this simply shows up my smudges and my sins and my inconsistencies, and I cannot wash myself in the mirror, where may I be washed?” Then the law fulfills its purpose of sending men and women to this wonderful story of Jesus and his provision. But then and now, it is not uncommon for men and women, if they talk about salvation at all, to think of it in terms of a reward to be earned, and seldom as it really is: as a gift to be received.

I can think of no more futile exercise than a religious experience which depends entirely on my endeavors in order to make myself acceptable to God and to keep myself acceptable with God.  But there will be people every day of this week, here in Cleveland, who will attend church—well-meaning, religiously focused individuals—who have not actually understood what was happening “when the time had fully come.”


Now, from the when, let’s go quickly to the what. What? When did this happen? “When the fullness of time [had] come.” What happened? Well, he tells us in a phrase: “God sent his Son.” “God sent his Son.” Now, Paul is not here giving us a detailed outworking of the doctrine of the incarnation, but in the phraseology that he uses—in the Greek verb exapesteilen—he is giving to us a word which means “sending out from a previous state.” He was sent out from a previous state. And what Paul is doing here, in a very unworked-out way, is making sure that those who read his letter understand that the life of Jesus did not begin in Bethlehem—that Jesus did not all of a sudden come into existence when he was born as a baby—thereby making him different from anyone else.

Without ceasing to be what he was—namely, God—Christ became what he was not—namely, man.

When our children ask us, “Where was I before I was born?” the answer is, “You did not exist before you were born.” But for someone to ask that question of Jesus would demand a different answer, wouldn’t it? You have that, actually, when Jesus is being interrogated by Pilate in John chapter 19. And Pilate says to him, “Where did you come from?” Do you remember that? And John says, “[And] Jesus gave him no answer.”[15] Pilate could never have got his head around it; he could never have understood it. He would never have grasped it. It would have taken so long to address. So this phrase here is speaking to the fact that without ceasing to be what he was—namely, God—he became what he was not—namely, man.  

Now, you can cross-reference it in multiple places, but John chapter 1 is as good as any:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God [the Logos]. [And] he was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; [he was the Creator]; without him nothing was made that has been made.[16]

Therefore, he himself was not created; he was uncreated. So what we have is the preexistent Son: you have the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, together in eternity, entering into a covenant with one another and determining that the Son will fulfill the obligations laid upon him by the Father. And he will do so “when the fullness of time has come.”

Now, when we get to our Christmas carols, they’re usually—many of them—pretty good at helping us here. So we have the phraseology “Lo, within a manger lies he who built the starry skies.”[17] You couldn’t say that of any other individual in the whole world, could you? I mean, we’ve all seen babies born; we’ve all been at showers, or whatever you call those things; we’ve all gone and poked our nose in and looked in the little buckets and into the prams and whatnot. And we’re able to say all kinds of things—“My, he looks like this,” or “She looks that”—but I’ve never been able to look into a pram and say, “Oh, well, look: low within the pram there lies he who built the starry skies.” But that is the claim of Christianity. And it’s not a piece of theological lumber that you can stick up in the attic if you want to do an honors course in Christianity; it is at the very heart and core of Christian conviction.

What has God done? God has sent his Son. All right. Paul is not giving a detailed treatment here of the incarnation, nor is he giving any great explanation of the virgin birth. What he’s actually doing is, he’s showing that Jesus is perfectly qualified to do what was required of him. That’s his purpose here as he writes this; he’s showing that in Jesus we have the only one who is uniquely qualified to fulfill the obligation that needed to be fulfilled.

Now, we’ll come back to that in a moment or two, but Jesus understood that. That’s why in Mark’s Gospel, the first of the Gospels, when Jesus steps on the stage of human history and John the Baptist has been there getting things warmed up for him—he’s been the opening act in the concert, as it were—and then, finally, it’s time for Jesus to step on the stage: “After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, [he was] proclaiming the good news of God,” and what did he say? He said, “The time has come.”[18] “The time has come.” What time has come? “The fullness of time has come. It’s time now,” he said, “for men and women to repent and to believe the good news![19] Now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation.”[20]

Now, if that first phrase, “God sent forth his Son,”[21] speaks to the deity of Jesus, then the second phrase, “born of a woman,” speaks of the humanity of Jesus. And this, you see, is the great mystery, isn’t it? That here, down a natural birth canal, comes none other than God himself.

Veiled in flesh the Godhead see.
Hail th’incarnate Deity,
Pleased as man with man to dwell,
Jesus our Emmanuel.[22]

He is “God with us”: all that God is in human form, and everything that a man is, apart from sin. 

I love when people tell me, “Oh, the Christian message is a trivial, silly thing, you know,” like “invented,” and so on. I always say the same thing: “Are you telling me for a moment that somebody set out to invent a religion as complicated and as totally hard to believe as this? That a group sat down and said, ‘Now, why don’t we invent the idea of God becoming a fetus?’ Somebody would have said, ‘No, don’t go put that in; that’s going to be very hard to swallow.’” No, it doesn’t pass the muster.

“Sent forth his Son,” the preexistent Son, divine; “born of a woman,” human; and notice, thirdly, “born under law.” What does that mean? Well, it means that he had a Jewish mother, that he was born into the Jewish nation, that he was subject to the Jewish law, and furthermore, that he succeeded where no one else had and where no one else would. Not only did Jesus fulfill the precepts of the law as our representative, but he exhausted the penalty of the law as our substitute.

Keeping the law in perfect righteousness. Remember when the baptism takes place, and John the Baptist says to him, “I think we’ve got this the wrong way round, Jesus. I think that I should be baptized by you; I don’t think that you should be baptized by me.”[23] Remember what Jesus says? He says, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting to fulfill all righteousness.”[24] In other words, “John, I’m here to do the right thing in every respect.” And in the life of the Lord Jesus, we have one who kept the law in detail and in perfection. That is why when the accusers come to trump up charges against Jesus at the time of his crucifixion, they are at pains to come up with something that is really worthwhile. And Jesus, unlike any other man who has ever lived, is able to turn to them and say, “What sins do you accuse me of? And what is it that I have done?” And they had to go away with their heads down, because they knew they had nothing they could accuse him of. Unlike you and me. I’m not going to go home at lunchtime and ask my wife, “Well, what can you accuse me of? What sins have I done?” I want my lunch; I don’t want to have to wait that long to get my lunch.

By his divinity, by his humanity, by his righteousness, Jesus was uniquely qualified to accomplish God’s purpose.

And if God demands total righteousness, what the world hope do I have of being accepted by God, unless I have in Christ one who was sent forth from God as God, born of a woman, born under the law, keeping the precepts of the law as our representative, and bearing the penalty of the law as our substitute? By his divinity, by his humanity, by his righteousness, Jesus was uniquely qualified to accomplish God’s purpose.  

And the reason that the Christian would assert that Jesus is the only Savior is not because we want to be arrogant and bombastic and secure to ourselves a position of unique authority; the reason that we are left to attest that Jesus is the only Savior is because Jesus is the only one qualified to be a Savior.  If God must save, then the Savior must be God. If man must bear the punishment because man sinned, then the Savior must be man. If the man who bears the punishment for sin must be himself sinless, then who meets these qualifications?

Loved ones, the way that we need to defend and argue our position in these days is not in a doctrinaire fashion, not in an arrogant fashion, but in a fashion that essentially says to people, “You know, emotionally, I go where you go.” As people say to us, “Well, you’re not going to tell me this,” or “You’re not going to tell me that,” instead of saying, “Oh yes, I am,” no, you say, “Well, actually I think those thoughts often myself.”

I had this conversation with a young Muslim a few weeks ago in San Francisco. And he came to me and he said, “You surely aren’t going to say this.” And I said, “Well, you know, I wish that I could tell you, ‘No, I’m not going to say this,’ but I am going to say this. And the reason I’m going to say this is because I don’t have an option. Because unlike Muhammad, who is dead, Jesus is alive. Unlike Muhammad, who sinned, Jesus was sinless. And unless the law of contradiction is completely kicked up into the roof, then we have to recognize that we can’t both be right.” The notion that is abroad in Western culture is that contemporary religions only disagree with one another on the superficial things, and on the big things we’re in terrific agreement. No, we’re not. We’re not!

This Jesus, born to a Jewish mother, born under the Jewish law, born as a member of the Jewish nation, stands up and says to the Jewish people, “The reason that you won’t listen to me and follow me is because you are paying attention to your father, who is the devil. And he tells lies, and you’re obeying him and listening to him. But I come, and I tell you the truth, and you won’t listen to me.”[25] What kind of statement is this?

The Hindu says that God had been incarnated on multiple occasions. The Christian says the incarnation is a unique, unrepeatable event. We can’t both be right. My Jewish friends say that Jesus is not the Messiah. The Christian says Jesus is the Messiah. We can’t both be right. Christianity says that the fitting symbol of our religious expression is a cross, upon which Christ bore the punishment so that by grace people may be set free. Islam says that the fitting symbol of its religion is scales, whereby the good might be outweighed by the bad, until finally we make entry into heaven.

We just have to say to our friends, “Well, we’re going to have to think this out.” And if you’re on the fringes of faith and you’re wondering about this, my challenge to you is a straightforward one: I say to you, why don’t you take a Gospel and read it? Why don’t you take the Bible and read it? And why don’t you read it and be dead honest in reading it? You don’t have to close your eyes, but you could say something like this: “God, if you are real and you did come in the person of Jesus Christ, I believe that it would be possible for you to make that known to me when I read the Bible. And I promise to tell you that if you do make that known to me while I’m reading the Bible, I will believe in you and I will follow you.” Are you up for that kind of challenge? Or do you just want to dismiss it?

A Christmas that misses this is a Christmas that misses everything. Commercialism, sentimentalism, can proceed unabated, but Christianity stands or falls on this very issue. The Easter hymn puts it,

There was no other good enough
To pay the price of sin;
He only could unlock the gate
Of heav’n, and let us in.[26]

That’s either true or false. And we’re stuck with that. Because if we declare that Jesus is Lord and acknowledge his identity as the living God, as the ascended King, then we have no right as his disciples to tamper with what he told us.  We have no right to change the rules that he sent us. We have no freedom to believe other than what he gave us and to behave other than how he told us.

If we declare that Jesus is Lord and acknowledge his identity as the living God, as the ascended King, then we have no right as his disciples to tamper with what he told us.


Well, let me come to the final word; I can see some of you are just staring at me. So, when, “the fullness of time had come”; what, “sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law”; why—and our time is gone, so I’m going to just give you two words, and then I’m coming back to this this evening at our communion service, and we’ll try and work it through then.

Two words. Why was God doing what he was doing in Jesus? Number one, in order to provide redemption, and number two, in order to adopt those whom he redeemed. It’s a wonderful story. There’s no story like it in all of religion—the story of God’s intervention. You can read how he’s done this, back in 3:13. It takes us to the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ, so that those of us who see ourselves confronted by the law—because we do have idols, and because we don’t always tell the truth, and because we haven’t always been fair and honest in our marriage, and because we do know what it is like to covet other people’s stuff; we’re frankly a royal mess when it comes to these things. And if what we’re supposed to do is just try and pull our socks up and give it our best shot, then frankly, it’s a futile existence.

So, this wonderful story of Christ redeeming people from their sins by paying their debt, by taking upon himself the curse of the law. And the hymn writer again puts it so nicely:

O perfect redemption, the purchase of blood!
To ev’ry believer the promise of God;
The vilest offender who truly believes,
That moment from Jesus a pardon receives.[27]

Clean sheet, fresh start, new page, debt cancelled. I love to tell this story.

One of the old ministers in Philadelphia years ago used to tell a story of a lady. He called her “Old Betty”; she immediately sounds fictitious, this “Old Betty,” to me, but anyway, we’ll go with her for a moment. But she lived in poverty in London, in East End of London. And she was heavily in debt, she was in deep distress, and a Christian minister found out about this lady and told his congregation, and the congregation determined that they should intervene in her life and deal with her debt.

And so the minister raised the money necessary to pay off her creditors. Having done so, and with the receipt in his pocket and with provision for her present circumstances, he went to her home in search of her—up into a garret in the East End of London. He asked people,
“Does anyone know where Old Betty lives?”

“Oh yes, she lives up in the top flat, way up on the top.”

So up he went and knocked on the door: “Hello, hello?” Nothing, no answer at all.

He began to come down the stairs, and people were on the landings, and they said, “How did you get on?”

“Oh,” he said, “she’s not up there.”

“Oh yes,” they said, “she’s up there. She doesn’t leave there; she’s frightened to leave there in case the police get her. She must think that you are a policeman, coming to arrest her because of her indebtedness.”

So, understanding this, the minister went back up the stairs again. And he knocked on the door and he called to her; he said, “I am a minister, and I’ve come to see you. I’ve come to help you.”

And cracking the door open, Old Betty said to him, “I thought that you were the police, and I was afraid to open the door.”

Coming inside, the minister told her that her debt had been cancelled and made provision for her present circumstances. And as she sat there, looking across the table at this kindly man, she said to him, “Just think: I locked and barred the door against you, and I was afraid to let you in. I locked and barred the door against you; I was afraid to let you in.”

Well, she’s a wonderful picture of many today who know themselves to be indebted with sin, regrets in our past—things that, like the “damned spots” on the hands of Lady Macbeth,[28] we have been unable to find any perfume to eradicate. We’re actually frightened, we feel guilty, we’re tempted to think that people are coming knocking at our door, ready to make known to others our problems, ready to incarcerate us because of our indebtedness. We fail to realize that he who comes knocking at the door is none other than Christ himself , who has cancelled our debt by his death on the cross and has arrived in order to make provision for our present circumstances—that he is our great friend, but we have kept him out. And I wouldn’t be at all surprised if that doesn’t represent someone’s life this morning, even as I speak to you.

So what does it mean to be a Christian? Well, it means to be redeemed, means to understand that Christ, in coming in that when and accomplishing that what, was doing it why? In order that men and women might have their debt cancelled, and in order—and we’ll come to this this evening—in order that they may be adopted into his family.

Some of you are here, and you are adopted into families. And you have great occasion to be thankful for the initiative that has caused you to be taken from where you were and to become what you are now. And as a result of that, Paul says, “The Spirit of God…”[29] You see how Trinitarian it all is? God the Father plans it, God the Son procures it, and God the Spirit applies it to our lives, each member of the Godhead at work in conjunction with one another. And the Spirit comes and lives in a person’s heart, so that this is not simply something that is outside of us, inasmuch as it was accomplished by Jesus on the cross, but it is something which is made real inside of us, in that the Spirit of God comes and lives in our lives, because we could never do what we’d been asked to do but by his enabling. And he enables us to refer to God in a particular way, to call God “Father.”

Now, I hear people addressing God all the time, don’t you? In terms and tones that make it clear to me, they don’t know the God they’re referencing. People at your work, people at our office, people at your school, say, “Oh God!” or “If there’s a God up there, I’m going to ask God about this,” or “the man upstairs,” or whatever it might be. But you don’t do that, not if you’re a Christian. And if you’re honest, sometimes this is how your prayers go: “Father, O Father. Father!” Why do you do that? As a result of his redemption. Because you’ve been adopted. The religious, unconverted man or woman cannot know God in that way. Clutching their debts to themselves, hiding in their apartment with the door barred for fear that some will come and make their predicament obvious, they resist the intervention of he who bore their sin and died in their place.

Now, Father, we thank you for your Word, the Bible. We pray that you will make us students of it. We pray, Lord, that each member of the congregation will go home and search the Scriptures to see whether what I’m telling them is actually there—that they won’t believe it because I’ve said it, but they will believe it as they come to it themselves and by the enabling of your Spirit.

Thank you for the wonderful redemption that you have provided for us in Jesus. We can never make ourselves acceptable to you, and some of us are really stalled as a result of trying. And then the truth begins to dawn that what we never could do in ourselves, Christ has come to do for us. And if we will rest in his provision and accept his intervention, then not only will our debt be cancelled, but our present status with the living God will be transformed. Hear our prayers.

May the grace of the Lord Jesus, the love of God, the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be the abiding portion of each one, today and forevermore. Amen.

[1] Galatians 4:4 (KJV).

[2] Romans 5:6 (NIV 1984).

[3] Acts 17:26 (NIV 1984).

[4] Jim Croce, “Time in a Bottle” (1972).

[5] Pete Seeger, “Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There Is a Season)” (1965).

[6] Robert Lamm, “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?” (1969). Lyrics lightly altered.

[7] Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber, “Superstar” (1969).

[8] Acts 17:22–23 (paraphrased).

[9] Annie Hall, directed by Woody Allen, MGM, 1977. Paraphrased.

[10] The Talented Mr. Ripley, directed by Anthony Minghella, Paramount Pictures, 1999.

[11] Howard Greenfield and Neil Sedaka, “Cardboard California” (1971).

[12] Woody Allen, Without Feathers (New York: Ballantine, 1983), 10.

[13] See Galatians 3:8, 16.

[14] See Galatians 3:19–25.

[15] John 19:9 (NIV 1984).

[16] John 1:1–3 (NIV 1984).

[17] Edward Caswall, “See Amid the Winter’s Snow” (1858).

[18] Mark 1:14–15 (NIV 1984).

[19] Mark 1:15 (paraphrased).

[20] 2 Corinthians 6:2 (KJV).

[21] Galatians 4:4 (KJV).

[22] Charles Wesley, “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing” (1739).

[23] Matthew 3:14 (paraphrased).

[24] Matthew 3:15 (paraphrased).

[25] John 8:42–45 (paraphrased).

[26] Cecil Frances Alexander, “There Is a Green Hill Far Away” (1848).

[27] Fanny Crosby, “To God Be the Glory” (1875).

[28] See William Shakespeare, The Tragedy of Macbeth, 5.1.

[29] Galatians 4:6 (paraphrased).

Copyright © 2024, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.