When? What? Why?, Part Two
return to the main player
Return to the Main Player
return to the main player
Return to the Main Player

When? What? Why?, Part Two

From Series: Behind the Scenes of Christmas

Galatians 4:4-7  (ID: 2416)

As sinners, we naturally dislike the idea of grace, preferring to clean ourselves up on our own instead. It is only through Christ’s death and the conviction of the Holy Spirit, however, that we receive salvation. But believers enjoy far more than just forgiveness, Alistair Begg reminds us. God also adopts us as children, and the Spirit indwells us and works in our hearts. Our adoption isn’t just a contractual transaction; it’s a brand-new relationship with our heavenly Father.


Sermon Transcript:

I invite you to take your Bibles and turn to Galatians 4, to the couple of verses that we were at this morning. And as you find that, we’ll pause and pray together, and then look to the end of what we left hanging in the morning hour. Galatians 4:4:

“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. Because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, ‘Abba, Father.’ So [you’re] no longer a slave, but a son; and since [you’re] a son, God has made you also an heir.”

Now, “make the Book live to me, O Lord; show me Yourself within your Word; [please] show me myself and show me my Saviour, and make the Book live to me,”[1] for Christ’s sake. Amen.

God Sent His Son to Redeem Us

We are considering the question of redemption and adoption as it is made clear to us in these verses. We said this morning that we were addressing the when question, “the time had fully come”; the what question as to what it was that God was doing in the sending of his Son; and then the why question. And we had only time to answer the why question, “Why was God doing what he was doing in the time frame that he was doing it?” and the answer is, for two reasons: one, that he was redeeming those under the law, and two, that he was adopting them as sons into his family. And so I want to spend just a moment or two bringing closure to this study. It is appropriate to do so around the Lord’s Table, because we’re about to take in our hands the very emblems and symbols of God’s grace to us in Christ, a grace which both redeems us and adopts us into his family.

And as I mentioned this morning, 4:5 needs to be read in light of what Paul has already said in 3:13—actually, the whole paragraph that begins in 3:10. Because his argument there is fairly tight: he says that those who are relying on observing the law, who are seeking by the law to be justified and accepted by God, are actually under a curse. In verse 11, “It is clear,” he says, “that no one is justified before God by the law,” and the reason is that “the just will live by faith.”[2] And he then goes on to say in verse 13 that “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law,” and he did so “by becoming a curse for us.”

This is at the very heart of the Christian story: that when we look upon Jesus hanging on the cross, he is doing something for us that is necessary and that is voluntary, and he takes his place where we ought to be.

So the wonderful news, in a sentence, is this: that Jesus has done for us on the cross what we could never do for ourselves. This is at the very heart of the Christian story: that when we look upon the cross and we see Jesus hanging there, he is doing something for us that is necessary and that is voluntary, and he takes his place where we ought to be , in order that we might enjoy the benefits that he in his curse-bearing provides.

Now, when he talks—Paul, that is—of being disobedient, he is referring not only to those who were his initial readers, but he is referring to all of us, because all of us have not kept the law. We have not done everything that the law requires. And there is a curse in 10b which is resting upon those “who [do] not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.”[3] And you remember, we said this morning that the law was given to Moses, it was given by God, in order that it might serve as the confrontation for men and women with the fact of our own disobedience and rebellion, and then that it may in turn become an avenue or a gateway that leads us to the one who has provided the answer for our disobedience.

But we also noted that the Evil One seeks to take that which God has given for our well-being and to spoil it, and to suggest to men and women that this law, which in itself could never provide justification before God, may actually become the means of justification, if only you will try a little harder, if only you will do a little better, if only you will pull your socks up a little tighter—which, of course, is the message of religion generally speaking.  It is a message of self-effort. It is a message that says, “Come on, now, you can probably make a go of this.” We’re helped by reading our Bibles, we’re helped by singing hymns, and we’re reminded by the hymn writer, “Not the labors of my hands [could] fulfill your law’s demands.”[4] And this curse of the law that rests upon us, rests upon us on account of our disobedience. And it is from this curse that Christ comes to redeem us.

Now, the question is, How then can the Lord Jesus liberate us from our predicament? How then can the Lord Jesus alleviate the curse that is upon us because of our rebellion against him? And the answer is given very clearly there in verse 13. How has God accomplished this? “[Well],” he says, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us.” In other words, what should have come to us went to him.

This is a cross-reference in many ways to one of the verses that I hope to spend the rest of my life wrestling with and trying to understand in its fullness—namely, 2 Corinthians 5:21: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Again, Wesley, in his great hymn “And can it be that I should gain an int’rest in the Savior’s blood?” pens these wonderful lines:

’Tis mystery all! Th’Immortal dies!
Who can explore [this] strange design?
In vain the firstborn seraph tries
To sound the depths of love divine!
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Amazing love! how can it be
That Thou, my God, should die for me![5]

Now, of course, the wonder of that will never grip us until we have been brought face-to-face with the fact that we deserve to die, until you and I have come face-to-face with the fact of where we stand before God.  And that, of course, is the abiding purpose of the law: to take nice people who live in the Chagrin Valley, who are trying to do their best and making a pretty good go of it and endeavoring to do fine by way of marital relationships and family involvement, and who think that by and large, if there’s any kind of grading going on in terms of where we stand before God, so long as God is grading on the curve, we’re probably going to be okay; we definitely make it into the top percentile! And we like to hear stories of how in the Christian life there is purpose, and in the Christian life there is fulfillment, and in the Christian life there is joy, and in the Christian life there is peace. And we may even have signed up for one of those packages: “I would like to sign up for the joy, peace, purpose package, if I could. I’m really quite a fine fellow, and I can see why God would like me to have joy and purpose and peace. And if you could just give me the package, I will proceed directly.” And then, when I tell you that the wonder of the gospel is that Christ became a curse for us, you sit there and you say, “I’ve got no idea what that could possibly mean. In fact, it doesn’t seem to mean very much to me at all.”

And of course, whyever would it? Because if the Christian story is simply that Jesus has come to add something to our lives that was lacking as a result of our inadvertent ways, then this strange story of curses and laws and disobedience and demands and crucifixions and the shedding of blood seems such a strange story. Such a mysterious idea. Something that you may be honest enough to say, “I don’t know anything about at all.”

Well, of course, who would ever be interested in someone who died to take our place unless we understand that we deserve to be in that place? Why would we ever believe that we deserve to be in that place when we think so well of ourselves? And how then could we ever be convicted of the fact that our lives are not what God intends for them to be?

Well, the place of the law gets us there. It shows us that we haven’t loved God with all of our heart, we haven’t kept his commandments, we haven’t obeyed him, we haven’t loved as we should, we haven’t loved our neighbors as ourselves, we haven’t always told the truth, we’ve been guilt of coveting, and so on. Oh, all of a sudden, things are different! And when the Spirit of God brings that message home and tells us that all who live in that disobedient posture are under the curse of God, are under the judgment and the wrath of God, and we move in our experience from simply the cerebral appropriation of the idea as a concept to the dawning awareness in our hearts of the fact that “this is about me and who I am,” then, of course, a divine transaction is in the process of taking place.  

This can never be achieved as a result of a pastor or a preacher trying to bring a person to that point. No, the pastor, the preacher, is responsible to say what the Scriptures say, and then it is the work of the Spirit of God to convict people of their sins and to convince them of all of the wonder of what God does in Jesus.

So that begs the question: Have you ever been convicted of your sins? And if you haven’t, then why do you believe that Jesus is your Savior? And why would you ever need a Savior, if you’ve never been convicted of your sins? 

“Jesus voluntarily,” says Paul, “takes upon himself the curse that we deserve, in order that we might be delivered from it.” That’s the explanation, incidentally, of Jesus’ cry of dereliction from the cross. The people standing around were amazed at the things he said, not least of all when he cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”[6] How could it possibly be that the Son was forsaken of the Father? Well, the answer is right here: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us.” There is no other pathway of deliverance.

Luther tried it—struggling, striving, doing his best, phenomenal in his religious zeal, and yet none of those things gave to him freedom of conscience, none of those things gave to him the amazing wonder of forgiveness, none of these things cleansed him from his guilt, none of these things put within him a power that was necessary for the living of the Christian life. And none of these things ever can. They can never deliver a man or a woman from the curse which rests upon us because we are lawbreakers.

Now, this little quote at the end of verse 13, which is a quote from the Old Testament, we need to understand. What is this: “It is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree’”? Does that mean that if you get hanged on a tree you are inevitably cursed? No. What it means is that being hanged on a tree, in the Old Testament, was the obvious symbol of divine rejection.  So when someone was stoned and then hanged out on a tree, the people walking down the road said, “The curse of God is on that person.” For their posture, hanging in ignominy there, was representative in Israel of the fact that they had been judged on account of their disobedience and their predicament was a symbol of divine rejection.

Now, hold that thought as best you can, and you will quickly realize why, when Paul writes to the Corinthians, he says, “We preach Christ crucified,” which is, number one, “a stumbling block to [the] Jews and [foolish] to [the] Gentiles.”[7] Now you understand why it would be a stumbling block to the Jew: because the Jew understood that anyone that was hanging on a tree was cursed of God! So Paul stands up and preaches “Christ crucified,” and the Jew shouts out from the crowd, “I don’t know what you’re talking about, Paul! Jesus is cursed by God; otherwise, he wouldn’t be hanging on the tree.” They couldn’t understand how Jesus could possibly be the Anointed of God, how he could possibly be the Messiah, hanging on a tree. Shouldn’t he be sitting on a throne? Well, the answer is yes, but all in good time. And Jewish people were converted when they realized that Christ was hanging there not on account of his own sin but on account of his becoming a curse for us. That’s what Peter writes in 1 Peter [2], remember, where he says, “He himself bore our sins … on the tree.”[8]

So the work of redemption that is described here in verse 14—we’re still in chapter 3—the work of redemption results, says Paul, in “the blessing that was given to Abraham coming to the Gentiles.”[9]—the promise of God to Abraham that through his seed all the nations of the earth would be blessed. You can see that back up there in verse 8: “God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham.” It’s a wonderful thought, isn’t it? That’s why, you understand, when we put the big picture together, people say, “Well, what do you mean that the whole of the Bible is the story of God’s promise to Abraham reaching its fulfillment in Revelation 7? How do you come up with that?” Well, here Paul tells us that the gospel was actually spoken in advance to Abraham. How was it spoken? “‘All nations will be blessed through you.’ So those who have faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.”[10]

And how does this blessing come to the Gentiles? Notice: “through Christ Jesus.”[11] And how? “By faith … receiv[ing] the promise of the Spirit.”[12] Now, this is central to Paul’s argument in this particular book. What he is saying is, the way that the Gentiles are included in the promise to Abraham is not by becoming Jews. It is by doing what Abraham did—namely, believing God. And in 5:2, he says, “Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all.” In other words, “If you’re gonna go ahead and go through all the Judaistic rites, you do not understand what Jesus has done in dying on the cross and bearing your curse.”

So that, then, is the first and gracious purpose of God in sending his Son, “born of a woman, born under [the] law.” Why? Well, number one, “to redeem those under [the] law,” so that they might be adopted as sons—so “that [they] might receive the full rights of sons.”

Geoff Wilson, in his wonderfully helpful little commentary, says, “He who was the Son by nature willingly took the form of a servant so that we who were by nature the servants of sin might become sons by the adoption of grace!”[13] He who was Son by nature becomes slave in order that we who by nature are slaves to sin might become sons on account of the adoption of grace—of grace!

That’s one of the reasons that the message of the gospel is unappealing to people. We actually don’t like grace. We like deeds. We like doing. We like achievement.  We like being able to look around and say, “And I want you to know that I did this myself, and I want you to know that I accomplished this, and I want you to know that I’m a much better person than I once was ever since I started going to that church. I’ve cleaned up my act. I’m no longer going down the pub three times a week—only once—and I’m a much better father, and there are a number of things also that I can point to. I really have done a wonderful job.”

Well, I’m delighted to hear all of that, but have you faced the fact that that in itself is of no use to you and no value before God, because all that you can achieve on your own renders null and void all that Jesus has accomplished on the cross? And if we by our own endeavors were able to put ourselves in rights with God, if we were able somehow or another to inveigle our way into his family by our own endeavors, then, of course, there would be no wonder in redemption, and there would be no beauty in this prospect of adoption.

God Sent the Spirit of His Son

Now, it’s in this little phrase here, in the same verb that we noted this morning, that we have the sending of his Son, in verse 4: “God sent his Son” to accomplish our redemption. But not only did he do that, he “sent the Spirit of his Son”—you will see that in verse 6—so that the benefits of redemption may be experienced in our lives. So he sends his Son in order that he might redeem us, and then he sends the Spirit of his Son.

The reality of justification, whereby we are declared righteous in God’s sight, is not separated from the gift of God’s Spirit, who is immediately at work in us, sanctifying us.

It’s a very interesting phrase; it’s indicative of the fact that we should never wrest the work of the Spirit of God from the work of the Son of God. Father, Son, and Spirit are interwoven in this great work of redemption. The reality of justification, whereby we are declared righteous in God’s sight, is not separated from the gift of God’s Spirit, who is immediately at work in us, sanctifying us.  

The analogy that I’ve always used with young people is that in the United Kingdom you come upon buildings that have the crest HRH over them: “Her Royal Highness.” And when a property is taken over by the Crown, a legal transaction takes place in private somewhere, in an office somewhere. Once that legal transaction has been conducted, then a sign is placed over the entryway to the building, and simultaneously, a whole crew of individuals almost inevitably descend upon the building in order to refurbish it in such a way that it will be a fit residence for Her Royal Highness. So that the legal transaction creating a change of ownership is accompanied by the indwelling presence of those who will create a change of environment.

I remember witnessing to a Roman Catholic in a taxi in Chicago and saying to him, “But wouldn’t you like to know that your sins had all been paid for—past, present, and future?”

“Oh, no!” said the man, “I wouldn’t like to know that.”

I said, “Why not?”

He said, “Because then I would just go out and sin like crazy.”

And I said, “No, but there’s a second part to this. Not only are your sins forgiven and you are declared righteous in God’s sight, but you are simultaneously indwelt by the Spirit of God himself, who begins the sanctifying process of conforming you to the image of his Son.” So that the hymn writer again helps us out: “Be of sin the double cure: cleanse me from its guilt”—justification—“and power”—sanctification.[14] And every so often, you’ll come across somebody who tells you that they know Jesus in element number one, but they’re not really too interested in stage two. They’re really just a stage-one Christian. No, they’re not. They’re not a Christian at all. Because the legal transaction does not take place absent the sanctifying work of the Spirit.

Now, some of you know adoption firsthand, because you have lived as adopted children. Some of you know it because you have adopted children. And you know that the moment a child is adopted, that child’s whole status changes.  From the moment that form is signed, from the moment the transaction is made, that child’s status is irrevocably transformed. If it is a boy, he gets a new name, he’s absorbed into a new family, and with that family comes new privileges and new expectations. And the father and the mother walk out, they have the papers, the father takes them, folds them, puts them in his inside pocket, and says, “There we have it; Jonathan is now a member of our family.” And Jonathan comes home, and they show him into his bedroom, and Jonathan feels strange, and the mom and dad feel a little strange. There’s no doubt that the child is now by adoption a member of the family; the legality of it has conferred upon him a new name and a new place. But the legality of adoption may exist without the existential experience of living and feeling like a child. Right? So that a person may come and live in a home, even be grateful for the home, but the parents are longing for the day when there will be that indication that that which has been legally settled will become experientially enjoyed.

Now, the same thing is true in our spiritual adoption, because when we are adopted into the family of God, that confers upon us a status. Our adoption does not change our character; it changes our status. Our adoption does not necessarily and immediately change our experience. And the same experience of the child in terms of physical adoption will be concurrent with the experience of many of us who have been spiritually adopted.

I know this only by observation. I remember one of my good friends telling of a missionary couple who adopted a little girl, lovely girl. They took her to their home. They gave her her bedroom. They fed her her meals. She began to learn obedience. And that’s how it went. And then one day, quite out of the blue, the father heard her say, “Daddy, I need a new shoelace.” And that was her first acknowledgment of her adoptive status. When she said, “Daddy, I need a new shoelace,” the father knew that what had been legally transacted was now experientially absorbed, and this adoption meant something.

Our Father is not content to walk around, as it were, with papers in his inside pocket that have our names on them. He is committed to those of us who have been justified by grace through faith—those of us who’ve been adopted into his family—he is committed to our entering into the existential, experiential wonder of what it means to say, “Daddy, I need a new shoelace. Father, I need your help.” And that’s why he sends the Spirit of his Son into our hearts: so that we might have a subjective sense of our relationship with God the Father.

This Christian thing is not some legal, cerebral transaction. If that’s all it is in your life, my dear friend, I’m sorry for you. If that’s what you have—some kind of framework, some kind of nonexperiential grasp of dogma or doctrine whereby you’ve said, “Was a curse, I’m a curse, he’s a curse, whatever it is,” and on the strength of that, you proceed through your days, but you have no sense of “And He walks with me, and He talks with me, and He tells me I am his own”[15]—if you can come to the Lord’s Table and take this bread and drink this cup and whistle Dixie to yourself, if you can simply go through the motions, then, my dear friends, you’d better ask severely before Scripture whether you know God at all. Because he is not in the business of adopting people into his family in some way that is all outside of ourselves. Our justification, Luther said, is all outside of us.[16] But that which is transacted on the basis of what Jesus has done “out there” is made real to us on the strength of what the Spirit of God has done “in here.”

So we have every right to anticipate that there will be devotion, that there will be passion, that there will be tears, that there will be enlightenment, that there will be involvement, that there will be praise.  Listen, I have to take myself in hand when I’m singing these songs. I don’t let them run on. I’m saying the words to myself: “Jesus, you are my Prophet, you are my King, you are my Savior, you are my friend, you are my Lord, you are my life, you’re my way, you’re my end, and I want you to send your Spirit into my heart this morning so that when I sing this hymn, it may be sung in such a way that it assures me of who I am, and if someone was to see me they would say, ‘Well, I think he must know God. I think he must know Jesus.’”

Now, people can come in and out of Parkside without any notion at all that this is a congregation engaged by the Spirit of God, in love with the Son of God, in awe of the Fatherhood of God. But this is cross-referenced in Romans 8, isn’t it? “You [didn’t] receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father.’”[17] The verb there “to cry,” krazei, is a wonderful verb.

And the Father brings the Spirit to us, and it’s like in Perry Mason. You remember Perry Mason, he always had the trump witness? I used to love Perry Mason. Just when you thought the case was going down, he said, “I’d like to call the witness for the such and such,” and you knew, “Here we go, here he comes!” And every week it was the same: in he came, and sure enough, he was the vital witness, securing the verdict.

That’s what the Father does: “I’d like to call the Holy Spirit,” he says. And he calls the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit testifies, and the Holy Spirit says, “Yes, this is. This is. You are.” And as a result of that, we cry.

That’s not an assurance, incidentally, this crying out. I’ve heard this taught in such a way that, you know, when you finally reach a certain level of maturity, then this will be your experience, when you receive the Spirit of sonship and you learn to cry, “Abba, Father.” I don’t think it’s that at all. But rather, when I’m downhearted—rather, when I haven’t done as I wanted to do, when I have failed when I would liked to have been successful, when I find myself in the middle of a week, bruised and broken and disheartened and discouraged—I find myself crying out, “O Father, Father, could you please help me?” And when I find myself calling out in that way, I’m reminded again of the wonder of what Jesus has done in redeeming me and sending his Spirit to live in my life, because otherwise, I would have no occasion to call God Father.

God assures us of our sonship by the quiet, persuasive witness of his Spirit, as we talk to him and as we walk with him.

So, the way in which God assures us of our sonship is not, then, by some unusual gift, some peculiar sign, but he assures us of our sonship by the quiet, persuasive witness of his Spirit, as we talk to him and as we walk with him.  And so you have this wonderful finale to the lovely little section: “So,” he says, “the fact is, we’re not slaves, but we’re sons; and if we’re sons, we’re actually heirs”—“joint-heirs with Christ,”[18] actually, in Romans 8.

So how, then, has this been brought about, that we who were by nature slaves have been made sons and made heirs? Well, it’s all because of God’s amazing grace—because, in verse 4, he sent his Son to die for us, and, in verse 6, he sent his Spirit to live in us. And that’s who a Christian is: someone who says, “I know now that God has sent his Son to die for me, died in my place, and I know that God has sent his Spirit to live in me, so that my understanding of who God is and what he’s done is something that is real to me, it is experiential, it is life changing, and it is reassuring.” 

Father, I pray that you will so seal our hearts in Christ by the Holy Spirit that we might actually adore you, cry out to you, and worship you. Forgive us, Lord, for the fact that in a church like this, we can start to know stuff in a way that rattles around in our heads and makes a noise, but as we thought last Sunday morning, it doesn’t actually swell up within us and begin to touch everything.

And we want, Lord, if it would please you, to have the kind of awareness of your power for us and your presence in us that does invade every aspect of our lives and touch everything about us. Only you can do this, and only those of us who are honest and sincere will ask you to. But we pray, Lord, that you will start and stir and move and change us.

Thank you that although we were by nature cursed, because of all that Jesus has done, we live in the blessing of sonship, and we are accepted in all of what he has done and all that he is to us. What amazing grace! How wonderful this is! And may our hearts be filled as we gather round this Table. Remind us of what we need to know and fill our lives afresh, we pray, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.


[1] R. Hudson Pope, “Make the Book Live to Me” (1943). Language modernized.

[2] Galatians 3:11 (paraphrased).

[3] Galatians 3:10 (NIV 1984).

[4] Augustus Toplady, “Rock of Ages” (1776). Language modernized.

[5] Charles Wesley, “And Can It Be, That I Should Gain?” (1738).

[6] Matthew 27:46 (NIV 1984).

[7] 1 Corinthians 1:23 (NIV 1984).

[8] 1 Peter 2:24 (NIV 1984).

[9] Galatians 3:14 (paraphrased).

[10] Galatians 3:8–9 (NIV 1984).

[11] Galatians 3:14 (NIV 1984).

[12] Galatians 3:14 (NIV 1984).

[13] Geoffrey B. Wilson, Galatians: A Digest of Reformed Comment (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1973), 75.

[14] Augustus Toplady, “Rock of Ages” (1776).

[15] C. Austin Miles, “In the Garden” (1913).

[16] See, for instance, Martin Luther, “The Two Kinds of Righteousness,” in Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, ed. Timothy F. Lull (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1989), 155–57.

[17] Romans 8:15 (NIV 1984).

[18] Romans 8:17 (KJV).

Copyright © 2019, 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.