July 9, 2023
At the Lord’s Supper, believers are invited to eat and drink as we remember and give thanks for Jesus, who has set us free. But what does it mean to be free in Christ? Alistair Begg examines two short verses in Galatians 4 that summarize Christ’s work and remind us of the immense privilege of knowing God. We are free because Christ has fulfilled the law as our representative and assumed the penalty for our sin on the cross. As adopted sons and daughters, our freedom, confidence, and security are in Him alone.
Sermon Transcript: Print
Well, let me invite you to turn to the New Testament, to Paul’s letter to the Galatians, and follow along as I read, first of all, the opening ten verses, and then just four verses out of chapter 4. So, Paul to the Galatians, chapter 1 and verse 1:
“Paul, an apostle—not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead—and all the brothers who are with me,
“To the churches of Galatia:
“Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.
“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we[’ve] said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.
“For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.”
And then he continues through his letter, and we pick it up in chapter 4, after he has spoken of the promises of God to and through Abraham, the law that comes by Moses, and the fullness of all things in Jesus. In verse 4 he writes, “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. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ So you[’re] no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.”
Well, we pray together:
Our gracious God and our loving heavenly Father, how glad we are that in the immense riches of your grace, you reach down to us, as we have been singing, and you opened our eyes and softened our hearts and inclined us in such a way that we bowed down and acknowledged that you are God and that there is no other, that we are by nature sinful and in need of a Savior, and that in your dearly beloved Son you have provided for us the sole answer to our human predicament.
And we thank you that when we gather in the company of one another, we are able to look on the faces of one another and see your image reflected, to see the evidences of your works of grace fashioning and changing, stirring and moving, correcting, reproving, enabling us to do what your Word says: to seek to build ourselves up in the most holy faith, praying in the Holy Spirit, and awaiting with expectation the day when Christ will come and bring to fullness all that has been ushered in by his first appearing.
And we thank you that tonight we can, in obedience to Christ, gather around this Table. In many ways from outside, even from inside, it seems so small, so apparently insignificant—such tiny emblems of food and tiny expressions of drink, and yet the symbol reminding us again of the wonder of your redeeming love, the wonder of all that you have done taking upon yourself our sin in order that we might be clothed in your righteousness, removing all the rags of our righteousness, all of our endeavors to put ourselves in the right with you that failed so miserably, and then discovering the grace that drew the plan of salvation and came down to us in Jesus.
So we want to ask that as we look at the Bible now, and then, in moments from now, as we share in this way with one another, that you will meet with us as you have promised to and in ways that perhaps we have never anticipated. We recognize that “sometimes a light surprises the Christian while [they sing],” and you draw near to us and assure us of your love for us, and from our hearts we find ourselves saying, “Abba! Father!”—no longer slaves but sons and daughters. How marvelous, how wonderful, that we would be called the children of God! And so we are. And we thank you in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Well, I want to set the context for us sharing in Communion. I should say that the meal is set before us by the Lord Jesus himself, as it were. His invitation comes to us as those who have turned to him, found in him a Savior and a friend, comes to admonish us that this is a table of harmony and union and communion. And therefore, if we find that we are not in union and communion with those whom we declare to be our brothers and sisters, then there is a necessary and a fairly urgent warning to be sure that we don’t take this in a way that is trivial or in a way that looks as if somehow the very outward framework of it is the reality of what God intends. So let’s receive the invitation as it comes from Christ, and let us proceed accordingly.
I want to focus just on those two verses, Galatians 4:4–5. For some reason, they’ve been in my mind, and I don’t plan to delay, but I want at least for us to make sure that we get the sense of them.
Let me begin by saying this: that the biblical way of thinking or the biblical terminology that we routinely use in the company of one another, whether in song or in the reading of Scripture or in our common parlance with one another—that biblical way of expressing ourselves is regarded, really, as a foreign language outside the framework of God’s grace. People by nature do not have the remotest idea what it is we are talking about when we speak about very essential things in relationship to God and to his Word and what it means to be known by God and to know the forgiveness of God—even to the notion of sin itself.
I’m not a great proponent of the people who do these surveys. They never seem to be particularly accurate in retrospect. But to the extent that there is some validity in them, Barna and his friends, when they survey people, have discovered that 71 percent of the American population has no notion of original sin—no idea of actually being a sinner. The way in which they would respond is to say, “Well, we’re born neither bad nor good, and as we make our way along the journey of life, we decide which one we want to be.” And, of course, they would discover that they found it far easier to be bad than to be good without ever paying attention to what the Scriptures have to say. Only 17 percent of the American population understands sin in relationship to God. Sin they may regard as an inconvenience, some kind of problem along the way, but no notion of somehow or another sin having altered radically the plan and purpose of God from creation and on. And so they don’t see any need to be reconciled to God, because they don’t believe that they’re alienated from God.
And it is only when we unpack the Scriptures that we find these things. And again I say to you, we find that we’re speaking, as it were, a foreign language. And this foreign language, this biblical language, makes it perfectly clear that the predicament that we face is on account of the fact that we are alienated from God. We’re alienated on two fronts: from our side, we are alienated on account of our sin; and from God’s side, we are alienated on account of his wrath. So we’ve got a major problem. And if reconciliation was ever to take place, was ever to happen, then God would have to be able to look on us without displeasure, and we would have to be able to look on God without fear.
And, of course, that is exactly what God has done in his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. Because in the cross, God’s wrath has been turned away from us. And in the cross, our sin is canceled and is imputed to his dearly beloved Son—that what he was doing was bearing our sin in his body on the tree in order that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. And in all of this, the initiative is from God.
It’s the amazing story of good news. It’s like nothing else in all of religion. And we need to make sure that we are clear about this when we move amongst our friends. Because if there is any notion of engaging with God in common terminology of the time, it is that somehow or another, we must go somewhere and reach out for him and find him. And we’re able to say, “Well, actually, no”—that in Christianity, the reverse is the case: that it is God who has bridged this chasm which exists between us. Because he is holy, and we are sinful, and God mysteriously, miraculously, wonderfully, even while we were still sinners, has chosen to do this.
Now, these two verses, 4 and 5, articulate this really, don’t they? I mean, just look at them. Paul, having written the earlier part of Galatians—which you can all read when you go home—says, “But when the fullness of time had come…” “The fullness of time.” It’s an interesting phrase. If you remember when we studied Mark’s Gospel, you remember that Mark introduces us immediately to Jesus, who stands on the stage of history, as it were, and he says, “The time is [now] fulfilled … the kingdom of God is at hand.” What time is now fulfilled? The eternal calendar of God Almighty, who, in creating the world and in leading throughout all the pages of the Old Testament and all the history of the prophets and the kings and so on, had planned a moment in time. And God’s time is always the right time. Paul says it also when he writes to the church in Rome, doesn’t he? When we were in a real mess, “at the right time”—“at the right time”—Christ came.
Now, you could say… And, of course, if you remember that old musical—not Jesus Christ Superstar, I think, but Godspell. In Godspell, I remember the lyric was, you know, “Why would he come? Why would he come at such a strange time to such a strange place? Why the Middle East? Why in a backwater providence in nowhere? And why at that time?” Well, it was “the fullness of time.”
I mean, I suppose you could say from a historical perspective, it was the time of the Pax Romana. The Roman authorities had established peace. They had established thoroughfares. They had made roads that could be traveled, and Paul traveled some of them. It was a time in history when the Greek language and Greek culture had created a sense of cohesion amongst people at that time. It was at the same time the time when the law of Moses had, if you like, done all the work that it had been established to do, which had left people longing for a freedom that they couldn’t find by the keeping of that law. And so Paul says, “Well, you see, that is because it was when the fullness of time had come.”
What did he do? Well, he “sent forth his Son.” Someone was asking me this morning about the doctrine of the Trinity. And, of course, it is a great mystery, isn’t it? And there is a great mystery just in a phrase like that: “God sent forth his Son.” Our Jewish friends have no notion of such an idea. It seems completely alien to them. Our secular friends largely have no interest in the idea. But what it speaks to is the fact that there was a relationship in eternity—if you like, an eternal relationship that was pre-time, that was pre-history, that was pre-incarnation—and in that eternal dimension, the Father assigns to the Son a task to be fulfilled. And the Son says to the Father, “I will go, and I will do your will.” And the Father says, “Son, I will uphold you, and I will reward you.”
And so, Paul writes now to these Galatians, who are struggling with the idea of what it means to be free in Jesus Christ, and he says, “You need to realize that God sent forth his Son, and that the Son came willingly.” He didn’t come by coercion. Philippians chapter 2: that although he enjoyed equality with God, he didn’t consider it as something to be grasped, but he made himself of no reputation, taking upon him the form of a servant and being made in the likeness of man. You know the story: that he became what he was not—flesh—without ever ceasing to be what he was—God.
You see what I’m saying to you? This is a language. This is a foreign language. This is the language we speak. This is what we believe. If you’re a Christian, this is what you believe.
Meekness and majesty,
Manhood and Deity
In perfect harmony,
The Man who is God.
When people take the Lord’s name in vain, they don’t know what they’re doing. They don’t understand what it is to be able to say,
My Jesus, I love thee, I know thou art mine.
For you all the pleasures of sin I resign.
My gracious Redeemer, my Savior art thou.
If ever I loved you, Jesus, it’s now.
Your friends are saying, “I don’t know what you’re on about at all.”
Do you understand what a privilege it is to know God, to be known by God? To have your name written on the palms of his hands? To have him having entered your name in the record before ever you had a thought in your mind, before ever you existed in the sphere of time?
This is what God has done: “sent forth his Son, born of [a] woman.” Well, that’s in keeping with the plan, isn’t it? In keeping with the divine decree. That’s what the prophet said: that we were waiting for one who would come—that a stump would arise out of Jesse. And the prophets wondered, “What will this be?” And in the fullness of time, this girl, this Mary, becomes the bearer of the Incarnate One.
Now, it’s interesting—at least, I find it interesting—that he doesn’t say “born of a virgin.” He says “born of a woman.” Of course he was born of a virgin! Paul knew that. But what he’s speaking about—he’s saying he was like us. He was like us. He’s not a phantom. You can’t be “born of a woman” and be a phantom. I mean, you can be a lot of strange things, but you can’t be a phantom.
In other words, this is crucial, isn’t it? That the anatomy of Jesus, the physiology of Jesus, the central nervous system of Jesus is the same physiology, anatomy, and central nervous system as you and me. He was “born of a woman.” Mary made the same contribution—chromosomic contribution—to the child Jesus as any earthly mother ever makes in relationship to their own child. The rest of the chromosomes come by divine intervention, by miraculous reality, so that he who has been expected arrives miraculously, “born of a woman.”
“Born under the law.” What is Paul saying in all of this letter? He’s really saying this: “There are a group of you folks who have not understood the gospel. You have not understood the gospel. And what you’ve started to do is go back to your old system and live your life as if somehow or another you could score points to put you in good favor, and if you’re not careful, you could get demerits that would put you in a wrong position. You’re starting to live with the idea that if you do really, really well, you can put yourself in a better position with Jesus, and if you do really, really badly, then, of course, you’ll be on the down side of the curb.” And he says, “I need to teach you folks exactly what has happened here—that he was born under the law.” He came for the express purpose of liberating all who were under the curse of the law. And you’ll need to read the rest of Galatians for this. But you see it there, for example, in 3:13: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.’” He goes on to say, “so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham,” the promise that was given to Abraham, “might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith”—not through works, not through law, not through our own endeavors and our own righteousness, but as a free, unconditional provision in Jesus. That’s what he’s saying.
That’s what makes this so wonderful, you see. If this is a meal that somehow or another you had to have a certain intellectual capacity to attend, then we could all decide if we had the IQ necessary. And then we could say to one another, “Isn’t it wonderful that we are all in the group that is able to do this?”—if it were some other way that we would have it. But no, the only thing that brings us here is the reality that we are like the man this morning: “God, be merciful to me, [the] sinner!”
Now, what he’s saying is simple, and yet it is vitally important: that in being “born under the law,” the Lord Jesus fulfilled all of its precepts as our representative, and he exhausted all of its penalty as our substitute. That is why when Gresham Machen was dying, and he was in correspondence with the late John Murray, and Murray had written to him to say, “How are you?”—and Machen said in his letter back to Murray, “I am so thankful for the outward righteousness of Jesus Christ.” What he meant by that was “Christ has fulfilled all of the law as my representative. I am by nature a lawbreaker. I am by nature under its curse. But he has also exhausted all of its penalty by bearing my sin on the cross.”
Now, the context to this, if you read through 3:15 and down to about 22—what Paul does masterfully is he weaves… If you like, it would be like a hill climb, and he starts off, and we climb up the first hill, and we meet Abraham. And then we climb up the second hill, and we meet Moses. And then we climb up the third hill, and we meet Jesus. Because that’s what he does. Look in verse 16: “Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does[n’t] say ‘… to offsprings,’ referring to many, but referring to one, ‘And to your offspring,’ who is Christ.”
What was the promise that God made to Abraham? On the basis of what? It was on the basis of nothing! It was free. It was unconditional: “Abraham, I will make of you… Through your offspring, all the nations of the earth will be blessed.” That was the promise that was given to Abraham. Then you go on to verse 17, and you have the giving of the law: “This is what I mean: the law, which came 430 years afterward[s], does[n’t] annul [that] covenant.” So Moses is the one who gives to us the law, and then, if you fast-forward all the way down to 22: “But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.” The law was given not to provide salvation but to show men and women our need of salvation. God’s promise to Abraham was fulfilled in Jesus, and the law of Moses was kept perfectly by Jesus, and all of this taking place—verse 5—“to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.”
Now, you think about this picnic that’s going to come out there on the patio just in a few days. And it seems to me such a wonderful idea. What a wonder it is! The wonder of adoption, the expression of love and concern and passion and compassion. He redeems those who were under the law, “redeem[ing] us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us.” It’s fabulous, isn’t it? He who was a Son by nature becomes a servant so that we, who by nature are servants of sin, might become sons and daughters. What an amazing exchange! The adoption of grace.
Now, I say to you again: we speak a foreign language. This makes no sense to people. And it may make no sense to you tonight. I don’t know all who are here. You may be here, and you said, “Well, I go to Communion every so often because I figured it’s something you’re supposed to do.” Well, it is something you’re supposed to do, but only if you understand that in Jesus there has been something that has been done that needed to be done—so that when we take this bread, we realize his body was broken for us; that when we drink this cup, we realize that his blood was spilled in order that we might be set free.
And Paul, again—and with this I will stop—but Paul is writing to these dear people because he is concerned about them. If you allow your gaze to go to the first verse of chapter 5, you hear this great call that rings out from his pen, as it were, and he writes, “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” God has set us free in Jesus so that we might be resting entirely in Christ alone. God provided the law to reveal sin to drive us to Christ. Satan, often in the form of religion, takes the same law to drive us to despair.
That’s what I said to you this morning. Religion will either make you very proud and arrogant or will reduce you to despair. Because there is no possibility of fulfilling the law. And any attempts to do so will make us unrealistic with ourselves and with other people, and we’ll be a total nuisance. Only in Jesus is the despair answered. Only in Jesus is our pride humbled—only at the cross.
I can’t remember if I told you about the young man that I met most recently in Chattanooga. I think I told some of my friends, but I’m starting to get wandered a little bit and can’t remember. But I’ll tell you about him anyway, because it just fits this very story.
He drove me to the airport. He wanted to do so because he liked to tell me his story. And his story he told me, it’s not for tonight for me to recount it. After being imprisoned on a murder charge, he went before a judge and was eventually released into another form of custody and on and out from there. In the course of his incarceration, he began to read the Bible. In the course of time, his cellmates told him about the gospel, introduced him to others who were teaching the gospel, and he came to understand Christ, and he entrusted his life to Christ.
Some time after he had been released from prison, he was in Target, and he was with a friend, and he said to the friend, “That man over there is the judge that I went before.” And his friend said, “Well, why don’t you go and speak to him?” And he said, “Well, I don’t want to speak to him. I’m so ashamed of everything that my life was about when I went before him.” And his friend pressed him; he said, “Well, I don’t think you should take that course. Go and speak to him.”
And so he went and said hello to him—said his name: “My name is Justin X.” The judge looked at him and said, “I remember you.” And Justin said, “I feel so ashamed to stand before you in the acknowledgment of all that my life was and has been.” And Justin told me as we drove, he said, “And he put his hand on my shoulder, and he said, ‘Justin, you are a new creation in Jesus Christ. Go out and live your life.’”
What he was really saying was “Christ has borne your curse. Christ has fulfilled in a way that you never could. That is all your confidence.”
“I am a new creation, no more in condemnation. Here in the grace of God I stand.” And that is at the heart of these couple of verses.
Well, another brief prayer:
Father, we thank you that we don’t have to search around in the Bible to find the themes that run through the entire wonderful story of redemption, of your initiative-taking love. Some of us thought for a long time that we could reach you in our own way. We looked for you inside ourselves. We looked for you in spiritual notions, some of us in the New Age movement, others in religion, others in legalistic designs and desires. And we never found you. Then one day you found us. We thought we could meet you on our own terms and in our own time, and you came in “the fullness of time,” “at [just] the right time.” Just in the way you came in the incarnation, so you come to us.
And we thank you for this. We thank you for such a “perfect redemption, the purchase of blood, to every believer the promise of God,” that “the vilest offender who truly believes that moment from Jesus a pardon receives.” Thank you for this, Father. Thank you that we can approach what is a mercy seat on account of all that Christ is to us. And we pray in his name. Amen.
 See Jude 20–21.
 William Cowper, “Sometimes a Light Surprises” (1779).
 See 1 Peter 2:24.
 Mark 1:15 (ESV).
 Romans 5:6 (ESV).
 See Philippians 2:6–7.
 Graham Kendrick, “Meekness and Majesty (This Is Your God)” (1986).
 William Ralph Featherston, “My Jesus, I Love Thee” (1862). Lyrics lightly altered.
 See Isaiah 11:1.
 Luke 18:13 (ESV).
 Genesis 12:2–3; 22:17–18 (paraphrased).
 Dave Bilbrough, “I Am a New Creation” (1983).
 Fanny Crosby, “To God Be the Glory” (1875).
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.