A Tale of Two Sons
v.23 But the son of the slave was born according to the flesh, while the son of the free woman was born through promise.
Dear friends in Christ, in our text for today, Paul speaks using allegory—that is, he speaks figuratively in order to symbolically represent a truth that he has already explained at great length. He does so to emphasize his argument and paint a picture before the mind’s eye. He needed to make sure that the Galatians, and by extension, each of us, knows and understands that it is only through faith in Christ that a person is both justified (made righteous before God) and sanctified (made holy).
You see, there was a group of false teachers that had infiltrated the church and were teaching “another Gospel” that was really “no Gospel at all.” This was a group that Paul had encountered before, known as the Judaizers. These Jewish Christians operated under the false theology that in order for one to be a true Christian, one had to obey the Jewish ceremonial Law—especially circumcision. Therefore, they were condemnatory toward the gentile Christians, saying that they must first be circumcised before they could be real believers in Jesus.
This, of course, the apostle Paul could not and would not abide. He wrote this letter to encourage the Galatians, both Jews and Gentiles, not to abandon the freedom that they had received through faith in Christ. In fact, this letter of Paul’s has long been referred to as the Magna Carta of the Christian faith—referring of course to the 1215 English document the Magna Carta Liberatum (the Great Charter of Freedoms), which guaranteed certain freedoms for people under English Law.
Herein Paul expressly states that it is only by the Gospel that we are free—it is only by the blood of Jesus that we have been freed from bondage to sin and death and the power of the devil—and he warns against returning to the Law, as that leads back to slavery once again. In the allegory that Paul uses here, he likens those who want to return to the Law to be like Ishmael, the son of Abraham and Hagar (the Egyptian slave woman whom Sarah gave to Abraham as a wife in an attempt to fulfill God’s prophecy). Ishmael, though the firstborn son of Abraham, was not the one to inherit for he was not the son of the promise of God—that was Isaac. Isaac was also the true son of Abraham and Sarah, but was special in that he was the son promised by God to them in their old age. So, it was God’s Word of promise that led to Isaac and his inheritance.(God's promise took so long)
Beloved in Christ, Paul then reminds us that this is a picture of us in the body of Christ’s holy church. We are children of promise—having been born by the promise of God through the ministry of Word and Sacrament. For in the waters of Baptism we are born children of God as we are led to believe in the Promised One, Jesus Christ, whom God has sent to suffer and die for our sins. As such, we have been freed from the curse of the Law—the wrath of God that would lead to eternal death and suffering in hell. As Christians we are free to love and serve our neighbour as God has first loved and served us in Christ Jesus—who poured out His own life’s blood on the cross in order to set us free.(Infant Baptism)
However, we are easily tempted to fall back again to our old ways of the flesh—to live under the Law as slaves—rather than as free children of God. We see this in the Scriptures themselves—for where did the Israelites desire to go as they travelled across the desert? Why back to Egypt! Back to their former masters—back to their labours—back to the place of their death—they actually wanted to abandon the new life God had so graciously given them as He had promised. As sinners, we rather like being slaves to the Law, because it is comfortable and makes us feel secure and good about ourselves. This is because we subtly alter the Law and water it down to a point where we at least think we are capable of keeping it—much like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day—who forsook God’s Law in order to fulfill their own man-made demands. In this way we can point to ourselves and say, “Look at what I did! Look at me and how wonderful I am!”
However, this is a dangerous path to take because it places us under the Law and removes us from grace. And it is only those who are born according to the promise who are the true children of Abraham—for the true promises of God are given by grace alone. The Jews received the Law at Sinai, but did not keep it—nor do we. For faith, not works, is the fulfillment of the Law. And only he who believes is justified and saved, not he who works.
This is because the Law does not have promises added to it about Christ and His blessings, nor about deliverance from the curse of the Law, sin and death—and the Law says nothing about the free gift of forgiveness of sins and righteousness and eternal life. The Law says only, “Do this and you shall live.” But we don’t and we can’t.
The Judaizers were attempting to bring the body of Christ under the weight and dominion of the Law once more—telling people the things they needed to DO in order to be Christian, whereas the truth is that there is nothing that we can do. It is only by God’s amazing grace for us in Jesus Christ that we sinful people are healed of our sin and granted the Lord’s righteousness and peace. Indeed, the promises of this new covenant do not depend upon our worthiness or condition (both of which are pitiful and undeserving), rather we receive forgiveness of sins, grace, righteousness, and eternal life freely for Christ’s sake—both Jews and Gentiles alike. He chose us—by His grace. He washed us in the blood of Jesus shed on the cross—because of His mercy. He called you by name—in Baptism.
What was Ishmael lacking to receive the inheritance? The promise and blessing of the Word of God. It is as if Paul were saying to the Galatians, “If you forsake the promise and faith and turn back again to the Law and works you will remain slaves forever. For Hagar does not give birth to a child of promise or an heir”—i.e. the Law does not justify—only the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
For, when looking at our sin-filled lives, it is easy to see how we fail to keep God’s perfect and holy Law. We are indeed slaves to sin and bound for eternal death and suffering in hell. What is it that saves us? What is it that pulls us up from the depths of darkness and despair? It is our Lord Jesus Christ. He has come to rescue us and give us peace. The Promised One has come to fulfill what we never could in the Law and then to die the death that we deserve. All the blessings and gifts of the Promised One are given to us through the ministry of Word and Sacrament in Christ’s church where He promises to be with us—to come and serve us with His goodness and mercy.
The Lord promised to Adam and Eve long ago to send One who would undo the damage that they had caused—who would set the universe right once more—and who would redeem sinful humanity from the clutches of the devil. The Promised One came as God took on human flesh in a young virgin’s womb from Galilee. He was born, lived, suffered, and died all for you. Because He promised. His love is unending. His love is sure and certain. He has promised to always be with His people—those who believe in Him. And He never goes back on a promise.
All people of faith are children of the promise and free because we believe in the Promised One who is the Son of God who has come to free us from our sin and evil. Let us never fall back into slavery by returning to thinking it is by our works that we are saved. For those who proclaim works righteousness only give birth to slaves. And slaves have no inheritance but are cast out forever (John 8:35 and John 3:18). We are children of promise, born of God’s grace and faith in Jesus Christ—born in the promise alone. We have been freed from the bonds of the evil one—freed from the sin and death that plague us—freed for a life of service and works (the fruit of the Spirit and faith that Paul talks about in Gal. 5)—not to work out our salvation—but rather because salvation has already been freely given to us.
As free children of God we are inheritors of the heavenly blessings: set free from the Law, sin and death; justified and made alive in Christ; we have a gracious God and confident heart, a joyful conscience; we enjoy spiritual comfort through the knowledge of Christ and revelation of the Scriptures and we freely receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit and rejoice in God our Saviour. These are all His gifts—given not to slaves who try to work their own way to heaven and take pride in their works before God—but rather these gifts are given to those who in all humility receive Jesus Christ and His promised salvation in Baptism, Supper, and Word—where He has promised to be with us—to come to us—and give us His freedom—His righteousness—His forgiveness. Thanks be to God in Christ Jesus. Amen