The Law Court to the Living Room

Is the message of the Protestant Reformation still an important one for today? In light of the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, Pew Research Center decided to do a study (which they released on August 31, 2017) to find out if Protestant Christians believe today the truths that were fought for during the Reformation. When they released the results, they titled it, “U.S. Protestants Are Not Defined by Reformation Era Controversies 500 Years Later.”1 The study explains that 52% of Protestants say that both the good deeds and faith are necessary in order to get to heaven, a historically Roman Catholic view.

The Reformation is never really over. In every generation, there is a struggle for the very heart and truth of the gospel. Preserving the Solas of the Protestant Reformation, Faith Alone, Scripture Alone, Christ Alone, Grace Alone, and Glory to God Alone, is vital. The “Alones” makes all of the difference. This task is never merely abstract or theoretical; it is practical. How these questions are answered affects the way people live. I believe that the Protestant Reformers were correct: any notion of our merits contributing to our salvation produces fear, insecurity, bondage, and a stricken conscience. I believe that Calvin’s relentless determination, following the apostle Paul, to always express the gospel not only in terms of the courtroom, which is foundational, but also in terms of the family room, is a path we would do well to recover.

I once spoke with a family who adopted a teen girl who had been terrified that she was going to age out of the system with no family. When the girl first came home with the family after the judge had declared legally that she was their child she was still full of fear. In the morning when the parents woke up and went to her bedroom, she would be sitting on the bed and her room would be immaculate. And often she would say something like, “See how clean my room is. Can I stay?” This idea that she had to earn her place to stay in the family broke her adoptive parent’s hearts. They told her, “We love you because you are our child no matter what you do! Nothing will change that!”  The first time the parents got up in the morning and saw that she had not cleaned her room they high-fived one another. It’s not that they didn’t want her to clean her room, it is just that they did not want her to do it as a servant’s wages. After all, she now possessed a son’s inheritance, and she did not have to earn it.

In his sermon on Galatians 4:4-7, John Calvin explained Paul’s purpose in Galatians: “The apostles object is to show that the grace of adoption, and the hope of salvation, do not depend on the law, but are contained in Christ alone, who therefore is all.”2 Paul’s argument in Galatians builds to his explanation of adoption in chapter four. As J.I. Packer notes, Paul’s argument is that “adoption is the highest privilege that the gospel offers: higher even than justification." He explains,

"Justification is the primary blessing, so it is the fundamental blessing, in the sense that everything else in our salvation assumes it, and rests on it—adoption included. But this is not to say that justification is the highest blessing of the gospel. Adoption is higher, because of the richer relationship with God that it involves."3

Adoption and Redemptive History

Paul explains, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his son” (Gal 4:4a). In the previous chapter of Galatians, Paul focused on the Abrahamic promise and the law of Moses, contending that justification is by faith alone and not through law keeping. In fact, the law exposes our unrighteousness and leaves us with no hope but justification by faith alone. While there are distinctions between people in terms of ethnicity, class, and gender, in terms of the need for the gospel and what it means to be in Christ, we are one. Our distinctions are no longer barriers for those who are in Christ, they represent the unique glory of familial relationships, the household of God (see, Eph 2:11-22). Paul summarizes in Galatians 3:23-29:

"Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise."

In Galatians 4:1-3, Paul builds on the categories he has already introduced by way of an illustration. An “heir,” Paul says, is “no different from a slave, though he is the owner of everything” (Gal 4:1). The “heir” is a Jew who had the law of God. He is not different from a slave in that, like the slave, he has no access to an inheritance. The inheritance was “under guardians and managers,” (Gal 4:2) meaning the law (Gal 3:24), until the appointed time of the Father. In Galatians 4:3, Paul says that Jews and Gentiles were “enslaved to the elementary principles of the world.” In the context, it seems that Paul is referring to the ABC-like natural defaults that people choose for justification. Many Jews corrupted the law of God by treating it like a path for salvation, and many Gentiles followed their own self-generated fleshly desires as a means of righteousness. Both the Abrahamic promise and the law of Moses pointed beyond themselves toward Christ.

Adoption is not a metaphor Paul invented, but rather it is where redemptive history was always heading. In Ephesians 1:10, Paul says that God is at work in the world with “a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in [Christ], things in heaven and things on earth.” When, in the fullness of time, God sent forth his Son, it was a significant turning point in redemptive history. After all, Galatians begins with a reference to “the present evil age” (Gal 1:4) and concludes with a reference to “a new creation” (Gal 6:15).

Adoption and the Messianic Mission

As Paul continues, he characterizes the Son with two pregnant descriptors. The first descriptor is that the Son was “born of a woman” (Gal 4:4b). He was the incarnate Son, which points all the way back to the original gospel promise in Genesis 3:15, that a seed born of woman will crush the head of the serpent. The second descriptor is that he was “born under the law” (Gal 4:4b), which means he was born ethnically an Israelite. The Jewish nation was the people to whom the law and promises were given. The two descriptors of the Son are immediately followed by two hina (purpose) clauses, which describe his mission. The first purpose is stated in legal terms: “to redeem those who were under the law” (Gal 4:5a). In the previous chapter, Paul stated that Christ removed the curse that believers deserve by becoming a curse for us on the cross (Gal 3:13). God the Son, Jesus, is able to redeem because he was the only Jew fully obedient to the law and covenant promises. The second purpose of Jesus’ mission is stated in personal terms: “so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Gal 4:5b).

Paul’s two descriptors and two purpose statements tie Jesus’ person and work together. The saving mission of the unique son of God is expressed in terms of redemption and adoption.  In the previous chapter, when Paul wrote that Christ became a curse for us (Gal 3:13), he followed that assertion in the next verse with a statement of blessing: “so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith” (Gal 3:14). Calvin explains, “The word Blessing is variously employed in Scripture: but here it signifies Adoption into the inheritance of eternal life.”4 To summarize, God sent his Son as the Redeemer on the messianic mission of adoption. J.I. Packer describes this as “adoption through propitiation” and asserts, “I do not expect ever to meet a richer or more pregnant summary of the gospel than that.”5

Adoption and the Spirit of Adoption

According to Paul, our sonship in Christ is to become our controlling identity. Paul writes, “And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’” (Gal 4:6). In a parallel verse in Romans, Paul writes, “For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’” (Rom 8:15).  The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Christ, and another title for the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of adoption. The indwelling Spirit of God is at work in the believer’s life, confirming their identity as children of God. In other words, we live in the freedom of God’s love. Consider Calvin’s warmth as he comments on these verses in a sermon,

"We have been assured that God pities us and bears with our weaknesses, as a father with his children,...we are not to lose confidence if we stumble or fall, or make mistakes; that is to say, if we do not fulfill all the is expected with the desired perfection. We are not to feel totally defeated, for we can be sure that God still holds our hand and will not bring us to account for each thing, or scrutinize us rigorously."6

Calvin believed it was significant that Paul used the word “crying” for the work the Spirit does in our hearts (Gal 4:6). He explains, “Paul could well have used the word ‘saying,’ but he goes further, for a reason...he says that we cry out that God as our father with a loud voice and absolute certainty, coming to him boldly to glorify him because we are his children.”7  Calvin further explains that the believer has exchanged a fearful “spirit of bondage” for the “Spirit of adoption as sons” (Rom 8:15), which brings assurance. Assurance of sonship that is so clear we can cry out to God with the intimate language of “Abba! Father!” “Abba” is in Aramaic word. So why would Paul use it in a letter written primarily to Greek speaking Gentiles? Because it was the way Jesus, the only begotten Son, cried out to the Father (Mark 14:36). In Christ, sons of God, speak to God the Father with the intimacy of God the Son.

Herein lies Calvin’s problem with the church of Rome. He explains, “They say that we can never be sure of God’s [Fatherly] love,” whereas according to Calvin, “the most important thing for us to be persuaded about is that God is our Father.”8 In Galatians 4:7, Paul adds, “So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.” Calvin believed that any system of salvation that included human merit, while it might speak of grace, left men living in fearful servitude rather than freedom as sons. He writes,

"First, let us be heartily convinced that the Kingdom of Heaven is not servants’ wages but sons’ inheritance [Eph. 1:18], which only they who have been adopted as sons by the Lord shall enjoy [cf. Gal. 4:7], and that for no other reason than this adoption [cf. Eph. 1:5–6]."9

Salvation is by grace alone from beginning to end. If the almighty Judge has declared you righteous because his Son has paid your penalty in full and if he then stepped down from the bench, not only forgiving your debt, but also declaring you now his Son with full rights to his inheritance, what is there to fear? What can you be lacking if the one who owns everything has adopted you as a son, united you to his only begotten Son, and given you the Spirit of adoption? Let us conclude with Calvin’s final words in his Galatians 4:4-7 sermon:

"Now let us fall before the presence of our great God, acknowledging our sins, and praying that he would make us aware of them so that we humble ourselves before him. At the same time, let us not lose courage, since he accepts us, and willingly deigns to listen to our petitions when we come to him with complete trust. May he grant us grace to overcome all problems and hindrances, and all arguments and questions that the devil sets in our hearts, that we may know the truth of that promise, that whoever calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved (Joel 2:32, Acts 2:21). Thus, we all say Almighty God, and our heavenly father."10

  1. See,
  2. John Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul to the Galatians and Ephesians, 112.
  3. J.I. Packer, Knowing God, 207.
  4. John Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul to the Galatians and Ephesians, 88.
  5. J.I. Packer, Knowing God, 214.
  6. John Calvin, Sermons on Galatians, trans., Kathy Childress (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1997), 372-373.
  7. Ibid., 375-376.
  8. Ibid., 379.
  9. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1:822.
  10. John Calvin, Sermons on Galatians, 384
David Prince