Born to Give Us Adoption as Sons

Posted by R. Fowler White

4 But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, 5 to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. (Gal 4:4-5)

Reflecting as he does on the wonders of the eternal Son’s birth in Gal 4:4-5, the Apostle Paul tells us extraordinary things about Him, giving us answers to the question that William C. Dix posed in his carol, “What Child is This.” In previous posts on Gal 4:4-5, we’ve seen how Paul focuses on the providential timing, three circumstances, and the purpose of Christ’s birth. Yet there is one more aspect of His birth that the Apostle would have us contemplate. As Paul puts it, God sent out His Son so that we might receive adoption as sons. What are we to make of this last phrase? Here we learn the final—yes, predestined—outcome (Eph 1:5) of the Son’s coming. We need again to deepen our understanding of the Apostle’s words.

Turning directly to Paul’s term adoption, its ancient significance was not ordinarily parallel to adoption as we know it today. We usually think of adoption as a parent-child relationship formed confidentially between persons (usually adults and orphaned or abandoned children) who are not biologically related. In the context of Gal 3:23–4:7, however, adoption was a public act in which a male heir was received from his boyhood standing as a minor into his manhood standing as full-fledged son. Elaborating on that background in Gal 4:1-2, Paul reflects on the supervision to which a male heir was subject while he was an under-age boy. Until the heir qualified as a full-fledged adult son, he did not receive the inheritance promised to a son any more than a slave did. In the meantime, however, the heir had it better than a slave. After all, he was under the temporary yoke and care of guardians and managers who would direct and bind him to meet the qualifications set by his father for full sonship. Submitting himself to their yoke and care, that sonship would come to the heir in due course.

Paul’s readers would recognize those Greco-Roman customs to which the term adoption referred, but they would also notice that he applies that term to the redemptive history of Abraham’s descendants. The Apostle rehearses the scenario for old-covenant Israel under the law as their guardian-manager (paidagōgos, Gal 3:24; epitropos and oikonomos, Gal 4:3). In His covenantal dealings with them, the Lord had promised the adoption to them and in particular to their king (Rom 9:4; Exod 4:22; Jer 31:9; Hos 11:1; 2 Sam 7:14-16; Ps 2:7; 89:26-27). Through His law, He showed the nation and their king how they would move from a standing as under-age boys into a standing as full-fledged adult sons. To meet the qualifications for that sonship, the Lord directed and bound them by the character and conduct that pleased and displeased Him and by the alternative consequences that followed each: life, prosperity, and victory, on the one side; death, adversity, and defeat, on the other. The message was clear: the only descendant of Abraham to whom the inheritance of irrevocable life, prosperity, and victory was promised would be the man who satisfied the law’s demands. That man would be the true Israel and the true David, hence the full-fledged adult Son. Of course, the history of Israel and their kings bore witness that until such a man arrived, God’s law disqualified everyone else, and the consequence was that all others came under the law’s curse and forfeited full-fledged sonship and the inheritance that went with it (Gal 3:10-11). And this cursed standing applied to Gentiles too. As we said in our previous post, whether God’s law reaches Jews in special revelation (Rom 2:17–3:1) or Gentiles in natural revelation (Rom 2:12-16), it judges us all to be under sin (Rom 2:6-11; 3:9-18; Gal 2:16). Therefore, apart from adoption, we all, Jews and Gentiles alike, are sons of disobedience (Eph 2:2) and by nature children of wrath (Eph 2:3). Even if we’re God’s offspring by creation (Acts 17:24-29), we’re all children disqualified and disinherited by God for our sin, and we all must find the true Israel, the true David, the true Son who satisfies the law’s demands.

While with the eyes of faith Israel could find that Son in the old-covenant promises, prophecies, ordinances, and types (“shadows”), the Apostle would have us know that, in the fullness of time, God’s own eternal Son was born as that man. That incarnate Son became the only descendant of Abraham, born under the law, to move from under-age boyhood into full-fledged Sonship. That incarnate Son had qualified to be publicly declared the Son of God with power by the resurrection from the dead, according to the Spirit of holiness (Rom 1:4, NASB95; see also Acts 13:33; Phil 2:6-11; Heb 1:5; 5:5, 8-9). As such, that incarnate Son had qualified both to redeem the disqualified and disinherited and to be the surety for the adoption of all who would be co-heirs with Him.

What Child, then, is this in the manger? He is the eternal Son incarnate qualified to give us the adoption as sons. In and for Him, we, who by our sin were disqualified and disinherited by God in His justice, are now by His free grace through faith received into the number of His children, have His name put upon us, and have the Spirit of His Son given to us! We are provided for under His fatherly care, are welcomed to all the liberties and privileges of the sons of God, and are made heirs of all the promises and fellow heirs with Christ in glory![i] Let us then celebrate!

[i] See Westminster Larger Catechism Q. 74. For more on the doctrine of adoption, see John Murray, “Adoption,” in Collected Writings of John Murray, Volume two: Select Lectures in Systematic Theology (Banner of Truth, 1977), 223-34; and David B. Garner, Sons in the Son: The Riches and Reach of Adoption in Christ (Presbyterian & Reformed, 2016). N.B. For those who may wonder, “the gender-specific sons speaks without an iota of prejudice against the ‘daughters’” (see David Garner, “Saved as Sons in the Son”).

Born under the Law, Born to Redeem

Posted by R. Fowler White

4 But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, 5 to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. (Gal 4:4-5)

With the words born of woman in Gal 4:4, Paul had begun to reflect on the circumstances of Jesus’ birth. The next two phrases in Gal 4:4-5—born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law—bring into view not just another circumstance of His birth but also its purpose. Together both features point us again to the humiliation of God’s glorious eternal Son.

What does the Apostle mean by those words born under the law? Specifically, he means that the Son of the Father humbled Himself to be born a servant of the Lord His God (Phil 2:7). Born under Moses, the Son would live and learn obedience (Heb 5:8) under the educational rigors of the law. As a circumcised son of Abraham, the Son-born-servant would owe to His God and Father a perfect, personal, and perpetual obedience. Every detail of His life and death was under the pedagogical direction of God’s law, from His circumcision eight days after His birth (Luke 2:21), to His last Passover on the night before His death (Luke 22:7-23), to His submission to His Father’s will (Luke 22:41-42; John 17) and His honoring of His mother in His death (John 19:26-27). As a servant of the Lord, He humbly submitted Himself to the law of His God to fulfill all righteousness, down to the smallest letter and the smallest stroke of a pen. Comprehensively speaking, God’s law demanded a righteous man, a man who kept the divine commandments, a man qualified to live with God and to be the surety for His people. The Son, says Paul, became just such a man. Indeed, it was with His qualifications in mind that the law in its multiple dimensions (moral, civil, liturgical) was put into effect, for their fulfillment was to be found in Him. No wonder the author of Hebrews can say, when Christ came into the world, He said, … “Behold, I have come to do Your will, O God, as it is written of Me in the scroll of the book” (Heb 10:5, 7). What Child is this in the manger, then? He is the Son born under the law, born a servant of the Lord His God.

Continuing in Gal 4:4-5, Paul’s focus shifts from the circumstances of Jesus’ coming to its purpose. Christ Jesus, says the Apostle, is the Son born to redeem those who were under the law. We need to pay special attention to the meaning of these words. The Apostle has in mind the intent to rescue, release, deliver from slavery by the payment of a price. No doubt the events of Israel’s redemption from Egypt provide the backdrop here. The price paid for the nation’s deliverance was stunning: the death of the firstborn. Through Moses, Israel learned of God’s penal substitute for their firstborn, and thus Israel offered the Passover lamb and saw their redemption from slavery in Pharaoh’s kingdom to liberty under the Lord their God. By saying, however, that the Son, God’s Son, came to redeem, Paul tells us that the redemption He provides is greater than that of Moses. Israel’s deliverance from Egypt was gospel, but only a shadow of the redemption fully revealed in Jesus Christ. It was He who humbled Himself to become both the true Israel (God’s firstborn son, Exod 4:22-23) and the true Passover Lamb (1 Cor 5:7; 1 Pet 1:19; John 1:29). It was He who poured Himself out in death as the surety for His people (Isa 53:12; Heb 2:10-13; Rev 5:6-9), who by His death brought about the true exodus from slavery in Satan’s kingdom of sin and death (Luke 9:31; Matt 1:21). So great was this exodus that it brought a benefit that the first exodus could not provide, namely, the forgiveness of sins, the sinner’s release from legal liability to endure the punishment that sin and its guilt required.

There is still more in the Apostle’s words in Gal 4:5. Paul goes on to describe those whom the Son redeems as those under the law. By that phrase Paul characterizes all whom the Son came to redeem. Whether God’s law reaches us by special revelation as Jews (Rom 2:17–3:1) or by general revelation as Gentiles (Rom 2:12-16), it shows no partiality in its judgment: God’s law judges all to be under sin (Rom 2:6-11; 3:9-18). It is in that light that the Apostle would bring good news of great joy to all of us sinners, Jews and Gentiles alike. He would announce to us that, commissioned by His Father, God’s Son was born a servant to bring sinners release and rescue from sin and death. He would proclaim to us that, in His life and death, the incarnate Son presented to His God and Father the obedience required by His law. He would preach to us that, on that basis, the Father applies the merits of His obedience to all sinners who believe; that, on that basis, the Son answers all accusations against His people and quiets their restless consciences; and that, on that basis, the Son qualifies sinners who believe to live with God, securing for them access to and acceptance before Him.

What Child is this, then, in that ancient feeding trough? He is none other than the eternal Son of glory who, to fulfill His Father’s commission, humbled Himself to be born a servant under the law, born to redeem those judged by that same law as sinners.

Sent Forth, Born of Woman

Posted by R. Fowler White

4 But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, 5 to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. (Gal 4:4-5)

In his phrase when the fullness of time had come, the Apostle Paul points us to the truth that the one true God has been orchestrating all of history and, in particular, the timing of Christ’s birth. In fact, it was by God’s singular sovereignty and providence that the histories of Rome and Jerusalem—even that of little Bethlehem—had coincided at the birth of Jesus. The appointed date for the debut of the Son of the Father occurred right on schedule, and He became the Child born at just the right time. And that’s not all. Paul has more to say in Gal 4:4.

He tells us that the Child in the manger was the Son sent forth by His Father. These simple words take us to the backstory of the Son’s arrival in history. Notice that the Son existed before He was sent, before He was born, before He was given the name Jesus. Before His Father sent Him, He subsisted as a Person and, at that, as a Person distinct from both the Father and the Spirit, the latter of whom was Himself later to be sent (Gal 4:6). In effect, Paul would tell us that the Son was (and is) the same in substance and equal in power and glory with the Father and the Spirit, yet was also distinguished from them by their personal properties. Notice too that the Father sent forth (sent out) His Son. That is, the Son who came had a commission from His Father. We speak of the Great Commission, but here Paul speaks of the Greatest Commission of all. He reflects on the harmony between the sending Father and the sent Son. The Father was pleased to send the Son; the Son was pleased to be sent by His Father. According to the Apostle, then, the Baby in the feeding trough was none other than God with God, the Son with the Father and the Spirit, the Son commissioned by His Father.

Paul tells us also that the Child in the manger was born of (a) woman. Again, think on how remarkable that brief phrase is. The Apostle here discloses that he knows the history of Jesus’ birth. That phrase born of woman was an expression referring to human birth (Job 14:1; 15:14; 25:4; Matt 11:11; cf. 1 Cor 11:12), and yet with an evident allusion to at least the promise of Gen 3:15. His birth was of woman, but we know from other OT prophecies that His conception was anything but ordinary. The Son born of a woman was in fact born of a virgin, born without a man, as predicted by the prophet Isaiah (Isa 7:14 with 9:6). The sent Son became flesh: He was not only made and formed in woman, He was of her, of her flesh and blood. Of these He took part. In keeping with prophecies such as those from Genesis and Isaiah, the Son was born of a woman.

In these two short phrases, Paul begins to reflect on the circumstances of Jesus’ birth, and they in turn move us to ponder the humiliation of Him who is from all eternity the glorious Son of God. Here, after all, we see the first stage of what the will of the Father required of the Son He sent forth. For your sake, Christian, the Son was pleased to humble Himself in conception and birth. Though from all eternity He had been the Son at His Father’s side and in the Spirit’s presence, He was required to empty Himself, to make Himself of no reputation, and to condescend to be made in human likeness and the fashion of a man. He was pleased to become the Son of Man when the fullness of time had come, when all the parts of history that had to occur had occurred just as predicted. Though He was the glorious eternal Son, the will of His Father required that He be born of a young virgin woman, taking part in all human properties, except sin, through her His mother. He was pleased to be born into conditions that were even worse than ordinary. He was born in a first-century truck stop. Strips of cloth were His first garments. A feeding trough was His first crib. The humiliation of His nativity, however, would not stop there. For the rest of His earthly life, the Son would endure false accusations that He had been born as a result of an immoral relationship outside of the bounds of marriage. What, then, did the will of the Father require of the Son He sent forth?  It required that, for your sake, Christian, the eternal Son of glory be pleased to humble Himself in His conception and birth.

What Child is this, then, in the manger? He is the preexistent Son commissioned by His Father, born of woman. Miraculously conceived by the Holy Spirit as to His human nature and miraculously preserved by that same Spirit from defilement in His mother’s womb, He had not always been man. Nor was He a mere woman-born human upon whom divinity descended. He was God who became flesh, thus permanently taking to Himself human nature and becoming forever thereafter one Person with two natures.

Quote of the Week

This week we hear from G.K. Beale, as he has been influenced by  C.M. Pate:

The NT perspective on the role of the law can best be understood in the light of the beginning destruction of the old creation and the emergence of the renovated creation. For example, some have observed that Paul has apparently contradictory views of the law in Romans and Galatians, sometimes viewing it quite negatively and at other times positively. The fact that the end-time new creation has broken into the old world means that these two worlds overlap and that the old world is already beginning to crumble. Consequently, the law for unbelievers living in the old creation results in enslavement to sin and judgment. This judgment begins during the old age…and is consummated at the end of the age, when the old cosmos will be judged by being destroyed and old-age inhabitants will be consigned to the second death because of their violation of the law…On the other hand, the law is a source of blessing for spiritually resurrected believers living in the new creation because in Christ they have power to fulfill the law in Christ in a way that spiritually dead people do not. (footnote: I am indebted to C.M. Pate, The End of the Ages Has Come (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1995), pp. 124-148, for his excellent discussion of how the overlap of the ages solves the dual Pauline perspective on the law, though he does not relate this to old creation and eschatological new creation.) G.K. Beale, “The New Testament and New Creation,” in Biblical Theology: Retrospect and Prospect, edited by Scott Hafemann (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2002), pp. 159-173, quote on p. 168.

This struck me forcefully as a very helpful way of thinking about the law, as long as one does not take a dispensational spin on it. The statement would also require some clarification. For instance, in Galatians, where Paul is more negative on the law, it is the forward-looking pedagogical use of the law that he has in mind (see the particularly evocative picture of “tutor” in the end of chapter 3). Beale does not mean that the law is part of the old age, and that it is therefore done away with in the new creation. Rather, there is a typological function of the pedagogical use of the law. This can help explain why the same covenant of grace is differently administered under the time of the law and the time of the gospel, as the Westminster Standards puts it. The pedagogical and typological function of the law is especially (though not exclusively) associated with the old age. The third use of the law (as a guide for the Christian life) is especially (though not exclusively) associated with the new age now that the fulfillment has come. It is not as though the pedagogical use of the law has been completely discontinued, or that the third use of the law sprang up de novo in the New Testament. However, in the eschatological view of things, as the law points forward, the typology is more in view because the antitype had not yet come. Now that the antitype has come, the normative aspect is more in view.

If N.T. Wright had only realized that this was what Paul was getting at in his different treatments of the law, he might never have started on his course of leaving the Reformational doctrine of justification. There are other ways of reconciling Romans and Galatians without resorting to a Roman Catholic limitation of “works of the law” to the ceremonial aspects of the law.