Being a kid is tough. Parents have all these rules you have to follow. Many kids think its tough today, but even in my day, things were a lot stricter. I was up at 6 in the morning to do chores with our family business. After school, it was off to Chinese school and then more chores until supper and homework. When I was really young, I was allowed to stay up until 7 PM on school nights and until 9 for Monday Night Football. Discipline was the dreaded bamboo feather duster! Things did change… but it took time. The transition from being a child to adulthood was a progression of steps where rules were modified and changed as I grew older and in theory more responsible.
In Galatians 3:23–29, Paul describes the transition from the Law to grace. Before faith came, Israel was confined under the Law, which functioned like a custodian or tutor and gave restraint and guidance. Second, Christ came and with Him a great movement of faith. Third, wherever men and women unite with Christ by faith, they are justified, and become children of God and heirs of his promise to Abraham. Fourth, therefore, we who are in Christ are no longer under the Law.
The first step is taken in verses 23 and 24, “Now before faith came, we were confined under the law, kept under restraint until faith should be revealed. So that the law was our custodian until Christ came.” The word custodian refers to a servant of the family who was responsible to watch over the son, from the nursery to his entrance upon manhood. He governs the child’s behavior until the child has the maturity to do what is right without external constraints. The “custodian” or “tutor” does not have the power to make the child’s heart good, nor can he give the child his inheritance.
That’s how the Law functioned for Israel. It provided direction and restraint. It prescribed the way a mature child should behave. But it could not give Israel a new heart nor could it give the inheritance. And according to Hebrews 4:2, the reason the Law did not benefit Israel was that it did not come with faith. Faith is the mark of maturity which the Law prescribed but could not give. So the Law kept Israel under restraint until faith came.
The law instructed the youthful Israel how to live a life of faith in the merciful promises of God. But how did the people respond? It was by and large like many teens today’s families – it was adolescent rebellion. Israel, for the most part, did not humble themselves, and so the Law functioned to expose Israel’s sin and hold them under restraint until the day when God began to take away the blindness and give them a heart to trust Him.
And the law works that way today, too. If you don’t have a heart to trust God and rely on mercy, the Law will feel like an impossible job description given by a harsh schoolmaster. But if you do have a heart to trust God and rely on His mercy, then the Law will feel like a much-needed and desired prescription from a wise and beloved Physician. It comes back to our relationship with the Lawgiver. 1 John 5:3 says, “This is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.” But for Israel the Law was for the most part, an impossible job because they lacked faith.
The second step in Paul’s thought is that faith has now come. Its coming is simultaneous with the coming of Christ. Verse 25 says, “But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a custodian.” What does he mean: “Faith has come”? It doesn’t mean nobody had faith before Christ came. As he said earlier in the chapter, Abraham did. In Hebrews 11 we find a believers’ hall of fame from the time of the Law. Paul does not mean that no one had faith before Christ came, or that justification was by works before Christ came. There were believers who were justified by faith all along.
I think what Paul means when he says that “faith has come,” is that by God’s grace a period in redemptive history has come in which great numbers of people, especially Gentiles, are responding to God’s Word in faith. “Faith has come” means that a great movement has begun whose members are marked by this above all else—they trust like little children in the mercy of God. When the law was preached, it met with very little faith. But when the gospel is preached, many believe and are saved. The movement has spread around the world.
In a sense, the Law was like a prison while the gospel was the key to freedom. Through the work of the Holy Spirit in opening the hearts of the listeners, people were saved. “Faith has come” means that God is fulfilling the promises of Ezekiel 36:26, 27 to give new hearts. “Faith has come” means the Holy Spirit takes up residence in our and made us new. If you know the hardness of your own heart apart from grace, you should thank God every day that you are a believer.
The third step in the text is that faith in Christ unites us to Him and all the benefits He can give become ours. In the movie, The Black Stallion Returns, a boy named Alec Ramsey stows away on a plane and flies to North Africa, trying to get back his horse. Then he begins to cross the desert, and he is told something about the tribesmen of the desert that saves his life and his mission. He hears that they have such a high sense of honour that if you say you want to be their guest, they will stake their life and possessions on protecting you. So even though Alec was totally broke and could not purchase protection and help, yet he got their protection and care twice by simply declaring his need and desire to be their guest. He appealed to their honour, not his worth. And he was saved.
That’s how it is with Christ. If you give yourself to Christ, and say you want to be His eternal guest, and wear His garments, and accept His customs, His honour is at stake; He cannot refuse you. You have so honoured His value and trustworthiness, that He would be denying Himself to turn you away. And all He has is yours. Primarily in verse 24 is justification—that is, acquittal of all guilt, forgiveness of all sin. Then, as verse 26 says, we receive sonship.
To belong to Christ is to be a child of God with all the astonishing privileges implied in that relationship. Another way to say the same thing is verse 29: “If you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.” To be a descendant of Abraham and to be a child of God are virtually the same in Paul’s mind. You become both when you give yourself to Christ and say, “I want to be your guest.”
And one of the most wonderful things in Christ’s household where guests become family members is that our own racial, social, and whatever we define ourselves by, does not make us any more or less than a child and heir. Verse 28 says, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female.”
A person would be mistaken to think his Jewishness or free status or maleness has won his admission to the Lord’s house, or merits a greater share of the inheritance. Ephesians 2:19 says that Jews and Gentiles in Christ are “fellow citizens . . . and members of the household of God.” Ephesians 6:9 says that masters and slaves have but one master in heaven, who shows no partiality. And 1 Peter 3:7 says that husbands and wives are joint-heirs of the grace of life in Christ.
When Christ admits us into His protection and care by faith alone, every possible ground for boasting is removed, whether racial, social, or gender. We are all dependent upon the honour of Christ, not the value of our distinctiveness. And nothing is more secure than the honour of Christ.
Finally, the fourth step is simply this: we are no longer under the custodian, the Law. Being “under the custodian” or under the Law means being under a burden you have no power to remove. You either rebel against it, or you try forever to keep it in your own strength. In either case “the letter kills” (2 Corinthians 3:6).
But that is no longer our relation to the Law. We are not under it any more, desperately trying to climb it to heaven. That is what religion is – trying to work desperately to get into heaven. What has happened? The answer is given in Galatians 5:18, “If you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.” The Spirit so transforms our life as we trust the promises of God, that we love what God loves and hate what God hates.
As we approach the end of this year, my prayer is that we would learn how to rest in the grace of God and delight ourselves in the Lord’s plan for our lives. There may be changes and challenges in the future but in the midst of these changes and challenges, my hope is that we will all experience the blessings of knowing that we are His heirs, and wait patiently with hope for the inheritance He has promised us.