(I tried to find an old hymn to post also, for those of you who might not prefer contemporary music, but believe it or not, I couldn't find one that captures the truth of the passage nearly as well as that one...yes, classic hymnology has its limitations and drawbacks too:). Here's the full text of Paul's words, and then some of Luther's comments, with the song echoing along the way...
"Now I say, as long as the heir is a child, he does not differ at all from a slave although he is owner of everything, but he is under guardians and managers until the date set by the father. So also we, while we were children, were held in bondage under the elemental things of the world. But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, so that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons. Because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, 'Abba! Father!' Therefore you are no longer a slave, but a son; and if a son, then an heir through God."
The Apostle had apparently finished his discourse on justification when this illustration of the youthful heir occurred to him. He throws it in for good measure. He knows that plain people are sooner impressed by an apt illustration than by learned discussion. "I want to give you another illustration from everyday everyday life," he writes to the Galatians. "As long as an heir is under age he is treated very much like a servant. He is not permitted to order his own affairs. He is kept under constant surveillance. Such discipline is good for him, otherwise he would waste his inheritance in no time. This discipline, however, is not to last forever. It is to last only until 'the time appointed of the father.' "
I've always puzzled over Paul's reference to "the elemental things of the world," both here in verse 3 and also in Colossians 2:20, and I think Luther's understanding of it makes a lot of sense...
By the elements of the world the Apostle does not understand the physical elements, as some have thought. In calling the Law "the elements of the world" Paul means to say that the Law is something material, mundane, earthly. It may restrain evil, but it does not deliver from sin. The Law does not justify; it does not bring a person to heaven. I do not obtain eternal life because I do not kill, commit adultery, steal, etc. Such mere outward decency does not constitute Christianity. The heathen observe the same restraints to avoid punishment or to secure the advantages of a good reputation. In the last analysis such restraint is simple hypocrisy. When the Law exercises its higher function it accuses and condemns the conscience. All these effects of the Law cannot be called divine or heavenly. These effects are elements of the world.
So by calling the law part of the "elemental principles of the world," Paul is simply contrasting it with the work of the Spirit through the gospel, like he does elsewhere when he says things like "the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life" (2 Cor. 3:6). I'm no longer to slave to fear, worried about doing enough good to make myself righteous, but I am a child of God through simple faith in Christ.
(Hear the song in your head?:) As Luther explains further,
I do not mean to give the impression that the Law should be despised. Neither does Paul intend to leave that impression. The Law ought to be honored. But when it is a matter of justification before God, Paul had to speak disparagingly of the Law, because the Law has nothing to do with justification. If it thrusts its nose into the business of justification we must talk harshly to the Law to keep it in its place. The conscience ought not to be on speaking terms with the Law. The conscience ought to know only Christ. To say this is easy, but in times of trial, when the conscience writhes in the presence of God, it is not so easy to do. As such times we are to believe in Christ as if there were no Law or sin anywhere, but only Christ. We ought to say to the Law: "Mister Law, I do not get you. You stutter so much. I don't think that you have anything to say to me."
Then when commenting on the second half of the passage (adoption through Christ), Luther seems to speak of assurance as the essence of faith, which raises a deep theological issue that I won't go into here. But I will say that even if the great Reformer may have overstated the case a bit in his reaction to Romanism (as he's been known to do), his practical, pastoral advice about "preaching the gospel to yourself" still definitely rings true. (See this blog post for more on that idea.) Luther writes,
St. Augustine observed that "every man is certain of his faith, if he has faith." This the Romanists deny. "God forbid," they exclaim piously, "that I should ever be so arrogant as to think that I stand in grace, that I am holy, or that I have the Holy Ghost." We ought to feel sure that we stand in the grace of God, not in view of our own worthiness, but through the good services of Christ. As certain as we are that Christ pleases God, so sure ought we to be that we also please God, because Christ is in us. And although we daily offend God by our sins, yet as often as we sin, God's mercy bends over us. Therefore sin cannot get us to doubt the grace of God. Our certainty is of Christ, that mighty Hero who overcame the Law, sin, death, and all evils. So long as He sits at the right hand of God to intercede for us, we have nothing to fear from the anger of God.
I'm no longer a slave to fear...
This inner assurance of the grace of God is accompanied by outward indications such as gladly to hear, preach, praise, and to confess Christ, to do one's duty in the station in which God has placed us, to aid the needy, and to comfort the sorrowing. These are the affidavits of the Holy Spirit testifying to our favorable standing with God. If we could be fully persuaded that we are in the good grace of God, that our sins are forgiven, that we have the Spirit of Christ, that we are the beloved children of God, we would be ever so happy and grateful to God. But because we often feel fear and doubt we cannot come to that happy certainty.
...I am a child of God.
Train your conscience to believe that God approves of you. Fight it out with doubt. Gain assurance through the Word of God. Say: "I am all right with God. I have the Holy Ghost. Christ, in whom I do believe, makes me worthy. I gladly hear, read, sing, and write of Him. I would like nothing better than that Christ's Gospel be known throughout the world and that many, many be brought to faith in Him."
Finally, Luther sums up Paul's entire illustration, and the whole point of it, in brilliant fashion:
A son is an heir, not by virtue of high accomplishments, but by virtue of his birth. He is a mere recipient. His birth makes him an heir, not his labors. In exactly the same way we obtain the eternal gifts of righteousness, resurrection, and everlasting life. We obtain them not as agents, but as beneficiaries. We are the children and heirs of God through faith in Christ. We have Christ to thank for everything.
I too thank Jesus Christ that I'm no longer a slave to fear... I am a child of God.
Is the song still there in your head? I hope so. But let me say in conclusion that there is one weakness I see in the song... Paul's teaching in Galatians 4:1-7 is actually much broader than just the problem of fear. Based on it, we could also say this:
I'm no longer a slave to sin, because the Spirit enables me to say no to it.
I'm no longer a slave to purposelessness, because adoption into God's family means I can actually play an important role in his kingdom work.
I'm no longer a slave to the spectre of death, because I have an eternal inheritance awaiting me.
I'm no longer a slave to what people think or say about me, because I am deeply and intimately loved by my "Daddy" in heaven!
And so on.... (perhaps you can fill in some more)