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The Galatian Enigma - Galatians 4:8-20

How could a genuine Christian EVER trade his freedom in Christ for slavery in Judaism?

Galatians 4:8-20;

Nov 20, 2011 12:00 AM

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I enjoy reading books that use words I need to look up in the dictionary.  Not so many words that I have no idea what the author is talking about, but a word every now and then that I’ve never read before is fun.

In October when I was visiting my parents, my mother wanted to play Scrabble.  I can usually hold my own against most people in Scrabble.  But my mom works the crossword puzzle in the Rock Hill Herald every day.  In ink.  She’s no slouch when it comes to Scrabble.  So I was more than slightly miffed when she spelled a three letter word with a Triple Word Score, for 2000 points.  Qua?  What in the world is “qua”?  I looked it up but I don’t remember what it means.  Even so, I have added a deadly word to my Scrabble game.

I found out yesterday that I didn’t know how to spell enigma.  I looked it up and the dictionary said there’s no such word as i-n-i-g-m-a.  Of course there is!  Well, apparently not.  There is a word spelled e-n-i-g-m-a and if you look that up, it means “a saying, question, picture, etc., containing a hidden meaning.” 1

Also among the definitions listed is an entry for Enigma with a capital E.  In WWII, the Nazis used an Enigma machine to encrypt and decrypt top secret correspondence.  It looked something like a big clunky typewriter with wheels and cams and lights and such mounted in a wooden box.

Why did they call it an Enigma machine?  Because it made the German language unintelligible to those who didn’t have the secret decoder ring.  It kept top secrets secret from everyone except their fellow Nazis.  To everyone else, the messages it produced were incomprehensible.

That’s how Paul felt about the Christians in the churches of Galatia.  They had begun so well in their understanding of the Gospel message he had preached to them.  They had been so gracious and kind to him as a messenger of the Lord Jesus.  They had welcomed and embraced both him and the salvation he brought through his preaching.  They had been set free from the bondage of their hopeless devotion to idols.

But now, after spending some time with the Judaizers, their behavior made them an enigma to Paul.  So much so that he says to them,

  • I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel (1:6)
  • O foolish Galatians!  Who has bewitched you? (3:1)
  • Are you so foolish?  Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? (3:3)
  • I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain. (4:11)
  • I am perplexed about you. (4:20b)
  • You were running well.  Who hindered you from obeying the truth? (5:7)
  • I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves! (5:12)

If there was ever a time when the apostle Paul was frustrated in his missionary work, it was with the Galatians.  They are beyond interpretation.  They have become a mystery, an enigma to Paul.  He is perplexed, bewildered, confused about their behavior.  How can they be this foolish?  Can you feel his irritation?  Can you hear him asking them, “What part of ‘grace alone’ don’t you understand?”  He is presumably speaking to Christians, or people he thought were Christians.  Now he has his doubts.

Have you ever been there?  Have you ever wondered how a Christian, or someone professing to be a Christian, could ever find fault with God’s grace in salvation and exchange it for a pseudo-salvation by one’s own efforts?  Exchanging the work of Christ for one’s own work?  How someone could be so easily led astray from the clear, un-enigmatic teaching of Scripture?  How does that happen?  How can this be?  This is precisely why Paul says to the Galatians, “I am perplexed about you!”

Let’s read together chapter 4, verses 8-20 and see Paul’s dismay over his friends.

8 Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods. 9 But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more? 10 You observe days and months and seasons and years! 11 I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain.

12 Brothers, I entreat you, become as I am, for I also have become as you are.  You did me no wrong. 13 You know it was because of a bodily ailment that I preached the gospel to you at first, 14 and though my condition was a trial to you, you did not scorn or despise me, but received me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus. 15 What then has become of the blessing you felt?  For I testify to you that, if possible, you would have gouged out your eyes and given them to me. 16 Have I then become your enemy by telling you the truth? 17 They make much of you, but for no good purpose.  They want to shut you out, that you may make much of them. 18 It is always good to be made much of for a good purpose, and not only when I am present with you, 19 my little children, for whom I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you! 20 I wish I could be present with you now and change my tone, for I am perplexed about you. (Galatians 4:8-20 ESV)

In ch 3, Paul says, "the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin" (v22), and that the unregenerate man is held captive under the law, imprisoned . . . " (v23), he is under a guardian (v25).  That is not freedom.  That is not liberty.  That is bondage and enslavement.

In 4:1 he says, "the heir, as long as he is a child, is no different from a slave . . . ." In 4:3 he says, "we . . . were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world." In v7 he says the person who is in Christ is "no longer a slave."

V8 - Now in v8 Paul tells us those who do not know God are enslaved.  The Galatians did not possess free will as it is usually understood by our culture even among Christians.  Slavery and free will are opposites.  And the unregenerate man is not free.  He is a slave.

Formerly, their slavery involved their obligatory worship of those that by nature are not gods. Those who are not yet regenerated by God’s Spirit are spiritual slaves.  Slaves do not have freedom to think or do as they please in the spiritual realm.  They are owned by another, and in this particular instance, the Galatians had been owned by their idols whom they served as religious slaves.  In 1 Corinthians 10:20, Paul says “what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God.”

V9 -  Verse 9 says these believers were returning to an enslavement "to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world."

V10 - And what characterizes this slavery?  Are the Galatians being encouraged by the Judaizers to go back to their idols?  No.  But they have gone back to the same bad, weak, and worthless elementary principles, the bad theology that drives idolatry: Salvation by works.  The evidence of this is their desire to return to the religious observance of Jewish "days and months and seasons and years!" You see, it really doesn’t stop with circumcision.  Now we have to observe holy days also.  What holy days and months and seasons and years?  The ones the Jews were under obligation by the Mosaic law to observe.  And eventually they will become enslaved to the entire Law.  They will be slaves to Judaism.

This is why Paul is pulling out his hair, figuratively speaking?  The Galatians are being successfully persuaded to trade one slavery which they had formerly been bound to (idolatry) for another, at the expense of spiritual freedom from ALL slavery.  They were trading Gentile slavery to idols for Jewish slavery to the Law of Moses, at the expense of the freedom of salvation in Christ.  You want to be slaves to law-works again when you could be set free in Christ?  How can this be?  You prefer do-it-yourself salvation to salvation by grace?

Therefore verse 11 is self-explanatory: I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain. In other words, Paul is saying his previous missionary work among them appears not to have produced true believers in Christ after all.  If you STILL believe you can be justified through your own religious efforts, you STILL don’t get it.  You STILL don’t understand the grace of God.

Vs 12-20 are parenthetical.  This is personal now.  He turns from his theological argument in order to share the grief and sorrow he feels for them.  He recounts his own time spent with them, the physical problems he had, and their previous expressions of love towards him: "You did not scorn or despise me, but received me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus." (v14)

What happened?  “Before, when I was among you, you would have given me your own eyes!  But now I'm your enemy?  Because I'm telling you the truth about your grievous error?  Because I have confronted you for following after false teachers?  You are falling away from salvation by grace to embrace dead works that cannot save you!  What do you expect me to say?”

The Judaizers have made Paul an enemy to the Galatians.  They cannot argue with him and stand their ground scripturally, so they have turned to denouncing him, attacking his person.  This is exactly what we read Thursday night from The Sovereignty of God by Arthur Pink: "Denunciation is the last resort of a defeated opponent."  That has been the case with these false teachers.  They cannot compete with Paul scripturally, so they have attacked Paul personally and made him out to be a liar and less than an apostle, and the Galatians have fallen headlong into the trap.

These Judaizers want to exclude you from the salvation that is in Christ so that they might be seen in your eyes as important.  They want to be seen as holding the keys of salvation themselves.  They want to take credit for your conversion to Judaism and rob you of the true gospel.  How can you follow these liars? "I am perplexed about you." (v20).

It truly is perplexing.  They really are an enigma.  Why would anyone prefer works over grace?  Slavery over freedom?  Doctrines of demons over the Son of God?  If you had a choice between:

1) the possibility of saving yourself from the judgment to come through your own efforts while never being certain you had done enough or been good enough to ACTUALLY secure your own salvation, OR

2) choosing the sure salvation that is granted to those whose faith is in Christ and His work upon the cross, . . .

WHY would you EVER repent of the slavery of idol worship, trust in Christ alone as your Savior, and then repent of salvation by grace and RETURN to the slavery of trusting in your own religious efforts to justify yourself before God?  No wonder Paul was perplexed over the Galatians!  It confuses us as well when people who have given every outward indication that they are truly born again by the Spirit, somehow are drawn away from Christ and into a cult or a denomination that is a stranger to the saving grace of God.  How does that happen?  What do we do with such an enigma?

It all comes down to faith.  They were being taught to trust in themselves more than in Christ.  That is the false elementary principle that enslaves all unregenerate men.

So we read in verse 19 Paul’s endearing and heartbreaking words where he speaks of the Galatians as, “my little children, for whom I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you!” Paul was being crushed by their straying away from the Lord Jesus and now he is laboring to bring them back with a clear reiteration of salvation by the grace that sets men free.

I often see parallels to this.  There are multitudes of professing Christians who have had an emotional response to a gospel presentation, but who have been so poorly taught, or so wrongly taught, that they eventually slide into a kind of mock Christianity that has little to do with the biblical gospel and much to do with a religious subculture that is nominally Christian at best.  Christian camps and city-wide crusades of the past have generated multitudes of people who are on record as having “made a decision for Christ” but who were never seen nor heard from again after their initial “salvation experience”.  They were, in effect, inoculated against the true gospel with a false religious, emotional experience called salvation.

In the 1800’s Charles Finney began preaching throughout middle and western New York State.  He came from a Presbyterian background in which he was ordained, even though he eventually denounced the Westminster Confession, and Total Depravity in particular.  In his evangelistic meetings, he developed a rather novel approach for his day, what we often refer to today as an altar call or the Invitation System.  If you look in the Bible, you will not find any scriptural precedent for issuing an altar call at the end of a church service.  But Finney was convinced that a person could and should be persuaded by all means to make a decision for Christ in order to secure his own salvation.

This technique of Finney’s produced so many “converts” that most of western New York eventually became known as the Burned Over District.  So many people had supposedly been converted by the fires of revival that there was no more fuel to burn.  But toward the end of his life Finney’s own testimony tells us what actually happened:

“I was often instrumental in bringing Christians under great conviction, and into a state of temporary repentance and faith. . . . [But] falling short of urging them up to a point where they would become so acquainted with Christ as to abide in Him, they would of course soon relapse into their former state.” 2

That describes what was happening to the Galatians.  But through no fault of Paul’s.  Paul hadn’t preached a deficient gospel.  But many of the Galatians seem to have made a kind of illegitimate “decision” for Christ which did not result in salvation.  The proof of this is that they were eventually easily persuaded by the Judaizers that their former decision to believe (if I may call it that) in Christ alone was deficient.

So they, like Finney’s “converts” “relapsed” into a spiritual state that was not significantly different from the state they were in when they worshipped idols.  Because of the Judaizers, they no longer depended upon their worship of idols for salvation.  They now depended upon their worship of Christ to save them.  But both are equally damning.  In both cases, their trust was in their worship, in their works of devotion.

Once again we need to ask the question with Paul, “What part of Grace Alone do professing Christians not understand?”  This is exactly why Paul is perplexed.  He feels as though he needs to start all over again.  He wishes he could be with them and labor in the gospel with them and among them until Christ is formed in them, until Christ becomes their own.

What amazes me in all this is Paul’s perseverance in love towards the Galatians.  He does not write them off.  He does not take offense and say, “Well just forget it!  After all the blood, sweat and tears I spilled among you to bring you the Gospel, and now you’re believing all these lies the Judaizers are telling you about me?  Then I’ll just dust off my feet and move on to someone who will appreciate me and who will accept the Gospel and REALLY believe it!”

No.  This man just never gives up.  That’s why he writes this letter.  And the message to us is that we love people enough to never give up, never stop pointing them to the Lord Jesus, never stop sharing the Gospel.


1. enigma. Unabridged. Random House, Inc. (accessed: November 20, 2011).




"To have recourse to invectives is ever the last resort of a defeated opponent.  Whenever you find men calling their opponents hard names, it is a sure sign that their own cause has been defeated."  - A. W. Pink  See  (Sounds like American politics to me.)



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