Engaging With 1689: On Galatians 4

For Paul, Abraham is the paradigm of salvation by grace alone

“It has been suggested that, however much Paul’s emphasis in chapter 3 is on the distinction between Moses and Abraham the point of chapter 4 on the continuity between Moses and Abraham or even their identity in the allegory in 4:21–31.”


In part 3 we considered the difference between the Reformed view that the covenant of grace was administered “in, with, and under” the typological Old Testament covenants and the Particular Baptist (see part 1 of this series for the definition) view that the OT covenants witness to and promise the coming covenant of grace, i.e., the New Covenant. In short, according to the PBs, there is, as we have seen a difference in “substance” between the OT covenants (which they regard essentially as one thing) and the New Covenant or the covenant of grace.

One of the major topics that arises in the discussion between the Reformed and the various Baptist approaches to redemptive history, biblical hermeneutics, and covenant theology is the relation between the Abrahamic covenant(s) and the Mosaic (and Davidic). We have observed that PB writers do not distinguish between the Abrahamic covenant(s) and the Mosaic (and Davidic).

In response, the Reformed have pointed to Galatians 3:16–18: where Paul argued,

Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. He does not say, “And to seeds,” as referring to many, but rather to one, “And to your seed,” that is, Christ. What I am saying is this: the Law, which came four hundred and thirty years later, does not invalidate a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to nullify the promise. For if the inheritance is based on law, it is no longer based on a promise; but God has granted it to Abraham by means of a promise (NASB).

As we read Paul, he was responding to the Judaizers, who were seeking to put the Christians under the Law and under works, i.e., under Moses, for salvation (justification and sanctification). In response Paul appealed to Abraham, who, for Paul, represents the principle of grace over against Moses, who represents the principle of works. He appeals to the Abrahamic promise, as distinct from the Mosaic covenant, as historically prior to and theologically more fundamental than the Mosaic/Sinai covenant. That is the significance of saying that the Abrahamic promise was given 430 years prior to the inauguration of the Mosaic covenant, which, he explained (in v.19) was added or perhaps “superimposed” (προσετέθη) upon the prior, Abrahamic covenant, in order to teach the Israelites the greatness of their sin and misery. Hence he calls the Law a “pedagogue” (Gal 3:24). Moses, not Abraham, is the pedagogue. In short, Paul’s great point here is to distinguish between the relative natures of the two covenants, between Abraham and Moses. This is not to say that the Mosaic covenant was not also an administration of the covenant of grace. It certainly was but that is not Paul’s point here against the Judaizers. With the legal aspect of the Mosaic covenant in view, he notes the distinctly temporary quality of the Mosaic covenant relative to the Abrahamic, which was prior to Moses and which remains in force even after the Mosaic expired or, to use Paul’s imagery from Colossians 2:14, “having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross” (NASB). That is not true of the Abrahamic covenant. It is characterized as a covenant of “promise” rather than a legal matter. The emphasis in Galatians 3 is on the distinction between the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants.

It has been suggested that, however much Paul’s emphasis in chapter 3 is on the distinction between Moses and Abraham the point of chapter 4 on the continuity between Moses and Abraham or even their identity in the allegory in 4:21–31. The argument seems to be that because Abraham had two sons, Abraham is his two sons. In other words, as the argument seems to go, if Moses has a twofold character (and he does), then so does Abraham and thus the Abrahamic covenant is not fundamentally different from the Mosaic covenant.

Does this reading of Galatians 4 withstand scrutiny? Paul writes:

Tell me, you who want to be under law, do you not listen to the law? For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the bondwoman and one by the free woman. But the son by the bondwoman was born according to the flesh, and the son by the free woman through the promise. This is allegorically speaking, for these women are two covenants: one proceeding from Mount Sinai bearing children who are to be slaves; she is Hagar. Now this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem above is free; she is our mother. For it is written,

“Rejoice, barren woman who does not bear;
Break forth and shout, you who are not in labor;
For more numerous are the children of the desolate
Than of the one who has a husband.”

And you brethren, like Isaac, are children of promise. But as at that time he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, so it is now also. But what does the Scripture say? “Cast out the bondwoman and her son, For the son of the bondwoman shall not be an heir with the son of the free woman.”

So then, brethren, we are not children of a bondwoman, but of the free woman (NASB).

Verse 21 gives us the frame of reference. When Paul says, “under the Law” he refers to the Judaizers who want to place themselves and the rest of the Galatian Christians under the Mosaic law for their standing with God and for their salvation. Paul has been opposing this throughout. Thus, he opposed the imposition of circumcision in the case that it was a condition of salvation.

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