We are in God’s family, not because we’re good people, but because we have been offered grace through the blood of Christ and have responded by faith. In choosing to identify with Christ—in his person, his claims, his death, and his resurrection, it’s as if we took off the rags we called clothes and put on the glorious garment of Jesus. In the story of the Prodigal Son, when the rebellious, ungrateful, wandering vagrant of a son shows up back at the family homestead, his rags are stripped off him, and he is clothed in the father’s own robe, given and golden ring, and a feast is prepared for him. The clothing is a sign of his acceptance and belonging in the family, of his adoption back into the arms of his loving father, and his status as son, not servant. So also when we clothe ourselves with Jesus Christ.
This offer is available the same to all. In their culture, only the elite might ever dream of such realities. Slaves didn’t even imagine such a scenario, women were always kept in their societal place, and Gentiles were kept far away. But the grace of God, as was promised to Abraham in Genesis 12.3, was available to them all equally, no matter if they were slaves, women, or Gentiles. Salvation was a uniting factor, not a divisive one (Ephesians 2.11-22). Jesus has an open-door policy, and a perpetual open house—come one, come all!
What Paul is saying is that “family” has its own unique status when it comes to the inheritance. While friends and servants may be regarded as both valuable and beloved, the children get special perks and privileges. When it comes to inheritance, most parents establish a trust for their children while they are still young, so in the event of the death of the parents, a mature and responsible party can handle the inheritance money and goods until the child comes of age. But once the child comes of age, under the right conditions, they receive the full and unmitigated rights and bounty of the family inheritance. Paul uses that analogy to talk about the Law and living by the Spirit. The Law was like a trustee, when revelation to God’s people was still so young that they needed a controlling entity to house the relationship between God and His people. But now that Christ has come, died and risen again, and ascended to heaven to sit at the right hand of God, and the Spirit has come, the role of the Law is now no longer necessary, because all of us, and each of us, has full and uncompromising access to live in the same Spirit. We’re all family, we’re all equal heirs, we’re all equal partakers, and we all have equal access, so the rules and lists are no longer necessary. When I start a new job, it’s nice to have a list of expectations, so I know what to do as I’m being trained and as I adjust to the job. After I’ve been there a while, I don’t need that list any more. I know what to do, and have possibly even taken on more responsibilities. That’s not only OK, but good. I don’t want to live by a list of duties; I just want to do my job.
Formerly, before we were believers, we possibly thought that Christianity was just a feeble religion of do’s and don’t’s, a crutch people needed because they couldn’t handle life, and the foolishness of trying to obey ancient rules. But now that we have come to Christ and we understand what the Bible really teaches, it’s a completely different picture. We understand that we follow a person, not a list of rules. It’s a relationship, not a religion. We see the Bible as the revelation of our precious God, not a book of rules. We have found freedom and truth in grace and knowledge. Why in the world would we ever want to backtrack, and live as if Christianity were a feeble religion, a crutch, and a list of ancient rules? It’s pure nonsense.
There are plenty of teachers who are glad to tell us otherwise. Christianity has many voices, and they are saying many different things. It’s hard sometimes to discern the true path, and which teachers are giving us the straight story. We all know how divided the body of Christ is, and how churches stand off from each other, because “we preach the truth, but those other congregations don’t, so we don’t fellowship with them.” It’s fine to be zealous and to desire the truth, but we must also be willing to fellowship in the big tent of diversity that is the Christian Church. Still we must do our best to discern the wheat from the weeds, but we must also show grace where paths and beliefs may diverge (as in Romans 14).
Paul then uses the historical situation of Hagar and Sarah/Ishmael and Isaac to make his point. One of the themes of Genesis is “covenant jeopardy”: God had made his promises to Abraham, but there is this continual string of obstacles and problems that threaten to unravel the whole plan. Story after story shows how fragile the covenant plan is when it intersects really life, and yet God marches it through the minefield safely to the other side. First Abraham was going to let his servant Eliezer be his heir. Then he impregnates Sarah’s concubine, and the covenant is even more in jeopardy in a very real sense—Abraham has a firstborn, blood-line son, and it isn’t Isaac. We are left with a narrative tension of how God is going to preserve his covenant with the child of promise, Isaac, when all has been compromised.
Abraham was guided by his own sense of reason and the counseling of his wife, Sarah, instead of by the voice and plan of the Lord. Paul uses the story as an illustration of self-effort and religion, as well as of covenant jeopardy. Even in the New Testament, there are many devices that could bring the whole plan down, this one being adherence to the Law instead of making the transition to live in the Spirit on the basis of grace. But God is faithful, and will see His plan of salvation through to its glorious end. Despite all the threats and obstacles, it will not be derailed.
While Hagar was a true intimate of Abraham’s, and while Ishmael was a true son, he was not to be the child of promise or the avenue of inheritance. Just as the Law was a gift that God gave and a mechanism of relating to God, it was never intended to be the final word.
In the age of grace, in the era of the Christian Church, in life by the Spirit, the legitimate gift of God, the Law, must be sent away so it is not seen to be a competitor of the true child of God, Jesus, and the salvation that comes through him. We will never be children of the old covenant. There are new wineskins, the bridegroom has come, and behold, all things have become new. We must walk in the newness of life, in the ways of the Spirit, and in the true freedom the being clothed with Christ was intended to bring.