“Tell me, ye that desire to be under the law, do ye not hear the law? For it is written, that Abraham had two sons, the one by a bondmaid, the other by a freewoman. But he who was of the bondwoman was born after the flesh; but he of the freewoman was by promise. Which things are an allegory: for these are the two covenants; the one from the mount Sinai, which gendereth to bondage, which is Agar.” (Galatians 4:21-24)
In the preceding chapters of this epistle the Apostle Paul has clearly established the doctrine of justification by faith. He has shown that the law was given for the purpose of shutting sinners up to the grace of God in Jesus Christ for their justification. It has been his aim throughout the book to bring God’s children to enjoy the Spirit of adoption, who has set us free from the bondage of the law, by bringing us to faith in Christ. Now, Paul proceeds to a deeper and fuller teaching of the Scriptures.
In Galatians 4:21-31 Paul explains the teaching of Holy Scripture regarding the two covenants of works and grace. Using Abraham’s two sons, Ishmael and Isaac, and their mothers, Sarah and Hager, as an allegory, the Apostle shows us that these two distinct covenants operate by two distinct principles: the flesh and the Spirit. The covenant of works, he shows us, always brings bondage, and the covenant of grace, liberty. Paul’s message is crystal clear. The covenant of works and the covenant of grace are distinct and mutually exclusive.
In these verses the Holy Spirit gives us the spiritual meaning of the historical relation of Sarah and Hagar, as recorded in Genesis 16 and 21. He tells us that the things recorded in those two chapters of Genesis were, by God’s design, an allegory ― an earthly picture of gospel truth.
“We can never be sufficiently thankful to God the Holy Ghost for giving himself the spiritual meaning of those records; for never, untaught of God, could it have entered into the mind of man, that matters of so important a nature were veiled under that covering. We might, and should no doubt, have read the history of both again and again, as the different characters are there stated in the Holy Scripture, and have considered the whole an interesting memoir in the family of the patriarch Abraham, in that early age of the world; but to have supposed that it had so vast a reference to ourselves, and that in the son of Sarah was intended to show the election of grace; and in the son of the bond-woman Hagar was meant what the apostle calls ‘the rest’ (Rom. 11:7), such a spiritual apprehension of the subject, untaught of God, would have been for ever impossible, (as indeed it is now, without the same divine instruction,) and must have been unknown.” (Robert Hawker)
The doctrine here revealed is essential to a proper understanding of the gospel. God deals with men only in covenant relationships. You may ask, “What is a covenant?” A covenant is a promise made upon the fulfillment of stipulated conditions. The covenant of works was initiated in Eden and later more fully revealed at Sinai. It says, “Do this and live.” This is the law. The covenant of grace was initiated in eternity and gradually revealed in many promises to God’s elect. It is fully realized in the person and work of Christ, the Surety of the covenant (Heb. 7:22). It declares that Christ has done all.
The Word of God plainly teaches these two covenants. The covenant of works was that agreement made between God and Adam, and it included all of Adam’s posterity. God promised Adam life and happiness, on the condition that he would perfectly keep his commandments; and God threatened Adam with death if he broke his commandments (Matt. 19:17; Lk. 10:28; Hos. 6:7).
The covenant of grace is an agreement made between the persons of the Sacred Trinity. It is the agreement of salvation for God’s elect made in eternity by God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. It was agreed that the race should fall in Adam and be redeemed by Christ (Isa. 53:10; Heb. 8:6). The covenant of works stood between God and Adam. Adam fell and now it is hopelessly broken. The covenant of grace stands forever established upon Christ’s blood and righteousness. The covenant of works said, “Do, oh man, or die!” the covenant of grace says, “Christ has done all that men may live.” All the conditions of the covenant of grace were forever and perfectly fulfilled by Christ. Every sinner, looking to Christ as his Savior, can say with David, “Although my house be not so with God; yet he hath made with me an everlasting covenant, ordered in all things and sure” (2 Sam. 23:5).
Abides forever sure;
And, in its matchless grace, I feel
My happiness secure.
What though my house be not with Thee,
As nature could desire!
To nobler joys than nature gives
Thy servants all aspire.
Since Thou, the everlasting God,
My Father art become,
Jesus, my Guardian, and my Friend,
And heaven my final home –
I welcome all Thy sovereign will,
For all that will is love;
And when I know not what Thou dost,
I wait the light above.
Thy covenant in the darkest gloom
Shall heavenly rays impart,
And when my eyelids close in death,
Sustain my fainting heart.”
God of Glory is the God of grace. His grace is free, everlasting, and boundless. How men ought to love His grace. Yet, men are forever shunning his grace and clinging to the law. Men, by nature, prefer the covenant of works to the covenant of grace. Some do not deny grace, but simply mix it with the law. But any mixing of the two is a denial of grace (Rom. 11:6; Gal. 5:1-4). Even among those who are born of God, there is a terrible, evil inclination toward works. How often we find ourselves foolishly looking within, looking to our works, our experiences, and our feelings as a basis for assurance and peace! The result is always bondage.
It is God himself who has made that vast distinction between law and grace. The two covenants are as different as east and west, as light and dark, as fire and water. The law is death; grace is life. This distinction lies at the very heart of the gospel. One of the most difficult things in the world is to see the difference between law and grace, between my doing something for righteousness and salvation and another doing everything in my place for the totality of my acceptance with the holy Lord God. Even those who are clear sighted enough to realize that justification must be all of grace, are, yet, very often deluded into thinking that they are sanctified by the keeping of the law, and, thus, make themselves more acceptable to God. Somehow, we tend to think that rituals and ceremonies and good works will give us merit and favor with God. But this can never be. We are accepted before God in our Covenant Head, the Lord Jesus Christ, and in the covenant he is everything to God’s people. “For of him are we in Christ Jesus, who of God is made unto us, wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption.” Christ is everything in the matter of salvation. We cannot make too much of our Savior or ascribe too much to him. He is the sum total of the covenant of grace. It is written, “I will give thee for a covenant of the people, to establish the earth, to cause to inherit the desolate heritages; that thou mayest say to the prisoners, God forth” (Isa. 49:8-9). In Christ, by his obedience and death as the Surety of the covenant and Representative of his elect, the temporary covenant of works (the law of condemnation and death) has been permanently supplanted by the everlasting covenant of grace through Jesus Christ.
There were many in Paul’s day, as there are many in our day, who attempted to bring God’s saints back under the bondage of the law, while professing to trust Christ as their Savior. We have seen this throughout the book of Galatians. Few would claim to perfectly obey the law. Rather, they profess that they sincerely live by the law and obey it to the best of their ability. That is the problem. Doing our best will never do for righteousness. Our best efforts will never please God. So Paul raises a question in verse 21 that needs to be answered. It is not a mere rhetorical question. ― “Tell me, ye that desire to be under the law, do ye not hear the law?”
The question is just this: ― Do you who seek to make yourselves righteous, who seek acceptance with God, who seek assurance and peace before God by your obedience to the law, do you not hear what the law really says? The law never speaks peace or pardon, but declares us all to be guilty (Rom. 3:19, 20). It sentences us to wrath and condemnation. The law does not minister life, but death (2 Cor. 3:7). The law does not require a sincere effort of obedience, but perfect obedience (Gal. 3:10). Do you really want to be under the yoke of bondage and death? Do you really want to be under the law?
Edgar Andrews points out the fact that, “Paul is using ‘the law’ here in two different senses. His meaning is, ‘You who desire to be under the law of Moses, do you not hear (or heed) the Mosaic scripture?’ Of course, there is no sleight of hand intended. Paul is simply pointing out that the Sinaitical law forms part of a larger body of Scripture from the hand of Moses, namely the Pentateuch. Had the Galatians seen Moses’ law in the context of all Moses’ writings, implies Paul, they would have rejected the Judaizers’ advances.”
The Judaizers at Galatia, like legalistic work-mongers today, interpreted the law very narrowly. The Judaizers with whom Paul contended applied only the ten commandments, circumcision, and selected holy days to believers in the gospel age. Their followers today, with rare exception, make only the ten commandments applicable, altering the laws regulating sabbath keeping to suit themselves. By such a narrow interpretation and application of the law, they take it totally out of the context of the Old Testament, particularly the five books of the Old Testament written by Moses (Genesis through Deuteronomy), commonly referred to as “the law.” Thereby, they totally ignore and refuse to hear and heed what the law says. While professing to love and honor the law, they would destroy the law.
The message of the law is exactly the same as the message of the gospel ― Salvation by Christ! The whole Word of God is the declaration of redemption, grace, and salvation by Christ (Luke 24:27; John 5:39; Heb. 1:1-14). Paul shows us in verses 22-24 that this is the case, using Sarah and Hagar and their two sons, Isaac and Ishmael (by divine inspiration) as an allegory portraying the message of the gospel and the covenants of works and of grace. These two women and their sons were not merely people who lived long, long ago. They were, by the design and purpose of God, typical of spiritual truths. They were living parables (an allegory), demonstrating the futility of works and the efficacy of God’s free grace in Christ.
“For it is written, that Abraham had two sons, the one by a bondmaid, the other by a freewoman” (v. 22). Actually, Abraham had many sons (Gen. 25:1-4); but Ishmael and Isaac were specifically intended to be illustrations of works and grace. Ishmael was born of a slave, Sarah’s handmaid, Hagar. As such, he was but a servant himself and not the heir. Isaac was born of Sarah, Abraham’s wife, who was a free woman, one who was joined to Abraham in a family relationship. That made Isaac a free man, a son, and the heir.
Paul uses this allegory to show us that all who are in bondage to the law are slaves, the spiritual descendants of the bondwoman, Hagar. Those who enjoy the liberty of grace are free in Christ, spiritual descendants of the freewoman, Sarah. Hagar and her son, Ishmael, owned nothing. They had none of the privileges belonging to Sarah and her son, Isaac, who possessed all things by virtue of their relationship to Abraham.
Paul’s doctrine is obvious. Those who seek to obtain righteousness by works, even by trying to obey God’s holy law, are mere slaves. Though they follow after righteousness, they cannot “attain to the law of righteousness…For they being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth” (Rom. 9:31-10:4). But all who come to God by faith in Christ, without the deeds of the law, inherit all things in Christ.
Though Abraham was an old man and his wife, Sarah, was an old woman, whose womb had been barren, the Lord promised Abraham a son (Gen. 13:16; 15:4-6). Though everything seemed to be against it ever happening, Abraham believed God’s promise (Gen. 15:6; Rom. 4:18-22). But, as the years passed and they grew older, it seemed increasingly unlikely that the child of promise would ever be born without Abraham and Sarah doing something to make it happen.
So Sarah came up with an idea. She suggested, and Abraham agreed to it, that the Lord would fulfil his promise in a way that involved their own effort, by giving God a hand. So Sarah gave her handmaid, Hagar, to Abraham as his mistress for a night. Their faith wavered. They mixed human reason with divine revelation, and, as is always the case, the wisdom of the flesh flew in the face of divine revelation and was a denial of the promise of God. Therefore, Paul tells us that, “he who was born of the bondwoman was born after the flesh” (v. 23).
Abraham and Sarah did not abandon God’s promise altogether. They simply decided that God needed their help to fulfil his promise. And their help produced Ishmael, a slave who caused unceasing pain and trouble as long as he was in the house. That is precisely the error of all who attempt to mix law and grace, the works of the flesh and the work of God in the matter of obtaining righteousness before God. Every attempt to obtain the promise of God by human effort (law obedience, religious ceremony, good works, decisions, etc.) is doomed to failure and only produces bondage and trouble.
Isaac, on the other hand, was born of “the free woman,” Sarah, and was born “by promise” (v. 23). He was not conceived by the flesh or born in a natural way, but by the promise of God accomplished miraculously. His father was nearly 100 and his mother was 90 years old and barren (Rom. 4:19). They were simply too old to have children. “With men this was impossible; but with God all things are possible” (Mark 19:26). Had it been possible for Isaac to have been born in a natural way, no faith would have been involved and no righteousness imputed to Abraham. But Isaac was born because Abraham believed God. He not only believed that God would give him a son, he believed that God would give him his Son (the Seed of woman who would crush the serpent’s head and bring the blessing of God’s salvation); and God declared him righteous (Rom. 4:20-22).
Being the seed of promise, Isaac was a type and picture of our Lord Jesus Christ’s incarnation (Gal. 3:16-18). His birth also illustrates the new birth. Every child of God is, like Isaac, “born after the Spirit” (Gal. 4:29). Our Savior said, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:6). The new birth is not the work of the flesh, but of the Spirit, a sovereign, irresistible, unaided work of God’s grace, according to covenant promise (Ezek. 36:25-27). As Isaac, not Ishmael, was Abraham’s heir, so all who are born again by God’s free grace are “heirs of God and joint-heirs with Christ” (Rom. 8:17).
“Isaac was born out of the common order and course of nature; his conception and birth were owing to the promise and power of God, and to his free grace and favor to Abraham. This son of promise was a type of the spiritual seed of Abraham, whether Jews or Gentiles, the children of the promise that are counted for the seed; who are born again of the will, power, and grace of God, and are heirs, according to the promise, both of grace and glory, when they that are of the law, and the works of it, are not.” (John Gill)
In verse 24 the Apostle tells us that “which things are an allegory: for these are the two covenants; the one from the mount Sinai, which gendereth to bondage, which is Agar.” Paul does not mean for us to understand that these events of history just happen to illustrate what he is teaching. By divine inspiration, he is telling us they came to pass by God’s intention and purpose to teach us these things. The purpose of God in bringing them to pass and recording them in the book of Genesis was to convey to us a picture of the distinction between the old covenant of works and the new covenant of grace.
We cannot understand the Bible correctly if we fail to see the constant distinction it makes between these two covenants. God established the old covenant of works in the garden with Adam and gave it to Israel through Moses at Mt. Sinai. The new covenant, the covenant of grace and promise, was established in eternity with Christ, our Surety, the Surety of the covenant (Heb. 7:22), and was ratified in time by the shedding of his blood at Calvary (Heb. 9:11-28). This new covenant is seen in God’s covenant with Abraham and was spoken of in prophecy by David, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel (Ps. 89; Jer. 31; Ezek. 36; cf. Heb. 8:10-23; 10:16-22).
In the old covenant of law and works God laid all responsibility upon the shoulders of men. It was a load that no man can carry. In the new covenant the Lord God laid upon his own darling Son the full weight of responsibility, making him alone totally responsible for the salvation of his people. Looking upon Christ as our Surety as the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world, trusting to him the whole of his glory and the whole of our salvation, the Lord God declared the whole work of redemption and grace done in that covenant before the world began (Eph. 1:3-14; Rom. 8:28-30).
This new covenant of life and grace, redemption and peace, though the first made, was the last revealed. Though made in eternity, it is called the “new covenant” because it is always new and never old. The covenant of law and works is set before us in Genesis 2, where God commanded Adam to do something and threatened him with death, declaring that in the day he broke his covenant he would surely die. The new covenant, the covenant of grace, is set before us in Genesis 3 after the fall, when God promised to send his Son, the Seed of woman, to crush the serpent’s head and save his fallen children. He even pictured how the covenant would be fulfilled by Christ slaying an innocent victim and clothing Adam and Eve with the skins of the slain victim. This covenant of grace was gradually revealed in greater fulness in God’s covenant with Noah, his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and his covenant with David. But we see it fully accomplished in the finished work of our Lord Jesus Christ.
While children of the bondwoman moan in bondage, trying to work themselves into the favor of God, every believer, the children of the free woman, walk at liberty and rejoice in the free, immaculate, immutable, indestructible grace of God, singing with David, “Although my house be not so with God; yet he hath made with me an everlasting covenant, ordered in all things, and sure: for this is all my salvation, and all my desire, although he make it not to grow” (2 Sam. 23:5).
“With David’s Lord and ours,
A covenant once was made,
Whose bonds are firm and sure,
Whose glories ne’er shall fade;
Signed by the Sacred Three in One
In mutual love, ere time begun.
Firm as the lasting hills
This covenant shall endure,
Whose potent shalls and wills
Make every blessing sure;
When ruin shakes all nature’s frame
Its jots and tittles stand the same.”