Teaching series from Galatians

From Ritualism to a Personal Relationship with God

Galatians 4:1-11

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Brief setting of author and audience (MAP). After Paul left, certain false teachers from Judea (“Judaizers”) came and discredited Paul’s authority and message. Paul writes this letter to call them back to his message about God’s grace.

One aspect of God’s grace is that He adopts us into His family through our faith in Christ (3:26; Jn.1:12). 3:27-29 sets forth 3 privileges of this adoption: new right standing before God, unity between one another, and new purpose for our lives.

In 4:1-11, Paul sets forth another privilege of this adoption, and expresses his concern because the Galatians (under the Judaizers’ influence) are not taking advantage of it. This privilege is freedom from ritualism into a personal relationship with God, a freedom they were forfeiting. As we will see, this is super-relevant to our situation today. But first let’s understand Paul’s argument by analogy...

Paul’s argument

Read 4:1,2. In first-century wealthy families (still often the case today), the minor children (even though heirs of the estate) were like slaves in two ways. They had very restricted access to their fathers, and they were under the care of guardians and managers. These were usually not kindly nannies. “(They) act as the ‘controllers of his person and property.’ They order him about, direct and discipline him. He is under restraint. He has no liberty.” But when they reached “the age set by the father,” they gained free access to their fathers to relate to them and share in advancing their family interests.

Paul now explains this analogy (read 4:3). The minor child under guardians and managers is like the situation of God’s people during the Old Testament. He calls this guardian system “the elemental things of the world.” This refers especially to the detailed and compulsory Old Testament system of rituals (see 4:9b,10; see also Col.2:8,20,21). This included priests, sacred buildings, religious calendar, and animal sacrifice (SLIDES).

On the one hand, this system emphasized their separation from God because of their true moral guilt. God’s presence was barred by walls and veils. Access to God was therefore indirect through priests. The death of animals emphasized the seriousness of sin and its penalty.

On the other hand, it educated them about the way that God would one day resolve their true moral guilt and make it possible to draw near to Him. The priests foreshadowed the Messiah who would stand between us to resolve our problem with God. The sacrifices also foreshadowed the Messiah, who would pay for our sins with His own perfect death. The festivals also foreshadowed the Messiah, including when He would offer Himself for our sins (Passover).

Read 4:4,5. The “date set by the father” when the child became an adult son is like the coming of Jesus. He came to live a sinless life under God’s Law so that He could fulfill these ritualistic foreshadows by dying for our sins. Read 4:6,7. Because He has done this, we receive “adoption as sons” (access to God) when we receive Christ. Far from being separated from us, God now sends His Spirit into our hearts to initiate this relationship with Him (“Abba”), and to help us to develop it.

Paul now applies this theological instruction to the Galatians (read 4:8-11). The Galatians, as pagans, had also been under idolatrous ritualistic systems (almost all religions are ritualistic). They had been liberated from this into a personal relationship with the true God when they believed in Christ and received His Spirit. Why then would they listen to the Judaizers’ insistence that they go back to Old Testament ritualism? Notice how serious Paul says this error is:

Return to ritualism is regression to spiritual slavery rather than progress toward spiritual maturity (4:9). It was fine and good for my 4-year-old daughter to read simple ABC’s books. This was how she learned the elementary principles of reading. But for her to be 20 years old, highly literate – and then decide to read only ABC’s books would be tragic regression!

Return to ritualism prevents mature knowledge of God, which was what Paul labored for (4:11). “In vain” doesn’t mean loss of their salvation, but failing to grow in their personal relationship with God because they preferred the “pictures” of ritualism. If you were adopting a child from a foreign country, it may restrict your access to giving photos. If the child treasured your photos during this time, that would be a good thing. But what if, after you completed the adoption and brought him home, he insisted on only looking at these photos? You would feel that all of your labor to adopt him had been in vain!

Application #1: Biblical Christianity is not ritualistic

This is one of many New Testament passages that clearly makes this assertion (Hebrews; Col.2; Jn. 4; Rom.12:1; 1Pet.2; etc.). It is impossible to read the Bible without noticing the dramatic shift in the role of ritual before and after Christ’s death - from 100’s to 2 (and 1 of these is only once); from detailed instructions to very little instruction (tragically, Christians have persecuted others over how to baptize, take communion, etc.). Why then do so many church denominations that teach and prescribe Christian ritualism? How should we respond to this?

Don’t be self-righteous (i.e., think that none of the people in such churches are saved) or pick fights with people over this. This response is wrong and unproductive.

Realize that your salvation and spiritual growth come not through Christian ritualism, but through faith in Christ. You can become God’s child and go to heaven without ever observing even one ritual. Jesus’ response to the thief on the cross proves this (explain Lk.23:43). Don’t let anyone take this assurance from you. You can become spiritually mature without embracing any ritualistic system. This is Paul’s whole point to the Galatians in this passage. Don’t let anyone side-track you from this promise.

Lovingly explain to others that Christianity is not ritualism, but a personal love relationship with Christ. On the one hand, ritualism gives some people false confidence that they are in right standing with God because they observe rituals like baptism or communion. We should try to help them see their need for personal faith in Christ. On the other hand, many people are turned off the Christianity because they think it is impersonal ritualism, which they don’t want. We should to do our best to correct this misconception with the above good news.

We can discuss this more during Q & A. But let’s turn now to another application ...

Application #2: Cultivate relational closeness with God

This is the great privilege Jesus died to secure for us. How ironic if we only critique Christian ritualism, yet do not grow in depth and intimacy in our relationships with God! How can we do this? Like any close relationship, you can’t reduce this to a formula – but there are biblical principles that form the framework for developing increasing closeness.

The first step is to receive Christ (read Rev.3:20). Jesus has done all that is necessary to “move into” your heart, despites its many shabby rooms. Jesus is knocking, notifying that He wants to move in and have a personal relationship with you. Yet He will not do a forced entry; He waits until you freely open the door. Will you refuse Him entry, or will you open the door?

Listen regularly to God’s self-revealing speech (read Ps.62:1). In human relationships, we develop intimacy primarily by listening to one another’s words. God has revealed Himself through His written Word, the Bible, and He personalizes these words to us as we listen as His children. We listen to God by reading and pondering His promises and statements about His love for us (Ps.62:11,12; like pondering a love-letter). We need to listen in this way not just as new Christians, but throughout our Christian lives.

Make use of your full access to God through Christ (read Eph.3:11b,12). Once you receive Christ, you are welcome into God’s presence entirely on the basis of Jesus’ perfect and finished work for you, and never on the basis of your imperfect works for God. We are like the Prodigal Son in Lk.15 even on our best days (spend time fleeing from God, misusing his gifts, etc.) – yet the Father welcomes us even on our worst days. Don’t avoid God until you’re “doing better,” or engage in penitential apologies for how long it’s been, etc. Come as you are, trusting in this access!

Speak to God in a variety of ways. In business relationships, we may only talk about business when at work. But in any close relationship, we initiate communication in multi-faceted ways.

What we talk to God about (Psalms): supplication (expression of fears, sins, frustrations, etc.), praise/thanksgiving and requests (for self and others).

When we talk to God (Nehemiah): both spontaneous and planned.

How long we talk to God: very brief “flash prayers” and longer periods (e.g., MORNING ROUTINE; WALKS; SPECIAL RETREATS).

With whom we talk to God: both in private and with others (should be daily).

Depend on the Holy Spirit’s help in relating to God (read Rom.8:15 – “by whom we cry ‘Abba’”). Paul (Eph.6:18) and Jude (Jude1:20) urge us to “pray in/by the Spirit.”

He initiates the desire to talk to God. Do you feel guilty about your prayerlessness, or do you rejoice because this concern is proof that you are regenerate? How much were you concerned about this before you received Christ? Ask Him to strengthen your motivation to pray.

He helps us to pray according to God’s will (read Rom.8:26,27). Don’t seize up over whether you are praying for “the right thing” or in “the right way.” Ask Him to guide you into what to pray for, and then freely pour out your heart and trust that He will interpret it properly.

Anticipate “dry times” and respond properly during them. Many passages in the Bible speak of times when God seems absent or unresponsive (e.g., Ps.42:1,2; 43:2). In human relationships, this is almost always a bad sign. But God has redemptive purposes for these times.

They don’t mean that God has abandoned you. God often allows these to exercise and strengthen our faith in His Word. So keep affirming His promises even and especially when you lack a sense of His presence.

They will not last forever. Like the sun going behind a dark cloud, this situation is temporary (Ps.42:5,11; 43:5). So keep talking to God in the darkness and affirm His promise that the sunshine of His love will come back out in His timing.


Cultivating relational closeness with God is a life-long pursuit. Actually, it continues throughout eternity because God is infinite! So keep growing in this life in what you will be enjoying forever!

NEXT WEEK: Gal.4:12-20 – Maturing in God’s Family

DISCUSS: Additional questions about Christian ritualism? Comments or questions about cultivating relational closeness with God?

Stott, J. R. W. (1986). The message of Galatians: Only one way (p. 104). Leicester, England; Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Paul also says 4:11 because the Galatian Christians were now misrepresenting Christianity to the watching world. He uses the same language in Phil.2:15,16 to emphasize this point.