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Trading Heavy Burdens for Easy Yokes: Finding Grace Not Legalism (Galatians 4:21-31)

Galatians 4:21–31 - 21 Tell me, you who want to be under law, do you not listen to the law? 22 For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the bondwoman and one by the free woman. 23 But the son by the bondwoman was born according to the flesh, and the son by the free woman through the promise. 24 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. 25 Now this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. 26 But the Jerusalem above is free; she is our mother. 27 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.” 28 And you brethren, like Isaac, are children of promise. 29 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. 30 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.” 31 So then, brethren, we are not children of a bondwoman, but of the free woman. 


What does today’s passage say?

In today’s passage, Paul uses the biblical story of Abraham’s two sons, Ishmael and Isaac, to paint a word picture about slavery versus freedom (vv. 21-23). Basically, he takes the historical account and turns it into an allegory to teach spiritual truth. He’s saying that trying to make ourselves righteous through rule-keeping and religious rituals is like an enslaved woman giving birth naturally - the result will also be a slave like Ishmael. But depending on God’s grace through faith is like Sarah miraculously conceiving a child in her old age according to the promise - the result is freedom like we see in Isaac’s life. Paul further explains that those striving in their own power live enslaved under obligations and condemnation of the law, constantly having to measure up with good behavior (vv. 24-25). But those born again by the power of the Spirit into God’s family as adopted children simply rest in Jesus’ finished work through trusting Him, not themselves or what they do (vv. 26-27). Therefore, we should refuse to identify at all with approval-seeking slavery that compromises grace. Rather, we must embrace the mindset of being heirs according to promise, leaving no room for self-effort (vv. 28-30). Right standing before God cannot come partially through law and partially through promise; we must decisively and completely separate ourselves from all dependence on self-righteousness, relying only on Christ’s righteousness (v. 31).


How can I apply Galatians 4:21-31 to my life?

Today, Paul continues explaining justification by faith alone by using an allegory that would have been very familiar to his original readers. He compares Mount Sinai representing the Mosaic law given to the slave woman Hagar, to the free woman Sarah representing the new covenant in Christ. At first read, this passage can seem confusing or even disturbing, with its contrast between two women and their sons. But the principles we can draw from it are extremely relevant to avoiding religious bondage today. As we strive to grow in godliness, it’s far too easy slip into a legalistic, works-based mindset rather than resting in the finished work of Christ. We constantly face temptation to prove ourselves worthy before God and others through our own discipline and effort. But praise the Lord, He has set us free through faith to walk in liberty! Let’s explore how this passage challenges us to leave behind slavery to approval-seeking and embrace the freedom found in God’s grace. Here are some basic principles from this passage that we should apply to our lives:

1.    Recognize the Difference Between Bondage and Freedom (vv. 21-26): When we try to justify ourselves before God by our own efforts, we end up enslaved like Hagar and Ishmael, who represent the covenant given at Mount Sinai that could only condemn and enslave. Conversely, when we trust in God's grace through faith in Christ, we become children of the promise like Isaac - liberated and free. The allegory Paul shares illustrates this powerful contrast. He essentially says, "Look at what you're choosing if you insist on turning from grace back to the law!" The freedom we have in Christ liberates us from sin's grip and the law's curse, while legalism only breeds bondage, uncertainty, frustration and fear in our relationship with God. But praise Jesus, He came to set the captives free through His finished work, not to burden us with heavy yokes unable to lift. As believers already established in grace, we must guard against shifting back into the mentality that our behavior earns us points with God (Romans 6:18; Romans 6:22; Romans 8:2; 2 Corinthians 3:17).

Food for Thought: What mindsets or behaviors reflect a works-focused, legalistic mentality in my life? Do I sometimes lose sight of God’s grace and assume He is angry with me?

2.    Identify with the Promise of Freedom Through Isaac (vv. 27-29): Building on the allegory of the previous verses, Paul quotes Isaiah 54 to reinforce that as children of the promise through faith in Christ, we share in the supernatural freedom of Isaac. There is no need for us to identify at all with Ishmael and Hagar, who represent salvation by self-effort. Isaac was born miraculously to demonstrate the power of God triumphing over all human work. Just as Isaac was persecuted by the legalistic Ishmael, legalistic religion still scoffs at and persecutes the radically free message of salvation by grace alone through faith alone today. But we must not let that discourage us or tempt us to identify even partially with slavery and bondage! As fellow heirs with Christ, set free by His finished work to walk in righteousness, we can and must ignore the persecution that comes, holding firmly to our freedom. Isaac prefigures Christ as the child of promise, and by God's grace, we become fellow miraculous children of freedom and promise. Let us therefore intentionally and actively align ourselves every single day with the eternal promise, not the temporary covenant of works (John 8:36; Romans 8:17; Galatians 3:29; Romans 9:7-9).

Food for Thought: Do I ever feel embarrassment or hesitation in sharing the radically grace-focused message of the gospel? How can I more confidently and boldly identify with the freedom promised to Isaac?

3.    Separate Yourself from Bondage and Live in Freedom (vv. 30-31): Paul completes his allegory by urging us as people of the promise to decisively break from seeking God's approval through self-effort. He even quotes Genesis 21 where Sarah demanded that Hagar and Ishmael be driven out and separated from Isaac. While this may seem harsh, the application for us is to completely remove any temptation toward legalism in our walk with Christ. Even a little bit of reliance on our works for favor with God has no place alongside faith in the finished work of Jesus. We cannot ride the fence or have it both ways - we must daily align ourselves and identify exclusively with freedom by faith alone, not slavery by works. This may mean making difficult choices to leave behind religious bondage and live boldly in the liberty we have as adopted sons and daughters in God’s family. Let us determine to walk fully in the freedom for which Christ set us free, and never again be entangled with any yoke of slavery (Hebrews 12:1; 2 Corinthians 6:17; Galatians 5:1).

Food for Thought: What mindsets or habits do I need to leave behind in order to live fully in the freedom Christ paid for? What changes can I make to align my identity completely with being a child of promise?

The allegory that Paul shares in this passage makes it clear that we cannot have it both ways – trying to earn justification through works while also trusting in Christ’s finished work for salvation. We must decisively and completely separate ourselves from any form of religious bondage or legalism that compromises grace. Christ died to set us free, not so we could remain entangled in heavy yokes of slavery. As beloved children of the promise, we must walk in the freedom we have been given and align our identity with Him. May we embrace in our minds and hearts the truth that we are fully approved by God because of what Christ accomplished on the cross. We can rest in His grace, not our own efforts.



Dear Heavenly Father,

I pray that You would help me recognize and turn away from any legalistic, works-focused thinking that brings spiritual bondage. Please search my heart and life and show me any areas where I am not fully trusting in the grace You offer me freely through Christ. I pray that You would give me boldness to embrace my identity as a beloved child of the promise, separate from religious slavery that focuses on external behavior over internal heart change. Empower me to walk fully in the freedom You died to give me, not embarrassed by grace or compelled to earn my right standing through self-effort.

I pray these things in the most precious name of Jesus, Amen.


Galatians 5:1 - It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery.



With His Blessings,

Pastor Corby

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