I mean that the heir, as long as he is a child, is no different from a slave, though he is the owner of everything, but he is under guardians and managers until the date set by his father. In the same way we also, when we were children, were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world. Galatians 4:1-3, ESV
In this passage, Paul is concluding a longer section in which he identifies that we become heirs of Christ through our faith in Him, regardless of our lineage. I highly suggest you read the entire passage.
In it, Paul uses a very intriguing analogy. He compares us to children of a wealthy father. Though a child is an heir to his father’s fortune, the father does not simply let him do whatever he wants. Instead, up until the date that he receives his inheritance, the child is under a set of rules. Perhaps a nanny is placed in charge of him, or he is not allowed to drive the car yet, or he cannot watch television after 8, or he must attend school whether he wants to or not. So for a long period of his early life, he is under guidance of others (people and rules). Then at some date in the future, he is given his inheritance to do with it what he will.
Paul compares this to the relationship between Law and Grace. The Mosiac Law (Old Covenant), Paul says, was developed to be our guardian/manager/nanny early in our lives. This was done to get us through until Jesus came and set us free to claim our inheritance.
A couple of really interesting points come out from this discussion.
First, this helps us understand the purpose of the Law. Paul says that we were given the Law because of our fallen, sinful nature (3:19). This parallels well with his analogy. The reason I have rules limiting my children is generally for their own protection and growth. I do not let my son drive a car at age 6 because it would be unsafe. I do not let my son eat donuts all day because it is unhealthy. I have my son sit with me as I pay bills so that he can understand how to manage his money. I do not let him skip his schoolwork because it is necessary for his growth.
You see, we have rules in our household to protect them from dangers they do not realize, and to prepare them for being able to handle the inheritance.
This is precisely what the Law does for us. The Law was given to Moses because, as a sinful, fallen people, we humans were not yet ready for Christ. The Law showed us what holiness was. It demonstrated our inability to manage our inheritance appropriately on our own. It protected us from the danger of freedom without knowledge of what holiness actually looks like. And, just like my rules for my children, it also prepared us for growth: by knowing the Law, we know the difference between ‘good’ and ‘bad’; we know what it means to meet God’s standard (and, how far we fall below it!).
We humans, in our infancy, needed the Law. It was good for our protection as well as for our education; this is why Paul consistently says that we received the Law on account of our sinful natures. But then, at the appointed time, God sent His son Jesus Christ. Jesus established the New Covenant. By doing so, He freed us to become heirs of God through our faith in Christ. This frees us from the Law, because the Law existed to prepare us for Grace. That was its purpose. The Law did not go away; nor is it null and void—it is still the example of what perfect holiness looks like. But it is no longer required, just as an adult no longer is required to follow his nanny’s wisdom: our inheritance is ours through faith; our time as children is done.
This analogy helps us all to see the balance. Some embrace Grace, to the extent that they believe they can just go out and live as sinfully as they desire; others embrace the Law (either Mosaic, or the new Christian-legalism that is so prevalent), and through it attempt to earn their inheritance. Paul’s analogy here shows us the real situation: we are freed from the Law, but this does not mean that the Law should be completely ignored or is become totally irrelevant.
Rather, having been freed from the demands of the Law, we are now free to pursue God without the pressure of our salvation being dependent upon it. Our inheritance is secure; we need not adhere to the Law of Moses (or any other law, for that matter) in order to obtain it. Rather, we can simply be with Jesus, seek out His council, and live with Him daily.
To put it in the words of Paul’s analogy: when we were children, our wealthy father gave us a caretaker (the Law) to protect us and train us what it meant to be His son. Now that we have grown into adulthood, our father has given us our inheritance—it is ours to use as we see fit. We are no longer under the caretaker. The wise man will still remember the caretaker’s words and let them inform his life to make good choices—but even if we do not, it will not change our status as the heirs of our father, nor remove the inheritance from us.