2017 February Issue
of The Sermon Mall

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Sermon Ideas For Galatians 4:4-7 Part 1

Christian Anthropology

Throughout Advent Christians long for the arrival of Jesus; at Christmas his arrival is celebrated. All this is done because of who Jesus is and what he accomplishes "for our sakes," indeed, for the sake of the world. In Galatians, Paul focuses on the effects of God's Good News in Jesus Christ. This, given that the Galatian Christians were recent converts to the faith, makes it fitting to consider his epistle on "The First Sunday after Christmas."

Paul speaks of these effects by holding up "before and after" snapshots. He reminds his readers of the stark contrast between the situation in which they found themselves before they received the Gospel and the new possibilities available to them by their faith. They were "before" in a state of subjection, like minors under the discipline of a guardian or like slaves under a taskmaster's control. "After" they have come into their maturity, redeemed from their bondage, and now competent and free to dispose of their family inheritance. Though personal and personalized, the letter sets forth Paul's view not only of the Galatians but of the human condition itself, before and after Christian faith. The images used here—minority/maturity and slavery/freedom—have lived on in discussions of Christian anthropology throughout the history of theology.

Anthropology is, of course, "the study of humanity." The task of Christian anthropology is to give an adequate account of the condition, "nature," and prospect (or destiny) of human being as viewed from the perspective of Christian faith. Only on occasion, as in Reinhold Niebuhr's famous book The Nature and Destiny of Man (1941, 1945) has the topic been set forth in its own right. The more typical approach has been to include the inquiry and its results in the course of reflecting on such other topics as creation and hope and especially sin and salvation.

This is due in part to the fact that Christian theology concerns itself with a study or "theory" of humanity not in order to satisfy curiosity or even to add to the body of knowledge but in order to clarify what happens to and for humanity because of Jesus Christ. It is also due to the fact that from the standpoint of Christian faith, the paramount question in need of study is that of how matters stand between humanity and God. From many other non-theological and even anti-theological viewpoints—philosophy, history, the physical and social sciences, literature and the arts, etc.—Christians like everyone else are offered much to learn, and much to set aside as doubtful, wrong, speculative, or simply irrelevant. The history of theology is proof-positive that Christian anthropology has absorbed from its cultural environment errors as well as insights relating to human being. It remains the task of the church to clarify its teaching regarding how matters stand between humanity and God in distinctly and distinctively Christian terms.

Paul's is a sober, no-nonsense picture of the human condition "before" and apart from the message of the Gospel. Human beings exist in a state of bondage to other, alien powers; they are unable to enjoy the freedoms, the rights, and the blessings that God has willed for them. This state is said to be the lot of all, both Jews under the law and Gentiles under the cosmic powers. Over against this image is set its polar opposite, that of the life of faith in the Gospel. Through Jesus Christ has come release from bondage, acknowledgement as adopted children of God, and the receipt of a great inheritance.

The antithesis slavery/freedom is one of several sets of images of humanity to be found in Paul, other New Testament texts, and Christian doctrine. Three other interpretations of "the human problem" have been in widespread currency: Human existence as a state of ignorance regarding its true origin, nature, and destiny; human existence as a state of broken relationship with God, guilty and alienated and under condemnation; and human existence as a state of mortality, and so inescapably bound for death and decay into nothingness. To each of these images is a counter image of the change—the new state and the new hope—brought about by God's grace in Jesus Christ. The change is like that of a movement from ignorance to knowledge and wisdom, or from alienation to acceptance (justification) and reconciliation, or from corruptible mortality to incorruptible immortality.

Each of these sets can be analyzed and extended in its own right. In the doctrinal tradition of the Eastern Churches emphasis has fallen on mortality vs. immortality. The "Augustinian strain" of thought in the West (characteristic of not only Augustine but Luther, Calvin and other Reformation leaders), the theologies of Lutheran and Reformed scholasticism, Kierkegaard, and neo-Reformation (or neo-orthodox) thinking of more recent times has tended to focus on alienation vs. justification and reconciliation. At present, the ancient symbols of slavery and freedom have again come to the fore, as "liberation theologies" point out that slavery signifies a state of social domination and that the work of Christ brings liberating, empowering strength.

Rarely do these or any other Christian anthropologies rely exclusively on any one symbol-set. As a rule, multiple sets are put to use. If the combinations are at some times confusing and even contradictory, they are at others richly complementary. To disregard any of the four into account is to run the risk of underestimating the seriousness of "the human problem." This, in turn, is to run another, and greater, risk—the one Paul fears the Galatians have taken—of failing to appreciate the full depths and delights of life in the Gospel.

James O. Duke