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. But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.
St. Paul uses a metaphor of adoption to help us understand what happens when we are saved. Roman adoption was different than the way we do it. Romans viewed a family unit as the whole extended family under the oldest living male relative. He was the Father of the family, or the pater familias. He controlled everything the family owned, including the power to have his children divorce their spouses.
Adoption was a way to bring someone from outside the family into the family, but it was not to take care of an orphan. Adoption almost always happened to adults, not children. When Julias Caesar died, he adopted his great-nephew, Octavian (who would become Augustus Caesar) as a son so he could inherit Julias Caesar’s estate. The same thing happens in Japan with family businesses. When a father wants to pass on the business to his family, he finds the best candidate and adopts him or her.
When God adopts us, he takes us from slavery to the world and to the law, and he makes us a son in a new family. We have freedom from our own works to impress God, because he has made us heirs.
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A note about the word, “son,” in Galatians 4. Many want to make this word more inclusive by adding the phrase, “and daughters.” This, however, changes the message of Paul’s metaphor, since only sons could be heirs in a Roman family. The word, “sons,” is inclusive of women, and it makes women co-heirs with men in Christ, a big deal in Rome and Israel.