“Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods. But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more? You observe days and months and seasons and years! I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain.” —Galatians 4:8–10
Here, Paul is shocked that those who were once the lowest of slaves but who have become sons of the highest of kings, would turn back to their slavery. But just as shocking is the how of this how. How is it that these sons are turning back to slavery to the “elemental spirits of this world”? How is it that these former idolators are returning to the bondage of those that are not gods (cf. Deuteronomy 32:17)? By observing days and months and seasons and years.
The context of Galatians insists we understand these to be the Jewish Sabbath and Feasts. These are part of those works of the law wherein they were seeking to stand just before God (Galatians 2:15). The law is a pedagogue meant to bring sinners to Christ (Galatians 3:24–26). To return to the law from Christ is to swim against the current towards death. To turn from Christ back to the law is to turn from the law as it is of God, to a perversion of the law that is of demons. Luther comments,
“Whoever falls from the doctrine of justification is ignorant of God and is an idolater. Therefore it is all the same whether he then returns to the Law or to the worship of idols; it is all the same whether he is called a monk or a Turk or a Jew… For once this doctrine undermined, nothing more remains but sheer error, hypocrisy, wickedness, and idolatry, regardless of how great the sanctity appears on the outside.
…There is no middle ground between human working and the knowledge of Christ; if this knowledge is obscured, it does not matter whether you become a monk or a heathen afterwards.”
To the Jews who insisted that they were the children of Abraham and that God was their father, but who rejected Jesus, Jesus said,
“If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and I am here. I came not of my own accord, but he sent me. Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word. You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies. But because I tell the truth, you do not believe me. Which one of you convicts me of sin? If I tell the truth, why do you not believe me? Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God” (John 8:42–47).
The highest moral efforts, devoid of Christ, are nothing more than slavery to demons.