“In the same way we also, when we were children, were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world.” (Gal. 4:3)
When we were children obviously denotes the time prior to our coming to faith in Christ. Whether under the law as Jews or under the universal law as gentiles we were seen and dealt with as children. Remember that the children had a guardian and were as free as slaves. They were outside the promise in that sense. Since the promise was a result of faith, the law had to be annulled and faith reinstituted. This is what the coming of Jesus as the savior of the world did.
In the same way that the child, or heir, in this case, was under guardians and thus in slavery, so all humankind was enslaved by the elementary principles of the world. What does Paul mean by elementary principles? One way to view that is to view it as a reference to the law and its negative implications. But that only covers some of the Galatians, unless you let the law cover all law enforced by God including the Mosaic Law. Another way to view that is the reference to verse 8 of this chapter. Whatever non-God course the world was following produced slavery. The Gentiles had, in essence, the truth of God but they like the Jews sat out to practice idolatry.
The basic principles of the world would then represent all those things and ways that are contrary to worshiping the true God. It is seen in the state of the world before the great flood. When left without God in their hearts mankind can only produce evil which enslaves them. Jesus came to free those enslaved by the law as well as those enslaved by their own law. Without Christ there is slavery and in Christ there is freedom.
So, whether Jew or Gentile, Paul tells us, we were enslaved. We were in captivity and needing a rescuer, just as the Hebrew nation needed Moses. God sent one greater than Moses, who was a servant of God. In the place of a servant, God sent His Son to be the Servant Leader that would free people from the bondage of sin.
What is worse, we were without the promise of God and therefore not His children and hence not His heirs. That could not be rectified by the law or the basic principles of this world. It could only be rectified by the sending of the Son of God.
Task for Today: Forget the past. Don’t look back. Don’t go back to the old way, the way as children. Rejoice that you have been set free from the law and the principles of the world and accept Jesus as your savior and lord. Leave childhood behind, become a grownup in Christ.