Children of God
The Right View
In a Brief Survey of the Epistle of Paul to the Romans
Based on sermons preached in PCC Worship Services, July 2003 to Sep 2005
Part 35b of 83

14 For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God. 15 For ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father. 16 The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God” (Romans 8:14-16a).

 [One of the most important benefits of justification is adoption. Indeed, we could say that our adoption is the purpose of our justification. Thus, the apostle Paul after dealing with justification has begun to address the benefits of our adoption. His treatment is succinct but profound so that a number of views have been held each of which has slightly differing implications and impact on the Christian life.  In particular, what is it to “receive the spirit of bondage” and “the spirit of adoption”? We saw in the first instalment of this study, a faulty, though common interpretation. In this second part, we consider what we believe is the right understanding. JJL]

2.  The Right View

The right view of the passages is that Paul is not talking about different steps of our salvation process. He is showing to us the riches of the privilege that we share as the adoptive sons and daughters of God. Well, to appreciate these privileges, let us ask three questions:

(1) What kind of Spirit have we received?

(2) What is the significance of the cry, ‘Abba, Father’?

(3) How does the Spirit bear witness with our spirit?

Consider first, what kind of Spirit have we received?

Paul says (v. 15):

15 … ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but ye have received the Spirit of adoption

Now, it should be obvious that the Spirit we have received is the Spirit of adoption. It should also be quite clear that Paul is telling us who is the Spirit of adoption by telling us what He is not.

The word ‘bondage’ literally means ‘slavery’ He is not a spirit who makes us slaves to fear. He is a Spirit that makes us sons to love.

Once we put it this way, it becomes quite clear what the apostle is driving at. We are under grace, not under law. The ministry of the law was one that tended to produce slavish fear, whereas the ministry of the Gospel produces filial love. The Spirit of God does not lead us with a sword, as might be the case under the law. He leads us, rather, with a shepherd’s staff.

The apostle to the Hebrews raises a similar comparison. He reminds us in chapter 12 that we have not come to Mount Sinai (v. 18). Mt Sinai represents a ministry of death and slavish fear. We have, rather, come to Mount Zion, unto the heavenly Jerusalem where Christ Jesus is the Mediator of the New Covenant (v. 22, 24). Mount Zion, in contrast to Mount Sinai, represents a ministry of life and love.

You are under the Gospel, not under the Law. The Son of God by His coming has freed us from the slavish condition of the law. Of course, we must not infer from that, that under the Old Testament, the saints received the spirit of bondage, whereas under the New Testament, they received the Spirit of Adoption. No, no; Paul is not saying that there was a Spirit of Bondage. He is saying the Spirit of Adoption does not lead us in the way that the Law might lead under the Old Covenant.

The Spirit does not lead us by threatening us with death. He assures us that there is no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus. And He leads us gently within us to work and to will according to His good pleasure. He makes us willing to obey God. He makes us obey God out of love for Him, not out of slavish fear of Him.

Now, we must also remember that Paul is not saying that the children of God will not fear God.

Bear in mind that the fear that the apostle is taking about in the context is the fear of dread or a slavish fear. There are, we must remember, two kinds of fear:

·        The first kind of fear is the fear that a little boy will feel if he teases a dog and the dog barks loudly in his face. This is the fear of dread or a slavish fear.

·        The other kind of fear is the fear that the same boy will have if the Prime Minister invites him to have tea with him. This is the fear of love and respect.

Paul is saying that the Spirit of Adoption does not lead us by instilling a slavish fear of God. Yes, if we sin against God and remain unrepentant, we should dread the wrath of God. Yes, under such circumstance, the Spirit of Christ may bring to mind the threathenings of God in His Word to make us dread the wrath of God and flee from our sin.

But this is not the normal way by which the Spirit leads us. Normally the Spirit leads us in such a way as instill in us the fear of God that feels God’s love and desires to draw near to Him. The Spirit makes us seek God’s heavenly smile.

This is what makes the child of God different from a child of wrath. The child of wrath, the unbeliever, will never keep God’s Laws out of a fear of love or reverence for God. “There is no fear of God before their eyes,” says Paul in chapter 3, verse 18.

The fear that Paul refers to there (in 3:18) is different from the fear in our text (8:15). Paul is not saying that the Spirit does not produce a fear of love and respect. He is saying that the Spirit does not make us dread God or to have a slavish of Him. Instead, He leads us to fear the Lord with the fear of reverence. He makes us love Him and want to draw near to Him as a child unto his father.

Thus, the Holy Spirit who dwells in us makes us cry out in our hearts ‘Abba, Father.’ “Ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father” says Paul.

But what is the significance of the cry, ‘Abba, Father’?

Now, notice that the apostle is not telling us that we must cry “Abba, Father.” He is saying that if the Spirit indwell us, we will, by Him, cry “Abba, Father.”

Dear Christian, you know this as a fact, don’t you? You know how you spontaneously cry out in your heart unto God as your “Abba, Father.”

But do you realise that this is not something natural to you? Before your conversion, you would never cry unto God as “Abba, Father.” It is through the Spirit you have received that you can cry out unto God as “Abba, Father.”

Indeed, in Galatians 4:6, we are told that it is the Spirit of God who cries “Abba, Father:

“And because ye are sons, God hath sent forth the Spirit of his Son into your hearts, crying, Abba, Father” (Gal 4:6).

Because of the Spirit indwelling you now call unto God as your Abba Father instinctively.

You do it without being coerced to do.

Let me illustrate what I am saying. Think of a man who was taken away from his father as a young boy. Now, 20 years later, he gets to meet his father. Will he be able to address his father as ‘Abba Father’ naturally? No, there will be some strangeness. He will find it very difficult to address his father as father.

But not so in the case of your relationship with your heavenly Father. Why? Because the Spirit of God dwells in you and opens your heart to your heavenly Father. He makes you recognise Him with spiritual eyes. He gives you assurance of His forgiveness and His love!

Now, the word ‘Abba’ is the Aramaic for ‘father.’ It is likely that the apostle Paul grew up speaking Aramaic. So the term ‘Abba’ would be a very familiar term to him. And it would, no doubt, “more naturally and fully express his filial feeling towards God, than the foreign Greek word” so suggests professor Charles Hodges.

But why the repetition? Why does Paul use the Aramaic and then the Greek to address God? Augustine believed that Aramaic represented the Jews, whereas Greek represented the Gentiles. So in crying unto God as “Abba, Father” we are acknowledging that the church is now comprised not only of Jews, but also of Gentiles.

But, really, a better explanation is that the Aramaic word ‘Abba’ was a restricted word. In earlier days, many Jewish households had slaves. Now, the slaves were not allowed to call their master ‘Abba’. It was a term that was reserved exclusively for the children to use.  The apostle Paul and many of his readers would have been familiar with the special connotation that the term holds.

We are no longer servants, but sons and daughters of God. So we can address God in the same way that our Elder Brother, the only begotten Son of God, addresses Him. Remember how our Lord cried out in the Garden of Gethsemane:

“Abba, Father, all things are possible unto thee; take away this cup from me: nevertheless not what I will, but what thou wilt” (Mk 14:36).

As Christ our elder brother cried out ‘Abba, Father’, so we who have the Spirit of Christ indwelling us, cries, ‘Abba, Father.’

This then is the significance of our crying out ‘Abba, Father’ in our heart. The Spirit has created a bond of love between us and our heavenly Father.

But the question remains: How does the Holy Spirit make me cry out ‘Abba, Father’? Or how does the Holy Spirit assure me that I am a child of God so that I cry out ‘Abba, Father’? Paul tells us that He does so by bearing witness with our spirit.

He says (v. 16):

16 The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God:

But how does the Spirit bear witness with our spirit?

Well, firstly, be sure that it is not by a still small voice in the heart. I have never heard such a voice. And neither does He bear witness with dreams or visions, nor by a special feelings and intuitions. We saw that in our previous study.

The fact is: The Spirit always lead us with a road map. He will also always work in us with the road map. Yes, in some sense we can feel the love of the Father, but this feeling is always based on the truth of God’s Word. And this truth is brought into our consciousness through the Holy Spirit bringing into remembrance the things we have read or heard of the Word of God.

Now, I am saying that He brings certain verses occasionally into our mind. No, no, the Holy Spirit always work with the whole Bible. He assures us with the sum of Word of God that we have received.

Let me illustrate. Think of your own father. I don’t know what you think of your father. I hope you love him. But whatever the case may be, I am sure you have some feelings for him. It may be a positive feeling, or it may even be a negative feeling. But you have some feelings for him. How did these feelings come about? Surely it did not come about just because he is your father.

Let me put it this way: if you had been given out for adoption as a child and you never discovered that he is your father until now, would you have the feelings you have for him now? No.

How did your feelings for your father come about? It came about from all that you know about him is it not? You may know about him from his interaction with you. You may know about him from what you heard about him or even read about him. The fact is, how you feel about him, is based on what you know about him.

When you think of your father, you have a particular feeling about him. You may love him deeply and feel that he loves you. Or you may fear him and think that he does not care about you. Why do you have that feeling? In general, your feeling is not based on just one or two interactions you had with him, or something he said to you. It is based rather on the sum total of what you know about him.

The same is true in your relationship with God. God has revealed himself in His Word. Ultimately how you feel about him will have something to do with the sum total of what you know about Him through His Word.

Yes, it is possible that a few verses from the Scriptures might come to mind when you think about your heavenly Father. But your feeling about Him will not be based only on a few verses. It will be based on the sum total of what you know about Him.

And if you are a child of God, then the Holy Spirit will make use of what you know about God and produce in your heart love and reverence for Him. At the same time, He will use the same data, and assure you of God’s love for you.

Now, you may ask: If that is all the Holy Spirit does, then, does the Holy Spirit do anything at all? If my feelings for my earthly father is based on what I know of Him, and I need not the Holy Spirit to apply what I know to my heart, then why do I need the Holy Spirit to apply what I know about God to my heart? Wouldn’t it be sufficient for me to know all about God from the Scripture, for me to have the right feelings about him?

Well, no! In the first place, spiritual things are spiritually discerned. The Lord Jesus speaks about how the Father has hidden spiritual truths from the wise and intelligent and have revealed them to babes (Mt 11:25). How does He do so? By His Spirit! Unless the Holy Spirit first changes your heart, opens your eyes and unstops your ears, you are not going to understand the Word of God sufficiently.

In the second place, even if you know all that the Scripture say about God, how do you know He is referring to you when He speaks about His children? Nowhere in the Bible is your name written. Nowhere is it stated that you are a child of God.

Well, you may say: the Word of God tells me that Christ came to save sinners, and I know myself to be a sinner, therefore He must have come to save me. But if you think about it, you will realise that there are many people who are ready to confess that they are sinners, who are nevertheless not saved! What makes the difference between you and them?

The difference, dear Christian, is that you have the Holy Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit who takes the content of the Word of God and applies it to your heart. “The Spirit is the soul of the Word, without which it is but a dead letter,” says Thomas Watson.

The content of what the Spirit witnesses comes from what you read and heard in the Scriptures. But remember: Unless the Spirit works in you, you can have no personal assurance that you are a child of God. The Word is the chariot in which the Spirit rides; but the Spirit must ride! “The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God” says the apostle Paul.

Let me summarise what Paul is saying:

We asked: What kind of Spirit have we received? The answer is: He is the Spirit of Adoption. As the Spirit of Adoption, He does not lead us with a slavish fear of punishment.  He leads us to love and reverence God our heavenly Father. He makes us cry in our hearts unto God as our ‘Abba, Father’.

But secondly, we asked: What is the significance of the cry, ‘Abba, Father’? The answer is: It demonstrates that something has happened in us. The Holy Spirit has worked in us filial feelings towards God. We know we are His sons and daughters and He is our Father who loves us.

We asked, thirdly: How does He do so? The answer is: He does so by bearing witness with our spirit. But how does He bear witness with our spirit? He bears witness by bringing to our consciousness the sum total of all that we know about God and applying these truths directly into our hearts.

This is great privilege that you and I enjoy as the sons and daughters of God.

…to be Continued Next Issue

—JJ Lim