Life in the Spirit: The Spirit of Adoption

Sermon by David Strain on June 7

Romans 8:14-17

Well do keep your Bibles in hand and you will find also the text of our message this morning printed in the bulletin, and turn with me to Romans chapter 8. We are working our way through this great chapter in the book of Romans on Sunday mornings, a little piece at a time, and in many ways it has been a virtual tour of the privileges that are ours in union with Jesus Christ. Paul discusses, remember, new life in Christ by the Spirit – regeneration. Right standing before God – justification; no condemnation. Deliverance by the Spirit from the reigning power of sin in our lives – what’s sometimes called definitive sanctification. And ongoing strength from the Holy Spirit to live a life of growing personal obedience – progressive sanctification. And each of these have been given their place and proper consideration in verses 1 through 13 so far. 

If you imagine a staircase, we’ve been climbing a staircase, each step another blessing that Paul has addressed, building on the one before. And today, we’ve come to verses 14 through 17 and we reach the top step, as it were, the very pinnacle of Christian blessing. So far, Paul has been working with a basic contrast between the Spirit and the flesh. That’s been his main structure for his teaching. But beginning now in verse 14, he introduces to us a new idea, at least in the flow of his argument. He introduces the doctrine of Christian sonship, or adoption. You see that in verse 14? “For as many who are led,” or “all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.” And verses 15 through 17 simply pick up that theme of our adoption into the family of God and they explain to us some of the enormous implications that come along with it. 

Now it’s such an important truth, the doctrine of adoption, that no less a figure than J.I. Packer in his now classic volume, “Knowing God,” said the doctrine of adoption is “the highest privilege the Gospel offers.” Adoption is the highest privilege the Gospel offers. John Murray, similarly, in his important book, “Redemption Accomplished and Applied,” which all of you need to own and read, said, “Adoption, as the term clearly implies, is an act of transfer from an alien family into the family of God Himself. This is surely” – listen to this language – “This is surely the apex of grace and privilege. We would not dare to conceive of such grace,” he says, “let alone to claim it, apart from God’s own revelation and assurance. It staggers imagination because of its amazing condescension and love.” Our adoption. It is the highest privilege the Gospel offers that is the apex of grace and privilege, so praise God that we have an opportunity now as we sit under His holy Word to meditate on the glorious truth and the implications of it that we are the children of God now.

If you look at the text with me for just a moment, I want you to see Paul highlighting three aspects of our adoption in particular. Verses 14 through 17, three blessings that are entailed in the fact that we have become the children of God. First, verse 15, he says because we are adopted children of God we enjoy the blessing of access. We have access. We can come boldly to God and call Him Abba Father. Access. Secondly, in verse 16, because we are adopted children of God we can enjoy the blessing of assurance. The Holy Spirit testifies with our spirits that we are, indeed, God’s children. And then finally in verse 17, because we are adopted children of God we enjoy the blessing of a glorious future inheritance. We are heirs of God and coheirs with Christ since we are God’s children now. Access, assurance, and inheritance – because we are the children of God. These are the riches that come to us by virtue of our adoption. Before we take a closer look at them, we need to read the passage. And before we do that, let’s pause and pray once again. Let us pray.

O Lord, open our eyes now, by the Holy Spirit, that we may behold marvelous things in Your holy Word, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

Romans chapter 8, verses 14 through 17:

“For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs – heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.”

Amen, and we praise God for His holy and authoritative Word.

Now do you remember Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son? I’m sure you do. The son demanded his inheritance from the father immediately. He was effectively saying, “I can’t wait till you’re dead. Give me what’s coming to me right now.” Can you imagine that? What a wound that must have caused in his father’s heart to hear such words. And then the son took his newfound riches and he squandered them, uncaringly, in the far country in wild living, until at last, bankrupt and broken, he was left in the squalor and degradation of a pigsty, longing, so hungry, longing to fill his belly with the slops that the pigs eat. Now remember, for a Jewish man, it’s hard to imagine a more vivid picture of shame and uncleanness than wallowing in the filth of pigs, utterly broken and destitute. He’s at rock bottom. That’s the picture.

And it’s just then, at his lowest point Jesus says, that suddenly the son “came to himself.” He remembered how even the hired workers on his father’s farm were well treated and so he resolved to return home and to cast himself on his father’s mercy. He has his speech all ready, what he’s going to say – “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you and I’m unworthy to be called your son. Treat me like one of your hired hands.” That’s all he dares hope for after all. That’s all he can imagine that mercy would ever provide for him after all he had done. 

And let’s be clear, the prodigal son is right in his assessment of himself. Isn’t he? He has disowned his family, virtually wishing his father dead to his father’s face, and then taken his precious family inheritance and squandered it as though it were utterly worthless. And so he’s quite right, isn’t he? He is indeed unworthy of sonship, unworthy of welcome, unworthy of love. And frankly, it was therefore an audacious gamble, straining at what is reasonable to expect to come home and ask his father, whom he had so wronged, even to be treated like a servant, much less a son. 

But you remember what happened, of course. The father sees his son coming and runs to him. Now imagine the son’s fear as he sees his father charging towards him. Nothing in ordinary life in those days would make a dignified Jewish adult male run like this. It just wasn’t done. Did the son wonder if his audacity in coming home had finally pushed his father over the edge? Had the father perhaps lost his senses with rage? And so we can see the son cowering, braced for impact. When the stunning moment came and instead of the father’s arms reigning down blows on his wicked son’s head, they sweep him up in an embrace of love. Instead of angry words of bitter denunciation or seething, cold dismissal, he hears laughter and shouts of joy, “For this son of mine was dead and is alive again! He was lost and has been found!” It’s almost shocking, the extravagance of the father’s welcome. Nothing could have prepared the prodigal for it, but it turns out the father never stopped loving even his wicked, wayward son. He was always ready to welcome him home.

Now friends, that is what has happened to us in the moment we trusted in Jesus Christ. We discovered that God was ready, eager, always full of love to welcome us home. To be sure, He could have ordered things otherwise than He did. When we trust in Christ we are justified. No condemnation is declared over us. We are given new hearts, right – regenerated by the work of the Holy Spirit; enabled more and more to please God. But God could simply have stopped there, couldn’t He, and that would have been wonder enough. Anyone who knows at all the depth of their own sin might possibly dare, dare with all the audacity of the prodigal son, to ask God to do just that, and that’s all. “Allow me to be, as it were, Your servant, not Your child. That’s too much to ask.” But that’s not how God treats those who come to Him through faith in Jesus. When you confess your sin and trust in Christ, He comes running. He embraces you. He rejoices over you. He elevates you from the pigsty filth of your sin and guilt to the sonship that your sin has forfeited. You’re raised from the degradation of the spiritual gutter to the heights of privilege and grace. 

That’s what it means to be adopted into the family of God. The glory of the Gospel is not just that you are forgiven your sin. It’s not just that you are born again by the Holy Spirit. It’s not even simply that you are being sanctified now and one day will be glorified hereafter. Those are wonders, for sure, but surpassing them, crowning them all, is the fact that you are God’s child now. You are adopted into the family. You are His child now. Not left outside as a mere servant, not a hired hand, you know, tolerated but not really welcome. God does not look at you with toleration; He delights in His children. That’s why when the apostle John in his first letter thinks about the doctrine of adoption he can’t simply articulate it in cold propositions. He almost bursts into song. “Behold, what manner of love the Father has given to us that we should be called the children of God! We are God’s children now.” He’s amazed. This is love. Wicked, rebels, hard-hearted, hate-filled sinners like me – adopted, beloved children of God by grace.

And if you look at it with me, assuring us of that fact, is the design and force of verse 14; verse 14. In the previous section to this one that we looked at last week, you remember that Paul said we are debtors, meaning that we are debtors to the spirit of God to live according to the Spirit which he explains means by the Spirit putting to death the deeds of the body that we might live. Beginning with this little connector with the start of verse 14, “For,” verse 14 really is intended to be a word of further explanation. “For those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.” Now just get what Paul is saying clearly in your minds in verse 14. He’s saying the leading of the Holy Spirit in your life is the evidence that you are a child of God. All who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. That’s the point. The leading of the Holy Spirit is the evidence of your adoption. 

And since that is true – it’s vital, isn’t it, that we take a minute to understand what being led by the Spirit of God really means – what does Paul have in mind? If you pay attention to the context, you’ll see that by the leading of the Spirit here Paul is not talking about some kind of direct, supernatural guidance in the everyday details of our lives. That’s not what he is talking about. No, in context, to be “led by the Spirit” is really just a restatement and summary of the teaching of verses 12 and 13. It’s another way to talk about living according to the Spirit and by the Spirit putting the deeds of the body to death. So yes, we certainly should expect to be led by the Spirit every single day of our Christian lives. Biblical Christians are Holy Spirit people. But we need to understand that the Spirit leads us specifically into holiness, into growing Christian obedience. He renews our minds; He probes our hearts. He convicts of sin; He instructs us in the way, though the Word of God. He strengthens our resistance to the world and the flesh and the devil. He empowers us to say “No” to sin and “Yes” to righteousness. That’s the kind of leading by the Holy Spirit that Paul is talking about here in verse 14. 

If, when it comes to the ministry of the Spirit, we put all our focus as some do on the mystical and the esoteric, we will almost certainly overlook so much of the precious work the Holy Spirit is really doing. His great work, you see, is to make us holy, to mold us into the likeness of Jesus Christ. That’s what it is to be led by the Spirit. And that leading, Paul says, is the demonstration to us that we are the sons and daughters of God. “As many as are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.” Let me put it this way. One of the ways you know you have been adopted into the family of God is that you come to display more and more of the family likeness. The Holy Spirit is leading you into conformity to the character of Jesus Christ. 

And having now introduced this basic idea of our adoption and show us something of its incredible importance, he tells us three things that result from it. The first one we said is the blessing of access to God. Because of our adoption, we have access to the Father. You’ll see that if you look at verse 15. Look at verse 15. “For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you received the spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’” 

The Blessing of Access 

Imagine for a moment you are indicted, you are in criminal court, and you stand with everyone else as a rather austere judge makes his entrance and takes his seat. And you sit nervously throughout your trial under his stern gaze. Sitting in his central position in the courtroom with his black robes, he’s an imposing, intimidating figure, and his expression is intent and grave as he weighs the arguments being made before him. He rules his courtroom, as you discover, with a careful and precise discipline. He brooks no nonsense from anyone, whether they are lawyers or members of the public. He speaks sternly to anyone that he perceives in word or in action to betray some disrespect for the weighty proceedings now taking place. And throughout your trial, his simple presence contributes no small amount to your growing fear. He is, as it seems to you, the very embodiment of the law; unbiased, unyielding. And in your shame, you find you can’t even meet his eye. Soon the verdict is reached and you are found guilty and condemned. And at the end of the day you’re taken back to your cell to await sentencing. 

But then, the judge, he returns to his chambers. He takes off his robe, gets in his car, and he drives home – this grave, important, weighty figure. And as soon as he walks through the door his children throw themselves at him as if they’d been waiting, you know, in ambush for their father’s arrival; all of them shouting at once for his attention. They have no thought to his dignified position, his weighty responsibilities. All they know, he is their father and they don’t hesitate to require his attention. And soon, the great judge is rolling around on the living room floor, laughing and wrestling as the children are climbing all over him. 

Before you became a Christian, you were the defendant and God Himself your Judge. And in that circumstance you know, if you’re not a Christian today, you would be wise to fear, to be afraid. There’s no bargain to be struck; there’s no plea deal to make. You are guilty in the sight of God. But when you came to trust in Jesus your situation changed. You ceased in that moment to be a guilty criminal awaiting sentencing and you become one of the children at home. The Judge is now your Father and there’s no longer any place for dread before Him. Now you come to Him with familiarity and intimacy, abandon even. It would be as wrong of the children to treat their father like a criminal in the courtroom as it would for the criminal in the courtroom to treat the judge with the familiarity of a child. And you are the child of God now, so there’s no longer any need for you, ever again before God, to quake in fear, in servile, legal fear. 

That’s what Paul says, isn’t it, exactly, in verse 15. The Holy Spirit, the Spirit of adoption, having made you a new creature in union with Jesus Christ, has brought you into the family of God. And now, the spirit and mindset of legal terror, the terrible bondage of knowing yourself guilty before God, awaiting sentencing, is gone forever. Now, instead, the Spirit of adoption enables you to cry with joyful abandon, “Abba! Father!” 

Now again, let me just pause there to clear up a common misunderstanding that arises in connection with that phrase in our text – “Abba! Father!” Since about 1971, there was a book written by a German scholar, Joachim Jeremais, in 1971, where he argued the Aramaic word, “Abba,” is the equivalent of our English diminutive, “Daddy.” And it’s attractive, right? It seems to signal to us the type of intimate, immediate access we can have to God as children to speak of Him as “Daddy,” like a little child. The problem is, that Jeremias was both factually, historically, and linguistically wrong. And multiple scholars since then have demonstrated that fact, most notably probably the Oxford linguist, James Barr. It turns out, “Abba” was the only word in Aramaic at the time used for “father” and it was used by adults as well as children. It did not mean, “Daddy,” but had the connotation of reverence and profound respect and love. 

Which is why, by the way, both here in our passage and in Galatians 4:6 where the same expression occurs again, the Greek word that’s used to translate “Abba” is not the Greek diminutive, which would be the equivalent of “Daddy,” but rather the more reverential and formal, “Father.” “Abba” means “Father,” not “Daddy.” It’s repeated here and preserved in the New Testament in Aramaic like this because this is how Jesus spoke to God. You remember how in the Garden of Gethsemane, Mark 14:36, Jesus cried out, “Abba, Father, all things are possible for You. Remove this cup from Me, yet not what I will but Your will be done.” 

The real wonder of this expression, the real measure, you know, of the intimacy you can enjoy as the child of God today, is not that it’s an informal, casual form of address, “Daddy,” but rather that you get to talk to God the way His only begotten Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, spoke to God. No one ever had such access to God as the only begotten Son. But now that you are a child of God by adoption, you too can take the same language on your lips and come with the same boldness to the throne of grace to find grace to help and mercy that you need. We can lift our eyes to heaven and speak to Almighty God as His beloved sons and daughters, all the way into His presence, never hesitating, because we fear our unworthiness; never checking if we’re qualified for an audience. No, we are God’s children now. Abba, Father loves to hear you talk to Him! He loves it when you speak to Him, when you cry to Him, when you pour out your heart to Him. You have His ear; you have His heart. Access – all the way into the presence of Abba, Father. 

“If you want to judge how well a person understands Christianity,” writes Jim Packer, “find out how much he makes of the thought of being God’s child and having God as his father. If this is not the thought that prompts and controls his worship and prayers and his whole outlook on life, it means that he does not understand Christianity very well at all.” That’s exactly right. He is your Father. You are His child. We don’t now need to come to Him like the returning prodigal, afraid of rejection, much less do you come to Him today as a condemned sinner awaiting sentencing. He loves you, beloved sons and daughters of God! Adoption means access.

The Blessing of Assurance 

Secondly, it means assurance. Look at verse 16. Not only do we cry “Abba! Father!” because of the Spirit, but because “the Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirits that we are the children of God.” Verse 15 has already told us how our spirits bear witness. We cry, “Abba! Father!” But in addition to, on top of, above, and over and against our own internal testimony that we are the children of God, there is this additional testimony, the witness of the Holy Spirit. Thomas Goodwin, the great Puritan, said of the witness of the Spirit, “It is immediate, raising the heart up to see its adoption and sonship by an immediate discovery of God’s mind to it and what love He has borne it.” So there’s our testimony. It is a deduction based on the evidence that we see in ourselves of walking with God in obedience. And then in addition, there is the testimony of the Holy Spirit.

Let me illustrate it like this. Imagine you are at home with your parents and you have albums, photo albums out, and you’re flicking through. And there you are as a toddler, and there you are as an adolescent, and there you are as an adult. And you can see, as you look at the pictures of you with your family, you can see the family likeness emerging more and more clearly over time. Objectively, same chin, same ears, same color hair, same eyes. There is it – objective evidence demonstrating you’re a child of these parents; you belong in this family. There’s the evidence. It’s a deduction you’re making based on what your eyes can see. But then you close the photo album and your parents embrace you and there’s testimony of a greater kind, greater, sweeter by far, that you belong to them and they to you; that you are their child, beloved in the bosom of your family. 

That’s what Paul says happens to us. There’s the witness of our own spirit based on what we can see, the evidence that we can accumulate. Yes, the children of God are led by the Spirit of God into growing holiness and I see, as I track my progress over the years, I see that I love sin in these areas less and I long for the things of God more. There’s progress – modest, often hindered and stumbling, but real, and that gives me some assurance that I’m a child of God. But then from time to time, as the sovereign God ordains, there are moments of nearness, of the Spirit’s embrace, immediate and direct and profound and precious. They come as the Spirit wills. Pray for moments like those when, beyond what evidence you can gather to give yourself assurance, the Spirit Himself comes and bears testimony to you that you are God’s child. We are adopted and therefore have access. We are adopted and therefore we can have assurance.

The Blessing of Future Inheritance 

Finally, we are adopted and we can be sure of a coming inheritance. Look at verse 17. “If we are children then heirs – heirs of God and coheirs with Christ.” We’ll come, as we think about the next section of Romans, to deal with the clause at the end of verse 17 that speaks to suffering next time. For now, simply focus with me on the fact of our promised inheritance. The prodigal son wanted his inheritance right now. What we discover when we become Christians is that God has made a will, though He will never die, in which He promises you an everlasting inheritance – incorruptible, undefiled, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s Spirit are preserved for the great coming day. He’s pleased to make you His heir. 

Part of the wonder of this, of course, is not just that God has made you His heir that you stand to inherit; it’s that you stand to inherit God – God Himself is the content of your inheritance, not merely the one who makes out the will that you should inherit. What is it that you should inherit when the glorious day comes? Not mansions, not great estates. You inherit God Himself. He gives Himself to you with intimacy and a wonder that far exceeds anything you could ever know here. Certainly, from time to time, there are moments of sweet fellowship with the living God by the Holy Spirit in our hearts that are to be cherished and prized. But all of that, the sweetest and highest moment of fellowship with God you ever can know here, all of it will be eclipsed when at last you see Him, when at last you are face to face with Jesus. And you will have God Himself as your inheritance forever and ever.

Believer in Jesus, you are today led by the Spirit of Christ into growing holiness. He enables you now more and more to be bold in coming to the throne of grace and cry, “Abba! Father!” with access to His throne. And He often will come to you, in addition to the evidence you can gather for yourself as your own spirit bears witness by the Holy Spirit to testify to your sonship. And this God, who does not for a single moment of your life leave you alone, but constantly holds you fast and cares for you, this God Himself will be your very great reward at the last day. You know, the world thinks the Christian life is a drudgery, all bondage to rules, to “dos” and “don’ts.” But we know better, don’t we? Don’t we? We know better. We are God’s children now. Packer and Murray were right, weren’t they? Our adoption is the highest privilege the Gospel offers. It is the apex of grace and privilege. May the Lord help us to know more than just the fact of our adoption doctrinally, intellectually. May He help us to taste its sweetness and to rejoice in such love. “Behold, what manner of love the Father has given to us that even we, even I, should be called the child of God. You are God’s children now.” Praise the Lord.

Let’s pray together.

Father, we bless You for Your loving kindness that is better than life. We praise You that You Yourself are our very great reward. We praise You that You have given us the Spirit of Christ, the Spirit of Your Son, the Spirit of our sonship, our adoption into Your family, so that by Him we can come all the way in without worrying about whether we’re welcome – all the way into Your presence and call You “Abba, Father” just like Jesus did. And we can know, we can have assurance, certainty, that we belong to Your family not just because of the family likeness, but because of Your embrace. O Lord, help us to taste the sweetness and wonder of that, for we ask it all in Jesus’ name, amen.

© 2019 First Presbyterian Church.

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