For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” (Romans 8:15, NIV)
Why did God save you? What did God have in mind when He sent His Son into the world? Is it that you should sin less? Is that God’s ultimate purpose? It’s more than that. Is it that you should serve more—that you should pray, give, or go? It’s more than that. Is it that you should get out of hell and into heaven?
When we ask about God’s ultimate purpose, we get a clue to the answer by looking at the end of Romans 8. Remember this is the great chapter in the Bible about how God rescues sinners. It begins with Christ removing sin’s condemnation. It continues with the Spirit breaking sin’s power. How does it end?
“For I am convinced that… neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).
God’s rescue ends with God’s people rejoicing in God’s love forever. That’s what we are saved for! God rescues you so that you should know and rejoice in his love forever and ever—flourishing in it and changed by it.
The Westminster Catechism teaches the Christian faith by questions and answers. The first question asks: ‘What is the chief end of man?’ Here’s the answer: ‘Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.’ That is the ultimate end of the gospel.
I want us to see this and savor it today. God’s rescue is more than justification. It is more than sanctification. It involves adoption. It involves God making us his own children and bringing us into his love. That’s what we are rescued for.
Paul keeps emphasizing that we are “sons” or “children of God”:
- “Those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God” (v14).
- “For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father’” (v15).
- “The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children” (v16).
- “Now if we are children, then we are heirs–heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory” (v17).
Why does he say “sons” and not “daughters”? In the ancient world sons inherited, daughters did not. But in the Gospel that distinction is abolished. All of God’s children male and female are sons; all who are in Christ are heirs. Adoption is the grace by which God makes us his own, bringing us into the enjoyment of His love.
The whole point of salvation is that you should enjoy God’s love. Most people live far below this. Many Christians believe that God has forgiven them. They believe God is in the business of making them better people. But they are not sure that God loves them.
Not a slave again to fear
“You did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear” (v15).
The Holy Spirit does not make you a slave “again.” He does not put you in the position of trying to prove yourself to God. That’s slavery! Always trying to prove your worth, never sure of your position. That means you never have joy, never have peace, never feel that you have done enough. That’s the relationship you have with your employer, not your father!
The relationship you have with an employer depends on you demonstrating your value on a continuing basis. That’s how some people try to relate to God. “Look at what I am doing for you, God! See how hard I am working for you.”
And God says, “That is not the kind of relationship I want with you. If you are always trying to prove your value to me, you’re a slave!” Christ did not come to make you a slave, but a son.
I was speaking with someone who had broken up with his girlfriend. Things hadn’t gone so well, and I asked “What was the problem?”
“It wasn’t easy,” he said. “I felt that every time we were together I had to do something in order to make her happy.” Now that’s slavery! If every time you are with a person you have to do something to make them happy you are a slave. I’m not surprised that relationship ended.
Is that how you think about God? God puts up with you. He tolerates you. You need to do something to make him happy: Go to church, say your prayers, read the Bible, give some money, go on a missions trip. Do something to make God happy? That’s slavery. And it kills love! That’s why religion can become the enemy of spiritual life.
Your son comes to you and says, “Dad, do we have to go to church?” You say “Yes, you have to go.” He says “Why do we have to go, Dad?” You say, “Because that’s what we do.” Your son knows that you believe in God and that you obey God, but does your son know that you love God?
Many people have a relationship with God that is based on belief in God and obedience to God. But it is a relationship without affection for God. Paul says that this is precisely what Christ came to rescue you from! As long as you are attempting to prove yourself to God, you will be a slave to fear. And this kills love.
The Spirit of sonship
“You did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear but you received the Spirit of sonship” (v15).
God rescues us from this slavery to fear and brings us into the joy of his love through adoption. He makes his old enemies his new sons through Jesus Christ.
What happens in an adoption? First, there is the legal side—all the red tape. Justification involves the shedding of Christ’s blood that makes us his own—legally, securely, permanently, irrevocably.
But that’s not the end. When a son or daughter is adopted, the bonding process begins. I want you to think about how that is going in your life. The parents who adopt want to make the adopted child feel secure. So they shower love on the adopted son or daughter.
When Paul describes the Holy Spirit as the “Spirit of sonship,” he is telling us that the particular work of the Holy Spirit sent into your heart when you believed is to make the Father’s love real to you. He’s talking about experience, not just what you know in your head.
I’ve been reading a book by John Owen called “Communion with God.” He writes about what it means to love God and to be loved by God. He says:
Love is a feeling or emotion of union and delight and desire to be near the one who is loved…
Is that how you think God feels about you? Do you see that in Christ he delights in you, has affection for you, and wants to be near you? How about your feelings toward God? Do you delight in him, find joy in him, want to be near him? That’s the Spirit of sonship. The distinguishing mark of adopted sons is that they cry “Abba, Father.”
We cry “Abba, Father”
“You did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear. You received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father’” (Romans 8:15).
There’s feeling here. Its not “by the Spirit we say ‘Abba Father,’” but “by the Spirit we cry ‘Abba, Father.’”
There is something that bursts out from the human soul, a profound awareness of loving and being loved. Who cries out? You do. “we cry…” Paul is talking about personal experience here. Who gives us joy in God’s love? The Holy Spirit. It is “by Him” that we cry “Abba, Father.” It is the special work of the Holy Spirit to convince you that you are a dearly loved child of God.
God communicates His love to us in two ways: “God demonstrates His own love for us in this, while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). And “God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit who He has given to us” (Romans 5:5).
It is the special work of the Holy Spirit to convince you of God’s love—to bring you out of the slavery of having to constantly prove yourself to Him, so that you can come home to enjoy His love.
What difference will it make to know that God loves you? It will impact how you worship, your experience of pain, and your hope.
Worship: The affectionate cry of a son who knows he is loved
“You received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father.’ The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children” (Romans 8:15-16).
Here is the affectionate cry of a son or daughter who knows he or she is loved. Does God hear this from you?
This pierced my heart when I read it this week. It’s from John Owen:
The greatest sorrow and burden that you can lay on the Father,
the greatest unkindness you can do to Him is…
How would you answer this? My instinct is to think that it’s some scandalous sin.
The greatest sorrow and burden that you can lay on the Father,
the greatest unkindness you can do to him is…
not to believe that He loves you.
It’s as if the Father came to you and said, “How else could I show my love for you? What else could I do? I sent my Only Son to the cross in order to make you my child and bring you into the riches of my love.”
It’s as if the Son came to you and said, “I left heaven and came down into the world for you. My back was scourged for you. I laid down my life for you—freely, willingly, to rescue you and make you my own.”
It’s as if the Holy Spirit came to you and said, “I have come into your life. I have remained with you through all your doubts, and despite all your sins. I have often been grieved, but I have never left you, and I never will. I am with you always.”
If you are in this position today, it is time for you to repent of not believing that God loves you. It is time to come before God today: “I am so sorry that while You have poured out love beyond measure, I have grieved You, I have burdened You, I have laid this greatest unkindness on You. I have not believed that You love me. Lord, today I believe the Gospel. Thank you for your amazing love, demonstrated by Christ on the cross, and poured into my life by the Holy Spirit.”
The Holy Spirit will convince you of God’s love for you as you believe the Gospel. That’s why when we worship, we want to come back to the core of what we believe…
Pain: The anguished cry of a son who suffers
“You received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father’… If we are children, then we are heirs–heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory” (v15, 17).
Paul links the cry with suffering. Where do we first hear the words “Abba, Father” in the Bible? This was the prayer of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. He fell to the ground and prayed that if possible the hour might pass from him. “Abba, Father,” he said, “Everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will” (Mark 14:35-36).
This breathes new life into the meaning of the Lord’s Prayer. This was the prayer of Jesus as He committed himself to the will of the Father in a place of great pain and suffering. And Paul says, “The Holy Spirit makes this prayer yours!”
Do you see what this is telling us? The Holy Spirit makes it possible for you to relate to the Father, drawing comfort and strength from His love in the same way Jesus did in the most intense moments of his agony in the Garden of Gethsemane.
All of us come to our own Garden of Gethsemane. It’s a place where you struggle with what God is calling you to endure. You say “Why does it have to be like this? Does it have to be like this?” But this is the place where the Holy Spirit can communicate a fresh awareness of the Father’s love to you. It is the special work of the Holy Spirit to communicate the love of God to you as you believe the Gospel, when you commit yourself to pursue his will, whatever the cost.
Anticipation: The joyful cry of a son who inherits
“You received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father… Now if we are children, then we are heirs–heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ” (v15, 17).
The Holy Spirit will communicate the love of God to you as you anticipate your inheritance. Have you thought about your inheritance recently? How rich you are in Christ: “All things are yours, whether… the world or life or death or the present or the future–all are yours, and you are of Christ, and Christ is of God” (1 Corinthians 3:21-23). If you feel that your life is down, remember that…
150 years ago John Newton, the former slave-ship captain and the author of the great hymn “Amazing Grace,” tells this story:
Imagine a man on his way to New York. He is in a carriage drawn by a horse, and he’s on his way to receive a million dollar inheritance. A mile outside New York, the wheel on his carriage breaks, so he has to walk the last mile to get his million dollar inheritance. What would you think if all the way to New York he grumbles because his carriage is broken? What would you think of such a man?
In Christ, we are on the last mile of our journey. The new heaven and a new earth are ours. You are already secure in the Father’s love. If you can see that, it will transform every step along the journey. You will find joy in the journey as you anticipate your inheritance.
It is the special work of the Holy Spirit to deliver you from fear by communicating the Father’s love to you, so that with freedom and great joy you will come to love him. Believe the Gospel! Commit to his will, whatever the cost! Anticipate the glory of your inheritance!
For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear,
but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.”
 John Owen, “Communion with God,” p. 17.
 John Owen, “Communion with God,” p.13.
© Colin S. Smith
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