Romans 8:15 “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 chapter eight is like a magnificent mountain range. As you consider a few verses you think you’ve reached the peak, and that the rest of the chapter will be a gentle slope down to sea level. Instead of that, another magnificent peak looms up ahead, and the Holy Spirit helps us to ascend it and to enjoy its breath-taking glorious views. “Now we face the gentle return to sea-level,” you think. No! We meet still another peak! In the verses before us there are new vistas of glory, and my calling is to show them to you. Paul starts off by clearing away some of the confusion and debris that comes from an inadequate view of the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of Christians. Paul tells us this:


I believe that there is no justification for making the ‘spirit’ mentioned in verse 15 to be referring to our own spirits. Virtually every commentator I’ve consulted this week concludes that there is no unchallengeable reason for the N.I.V. translating the words ‘a spirit that makes you a slave’ with a lowercase ‘s’ while translating it by an uppercase ‘S’ ten words later in the phrase ‘the Spirit of adoption.’ It is the Holy Spirit who is referred to in both cases. Capital ‘S’ in both places.

What Paul is saying is this, that when the Holy Spirit begins to work in the life of a proud and self-sufficient atheist then the first thing that needs to be done is for that man to be brought low. That is where he starts. You will remember how the Lord Christ spoke of the work of the Holy Spirit and he said, he “convicts the world of sin and righteousness and judgment” (John 16:8). The vain agnostic is made conscious of his sinfulness, and how far he has come short of the righteousness of God and that he is facing the great white throne of God’s judgment. That conviction creates in him a godly fear. The balloon of his pride is quickly pricked. “Who do you think you really are?” God asks him. “You came walking into the party like you were walking onto a yacht . . . You’re so vain.” God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.

There was no more self-confident man in the world of his day than Saul of Tarsus. Listen to him: “I myself have reasons for such confidence. If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless” (Phils 3:3-6). That is what he’d always thought of himself, and then the Holy Spirit began to work in his life and he brought Saul of Tarsus as low as an ox pulling a plough. If the animal grew angry and objected to the work and kicked back at the ploughman and plough, what it kicked into was a sharp, hard, pointed stick, a goad. Ouch! It was hard for proud Saul of Tarsus to be reduced to a servant beast driven by a ploughman to do the will of that man, but it was essential for the Holy Spirit to humiliate this persecuting hateful Pharisee if he were going to be transformed and greatly used by the Lord to take his gospel to the Gentile world. He would begin his Christian life learning for Christian Gentile salves preaching to him before he could preach to others.

Some of you heard me last Tuesday reading this letter I’d received that day from a newly converted American Christian. This is what he wrote:

Hello my brother in Christ Geoff,

I read your sermon on your site about election. I feel compelled to contact you. You see, I was an atheist and a wretchedly venomous man last year at this time. I had no respect for anyone who subscribed to any organized religion and was especially hateful of Christians. Then one day, due to elevated stress, brought on I believe by God my Savior – that was the Holy Spirit at work  making him a slave to fear – I decided to read the Bible. I had read other so called ‘sacred texts’ and decided that I had been very wrong to suppose I could figure anything out by myself, or through my own reason. You see, I was a very proud man who believed humanity could rise to divinity through his intellect but I had to be humbled and I needed help.


I started at the beginning of the New Testament and read the gospel of Matthew and by the time I got to the final two verses of chapter 7 of that book, I felt as if my bones melted within me – that again was the Spirit making him a slave to fear  working in this man. Indeed Jesus’ hearers were shocked at his doctrine because HE WAS AND IS GOD! I became all but a trembling and emotional wreck. Indeed I suddenly knew, only because God gave it to me, that there really is a God and His name is Jesus Christ! The former atheist philospher was DEAD! That was the Spirit at work that makes proud men fearful slaves. I was a new creature in Christ, and no matter what, I had to have God and belong to God, even if it meant that I had to lose everything else. GOD SAVED ME.

What is Paul talking about when he refers to men receiving the Spirit that makes you a slave again to fear?  Simply this, that proud men have to be brought very low before they’ll acknowledge that the dying Jesus on Golgotha is their only way of receiving mercy from God, that the cross of Calvary is their sole entitlement to enter heaven. I asked a woman who applied for membership in the church this year that when on day in the future she’d meet the Lord, and God said to her, “Sinner, why should I let you into my presence?” how would she answer him. She looked at me in surprise perhaps for asking her such an elementary question and she said, “Because of Jesus.” That is it! She had seen it. The Lord Christ was her all sufficient and total answer. “May I enter for Jesus’ sake?” Her only hope of enjoying the glories of heaven was because of the person and work of the Saviour, not because of anything she had done because sin was mixed with everything she’d done, but it was not intermingling anything that Jesus had said, done or had chosen not to do. I say that there has to be a great deal of humbling for a proud person to say,


Jesus paid it all; all to him I owe.

Sin had left a crimson stain;

He washed it white as snow.


There has to be the work of the Spirit showing that that man, without Christ, boasting in his freedom – “not like poor religious suckers who are all slaves” – is in fact in bondage to sin, a slave of sin, and utterly unprepared to meet God, ready only for the flames of hell. That work of the Spirit results in making men and women afraid. What the Spirit does is to touch their consciences. He takes them to the Scriptures; they must go to the Bible; there they see the law of God; there they’re convicted by the commandments of God; there they hear the injunction: “Do this and live!”  It was the experience of Martin Luther as he began to try and find out the answer to the question “What must I do to be saved?”  What he discovered, of course, was that the more he did, the more he got into failure and bondage and slavery. By doing, doing, doing, by trying to obey the commandments of God, he discovered how strong a grip his Master Sin had over him and he knew himself to be its slave, and he became depressed and afraid. How could he be saved? He learned that it was by Jesus Christ alone.

In Scotland, there might be a question asked by an elder when somebody was being interviewed for membership in the church. Not my question of why God should let you into heaven but rather this unusually phrased question: “Have you been to Sinai?” That was the question they asked.  “Have you been to Sinai?”  The elder was not, of course, asking had they been to the peninsula of Sinai in the Middle East on a Holy Land bus tour, but had they been to the place where God made them feel the power of his law, touching their conscience with the searching inward probing of the Ten Commandments, and making then feel they were fearful slaves to sin. Have you understood that by the works and deeds of law-keeping no one can be saved, and you are no exception?  Then, what is left for you to do? You can only flee for salvation to the one who perfectly did all that God’s law required in order to take him as your Saviour. Do you know what it is to experience conviction of sin?  Have you been to Sinai?  What do we see when we go to Sinai?  We will see thunder and lightning. We will see a blinding glow coming from Moses’ face. We will see the threats of the covenant God against those who don’t obey the works of the law.  Now, what Paul is saying here is that the Holy Spirit gives men and women a spirit that makes them slaves, that make them feel like oxen being driven by pointed goads and the vanity and pain of kicking against them.

But, says Paul, as in the letter I read you, that humbling was not where it all ended. That was not the terminus of receiving the Spirit, that he came into your life and you felt a slave, end of story. No. That is where it began for Saul of Tarsus and for many of you, but that was only the first rung on the ladder. That was the beginning of grace, discovering your need of a Saviour. It was a staging post on an ongoing pilgrimage. You did not receive the Holy Spirit as a Spirit of bondage, full stop, and then you were a scared slave for the rest of your life and for eternity. “For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear,” (v.15). That is never where it ends for the children of God, showing a man his sin but not his pardon, teaching a man his weakness but not where divine strength comes from, thundering his misery and condemnation but speaking with no still small voice God’s mercy. Paul does not end with their receiving the killing, convicting spirit.

You must get away from that Spirit. You must leave that work of his behind you. You must move on. You must not think, “I’m not worthy to be one of the children of God. Perhaps I can struggle on through life as one of his hired servants.” You are losing sight of the magnificence of God’s grace when you think like that. You are forfeiting the blessings you can enjoy when you reason in that way. Salvation is never something we have done enough to earn. The Son of God has earned it all for us and this salvation is commensurate with Christ’s achievement and status. You are now a child of the King. It is a sin to consider yourself a hired servant. Wouldn’t the Queen be disturbed if Prince Charles began to behave like a royal chauffeur and dismissed all her exhortations to him to accept his status and duties by rolling his eyes and hanging the head and saying, “Unworthy, unworthy . . .” He is the monarch’s son, not a servant on the payroll.

Frequently in our lives the devil’s fiery darts are aimed at destroying our sense of privilege that we are the sons of God. Satan will try to produce in us a ‘bondage frame of spirit’ – that is how our Christian fathers referred to it, but it goes back way before them to Adam. We can see traces of this bondage developing in the opening pages of the Bible, when the serpent came to Eve and said: ‘Did God really say, "You must not eat from any tree in the garden"?’ (Gen.3:1). His aim was to suggest to Adam and Eve: ‘Do you really understand the kind of God who has put you here? He doesn’t really want the best for you because he is restricting you. He has made you his hired servants to look after this garden, but he won’t allow you to enjoy it.’ As a matter of fact, they were free to enjoy every tree in the garden except one (Gen. 2:16-17). That was the very reverse of the serpent’s suggestion. God had set them in the garden as his children. It was theirs. But they fell for Satan’s lies. They were deceived into thinking they were hired servants and not children. Tragically, they actually became what Satan told them they were. Precisely the same kind of temptation faces us as children of God. That is why we need so much more than the Spirit that humble and convicts us and kills our proud selves.

You must have more than that work of the Spirit of bondage. If that is what we displayed to the world as a church how unappealing it would be – a congregation where everyone would be bemoaning their sin and failure, and trembling at the righteousness of the Creator. Would that draw the people of our town to God? Wouldn’t it drive them away? People in the congregation would be limping and fainting and lamenting under their burden of sin. Instead of sharing with one another our blessings we would be telling one another of our sins – “Let me tell you of my falls; they are far worse than yours.” What an unhappy fellowship! Only hard thoughts of God would come out of all that slavery. We’d never sing such hymns as, “Come let us join our cheerful songs with angels round the throne.” God never encourages that spirit to continue. He convicts the unbeliever and he humbles the proud, but that is just the beginning of grace. What does Paul go on to say in our text? He tells us that it was not that Spirit alone that you received. You also received, far, far more than that.


For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship” (v15). This word that Paul uses here, ‘sonship’, means literally being placed as a son. It is the word for adoption, or perhaps better, sonship by adoption. Let’s take the Greek word apart. It is huiothesia. The first half is huios, the common noun for an adult son. The latter half is thesia, an installation, an induction, setting a person in its place. So the whole word means not so much adoption as the placing of a son. You have to understand adoption in the century Paul wrote this letter, against the background of its Roman and Greek customs. In the Jewish culture there did not seem to be an emphasis on adoption as in Greek culture. Understand that adoption for those living in Greece and Rome wasn’t taking into your home a fondling baby that had been abandoned on your doorstep, raising it as your own. The one who’d been adopted in that culture was a young man in his late teens, someone who had experienced an extraordinary change of status. Adopted, he then became the legitimate and necessary heir of the head of the household who’d adopted him. He was not the least inferior to a son later born in the house. He possessed all the elements of that man’s inheritance, not only getting his property when he died but also his name, all his rights, his dignities and his honours. Upon him fell the responsibility for all the younger children who’d been born subsequently to the father who’d adopted him.

Sonship was enormously important. At one time in the Roman Empire it became the custom for men to have a ceremony in which their own sons were acknowl­edged publicly, and this is the idea present here. There was a famous novel written 70 years ago this year called The Robe. Lloyd C. Douglas, the author, researched very accurately the customs of Paul’s day. One of the characters is a little girl called Lucia and there is a ceremony in which her older brother Marcellus became acknowledged as a Roman citizen on his seventeenth birthday. Lloyd C. Douglas wrote, “What a wonderful day that was, with all their good friends assembled in the Forum to see Marcellus — clean-shaven for the first time in his life — step forward to receive his white toga. Cornelius Capito and Father had made speeches, and then they had put the white toga on Marcellus. Lucia had been so proud and happy that her heart had pounded and her throat had hurt, though she was only nine then, and couldn’t know much about the cere­mony except that Marcellus was expected to act like a man now . . .”

Later in the book Marcellus himself tells his friend Paulus of this ceremony. “When a Roman of our sort comes of age there is an impressive ceremony by which we are inducted into manhood. Doubtless you felt when you went through it as I did, that this was one of the high moments of life. Well do I remember it — the thrill of it abides with me still — how all our relatives and friends assembled that day in the stately Forum Julium. My father made an address, welcoming me into Roman citizenship. It was as if I had never lived until that hour. I was so deeply stirred, Paulus, that my eyes swam with tears. And then good old Cornelius Capito made a speech, a very serious one, about Rome’s right to my loyalty, my courage, and my strength. I knew that tough old Capito had a right to talk of such matters, and I was proud that he was there. They beckoned to me, and I stepped forward. Capito and my father put the white toga on me — and life had begun.”

That is what is in view in our text. Not the adoption of a baby into another family, but welcoming a grown up man as his son and heir, the one who was conscious of the wonderful privilege of adoption. There’d been a time when he was only a child or a young teenager, and he was still being educated. There had been an appointed slave called a ‘pedagogue’ who watched over him, protecting and guiding and accompanying him whenever he left his home and went into the city, always dogging his footsteps, saying, “No, not there . . . time to come home . . .”. Paul tells one Christian congregation it was the law of God that used to be their ‘pedagogue,’ but that it no longer continued to watch over them and protect them now that they’d grown up into Christian maturity. They now were adopted into the family of God. Once the pedagogue had escorted them and brought them into the presence of Christ then they no longer needed the pedagogue to dog their footsteps. So the law’s functions are over and the Son of God is our Shepherd and he leads us beside still waters and green pastures. God himself is our Father and we can ask him moment by moment for his help and advice and protection and support every day. Every single Christian can do that with the utmost confidence because we have received from God far more than his low. We’ve received the Spirit of Adoption.

Think of an adopted child today who is upset about whether she is really the child of her adopting parents. They show her constant affection. Her father gives her a hug as she goes off to school in the morning and tells her he loves her. He spends some time with her in the evenings; they play a game together and he listens to her talking abut school. He kisses her good-night and tells her again he loves her. He is always there for her, but if she still is worried whether he is really her father he can go finally to his bureau and unlock the drawer where his passport and the birth certificates and his will are kept, and he can bring out the adoption form and he can show her his name and her mother’s name as her real legal parents and her name and date of birth all recorded there. They cannot appeal to a big public ceremony like the ones Paul knew about, but they can show a very important document; “See what is written and signed and sealed here. It shows that you are truly our child. We chose you. When we saw a picture of you, before we met you, we fell in love with you and we have loved you ever since. We adopted you legally as our little girl. We love you with a love that will not let you go.” In every way they assure her that she is their child. Now you understand that God has not given a ceremony to the church with laying on of hands and certain formulae that are repeated that serve to impart the rights of adoption to the Christian. God has come so very close, and he has actually put within the Christian the Holy Spirit of adoption. Your heart tells you what God had done there, that he has made you his child.

You say to me that sometimes you are like that imaginary adopted girl whom I have just described, and that you also have a weak sense of being a child of God. It is not unusual. Every Christian is a child of God, but not every Christian constantly feels that he or she is. They don’t all enjoy the comfort of being a child of God. They enjoy him and his work to different degrees. Cult members may become virtually the same psychological type, but Christians come in different shapes and sizes. They don’t all enjoy their heavenly Father to the same intimacy of assurance. What should you do if you don’t enjoy the assurance that God is your loving Father?

i] Don’t pretend you have feelings of closeness that you don’t possess. There is a helpful word spoken by the prophet Hosea when he says to God, “In you the fatherless find compassion” (Hosea 14:3). Maybe I have chosen a hymn of the strongest assurance and all around you there are people in the congregation singing, “Mine, mine, mine, I know Thou art mine; Saviour, dear Saviour I know Thou art mine.” But you are experiencing a mini-winter time and your heart can’t go with the words. I’m suggesting that you say a little prayer when you hear what hymn you are going to sing, “Father help me to sing these words. If they are not from a heart totally consumed with love for Thee then take what love I have. I know you have compassion on the fatherless and so have compassion on me.” You want to be able to sing such words, and you trust in the God who knows how much you do love him. Peter said, “You know all things; you know that I love you,” but it is your chief complaint that you love is weak and faint. Don’t pretend it is otherwise.

ii] Go on acknowledging God in such humble ways. When you go to God then go to him as the prodigal son went to his father. “Father I have sinned against heaven and in your sight and I am not worthy to be called your son.” Tell God that. The publican in the Temple prayed to God, “Be merciful to me a sinner.” Paul went to God with an awareness that he was the chief of sinners. Go to God your Creator and Sustainer when you are plagued with an absence of the comfort that he’s also your Father

iii] Call him your ‘want-to-be Father’, and smile ruefully at yourself that you have been so blessed by God but that that is all you can manage today. You are a debtor to him for all that is the best in your life, and his goodness and mercy have followed you all the days of your life, and yet you are going through a patch when all you can say to him is, “I want very much to be your child and for you to be my Father. I do believe, help thou my unbelief.” That is perfectly acceptable to God – it’s a fragrant offering to him.

iv] Go to God in the name of the perfect Son of God. Use the Lord Jesus Christ. He loves to be taken advantage of by us at such times! If you can’t come to God as your Father go to him as the God and Father of the only Saviour there is, your Lord Jesus Christ. Let him bring you into God’s presence. Let him escort you, and open the door and introduce you to his Father; “Here is Mary. She does trust in you though she feels her trust is so weak, but I know you have loved her from before the foundation of the earth, and you do not break bruised reeds or quench smoking flaxes.” That is what the Lord Jesus says when you go with him to God in his name. He encourages you saying to you, “Whatsoever you ask in my name shall be given to you.” Those are some of the ways you can be helped if you feel some doubts about your sonship.


The Lord Jesus and his disciples spoke in their homes and in their ministries in Galilee in the Aramaic language and there are times when it appears in the New Testament, and this is one. ‘Abba’ is the endearing word for Father. It is not baby talk, if ‘Daddy’ is how a child refers to its father. ‘Abba’ is Dad. I remember there was a boy in school who was required to address his father as ‘Father’ and we thought that was a bit odd as being formal and not affectionate enough. Some boys did refer to their fathers as ‘Daddy’ but that was considered a bit babyish for a 17 year old, but I was open-minded about that. As we grew up most of us called our fathers ‘Dad.’ That is what ‘Abba’ means.

I like this story of Derek Thomas. He says, “I will never forget walking down the streets of Jerusalem.  I was – this was twenty years ago – I was leading a tour.  It was the one and only time I will ever lead a tour anywhere in the world.  But, I was walking down the streets of Jerusalem and heading in the direction of the Wailing Wall and, just in front of me was a Jewish man and his little son.  He was all dressed in black.  He was of the stricter sect of Jews.  He had the typical Jewish black hat on and phylactery on his forehead and the strings hanging from his waist and so on, and his little boy was dressed identically to him.  The boy looked, I don’t know, five or six years of age and the father was late, or at least he was walking very quickly, and the little boy was taking a few steps and then skipping a few because he was trying to catch up with his father.  And he kept crying out over and over again, “Abba, Abba, Abba, Abba” until finally the father turned to him, bent down, picked him up and carried him. 

“Now, I knew – because I had studied Hebrew and Aramaic – I knew that little boys referred to their fathers by the term “Abba.”  I knew that.  I knew that in my head.  But, when I saw this little boy referring to his father as “Abba” a light went on because that’s the term that we use to refer to our God in heaven, the God of creation, the God who is holy.  No, more than that, the God of Sinai, the God who threatens, the God who thunders that those who do not do the works of the law will be condemned – that God. There is a way in which we can come before this holy God and we may call him “Abba, Abba, Father.”  It is the greatest blessing of the new covenant.” We can call him what Jesus his beloved, sinless Son called him as he poured out his heart to God, “Abba, Father, everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will” (Mk. 14:36). With my sinful lips I can talk to the Almighty as intimately and affectionately as Jesus because I go to him in Jesus’ name.

“If I were to ask you today what is the distinctive feature that distinguishes the new covenant from the old covenant.  What is it, as you step from Malachi into Matthew, as you go from the old covenant into the new covenant, what is the distinctive feature that makes the new covenant, new?  Let me answer it one way, by saying that one special feature of the new covenant is that we call God our “Father.”  Abraham would never have called God “Father.”  Moses would never have called God “Father.”  Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos would never have called God “Father.”  It is the distinctive blessing of the new covenant that we have this most intimate close fellowship in the family of God.  We, who are the fallen sons of Adam by nature, have by the Holy Spirit been brought by new birth into a new family, the family of God.  We use the same word as Jesus called God. We are in the same family in which Jesus is our elder brother.

Even more than that we cry the word to him (v.15). It is a word that indicates the presence of urgency and intense feeling. It is used in the Greek Old Testament of loud cries and intense emotion. In the New Testament
it is used of the cries of the Gadarene demoniac and the shrieks of the spirit of the epileptic boy and the shouts of blind Bartimaeus that Jesus the Son of David would have mercy on him. It is used of the cry of Jesus on the cross. The atmosphere is one of crisis not tranquility. When our hearts are filled with urgency and alarm then we don’t have to compose ourselves and talk posh. When we are at our lowest points emotionally and spiritually and desperately unhappy then we can cry out to the God who cares for us, who knows us and loves us, who shows compassion to the fatherless. “Abba, Father, why this? Abba Father, have mercy and help me . . .”

6th May 2012 GEOFF THOMAS

2019-06-03T19:09:50+00:00Tags: |