We are continuing to study the section of Romans 8 in which Paul introduces the thought of Christians being members of God’s family. Paul’s development of this idea makes verses 14-17 among the most important in the chapter. It’s important to see how they fit in. Remember that the apostle’s overall theme in Romans 8 is assurance, the doctrine that Christians can know that they truly are Christians and that, because they are, nothing will ever separate them from the love of God. The chapter has not been written to make uncertain of our salvation, but to give assurance of it, and that is where these verses come in. They give multiple and connecting reasons, one in each of the four verses, why the child of God can know that he or she really is a member of God’s family. We looked at the first of these proofs in the previous study. We will look at the fourth in the next study. In this study we will look at proofs two and three, adoption and the witness of the Spirit with our spirits, which belong together.
We begin with verse 15, the chief idea in this verse, which is also a new idea, is “adoption.” Adoption is the procedure by which a person is taken from one family (or no family) and placed in another. In this context, it refers to removing a person from the family of Adam (or Satan) and placing him or her in the family of God. Adoption is related to regeneration, or the new birth, but they are not the same thing. Regeneration has to do with our receiving a new life or new nature. Adoption has to do with our receiving a new status.
In Romans, Paul has been talking about the Christian’s former state – in which, being in Adam, we were enslaved to sin – and he has argued that we have been delivered from that former bondage by the Holy Spirit. Now he adds that this new state, which conveys freedom from bondage, also contains the privileges of sonship. Paul took the idea of adoption from Greek and Roman law, probably for two reasons. First, he is writing to Greeks and Romans (in this case to members of the church at Rome), so adoption, being part of their culture, was something they would all very readily understand. Second, the word was useful to him because it signified being granted the full rights and privileges of sonship in a family to which one does not belong by nature. That is exactly what happens to believers in salvation.
I have spoken of adoption as giving the adopted one a new status. But “new status” may not be the best description of what happens. What is really involved is a set of new relationships – new relationships to other people, both believers and unbelievers, but above all a new relationship to God. When we speak of salvation as justification, we are thinking of God as Judge. This is a remote and somewhat grim relationship. When we think of regeneration, we are thinking of God as Creator. That too, is remote. But when we think of adoption, we are thinking of God as our Father, which denotes a far closer relationship. This is why the apostle says that the Spirit of adoption causes us to cry out, “Abba, Father.”
It’s important to recognize that our authority to call God “Father” goes back to Jesus Christ. It goes back to no less important a statement than the opening phrases of the Lord’s Prayer, which begins, “Our Father in heaven…” (Matt. 6:9). Today we take the right to call God “our Father” for granted, but we need to understand how new and startlingly original this must have been for Christ’s contemporaries. No Old Testament Jew ever addressed God directly as “my Father.” What does Abba mean specifically? The Talmud says that when a child is weaned “it learns to say abba and imma” (that is, “daddy” and “mommy”). So this is what abba really means: daddy. To a Jewish mind a prayer addressing God as daddy would not only have been improper, it would have been irreverent to the highest degree. Yet this is what Jesus said in His prayers, and it quite naturally stuck in the minds of the disciples. It was something very unique when Jesus taught His disciples to call God “Daddy.”
Verse 16 gives another reason for knowing we are in God’s family. It says, “The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.” There is no question what the two “spirits” refer to in this verse. The first is the Holy Spirit. The second is our human spirit. Verse 16 concerns the Holy Spirit’s witness, which is separate from our own. But what is this witness? How is it separate from what Paul has already said?
Have you ever had an overwhelming sense of God’s presence? Or have you at some point, perhaps at many points in your life, been aware that God has come upon you in a special way and that there is no doubt whatever that what you are experiencing is from God? You may have been moved to tears. You may have deeply felt some other sign of God’s presence, by which you were certainly moved to a greater and more wonderful love for Him. This has been a very common experience in revivals.
If this idea is foreign to you or it seems dangerous, perhaps you are not ready for it at this point. Let it go. You have plenty to occupy yourself with in what has already been taught in verses 14 and 15. But if you have had any of these intensely spiritual moments, perhaps in your quiet times or while sitting in a church service, thank God for them. Know that they do not replace any other things we have studied. The Bible is primary. But rejoice that God also has a way of making Himself so real to us that we are actually lifted up, even in hard times, and are assured by that spiritual whisper of divine love that we are and always will be God’s children.
Romans 8:15-16 Reflection Questions:
Paul explains that the Christian discovers a new identity, picking up Israel’s vocation in the Old Testament: adoption. How is adoption a wonderful image for the work of God in the lives of believers?
These verses take us into territory where we have been before in Romans. Paul begins to echo the story of the exodus in which the nation of Israel traveled out of slavery in Egypt, was led by God through the wilderness, became tempted to return to Egypt when things got hard but ultimately moved toward the Promised Land. How is the book of Exodus glimpsed in verses 12-17?