For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, “Abba! Father!” (Romans 8:15 NASB)
There’s an old joke about three boys sitting in a school yard during recess reflecting on their individual fathers. It goes something like this:
The first boy proclaimed, “My father is so smart, he can talk for one hour on any subject.” Not wanting to be out done, the second boy exclaimed, “My father is so smart, he can talk for 2 hours on any subject.” The third boy, pausing for a moment, declared, “My father is so smart, he can talk for 3 hours, and he doesn’t even need a subject.”
Privileges Through Dad
Almost all of us have memories of our fathers; some good and some we’d rather forget. I have many precious recollections of my father.
One of my favorites was a time when my father wasn’t even present at that moment. My brother and I, both of us in college, were at a major airport waiting to fly out and visit our parents who were on the other side of the continent. Dad was a top executive for a large airline, and had recently been transferred from our local airport to headquarters back East. Due to his position, we were permitted to fly standby for free.
We showed up a bit early in our suit-and-ties as per our custom to get our names on the list. The gate was virtually empty. The airline ticket agent who was to check us in came dragging himself down the terminal. He looked like he had had a hard night of partying. His hair was disheveled, shirttail was hanging out and wrinkled, and I’m not sure, but what appeared to be a clip-on tie was barely hanging on.
As he placed himself behind the counter he began to look at our paperwork. Immediately he ran his hands through his hair, tucked in his shirt, straightened his tie and walked over to where my brother and I were seated. With a nervous, quivering voice he asked, “Are you Mr. Shelnutt’s boys?” We assured him we were. “We sure do miss your father around here.”
At that moment, two things dawned on me. First was the impact my father had on people. Here was this man, thousands of miles from dad, and yet he responded simply because Mr. Shelnutt’s sons were there. Second, I was profoundly aware of the privileges I enjoyed simply because I was my father’s son. The airline would not have let my brother and I fly for free, not to mention in first class, if we were not intimately related to my father.
It is this idea of privileges a son (and daughter) has because of his connection to his father that is reflected in Romans 8:15. I want to consider from this passage six benefits we derive from being brought into God’s family.
1. We are connect to one another without earthly limitation.
Connected by Sin's Predicament
One of the key themes of Paul’s letter to the believers in Rome is that because of sin, all of us are messed-up and in need of God’s grace. As it has often been said, it is level ground at the foot of the Cross. This was an important message to the 1st Century believers, and remains so today.
The hostility between Jew and Gentile (non-Jews) was beyond anything we know in our country today. Each group hated the other with a passion, and believed they had a higher standing with God. For instance, a good Jew would never even allow the shadow of a Gentile to fall upon him for fear that he would become defiled. Imagine, then, being in the early church where you have both Jew and Gentile, only to fear that the guy next to you might defile you.
Paul will go to great lengths to masterfully show that we are all without excuse (Romans 1:22; 2:1), that there is no partiality with God (2:11), and that all, both Jew and Gentile, are under sin (3:9–10). Herein lies the beauty of the Gospel of Jesus Christ – it is to everyone who believes (1:16)
A great exercise for any reader of Romans is to go through it and underline every corporate/oneness terms Paul uses. One need only look at our immediate passage (Romans 8:15-17) and see the uses of we/our/you (plural) that the Apostle employs. This was no accident.
Connected to the Same Father
Now, I don’t know about you, but it bothered me for the longest time that our translations will translated every word, but leave the “Abba” untranslated. If they had, it would read something like, “Father! Father!” Or perhaps the more familiar, “Dad! Dad!” Simply put, abba is the Hebrew word for father/dad/pop, and pater is the Greek equivalent. In these two simple words, Paul summarizes the heart of his letter. Jew and Gentile both cry out to the same Father by God’s grace through faith.
This is where the entire letter is going. Paul writes that they are “to present your bodies (plural) a living and holy sacrifice (singular).” (12:1) He immediately goes on to say,
And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect. (Rom 12:2)
That is, the world tells you, Jew and Gentile, to hate each other. Don’t be pressed into their mold (“conformed”), but let the Gospel show you another way. Later in 15:2 he writes, “Each of us is to please his neighbor for his good …” The word Paul uses for “please” was a slave term – as in a slave pleasing his master. Can you imagine how that fell on the ears of the new believers there in Rome? Finally, we can often delineate Pauls’ main point of his letters in his prayers found in his various letters.
In Romans 15:5-6 Paul prays, “Now may the God who gives perseverance and encouragement grant you to be of the same mind with one another according to Christ Jesus, so that with one accord you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (emphasis mine)
Connected as Broken-World People
When I was in seminary I recall one of my classmates, who was planning to plant a church in Ohio, boldly stating that he believed God was calling him to start a church for white, 30-something year old couples with 3 children. If Paul’s message to the Christians in Rome tells us anything, it’s that the “niche” church is anti-New Testament and anti-Gospel.
I remember reading the words of a nationally known pastor who said that, “You [pastors] can know your target audience by who you would like to spend a vacation.” And yet Jesus says, “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28) That word “all” is a word of hope and a promise to the worst of sinners. With whom did Jesus spend most of His time during His earthly ministry? As one pastor would describe them (and us), “broken-world people.”
We hear church folks complaining that they can’t get along with someone in the church. Who were Jesus’s hand-handpicked disciples? Well, to begin with, one was a tax collector (who had “sold out” to the Roman government), and another was a zealot (who wanted to break the bondage of the Roman government).
What this has produced in the last 2,000 years is a church that does not encourage living openly, honestly, and authentically with each other. Author Steve Brown relates a story of an interaction he had with some Pentecostal friends. He half-jokingly said, “I’m a Presbyterian, and we believe in a doctrine called ‘radical and pervasive depravity.’ If we find any depravity, however, we kick you out.” We readily proclaim grace, but we mean something else – practically. We don’t dare show our dark side.
When I was a homeowner, I had the responsibility of caring for our lawn. Sometimes I would let the grass go too long between mowing and everyone in the neighborhood could see just how bad our weed problem was. I discovered there was an easy fix. Instead of dealing with the weeds, I could just get out the lawn mower. In a single pass the grass looked great; nothing to see here.
We are like that on many, if not most, Sunday mornings. We’ve had a week of struggling with unrighteousness, temptation, and our faith. But first thing Sunday morning as we yell at the kids to hurry up and get in the minivan, we get out our spiritual “mower” and get ready for our weekly performance. We don’t practically understand grace. We are more like the prodigal son’s older brother (Luke 15) or the unforgiving slave (Matthew 18).
What does Jesus say will be the great indicator to the world that we belong to Him? The brand or style of clothing we wear? Our church/denominational affiliation? Our wealth or lack of wealth? Having it “all together”? No, but rather our love for one another. (John 13:35)
It matter not what you have done or who you are. Whether it is abba or pater, we all come by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. The world says, “He’s socially inept. She can’t do anything for me. They’re ugly.” The Gospel says, “brother, sister.”
I have spent extended time on the first benefit because it is crucial for us to understand. The first focused on our relationship with each other (horizontal), while the remaining five addresses our relationship to God (vertical). The remaining five will be much briefer.
2. We are adopted into God's family.
That the Apostle Paul would use the image of adoption to express our relationship to God indicates a few key precious themes which are worthy of note.
God embraces the adopted.
First, in adoption, both then and now, the adopted individual is so embraced out of the pure grace, mercy, and love of the one adopting. The child has no claims, can make no demand, in regards to their inclusion in the family. God has done so, has taken the initiative to act, purely based on His character.
We see something similar in His words to the Israelites when He proclaimed,
The LORD did not set His love on you nor choose you because you were more in number than any of the peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but because the LORD loved you and kept the oath which He swore to your forefathers... (Deut 7:7-8)
Why did God adopt you and me into His family? Why did God love you? Because He saw something special or loveable in you? No. To paraphrase Deuteronomy 7:7, “He loved you because He loved you.”
God secures the adopted.
A second, and just as precious, theme of this adoption is that in the 1st Century when the Apostle penned these words under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the adopted child (or adult – yes, adult) had all the benefits of a natural born child, and their standing as a child was even more secure than a natural born child.
See, in the 1st Century, a natural born child could be disowned by the father at any time, losing all benefits and paternal relationship. Not so with the adopted son. By Roman law, if you adopted a son or daughter, it was for life. The thought was, you had a choice in adoption, but not with the natural born child. Since you made the intentional choice of inclusion into your family, the adopted child could not be cast out.
What a precious promise of security we have with our heavenly Father. He will not leave us. He will not abandon us. He will not withhold any good thing from us, having given us His son – His greatest treasure.
3. We no longer fear because we are no longer slaves.
For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again... (Rom 8:15a)
There is not enough time within the space of this article to devote to 1st Century slavery in the Roman empire. To be sure, it was quite unlike slavery of which most of us are familiar as it was seen in the British Empire (and the North American colonies), and in the first 80 years of the United States. That said, the slaves in the Roman Empire had little to no rights. If an owner saw fit to punish, torture, or kill a slave, there really wasn’t any reprisal or recourse afforded the slave.
The apostle writes elsewhere in Romans and in other letters that prior to salvation and grace, we were slaves of sin, living under condemnation every moment of our lives (both Jew and Gentile). But thanks be to God, we are no longer slaves but children. As such, we are no longer under condemnation.
This is most clearly stated in just a few verses earlier when Paul writes, “Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (8:1) There is now no condemnation. We’re not waiting for it. It’s not some wishful thinking. Right now we are children who need not fear the wrath of God.
Yes, He disciplines His own (Hebrews 12:6), but there is a vast difference between discipline (meant for our good, growth, and correction) and condemnation (meant for punishment). As Charles Wesley penned in that great hymn, “And Can It Be?”:
No condemnation now I dread;
Jesus, and all in Him, is mine;
Alive in Him, my living Head,
And clothed in righteousness divine,
Bold I approach th’eternal throne,
And claim the crown, through Christ my own.
Amazing love! How can it be,
That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?
4. We can approach God the Father intimately.
When Jesus referred to God as Father (John 10:30; 14:9 just to mention a couple), it sent shock waves, and even horror, through the Jewish religious community. How dare any mortal man refer to God as Father?
For some of you reading this, the last thing you want to think of God as is Father because your experience with your earthly father has been anything but loving and precious.
But a survey of Scripture will show that God is the perfect Father. He is one who protects, nurtures, provides, loves, and seeks the best for His children, even at His own expense. It is such an intimate relationship, and one of which were should run toward, not away from, that Jesus tells us to address God in our prayers as Father (Matthew 6:9).
Despite what the Deist might claim, God is not a God who has created and stepped dispassionately away from His Creation. No, rather He is intimately involved, and calls us to draw near to Him as a father pulls his son or daughter up on his lap and embraces them. Do not hide from Him; run to Him. He loves you more than you know.
5. We cry out, as children, to God the Father.
Personally, this is one of my favorite sections of this passage. The Apostle says that as children of God “we cry out.” Perhaps in your thinking “crying out” is for the weak or for the immature. I beg to differ.
First, the root word Paul uses that is translated “cry out” is the Greek word krazo. We would call it an onomatopoeia – a word that is supposed to mimic the sound it is representing. For instance, in English we use “buzz” as the sound of a bee. Here, “krazo” is meant to represent the sound of a crow crying out. Now, you might be saying, “That doesn’t sound anything like a crow.” I’m an historian, and trust me when I tell you that this is exactly how 1st Century Roman Empire crows sounded when they cried out.
But the historical/literary element isn’t the only thing that excites me. The form of the verb Paul uses in the present tense and could better be translated, “we are crying out.” That is to say, it’s not just a one-and-done quick little whimper. The idea is that of being right now and continually.
Let’s face it, life is hard. There is much about which to be troubled. Oh, I’m not talking about having to settle for getting your new luxury car in silver instead of red like you wanted. No, I’m talking about a marriage that has fallen apart. A child lost in a miscarriage. A spouse you love who is dealing with a debilitating disease (of which you will share in their care). The loss of your house because you can no longer make the payments due to being laid off from your job months ago. A parent who has lost their mind to dementia. A life-dominating sin with which you continually struggle.
When my youngest of four, our only daughter, was less than two months old, she was hospitalized with some unknown (at the time) ailment. The fact that it wasn’t simply a visit to the doctor but an extended hospital stay was almost more than I could bear. When the team of doctors was trying to figure out what had attacked my beautiful, precious, frail little primcess, one of the specialists came out to talk to my wife and me. When I heard the words, “We’re not sure what it is. We need to do a spinal tap. You don’t want to be in the room when we do this,” I was completely undone.
I can assure you, no one had to tap me on the shoulder and say, “Hey Max, maybe you should pray about this.” I cried out to my Father without any prompting and without any hesitation. It was instinctive. No one has to teach us to call out to our heavenly Father. It is a part of who we are because of whose we are – we are in the family of God and He is our Father. (For those who are wondering, my daughter had a genuine concern, but God was gracious, and she was sustained through it.)
6. We are heirs with Christ, but the inheritance is future.
And if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him. For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us. (Romans 8:17–18)
God’s covenant, His promises, to His people is abundant and sure. However, there are some aspects that are currently enjoyed while others are in the future. We are children of God now, but we will not see Him face-to-face until sometime yet to be determined (death or His coming). We are saved, yet we are being saved. Here, Paul assures us that we are set to inherit as we are co-heirs with the first-born son, Jesus, but the realization of that inheritance is not present. It’s what theologians call the already/not yet.
It is worth our notice that the Apostle Paul assures his readers that he “considers that (he intentionally has thought about) the sufferings of this current time are not worthy to be compared (on a weight-scale our sufferings can’t begin to tilt the scale) with the glory that is to be revealed to us.”
Have you ever been to a revealing of a new, important sculpture, or perhaps seen one depicted in a movie? They usually have something draped over it. Even with the covering there you can see that there is something of substance under it. Sure, you can’t make out the details just yet, but you know it’s real.
That’s what the “glory to be revealed” is like. Even though we can’t understand or know all the details of “the glory to be revealed,” we can know it’s a reality. We anticipate it.
Since there is much yet to be revealed to us, it comes down to the faithfulness of God to His promises and faith. The Spirit of God, already mentioned in this passage numerous times, is given as a pledge — an engagement ring if you will — of what awaits us. When I gave my wife an engagement ring it was to signify (1) to her that she could count on a future date when my promise of marriage would be fulfilled, and (2) to all others to back off — she belonged to me. By His Spirit, God has marked us as His own and has promised to us that all His promises will be fulfilled.
Wounded, Yet Rescued by God's Loving Grace
When our two eldest boys were just little guys, we were visiting with some friends at their local church. We dutifully dropped of each son to their prospective Sunday school classes. After the church service concluded, my wife went to get our second eldest, Luke, and I went to retrieve James. The class was going a bit longer than the service, so I waited patiently inside the classroom at the door, enjoying taking in the learning that was going on. My son, who was a gentle, loving soul even at that age, sat at the end of a two-foot high table made especially for toddlers.
As the teacher was wrapping up her lesson, the boy next to my son back-handed James in his face. I was stunned and more than a bit in shock at this unprovoked aggression. Didn’t the teacher or any of the three helpers see this? The instruction continued even as my son raised his hand in dismay to his reddened cheek wondering, “What just happened?”
Seconds later the same boy reset his hand and launched with yet another back-hand to the face. My son never cried, but was visably confused and dismayed. I was undone. I leapt over the child-gate and counter that was set-up and landed next to my first-born. I checked him for injuries, bruises, or perhaps a busted eardrum, and asked if he was okay. He was. I turned to the attacker and said in no uncertain terms, “Don’t you EVER hit my son again.”
I picked up my son in my arms and held him as close as I could. As I walked out of the classroom all I could hear was the teacher asking me, “Is there a problem?”
I recount this story simply to illustrate a point. I did what any normal father would have done for his son. Yes, I regret not jumping in after the first back-hand slap. But I trust the reader sees the love of a father for his own. My love and actions are imperfect, though well-meaning. God’s love for His own is perfect, never late, and always for our best. I have a great love for my children, but God’s love for His own is far greater.
When I consider the faces, the individuals, in my local church and faith circle, I see broken-world people – saved by grace – and I wouldn’t have it any other way ... because I know I’m home. We are truly brothers and sisters.
Brown, Steve. A Scandalous Freedom. Howard Books, 2004. 18 ↩︎