This passage in the book of Romans speaks of a blessing so amazing, so staggering, that we would not dare believe it if God had not revealed it to us in his word and by his Spirit: namely, our adoption into God’s family. John Gill explains the staggering nature of this blessing, “This favour is an instance of surprising grace, exceeds other blessings, makes the saints honorable, is attended with many privileges and lasts forever: such who are in this relation to God, ought to ascribe it to his grace, to requite him with thankfulness, and a becoming conversation, to be followers of him, and to love, honour, and obey him.” I would argue that many of the Christian’s difficulties arise from a failure to properly appreciate and grasp the implications of this great blessing. We would be much more confident and joyful if we really believed what we profess to believe, that we are the sons and daughters of God.
But why does Paul introduce this idea now, and how does it tie into the overall flow of thought? Paul introduces it here because this is something to which the Spirit of God testifies. It is part of the ministry of the Spirit to make the believer conscious of his or her relationship to God and to create in them the attitude of a son or daughter. Having worked out the role of the Spirit in our sanctification as he has in verses 2-13, he now connects his ministry in us to the blessing of our adoption in verses 14-17.
However, the connection is tighter than that. It’s not just that the apostle is moving from one aspect of the Spirit’s work to another; rather, it’s that the ministry of the Spirit in our adoption supports and validates the work of the Spirit in our sanctification. You can see that clearly in the way verses 13 and 14 are connected: “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God” (14). The “for” grounds the reality spoken of in verse 13 on the reality spoken of in verse 14. In other words, the reason why the Spirit works in us to kill sin is because we are the children of God. It is impossible, in the apostle’s thinking, to imagine that God’s children would be no different from those who are not. There is a distinct change in those who bear the name of the children of God, and the Spirit who bears witness to this privilege also works in them to kill the sin that is so unsuitable to our position in God’s family. This has important implications, which we will look at in a bit.
It is important that we consider this great blessing, and that’s what I want us to do together this morning. What is it, and what role does this Spirit of God play in it, and how should this affect the way we live?
Adoption into God’s family: what is it?
Now you will hear quite a bit, even in certain corners of the professing Christian community, that God is the Father of all men. They will appeal to Scriptures like Mal. 2:10, which reads, “Have we not all one Father? Has not one God created us?” Or Acts 17:28-29, where the apostle, quoting a Greek poet, acknowledges that every human being is in some sense the “offspring” of God, and therefore, it would seem, his children. This appeal to the universal Fatherhood of God then becomes the ground for the bold assertion that every human being will be saved in the end, because otherwise we would have a God who destroys his own children – and that is unthinkable.
However, the fact that the Scriptures speak of the need to be adopted into God’s family, tells another story. It speaks to the fact that men and women are not automatically in the family of God, are not – at least in some important sense – automatically children of God. Salvation is in part a putting us into the family of God, which means we are outside of it before. We are by nature, not sons and daughters of God, but rather his enemies. Our Lord himself indicates as much when he pointed out to the Pharisees, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and I am here” (Jn. 8:42). The implication is of course that God was not really their Father. In fact, he goes on to say something even stronger: not only were they not the children of God, but, “You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires” (Jn. 8:44). We are indeed God’s creatures, but we are creatures in revolt against God. More than that, whether consciously or unconsciously, we have allied ourselves to the chief of God’s enemies, Satan. As such, we are alienated from God, cut off from his family and blessing (cf. Eph. 2:11-21).
I suppose that it is okay to say that God is the father of all men by virtue of creation, but we must be careful when we say that. Creation is not salvation. Creation is marred by the fall. We are born of the flesh, and need to be redeemed and born again. The universal fatherhood of God as creator does not guarantee the salvation of anyone. If anything, it only accentuates and increases our guilt. As God’s creatures, we owe him our allegiance. We haven’t given him that; we are rebels, and as such are doomed to suffer the inevitable fate of our absurd revolt. Absalom may have been King David’s son, but that did not spare him the death he deserved when he rebelled against his father.
However, when the Bible speaks of our being adopted into God’s family, it means something more than that we belong to God as creator. It is always connected to salvation from sin and its consequences. It always implies God’s saving and never-ending love to us. It always implies our security and is the ground for a true and proper confidence in being able to draw near to God. Adoption into God’s family means that God becomes our Father and we his children in this special sense. It is based upon the atoning death of Jesus for us, for Gal. 4:4-5 says that, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.” And it is received by faith in Christ, as John puts it in his gospel, “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (Jn. 1:12-13). So this is not something that is automatic. It required the death of the Son of God to make it possible. And it is received only through faith in the Son of God as our Lord and Savior.
To understand the implications of this amazing blessing, I think it is instructive to understand the process of adoption in the first century world. Now there is a lot of debate as to whether Paul is referring here to the Jewish or the Roman process of adoption. However, Paul was writing to Roman Christians, and even though there were Jews as well as Gentiles in the congregation, even the Jews were living in a Roman context. It is therefore very likely that his audience would have read this in light of Roman adoption – if he had not wanted them to do this, surely he would have made some indication in the text. So I think that if we’re going to read this like the original audience would have read it, then we need to understand something about Roman adoption.
What then was it like? What was involved? Well, it involved two steps and resulted in at least four consequences. The first step was called mancipatio, in which the biological father symbolically sold his son, giving up his rights to him. Scales were apparently used to signify this transaction. What then followed was the step called vindicatio, in which the adopting father would go to one of the Roman magistrates and present a legal case for the person to be adopted.
However, I think it was not so much the process of adoption that apostle had in mind as the consequences. There were at least four consequences that followed upon adoption. The first was that the adopted person lost all rights in his old family, and gained all the rights of a son in the adopted family. The second was that in the eyes of the law, the son’s old life was completely wiped out. For example, all debts were cancelled, the past was gone. Third, by law, the son became absolutely the son of the new father. And finally, he became heir to the father’s estate, and even if sons were born after him, his rights were not affected.
So what does this mean as respects our adoption into God’s family? Well, it surely means that the past is gone and our sins forgiven, cast into the sea never to be brought up again, and we enter into an entirely new relationship with God, in which God loves and receives us (Ps. 103:13-14), takes care of us (Mt. 6:32; 7:11; Luke 11:13; Heb. 12), and gives us an eternal inheritance (Rom. 8:17). It is an irrevocable status of love and fellowship with God in the nearness of the familial bond. It is no wonder then that the apostle John would exclaim, when contemplating this reality, “Behold, what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called the sons of God” (1 Jn. 3:1).
Now the foregoing indicates that adoption is a legal reality; it is not a subjective thing or a process by which we become children of God. You either are or you aren’t. And it isn’t something you merit or gain, but something given to you in Christ entirely of grace. It might surprise us then that the apostle ties it so closely to the ministry of the Spirit of God. That leads to our second question and following point.
What role does the Spirit of God play in our adoption?
He witnesses to it.
The apostle tells us in verse 16, “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.” The fundamental role the Spirit plays is to bear witness to it. This is interesting, because a Roman adoption ceremony took place in the presence of seven witnesses, so that if there was ever any dispute about the adopted son’s right to inherit, one or more of the seven would step forward and bear witness to the adopted son’s rights. How then does the Spirit bear witness to our adoption? He does so in at least three ways.
By leading us in holiness (13-14).
Again, I want to note the connection between verses 13 and 14. “Through the Spirit” in verse 13 is explained by “led by the Spirit” in verse 14, and “you will live” in verse 13 is explained by “sons of God” in verse 14. This is so important because so many people will say that they are “being led by the Spirit,” but what they mean by that is a subjective state anchored in the emotions that justifies behavior contrary to God’s word. To be led by the Spirit just means that we are enabled by the Holy Spirit to mortify the sin in our hearts and lives.
And that of course is inextricably linked to a commitment to obey God’s word in Scripture. We should never imagine for a moment that going in the opposite direction to the Spirit-breathed-out word of God in the pages of the Bible is the same thing as being led by the Spirit (see 2 Pet. 1:21; 2 Tim. 3:16). The Spirit of God will not contradict the word of God. There is no value in a religious experience, no matter how transcendent it seems, if it leads you away from God’s word. You may be being led by something, but you can be sure that you are not being led by the Spirit of God if it is not in line with Scripture.
Thus, an evidence that we are the sons and daughters of God is that we are at war with the sin in our lives and that we are striving to put it to death through the power of the Spirit of God. It must be so because as sons and daughters of God we bear his likeness, his tastes, and his designs. Though it can’t mean that sin in our lives automatically disqualifies a right to call ourselves children of God, it does mean that if we are comfortable with a state of rebellion against God’s will in his word, our claim to this right could well be, and probably is, false.
By creating in us the disposition of children (15).
Paul goes on, “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 apostle can make this connection between being led by the Spirit and being children of God because the Spirit who leads us is the Spirit of adoption. That’s what he is. And the way he carries out this role is by creating in us the attitude and affection of the children of God. Notice that the apostle says that it is by the Spirit that we make this cry. Though the Spirit does not make us children – he doesn’t create the legal status of an adopted son or daughter of God – he enables us to experience and enjoy it, which the Spirit does by putting in us family affections, love to God. He does it by changing our “slavish fears toward God into confident, happy, peaceful affection for God as our father” (John Piper).
Another way to put this is that there is an unbreakable link between regeneration and adoption. I think it was J. I. Packer who said that in regeneration we receive the nature of a child of God, whereas in adoption we receive the name of a child of God. Regeneration, or new birth, is a work of the Spirit, as our Lord makes clear to Nicodemus in John 3:1-8. Part of what happens in regeneration is we receive a new nature, and that new nature is the nature of a child of God. That means that we love what God loves. Above all, it means that we love God, and instead of being repulsed by him we are attracted to him. We cannot help but move towards him and desire his presence, and cry out to him in fervent, heartfelt prayer.
What he is not is the “the spirit of slavery” that brings fear. What does the apostle mean by that? I think to understand that, we need to go back to the book of Galatians. There, Paul warns, “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal. 5:1). Slavery there means bondage to the law and the curse that it inevitably brings to all who seek to find salvation through it: “Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace” (Gal. 5:2-4). The reason why Paul was so upset with the Galatians and the reason he warns them about the yoke of slavery is because you can’t be justified by the law and Christ, and if you are trying to be justified by the law (by your good works) you are in bondage – bondage to your sins, and bondage to the curse that sin brings. Christ sets us free from that, so that when trust in Christ and are adopted into his family, we no longer live under the specter of our sins, and the Spirit witnesses to that reality. In other words, if you are born again and are by grace made a child of God, the Spirit does not come as a whipping stick to flail you with your sins and your failures, because that has been taken care of in Christ.
Now I just want to point out that this is not something reserved for a select few Christians. Paul assumes that his readers, the believers at Rome, have all received the Spirit as a Spirit of adoption. We may subjectively experience this differently, and I have no doubt that we should seek to experience more deeply this reality in our lives. We should want a greater and surer confidence in God’s love toward us. It’s what Paul prayed for the Ephesians in that great prayer in Eph. 3:14-21. But the fact of the matter is that, although a genuine believer may struggle with the assurance of their salvation, yet the Spirit is there as the Spirit of adoption, leading the believer, a smoking flax or broken reed though they may be, to approach the throne of grace as his children and to obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
By bearing witness with our spirit (16).
“The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are the children of God.” This is not a deduction, not a conclusion that you reach at the end of an argument. Rather, it is an experience of the Spirit of God on the heart and mind. I think this is partly what Paul had in mind when he wrote in Rom. 5:5, “and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” This is the reality of the assurance of God’s love, which is inevitably connected to an assurance that we are his children.
There are three mistakes that can be made here. One is to deny that there is such a thing as assurance. Roman Catholicism denies that this is possible. This is because their system is a system by which you get in by grace but you stay in by works, and that system is inimical to assurance and hope. But that is not Biblical Christianity. Paul insists that the Spirit comes to bear witness directly to our spirits that we are children of God, and if that’s not assurance, I don’t know what is.
At the same time, another mistake is to read this and to think that unless you have an ironclad assurance that you are a child of God, then you must not be saved. The Spirit indeed bears witness with our spirit, but we can dull our reception of the Spirit’s witness through ignorance of God’s word, or through sin, or through a failure to appropriate God’s promises to us. Neither should we think that this witness comes in the form of a vision or in words audibly spoken to the mind. I’m not denying God can do that, but I don’t think that’s what Paul has in mind here. Rather, this is the inevitable consequence of being born again and being a temple of the Holy Spirit. To be indwelt by the Spirit of Christ is to be the constant subject to this witness, granting to us the whispers of God’s love to us in Christ.
Finally, we must not sever this witness from holiness. Just because you have an ironclad assurance of salvation, does not mean that you are saved! Assurance of salvation is not the same thing as salvation. There are plenty of hypocrites in the world who have convinced themselves that they are saved. The mistake is to think that a religious experience is all one needs to draw the conclusion that they are saved. You cannot divorce adoption from regeneration, and if you don’t have the latter you cannot have the former.
At the end of the day, this is not something that we give ourselves. It is something that God gives to us as we trust in his Son and follow the lead of the Spirit of God. It is grace, pure grace, and a window into generosity of God’s heart towards his children. Think of it: it means that if you are a child of God, then God wants you to know it. True assurance is not presumption. It is a gift of God. God is a good Father who wants his children to know that he loves them. We should receive it as such and enjoy it.
How then should we live?
These realities should have an impact upon the way we live. Toward God, it should cause us to strive to enjoy a sense of our adoption, and to maintain fellowship with God, to seek him, to set our eyes upon the Lord, and to confess our sins and turn to him. To be adopted into God’s family and yet have no interest in the privileges and responsibilities which that relationship implies is a massive contradiction. There is no greater privilege than to be a son or daughter of God. Let us therefore take advantage of it.
Towards other believers – they are our brothers and sisters in Christ. Let us therefore act as members of the same family. It is a tragedy when the world looks at the church and just sees another dysfunctional family. Let it never be said of us. Rather, let us seek the unity that is implied in the body of Christ. Let us love each other and serve each other and esteem each other in love as being more important than ourselves. Let us so live out this “instance of surprising grace” that the world comes looking to be a part of it.
 The following information is from William Barclay’s commentary on Romans, which I don’t particularly recommend, for he was a good historian but a terrible theologian.