You did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear. —Romans 8:15
If you’re a Christian, you probably remember when you received Christ. It may have been a process, or it may have been a moment. But when you received Christ, what were you receiving? What was coming into your life? What were you stepping out of and what were you entering into? The Bible says here, “You did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons.” When you became a Christian, you were receiving not slavery but adoption. The Holy Spirit is bringing into your heart a felt sense of God’s fatherly love for you.
We want that for everyone in our city through the gospel. Nobody needs more slavery. Everybody needs the Spirit of God creating a new heartcry within, “Abba! Father!” The key to that better future for our city is more and more Christians being set free from slavery and enjoying the Spirit of adoption. The key to our city breaking open to Christ is the Christians of Nashville feeling more loved by God. Others around will see the difference and want it. My purpose today is to open a door for you to go there. God wants you to be confident in his love for you. Let’s go there together.
Here’s what the passage shows us – three ways the blessed Holy Spirit changes our experience of God from slavery to sonship, from dread to assurance, from fear to settledness and peace, three ways we can know that God has come into our lives. God wants us to be sure of him. That is the work of the Holy Spirit.
For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. —Romans 8:14
The first way we can know that we belong to God is being led by the Spirit. What does it mean to be led by the Spirit of God? Paul is not talking about guidance in our decision-making – “The Lord led me to do thus and so.” Paul is talking about God taking us somewhere spiritually, leading us further into his love. Paul is talking about our hearts being freed more and more from the drivenness of the flesh. Being led by the Spirit is the opposite of being driven by the flesh. How are we driven by the flesh? Let’s remember that the flesh is our natural selves, including our pride and insecurity making us compulsive, and it’s exhausting. For example, it’s being the career woman who can also raise an amazing family and also have a fantastic marriage and also serve the community and also coach the kids’ soccer team and also maintain a social calendar and also read the latest books and also stay in shape and also help out at church and also show up for work Monday morning feeling like a million. And we men have our own ways of being driven along by primitive impulses. But for all of us, it isn’t about our overscheduled calendars. It’s about our turbulent hearts. What is going on inside us? What’s going on is that we’re living by the law, not even God’s law but our own self-created law, a merciless law of perfection on terms of performance. Music City USA is all about performance. But the Bible says, “If you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law” (Galatians 5:18). The gospel is a whole new m.o. for life.
Back in 1930 Frank Laubach was working in the Philippines as an expert in literacy. He was helping people. But inside, he was fed up with himself. So he experimented with one year of his life, and he never went back. He wrote to a friend as he started out, “I am disgusted with the pettiness and futility of my unled self. If the way out is not more perfect surrender to God, then what is the way out?” If you’re contented with yourself, surrender to God is the last thing you want. But if you’re disgusted with the pettiness and futility of your unled self, you can be led by God. He wants to give you that newness of life.
God has sent out his Holy Spirit to free us from our frantic grasping after big-deal-ness. God has sent out his Spirit to speak peace into our hearts, so that we feel adopted by the Father and loved and cared for, and we find out how wonderful it is for Christ to be all the big-deal-ness we need. Could God give us anything greater? It’s all wrapped up in the most unlikely package – the gospel of justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone apart from all our works. Those are green pastures and still waters. The Holy Spirit has come to lead us there. He makes the truth in our heads into the experience of our hearts. And this inner peace, this new sense of okayness, is not reserved for a super-spiritual elite. God gives this to all his children: “For all who are led by the Spirit of God [in this way] are sons of God.”
Here’s how you get there. Make the connection with verse 13. Verse 13 said, if by the Spirit we’ll put to death the deeds of the body, we will live, we will thrive. Verse 14 is talking about the same thing, but now in terms of what God does. Both verses 13 and 14 are about you and me growing in freedom from the past and feeling more and more settled in the love of God. Verse 13 tells us what we must do. We must slaughter Self every day. Verse 14 tells us what God does. God sends his Spirit to lead us forward in a new journey into more and more of the Father’s love.
Immanuel Church lives for you to go further with God than you’ve ever gone before, further than you’ve ever dreamed of going. We want to see God in new ways. We want to see ourselves in new ways. It is the Holy Spirit who keeps us growing. We don’t have to get it right all at once. We’re being led, one step at a time. Here’s the basic principle. Without him, we can’t. Without us, he won’t. Let’s keep going.
Maybe you’ve gotten bogged down. Maybe you’re stuck and not growing. Maybe it’s been a long time since you felt loved by God. But wherever you are on your path, you’ve got to know two things. One, the flesh, the you that feels so natural and even innocent but binds you to yourself and holds you back – the flesh cannot be refined or educated or reasoned with. You have to put your demanding compulsiveness to death by the Spirit every day. And for us privileged Americans, saying No to ourselves might be a new experience. But the Holy Spirit is committed to helping us learn how to live in repentance and turning to Christ moment by moment. What’s your next step in following Christ? What bold, new, scary thing is he asking you to do? If you’ll trust him enough to go there, you will feel less like a slave and more like family. Two, if God has set you apart as his child, the Holy Spirit lives in you. You’re not leading him, he’s leading you. You have a strong Ally, and he is in control. Just keep saying Yes, moment by moment. Here is the gift the Holy Spirit gives:
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!” —Romans 8:15
The second way we know for sure that God has set us apart to himself is that we stop dreading God as our Slave-master and we start feeling adopted by God as our Father. Naturally, in the flesh, we perceive God as a threat, we treat God as a threat. It’s understandable. We treat God so poorly. So we hide from him. We may even attend church, while still hiding from him. Martin Luther said, “If the devil cannot ruin people by making them worse, he will try to ruin them by making them better.” Some people run from God by being bad, but others run from God by being good – too good to need him. What both have in common is, they don’t want God, they feel judged, they feel shamed, they feel rejected, and they hate God for it. They dread God. They’re always wondering, “When is the hammer going to fall?” That is the mentality of a bad slave. But the Spirit of adoption comes into our hearts with a new awareness of God, a new vision of God, so that our hearts cry “Abba! Father!” Has the Holy Spirit changed how you experience God?
I remember once in sixth grade, when Mr. Rhodes was my Principal at Allandale Elementary School in Pasadena – I was in the hallways doing something typically naughty when I saw Mr. Rhodes come around the corner at the end of the hall and start walking toward me. I jumped over a little wall and hid in the shrubs growing there – it was an open hallway – until the danger passed by. But suddenly an adult face loomed over me. It was Mr. Rhodes, and I was caught. Now at the end of that day, Mr. Rhodes got into his car and drove home. I knew the family. They went to our church. So Mr. Rhodes walked through the back door of his house, said hi to his daughters Sharol and Cindy, they said, “Hi dad,” and it was comfortable and sweet. Two opposite experiences of the same man – dread versus comfort. What made the difference? They were his kids.
When you come into Christ, holding out the empty hands of faith, what does God do? He sends into your heart the Spirit of adoption. He changes how you perceive him, because when you receive Christ God in fact makes himself your loving Father. God changes your relationship with God. You don’t change it. You can’t. Only God can. And he does. He changes everything for you by his own grace. And the Holy Spirit, entering in, helps you to stop projecting onto God your own darkness. You stop blaming God. You start enjoying his love. He does not want you cringing like a slave, wondering how you’re going to be punished next. He wants you to feel loved and forgiven and accepted and rejoiced over.
A spirit of slavery is not from God. It is of the flesh. You must put it to death by the Spirit. There is a kind of fear toward God that’s good. The Bible says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 9:10). That kind of fear is reverence. We need more of it. If the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, the fear of man is the beginning of folly. But there is another kind of fear that God doesn’t want, because it only cripples us. It’s a cowering fear, like a beaten slave. That’s how we used to feel about God, and we hoped our obedience would placate the moody rage we expected of him. But it was all us, it was our own evil-minded hatred toward the all-beautiful God. What did God do? He didn’t hate us back. He drew us in. He united us with Christ by grace, and we can’t be closer than that. He adopted us and sent his Spirit into our hearts to give us a new sense of belonging. Our hearts crying “Abba! Father!” – that’s what justification feels like.
Maybe you know that this unusual word Abba is the Aramaic word that children used when addressing their fathers. Jesus himself prayed this way. He called God “Abba, Father” even in the Garden of Gethsemane, in the worst experience of his life (Mark 14:36). And by his death on the cross, he opened the way for us into intimacy with God. The devout people of his time didn’t pray this way. They didn’t speak God’s name at all. When they read the Bible in their synagogue services and the text included the divine name Yahweh, they always substituted the title “Lord” when reading out loud, so that they couldn’t take God’s name in vain. That religious culture created distance between God and the worshiper. But Jesus changed that. When Jesus died on the cross, he closed that distance. He brought us near, if we’re willing to go there. When he taught us how to pray, he said, “This is how you should pray, ‘Our Father . . .'” (Matthew 6:9). Don’t hold God at a distance he himself has removed. Never pray in a way that is so formal and stiff it just doesn’t sound like a child asking his Father for something. What if my kids called me “Dr. Ortlund”? I want them to respect me, but I don’t want any barriers. The cross was God smashing the barrier of sin we had created. Let’s not rebuild it. Let’s receive the love of God as our Father. It’s a sure sign that the Spirit of adoption has come.
The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God. —Romans 8:16
The third way we know that God has drawn us to himself is the witness of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit himself – the key word is “himself” – bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God. Not even the Bible, though the Holy Spirit loves and uses the Bible, but the Spirit himself, personally and directly, acting upon your heart by his power, assures you and testifies to you and declares to you that you are a child of God. It isn’t a logical inference you draw. It is an experience of the love of God. When I walk under the Tennessee sun on a summer’s day, I don’t ask, “By what line of reasoning may I conclude that this sunlight is falling on me?” I just know it is. In fact, that sunlight is what enables me to see everything else. And when the Holy Spirit bears witness to your heart that you belong to God, that witness itself is the support and encouragement by which everything wonderful in your life starts happening. We sinners don’t earn God’s approval; we thrive on his approval freely given in Christ.
We can’t standardize this experience of the witness of the Holy Spirit. We can’t bottle it and franchise it. Even if we could, we wouldn’t. It is sacred. It is of God. We don’t have to manufacture this. The risen Christ is pouring out his Spirit. He speaks this assurance into your heart by power. Everyone needs it. Anyone can have it. You don’t have to be good enough. To be adopted, you only have to be an orphan.
We often feel so dirty and shamed and excluded, it’s hard to believe God loves us. We become cold, reluctant, apprehensive. We sneak around with our little souvenir sins, hoping no one will notice. We smile on the outside, but we’re sad on the inside, because our hearts are lonely for God. I’m talking about us Christians. We Christians need to re-experience the love of God. I think of Dwight Moody, the evangelist. After the Chicago fire of 1871, Moody went to New York to raise money for rebuilding the city. But he was burnt out inside. He saw things in his heart that appalled him. He was miserable. He was sick of himself. He kept crying out to God. Then one day in New York, on Wall Street, God the Holy Spirit bore witness to his spirit that he was a beloved child of God. He hurried to a friend’s home and asked if he could be alone with the Lord in prayer. Later Moody wrote,
What a day! I cannot describe it, I seldom refer to it, it is almost too sacred an experience to name. I can only say that God revealed himself to me, and I had such an experience of his love that I had to ask him to stay his hand.
From that day, D. L. Moody was unleashed to live for Christ as never before. It was the love of God that freed him, the love of God poured into his broken heart.
The Holy Spirit is able to make you all that God wants you to be. He does it not by driving you but by loving you. Those mountains of frost and ice inside you, those barriers of pride, that hardness of heart and concern for saving face – the Holy Spirit is able so to love you that you melt. He is able to relieve your whole being of bondage to Self. Isaac Watts wrote a hymn long ago that taught depressed Christians how to pray:
Why should the children of a King go mourning all their days?
Great Comforter, descend and bring some tokens of your grace.
Assure my conscience of her part in the Redeemer’s blood,
And bear your witness to my heart that I am born of God.
Should you seek this experience? Of course. And the more God gives, the more you’ll seek. Here’s what you need to do. Humble yourself and ask the Lord in prayer, “What is it in me that’s clogging up the outpouring of your blessing into my heart? Whatever it is, I give it up, because I want more of you.” Is your greatest barrier your own righteousness and demandingness? Take it to the cross and you’ll see what it’s really worth. Or is love of money holding you back? Give so much money away that you start getting happy in Christ. Is it your love for your kids? If you love your kids more than you love Jesus, you do not love them but you hate them, deceiving yourself that you love them. Is it your reputation, your esteem in people’s eyes, your place in Nashville society? If you will esteem the Lord Jesus Christ above yourself, your lonely heart will soften and receive his love as never before.
If you want more of Christ, he has given you the desire. Thank him for it. Now ask him for passion. And when he gives you passion, ask him for glory itself. He’ll give it to you freely, to show you how good he really is.