Assurance As Children of God
Topic: Holy Spirit Passage: Romans 8:12–17
We have been working through Romans 8 and we come to a passage that shows us how the Holy Spirit works to give us deep, profound, and rich assurance. If I were to ask the average Chrisitian if they knew they were saved, most likely they would say, “Yes.”
Martyn Lloyd Jones wrote a book called Joy Unspeakable, Power and Renewal in the Holy Spirit. And in the book he describes what he calls the baptism with the Spirit or being filled with the Spirit as the Spirit coming upon someone giving that person a full assurance of salvation. And this full assurance produces two things in the life of a believer: boldness and joy. He said this is what you see throughout the book of Acts. The Holy Spirit would come upon a people and they would be filled, giving them a full assurance of salvation, producing courage to bear witness to Christ and an undaunted joy in the face of hardship and suffering. We need this assurance that so fills us that we too have boldness and joy unspeakable.
This text shows us specifically how the Holy Spirit bears witness to us and gives us assurance that we are God’s children. There may be nothing worse than being uncertain about your adoption into God’s family. It’s bad from the standpoint that it causes one to live anxious, always wondering, not sure of the love of God which can lead to despair and fear. But it’s bad on the other hand because it calls into question the goodness of God and his promises. He wants us to be fully assured.
Could you imagine anything worse than being a young child in a home unsure of the love of mom and dad. Actually maybe you were that child. God most certainly does not want you feeling that way in His Family. If you indeed belong to God, He wants you fully assured that he is your Father and you are his child. This may be the great aim of the gospel. Through Christ, God brings many sons to glory. I know I have quoted this before, but it bears repeating, because the need is so great. I think there are many Christians who live functionally as orphans. JI Packer in Knowing God said,
You sum up the whole of New Testament religion if you describe it as the knowledge of God as one’s holy Father. If you want to judge how well a person understands Christianity, find out how much he makes of the thought of being God’s child, and having God as his Father. If this is not the thought that prompts and controls his worship and prayers and his whole outlook on life, it means that he does not understand Christianity very well at all. For everything that Christ taught, everything that makes the New Testament new, and better than the Old, everything that is distinctively Christian as opposed to merely Jewish, is summed up in the knowledge of the Fatherhood of God. ‘Father’ is the Christian name for God. Our understanding of Christianity cannot be better than our grasp of adoption.
And this knowledge… I would say experiential knowledge comes from the work of the Holy Spirit. BIG IDEA: The Holy Spirit assures us that we are God’s children.
It’s not hard to see how a deep and pervasive knowledge of our adoption into God’s family would give us courage to face all of life, to be a witness for Christ, and to give ourselves unwaveringly to his cause. Come what may, God is our Father! And it’s also not hard to see how this would give a joy that is unshakable.
Here in our text, we see here how the Holy Spirit gives us this assurance. There are two ways actually - one in a somewhat ordinary way. The other in a more direct, extraordinary way. But we see them both here in our text. Both have to do with us being children of God and both come through the ministry of the Holy Spirit. Two words: WAR. CRY.
FIRST: WAR (v. 12-14)
The Spirit leads us to make war on sin. I get this from verse 13, but I want to show you how this connects with verses 12 and 14, because I do want to draw this back to the big idea that the Spirit assures us that we are God’s children. Verses 12-14 says,
So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh, you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit are sons of God.
Let’s follow Paul’s logic. We are debtors. We owe a debt. We are under obligation. But not to the flesh. As Christians we don’t owe the flesh anything. Here’s why. Because if you live according to the flesh, you will die. And by die, Paul is not referring to a shorter life in this body. That may be true too. It certainly is for some. Paul, however, is referring to eternal death - perishing (John 3:16). Paul is saying, if you live according to the flesh, you will perish and be damned eternally.
A distinction needs to be made. Even as Christians, we sin. We give into the flesh at times. We think fleshly thoughts, are tempted by fleshly ideas, and indulge in desires of the flesh. Just think of the last time you got angry and burst out in your anger. We battle sin. Which is why we are told to confess it. So this is not describing a Christian battling sin. Rather it describes a person (who may say he's a Christian) lying down and making peace with sin. Think of a boat that has some cracks through which water seeps from time to time. And so the crew works to patch the holes, repair the crack, throw the water overboard versus a boat that is engulfed in water and sinking.
In the second part of verse 13, you would expect Paul to say, “But if you live according to the Spirit, you will live”, but he doesn’t. Instead he tells us what living according to the Spirit looks like. And it looks like this: making war on sin. Do you see that? Here is how we are to deal with sin in our lives. Kill it! Put it to death!
It’s almost startling to hear that language. The language warfare and violence. We say amen when it comes to battling demonic forces. But when it comes to sin? And not the sins of other people. But our own. It’s relatively easy to go on the warpath when pointing out and seeking to deal with sin in other people. It takes patience, humility, wisdom, constant vigilance, and power from the Spirit to deal with it in ourselves. And we must.
I think we have become accustomed to talking about overcoming sin in unhelpful or at least incomplete ways. Maybe you have heard of the phrase “let go and let God”. It is a way of saying God knows and he will deal with it when he is good and ready. Or sometimes we use the language of just “surrendering to God”. Well, of course it is good to surrender to God. The opposite I suppose is to fight against God. The problem I have with these statements is that they tend to take the responsibility away from us when it comes to fighting sin. But what does Paul say here?
If by the Spirit, YOU put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.
John Owen wrote an entire book of Romans 8:13… and some of it is a bit morbid and overly introspective. But overall it’s good. He said, “Be killing sin, or sin will be killing you.” This demolishes the easy believism that is rampant in America. The idea that you can believe in Christ and bear no marked difference from the world. No. You are to take up the sword and start hacking away. You are not called merely to hate sin or feel bad when you sin. You are to go to war against it.
If I were to end right, there would be a gigantic piece missing. I hope you are feeling that right now. How do we put to death sin? How do we war against sin? BY THE SPIRIT! That’s it! We kill sin “by the Spirit” - Almighty God who dwells within. Not 50/50. It’s 100/100. You put forth 100% effort and the Spirit puts forth 100% and your effort is empowered by His!
Here’s the assurance. If you do this, if you make war on sin, you will live. We would expect this to refer to eternal life. And it does. But it would be wrong to merely point to the future and say, “If you faithfully put to death sin, you will go to heaven.” Of course that is true. But this means more than that! I was so helped by John Owen a number of years ago with this. He said the following on this point:
The vigor, and power, and comfort of our spiritual life depends on the mortification of the deeds of the flesh
I think we understand this. Peter says that the passions of the flesh wage war on our souls (1 Peter 2:11). Just a moment of self-reflection and we get this. We know what it's like to give in to anger or lust or impurity or pride or self-righteous bragging or envious self-comparison and feel our souls besieged. And we know what it is like to resist, to say “NO!” to sin and in that moment feel the comfort of the Holy Spirit. Notice how verse 13 connects with 14.
For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.
Every true Christian wants to be led by the Spirit. We want all of our lives to be led by the Spirit. But this is maybe the clearest, most direct statement in the bible about being Spirit-led. And what does the Spirit lead us to do? Make war on sin, with his strength, and experience power and comfort and vigor of spiritual life. And this shows that we are God’s children. God’s children are led by the Spirit of adoption into war against sin so that we more closely resemble our Father (the apple doesn't fall far from the tree). So we looked at WAR. Now, let’s look at the other word. CRY.
SECOND: CRY (v. 15-17)
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 Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.
The Spirit leads us to cry to God “Abba! Father!” The first point, I think we logically get. We understand that as we grow in holiness, there will be a stronger Spirit-witness that we are God’s children. That’s why I used the word ordinary earlier. This one is different. I would even say it is “extraordinary”. Because it seems to imply the Holy Spirit doing something where he acts upon us and does something deep within in a more direct and immediate way. And it has an impact on our affections, our emotions, how we address God, our experience of God. So in verse 15, Paul starts with contrasting the kind of spirit we have not received and the one we have received.
For you have not received a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear.
If you are in Christ, you have not received a spirit of slavery, of bondage that leads you back into fear. What is this? I think Paul is referring to a spirit of bondage that produces fear of judgment or condemnation. But there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ. We have received a different Spirit. What the apostle John said goes perfectly with this. Listen to 1 John 4:
By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.
We have not received that spirit of bondage producing fear. Paul urges Timothy to push resist the spirit of fear in 2 Timothy 1 and we should do the same. Rather we have received the Spirit of adoption, by Whom we cry “Abba! Father!” There is only one person in the bible we hear speaking this way. I hope it sounds familiar. Our Lord Jesus Christ on the night of his betrayal is in the garden of Gethsemane and he tells his disciples that his “soul is sorrowful, even to death.” He is in anguish. And he steps away from his disciples and prays, “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.”
It is not a mistake that the Spirit inspired Paul to write Abba Father here in relation to receiving the Spirit of adoption. The point is clear. You and I are brought into a relationship with God that is like (not exactly) that of Jesus Christ the Son. We are given the Spirit of the Son who is the Spirit of adoption. It is the Spirit who enables us to cry, as Jesus did, Abba! Father! Except our cry is not one of anguish or despair or sorrow like Christ’s. Ours is one of ecstatic and unspeakable joy!
You and I are as secure in God’s family as Jesus is. Jesus is the unique Son, obviously. Eternal Son. But his very same Spirit has been given to you! You and I are given the same glorious privilege of calling God our dear Father.
There is something going on here that is more than just a mechanical uttering of the words “Abba! Father!” We’ll see shortly how this is explained more in verse 16, but for now I want to park on the words “By Whom we cry…” The language is very similar to what we saw earlier that we kill sin “by the Spirit”. Here we cry to God as our dear Father by the Spirit. Same language. The word cry is all important. The cry to God as our Abba! Father! Is not a calm and sober statement of fact. No.
My understanding is that verse 16 simply explains how this works - how the Spirit of adoption enables us to cry Abba! Father! You see, there is an assurance that comes from following biblical arguments. And that is important! We want to be theologically-minded and not carried away by our feelings. We want something solid to stand on when we don’t feel much of anything. Amen! However, I think verse 16 shows us there is more to this than just following the biblical argument. Listen to verse 16:
The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.
Notice it says, “the Spirit Himself…” This is something the Spirit does directly. This is not saying that the Spirit bears witness through the bible that we are God’s children. Nor does it say that he bears witness through our good works that we are God’s children. And it does not say that the Spirit bears witness through our sanctification that we are God’s children. And it does not say that he bears witness to our minds that we are God’s children. There is an immediacy. And direct witness of the Holy Spirit - the Spirit of adoption, making us aware in our spirit - our deepest, innermost being - that we are beloved children of God. Of course this moves us and enables us to spontaneously and joyfully and sincerely cry “Abba! Father!” You are my Father! I am your child!
I believe this immediacy and direct witness of the Spirit is something we should seek! I’ll admit, I have been influenced by Martyn Lloyd Jones here. So Lloyd Jones says the following in his book Joy Unspeakable:
When Christians are baptized by the Holy Spirit, they have a sense of power and the presence of God that they have never known before —and this is the greatest possible form of assurance.
Isn’t that what is going on in Romans 8:16? A nearness and sense of God’s presence that brings great assurance. I want to close with this.
A man and his little child [are] walking down the road and they are walking hand in hand, and the child knows that he is the child of his father [this God and the Christian], and he knows that his father loves him, and he rejoices in that, and he is happy in it. There is no uncertainty about it all, but suddenly the father, moved by some impulse, takes hold of the child, picks him up, kisses him, embraces him, and showers his love upon him, and then he puts him down again and they go walking on their way.
That’s it! The child knew before that his father loved him, and he knew that he was his child. But oh! the loving embrace, this extra outpouring of love, this unusual manifestation of it—that is the Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are the children of God.
Is this not something we should seek God for? Yes, of course we should. So let’s seek it.