The Spirit of Sonship

Father Son

Romans 8:15 “For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father.’”

As children of God, we don’t live as slaves to fear. That is not our status, though it once was. From time to time we may find ourselves returning to that view of life. It is the product of our sinful nature. We live as slaves to fear when we view God mainly as the enforcer, an other-worldly task master who will let us feel the lash of his whip, and ultimately demand our lives, if we do not keep in line and behave ourselves.

You know what that is like. When we think that the heartache of today is God’s repayment for the sins of our past, we are living as slaves to fear. When we resist the urge to indulge ourselves because we might get caught, or we might catch some disease, or we might be shamed, we are living as slaves to fear. Siegbert Becker tells the story of such a man he knew when he was in graduate school. “Do you mean to tell me,” the man asked one day, “that if you knew that you could get by with it, there’s nobody in the world you’d want to kill?” When Becker replied he didn’t think he could do something like that, the man continued, “If I knew that the police wouldn’t catch me, there are six people on this campus that I’d kill right now.”

That’s living as a slave to fear, and it can be effective at controlling behavior. But we should not think obedience like that pleases God. Even if it gets us to obey, it reflects a bad relationship with him, not a good one. God is no more pleased with obedience like that than parents are pleased when the threat of a spanking or a grounding is the only thing that gets their whining children to do their chores.

What the Lord seeks more than obedience are sons. “For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship.” The sacred status we share as children of God is sonship. Being sons is more than being children. All of us, men or women, male or female, are sons. That means that we have a recognized, legal status in God’s family. All the rights and privileges of membership belong to each one of us.

That involves a striking change for people who once were slaves to fear. That change was possible because the one and only Son, Jesus Christ, was willing to trade places with us. By his death on the cross he removed the sins that disqualified us for a place in the family. By sending us his Spirit, and calling us to faith, he adopted us into the family. Now we all share this sacred status with him.

That means we enjoy a Father’s tender affection. “And by him (that is, the Spirit of sonship) we cry, ‘Abba, Father.’ God doesn’t want some distant and formal relationship with the children he has adopted. He doesn’t hold us at arm’s length. He wants us to know deep affection and closeness. The sin that once kept us apart has completely been removed. We don’t have to be afraid.

In order to impress this on us, he uses some of the most intimate family relationships to illustrate. In other places he compares it to the love between husband and wife–sometimes in terms that might make us blush. Here he speaks of the love between a Father and his child. That is more than a written fact. His very Spirit impresses it on our hearts.

Think of what it means to call him Father. I call most of the people to whom I am closest by their first names: my brothers and sisters, my children, my wife. But I don’t call my father, “John,” or my mother, “Mary Elin.” In the case of parents, there are titles that express our shared affection more intimately, terms of endearment that reflect the care they have always had for me, and the trust (at times even dependence) that I have had in them. Whether you say “father or mother,” “mom or dad,” “mommy or daddy,” “mamma or pappa,” these terms describe people who love you unconditionally. They would give their lives to help you. They have sacrificed and denied themselves so that you could succeed. They have always been on your side, even when that meant laying down the law to keep you out of trouble.

At least, that’s the ideal. But even if human parents fail, we are God’s children who enjoy a divine Father’s love and affection. It’s one of the privileges of former slaves the Spirit turns into sons.

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