“For you did not receive the spirit of slavery leading again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption, by whom we cry ‘Abba, Father.’ The Spirit himself bears witness to our spirit that we are God’s children. And if children, then heirs (namely, heirs of God and also fellow heirs with Christ) – if indeed we suffer with him so we may also be glorified with him.” – Romans 8:15-17 (NET)
Some consider “we are God’s children” the most magnificent statement in all of scripture and it’s hard to disagree. But we can get so carried away by the exhilarating message that we fail to apply it to our lives. This passage is important to our study of the Christian blues not only for the hope it conveys but for the reason it was penned by the Apostle Paul in the first place. In reading the verses that precede it one can tell that he was attempting to save the believers in Rome from succumbing to the malady called depression and he was offering this teaching as an antidote. While the Epistles contain huge amounts of solid theology it’d be a mistake to think of them as stuffy textbooks containing no practical advice on how to live as a Christian in this fallen world. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Paul had been dealing with the core problem of being a follower of Christ since the beginning of the 6th chapter of Romans and that problem is sin. The folks he was writing to had surrendered to Jesus and were now having to deal not only with idol worshipping pagans who despised them for their belief but also with their own sinful nature that was resisting change. He was addressing believers who took their faith very seriously and wanted desperately to be as Christ-like as humanly possible. In this essay I’ll attempt to shine a light on the peculiar temptation that can entrap those of us who share their heartfelt desire. Faith is again at the center of the issue and once again it’s about our neglect to appropriate it. That is, we don’t draw it out and use it to help us in our daily struggles.
If you’re a dedicated Bible reader you’ve had the experience of coming across a verse that suddenly jumps out at you as if you’d never seen it before. No doubt you’d read over it but its content was never directly applicable to your life until that very moment. In a bigger sense we can overlook the message of the cross, turn the new way of salvation (justification via grace alone) into an updated version of the old way (adherence to a binding set of laws) and find ourselves caught up in what Paul describes as the “spirit of slavery.” If we’re not careful we’ll start thinking being a disciple of Jesus is an unrelenting chore we have to take on and holiness a burdensome list of rules we must devote the whole of our existence to complying with. Monasticism (self-denying separation from the world) is a result of taking this view to the moon and the Apostle calls it a form of bondage. While you may not feel like running off to meditate alone on a peak in Nepal, without realizing it you can impose upon yourself a roster of restrictions that aren’t a part of the New Covenant. Paul addressed the phenomenon in Colossians 2 when he wrote, “Even though they have the appearance of wisdom with their self-imposed worship and false humility achieved by an unsparing treatment of the body – a wisdom with no true value – they in reality result in fleshly indulgence.” An example would be a Christian who decides to shun meat because they came to consider eating an animal a violation of the commandment that instructs us not to kill and in so doing incurring God’s wrath. There’s absolutely nothing bad about being a vegan but to do it for that particular reason is what Paul means by the “spirit of slavery leading again to fear.” With the proliferation of different denominations in Christ’s church in the 21st century it’s especially vital that we guard against coming up with bogus laws that aren’t backed by scripture and that result in a segregation of Christians into antagonistic factions.
This practice instills a spirit of fear that can be divided into three manifestations. First, it can produce an apprehension about God. One must have a proper respect for the Almighty but being terrified of Him isn’t respect. If you envision God as a harsh taskmaster or a stern law-enforcer it’s no wonder you fear the road that lies ahead of you. In that state of mind joy and peace are impossible to find. Fear can also manifest itself in being deathly afraid of the devil. Yes, it’s wise to be wary of Satan but to walk in constant dread that he’s going to jump out and bring the fury of hell down on you will eventually wear you down to a nub. Thirdly, the spirit of fear can cause you to be overly intimidated by your sinful nature. To incessantly rue your dark rebellious streak is time spent accentuating negativity. Balance is essential. It’s healthy to be aware of what we in Celebrate Recovery call our hurts, habits and hang-ups and to try to deal with them according to Biblical guidelines but if we allow them to defeat us or create irrational angst then they become roadblocks to our spiritual growth. All three manifestations are fruits of the “spirit of slavery” and, ultimately, they’re a fear of failure. We start to question whether or not we can live the Christian life. We wonder if we’re doing what’s been asked of us. We worry that we’re letting our Savior down at the drop of a hat every hour every day. The next thing you know, we’re stuck in the throes of the born again blues and it’s to folks like me who are susceptible to that condition that Paul is saying “You were freed from that mental bondage by Christ’s blood so why in the heck would you go back to it?” Good question. The remedy lies in calling on the indwelling Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit. There’s nothing more difficult or daunting to describe or even to try to wrap one’s head around. Billy Graham wrote a whole book about it in 1978 and he stated in the preface, “Attempting to write a book on so vast a subject is like trying to capture the ocean in a quart jar. The subject is so infinite – and our minds are so finite.” If it was hard for Dr. Graham then imagine how difficult it is for me! So bear with my feeble attempts, if you’d be so kind. I recommend that if you’re interested in knowing more about the Holy Spirit you get hold of that fine book and dive into it. It’s deep but worth the swim. One of my favorite quotes from it reads, “This is the good news: we are no longer waiting for the Holy Spirit – He is waiting for us.”
How important is the Holy Spirit? Romans 8:13 reads, “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.” Christians must realize that they aren’t alone in their mortal journey. Jesus didn’t wash away all our sins and then leave us to figure out the rest of our lives on our own. God sent the Holy Spirit to live in us and to help us. When the Apostle wrote “For God achieved what the law could not do because it was weakened through the flesh” he was pointing out that the law couldn’t save anybody, much less enable us to live the Christian life. We don’t need rules, we need God. Don’t misunderstand. The law itself isn’t weak, it’s we humans that weaken it because of our innate inability to obey it. As Romans 8:9 says, “Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” Our soul is surrounded by flesh but that’s where the Holy Spirit comes galloping in like the cavalry. He allows us to flee our physical jail and, therefore, be better able to glorify the Heavenly Father. That’s why Paul keeps hammering home the same theme – Y’all ain’t what you used to be! To the church in Philippi he wrote, “For the one bringing forth in you both the desire and the effort – for the sake of his good pleasure – is God.” Even better news can be found in Galatians 4, “And because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts.” Pause and let that sink in for ten seconds before you move on. We have inside us the same Holy Spirit that was in Jesus when He walked this earth! There aren’t a bunch of Holy Spirits running around, there’s only one. In other words, the same Spirit that gave our Lord strength and courage will do the same for each of us. Billy Graham wrote, “He is the source of power who meets our need to escape from the miserable weakness that grips us. He gives us the power to be truly good.” Dr. Larry Crabb said “The new way to live is the way of the Spirit. The Spirit is the Third Person in the Trinity. He knows the Father. He issues forth from Him. He knows the Son. He’s the literal Spirit of Christ. The Spirit is God. He is therefore holy and He is love. Every time He speaks, it’s to point to the Holy Path, to the way into God’s presence.”
Another function of the Holy Spirit is to remind us of our relationship with God. That’s accentuated in our featured passage when it says “…but you received the Spirit of adoption, by whom we cry ‘Abba, Father.’” Paul is reiterating that we’ve not only been accepted by our Heavenly Daddy but we’ve been claimed by Him as one of His own. That truth in itself should humble us no end. Brennan Manning wrote, “We should be astonished at the goodness of God, stunned that He should bother to call us by name, our mouths wide open at His love, bewildered that at this very moment we are standing on holy ground.” Keeping that fact in mind will help us get rid of our bondage to fear. How does our acknowledgement of divine adoption do that? It enables us to see that the aim of being a Christian isn’t being well-behaved people so we can secure worldly blessings, it’s to put God first and adore Him as our loving Father. A slave didn’t dare call his owner “Daddy,” rather he lived in constant fear of being judged by his master and suffering his punishment. Jesus taught that we mustn’t live like slaves cowering before a cruel owner. He instructed us to address God as “Our Father.” The creator of the vast universe and beyond is our personal patriarch and He loves us with an everlasting love that’ll never run out. We are His offspring and the moment we take that fact to heart everything changes. At that point our foremost desire will not be toeing some imaginary line but pleasing our gracious Father. Our life as a Christian is not a matter of rules and regulations any longer but demonstrating to Him our gratitude for all He’s done for us.
That’s not all, though. Paul’s passage also embraces the logic that if we’re children of God then we are heirs. Not only that, but joint-heirs with Christ! We’re related to Jesus! Check out what our Lord said in His prayer preserved in John 17: “The glory you gave to me I have given to them, that they may be one just as we are one – I in them and you in me – that they may be completely one, so that the world will know that you sent me, and you have loved them just as you have loved me.” If we can absorb the immensity of that truth we’ll feel an incredible sense of security wash over us. Just think of it. When you accepted Christ you literally became a child of God Almighty and, because the Holy Spirit has made a home in you, you’re now free to exalt your Father openly without a scintilla of fear. As it says clearly in 1 Corinthians 6, “Do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own? For you were bought at a price. Therefore glorify God with your body.” When we encounter a crisis or tragedy in our lives we often tell others that we’re praying about it. While we’re right to “pray without ceasing,” we err if it causes us to forget that the actual Third Person of the Trinity is residing in us. It occurs to me that sometimes we should pray less and ponder more. Don’t get me wrong on this. Prayer is vital but so is thinking and if our prayers become no more than another escape mechanism allowing us to skirt around denial then they can be ineffective. Prayer must be intelligent, letting our brains remind us that our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit. In doing that we’ll be more capable of dealing with our depression and the task at hand.
The Holy Spirit will reinforce in us the truth about our ultimate destiny, as well. At the end of Romans 8 Paul puts it elegantly when he writes, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor heavenly rulers, nor things that are present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” I quote Martyn Lloyd-Jones, “It is not a question of keeping to a standard, it is not a question of vainly striving to do something; it is a question of getting ready for the place to which you are going.” The way to ward off fear and anxiety is to tell yourself you belong to God, that you have a fulfilling future life awaiting you in heaven and that all this confusion, corruption and mayhem you see whirling around you on this planet can’t and won’t prevent His plan from being carried out. In 1 John 3 it says, “Dear friends, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet been revealed. We know that whenever it is revealed we will be like him, because we will see him just as he is. And everyone who has this hope focused on him purifies himself, just as Jesus is pure.” Our realization that we’re heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ along with our steadfast belief that our destiny is secure purifies us. We’re safe in the everlasting arms! Therefore, how wrong it is to be held down by a spirit of slavery and fear. Let go and let the Holy Spirit do His work in you. As Dr. Graham wrote, “Only the Holy Spirit can make possible the out-living of the in-living Christ. The kind of persons God wants us to be can never be produced through human effort. But when the Holy Spirit fills us, He brings forth His fruit in people who manifest a growing likeness to Christ, the prototype of what we will someday be.”
(Inspired by the sermons of Martyn Lloyd-Jones in his book “Spiritual Depression.”)