We Are Assured by the Spirit
The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, (8:16)
To give us even further assurance of our eternal relationship to Him, the Lord’s Holy Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God. As noted above, just as the witnesses to a Roman adoption had the responsibility of testifying to its validity, so the indwell-ing Holy Spirit Himself is constantly present to provide inner testimony to our divine adoption. He certainly does that through the inner work of illumination and sanctification, as well as through the longing for communion with God.
But here Paul does not have in mind just some mystical small voice saying we are saved. Rather, he may be referring to the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22–23), which, when the Spirit produces it, gives the believer assurance. Or, he may be thinking of the power for service (Acts 1:8), which when experienced is evidence of the Spirit’s presence, thus assuring one of salvation.
When believers are compelled by love for God, feel deep hatred for sin, reject the world, long for Christ’s return, love other Christians, experience answered prayer, discern between truth and error, long for and move toward Christlikeness, the work of the Holy Spirit is evidenced and those believers have witness that they truly are children of God.
The nineteenth-century British pastor Billy Bray seemed never to have lacked that inner testimony. He had been converted from a life of drunken debauchery while reading John Bunyan’s Visions of Heaven and Hell. He was so continuously overjoyed by God’s grace and goodness that he said, “I can’t help praising the Lord. As I go along the street, I lift up one foot, and it seems to say, ‘Glory.’ And I lift up the other, and it seems to say, ‘Amen.’ And so they keep on like that all the time I am walking.”
Whenever the world, other Christians, or we ourselves question that we are truly saved, we can appeal to the indwell-ing Spirit to settle the question in our hearts. Providing that assurance is one of His most precious ministries to us.
John offers the encouraging words, “Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and truth. We shall know by this that we are of the truth, and shall assure our heart before Him, in whatever our heart condemns us” (1 John 3:18–20a). That is objective evidence that we are truly God’s children. John then reminds us of the subjective evidence our gracious Lord provides: “God is greater than our heart, and knows all things. Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence before God” (vv. 20b-21).
The Holy Spirit Guarantees our Glory—Part 1: The Incomparable Gain of Glory
and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him in order that we may also be glorified with Him.
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us. (8:17–18)
Whether consciously or not, every genuine Christian lives in the light and hope of glory. That hope is perhaps summed up best by John in his first epistle: “Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we shall be. We know that, when He appears, we shall be like Him, because we shall see Him just as He is” (1 John 3:2). Because of our consummate trust in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, God graciously adopted us as His own children, and one day “we shall be like Him,” like the perfect, sinless Son of God who took our sin upon Himself in order that we might share not only His righteousness but His glory!
In addition to freeing believers from sin and death (Rom. 8:2–3), enabling them to fulfill God’s law (v. 4), changing their nature (vv. -11), empowering them for victory (vv. 12–13), and confirming their adoption as God’s children (vv. 14–16), the Holy Spirit guarantees their ultimate glory (vv. 17–30). In verses 17–18 Paul focuses on believers’ incomparable spiritual gain through the divine glory that they are guaranteed.
The various aspects and stages of salvation of which the Bible speaks-such as regeneration, new birth, justification, sanctification, and glorification-can be distinguished but never separated. None of those can exist without the others. They are inextricably woven into the seamless fabric of God’s sovereign work of redemption.
There can therefore be no loss of salvation between justification and glorification. Consequently, there can never be justification without glorification. “Whom [God] predestined, these He also called; and whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified” (Rom. 8:30). Justification is the beginning of salvation and glorification is its completion. Once it has begun, God will not stop it, and no other power in the universe is able to stop it. “Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:38–39). During His earthly ministry, Jesus declared unequivocally: “All that the Father gives Me shall come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out. … And this is the will of Him who sent Me, that of all that He has given Me I lose nothing, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of My Father, that everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him, may have eternal life: and I Myself will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:37, 39–40).
Because he was created in the image of God, man was made with a glorious nature. Before the Fall, he was without sin and, in a way that Scripture does not reveal, he radiated the glory of his Creator. But when Adam fell by disobeying the single command of God, man lost not only his sinlessness and innocence but also his glory and its attendant dignity and honor. It is for that reason that all men now “fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23).
Fallen men seem basically to know they are devoid of glory, and they often strive tirelessly to gain glory for themselves. The contemporary obsession with achieving self-esteem is a tragic reflection of man’s sinful and futile efforts to regain glory apart from holiness.
The ultimate purpose of salvation is to forgive and to cleanse men of their sin and to restore to them God’s glory and thereby bring to Him still greater glory through the working of that sovereign act of grace. The glory that believers are destined to receive through Jesus Christ, however, will far surpass the glory man had before the Fall, because perfection far exceeds innocence. Glorification marks the completion and perfection of salvation. Therefore, as the late British pastor and theologian Martyn Lloyd-Jones rightly observed in his exposition of our text, salvation cannot stop at any point short of entire perfection or it is not salvation. Pointing up that truth, Paul told the Philippian believers, “For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 1:6).
Salvation brings continual growth in divine glory until it is perfected in the likeness of Jesus Christ Himself. “But we all, with unveiled face beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:18). As part of His ministry to us during our lives on earth, the Holy Spirit carries us from one level of glory to another.
In proclaiming the incomparable gain believers have in their divinely-bestowed glory, Paul focuses first on the heirs (8:17a), then on the source (v. 17b), the extent (17c), the proof (17d), and finally the comparison (v. 18).
The Heirs of Glory
and if children, heirs also, (8:17)
The emphasis in Romans 8:17–18 on believers’ glory is closely related to their adoption as God’s children (see vv. 14–16). As is clear from that preceding context, the if in verse 17 does not carry the idea of possibility or doubt but of reality and causality, and might be better translated “because.” In other words, because all believers have the leading of the Holy Spirit (v. 14) and His witness (v. 17) that they are indeed children of God, they are thereby heirs also.
The heavenly angels not only serve God directly but also serve believers, because they are God’s children and heirs. “Are they [angels] not all ministering spirits, sent out to render service for the sake of those who will inherit salvation?” the writer of Hebrews asks rhetorically (Heb. 1:14). Because of our faith in His Son Jesus Christ, God the Father “has qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints in light” (Col. 1:12).
As explained in the last chapter, Paul’s figure of adoption seems to correspond more to Roman law and custom than to Jewish. We might expect this, because Paul was writing to believers in Rome. And although many of them doubtless were Jewish, if their families had lived there for several generations, they would be as familiar with the Roman custom as the Jewish.
In Jewish tradition, the eldest son normally received a double portion of his father’s inheritance. In Roman society, on the other hand, although a father had the prerogative of giving more to one child than to the others, normally all children received equal shares. And under Roman law, inherited possessions enjoyed more protection than those that were bought or worked for. Perhaps reflecting those Roman customs and laws, Paul’s emphasis in this passage is on the equality of God’s children and the security of their adoption.
Paul told the Galatians, “If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise” (Gal. 3:29; cf. 4:7). Here Paul is referring to spiritual heritage, citing Abraham, “the father of all who believe” (Rom. 4:11), as the human archetype of the adopted child and heir of God.
The Source of Glory
heirs of God, (8:17b)
The source of believers’ incomparable glory is God, their heavenly Father, who has adopted them as His own children and heirs. Paul assured the Colossian Christians “that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance” (Col. 3:24). This inheritance is only God’s to give, and He sovereignly bestows it, without exception, on those who become His children and heirs through faith in His divine Son, Jesus Christ.
In His description of the sheep and goats judgment in the last days, Jesus reveals the astounding truth that our inheritance with Him was ordained by God in eternity past! “Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world’ ” (Matt. 25:34). God does not adopt His children as an afterthought but according to His predetermined plan of redemption, which began before “the foundation of the world.”
The value of an inheritance is determined by the worth of the one who bequeaths it, and the inheritance of Christians is from the Creator, Sustainer, and Owner of the world. God not only is the source of our inheritance but is Himself our inheritance. Of all the good things in the universe, the most precious is the Creator of the universe Himself. The psalmist declared, “Whom have I in heaven but Thee? And besides Thee, I desire nothing on earth” (Ps. 73:25). Jeremiah wrote, “ ‘The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘Therefore I have hope in Him’ ” (Lam. 3:24). In his vision on the island of Patmos, John “heard a loud voice from the [heavenly] throne, saying, ‘Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He shall dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself shall be among them’ ” (Rev. 21:3). The greatest blessing God’s children will have in heaven will be the eternal presence of their God.
The Extent of Glory
and fellow heirs with Christ, (8:17c)
Many of us are heirs of those who have very little to bequeath in earthly possessions, and our human inheritance will amount to little, perhaps nothing. But just as God’s resources are limitless, so our spiritual inheritance is limitless, because, as His fellow heirs, we share in everything that the true Son of God, Jesus Christ, inherits.
Paul exulted, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, … also we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will” (Eph. 1:3, 11). God the Father has appointed Jesus Christ the “heir of all things” (Heb. 1:2), and because we are fellow heirs with Him, we are destined to receive all that He receives!
In the arithmetic of earth, if each heir receives an equal share of an inheritance, each gets only a certain fraction of the whole amount. But heaven is not under such limits, and every adopted child of God will receive the full inheritance with the Son. Everything that Christ receives by divine right, we will receive by divine grace. The parable of the laborers in Matthew 20:1–16 illustrates this graciousness, showing that all who serve Christ will receive the same eternal reward, irrespective of differences in their service.
Believers one day will enter into the eternal joy of their Master (Matt. 25:21), who, for the sake of that joy, “endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:2). Believers will sit on the heavenly throne with Christ and rule there with Him (Rev. 3:21; cf. 20:4; Luke 22:30), bearing forever the very image of their Savior and Lord (1 Cor. 15:49; 1 John 3:2). In the infinite “grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, … though He was rich, yet for [our] sake He became poor, that [we] through His poverty might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9). In His great high priestly prayer, Jesus spoke to His Father of the incredible and staggering truth that everyone who believes in Him will be one with Him and will share His full glory: “The glory which Thou hast given Me I have given to them; that they may be one, just as We are one” (John 17:22). We will not intrude on Christ’s prerogatives, because, in His gracious will, He Himself bestows His glory on us and asks His Father to confirm that endowment.
It is not that believers will become gods, as some cults teach, but that we will receive, by our joint inheritance with Christ, all the blessings and grandeur that God has. We are “justified by His grace [in order that] we might be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life” (Titus 3:7). Jesus Christ “is the mediator of a new covenant, in order that since a death has taken place for the redemption of the transgressions that were committed under the first covenant, those who have been called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance” (Heb. 9:15).
The Christian who is not eagerly looking for Christ’s Second Coming and living his life in accordance with Christ’s will is too tied to this earth. But according to God’s Word, only those believers who have an eternal perspective, who are truly heavenly-minded, can be of service to Him on earth, because they are freed from the earthly desires and motivations that hinder the obedience of many of His children. Faithful believers are fruitful believers, and they know that their true citizenship is in heaven (Phil. 3:20) and that their inheritance is a promise of God (Heb. 6:12), who cannot lie and who is always faithful to fulfill His promises.
When Paul was caught up into the third heaven, he beheld sights and heard utterances that were beyond human description (2 Cor. 12:2–4). Even the inspired apostle was unable to depict the grandeur, majesty, and glory of heaven. Yet every believer some day not only will behold and comprehend those divine wonders but will share fully in them.
“And everyone who has this hope fixed on Him purifies himself, just as He is pure,” John tells us (1 John 3:3). The hope and expectation of sharing in God’s own glory should motivate every believer to dedicate himself to living purely while he is still on earth. Only a holy life is fully usable by God, and only a holy life is rightly prepared to receive the inheritance of the Lord.
One day everything on earth will perish and disappear, because the whole earth is defiled and corrupted. By great and marvelous contrast, however, one day every believer will “obtain an inheritance which is imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away, reserved in heaven for [him]” (1 Pet. 1:4). Our present earthly life as believers is merely an “introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand,” and our ultimate hope and joy are “in hope of the glory of God” (Rom. 5:2). Because of his constant confidence in that ultimate inheritance, Paul could say, “I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need” (Phil. 4:12). It was also in light of our ultimate divine inheritance that Jesus admonished, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal; for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matt. 6:19–21).
The Proof of Glory
if indeed we suffer with Him in order that we may also be glorified with Him. (8:17d)
As in the beginning of the verse, if does not here connote possibility but actuality, and is better rendered “because,” or “inasmuch.” Paul is declaring that, strange as it seems to the earthly mind, the present proof of the believer’s ultimate glory comes through suffering on his Lord’s behalf. Because we suffer with Him, we know that we will also be glorified with Him. Jesus closed the Beatitudes on the same note when He gave a double promise of blessing for those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, that is, for His sake (Matt. 5:10–12).
Because the present world system is under the reign of Satan, the world despises God and the people of God. It is therefore inevitable that whether persecution comes in the form of mere verbal abuse at one extreme or as martyrdom at the other extreme, no believer is exempt from the possibility of paying a price for his faith. When we suffer mockery, scorn, ridicule, or any other form of persecution because of our relationship to Jesus Christ, we can take that affliction as divine proof we truly belong to Christ and that our hope of heavenly glory is not in vain, that ultimately we will also be glorified with Him.
Many of God’s promises are not what we think of as “positive.” Jesus promised, “A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a slave above his master. It is enough for the disciple that he become as his teacher, and the slave as his master. If they have called the head of the house Beelzebul, how much more the members of his household!” (Matt. 10:24–25). Paul promised that “all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3:12; cf. 2:11). Peter implies the same promise of persecution in his first epistle: “And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself perfect, confirm, strengthen and establish you” (1 Pet. 5:10). Suffering is an integral part of the process of spiritual maturity, and Peter assumes that every true believer will undergo some degree of suffering for the Lord’s sake. Those who will reign with Christ in the life to come will enjoy the rewards for their suffering for Him during their life on earth.
Paul declares with confidence and joy, “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not despairing; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed: always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body. For we who live are constantly being delivered over to death for Jesus’ sake, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh” (2 Cor. 4:8–11). Paul was willing to suffer for the sake of his fellow believers and for the sake of those who needed to believe, but his greatest motivation for suffering was the glory his suffering brought to God. “For all things are for your sakes,” he went on to say, “that the grace which is spreading to more and more people may cause the giving of thanks to abound to the glory of God” (v. 15). Yet he also willingly suffered for his own sake, because he knew that his travail for the sake of Christ would accrue to his own benefit. “Therefore we do not lose heart,” he said, “but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day. For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison” (vv. 16–17).
The more a believer suffers in this life for the sake of his Lord, the greater will be his capacity for glory in heaven. Jesus made this relationship clear in Matthew 20:21–23, when He told James, John, and their mother that elevation to prominence in the future kingdom will be related to experiencing the depths of the cup of suffering through humiliation here and now. As with the relationship between works and rewards (see 1 Cor. 3:12–15), the spiritual quality of our earthly life will, in some divinely determined way, affect the quality of our heavenly life. It should be added that since the ultimate destiny of believers is to glorify God, it seems certain that our heavenly rewards and glory in essence will be capacities for glorifying Him.
The suffering in this life creates reactions that reflect the genuine condition of the soul. God allows suffering to drive believers to dependence on Him-an evidence of their true salvation.
Suffering because of our faith not only gives evidence that we belong to God and are destined for heaven but also is a type of preparation for heaven. That is why Paul was so eager to experience “the fellowship of [Christ’s] sufferings, being conformed to His death” (Phil. 3:10) and was so determined to “press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (v. 14).
The more we willingly suffer for Christ’s sake on earth, the more we are driven to depend on Him rather than on our own resources and the more we are infused with His power. Suffering for Christ draws us closer to Christ. Our suffering for Him also enables us to better appreciate the sufferings He endured for our sakes during His incarnation. Whatever ridicule, rejection, ostracism, loss, imprisonment, physical pain, or type of death we may have to suffer for Christ is nothing compared to what we will gain. As already cited, these sufferings, no matter how severe they seem at the time, are no more than momentary, light afflictions which are “producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison” (2 Cor. 4:17).
Our being born again, our being given hope through Christ’s resurrection, our obtaining an imperishable inheritance with Him, and our protection by God’s power give us reason to “greatly rejoice” (1 Pet. 1:3–6a). The apostle then reminds his readers, however, that “now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials, that the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (vv. 6b-7).
Our eternal capacity to glorify God in heaven will depend on our willingness to suffer for God while we are on earth. As mentioned above, persecution of some sort is not merely a possibility for true believers but an absolute certainty. “If the world hates you,” Jesus assures His followers, “you know that it has hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A slave is not greater than his master’ If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you; if they kept My word, they will keep yours also. But all these things they will do to you for My name’s sake, because they do not know the One who sent Me” (John 15:18–21).
To take a strong biblical stand for Christ is to guarantee some kind of opposition, alienation, affliction, and rejection by the world. Unfortunately, it also often brings criticism from those who profess to know God but by their deeds deny Him (Titus 1:16).
Yet we also have the Lord’s wonderful assurance that nothing we suffer for His sake will do us any lasting harm, because “just as the sufferings of Christ are ours in abundance, so also our comfort is abundant through Christ” (2 Cor. 1:5). We have no greater privilege and no greater guarantee of glory than to suffer for Christ’s sake.
The so-called health and wealth and prosperity gospels that abound today are not true to the gospel of Christ but reflect the message of the world. The world’s seemingly good news offers temporary escape from problems and hardship. Christ’s good news includes the promise of suffering for His sake.
No Longer Slaves But Sons
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.” The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.
We are continuing to study the section of Romans 8 in which, for the first time in the letter, Paul introduces the thought of Christians being members of God’s family. The section begins technically with verse 15 and continues through verse 17, though the phrase “sons of God” was introduced in verse 14 and the words “sons of God” and “children of God” are also used later. Paul’s development of this idea makes these verses among the most important in the chapter.
It is important to see how they fit in. Remember that the apostle’s overall theme in Romans 8 is assurance, the doctrine that Christians can know that they truly are Christians and that, because they are, nothing will ever separate them from the love of God. The experience of assurance demands that we actually be God’s children. For this reason I have stressed the need to test our profession. It would be fatal to presume in this matter. However, the chapter has not been written to make us uncertain of our salvation, but to give assurance of it, and that is where these verses come in. They give multiple and connecting reasons, one in each of the four verses, why the child of God can know that he or she really is a member of God’s family.
Robert Haldane puts it like this:
Here and in the following verses the apostle exhibits four proofs of our being the sons of God. The first is our being led by the Spirit of God; the second is the Spirit of adoption which we receive, crying, “Abba, Father,” verse 15; the third is the witness of the Spirit with our spirits, verse 16; the fourth is our sufferings in the communion of Jesus Christ; to which is joined the fruit of our sonship, the Apostle saying that if children, we are heirs of God, and then joint heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together.
We looked at the first of these proofs in the previous study. We will look at the fourth in the next. In this study we will look at proofs two and three, adoption and the witness of the Spirit with our spirits, which belong together.
Adopted by God
We begin with verse 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.’ ” The chief idea in this verse, which is also a new idea, is “adoption,” though this is obscured somewhat by the New International Version, which speaks of “sonship.” But the Greek word is huiothesia, which means “to have an installation or placement as a son” and is the technical Greek word for “adoption” (the term used in kjv). Adoption is the procedure by which a person is taken from one family (or no family) and placed in another. In this context, it refers to removing a person from the family of Adam (or Satan) and placing him or her in the family of God.
Adoption is related to regeneration, or the new birth, but they are not the same thing. Regeneration has to do with our receiving a new life or new nature. Adoption has to do with our receiving a new status.
But first we need to back up and consider a problem. It comes from the way Paul uses the word spirit in this verse. You will notice that “spirit” occurs twice, once in the phrase “a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear” (kjv uses the words “spirit of bondage”) and a second time in the phrase “Spirit of sonship [or adoption].” The question is: To what do these two words refer?
The word spirit can refer to either of two things in the Bible, either the Holy Spirit or a human spirit, or disposition. These two meanings, in various combinations, give us three possible interpretations of the verse.
- Both occurrences of “spirit” can be taken as referring to the human spirit. Those who think this way believe that Paul is talking about a person’s disposition or feelings in both cases and would interpret the verse as saying that we used to be fearful but that now, following our conversion and because of it, we have a cheerful spirit of adoption by which we call God “Father.” That is probably true enough. But there are good reasons for thinking that Paul is saying something considerably more important in this passage.
- The second possibility is to take both occurrences of the word as referring to the Holy Spirit. Martyn Lloyd-Jones does this, referring the first to the time in our lives in which we are presumed to come under the conviction of sin but in which we have not yet come forth into the liberty of the gospel. This is an important point with Lloyd-Jones, since it is linked to his interpretation of Romans 7:7–25. He takes over two hundred pages to expound this and other points in his treatment of Romans 8:15–16. Donald Grey Barnhouse also takes both occurrences as referring to the Holy Spirit, but he views the “spirit of bondage” as the time in which the people of God, the Jews, lived under the law of Moses, that is, before the coming of Christ.3 John Murray refers both to the Holy Spirit but in a specialized sense, as meaning, “[You] did not receive the Holy Spirit as a Spirit of bondage but as a Spirit of adoption.”
- The third view is a combination of the two, in which the first word is taken as referring to the human spirit and the second as referring to the Holy Spirit. This is the view reflected in most translations, such as the New International Version, where the first “spirit” appears with a lowercase s and the second with a capital.
In my judgment, there is no question but that the second use of the word must refer to the Holy Spirit, if for no other reason than that it appears in precisely this way in the parallel verse in Galatians: “Because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out ‘Abba, Father’ ” (Gal. 4:6). However, it is not so easy to say what the first use of the word refers to. Clearly, it could refer to the Holy Spirit negatively, which is how Murray sees it (“You did not receive the Holy Spirit as a Spirit of bondage but as a Spirit of adoption”). But if we take the parallel passage in Galatians seriously and apply that context here, it seems that the bondage involved is bondage to the law and that the contrast is between that bondage and the grace and freedom from trying to serve God by the law, which came through Jesus Christ (cf. Gal. 4:1–7).
Moreover, this interpretation fits Romans. For Paul has been talking about the Christian’s former state—in which, being in Adam, we were enslaved to sin—and he has argued that we have been delivered from that former bondage by the Holy Spirit. Now he adds that this new state, which conveys freedom from bondage, also contains the privileges of sonship.
The word adoption is not common in the New Testament, being used only by Paul and that only five times (three times in Romans), and it does not occur in the Old Testament at all, since the Jews did not practice adoption. They had other procedures, polygamy and Levirate marriage, for dealing with the problems of widows and orphans and inheritance.
Paul took the idea of adoption from Greek and Roman law, probably for two reasons. First, he was writing to Greeks and Romans (in this case to members of the church at Rome), so adoption, being part of their culture, was something they would all very readily understand. Second, the word was useful to him because “it signified being granted the full rights and privileges of sonship in a family to which one does not belong by nature.” That is exactly what happens to believers in salvation.
Our Father in Heaven
I have spoken of adoption as giving the adopted one a new status. But “new status” may not be the best description of what happens. What is really involved is a set of new relationships—new relationships to other people, both believers and unbelievers, but above all a new relationship to God. When we speak of salvation as justification, we are thinking of God as Judge. That is a remote and somewhat grim relationship. When we think of regeneration, we are thinking of God as Creator. That, too, is remote. But when we think of adoption, we are thinking of God as our Father, which denotes a far closer relationship.
This is why the apostle says that the Spirit of adoption causes us to cry out, “Abba, Father.”
It is important to recognize that our authority to call God “Father” goes back to Jesus Christ. It goes back to no less important a statement than the opening phrases of the Lord’s Prayer, which begins, “Our Father in heaven . . .” (Matt. 6:9). Today we take the right to call God “our Father” for granted, but we need to understand how new and startlingly original this must have been for Christ’s contemporaries. No Old Testament Jew ever addressed God directly as “my Father.”
This has been documented in a thoroughly German way by Ernst Lohmeyer, in a book called “Our Father,” and by Joachim Jeremias, in an essay entitled “Abba” and a booklet called The Lord’s Prayer. According to these scholars: (1) the title was new with Jesus; (2) Jesus always used this form of address in praying; and (3) Jesus authorized his disciples to use the same word after him.
No one would deny that in one sense the title of “father” for God is as old as religion. Homer wrote of “Father Zeus, who rules over the gods and mortal men,” and Aristotle explained that Homer was right because “paternal rule over children is like that of a king over his subjects” and “Zeus is king of us all.” In those days “father” meant “lord,” or “master,” which is what all kings (as well as fathers) were. The important point, however, is that the address was always impersonal. In Greek thought their God could be called a “father” in the same way that a king might be called a father of his country. So, too, do we call George Washington the father of our country. But the deity is never pictured as “my father” or “our father” in Greek writing.
The situation is similar in the Old Testament. Occasionally the word father will be used as a designation for God, but it is not frequent and it is never personal. In fact, it occurs only fourteen times in the whole of the Old Testament. God refers to Israel as “my firstborn son” (Exod. 4:22), and David says, “As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him” (Ps. 103:13). Although Isaiah writes, “Yet, O Lord, you are our Father” (Isa. 64:8), in none of these passages does any individual Jew address God directly as “my Father.” In fact, in most of these passages the point is that Israel has not lived up to the family relationship.
Thus, Jeremiah reports God as saying, “How gladly would I treat you like sons and give you a desirable land, the most beautiful inheritance of any nation. I thought you would call me ‘Father’ and not turn away from following me. But like a woman unfaithful to her husband, so you have been unfaithful to me, O house of Israel” (Jer. 3:19–20). Similarly, Hosea records God’s words: “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. But the more I called Israel, the further they went from me . . .” (Hos. 11:1–2).
Moreover, in the time of Jesus the distance between the people and God, suggested by the detached reverence by which God was customarily addressed, was widening rather than growing more narrow. The names of God were more and more withheld from public speech and prayers. And the great name for God, the Tetragrammaton (YHWH), usually translated “Jehovah” or “Yahweh,” was so protected that we do not know even today precisely how it was pronounced.
The reason is that it was not pronounced, and no indication of how it should be pronounced was given. Whenever the word Jehovah appeared in the sacred text, the vowel pointing for the word Adonai, which means “Lord,” was substituted for the vowel pointing of the divine name. This was to remind readers to say “Adonai” instead of “Jehovah,” which is what they did. God was considered to be too transcendent to be directly addressed, and his name was considered too holy to be on human lips. So the distance between God and man continued to grow wider.
All this was completely overturned by Jesus Christ. He always called God “Father,” and this fact must have impressed itself in an extraordinary way upon the disciples. Not only do all four of the Gospels record that Jesus used this address, but they report that he did so in all his prayers. The only exception—the cry from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46; Mark 15:34)—enforces the importance of this point. That prayer was wrung from Christ’s lips at the moment in which he was made sin for us and in which the relationship he had with his Father was in some measure temporarily broken. At all other times Jesus boldly assumed a relationship to God that was considered to be highly irreverent or even blasphemous by his contemporaries.
This is of great significance for our prayers. Jesus was the Son of God in a unique sense, and God was uniquely his Father. He came to God in prayer as God’s unique Son. We are not like him. Nevertheless, Jesus revealed that this same relationship can be enjoyed by all who believe on him, all whose sins are removed by his suffering. They can come to God as God’s children. God can be their own personal Father.
But even this is not all. When Jesus addressed God as Father he did not use the normal word for father. He used the Aramaic word abba, which is what Paul quotes in Romans 8:15 and the parallel text in Galatians 4:6. Obviously this word was so striking to the disciples that they remembered it in its Aramaic form and repeated it in Aramaic even when they were speaking Greek or writing their Gospels or letters in Greek. Mark used it in his account of Christ’s prayer in Gethsemane (“Abba, Father, everything is possible for you,” Mark 14:36). Paul used it in the texts we are studying.
What does abba mean specifically?
The early church fathers, Chrysostom, Theodor of Mopsuestia, and Theodore of Cyrrhus, who came from Antioch, where Aramaic was spoken, and who probably had Aramaic-speaking nurses, unanimously testified that abba was the address of small children to their fathers. The Talmud confirms this when it says that when a child is weaned “it learns to say abba and imma” (that is, “daddy” and “mommy”).
So this is what abba really means: daddy. To a Jewish mind a prayer addressing God as daddy would not only have been improper, it would have been irreverent to the highest degree. Yet this is what Jesus said in his prayers, and it quite naturally stuck in the minds of the disciples. It was something very unique when Jesus taught his disciples to call God “daddy.”
Now let me back up to something I said in the previous study when I was trying to explain how the Holy Spirit leads us. I spoke of his work upon our hearts, producing affection or love for God. A good illustration is the story of the prodigal son. When he came to his senses he remembered his father, his affection was quickened, and he determined to get up and go to him. That is the attitude the Holy Spirit creates in our hearts to assure us that we are no longer the devil’s children but rather are God’s sons and daughters. We now know that God is our loving Father, and because we know this we are drawn to him.
Witness of the Spirit
We come finally to the third verse in this four-verse section, a verse that gives another reason for knowing we are in God’s family. It says, “The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children” (v. 16). There is no question what the two “spirits” refer to in this verse. The first is the Holy Spirit. The second is our human spirit. But it is not so clear about what this third proof of our being children of God consists.
One thing is clear. There is a contrast between verse 15, in which we give testimony to this new relationship, crying “Abba, Father,” and verse 16, in which the Holy Spirit himself bears witness. Verse 16 concerns the Holy Spirit’s witness, which is separate from our own. But what is this witness? How is it separate from what Paul has already said (and I have been discussing)?
I know that what I am going to say now will be misunderstood by some people and that a few may even condemn it as being wrong and dangerous, especially some in the Reformed tradition. But what I am convinced this teaches is that there is such a thing as a direct witness of the Holy Spirit to believers that they are sons or daughters of God, even apart from the other “proofs” I have mentioned. In other words, it is possible to have a genuine experience of the Holy Spirit in one’s heart.
Experience of the Spirit? I know the objections. I know that no spiritual experience is ever necessarily valid in itself. Any such experience can be counterfeited, and the devil’s counterfeits can be very good indeed. But the fact that a spiritual experience can be counterfeited does not invalidate all of them.
I also know that those who seek experiences of the Holy Spirit frequently run to excess and fall into unbiblical ideas and practices. Every such experience must be tested by Scripture. But in spite of these objections, which are important, I still say that there can be a direct experience of the Spirit that is valid testimony to the fact that one is truly God’s child.
Haven’t you ever had such an experience? An overwhelming sense of God’s presence? Or haven’t you at some point, perhaps at many points in your life, been aware that God has come upon you in a special way and that there is no doubt whatever that what you are experiencing is from God? You may have been moved to tears. You may have deeply felt some other sign of God’s presence, by which you were certainly moved to a greater and more wonderful love for him.
This has been a very common experience in revivals. Martyn Lloyd-Jones illustrates it by many dozens of pages of revival-time teaching and testimony. While I believe he is mistaken in referring to this as a “baptism of the Holy Spirit,” I nevertheless believe that he is correct in calling it a genuine and desirable reality.
If this idea is foreign to you or if it seems dangerous, perhaps you are not ready for it at this point. Let it go. You have plenty to occupy yourself with in what has already been taught in verses 14 and 15. But if you have had any of these intensely spiritual moments, perhaps in your quiet times or while sitting in a church service, thank God for them. Know that they do not replace any of the other things I have stressed. The Bible is primary. But rejoice that God also has a way of making himself so real to us that we are actually lifted up, even in hard times, and are assured by that spiritual whisper of divine love that we are and always will be God’s children.
The Inheritance of God’s Saints
Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.
Romans 8:17 introduces us to two important biblical ideas: suffering and glory. Or, as Ray Stedman says, “the hurts and hallelujahs.” The verse begins with the glory, talks about suffering, and ends with glory again. The first statement is that children of God are God’s heirs and co-heirs with Jesus Christ.
What a marvelous thing this is, to be an heir of God himself! Sometimes children hope fondly for what they might inherit from their parents, but quite often these very human hopes are disappointing. One of the richest men who ever lived was Cecil Rhodes (1853–1902), an Englishman who emigrated to South Africa for health reasons and there amassed a vast fortune through diamond mining. He died when he was only forty-nine, and in his will he left most of his riches not to his immediate family, much to their resentment, but to endow the famous Rhodes scholarships.
“Well, there it is,” said his brother Arthur when the disappointing news reached him. “It seems I shall have to win a scholarship.”
The French writer of the Middle Ages, Francois Rabelais, who was also a Franciscan friar, made the following will: “I owe much. I possess nothing. I give the rest to the poor.”
How different with God. God owes nothing, he possesses everything, and he gives it all to his children.
True and False Evangelism
There are certain things we need to know about our spiritual inheritance, however, and the first is that it is laid up for us in heaven, that is, in the future. This should be almost self-evident, but it is important to emphasize it in light of a certain kind of evangelism that has been developed in our age.
This evangelism says, “Jesus died to give you abundant life now, and this means that he has promised to provide all you either need or want. If you are in trouble, he will solve your troubles. If you are unhappy, he will make you happy. If you are discouraged, he will lift you up and give you a joyful and unquenchable heart song. Whatever your needs may be, Jesus is the provision for those needs. Tell him about them. Claim the answers to those needs by faith.” In some of its more extreme expressions, this teaching has become what is called a “health and prosperity” gospel.
During their brief reign on religious television, Jim and Tammy Bakker preached this kind of evangelism. They taught that God would make believers rich and prosperous. Tammy said, “When I tell God what car I want, I even tell him the color.”
Such a gospel forgets that Jesus came not to bring peace but a sword, and that his call to discipleship says, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). It is why, in our text, Paul follows his statement that if we are God’s children, we are heirs of God with a sober reminder: “if indeed we share in his sufferings.” True Christianity is honest at this point. It does not deny that there are very important promises for this life—promises that God will be with us in trouble, provide an inner peace in turmoil, minister comfort when we are distressed, and never leave us. But the basic idea is not that we shall escape trouble here but rather be given grace to go through it. And the blessings of our inheritance are almost entirely reserved for us in heaven.
D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones says, “True evangelism does not offer some panacea for all the ills in our life in this world; it does not promise to make us perfect in a moment or set the whole world right. It says rather, ‘In the world ye shall have tribulation; but fear not, I have overcome the world.’ ”
The Inheritance to Come
So we start from the truth that most of our rewards are in the future. But then we immediately what to ask: “Of what does our inheritance consist?” What will believers actually possess in heaven? There are a number of things that I call “lesser items,” and then there is the greatest prize of all.
The Lesser Items
- A heavenly home. The first thing that comes to mind here is the promise of a heavenly home that Jesus made to his disciples just before his arrest and crucifixion. He said, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am” (John 14:1–3). This is a place prepared especially for all believers, and it is guaranteed by no less an authority than the Lord of glory himself, Jesus Christ.
- A heavenly banquet. In several of his parables the Lord spoke of a heavenly banquet to which his own are invited. In one story he told of a great wedding supper to which many were invited who later refused to come, and of how the master sent to unexpected places to find guests (Matt. 22:1–14; cf. Luke 14:15–24). In another parable it is a banquet prepared for the prodigal son (Luke 15:11–32). In still another it is a wedding feast to which five wise women are admitted and five foolish women are shut out (Matt. 25:1–13). There are similar but passing references to other occasions of shared celebration.
These stories present our inheritance as joy and secure fellowship. We have a foretaste of these things in our observance of the Lord’s Supper, which looks forward to the coming great marriage supper of the Lamb.
- Rule with Christ. Another feature of our inheritance is that we will rule with Jesus in his kingdom. There is some difference among Bible scholars as to whether this refers to an earthly rule with Christ in some future age or to a heavenly rule only. But whatever its full meaning, there is no doubt that some important ruling authority is promised. Paul told Timothy, “If we endure, we will also reign with him” (2 Tim. 2:12). In one of his parables, Jesus spoke of servants who had shown their faithfulness during their master’s absence being awarded cities over which to reign in the master’s kingdom (Luke 19:11–27).
- Likeness to Christ. One of the promised blessings, which means a great deal to me, is that we will be made like Jesus himself. John writes about it in his first letter, using language similar to Paul’s in Romans 8. “Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:1–2). It is hard to imagine a greater inheritance than to be made like the Lord Jesus Christ in all his attributes.
The Lord, Our Portion
In view of the magnitude of those last four items, why did I call them “lesser”? Because of the amazing and infinitely greater blessing that awaits us as “heirs of God.”
Let me begin by reminding you of a grammatical distinction, namely that there are two kinds of genitives in most languages. One genitive is what grammarians call a subjective genitive, the other is what they call an objective genitive. Here are examples: “the love of money” and “the value of money.” In each case the words “of money” are the genitive, having to do with possession. In the first phrase, “money” is the object, since it is the thing loved. The person involved has a love for money. In the second phrase, “of money” is still the genitive, but here it is the subject. The phrase does not refer to an individual who values money. It speaks of “money’s value,” value that money possesses.
Now take another phrase: “love of God.” Is that a subjective genitive or an objective genitive? That answer is that, in this case, it can be either. If God is the subject, the phrase refers to God’s love for us. If God is the object, it means that we have a love for God. Since the words can have either meaning, the interpretation has to be determined by the context.
With that distinction in mind, let’s come back to our text to the phrase “heirs of God.” Is this a subjective or an objective genitive? Again, it could be either. If it is a subjective genitive, then God is the subject and the meaning is that we belong to God as God’s heirs. He has fixed his love upon us and made us his heirs by grace. If it is an objective genitive, then the meaning is that we have God as our inheritance. This is the boldest of the two possibilities, but it is what I am convinced Paul is saying here.
Here are my reasons.
First, this is taught in the Old Testament, which Paul certainly knew and from which he often borrowed. It is true that the Old Testament often speaks of the land of promise as the people’s inheritance. This was a literal, earthly inheritance, though it was connected with God’s greater promises to the patriarchs and their descendants. The important thing, however, is that it is transcended by passages that speak of God himself as their inheritance. Psalm 73:25–26, for instance, says:
Whom have I in heaven but you?
And earth has nothing I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart
and my portion forever.
Or Lamentations 3:24, “I say to myself, ‘The Lord is my portion; therefore I will wait for him.’ ”
This greater reality was kept before the people in an interesting way in regard to the inheritance of the tribe of Levi, an inheritance given to them when the people invaded Canaan to possess it in the days of Joshua. You will recall that the land was divided tribe by tribe, along the lines specified by Moses even before the conquest. Each got its predetermined portion: Reuben, half tribe of Manasseh, Gad, Judah, Ephraim, the other half tribe of Manasseh, and all the others. Except Levi! Levi was the tribe of priests. They were scattered throughout the land in the forty-eight priestly towns, from which they were to serve the whole people in God’s name. They had no inheritance because, as it was said of them, “the God of Israel, is their inheritance, as he promised them” (Josh. 13:33).
In the case of Israel, the land was certainly a good thing, promised from the time of Abraham. But the truly great inheritance was God himself. The purpose of scattering the Levites was to remind them of it.
Second, Romans 8:17 speaks of our being “co-heirs with Christ.” That is, we inherit whatever we do inherit along with him. But as soon as we ask, “What does Jesus inherit?” all the items I mentioned earlier do not seem to fit. Jesus does not inherit heaven or a home in heaven; he has gone there to prepare a place for us. He does not actually inherit a kingdom over which he is to rule, though we can sometimes think of it like that; rather, he is already the ruler, the sovereign God. Similarly, neither the heavenly banquet nor his own character can rightly be said to be something willed to him or passed on to him by God.
What is Jesus’ inheritance, then? The only thing that can properly be said to be his inheritance is the Father. This is what he had in mind in his great prayer just before his crucifixion. He prayed, “I have brought you glory on earth by completing the work you gave me to do. And now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began” (John 17:4–5).
Christ’s inheritance is the glory of God, which means the vision of, participation in, and enjoyment of God himself. This is exactly the flow of the thought in Romans 8:17. For having spoken of our being heirs and having reminded us that we must enter into our possession by the gate of suffering, Paul ends up again with glory, reminding us that “we may also share in his [Christ’s] glory,” which is the glory of God.
Third, elsewhere in his writings, although not here, Paul speaks of the Holy Spirit who is given to us as the “earnest” (or “deposit”) guaranteeing our inheritance (Eph. 1:14; cf. 2 Cor. 1:22, 5:5). An earnest is a pledge of something greater, but it is more than a mere document, bill of sale, or contract. It is a part of what is actually to come later. For example, when we buy a house we usually guarantee our intent to purchase it by making a prepayment of a small amount, a cash pledge of the greater amount to come. So, if the earnest of our inheritance is the Holy Spirit and the Holy Spirit is God—as he is, being the third person of the Trinity—then the full inheritance must be God himself.
Robert Haldane, who often writes brilliantly on the deepest subjects, says at this point, “God is the portion of his people, and in him, who is ‘the possessor of heaven and earth,’ they are heirs of all things. … God is allsufficient, and this is an all-sufficient inheritance. God is eternal and unchangeable, and therefore it is an eternal inheritance—an inheritance incorruptible, undefiled and that fadeth not away. … It is God himself, then, who is the inheritance of his children. … He communicates himself to them by his grace, his light, his holiness, his life.”
If God is our inheritance, we can be assured of salvation, since nothing is going to move God. Nothing is ever going to dispossess us of our heavenly inheritance.
All of this would be mere pie-in-the-sky if it did not have a practical effect on us, however. Yet that is precisely what it does have, if we truly believe this and are thinking this way.
Consider Abraham. The history of God’s acts of redemption begins with Abraham when God called him out of his own country and sent him into a new land that he would show him, promising, “I will bless you … and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Gen. 12:2–3). This calling contained the promise of a land, but it was far more than that. By promising a blessing to the nations through Abraham, God was also promising the Redeemer who was to come through his offspring. That promise was amplified throughout Abraham’s long life, and it was this upon which Abraham’s faith and hope fixed. This is why, when the author of Hebrews came to praise Abraham for his faith in the great chapter on the heroes of the faith (chap. 11), he says of Abraham, “By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (Heb. 11:9–10).
“Heirs” of the promise? Yes, but the promise was not earthly. It was a promise of great spiritual blessing to be fulfilled ultimately in heaven.
It is the same with all the other heroes of the faith in this chapter. This is the point of Hebrews 11.
“By faith Abel offered God a better sacrifice than Cain did,” and God accounted him to be “a righteous man” (v. 4). Abel received no earthly inheritance. He was murdered for his righteous stand. But he received a reward in heaven.
Enoch was a preacher. He preached of judgment before the great flood, warning the ungodly of his day to repent and flee from sin to God. He preached for three hundred years, but he had no reward here. He was utterly unsuccessful. No one was converted, and when the time for the flood came the only ones who were saved were Noah, his wife, and their immediate family. Enoch pleased no one on earth. But he has this testimony: “he was commended as one who pleased God” (v. 5b).
What did Noah inherit? Everything he had was swept away by the flood. Yet the writer says of him, “By his faith he condemned the world and became heir of the righteousness that comes by faith” (v. 7b).
Isaac and Jacob lived with Abraham in tents, having no real inheritance here. But they looked to the future and hoped for that (vv. 20–21), though they sometimes did it badly.
Joseph lost his home and his freedom for righteousness’ sake. And even though God later advanced him and made him second in power only to Pharaoh of Egypt, Joseph’s hopes were not there. He hoped in God’s promise, in proof of which he gave instructions that his body was not to be buried in one of the Egyptian tombs but was to be carried from Egypt to Canaan when God eventually led the people out of slavery (v. 22; cf. Gen. 50:24–25).
Moses had no love for earth’s treasures. He sought no earthly reward. Rather, he turned his back on the riches of Egypt, regarding “disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt, because he was looking ahead to his reward” (v. 26).
It was the same with all the Old Testament believers: Rahab, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, and the prophets. Such heroes of faith “were tortured and refused to be released, so that they might gain a better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. … They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised” (vv. 35–39, emphasis added).
Not then! But they have received it now. They have gone before us to take possession of the inheritance prepared in heaven for God’s saints.
Why should we expect it to be any different for us? It will not be. So why, when all Scripture teaches that our inheritance is in heaven and not on earth, should we spend so much effort trying to amass our fortunes here? Or why should we expect our lives to proceed along a gentle primrose path, when others gained heaven only by a sail through bloody seas?
I recently came across some wonderful words by Charles Haddon Spurgeon. They were written for preachers to encourage them to keep on in tough times, but the message is equally good for anyone. It goes like this:
Be not surprised when friends fail you: it is a failing world.
Never count upon immutability in man: inconstancy you may reckon upon without fear of disappointment. The disciples of Jesus forsook him; be not amazed if your adherents wander away to other teachers: as they were not your all when with you, all is not gone from you with their departure.
Serve God with all your might while the candle is burning, and then when it goes out for a season, you will have the less to regret.
Be content to be nothing, for that is what you are. When your own emptiness is painfully forced upon your consciousness, chide yourself that you ever dreamed of being full, except in the Lord.
Set small store by present rewards; be grateful for earnests by the way, but look for recompensing joy hereafter.
Continue with double earnestness to serve your Lord when no visible result is before you. Any simpleton can follow the narrow path in the light: faith’s rare wisdom enables us to march on in the dark with infallible accuracy, since she places her hand in that of her Great Guide.
Between this and heaven there may be rougher weather yet, but it is all provided for by our covenant Head. In nothing let us be turned aside from the path which the divine call has urged us to pursue. Come fair or come foul, the pulpit is our watch-tower, and the ministry our warfare; be it ours, when we cannot see the face of our God, to trust under the shadow of his wings.
Suffering: The Path to Glory
Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.
I do not think it was very good exegesis, but it was intriguing. A number of years ago a churchgoer asked a minister the meaning of the word reproof in 2 Timothy 3:16 (“All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness,” kjv). The minister replied this way: “It means proof of doctrine, and then proof and proof again— re-proof.” As I say, I do not think that is correct. I think the New International Version is right when it translates the Greek word elegmos as “rebuking.” Still there is something to be said for “re-proofing.”
In fact, it is what we have in Romans 8:14–17.
Several studies back, when we were in the midst of this section (at v. 15), I pointed out that verses 14–17 contain four proofs of our being sons and daughters of God, if the Holy Spirit has indeed brought us into God’s family. First, we are led by God’s Spirit. This refers to our conduct. If we are following after Christ in true and obedient discipleship, then we are Christ’s and can be assured of salvation. Second, we have the internal witness of our spirits by which we cry “Abba, Father.” We know that we have a new family relationship to God. Third, the Holy Spirit witnesses to us. I described this as an overwhelming sense of God’s presence, something most Christians have experienced, though they may not understand it or know how to describe it. Fourth, we participate in Christ’s sufferings.
These items are certainly proof and re-proof, being four good reasons why a child of God can know that he or she really does belong to God and that nothing in heaven or earth will ever snatch him or her away from God’s love or break the family relationship.
The Problem of Suffering
But why should Paul introduce the idea of suffering, of all things—and at this point? None of us would do it. If we were trying to assure Christians that they really are Christians and their salvation is secure, suffering is probably the last thing we would mention. We think of it in the “problem” category. Hugh Evan Hopkins wrote a book called The Mystery of Suffering. C. S. Lewis called his book The Problem of Pain. Most of us are probably closest to Rabbi Harold S. Kushner’s approach when he titled his problem-solving book When Bad Things Happen to Good People.
We Christians acknowledge the problem of suffering and sometimes wrestle with it. But few of us would think of presenting it as a proof that the suffering person is a true child of God. It would seem to be the other way around.
So why does Paul drag the subject in here?
The first reason, surely, is that he was a realist. More than that, as an evangelist and a pastor, he knew that the people to whom he was writing were suffering. The early ministers of the gospel began to suffer for the gospel as soon as they began to obey Christ’s Great Commission. Peter and John were jailed. Stephen was killed. Paul himself was imprisoned, beaten, shipwrecked, starved, threatened, and exposed to the elements. And what was true of these early preachers soon became true of their followers as well. They were ridiculed, hated, abused, and eventually martyred for their faith in great numbers. In addition, they endured the many disappointments, deaths, deprivations, and disasters common to all human life in a fallen and extremely sinful world.
Read the New Testament with suffering in mind and you will be startled to discover how extensively it is mentioned. Jesus said, “In this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33b). Most of the New Testament epistles have important discussions about suffering.
Suffering is as common to God’s people today as in New Testament times. We need to understand that. It is true that most of us do not experience that special kind of suffering we call persecution, though our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world do. But we all know suffering. We suffer when we lose a husband or wife or other family member through death. We grieve when life itself or our friends or children disappoint us. We groan under pain, trauma, and sickness. We are hurt by prejudice, poverty, or sometimes a lack of rewarding work. The list is endless. Realism and pastoral concern undoubtedly caused the apostle to introduce this subject. Honesty did not allow him to talk about our inheritance without at the same time acknowledging that the path to glory involves a cross.
A second reason Paul probably introduced the subject is that he must have been aware of the many non-Christian approaches to suffering that were around. They were around then, and they are around today. His words, though quite brief, correct the following non-Christian approaches.
- Anger. One response to suffering is anger. This is common with unbelievers, who blame or even curse God for their misfortunes. But it is also sadly true of some Christians. They blame God because he has not done something for them that they wanted—given them a loving spouse, for example—forgetting that Jesus has not promised us an easy life here, much less the fulfillment of our desires. He has called us to discipleship. The glory is hereafter.
- Avoidance. A second approach is avoidance. If the path before them looks hard or even undesirable, some people turn from it and try to find something easier or more rewarding. Or, if the path cannot be avoided, they try to balance it with other things that are more attractive. The ancient name for this approach is hedonism. The Christian form of it is to ask God to remove the undesirable thing—sickness, for example, particularly a terminal illness. Christians who take this approach think the correct way is to ask God to remove the sickness so that afterward they might praise him for the healing. Of course, it sometimes is God’s will to heal, so it is not wrong to ask for healing. But this is not the most profound or uniquely Christian approach to suffering.
A special form of this approach is used in some types of counseling. There the bottom line seems to be the individual’s personal happiness or fulfillment. People are advised to do whatever makes them happy or “feels good,” which ignores the truth that real growth comes by working through our hardships rather than by avoiding them.
- Apathy. The third non-Christian approach is apathy, detachment from the problem. It is the attitude that says, “It just doesn’t matter,” and then tries to think about something else. One form of apathy is stoicism, the philosophy of the stiff upper lip. Stoicism may help you get by, but it is joyless and far removed from Christianity.
Paul was surrounded by these non-Christian philosophies, just as we are today, which is why I suggested that a second reason he introduced the subject of suffering at this point was to counter them. For our part, we need to know that these approaches are all less than truly Christian and come to understand suffering in a different light. We need to know that, for the Christian, suffering is the arena in which we are to prove the reality of our profession and achieve spiritual victories.
In the title of the fifth volume of my studies of John’s Gospel, I called the Christian approach “Triumph Through Tragedy.” Of course, the key word is “through.” We do not triumph by avoiding hardships.
Proof of Sonship
This brings us to the value of suffering according to a right theological framework or life-view. It has several important values, and the first is the chief reason Paul mentions it in Romans: He has been talking of Christians being sons and daughters of God; now he speaks of suffering as proof of that relationship, though the suffering may be in any of three different forms, each with a particular purpose.
- Persecution. Some suffering is in the form of persecution, as I suggested earlier, and one value of persecution is that it proves to us that we really are children of God. Jesus taught this many times. In the Sermon on the Mount, near the beginning of his ministry, he said, “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matt. 5:11–12). Again, in the Upper Room near the close of his ministry, he said, “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. Remember the words I spoke to you: ‘No servant is greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also …” (John 15:18–20).
There are two points here. First, Jesus suffered. Suffering was his lot, and it has always been the lot of God’s godly people. It must be that way since they were (and are) living in a sinful world. Second, suffering proves that we are on the side of Jesus and these godly people, for if we were not, the world would approve of us rather than being hostile.
Jonathan Chao, president of Christ’s College, Taipei, and director of the Chinese Church Research Center in Hong Kong, has studied suffering in the context of the suffering of the church in China. He says, “One can almost say that suffering for Christ is a mark of discipleship.” D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, who explores this line of thought extensively in his study of Romans 8:17, says, “If you are suffering as a Christian, and because you are a Christian, it is one of the surest proofs you can ever have of the fact that you are a child of God.” That is an important use of persecution. It proves that we are Christians and therefore disciples for Christ.
- Purification. Not all suffering is in the form of persecution, however. Some of it is from God and is for no other reason than to produce growth and holiness. This is what the author of Hebrews was talking about when he wrote in reference to Jesus, “In bringing many sons to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the author of their salvation perfect through suffering” (Heb. 2:10).
That is a bold thing to say, of course, for it suggests that in some way Jesus was not perfect, which causes us to think immediately, though incorrectly, of some moral imperfection. We would be wrong to think that, since Jesus was utterly without sin. He was morally impeccable. Nevertheless, as Luke says, his life in the flesh included growth “in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man” (Luke 2:52). Perfection means wholeness, and Jesus grew into a wholeness of experience and trust in God through such things as poverty, temptation, misunderstanding, loneliness, abuse, and betrayal. God used these and many other experiences to “perfect” him. He also uses them to perfect us.
We are sinners, of course. So one image the Bible uses in speaking of this similar work in us is the refining of precious metal (Zech. 13:9; Mal. 3:3). It pictures God as a skilled refiner, heating the ore until the dross that has been mixed with it rises to the surface, where it may be scraped off. The refiner knows the metal is ready when he can see his face reflected in the glimmering molten surface. In the same way, God purifies us until he can see the face of Jesus Christ in his people.
One of our hymns puts it nicely:
When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie,
My grace all-sufficient shall be thy supply;
The flame shall not hurt thee, I only design
Thy dross to consume and thy gold to refine.
Another image of the Christian’s suffering is of God disciplining us as an earthly father disciplines his children. The author of Hebrews writes of this, too, saying, “Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father? If you are not disciplined (and everyone undergoes discipline), then you are illegitimate children and not true sons. … Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it” (Heb. 12:7–8, 10–11).
- Training. A third kind of suffering also has value for Christians and can be likened to the suffering endured when a soldier is trained for combat by his commanding officer or, for that matter, the suffering endured in the battle itself. Paul wrote to Timothy, “Endure hardness with us like a good soldier of Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 2:3). Elsewhere he changes the image and speaks of the rigorous preparation of an athlete: “I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize” (1 Cor. 9:27).
If you are called to endure any of these three kinds of suffering, you should be encouraged by them because they prove that you are a child of God and are being prepared to be used by him in the spiritual warfare that will lead to final victory.
The Power of the Christian’s Witness
A second value of suffering is that our witness to Christ is empowered by it. I do not mean that we grow stronger in our ability to witness to Christ to the extent that we are called to endure persecution or some other form of suffering, though that is undoubtedly true. The blind man of John 9 grew stronger in his witness every time the religious authorities leaned on him to get him to modify his testimony. I mean, rather, that the witness of Christians carries particular weight when it is given under duress, when it is evident to everyone that it would be easier and apparently more rational to back off from one’s witness or even, as Job was advised by his wife, to “curse God and die!” (Job 2:9).
Physical suffering gives particular clout to the witness of Christians. It means something special when a person can testify to God’s grace when he or she is suffering from acute bodily pain or while dying. It is even more convincing when Christians bear witness to Jesus when they might suffer the loss of all things for it.
I previously mentioned Jonathan Chao and his insights into Christian suffering. He has studied the suffering church in China and reports many instances of this empowerment. One young Chinese pastor was imprisoned in 1960 and released in 1979. When he was released he discovered that during that nineteen-year period his parish had grown from 300 to 5,000 professing Christians. Today that same community has grown to 20,000.
In 1982 a Christian community in central China dispatched a missionary team in response to a Macedonian-type cry for help from another area. In a month of intense work they had established several new churches. But then most of the senior pastors were arrested. They were imprisoned for four years. However, their arrest forced the younger pastors to take over the leadership positions, and as a result not only were the home churches cared for, but the mission expanded and the growth in that area was phenomenal. People were persuaded to believe on Christ by the quality and duration of their leaders’ suffering.
A fourteen-year-old girl understood this. She was one of nine young evangelists who were arrested by the local police and forced to remain kneeling in one place day and night. On the third day of this torture she fainted and was released. The others were made to suffer the same continuing torment for nine days and eight nights. Eventually they, too, were released, and when they were reunited the fourteen-year-old began to cry. “Why are you crying?” they asked.
She replied that she was crying because they had been called on to suffer for nine days while she had only been called on to suffer for three. Fourteen years old! But she understood the point of suffering for the sake of Jesus Christ and counted it not a burden but a privilege.
Is it any wonder that the church in China is growing at a tremendous rate today while the church in America is barely holding its own in numbers and is declining markedly in devotion and character? Most of us want only the good life, not godliness. And our fourteen-year-olds think they are suffering if they have to turn off their personal TV and do their homework.
The Path to Glory
The final thing we need to say about the value of suffering is that it is the ordained path to glory. Paul says this explicitly in Romans 8:17: “… we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.” He also says this elsewhere. In 2 Corinthians 4:17–18 he writes joyfully, “For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”
There are two basic things to remember about suffering.
First, suffering is necessary. Jesus taught that it was necessary for himself when he said to the Emmaus disciples, “Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” (Luke 24:26). Then he proved that this was necessary by showing it to them in the Scriptures, beginning with Moses and all the prophets. Jesus taught that suffering is necessary for us when he said, “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also” (John 15:20b) and “In the world ye shall have tribulation” (John 16:33a, kjv).
Second, although suffering is necessary (and has value), suffering is not the end of the story for Christians. Glory is! If suffering were the end, Christianity would be a form of masochism, suffering for suffering’s sake. Since it is not the end, since suffering is the path to glory, Christianity is a religion of genuine hope and effective consolation.
The Christian who needs to worry about suffering is not the one who is suffering, particularly if it is for the sake of Jesus Christ. The person who should worry is the one who is not suffering, since suffering is a proof of our sonship, a means for the spread of the gospel, and the path to glory.
So let’s hang in there! And let’s encourage one another as we run the race and fight the long battles.
We need each other, but we have each other. That is what we are given to each other for. Thus, by the grace of God, we may actually come to the end of the warfare and be able to say as Paul did to his young protégé Timothy, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing” (2 Tim. 4:7–8). May it be so for all God’s people.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1991). Romans (pp. 438–449). Chicago: Moody Press.
 Boice, J. M. (1991–). Romans: The Reign of Grace (Vol. 2, pp. 837–860). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.