16 November 2015

The Promise of Sonship - Galatians 4:1-7

The Promise of Sonship
Galatians 4:1-7
Kevin Rees – November 15, 2015 - audio file posted at

“You are no longer a slave, but a son—and if a son, then an heir through God” (Galatians 4:7).

Lew Wallace’s novel, Ben Hur (1880), immortalized by Charlton Heston on the silver-screen in 1959, depicts protagonist Judah ben Hur—the prince and heir of a noble family in Israel during the first century A.D.  It is in a classic riches-to-rags-to-riches story.  Judah is betrayed by a friend and cast down from his affluent life into the life of slavery to the hated Romans; specifically a galley slave—which together with a slave in a mine prove to be the bottom of the bottom for slaves.  Judah is chained to an oar under the deck of a Roman warship captained by Arius Quintus.  During a fierce battle at sea, Judah saves the life of Captain Quintus when he could have grabbed for his own freedom.  Quintus takes note and elevates Judah’s status, although still a slave, to drive of his own prize team of horses in the fabled chariot races around the Circus Maximus.  Judah overcomes the odds to win both fame and glory … but not his freedom.  But after five championships, earning his master a fortune, Quintis begins to favor Judah.  So at that point in the story, let’s watch an iconic scene in this legendary film.

As we have seen in the film, Arius Quintis publicly and legally frees his slave, Judah ben Hur, going a huge step further than paying his ransom.  He names him as his adopted son and heir of his fortune, formally renaming Judah ben Hur as Arius Quitnus II and giving him the family signet ring.  It is a surprise to Judah, to say the least, but he accepts and vows to uphold the name of Arius Quintis with dignity and honor.

What I like most about this scene—enough for me to play it for you, a thing I only rarely try so as to give primacy to the hearing of the Word of God without distraction—is that it nearly exactly parallels what Paul describes for us in Galatians 4:1-7.  Paul sets before us a Roman ceremony of adoption; the bestowal of the toga virilis; the public, legal act of a father to name a son.  Child are born, but sons are adopted!

The donning of the toga virilis is part of a multiple-day festival of Liberalia held in March.  It is a coming-of-age celebration for boys roughly between 14 and 18 years old.  It is a festival that also trends heavily toward debauchery and the sexually overt before the god of Liber Pater (the Roman version of the Greek god, Bacchus) and his cohort Libera; but Paul leaves those parts out.  What Paul zeroes in on is the naming of a male-child as a son.

At the high point of the festival, the vestiges of boyhood (an amulet that children wear for protection called a bulla praetexta) are removed, a sacrifice is made (usually including hair from the boy’s face), and a change of clothing is given by the father to the son.  All children, boys and girls, would wear a generic toga with a broad purple stripe (toga praetexta).  Slaves would wear a tunic—all classes of society wore clothes that marked their station.  But at adoption those old clothes signifying an old identity would be removed and the son would put on the toga virilis—the white toga—as a man, a son, and a citizen.

This is what is going on in Galatians 4:1-7.  God our Father publicly names us as his adopted sons, legally switching our lineage to join his, and announces us as adults and heirs and beneficiaries to his properties and holdings.  Charlton Heston tried to look surprised in front of the camera, but we are truly shocked; we who were dead in our trespasses and sins, active enemies of God, standing on the wrong side of the battlefield, and sinners through and through.  We are utterly shocked by the grace of God that transformed us past, present, and future; body, soul, and spirit.  The more we realize who we were and where we stood when God reached down and plucked us from the fast lane to death and destruction the more we marvel in the fact that God not only saved us, but also claimed us, renamed us, marked us as his heir, and seated us with Christ in the heavenly places. 

Amazing grace! How sweet the sound / That saved a wretch like me! /
I once was lost but now am found; / Was blind but now I see.

Paul is speaking to churches in Galatia, who are ethnic Asians but who have become Greeks culturally and Romans politically over the years.  They know exactly what Paul is talking about.  They know the imagery.  They know the symbolism.  They know that a child in the family is no better than a slave in the family.  Unless … until … the father names one as son and heir.  It is then and only then that a child, or a persona non grata, enters into citizenship, adulthood, and full rights and unrestricted privileges of the family name.  The father does not have to select a biological son.  Even if he has biological sons, although it is rare, it is his sole prerogative to name even a slave to the status of sonship above them.  But such is our story; such is our heavenly Father’s grand gesture to us through his only begotten Son, to name us—slaves to sin and disfavorable to God—as sons and daughters of God; “heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ” (Romans 8:17).

I.             Regarded as a Slave (vv. 1-3)

By way of building up some momentum, look back with me to the last four verses of Galatians chapter 3.  Notice that Paul is emphasizing three things: (1) All who believe become sons of God, (2) All who believe are one in Christ, and (3) All who believe are heirs of promise.  There are no longer ethnic separations in Christ.  There are no longer gender discriminations in Christ.  There are no longer social hierarchies in Christ.  We are not “assimilated into the collective” at the loss of our personal distinctions (Paul will talk about that in other passages)—but our personal distinctions are no longer valuable.  We are distinct AND equal in Christ. 

26 for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith.
27 For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.
28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
29 And if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to promise.

And having mentioned these theological truths, Paul includes an illustration in chapter 4 for clarity—specifically around the idea of “putting on Christ” (vs. 27) and being “heirs according to promise” (vs. 29).  We put on Christ like a boy in a Roman family puts on the toga virilis—the white toga (of virility)—of manhood, sonship, and citizenship.  But like the Roman festival—there is no thought of attempting to wear two togas.  That is ludicrous.  In order to put on the toga of adulthood, one must take off the toga of childhood.  We can only have one identity although I see people try to juggle two or three miserably.

Thus Paul adds his illustration from the adoption ceremony.  The chapter division here is unfortunate.

1 I mean that the heir, as long as he is a child, is no different from a slave, though he is the owner of everything,
2 but he is under guardians and managers until the date set by his father.
3 In the same way we also, when we were children, were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world.

It sounds strange to our ears: “the heir, as long as he is a child, is no different from a slave” (vs. 1).  But it is not strange in the ancient Greco-Roman world.  Here in the modern West, we idolize children.  They are pampered, typically pushed to the front of the line at potlucks, and given priority seating on our buses and airplanes.  But in the ancient world, children are invisible.  They are nothings.  They are non-factors.  This is part of the reason it was shocking for Jesus to insist on letting them come close to him; that he might bless them.  Children were merely underfoot.

So, even in a Roman household of substantial wealth, the children of the parents are basically regarded the same as slaves.  They have no rights.   They have no voice.  They have a job to do and better be busy doing it otherwise there will be a reckoning.  Slaves took the children to school, made sure that they did their work, and were responsible to discipline the children if they did not.  Even if junior were the future beneficiary of an enormous wealth, before he was publicly and legally adopted by his father as “son” and “heir,” there was no citizenship, no legal protection, and certainly no emancipation or promotion into the world of adults without the father’s specific permission.

“He is under guardians and managers until the date set by his father” (vs. 2).  The child cannot appeal, cannot hurry this date, cannot effectively bend mamma’s arm to bend papa’s will (although I am sure that that is exactly what happened more times than not).  The date set by the father is the Liberalia ceremony.  It is the adoption day.  It is the name day.  We typically think of adoption and adoption day as the day the infant can finally leave the jurisdiction of the Department of Health and Human Services and enter the care of the adoptive parents.  But in ancient Rome, it was when the father gave the boy a razor, and a ring, and a party so that everyone will henceforth know that this boy is now his true son; and if specified his sole or joint legal heir.

Paul leaves the imagery aside and brings it back to the church, “In the same way we also, when we were children, were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world” (vs. 3).  We were children.  We were kept in line by babysitters.  We had to sit in car seats.  We couldn’t go on the best rides at the county fair.  We had to wear clothes that marked us as children—hair bows and saddle shoes, school uniforms and bulky winter coats.  Our teachers had to pin notes to our shirts so our mothers would know how we behaved that day.  And in this larger argument—the elementary principles under which we were enslaved included the rules of self-righteousness like we covered last week: rituals, and dietary restrictions, and feast days, and circumcision.  Those are indicators of spiritual immaturity, not maturity.  But Paul, in light of that slavery, sings an anthem which he repeats in many places—grow up!  Use your freedom to serve others.  Love as you have been loved.  You don’t need to live by rules when you are an adult who walks by the Spirit. 

II.            Adopted as a Son (vv. 4-7)

4 But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law,
5 to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.
6 And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, "Abba! Father!"
7 So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.

Standing upon these time words in vv. 1-3—“as long as,” “until the date set by his father,” “when we were children”—Paul proceeds into his next section of sonship (vv. 4-7).  Remember that in the Roman world a son is an adult, an heir, and a citizen.  In God’s kingdom a son is a full member of God’s family, a co-heir with Christ, and a citizen of the better country.  When maturity becomes available and when full status become possible, there is no turning back.  (And who would want to go back anyway?)  The mature and the full will not want to go back to anything less.  That’s how maturity and fullness work. 

When I was young I used to be consumed with Matchbox cars and baseball cards, until I discovered sports.  Then I was consumed with soccer and baseball, until I discovered girls.  Then I was consumed with date nights and school dances, until I met Shellie.  Then I was done with everything that had every come before; let’s get married.  There is no going back.  Good riddance.  The fullness of time had arrived!

Now comes a marked break with the childhood described in verses 1-3—“But when the fullness of time had come” (vs. 4a).  The date set by the father finally arrived—Jesus entered the world.  Because God’s Son arrived, he brought with him our opportunity to step into sonship with him.  It proved even better than we imagined.

“God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law” (vs. 4b)—the historical markers are in place.  Notice that Jesus is already God’s Son, before his birth in Bethlehem.  In Bethlehem Jesus “was born of a woman”—again notice that there is no mention of a man because Paul is alluding to the virgin birth.  Jesus is God’s divine Son; he is God.  But he is also Mary’s physical son; he is human.  He is both God and human at the same time.  Jesus was also “born under the law”—that is to say that he was born, basically, in the Old Testament era.  He was Jewish; the nation of Israel was obliged to keep the entire Mosaic Law and Jesus was the only one who ever did it since he alone was sinless. 

But why?  Why was Jesus sent?  Why was Jesus born of a woman?  Why was Jesus born under the law?  Two reasons are listed.  Reason number one: redemption—“to redeem those who were under the law” (vs. 5a).  As we learned last week, anyone under the law was under a curse if he broke any part of the law.  But Gentiles are caught under a curse too, for we are still under the curse of Adam.  All of us are under a death penalty.  The only one qualified to rescue us must have two characteristics: he must be human and yet he must not be under the curse of Adam.  Jesus Christ is the only one who meets these two characteristics—he is fully human and, because of the virgin birth, he is not under the curse passed on from Adam.  This is why the virgin birth is central to our doctrine—because without it, we undermine Jesus’ qualifications to be the one and only savior of the world.

The second reason is this: adoption—“so that we might receive adoption as sons” (vs. 5b).  Jesus was sent by God, via Mary, through the labyrinth of the law to accomplish reconciliation with God by redemption and to apply reconciliation with God in adoption.  He who was a true son enslaved himself with our chains, our death, our curse in order to set us free; in order to “lead many sons to glory” (Hebrews 2:10). 

“And because you are sons”—I love the certainty of that statement.  “Because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’” (vs. 6).  All sons have the Spirit.  All sons have the permission—the invitation—to relate to God on the most intimate terms.  “Abba!” is not relegated to toddlers.  In this context, it is a privilege of adulthood and sonship.  Not many would stroll into the Oval Office and say, “Barry!”—and still fewer would stroll into the Oval Office and say, “Daddy!”  But we are insiders.  The law never makes anyone an insider in the family of God.  Religious rituals never make anyone an insider in the family of God.  Self-prescribed duties of righteousness never make anyone an insider in the family of God.  Only the Son makes those who receive him; who believe in his name insiders in the family of God.

So what is the result?  What is the conclusion?  What is the take away?  “You are no longer a slave, but a son; and if a son, then an heir through God” (vs. 7).  This is the truth about your identity.  This is your birthright.  This is your identification mark.

Who are you?  You are not who you think you are.  You are not who others think you are.  You are not what you feel you are.  You are not what others feel about you.  You are who God says you are.  You are what the Scripture reveals is true about you.  When there is a conflict between truth and emotion, or truth and self-worth, or truth and the amount of value that society places on you—side with truth.

But the tension is real.  The tension between what I think/feel/conclude based on the empirical evidence I can collect and what God says can be truly massive.  It is a daily fight for many of us to disbelieve what the world says is true about us and believe what God reveals is true about us in Christ.  It is relentless.  It is fatiguing.  It is brutal. 

So often I must struggle to remember what God has said, whereas I can recall verbatim what my enemies have said, what my parents didn’t say but should have, what my siblings say when I am not in the room, what my peers say when they think I cannot hear.  I know every scar minutely.  But God’s truth I have to repeat, and rehearse, and replay, and reteach to myself over and over again.  Yes!  Keep doing it.  That’s how it works.  If remembering the truth were automatic, I don’t know what God would say in many places in very strong language that we must remember, that we must do everything we can to stand in the truth, that we must arm ourselves with this truth as if it were a belt in our armor where everything else locks together.  If it were automatic, I think the commands would be redundant.  But they are not because it is not. 

I offered a term way back at the beginning of this series that I hope has been percolating the whole time—the orphan heart.  Here, near the end of our series, it is appropriate to resurface the term … along with a question.  Do you live as a son, or a slave?  Do you live as an heir, or an orphan? 

The slave and the orphan heart cannot trust; not really.  There is always the suspicion that a chain awaits or that you will be somehow cornered.  So there is no relaxation; no rest.  There is only work.  There is only diligence.  And because it so often came to it in the past, there is only scheming. 

But the son and the heir; they have been given promises and guarantees.  They have been brought in; all the way in past the things that formerly separated but have in Christ been fulfilled.  There is rest.  True, there is labor, but not work.  The work has been done by Christ.  The labor that has been left for us to pick up is a labor of love; a labor build upon the foundation of rest.  There is trust, and hope, and joy, and peace in the Holy Spirit.  These are our new family traits.  We exhibit them well when we believe and abide in our new identity.  Where is your life?  Where is your heart?

This week I want you to investigate your identity in light of these last nine sermons on sonship so that next week, when we reconvene, you can be fueled for thanksgiving … for that is where sonship drives us: doxology and gratitude.  The last sermon in the sonship series will actually be yours to give in the form of praise, prayer, thanksgiving, and testimony.  

13 November 2015

The Basis of Sonship - Galatians 3:7-14

The Basis of Sonship
Galatians 3:5-14
Kevin Rees — November 8, 2015 - audio file posted at

If our relationship with God is held up or propped up by rules, it is immature and must give way to faith.

OK—the word, which is now indelible in our English vocabulary, is used multiple times daily.  With a wide range of meanings, “OK” denotes satisfactory approval, acceptance, agreement, assent, or acknowledgment.  “All is well.”  We even have a hand gesture to go along with this word, the index finger tip touching the thumb in an “O” shape with the other three fingers extended; a gesture which is, as I personally learned back in 1991 and 1992, actually an obscene gesture in Brazil.  OK the word is OK in Brazil but not OK the hand gesture—you can thank me later for that fair warning.

The origin of OK is most likely “an abbreviation of orl korrekt, a jokey misspelling of 'all correct' which was [popular] in the US in the 1830s. The oldest written references result from its use as a slogan by the Democratic party during the American Presidential election of 1840. Their candidate, President Martin Van Buren, was nicknamed 'Old Kinderhook' (after his birthplace in New York State), and his supporters formed the 'OK Club'. This undoubtedly helped to popularize the term (though it did not get President Van Buren re-elected)” (Wikipedia).

For our purposes this morning, however, the state of being okay has a remarkable similarity to the biblical concept of rightness with and before God; or righteousness—a relational state of moral or imputed acceptance with our holy God.  This morning we can condense that longer definition of righteousness to okayness.  “Are you OK with God?” is our question today, and even more specifically: “How are you OK with God?” or “On what basis do you have okayness with God?

Historically there are many, many answers that that question that men and women have tried to juggle.  I am OK with God if I keep the Ten Commandments of the Hebrew Law, if I perform the five pillars of Islam, if I balance my bad deeds with slightly more good deeds, acts of worthiness, sacrifice and cleansing, if I feed my good nature and starve my bad nature, if I detach from the material word, if I achieve some psychological acceptance of that the material universe is all that is, ever was, or ever will be. 

Everyone seeks equilibrium, or okayness, in some way.  Even if for only pragmatic reasons—because disequilibrium is too uncomfortable to endure for long periods of time—people try to find some measure of peace.  Within biblical Christianity, we believe that true okayness of any and every kind—personal, spiritual, emotional, ideological, existential—is only found in the person of Jesus Christ.  But how?  How are we OK with God?  On what basis do we have okayness with God?”

Early in his international ministry years, Paul is writing a church in place called Galatia in what is now modern-day Turkey about their okayness with God.  They are Christians, but they have dangerously veered off course in their pursuit of okayness with God after starting so well.  They believed the gospel of grace and were born again, filled with the Holy Spirit of God, and adopted into the family of God—they were declared OK with God through faith in Jesus; just like all saints of all time.  This is what we often call justification.  But how do they remain OK with God?  This is what we often call sanctification.  Today we are calling it okayness.  But in seeking to secure their okayness is where they started to “fall from grace” (3:1).  They started to think that they could achieve a better level of okayness with God if they added to their saving faith in Jesus the works of the Old Testament Law.  But in adding to Christ, they demolished the ground on which they stood; the basis of their okayness with God by faith in Christ alone.

Instead of simple faith in the exclusive Christ alone, the church in Galatia started to lean upon or trust in religious works to achieve, maintain, even improve their standing with God.  Many in the church started insisting that faith in Jesus was not enough to really be okay; one also has to undergo the ritual of circumcision, one has to keep the dietary restrictions of the Mosaic Law, one has to keep the feast days in addition to belief in Jesus.  As a result, their righteousness was based on rules keeping instead of, or in addition to, faith.  The basis for their okayness shifted from Christ alone to Christ AND works of the Law.

But before we get too far into an exegesis of the Galatians’ poor spiritual navigation away from the pure gospel into a buffet-style approach to religion, let’s include ourselves into this common temptation.  Do we also veer off course spiritually and begin to base our okayness with God on rules-keeping?  You bet we do!!!  We call it legalism—we base our righteousness on works of the Law (thus “legal”-ism) instead of on the merits of Christ solely accessible by faith.  But it doesn’t have to be the Old Testament Law to be legalism—we can create a system under ourselves; a list of rules that if we keep them, then we are OK with God.  We may not care as much about circumcision as the Galatians did—that was their pet issue—but we insert our own rules-based systems of righteousness; our own pet issues. 

I’ve mentioned some before, but the list is always growing; always morphing.  For instance, I have to pray an hour every morning before dawn in order to remain okay with God, I have to fast every Wednesday, I have to engage in more soul-winning, I have to be in church every time the doors are open or else my basis for okayness with God begins to erode.  I have to sing certain songs, or abstain from singing certain songs, play certain instruments or abstain from playing certain instruments.  I have to dress a certain way, get baptized a certain way, partake in communion a certain way, explain the faith in a certain way or else I may be thrown off this ship.  I have to give money to the church or else God will get mad at me.  I have to project happiness all the time or else my witness for Christ will suffer.  I had better not sin—especially certain sins that are popularly despised—or else I will lose my grip on grace.  Or one that is particularly tempting to vocational ministers—I have to grow the church or else God will be disappointed with me and may disqualify me from ministry altogether. I have to try harder and harder or else I will be swallowed into the black hole of insignificance.  I have to prove myself worthy to be a son of God or else I might find that God’s offer of sonship is rescinded.  The slavery wrapped up into these works is heartbreaking.

But what is our basis for okayness with God?  Is it trying harder?  Is it leading a church that is trending toward numerical growth?  Is it constant activity?  Is it appearing happy?  Is it our pet issue, whatever that might be?  Part of the temptation is the fact that many of those things have their proper place.  But the venom of this temptation is that none of these things can take the place of faith in Jesus as our sole basis for righteousness.  Our basis is not in what we do for God.  Our basis is faith in what God has done for us.

Paul dismantles the false basis of okayness that the Galatian church is running after; the false system of keeping the Old Testament Law.  They think the Bible is on their side, but Paul masterfully shows them that in fact the Bible has always taught that righteousness comes by faith alone; not through human works.  Their rules-based system of righteousness or our rules-based system of righteousness—no matter—any rules-based system is actually contrary to the gospel itself if we seek to base our okayness with God on anything other or in anything more than faith in Jesus.  Okay … so let the clinic begin!

I.             Rules-Based Righteousness is Unbiblical (vv. 5-9)

Six times in nine verses Paul reaches back into the Old Testament to prove that our basis for being okay with God is faith alone; not works.  He is not inventing this.  It is not new to Paul.  Faith alone has always been the basis for a relationship with God.  True, there are good works that flow from this platform of faith—but the Galatians are nowhere even close to that subject.  Good works are clearly a byproduct of faith (Ephesians 2:10).  What the Galatians are saying—and many Christian denominations today—is something quite different than that!  They are saying that the works themselves are meritorious; that the working of the works themselves are the basis for receiving the grace of God (ex opera operato).

In other words, it is not a faithful follower of Jesus who gets baptized, but the baptism that makes someone a faithful follower.  It is not the faithful follower of Jesus who takes the Lord’s Supper, but the act of taking the Lord’s Supper that makes someone a faithful follower.  This is exactly backwards.  And Paul is not shy to call it demonic, and a non-gospel (Galatians 1:6, 9; 3:1).  But I am not picking on the Roman Catholics here, I am exposing the heresy—wherever it appears—that we become or stay okay with God by keeping some list of rules.  No external religious act changes the heart.

The pet issue for the Galatians was the Old Testament ritual called circumcision.  But we could insert any of our pet issues, by extension, and get the same reaction from Paul.  If any external religious act is treated as the basis for our peace with God, then we are in the same danger as the Galatians. 

Hardly any commentary is required, Paul says it all and illustrates it all perfectly well.  But notice this, Paul sets up a key contrast in the first half of Galatians 3 between faith and works.  And the prepositions are important:  we either base our okayness with God out of faith (ek pisteos) or we base our okayness out of our works (ek ergon).   So there are six Old Testament passages cited and there are six repetitions that our righteousness with God is based on, or proceed out of faith.

5 Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith—
6 just as Abraham "believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness"?
7 Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham.
8 And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, "In you shall all the nations be blessed."
9 So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.

Rules-based righteousness is unbiblical.  Paul, although he writes Scripture himself as empowered by the Holy Spirit, is quick to point out that other Scriptures teach that we are OK with God on the basis of faith alone.  He mentions two verses from Genesis.  The first one quotes Genesis 15:6-7, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness” (Galatians 3:6)  The words faith and believe are exactly the same word in Hebrew as well as Greek.  Abraham believed the revealed word of God and that faith itself was the basis for his salvation; his right standing before God; his okayness with God. 

Paul’s enemies were trying to say that circumcision was the basis of okayness.  But circumcision didn’t happen until Genesis 17:10 and thereafter.  So Paul is making a time argument as well as a doctrinal argument—it was faith alone in God’s promises that saved Abraham, two chapters before he was required to undergo circumcision.  Those were two totally separate issues: one was salvation, the other was a specific sign given to the Hebrew people.  Salvation continues the same way but the cultural requirements for the nation of Israel do not; those have been fulfilled and set aside by Christ.

The second Old Testament verse also taken from Abraham’s lifetime that Paul weaves into his argument in Galatians 3 is from Genesis 12:3—“in you shall all the nations be blessed” (Galatians 3:8).  When God first called Abraham, Abraham was not even Jewish.  Abraham was a Gentile.  There were no Jews yet.  There were no Jewish requirements because the Jewish ethnicity didn’t even exist yet, technically.  He believed God’s promise that through him would come a descendant who would bless every family on the planet.  All the nations would be blessed through Abraham in the sense that through Abraham’s miraculous son, Isaac, would come an uninterrupted lineage; Abraham’s family would carry forth the promise until Jesus fulfilled it.  And whoever came to faith the way that Abraham came to faith, they would become sons of Abraham regardless of ethnicity.

Paul’s enemies were saying, “One has to first become Jewish before he can become Christian.”  But Paul easily points out that, no, all the nations are blessed through faith in the promise of the Redeemer—Christ Jesus.  We don’t have so much left over of the remnants of this Jewish-priority in the modern church—though it is still present in the Seventh Day Adventist and a few others who try to maintain that the church is still bound to the Old Testament rules.  But Paul’s comment is straight to the heart: no.  It is not only Abraham’s physical or even legal family that has access to the blessing of God, but all nations.  We come to a Jewish Savior, but he does not force us to become Jewish before (or after) he saves us.  He actually brings a better culture; it’s called the kingdom of God.  I think we will still have ethnicity in God’s kingdom, but we are citizens of a better country and people of a better culture.

II.            Rules-Based Righteousness is Illogical (vv. 10-11)

10 For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, "Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them."
11 Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for "The righteous shall live by faith."

Now we are on a roll.  Rules-based righteousness is not only unbiblical, it is illogical.  Paul lists two more verses from the Old Testament to prove his point.  The third passage he lifts from the Old Testament is from Deuteronomy 27:26—“Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all thing written in the Book of the Law, and do them.”  His point is that it makes no sense to return to the Law, because there is a curse found in the Law for everyone who does not obey the Law perfectly and consistently.  James 2:10 concurs—“For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.”

If some insist on going back to the Old Testament system of rules—which never were able to save anyone—then they are going back into a curse.  The Law cannot make anyone righteous.  The Law can only point out when someone is unrighteous.  If we are tempted to go back to a system of righteousness that is built on rules, we are only going to be disappointed.  Christ has fulfilled the Law perfectly and set it aside.  He did not chuck it out the window, but obeyed it entirely.  Why?  So that those requirements would continue?  No!  So that the entire file could be officially closed.  Christ instituted a New Covenant that is so much better than the Old Covenant, Paul is utterly shocked that some in the church would even consider leaving the New in order to go back to the Old; or try to combine the Old and the New into one. 

Looking ahead to the illogical attempt of combining the Old and the New Jesus gave a fitting parable: “And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the wine will burst the skins-- and the wine is destroyed, and so are the skins. But new wine is for fresh wineskins" (Mark 2:22).  Once again, I am prompted by the Spirit to point out that we carry that temptation with us as well.  We try to sew new grace and old works together.  But there is no combining necessary.  The New Covenant is enough!  “To supplement Christ’s work is to supplant Christ’s work” (The Bible Knowledge Commentary).  This is called syncretism—intentionally melding two conflicting systems into one.  But it doesn’t make any sense to do this.  We can’t pick and choose which parts we like and cast aside the parts we don’t like.

Here Paul pulls in his fourth Old Testament passage from Habakkuk 2:4 to continue his point.  “The righteous shall live by faith” (Galatians 3:11).  The righteous—the ones who are okay with God—live and will continue to live by faith.  How do we come to God?  By faith is the scriptural answer.  So then how do we walk with God?  By faith as well.  We are justified by faith.  We are sanctified in the same way: by faith.  There has never been another system of okayness with God—it has always been by faith. 

III.           Rules-Based Righteousness is Impossible (vs. 12)

12 But the law is not of faith, rather "The one who does them shall live by them."

Paul points to his fifth Old Testament reference in Galatians 3:12 to prove that rules-based righteousness is, in fact, impossible.  It is from Leviticus 18:5—“The one who does them shall live by them.”  If you bind yourself to a system of rules, then you bind yourself to a system of behaviors.  But Paul says categorically, “The law is not of faith.”  They are mutually incompatible.  It is impossible to combine the two.

A person is either “of faith” or he is “of [the works of] the law.”  There is not one foot here and one foot there.   But even living within a system of rules for one’s whole life is still not able to produce the righteousness of God.  The Old Testament Law is the best example of a set of rules, but even that is impossible to produce righteousness.

The Ten Commandments—the summary form of the entire Old Testament Law—is pure and holy and there is not a single part of it that is wrong, or untrue.  But God never designed the Law to make any person righteous.  All the Law could ever do was twofold: condemn sin and convince the world of its need for a Savior.  That job the Law did perfectly well.  Nothing else better points us to our sinfulness and our need for a sinless Savior than the Old Testament Law.  But the Law does not save.

Here is a short list of what is impossible for the Law to do: the Law cannot justify (Galatians 2:16), cannot make righteous (Galatians 2:21), cannot give the Holy Spirit (Galatians 3:2), cannot guarantee an inheritance (Galatians 3:2), cannot impart life (Galatians 3:21), and cannot give liberty (Galatians 4:8-10).

IV.          Rules-Based Righteousness is Unnecessary (vv. 13-14)

13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us-- for it is written, "Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree"--
14 so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.

Finally, Paul gives his sixth Old Testament reference—taken from Deuteronomy 21:23—“Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree” (Galatians 3:13).  We were under the curse of Adam and we were under the curse of the Law, both of which are fatal.  But Christ redeemed us by paying our death penalty with his own life.  He became a curse for us when he hung on that tree.  On him the righteous wrath of God burned.

So, the thought of going back to the Law—the very Law that cost Jesus his life—is entirely unnecessary not to mention insulting.  It is a slap in the face of Jesus to pick up that which he laid aside as entirely and completely fulfilled.  It is a slap in the face of Jesus to say that what he accomplished on the cross was insufficient to keep me okay with God.  It is a slap in the face of Jesus to lean on human works for righteousness.

In conclusion, let me address what you might have been wondering in your own mind this whole time.  “Why do we run back to these works?  Why do we run back to these rules when Jesus has already fulfilled them and summarily set them aside for good?”  Legalism, or a rules-based righteousness, appeals to the flesh—the part of us that learned how to limp along without Jesus for so many years.  No matter how you say it, legalism feels good.  It accomplishes nothing but death and bondage, but it feels good in the moment to write and keep rules, to observe high holidays, to boast of religious achievements.  Legalism is very visceral; very aesthetical … very appealing to the senses.  We cannot see faith, but we can see lit candles and cathedrals covered with gold filigree.  We cannot see faith, but we can see the formulas that we make for our souls—as long as I go to church a few times a month, or a few times a year, then I am okay with God … as long as I pray the rosary, or put a dollar in the Salvation Army bucket at Kroger, or adopt a pet from the animal shelter then I am okay with God.  Those are visual and measurable.  They might be false, but at least they give us the feeling of progress. 

And right there, I think, is the heart of legalism’s power—comparison.  When we operate according to a system of rules for okayness, then we can measure ourselves against others and compete.  We want to know where we rank.  As long as I’m better than Hitler, then I am okay.  As long as I am better than Susan who snubbed me last week at the bank, then I am okay.  As long as I am better than myself five years ago, then I am okay.  But the word of God says the only way to be okay with God is by faith alone in the exclusive Jesus Christ.  

You know what?  I’m okay with that.  Faith plus nothing.

02 November 2015

The Hope of Sonship - Romans 8:18-23

The Hope of Sonship
Romans 8:18-23
Kevin Rees — November 1, 2015 - audio file posted at

Our spiritual adoption now is the proof of our physical glorification to come.

It has become a famous saying, first put down in writing by an American sociologist named Lewis Mumford in 1951 (The Conduct of Life, p. 30), but a truth that has been undoubtedly believed long before 1951—maybe you’ve heard it—“Without food man can survive for barely thirty days, without water for little more than three days; without air hardly for more than three minutes, but without hope he might destroy himself in an even shorter time.”  Hope.  As invisible as hope is; hope’s presence and ramifications, as well as its absence, are very visible, very real, and very influential.

As ironic as it sounds, hope can be very much present even all hope is lost because hope stands squarely between two realms—the realm the physical and the realm of the spiritual.  We can have zero expectation of survival in the physical realm, for instance, and not lose a single expectation about the spiritual realm.  But it is nearly impossible to have the inverse—zero expectation of survival in the spiritual realm without losing a single expectation about the physical realm.  Hope spans the gap between the physical and the spiritual.

In what do you hope?  What do you hope to see?  What do you hope will happen to you, your family, your church, your nation?  I hope my hairline reverses its retreat.  I hope my house does not experience an earthquake since I opted out of the earthquake rider on my home owners policy.  I hope that the Royals win the World Series tonight.  But these are not hopes, per se, but wishful thinking.  I wish I may I wish I might have the wish I wish tonight.  Biblical hope is something else; something more … something more substantial when present and something more fatal if absent.

At the end of the day, when all the news is over, when you are in the bed waiting for sleep to descend, for what do you hope?  ISIS might swallow up more of Syria and Iraq.  Putin might march toward reclaiming its glory days as the Soviet Union.  But as long as __________ is in place, then I’m okay.  That "blank"—that’s what I’m after today.  That is the nucleus of your hope!  Now some qualitative questions—is it worthy?  Is it durable?  Will it hold when all else shakes? 

I was driving in the car yesterday, listening to the radio, and I heard a teaser for an upcoming piece on technology.  The newsman said, “With all the technological advances, in fifty years some people believe that we will be able to stave off death for a very long time in a conscious, cryogenic state”—as though that were enough to cause us to exhale of a huge sigh of relief … as though with that expectation we can stop worrying.  But I would submit that that hope, in the light of eternity, is simply unworthy.  Staving off death artificially, even for as many years as Methuselah lived, is not substantial enough in light of eternity.  After all, would that existence even be worth having if it were even possible?  And regardless, Hebrews 9:27 is still in play, “For all men die once, and after that comes the judgment.”

But for many, technological advancement is the nucleus of their hope.  For others it is political utopia.  For still others it is financial opportunity.  While others hope in the cessation of war, or reversing male patterned baldness, or for the hometown team to win the title, the Bible presents “a better hope” (Hebrews 7:19)—eternal life in heaven with God and the rest of the saints where sin is vanquished and death is no more. “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.  I dare not trust the sweetest frame but wholly lean on Jesus’ name.”  This is our enduring hope that exists even when all other hope is lost. 

Many who had this hope, this faith, went before us and were memorialized in Hebrews 11 for the purpose of encouraging those who remain, who (like they) have still not seen all that we have been promised in Christ Jesus.  But of those mentioned in Hebrews 11, several had zero hope left in this physical world of ever seeing the promises of God, but they maintained spiritually a “better hope” that went beyond what the physical eyeballs could see.

“These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth.  For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland.  If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return.  But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city” (Hebrews 11:13-16).

This is hope—tangible trust in the invisible promises.  But it is not extraordinary; this is the new normal for all sons and daughters of God.  It is not relegated to a select few, but common to all the redeemed.  Let’s pick up where we left off last week—Romans 8:18-23.  We saw (vv. 12-17) four ways the Holy Spirit assures and proves that we are, indeed, sons and daughters of God.  The Spirit is living and internally characterizes us with his life.  The Spirit makes us willing followers.  The Spirit causes us to cry out to the Father in intimate terms—Abba! Father!  And the indwelling of the Holy Spirit is the downpayment, the earnest deposit of our full inheritance to come, further proves that we belong to God.  But we left the fourth underdeveloped until now—our inheritance.  Our inheritance is still suspended in hope.

I.          Hope in Suffering (vv. 18-19)

18 For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.
19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God.

We are heirs of God, even joint-heirs with Christ (vs. 17)—what sublime joy this new status brings!  But Paul is wise; he adheres to our inheritance something that we might otherwise consider a disjointed subject—suffering.  What does suffering have to do with the Spirit’s proof of our sonship?  A lot, actually.

Just like Jesus’ sonship was directly challenged by the temptations in the wilderness, our sonship will also be directly challenged by suffering.  But don’t assume that suffering means sonship is lost.  Quite the opposite!  Only sons are given the blessing—albeit frequently misunderstood—of suffering for his name’s sake. Suffering brings to the surface a deeper dimension of sonship; a depth that we would never have known except that the heat of the suffering opened it to us.  Only sons long for the homecoming.  Only sons cry out for this homecoming more—not less—but more when suffering is increased.  This is how Paul rejoiced in suffering (Romans 5:3).

God is so good, for he takes even the shell of our disappointment and uses it to shape our hope of glory.  What Satan means for evil God means for good.  The Spirit takes our suffering—even our suffering as a sons and daughters of God—and uses it not to weaken our family bonds, but strengthen them.

I know best that I am a son of God when, through suffering, my groaning turns into hope.  In this way, we can rejoice in our suffering—not because we are masochists—but because what is borne in us during suffering is hope; and hope does not disappoint.  I never would have developed hope except I suffered as a son of God.  Hope is an expression of sonship.

Notice right away that Paul says, in verse 18, “For I consider”—I reckon, I examine in order to reach a conclusion.  It is not automatic to have God’s perspective about my suffering; I must therefore strenuously consider the matter.  “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time” (vs. 17a)—again, notice that there is a normalcy to suffering for the Christian.  The prosperity gospel preachers divorce faith and suffering and lose the beauty of hope by saying that the faithful will not suffer.  Nonsense!  Unless we conclude that Paul, Peter, even Jesus himself had no or little faith so as to prevent their suffering, we have to allow the normalcy of suffering in the Christian life.  Suffering, itself, is not evidence of unfairness.  Just remember what Jesus taught—if I suffered, you will suffer also (cf John 15:18).  But the enemy of your soul will certainly tempt you to think that your suffering is unfair and evidence that God is withholding goodness from you.  This is a lie.  God allows suffering, so that he might be glorified by transforming it into good.

“The sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (vs. 17b).  In light of eternity, our sufferings are infinitesimal.  Paul does not say that our suffering is an illusion (as Buddhism teaches), but in comparison to the coming glory our suffering is a feather on the scales.  This comparison doesn’t belittle the suffering; it expands the glory. 

The glory that is coming makes the temporary suffering while we wait in hope well worth it.  “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God” (vs. 18).  J.B. Philips comments on that eager longing this way: “the world is on tiptoe to see.”  What is creation on tiptoe to see?  The revealing of the sons of God.  But aren’t we already sons of God?  Yes, we are the spiritual sons of God right now if we are in Christ Jesus.  But God will add to our spiritual reality a physical dimension—we will be glorified as the physical sons of God with actual bodies resembling the actual body Jesus received at his resurrection.  This is a glory that even surpasses the glory of Adam. 

Suffering brings to the surface that in which we have placed our hope.  If, when a raw nerve is pressed, we think of heaven, it is further proof that we belong there more than here.  We wouldn’t know this hope as well without suffering.  We wouldn’t know this family bond as well without suffering.  Here it is completely appropriate to quote CS Lewis’ line from Mere Christianity, “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.”

II.         Hope of Freedom (vv. 20-21)

20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope
21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.

But hope groans for more than a place; it groans for a freedom … a freedom from its bondage to corruption … a freedom of the glory of the children of God.  “The creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (vv. 20-21).

Everything in creation was negatively impacted by man’s sin.  Therefore, we can say categorically that this world; this planet is not getting better.  It is devolving.  The clouds and birds and water molecules and quasars—all things have been handcuffed, so to speak, by the effects of sin.  Nothing since the Garden has been able to run at full throttle.  But why?  Because Christ subjected the creation to futility.  But again, why?  So that there could be hope.  So that there could be groaning.  So that there could be an appropriate lament until full freedom unveils. 

Even futility is not a waste with God.  Futility is a gift; it makes me want heaven more. Corruption makes me want heaven more.  Decay makes me want heaven more.  Struggle makes we want heaven more.   There really is going to be a day when the children of God will put on completely free, completely incorruptible bodies.  And when the sons and daughters of God are glorified, then all of creation will be restored as well.  God will shake the creation like we might shake out a rug.  The mountains will be brought low, the oceans will be brought high.  But that is not the focal point of this future day; the focal point—second to Christ, of course—is the finalization of the adoption of the children of God.  We are already children of God spiritually, but that adoption will take on a physical component at that day—that is how our adoption is past and present and future all simultaneously.

III.        Hope of Adoption (vv. 22-23)

22 For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.
23 And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.

Hope is our birthright.  It marks us.  It is our normal.  It is our family trait.  “For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now” (vs. 22).  Childbirth is a great illustration of a groaning that is trumped by hope.  The creation aches for, pines for the day of our full physical adoption into the family.  But we also groan as well.  “And not only the creation but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (vs. 23).

The firstfruits is a borrowed image from agriculture.  It is an offering; a feast day.  Farmers bring the firstfruits to the Lord in the expectation; the hope of a full harvest.  We have been given the Spirit as a down-payment of our full inheritance.  The indwelling Spirit is a marvelous gift, but just as he designed it, his presence in us only whets our appetite more and more for home.  This is an assurance and a proof of our sonship even before our full physical adoption arrives.

The creation groans.  We groan.  Although we aren’t going to cover it today, but in verse 26 even the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.  This groaning is hope.  This groaning is building.  This groaning proves our family ties.  And this groaning has an end date!  Non-sons simply do not pine for heaven.  Heaven might be a blissful thought to those outside the family of God, but for family members it is a cooking all the time. 

It is future, the physical redemption of our bodies, but it is as certain as though it already happened.  “We rejoice in hope of the glory of God.  Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame” (Rom 5:2b-5).

As a sidebar—this hope does not have a loop hole through which we might squirm in, or squirm out.  There is no middle ground; no purgatory where salvation might be finalized or where small sins might be burned away thus preparing souls for heaven.  The writer of Hebrews makes it very clear, “It is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment” (9:27)—no reincarnation, no escape, no repayment plan.  Paul says it very plainly in 2 Corinthians 5:8—“to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord” which serves as part of his zealous motivation to plead with all humans to be reconciled to God through Jesus Christ, since after death it is too late to amend our belief or disbelief in the atonement of Christ.  Yet, as seen from God’s perspective, Jesus will not lose even a single one of his own (John 10:27-30).

So, let me return to my original question: for what do you hope?  Not wish, but hope.  Is it enough?  Is it worthy to build upon?  Is it steady?  Is it durable?  If you genuinely hope for that day when all the promises of God will become sight, when you will be received home—then rejoice!  The presence of this hope in your heart is further assurance and proof that you are a child of God.  If you have a lesser hope—a promotion, a marriage, a publisher to send your manuscript to the printers—consider displacing it with the “better hope.”  Leave your lesser hope at the foot of the cross.  Pick up the hope of the glory of God through Christ Jesus.  It is a sure thing; even though making this selection will bring struggle.  It is worth it.  It is worth it even if it costs you your dreams, your reputation, your money, your life.  It is worth it!

27 October 2015

The Spirit of Sonship - Romans 8:12-17

The Spirit of Sonship
Romans 8:12-17
Kevin Rees — October 25, 2015 - no audio file available

The gift and presence of the Spirit is the assurance and proof of our adoption by God.

“It’s true, all of it.  The dark side, the Jedi, they’re real.”  Even casual fans of Star Wars will recognize this line featured prominently in the second trailer of the upcoming Star Wars: The Force Awakens, uttered by a significantly older Han Solo; over 30 years older than when he was last seen in Return of the Jedi (1983).  This past Monday, at halftime during Monday Night Football, fans got their first opportunity to buy pre-release tickets in the build-up for the December 18 release of film 7 in the Star Wars saga.

Ticket outlets such as Fandango and and AMC theaters crashed just after the 88-second spot aired on NBC.  “Fandango said Tuesday that ‘traffic surged to seven times its typical peak levels, propelling Fandango’s advance sales for “Star Wars” to a record-setting first day of pre-sales,’ selling eight times as many tickets in the first day as the previous record holder, 2012’s The Hunger Games” (

But before I start to sound like a commercial (which may be too late already), I’d like to catch the wind that fills the sails of this cultural novelty and steer us toward today’s passage—Romans 8.  The Force Awakens, although the film’s storyline is still cloaked in mystery, has stoked a renewed conversation about the so-called immaterial and impersonal “force” that pervades the universe but which is only detected by some and only understood by few.  This “force” is fun, making for a great sci-fi tale—tickets to which I have already bought—but make no mistake about it, the “force” is nothing short of the neo-Confucian and Buddhist belief in “li,” comparable to the Hindu belief in “Dharma,” and the Taoist belief in “tao.”  Li is the invisible life principle.  It is coupled with the “qi”—the invisible material principle.  Together, they swirl around each other thereby building and holding together the universe as spirit and matter (as postulated in I Ching [and summarized by Wikipedia, “Li,”]).

However, we have a vastly different (and superior!) worldview when we stand upon the Holy Scripture.  Most of the world religions and philosophies try to explain the immaterial aspect of our soul and universe, but only the Scriptures personally introduces us to the Holy Spirit.  May it be that the cultural mania about the “force” will spark a lasting dialogue about the Spirit. 

Unlike the “force,” the Holy Spirit is not impersonal.  The Holy Spirit is not an “it,” but most emphatically a “he”—with distinct and unique personhood, genuine emotions and volition.  The Holy Spirit is divine.  He is eternal.  He is the third person of the Godhead and is, in our passage today, given to the redeemed as a sublime gift, a relational proof, and a downpayment of our inheritance as adopted sons and daughters of God.

Last week we enjoyed a healthy dose of christology—the study of Christ—especially as it intercepted the subject matter of sonship.  This week we get to enjoy a healthy dose of pneumatology—the study of the pneuma, the Greek word for spirit, or breath, or wind—especially as it intercepts the subject matter of sonship.  The entire Trinity cooperates in the declaration, execution, and application of our adoption.  This is hugely encouraging! 

Whereas justification is the legal aspect of our salvation, and sanctification is the purity aspect of our salvation, and regeneration is the new genesis point of our salvation, and forgiveness is the paid-in-full cost of our salvation, adoption is perhaps the most relational aspect of salvation that we can celebrate!  Everything that needed doing for our redemption God did, but humanly speaking, we could conceivably still be treated as an outsider at the end of the day of our salvation.  God could have left us out on the porch; and if he did then we would still have absolutely nothing to complain about because even a day spent on the porch of God’s house is better than thousand elsewhere (Psalm 84:10).  But no!  God received us—we who believe—into his very family; took us into his house, past the foyer, past the front parlor, all the way into his family room.  “Make yourself at home, my son!  You are finally home, my daughter.  Here is a key to the front door.  Here is the password to the Wi-Fi signal.  BBQ and kick-off is at 1:00.” 

This homeliness of the gospel is largely due to the ministry of the Holy Spirit.  It is the Spirit who, when we start feeling like we do not belong in this living room, or at this BBQ feast, or playing football with these brand new siblings in Christ, says, “Nonsense, child, you are fully accepted.  You are truly welcome.  I’ve told you the truth and even whispered it in your heart.  Now go long, I’ll throw you a lob in the end-zone.”  The gift and presence of the Spirit is the assurance and proof of our adoption by God.

I.          The Spirit who Lives (vv. 12-13)

12 So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh.
13 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.

The transition, “So then” (vs. 12), tell us that Paul is summarizing what he started before; verses 5-11.  The Apostle teaches the church at Rome that our identity is firm: “Those who are in the flesh cannot please God, however you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you.  But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to him” (Romans 8:8-9). 

That one point—belonging to God—is the hinge on which swings our passage today (vv. 12-17).  Do you belong to God?  Yes!  The Christian can emphatically agree with 1 Corinthians 6:19—“You are not your own, for you have been bought with a price.”  Yet for those of us who believe we sometimes run up against a wall.  Still within faith, we sometimes doubt—not necessarily the truth of the gospel but we doubt the confidence in our hearts that this gospel is enough.  We may mentally agree with the truth, but question how to know that what we believe is sufficient; that we really do belong to God?  God in his mercy goes the “extra mile” giving us another assurance of belonging, even beyond the Scriptures.  God in his tenderness has given us more evidence of our acceptance.  God has given us the gift and the enduring presence of the Holy Spirit as assurance and proof of our full and true adoption by God.

Who is this Spirit who assures that we belong to God?  Well, first of all, he is the one who lives.  “So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh to live according to the flesh (for if you live according to the flesh you will die), but [we are debtors to the Spirit] and if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will then live” (vv. 12-13, emphasis added).  It is a tricky sentence grammatically, but the idea is this: our identity will be shown in our allegiances.  If we are in the flesh, then we will prove this allegiance by the fruit that it bears: death.  If we are in the Spirit, then we will prove this allegiance by the fruit that it bears: life.  The Spirit is the one who lives.  When we are connected to the Spirit—and we are (vs. 9)—we live (zoe [Gr.] eternal, spiritual life).

This life principle is NOT the “force”; NOT the li or the dharma or the tao.  This life is the Spirit.  We are “in the Spirit” and the Spirit is in us.  We therefore have the same life as the Spirit has.  Not one day in the future, but we have life now!  Yes, one day in the future this life will become unhindered by sin and decay, but that does not mean that life waits until then.  We have eternal life now. 

The other world religions and philosophies say—chase after this immaterial, impersonal life force until you find it and then once you are worthy enough, then you may be able to enter into it permanently—but Christianity says the polar opposite.  Life finds you.  Life indwells you.  Life changes you.  We are in the Spirit.  The gift and presence of the Spirit is the assurance and proof of our adoption by God.

II.         The Spirit who Leads (vs. 14)

14 For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.

Who is this Spirit who assures that we belong to God?  Well, he is the one who lives.  And second, he is the one who leads.  “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God” (vs. 14).  How do we know that we belong to God?  We know because all who are led by the Spirit are sons of God.  Willing followership is not a prerequisite for adoption, but a by-product of adoption.

Non-sons do not follow; do not hear the Father’s voice … do not even care about obedience.  I may not always obey God, but I care about obeying.  It bothers me greatly when I fail; not so much for the action, which is bad enough, but for the broken intimacy with God that my disobedience is causing.  When I sin, I am still a son.  At that particular point in time, I am a son who happens to be sinning.  Forgiveness is still mine through Jesus.  Salvation is still in place.  On the relationship level my sin breaks fellowship with God but it does not break sonship with God.  Restoration of broken fellowship with God is as simple as confession and cleansing because the sin itself has already been paid for by Christ on the cross (1 John 1:9).  But it disturbs me on every level when I am out of step with the Spirit.  I actually want to follow the Spirit now.  This characteristic is proof of my sonship.  It is not a trophy of accomplishment I have achieved; it is a change in my heart that I could never before reach or heal.

The new normal for the Christian is this willing, even eager, followership of the Spirit.  It is a work of the Holy Spirit in me; to be led by the Spirit.  I didn’t used to want to follow.  But now, ever since the day I was converted, I have an appetite for knowing and doing the will of God.  This is not a brag, but a boast in God—he has placed this desire in my heart; a desire that was not there before.  This is proof of sonship. 

If there is an absence of willing followership in your life, know that it is not a behavioral issue but a spiritual issue.  Bring it to God in prayer.  Ask him to diagnosis your heart.  Maybe you are not born again—maybe you are.  Take it to him instead of taking it from him and attempting to flee.  Maybe it is instead that you are caught in an addictive lifestyle that has impaired your walk with the Lord.  Maybe you are merely over-fatigued, or anemic in your diet of truth, or maybe you have been led astray by a false teacher or even a false spirit.  Forgiveness and restoration come in just a moment; come to Jesus.

But hear this: I am not a son of God because I am a willing follower.  I am a willing follower because I am a son of God.  The Spirit gave me—and all adopted sons and daughters—a desire to follow.  The gift and presence of the Spirit is the assurance and proof of our adoption by God.

III.        The Spirit who Cries Out (vs. 15)

15 For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, "Abba! Father!"

Who is this Spirit who assures that we belong to God?  Well, he is the one who lives.  And he is the one who leads.  And third, he is one who cries out.  Without communication, there is no intimacy.  There may be a relationship, but without communication there is no growing, no sharing, no freedom, no help.

We may doubt that we belong to God, but there is reassurance in the simple presence of the Holy Spirit.  We may not know what to say to God for the waves of pain and fear that crash upon our shores, but we have received a new Spirit.  And how do we know that we have this Spirit (beyond the text telling us plainly that we have received the Spirit) already?  The further proof is that we cry out, “Abba, Father.”  Quite literally, it is by the Spirit inside us that we are able to cry out to our adoptive Father.  Don’t get stuck on the phraseology.  These are not magic words.  They are family words.

“For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba!  Father!’” (vs. 15).  The absence of the Spirit, or even the presence of a false spirit, is slavery and fear.  The Holy Spirit does not operate in slavery nor does he generate fear.  If slavery and fear are the modes in which you function or the spheres in which you live, then you have to wonder if you have even been truly given the gift of the Holy Spirit; for slavery and fear are marks of his absence, not of his presence.  His presence is marked by freedom and by assurance.

What is the highlighted mark of the presence of the Holy Spirit is the crying out of “Abba! Father!”—that guttural outpour is further proof that the Spirit is in you.  Have you noticed the shift?  We read in the Spirit, in the Spirit, in the Spirit, and now it is the Spirit who is in us, in you, in me?  What are the marks that you are in the Spirit?  Life and leadership.  What are the marks that the Spirit is in you?  Crying “Abba! Father!” and then, in verses 16-17, the Spirit bearing internal witness with our spirit, “You are children of God.”

But what is “Abba”?  [And I know that many of you want to say a feel-good disco band from the 70s!]  But “Abba” is an Aramaic word meaning, “papa.”  It is “father,” but closer and more intimate—a pet name, really.  It bristles me when I hear children refer to their parents by their first names, or by even lesser titles such as: “my old man” or “the warden” or “freakazoid.”  Also, equally disturbing is it when someone calls someone else’s parent “Mom” or “Dad.”  “Mom” and “Dad” are tender names that only parents and children are allowed to share.  I remember telling one of our children when very young, “Only you and your siblings get to call me, ‘Daddy.’  It is a special name kept for just you to use.”  Yet I shudder at the thought of how many children grow up without a Daddy; a man that is married to Mommy.  The social blights on our land may all spring from the failure of Husband-Daddys.

God’s invitation to call him “Papa” is extraordinarily special; and extraordinarily difficult when the earthly “papa” was more interested in remaining a boy.  So nevertheless, God’s invitation is so special that it barely emerges from the family room in the house of God.  But I have heard “Abba” used in public prayers at times by people who I knew to be wantonly hypocritical, but who tried to build a public visage of piety.  The name that should engender warmth and gratitude when used for false purposes fell dead upon my heart.  “How dare you?  How dare you speak so glibly “Abba, Father” when you were all daggers and fangs at last week’s elder’s meeting?”  Ah, but my judgmental heart was exposed.  It is not my place to forbid intimacy with God.  Have I not also used the same mouth both to bless and to curse (James 3:9)?  If there is discipline to be doled out, it is for the Father to decide, not the sibling.  It is the Father’s prerogative to give invitation to use his special name to all who he adopts.  I have no veto power.  I confess this believing God can and does cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9).

But when I am alone, especially when I am down-pressed by the cares of this world, and I can’t string a sentence together to address the God of the universe, it is the Spirit of adoption that enables me to cry out, “Papa” from my heart.  This small moment, amid a million other moments, is a proof of sonship far more than evidence to the contrary.  The gift and presence of the Spirit is the assurance and proof of our adoption by God.

IV.        The Spirit who Bears Witness (vv. 16-17)

16 The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God,
17 and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.

Who is this Spirit who assures that we belong to God?  Well, he is the one who lives.  And he is the one who leads.  And he is one who cries out.  And, fourth, he is the one who bears witness.  Externally and internally we have, in the gift and the presence of the Spirit, the assurance and the proof of our adoption by God.

This last one is a nested egg that opens and produces another nested egg, which opens to produce another nested egg.  The Spirit bears witness with our spirit—communication with God happens even by merely addressing him as “Abba” in our inaudible hearts, but communication from God happens as well to us.  There is the internal witness by Spirit that speaks to our spirit.  This communication always happens in line with the Scriptures, but there is often no transcript.  It is so deep that, when it does surface into the visible world, it just morphs into the form of confidence, encouragement, and peace.

Notice just a few things about these two verses as we conclude for today; only to pick back up next week where we leave off.  Notice that verse 16 says, “The Spirit himself”—this is very important in our understanding of the Spirit.  The Spirit is a he.  Not an it.  Not a what.  But a person.  The force, the li, the dharma, the tao—those are impersonal forces that lack distinction or emotion or volition or consciousness.  The Spirit himself can be grieved, sinned against, lied to, and quenched.  The “force” cannot be known; but the Spirit can be known.  The Spirit makes himself known so as to build a relationship.  There is no relationship in nirvana or in Buddhist enlightenment—there is the great nothingness.  More and more contact with the li means less and less contact with the material world in neo-Confuscian philosophy.  But when we know the Spirit, and walk with him, we will build more contact in all directions: with God, with others, with self, and with the creation.

But let this be the piece that wiggles into your thinking this week—“the Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ” (vv. 16-17a).”  The Spirit is so gloriously humble—his entire testimony is to bring glory to the Father and the Son.  He doesn’t bear witness to himself, but spends himself to bear witness to the Father and the Son, and accordingly to bear witness to our spirit that we belong to God.

“May the force be with you,” says the Star Wars industry, as both a greeting and as a benediction.  But hear this far more glorious word—“May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all” (2 Corinthians 13:14).

The Spirit of God is with you, and in you, and you are in the Spirit and with the Spirit as well.  You don’t have to buy a ticket.  You don’t have to depend on whether or not crashed under the load.  You don’t have to wait until December 18.  The good news is that God has provided his own and only way to be forever reconciled to himself through the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  It is instantly accessible and forever secure.  The Force Awakens is small story next to, “The Spirit Makes Alive.”   The gift and presence of the Spirit is an assurance and a proof that you are adopted by God.