Covenant Protestant Reformed Church
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The Spirit of Adoption

Rev. Cornelius Hanko (5 June, 1960)


For ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father (Rom. 8:15).

Today we commemorate the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, as He was poured out upon the church on Pentecost.

Our text speaks of that Spirit as the Spirit of adoption. In contrast, He reminds us that this is not a spirit of bondage again to fear, but the Spirit of adoption, which eliminates all fear. It is the Spirit that cries in us and causes us to cry, "Abba, Father." Do you make that cry? Let me ask even more specifically, when and how do you make that cry? If you do, you have evidence of the Spirit dwelling in you. You also have the certainty that you are saved now and are an heir of the eternal salvation. That is briefly the thought of our text.

In this beautiful eighth chapter of the epistle to the Romans, Paul is singing his song of triumph for and with all believers. He starts out by saying that there is no condemnation—not in any sense—for those who are in Christ Jesus. He is sure of that, and he wants them to know that they can also be sure of that. He wants to assure us of our eternal salvation in Christ. Not only do we possess that salvation, and will possess it forever, but also we have a right to it.

Therefore he speaks of the work of the Holy Spirit within our hearts. Those who have that Spirit must and do mortify the deeds of the body. They hate sin and oppose it, daily crucifying the flesh in sincere sorrow of heart and true repentance. They do this because they are Spirit-led. The Spirit within them hates sin and opposes it in them and through them. Therefore it follows, Paul tells us, that they are also the sons of God. They know they are, and therefore they know they are saved, and rejoice in it.

They have actually a threefold assurance. First, they have the testimony of the Spirit in their hearts that they have a right to their sonship. Second, they have the work of the Spirit within them, cleansing and sanctifying as sons. Finally, they have the cry of sons in their hearts and on their lips, saying, "Abba, Father!"

The Spirit of Adoption
I. Who He Is
II. How He Is Received
III. How He Manifests Himself in Us


I. Who He Is

It is obvious that "the Spirit" in this verse and in the entire chapter is the Holy Spirit of God. I need only remind you, and yet it is important to be reminded of it, that this Holy Spirit is no one less than God Himself. God is the Spirit within us. God is described here as being not a spirit of bondage again to fear, but the Spirit of adoption. And God causes us to cry to Him, addressing Him as "Abba, Father."

I say that God is that Spirit, because the Holy Spirit is God, not just a part of Him. God, you know, is one God, not three. He is one in Being, even though there are within that one being three Persons: Father, Son and Holy Ghost. It applies as much today as ever, "Hear, O Israel, the Lord thy God, is one God." He is never three.

But this one God subsists in three Persons, that is, there are three that say "I" in God. These three are all equal, for they all possess the divine attributes perfectly. All three are eternal, omnipresent, all-wise, holy, righteous, truth and grace. Yet the Father lives His life as Father, the Son as Son, and the Spirit as Spirit. Therefore it can be said, that the Father generates the Son and breathes forth the Holy Spirit. The Son draws His life from the Father and also breathes forth the Holy Spirit. The Spirit proceeds as Spirit of the Father from the Father to the Son, and as Spirit of the Son from the Son to the Father. In the Spirit, Father and Son meet in covenant fellowship.

From this it follows that the Triune God is always active in all things. In creation, at the cross, but even in the work of the Spirit in our hearts. We must beware that we do not conceive of three gods, since there is always only one. The Spirit is the presence of God in the third Person abiding in our hearts.

This Spirit is described negatively as not being the Spirit of bondage again to fear. Some have thought that we have a contrast here between the Spirit as He worked in the church in the old dispensation and as He now works in the church today. Because that was the dispensation of the law, the Spirit is said to have been a Spirit of bondage creating fear. But today we are free from the law, so that we now have the Spirit of adoption.

That is certainly not what the apostle Paul had in mind when he wrote this. First of all, it may be true that the church was under the bondage of the law in the old dispensation. But that does not mean that the Spirit held them in bondage. Even then the only deliverance from the bondage of the law was by the Holy Spirit in their hearts. Secondly, it would be very wrong to say that in the old dispensation the church was in bondage as a slave or servant, and only became sons in the new dispensation. In Galatians Paul speaks of the fact that the church was as small children in the old dispensation, minors who had not yet reached maturity, but they were nevertheless children. Today we have reached maturity, because Pentecost has come. But we are the same children, only now mature, enjoying our sonship in full consciousness of its riches.

Very plainly, the apostle is making a distinction between the bondage of sin and the liberty that we have in Christ through the Spirit. There is in us as we are by nature, the spirit or principle of sin that holds us in bondage. As we are of ourselves, sin has dominion over us. We should notice that it is not a mere matter of choice. Sin has absolute dominion, supremacy in our hearts, as we are by nature. First, sin has the right to set up its throne there and to reign over us. God gives it that right. For the soul that sins must die according to the righteous judgement of God. Second, we are depraved, so that we are willing slaves to sin. We cannot do anything but sin. The shackles of sin hold us firmly and securely. And we like it, for we take pleasure in sin, as if that is the only thing that is worthwhile in life. It is as natural for us to sin as it is to breathe.

There is no escape from that bondage. Apart from the Spirit of which our text speaks, we are always in bondage. Sin itself make us its slave. But besides that, the pagan seeks out false gods, mere idols, and finds himself in bondage to those idols. The carnal Jews, especially the Pharisees, sought to work out their own salvation by an outward keeping of the law, trusting in their works. They, too, found no escape from their bondage. In fact, all the "isms" whereby man seeks salvation for himself, by his own efforts and apart from the cross and grace of God, only result in leaving him in his bondage.

As Paul adds so correctly, it is a bondage unto fear. Sin always creates fear. There is the fear of being discovered, or the fear of suffering the consequences, the fear that rests in the fact that our sins always find us out. And the soul that sins must die. Even the pagan who seeks to escape that fear by worshipping an idol is only defying the living God. He finds, too, that all his idol worship only created greater fear, for his idol is never satisfied.

The same thing applies to vain works, for by the works of the law no man is justified. The Pharisee may boast of his self-righteousness, but he does it only to try to soothe a troubled conscience and to still the fear that is always present with him. In the service of sin there is always only bondage unto fear. No one and nothing can deliver us from that, except the Spirit of which our text speaks.

This Spirit is called the Spirit of adoption. The figure is not strange to us. Sometimes a married couple will take into their home a child that was not their own. Most generally that is done when there is not much likelihood that they will have children of their own. This child is carefully picked out as one most suitable for them, and then the child is legally adopted, so that it becomes their own child by law and has all the rights and privileges of the home and family. It is treated and regarded as their very own, is loved in the same way.

In that same way we are adopted. We are freed from the bondage of sin and the terror that accompanies that bondage. We are set at liberty and are given peace of heart and mind.

The Spirit within us does this. He is called the Spirit of adoption, because that is His work in us. He assures us of our adoption, declaring within us that we are sons and that all the rights and privileges of sons are ours. In fact, He leads us as sons and makes us live, walk, speak, and act as sons, even to the extent that by that Spirit we cry, "Abba, Father." What a wonder of grace it is to be able to know and to say that we have that Spirit!


II. How He Is Received

That Spirit, Paul says, ye have received. The distinction cannot be made, as I mentioned before, that in the old dispensation that Spirit was not yet given, but that this is the fruit of Pentecost. That is not true. It is well to note also here, that this Spirit of adoption was already present in the church of the old dispensation, even though not in the rich measure in which we possess it today.

Remember that, in the old dispensation, the church was under the bondage of the law. They lived in a picture world of types and shadows. They were as children who had to be taught by pictures. But that also meant that they were under the strict discipline of children. They were under the discipline of the law, for the law was their schoolmaster. The law told them to do this and not to do that, and held its threat over them if they should disobey. As minors they could not enjoy the full liberty of sons in the home. They could not do as they pleased. But remember, the law was the schoolmaster to lead them to Christ.

The Spirit in their hearts was even then the Spirit of adoption. He taught them that by the works of the law no man is justified before God. But Christ is the end of the law! In Him was all their righteousness. They lived and died in the hope of the promise.

And now Christ has come. He suffered and died, arose and is gone into heaven. There in heaven He received the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of the exalted Christ, and that Spirit was poured out on Pentecost. That marked the end of the types and shadows. The reality has come with the fulfilment of the promise. The Spirit of Christ dwells in the church, so that we now have the blessing of Christ in a much richer measure than ever before. That can possibly be best described by saying that we have the Spirit of adoption as mature sons in God’s house. We are now conscious and enjoy our sonship in a much richer sense than was possible in the old dispensation.

This is true from a two-fold point of view. First, we are assured of our right to be sons. The apostle reminds us that by nature we had only one right, one claim, and that was that sin should have dominion over us. We were the rightful slaves of sin, deserving only that we should be sold under sin unto eternal death.

It is by the convicting power of the Holy Spirit that we realise and confess that. By nature we are inclined to find all kinds of excuses for our sins or put the blame on everything and everybody but ourselves. It is the Holy Spirit that points the accusing finger at us, accusing and condemning us, creating sorrow and repentance.

And it is also the Holy Spirit, who in that way assures us of our adoption. He assures us of an eternal love in Christ. He points us to the meritorious work of Christ on the cross. He assures us that Christ is all our righteousness and that we belong to Him, as sons in God’s house. The Holy Spirit assures us that all the rights and privileges of sons are ours. He even assures us that we are the rightful heirs of a place in Father’s house in the life to come.

But that Holy Spirit also does more. For when He discovers sin in us, He also causes us to realise that we are dead in sin, depraved by nature. He shows us that we are like unto the prince of darkness, who is our father. We bear his image and likeness, we do his will, and we seek his fellowship. We are unfit to be or to become children of God.

Yet that same Spirit also so renews us that we are made into children of God. We are regenerated with a life from above. We are restored in the image of Christ in true knowledge, righteousness and holiness. What a natural parent can never do to his adopted child, God does to us. He makes us completely like unto Himself, so that we are as much His children as we ever could be.

That is the significance of the tongues of fire on Pentecost. It can never escape us that when the Spirit was poured out upon Christ as the time of his baptism. He came upon Him in the form of a dove. But on Pentecost the Spirit was poured out upon the church in the form of tongues as of fire which sat upon each of them. A dove was a proper symbol for the Spirit as He came upon Christ, but tongues as of fire were proper symbols for the Spirit as he descended upon the church at Pentecost.

The difference is obvious. Christ was the obedient Servant, who was called to do the Father’s will in all obedience and uprightness. Thus the dove, a symbol of purity and uprightness, descended upon Him, showing that the Spirit of God qualified Him for the work to which He was called. But we need the cleansing, enlightening power of the Spirit. As a flame of fire within us, He burns away all that is evil, purifies us, and enlightens us, so that we may consciously and actively live before God as sons in His house.

That Spirit has come once to abide forever. He never leaves us, for His work in us is never finished. He does not assure us merely once, but every day anew. Always He testifies that we are sons, and if sons then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, now to suffer for a time with Christ, and then to be glorified with Him forever. He also cleanses and enlightens, always making us more perfectly sons of God showing forth the life of the Spirit as we grow in sanctification. Having received Him, we receive Him always anew, never to be able to live without Him.


III. How He Manifests Himself in Us

Of that we are also assured, even by our subjective experience. It is to that subjective experience that the apostle refers us, when He points out that by that Spirit we cry, "Abba, Father."

"Abba, Father" is a rather unique expression. Actually, it repeats the name Father twice, once in Aramaic and once in the Greek. It seems that this was a rather common practice in the early church. We know from Scripture, that Christ used this expression in Gethsemane when He was in bitter agony of soul. He prayed with deep crying and tears saying, "Abba Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me. Yet not my will, but thine be done." We know also that in Galatians Paul ascribes this cry to the Spirit Himself. There He says that it is the Spirit who cries within us, saying, "Abba, Father." And here He ascribes that cry to the believer who is filled and impelled by that Spirit.

This expression is evidently an expression of strong feelings. The second repetition of the name Father is not a mere interpretation or translation, but serves to give expression to the deep feeling and longing of the soul. Just as we sometimes say for emphasis, "Hallelujah, praise the Lord," or "Jesus-Saviour", repeating in order to emphasise what we are saying. So also in this instance, Jesus first, and later the church after Him, gave expression to the life of the Spirit within them, saying, "Abba, Father."

Notice also that this is a cry. It is more or less spontaneous, but it is also powerful. It is the powerful, spontaneous response of our souls to the testimony of the Spirit within us. This you recall, is the Spirit of adoption who speaks within us. This Spirit testifies with our Spirit that we are sons. He causes us to say with John, "Behold what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us that we should be called the sons of God." And, therefore, there is also this spontaneous turning to God, as impelled by the Spirit, causing us to cry out, "Abba, Father."

As a child who recognises his father coming to meet him, or cries to his father in the dangers that beset him, or longs for his father’s companionship and presence, so the child of God cries for God. The Psalmist undoubtedly had this in mind when he said, "As a hart panteth after water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God. My soul thirsteth for God, for the living God: when shall I come and appear before God?" (Ps. 42:1-2). Or again, "One thing have I desired of the Lord, that will I seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to enquire in His temple" (Ps. 27:4).

This is also very real in the life of the believer. There is the daily consciousness of sin and guilt. Who does not complain, "My sins rise up against me, prevailing day by day. If thou, Lord, shouldst mark transgressions, who can stand?" It is that consciousness of sin with all its burden, that causes us to flee to Father to seek forgiveness.

The burdens of life weigh heavy upon us, almost threatening to overwhelm us. The cry arises, "O lead me to the Rock, which is much too high for me." Again that cry to Father, pleading upon His mercy for strength and blessing. The pilgrimage may seem long, the longing for home and rest may increase, and always we reach out for Him, who is our Father for Christ’s sake.

Again I ask, Do you make that cry? Do you? When burdened with sin? When weighted down with cares? When sorrows and grief threaten to overwhelm, when dangers threaten? Is that the cry of your heart? The longing of your soul? True enough, that is still imperfect, and surrounded by sins. There are obviously many times when God seems far from us, just because we are so far from Him. But do you know that cry?

It is not of you, but the cry of the Spirit in you. It is your evidence that you are saved. It is your surety of eternal salvation. For God who has begun a good work will surely finish it. Just another step—and we are home! Amen.

The life of Rev. Cornelius Hanko, the author of these devotional sermons on Romans 8, is covered in his memoirs, Less Than the Least.