Recently, I attended a large pastor’s conference with church leaders from all over the world. During one of the allotted sessions, they held a question and answer session with senior leaders. Every pastor on the platform had been in ministry for at least forty years. Each predetermined subject was designed to get them talking about advice they would give to their younger self. I sat in rapt attention.
One of the pastors shared something I won’t quickly forget. He said he would tell a younger version of himself to take his sin more seriously. He explained that baby sins grow up into adult sins once mature, bringing death. His message was simple: kill sin or it will kill you.
As children of God, the battle is on. We saw it declared by Paul in Romans 7, but we see it more fully in Romans 8. There is a battle between my flesh and the Spirit, between my body of sin and my new nature. The law — or principle — of the Spirit is pulling me up into Christlikeness, but this isn’t automatic, at least not now. One day, once in Christ’s full and unfiltered presence eternally, we will automatically be pulled into the glory of the Second Adam, Jesus Christ. Right now, however, the principle of the Spirit is working, but I must avail myself to the process.
This process is my right as a child of God. It was not possible before I entered into His family, before His adoption of me. But now I can enter into His transformative work in my character, nature, and tendencies. He wants to gift me and grow me into more Christlikeness. For this to occur, I must understand I am a debtor to no one but the Spirit, and that I’ve been made into a child of God. Radically so.
We Are Debtors (8:12-14)
Not to the Flesh
"So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh." (Romans 8:12)
Paul begins this section with a strong term of conclusion when he writes, “So then," which could be translated “wherefore, therefore.” It is a forceful way of saying he’s come to a compelling conclusion about what he’d just written, where he said that we have freedom by the principle of the Spirit working in us.
His conclusion is straightforward: we are debtors. To whom? Well, the Spirit. But before he writes about that he diverges into an explanation of whom we do not owe. Before we can think of being a debtor to the Spirit, we must know we don’t owe the flesh anything. “Not to the flesh,” Paul writes. We don’t owe the flesh at all.
We do have a debt to pay, but it isn’t to the flesh. The flesh is that ugly complex of sinful human desires within us. Ungodly motives, principles, words, and actions are all part of the flesh. Paul concludes that giving into our flesh is not mandatory. We don’t owe that body, that flesh, anything. We aren’t obligated to live in response to the desires of the flesh.
That doesn’t mean there is no battle. No, the battle is genuine. Paul knows this; it is the reason he announces our lack of debt to the flesh. He knows there is a battle between flesh and Spirit for the child of God. He had experienced it — and had written of it — and now he wants us to realize our destiny isn’t to lose this battle. The Spirit in us can overcome. We aren’t debtors to the flesh.
This is one of the marks of being a child of God. In a dead man, there is no possibility of life. When we were unsaved, lost, we were dead. There was no possibility of response to the Spirit. We were dead to Him, dead in trespasses and sin (Ephesians 2:1). But now we have been made alive in Christ. This new life from Christ introduces conflict. The mere presence of the battle is indicative that we are God’s children.
You see, we are positionally in the Spirit, but we must activate that part of our lives. Feed the Spirit, and you'll follow the Spirit. Feed your flesh, and you'll follow your flesh.
Recently, someone gave me an opportunity to drive a brand new Tesla for twenty minutes or so. One of its features is automated driving. As long as there is a center line and a white line on the shoulder, the car will steer, brake, and accelerate at the proper times. It senses the traffic around you. When you want to shift lanes, it waits for an opening in the traffic and shifts in response to you hitting of the blinker. Tap on the brakes, and the feature shuts off, bringing you back to manual driving. After a few minutes playing with this feature, once back in my own car, I missed it.
As believers, we have two modes. There is the flesh, but also the Spirit. We don’t owe the flesh; we can live by the Spirit. However, like tapping the brakes to turn on manual mode, we must activate this part of our lives. This wasn’t part of us previously, but He is in us now. We can live by the Spirit. The law of the Spirit is pulling on us to do so.
But we often tell ourselves we do owe the flesh. “You deserve this sin,” we tell ourselves. We feel we have earned a little license. We’ve been “good” for a while, so now a little flesh obedience will be enjoyable. Don’t be deceived! You owe the flesh nothing. You don’t have to go there. You are a child of God. You’ve been equipped with a different mode now. Use it. Enjoy the Spirit.
If that is true, if we are truly free to follow the Spirit in our lives, then Paul has a conclusion. We aren’t debtors to the flesh. We don’t owe the flesh anything. On the cross, Jesus said, “It is finished!” We do not owe the body of sin a thing. Those days are done.
With a No-Brainer Choice
"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. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God." " (Romans 8:13-14)
So now we operate with a decision. If we live according to the flesh we will die. If by the Spirit we put to death the deeds of the body, we will live. This is a no-brainer decision. The life of the Spirit is far better than the life of the flesh. Nonetheless, the choice is ours.
A few years ago I took my daughters to their first ever Major League Baseball game, the Los Angeles Dodgers at the Oakland A’s. Later in the game, the A’s brought in a right-handed relief pitcher. After a batter or two, I noticed there was now a left-handed pitcher on the mound, but the coaches had not put in a new pitcher. Excitedly, I remembered hearing that the A’s had an ambidextrous pitcher on their roster. His name is Pat Vindette, and there he was, switching hands in between batters. I was amazed and quickly passed the news on to my daughters.
The Christian is like this. Before we were in Christ, we had only one mode. The old nature, Adam, was our only option. But now Christ has made us “ambidextrous.” We can operate by that old body of sin, but now we can live by the Spirit also. Pat Vindette might have been able to pitch effectively with either arm, but for the Christian the choice is obvious. We long to live by the Spirit.
“If by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” We must kill sin before it kills us. As in Romans 6, this describes a process. Believers wishfully look to moments of immediate transformation, major turning points, but most of our victory comes through the slow process of attacking the deeds of the body by the life that is ours in the Spirit. When a child of God lives by the Spirit, the flesh recedes.
Paul wrote: “I discipline my body and keep it under control” (1 Corinthians 9:27). He had an aggressive attitude towards the body of sin. There are times the flesh must be starved, so we must fill our minds with that which the flesh cannot tolerate. There are times we must replace the flesh with different habits, so we must take time slots normally dedicated for the flesh and use them for the Spirit. There are times we must refill our minds with things of the Spirit, rather than the natural thoughts of the flesh. There are times we must speak in prayer, rather than speak in the flesh.
We Are Children (8:15-17)
Paul had started this section by announcing we are debtors. Before telling whom we owe, he announced we don't owe the flesh. Here, we see we are debtors to the Spirit. We can live a life led by the Spirit, our right as children of God. Since we are sons (and daughters) of God, His Spirit can now lead our lives.
But what does it mean to be led by the Spirit? Often, believers will refer to being led by the Spirit in specific moments in life. Perhaps someone sends you an encouraging word. You ask why. They announce, “I felt led to send that.” This can be a beautiful and legitimate kind of leadership of the Spirit. But Paul is talking about something much deeper than impulses or promptings from the Spirit. He seems to be discussing a lifestyle led by the Spirit.
For example, one version of being led by the Spirit would be to say, “I felt led to stop by the church tonight.” But Paul indicates something more along the lines of “The Spirit led me to overcome my anger problem.” One is a moment; the other is a process whereby the body of sin is destroyed. This is what we are invited into, the full leadership of the Spirit in our lives.
Think of it in a shepherd and sheep relationship. The sheep looks to the shepherd and is led by him. The shepherd gives guidance and direction, progressively taking the sheep to the ultimate destination. The shepherd provides the overarching leadership upon the sheep’s life. The Spirit longs to produce this in us as well. As His kids, the Father gives His Spirit to lead us towards more Christlikeness, and away from the body of sin with its desires. Is He leading you?
Adopted, Not Slaves
"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!'" (Romans 8:15)
But what kind of children are we before God? What is so special about this relationship?
First, we are adopted, not enslaved. This is special, especially in light of our previous enslavement to sin. In the Roman culture, Paul addressed, adoption was a way of escape from slavery. The adopted slave would become more than only the official child of the master. It signified more, for they became the rightful heir of all that belonged to the master. Old family rights were lost. The adopted slave would legally receive a new father. They became heirs of their new father’s estate. Their new father would leave the estate to them. Their future was now secure. The old debts and life were utterly wiped out. The slave was now a new person. Whatever indebtedness the slave had, even elsewhere, the master paid in the adoption process. The law considered him the son of his new father. No claim could be made upon the slave as a slave. He was considered a full son of his master. His master had become his father.
For the believer, the name of the Father is now ours. We belong to Him. He is our family. He has brought us in, stripping us from the old brutal family of Adam. For the believer, our future is secure as children of God. He is building us a glorious and eternal home. For the believer, all our old debts have been paid once and for all by the blood of Jesus Christ. For the believer, we are children of God, so Satan has no claim on us.
This concept of adoption has more to do with position than it does relationship. I was born into this family by rebirth (John 3). But here Paul tells me I was also adopted into this family. Birth highlights my relationship with God. But adoption underscores the position God gave me.
God's adoption of believers is a massive, firm, legal reality. We are adopted by the Father. We are given a firm position in the family of God. This security ought to lead us to embrace the relationship that is ours in Christ.
Loved, Not in Fear
"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!'" (Romans 8:15)
Secondly, we experience affection, not fear. As God’s adopted children the Spirit works in us to enable us to cry out, “Abba! Father!” This is an intense cry, an English transliteration of the Aramaic word for father (or papa). The principle of the Spirit in us means we will intensely cry out for God. This is part of what it means to be a child of God.
This is not doctrinal affirmation, but an irrepressible cry from us to God. It is emotional, guttural, responsive. The Spirit works this in us. Perhaps the thought of God as our Father will begin with logical inference, but this cry to God as our Father is more emotional than logical.
Our fears are crushed when in proper relationship with our Father. When we understand our closeness to Him, our fears begin to evaporate. The Spirit does not produce the fear of a slave, but the security of a child. When this affection is working in our souls, the Father-child relationship develops between God and us. Intimacy increases. Trust develops. HIs leadership of our lives flows.
This father-child relationship leads to intimacy with God. He becomes our trusted ally, our confidant, our beloved friend. We lean on Him in the darkness of life. We credit Him for the joys. We begin to walk with Him, enjoying Him because we see ourselves as we are, close to His Father-heart.
This father-child relationship leads to trust in God. Since HIs motive is so clearly that of a perfect father, we grow to trust Him. We allow Him the leadership that only He deserves. His every plan and purpose and word for our lives are seen as best. When confronting a command or prohibition in Scripture, we understand it is best for us to obey. Trust develops.
This father-child relationship leads to His definition over our lives. Like a good father, He speaks into our lives, telling us who we are. We longingly look to Him for definition. What do You think of us? How do You see me? We want His thoughts and words over our lives.
This father-child relationship leads to peace with and of God. We know we are protected by Him, that nothing in our lives escapes His notice. He will not leave or forsake us. He is holding us in His strong hand. This leads to a deep peace within. We are good, for He is watching over us.
"The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God." (Romans 8:16)
In all this, there is a beautiful double-assurance of our position as His children. His Spirit causes us to cry out “Abba, Father,” but our own spirit is involved as well. “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.” His Spirit, along with our spirit, testifies that we belong to Him.
A longing to pray. A sense of comfort in affliction. A moment of conviction about a particular sin. A sense of calling out into further obedience. A desire to share the love of Christ with someone. These are all something like feelings, but much stronger, and more concrete. It is the work of the Spirit with our spirits. He produces these desires within us.
This internal witness of our spirits ought to serve as a double confirmation, double assurance, that we are children of God. These desires are not natural to us, but gifts from God, clues about the new nature we’ve received from Him. The Bible teaches old things have passed away and all things have become new, and this is part of that experience. As this newness is released in our lives we are experiencing the fact we are God’s children.
The Spirit longs to assure you of your position in Christ. If you are in Christ, He wants you to know you belong to the Father.
With Christ’s Radical Position
"...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." (Romans 8:17)
Now Paul swings for the fences. He has built the case we are God’s children, and that God works to make sure we understand this truth. The Spirit works with our spirit to confirm we are children of God. Could our position as God’s children get any stronger? Yes.
Here, Paul tells us that since we are children of God, we are also heirs of God. We are fellow heirs with Christ. So we are children of God through and through, but not just any children, children with Christ’s radical position. I would never say this if it weren’t clearly written in the text. It is too radical. We have become joint-heirs with Christ; co-heirs, equal in our inheritance.
J.B. Phillips’ translation puts it nicely: Think what that means. If we are his children we share his treasures, and all that Christ claims as his will belong to all of us as well! Yes, if we share in his suffering we shall certainly share in his glory.
I have been transferred, completely, from Adam into Christ. I don’t have second class citizenship in God’s family but have been given full adoption. I am a total and complete co-heir with Christ. This position is astounding.
What is the difference between heirs and fellow-heirs (joint or co-heirs)? Heirs would divide up the land or property. The inheritance might not be divided up evenly. If I were merely an heir, I would expect just a measly little corner of God’s inheritance. However, because I am a fellow-heir with Christ Jesus it means I possess it all, for it all belongs to Christ and I am with and in Him. I am so completely a child of God that I have the same position as Christ, in a sense. I have already received every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 1:3), and someday this spiritual inheritance will add a beautiful physical inheritance.
The Spirit will help us through this current season of suffering, which Paul alluded to when he wrote, “provided we suffer with Him.” We must go through this current life, a life of suffering, to get to the full inheritance that is ours in Christ. Once this life concludes and this present era of suffering passes, we will taste the full glory of God’s grace upon our lives. "For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too" (2 Corinthians 1:5). Again, from J.B. Phillips: Yes, if we share in his suffering we shall certainly share in his glory.
So if you are in Christ you are a child of God. You are not a debtor to the flesh, but the Spirit. Take sin seriously. Invite the Spirit of God to strengthen you as you feed the spiritual part of you, rather than the body of sin, the flesh. Watch what God will do to help you live like the child of God you have been made to be. You are a debtor to the Spirit and not the flesh, after all, and He has made you His child, radically so.