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The Holy Spirit #9: The Spirit of Adoption

The Holy Spirit #9: The Spirit of Adoption

After talking about who the Holy Spirit is and what His coming at Pentecost was all about, we have begun to talk about the ministry that the Spirit has in the lives of believers today. We have talked about the Spirit’s role as glorifying Christ to us, as the sanctifier of our souls and as our Helper, our Paraclete. In this article we will focus on the Spirit’s role as the Spirit of adoption, moving us to cry out to God, "Abba, Father." And of all the features of the Spirit’s work, I don’t know that there is anything as precious to God’s people as this ministry of creating a sense of "Abba Father" in our hearts.

"For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a Spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, ‘Abba! Father!’ The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God." (Romans 8:15-16)

Let’s look at three aspects of this passage:

The Spirit of adoption

Crying out "Abba, Father"

The Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God

The Spirit of Adoption

Jesus said to Nicodemus, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God... Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit." When Jesus spoke about being born of the Spirit, He was speaking about the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of adoption. Regeneration (which means being born again) is something that the Spirit does. (It is not something that man does.) He is the One who brings us forth. He is the One who gives us new birth. He is the One who makes us the children of God. He is the author of adoption.

Of course, in the original Greek, there was no capitalization whatsoever. So how can we be sure that Paul is referring to the Holy Spirit in Romans 8:15 when he says the "spirit of adoption?" The next verse makes it clear: it is the Holy Spirit who bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God (i.e. the Spirit of God works to convince our spirits that we are God’s children).

Crying out "Abba Father"

God is referred to as Father only rarely in the OT (I’ve only found 11 times: Exod. 4:22; Deut 32:6; Ps 103:13; Is. 1:2; 63:16; Jer 3:4, 19; 31:9, 20; Hos 11:1; Mal 1:6). In fact, in Gal.4:1-7 — the only other passage that talks about us being moved by the Spirit to cry out "Abba, Father" to God — Paul says that before Christ, though believers were actually sons, they related to God as if they were slaves, much as a very young child is treated like a slave, in being disciplined and told everything he is supposed to do, etc.

But when Jesus comes on the scene, He does something radical. Not only does He pray to God as His father, but He uses this child-like intimate term "Abba" in order to do so, something that had never been done in the OT or in any of the ancient Hebrew Rabbinic writings. Mark 14:36 records Him as saying, "Abba! Father! All things are possible for You; remove this cup from Me; yet not what I will, but what You will." ABBA was an expression of intimacy used by children toward their fathers. The typical, more formal way of addressing one’s father was the word ABI. But ABBA is the more intimate, affectionate way that a young child would address his father, not dissimilar to "Daddy" in our language.

This intimate language used by Jesus was remarkable, but reflected the close relationship that existed between the Son and His Father. But then an even more remarkable thing happens. When Christ departs and sends His Holy Spirit upon His people at Pentecost, He invites His people to use the same language that He used to communicate with the Father. In other words, in sending the Holy Spirit God was saying to His people, "You can call Me ‘Daddy.’"And He not only invites His people to use this intimate term to call out to God, but also moves them by His Spirit more and more to come to God in this spirit of a child, stirring up and enhancing this intimacy with God the Father.

For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, "Abba! Father!" (Romans 8:15)

And because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, "Abba! Father!" (Galatians 4:6)

What is involved in this cry of "Abba Father"? It is a cry of need, a cry of confidence in His help, a cry of love, an expression of intimacy. It is the Spirit that produces in us a child-like love for God our Father. It is the Spirit that works in us the confidence that God looks with tender compassionate love upon His beloved children. It’s the Spirit that moves us, in confidence of His love, to cast our cares upon Him (1Pet5:7).

It is such a deeply ingrained impulse for a child to look to parents for help and comfort, sometimes children call out "Daddy" or "Mommy" even when they are unconscious. Well, the Spirit works to produce this kind of deep impulse in us of thinking of God as our Daddy, inclining us to run to Him for safety, to call to Him in trouble, to think of Him as our security.

Now someone might ask, "Isn’t it from the Scriptures that we know of God’s fatherly love?" That is absolutely true. But just because the Bible teaches us this doesn’t mean that it can actually get into our hearts apart from the Holy Spirit doing His work in us, opening, softening, changing, rearranging. It isn’t the information that comes from the Spirit in our hearts, it is the embracing of that information which the Spirit accomplishes in us. Remember, it is not natural for man to reach out to God. That is something only the Holy Spirit can produce in a person’s heart. And presumably this Abba-cry grows stronger as the Spirit works more and more in us.

Now, notice that it is the Spirit of God’s Son who has been sent into our hearts to cry out "Abba, Father." This kind of relationship to God can only come through Jesus Christ. It is on the basis of His Sonship that we can enjoy this kind of sonship with God. We call God Father only through His Son. Only because we have the Spirit of His Son can we do so. Jesus calls us to enjoy something of the intimacy that He had with His Father, to enter into His relationship with God His Father. And He has given us His Spirit in order to work in us toward this end, to inspire us, to produce in us this affectionate longing, this sense of intimate connection with the Father. Adoption means sharing in the love that God has for His only begotten Son. It is by faith that we become united with Christ and receive the benefits of the Son of God. And one of the primary benefits is to share in the love that God has for His Son. In giving His disciples the authorization to address God in this "Abba Father" way, Jesus was giving them a share in His relationship with the Father. It is as if Jesus, through the Spirit, comes down and leads us in prayer to His Father.

This Abba-cry must be distinguished from a natural yearning that most non-believers have to think that there is someone bigger and stronger than them that is favorably disposed toward them. This is something that is not from within us, but from without us. It is a gift given to us by God. It is His Holy Spirit. And it is only through Christ that it can come.

This notion of the Holy Spirit moving us in our souls to cry out to God obviously has a lot to do with prayer. And it begins to help us understand what the Bible means when it talks about praying in the Spirit, e.g. Eph. 6:18 "With all prayer and petition pray at all times in the Spirit..." (Jude 20 also talks about praying in the Holy Spirit). The Holy Spirit is our Helper. How does He help? He helps us in our weakness in prayer. He moves us to cry out "Abba, Father."

It is very possible to pray in the flesh, to pray according to our own fleshly desires, not as humble children before their father, but as spoiled children — or to pray to God as if He is our slave and not our Father. We have mention of this in James 4:3 "You ask and do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your pleasures." Praying in the Spirit is praying with a proper, Spirit-produced attitude of humility and love and intimacy. And we are often so weak or so confused that we don’t know how to pray. Well, the Holy Spirit also helps us in our weakness, when we do not know how to pray. He leads us to lift up prayers that are too deep for words, that are a cry of the heart to God, a groaning that goes forth to our Abba Father who hears hearts and not just words (Romans 8:26).

When "Abba, Father" is our cry, we’re right where we’re supposed to be. And more and more the Holy Spirit moves us to yearn for the consummation of our adoption, when Christ returns again in glory. I believe that this is why Revelation 22:17 says, "The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come.’" (see also Romans 8:23).

The fact that God has invited us, through the Spirit of His Son, to address Him in this intimate way, tells us a lot about His intentions for His children. This invitation is a sign and demonstration of His great love and of His desire to have an intimate personal relationship with each one of His children. It is a promise of fatherly care. It is a foretaste of the glory that is to come, when we shall receive the full measure of all that God has prepared for His children, the inheritance we shall receive as His sons. It is also certainly a promise of Fatherly instruction and loving discipline, in order to conform us to the image of His only begotten Son.

The Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God

Not only does this verse tell us about prayer and intimacy with God, it also tells us about assurance of salvation. Is a Christian supposed to know for sure that he is saved? Is it possible for people to know that they are going to heaven? Well, the Bible makes it clear that God wants those who believe in the name of the Son of God to know that they have eternal life (1John 5:13). And the Bible gives us two ways whereby we might obtain assurance of our salvation. One is subjective and one is objective. That is, one is something we feel and one is something that we see. But both are produced by the Holy Spirit.

The one that is mentioned in Rom.8:16 is the subjective basis for assurance: "The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God." The Spirit in us crying out Abba Father gives us assurance that we are true believers in Christ. This seems to be what John also has in mind in when he says in 1John 3:24b: "We know by this that He abides in us: by the Spirit whom He has given us." (And also 1John 4:13.)

The objective basis for assurance is Spirit-produced faithfulness and Christlikeness, the Spirit producing in us the life of Christ:

1John 2:3- "And by this we know that we have come to know Him: if we keep His commandments."

1John 2:5b-6- "By this we know that we are in Him: the one who says he abides in Him ought himself to walk in the same manner as He walked."

(See also 1John 1:6-7; 2:4-5a, 9-11, 15b, 19, 29b; 3:6-10, 14-15, 17-20, 3:24; 4:7-8, 12, 17a, 20; 5:18.)


What a privilege "Abba Father" is! How we see God’s love in it! How we receive God’s help by it! How else could we survive? When the load gets heavy, when it is painful to keep pouring out our lives, when we taste the grief of dying to ourselves, what would we do if we could not cry out to our Father in heaven? When we begin to feel overwhelmed with anxieties, when pressures mount, this is our source of strength and comfort. Giving us the Holy Spirit was a better gift than if He had given us the whole world!