It has been over twenty years since I read the article in Tabletalk Magazine. I don’t remember the author’s name or what the piece was about, but I do remember at least part of the author’s bio. He was the father of seven children, in his words, “three home-grown and four hand-picked.” By hand-picked he was referring to those whom he and his wife had adopted. Being hand-picked is to be chosen, wanted, and prized. Being hand-picked is to be chosen, wanted, and prized.
When a child is adopted, he or she becomes the recipient of a binding legal arrangement by taking on the name of the parents. But even more, the child becomes the recipient of the relational privileges of being the parent’s child. For example, my children have access to me any time, anywhere. If they had a bad dream when they were young and needed to find safety in my bed, they were welcome to hop on up. Unlike other children, they get full access to the most personal spaces of my life. When they call on my phone, I always answer. When they want to talk, I’m always ready to listen. If they need help, I’ll drop anything to be there for them.
For children who are adopted, they are viewed and treated no differently than natural-born children. It is a big deal to bring a newborn into the world as a parent, making adoption equally as momentous and possibly even more beautiful. Taking on the responsibility for the life of a child is one of the most top-tier commitments anyone can make to another human being. First, there is the financial cost, not only for securing the adoption but for the ongoing provision in care this child will require. Food. Clothing. Medical care and education. Along with the financial investment is a life-long emotional investment.
But those who adopt are prepared for the sacrifices and the commitments because their motivation is not for this child to give them something; it is for the parents to give the child something. To give the child a name, a family, security, and hope. The parents are not adopted in order to be loved by a child but in order to express their love to a child.
There are no strings attached to the adoption. Once the legal paperwork is complete, there is no going back. No returns. An adopted child has been hand-picked. An adopted child has been chosen. They are wanted and prized.
Yet, as any adoptive child knows, there can be very real struggles with trust issues. Does this adult whom I call Mama or Daddy really love me unconditionally? If I blow it and make it hard on them, will they not disown me or give me back? Is their commitment to me total and complete? Are there really no strings attached to my adoption?
From what I understand, some adoptive parents must go to great lengths to convince their hand-picked children that they are no longer orphans—that they do not need to be insecure or fear abandonment. They do not need to fend for themselves or live with suspicion of betrayal. They do not need to perform to maintain their new name. They are accepted and beloved. They are wanted and prized.
The Beauty of Spiritual Adoption
Of all the images in the Bible that provide an analogy for the grace of God in the gospel, the one that speaks most profoundly and beautifully to me is the illustration of adoption. To give that child a name, a family, belonging, security, provision, and an inheritance is a shadow of what God has done for everyone who professes Jesus as Savior and Lord. In the same way that adopted children are hand-picked, so are those who are members of God’s family. The apostle Paul makes this clear in his letter to the Ephesians, saying,
“3 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. 4 For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love 5 he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will— 6 to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves.”
However, as with human adoption, believers often have the same struggle to believe that we really are fully and unreservedly accepted as beloved children. Speaking for myself, I know what it feels like to live like a spiritual orphan, filled with insecurities and fears as if I have no Father who can care for me with provision and protection. Maybe you can relate to that as well. If so, I think this post will help.
In our primary text from Romans 8:4-16, Paul is reminding us personally and emotionally what we already know theologically and propositionally from Ephesians 1:3-6 about spiritual adoption. We do not have to live as orphans. Christians are the hand-picked, chosen, beloved of the Father. We are wanted. Paul writes,
“14For all who are led by the Spirit of God are [children] of God. 15For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” 16The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.”
As we consider this text as leverage that helps us walk with the Spirit, there are several lessons that stand out.
Led by the Spirit
First, in Romans 8:14, we read that the Spirit actively leads those who have been chosen unto adoption by the Father. Paul is saying that one evidence of being an adopted child of God is theological and moral teachability where we live in humble submission to God’s wisdom, allowing the revealed truth of the Scriptures to provide our roadmap as a spiritual GPS for determining how to live.
As we noted in a previous [message/post/chapter], there are many options to guide us, such as cultural trends, the opinions of friends, best selling self-help books, and our own feelings. An honest assessment of these many options reveals how deceptive any of them can be. The only sure guide for life navigation is the Spirit leading the children of God according to the revealed truth in the Scriptures. While there is a subjective aspect to the Spirit’s leading as we grapple with various decisions, we know that the Holy Spirit never leads in a way that is contrary to the objective truth he has revealed for us in the texts of the Bible.
We can say that the Spirit leads us with the words of God from the Word of God, which is why the formula for discipleship is not either being led by the Spirit or being led by the Scriptures. The formula for discipleship is being led by the Spirit according to the Word.
If the first lesson in our text is the leading of the Spirit for the children of God, the next addresses an emotion that is common to every human, which is fear. Of all orphan spirit characteristics, this may be the most dominant, and the most crippling. What we need to grasp from Romans 8, especially in verse 15, is that…
A Spirit of Fear is Not the Spirit of God
Throughout the Bible, the Lord tells his adopted children not to fear over 365 times—a fresh reminder for each day of the year. The Old Testament prophet Jeremiah reminds us in Lamentations that “the Lord’s mercies are new every morning.” Indeed, God is sovereign and gracious to his children every day.
While most of us possess common phobias like the fear of heights or of flying insects, the primary fear Paul highlights is something much more universal, which is the inability to pay one’s debts. In the ancient world, when someone couldn’t pay a debt, they either were placed in a type of debtor’s prison or had to become a servant of the one to whom they were in debt.
It is that background in which Jesus tells a parable in Matthew 18:23-27.
23 “Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24 As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. 25 Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt. 26 “At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ 27 The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.
Without knowing why the King lent so much gold to the servant, we do know that the debt is immense and unpayable. It would take innumerable lifetimes to repay what the servant owed. But as an act of mercy, the King absorbed the debt himself, declaring the servant’s debt as paid in full.
The fear Paul has in mind is not a fear of standing by the window of a skyscraper but the fear of standing before God with an immense and unpayable sin-debt.
In Psalm 130:3, the author pens a hymn that recognizes how dire is the human defense before the law, confessing, “If you, Lord, kept a record of sins, Lord, who could stand?” The answer: not one. Each one of us would be rightly judged guilty. The evidence for a conviction would be overwhelming and uncontested. And the penalty is not just a debtor’s prison. It is the dungeons of hell.
But for the adopted children of God, the Lord has made it possible to stand in his presence without fear. And not only without fear but with the confidence of the Father’s arms open wide with welcoming love.
This is possible because Jesus, as the merciful King, has absorbed my sin debt by serving the sentence I deserved.
In Ephesians 1:7, Paul states, “In [Jesus] we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace.” Redemption is a word that was commonly used in the New Testament period to designate the payment made to a slave owner to pay off the servant’s debt. With the debt paid, the servant was “redeemed.”
Speaking theologically, the doctrines of redemption and justification provide the legal foundation for the believer’s adoption so that we may know God without fear as Abba, which is an Aramaic word used by infants who were learning to say their first words. Just like our children say, Mama and Dada, a Jewish baby then and still today will use the words, Imma and Abba— Imma for Mama and Abba for Dada. These are the most intimate terms possible concerning how to address a parent.
That is how we are now invited to approach the sovereign, creator God—like a Papa. In fact, what we see in the second part of verse 15 and 16 is that helping us live out of our adopted status as beloved, secure children is…
A Primary Role of the Holy Spirit
When small children find themselves helpless and in need, they cry. When they can use words, they may cry, “Mama” or “Daddy.” This gives us a picture of what the indwelling Spirit does from within in the life of an adopted child of God. Verse 15 says, “You have received the Spirit of adoption, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!”
For babies, an empty bottle of milk may elicit such a cry. For older, adult children, the issues become more acute and weighty. With relational stress, financial stress, emotional struggles, and physical ailments, no one is too old to cry.
It is not whether we’ll cry but how we’ll cry. The person with an orphan spirit will cry to himself in despair or to a distant Deity. But the person with the Spirit of adoption, the Holy Spirit, will cry to his Father with hope. The Father who is strong and able. The Father who knows us, who hears us, who cares for us, and who is working all things ultimately for our good. We have a Father whom we can trust even when we can’t see the road ahead because the rain of fear and uncertainty is so thick on the windshield.
What is it that is making you cry today? Is it the fear of man and the pressure you feel to measure up? Is it a concern for a wayward child? Maybe a chronic physical pain or emotional struggle is weighing you down with an un-carriable burden.
In view of these weighty concerns, the apostle Peter encourages each of us to “cast all your anxiety on [your Abba] because he cares for you.” Peter knows that we will become anxious and fearful. But we have a Daddy to whom we can run and be received because we have received the Spirit of adoption. Crying for his help is what we do. Crying out to Abba is not only evidence of our limitations and need, but it is also a sign of being his.
I Couldn’t Carry My Skis
My mother and (at the time) stepfather took me with them over Christmas break for a ski trip to Aspen, Colorado when I was five years old. After a long day of ski school, I distinctively remember following my mother from the slopes to the rental condo with my skis and poles, trying to carry them myself.
With a bulky ski suit, insulated mittens, and oversized boots, I struggled to walk, much less balance the skis and poles correctly. With every step, something would fall. I’d pick up a ski and I would drop a pole. I’d pick up a pole and lose a ski.
Finally, I just collapsed and started to cry. It was too much for my five-year-old self to handle. Through tears, I remember my mother turning around and bending over to help carry what I was unable to carry myself.
Forty-six years later, I still feel like collapsing and crying under burdens that I just can’t carry. Maybe you are there now. If so, I want you to know that it’s okay to cry to the one who not only is able to carry our skis but who carried our sins. All we need to do it look up, even with tear-soaked eyes of faith, and cry to our strong Abba, who loves his hand-picked sons and daughters more than we can imagine.
This post is an excerpt for our upcoming book with a discussion guide, Walking with the Spirit. To receive an update when the book is available, just click here.
- Describe the difference between the spirit of orphanhood and the spirit of adoption.
- Theologian J.I. Packer calls a believer’s spiritual adoption “the highest privilege of the gospel.” Why do you think he says that? Do you agree or disagree? Why or why not?
- If fear is not of the Holy Spirit, what should I do with my fears?
- Read 1 Peter 5:6-7. Do you believe that he really cares for you? How can you be sure? What might it look like for you to cast your anxieties upon him?
- How can your spiritual adoption help with struggles concerning “the fear of man?”
- How might addressing God as Abba lead you into a more intimate knowing of God?
 Eph 1:3-6, NIV When the Bible speaks of being “sons,” it refers to men and women, with the understanding that, while only sons received a father’s inheritance in the ancient world, both receive the Father’s inheritance in the gospel. Rom 8:14-16, ESV Rom 8:28 1 Peter 5:7, NIV