Big Idea: Adoption gives us a new identity, experience, and destiny.
So here’s how things work around here. Every week we get up here and say something really important. Most weeks we will tell you that what we’re talking about is important, probably more important than anything we’ve talked about other weeks. After a while, you start to roll your eyes, because every week we keep saying that tonight’s topic is one of the most important things. And yet you keep coming back.
Tonight, we’re going to repeat the process. Except what we’re going to talk about actually is one of the most important things we could ever grasp. That isn’t just my opinion. Renowned Canadian theologian J.I. Packer agrees. He writes:
You sum up the whole of New Testament teaching in a single phrase, if you speak of it as a revelation of the Fatherhood of the holy Creator. In the same way, you sum up the whole of New Testament religion if you describe it as the knowledge of God as one’s holy Father. If you want to judge how well a person understands Christianity, find out how much he makes of the thought of being God’s child, and having God as his Father. If this is not the thought that prompts and controls his worship and prayers and his whole outlook on life, it means that he does not understand Christianity very well at all. For everything that Christ taught, everything that makes the New Testament new, and better than the Old, everything that is distinctively Christian as opposed to merely Jewish, is summed up in the knowledge of the Fatherhood of God. “Father” is the Christian name for God. (Knowing God)
So today, we’re talking about something very important. It is, as Packer says, the sum of the whole of New Testament teaching. It is the summation of the New Testament, and the test of how well you understand Christianity.
But it’s even more than that. I really appreciate what Packer says: it’s not just knowing it, but experiencing it. It’s how much we make of the thought of being God’s child; it’s being controlled in our worship, prayers, and whole outlook on life.
So today, I want to look at this. Specifically, I want to look at three things that we learn in this passage. It tells us that we have three new things: a new identity, a new experience, and a new destiny.
First, we have a new identity.
Listen to what Paul says in verse 14: “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.”
Don’t miss this. What Paul is saying is for those who have encountered Jesus Christ, there is a completely new identity. In other words, not everybody is a child of God. Some people teach that, and in a sense it’s true. When Paul spoke in Athens, he quoted one of their poets: “For we are indeed his offspring” (Acts 17:28). What Paul means is that we are all related. Every human being was created by God in his image. But that’s not what Paul is talking about in Romans 8. In Romans 8, he is distinguishing between two types of people: those who are children of God, and those who aren’t. Not everyone has this privilege. If you have encountered God’s grace through Jesus Christ, then you have a completely new identity: you are a child of God. The gospel of John says, “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12).
What does it mean to be a child of God? Billy Graham’s daughter Anne Graham Lotz told a story that helps us understand. Billy Graham is the famous evangelist who has preached to millions of people all around the world, and who now lives in North Carolina. People come to visit him in his home. They drive up the long drive and come to the gate. They knock on the gate and say: “Billy Graham, let us in. We've read your books; we've watched you on TV; we've written to you; and we want to come to your house.”
And she says that her father says: "Depart from me, I don't know you. You're not a member of my family, and you've not made any arrangements to come."
But Anne Graham Lotz says that when she drives up that same driveway and knock on the gate, she says, “Daddy, this is Anne, and I've come home.” The gate is thrown right open, and she goes inside, because she is her father's child. Although he is a lot of things — evangelist, legend, author, confidante to presidents — to her he is Dad. Her identity changes everything, and puts her on a completely different footing with her father.
That’s what Paul is saying. If you are in Jesus Christ, then Father is now the name by which you call God. Nobody ever called God Father before Jesus came along. If you are in Jesus Christ, you’re now part of God’s family. You are his children, his own sons and daughters and heirs. You can approach him with boldness. You have an in with God. You have privileges. You can approach God without fear and know that he has a fatherly concern for you. “This is the heart of the New Testament message” (Packer).
What does this mean? The Westminster Confession of Faith puts it this way. We now:
…enjoy the liberties and privileges of the children of God; have His name put upon them, receive the Spirit of adoption; have access to the throne of grace with boldness, are enabled to cry, Abba, Father, are pitied, protected, provided for, and chastened by Him, as by a father; yet never cast off, but sealed to the day of redemption, and inherit the promises, as heirs of everlasting salvation.
There’s so much here. We now have new privileges. We now have God’s name upon us. We can now approach God with boldness. God now cares for us, protects us, provides for us, and corrects us. He will not revoke our adoption. We now receive all that he has promised us as heirs. We could spend weeks exploring all of this.
I know I keep quoting J.I. Packer, but what he has written on this subject is so good. Packer says that this is the highest privilege that the gospel offers. It’s even better than our justification, by which he means it’s even better than God’s forgiveness of us. Why is this so? Justification, he says, is definitely necessary, and it definitely meets our deepest spiritual need. But adoption is even higher, because of the rich relationship with God that it signifies. You see, we could be forgiven by God, but that would still not necessarily mean that God loves us. It doesn’t imply any deep relationship or intimacy. A judge can pardon you, but that doesn’t mean that he has to like you. In fact, a judge can set you free and still absolutely hate you.
But that’s not what God does. God justifies us. He forgives all of our sins. But then he does something unbelievable. He brings us into his family. He loves us, and he becomes our Father. Our relationship becomes one of closeness, affection and generosity. “To be right with God the judge is a great thing, but to be loved and cared for by God the Father is a greater” (Packer).
The good news that we offer this community — the good news that we need ourselves — is not just about forgiveness. It’s not just about the afterlife. It’s far better than this. It’s that we can have a new relationship with God through Jesus in which we enjoy all the privileges of becoming God’s children. He offers his love and all the rights and privileges that come with being his children.
It’s unbelievable, but that’s not all:
Second, we have a new experience.
It’s one thing to have a new identity. It’s another thing to experience it. If you look carefully at what Paul says in this passage, he’s not content to let this hang in the air like a theory or a concept. Paul gets real with this truth. Look at what he writes:
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!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God… (Romans 8:15-16)
This is not meant to be a theory. It’s meant to be an experience in two different ways.
First, it changes us from a spirit of slavery to a spirit of sonship. We no longer relate to God from a position of fear or a position of servitude. We’re children now. This gets personal. Paul compares two ways of thinking about God. One is about fear, dread, and inadequacy. Have you ever felt insecure in a relationship? You know how awful that is. Paul contrasts that with a second way of thinking about God: not fear, not dread, not inadequacy, but intimacy. It leads us to address God in the most intimate terms, as a child would address his or her father.
Second, it’s also experienced within our spirits. We inwardly sense that we are God’s sons. In Hebrew culture, the testimony of two witnesses was required to establish truth. Paul says that we have this here. The two witnesses are the Holy Spirit, who bears witness with our own spirits. You were meant to experience this inward assurance that you are loved by God. It’s a personal touch from God in the depth of your being. I don’t know if you have ever experienced this. I hope you have. There have been times when I’ve had a strong and powerful sense of my relationship with God. We were meant to experience this. It’s not reserved for the elite. It’s for all of us.
David Martyn Lloyd-Jones says if you want to get an idea of what it’s like, picture a man walking along a road with his little boy, holding hands. “The little boy knows that this man is his father and that his father loves him. But suddenly, the father stops, picks up the boy, lifts him up into his arms, embraces him, and kisses him. Then he puts him down, and they continue walking. The boy is no more a son when he is being embraced than he was before. The father’s action has not changed the relationship; it has not changed the status of the boy; but oh, the difference in the enjoyment.” That’s what we’re meant to enjoy with God.
I hope you get a sense of how amazing this is. If you are in Christ, you are justified. That alone is amazing. He has forgiven all of your sins. He has cleansed you from all unrighteousness. But it gets even better. Not only has he done this, but he has adopted you and given you a new identity as his own child. You are his; he is yours. You can approach him in confidence and intimacy. But it gets even better than this. It’s not just a theory but it’s meant to be an experience.
How do you get this? Ask God for it. Charles Spurgeon said:
Thank him for little grace, and ask him for great grace . He has given you hope, ask for faith. And when he gives you faith, ask for assurance. And when you get assurance, ask for full assurance. And when you have obtained full assurance, ask for enjoyment. And when you have enjoyment, ask for glory itself. And he will surely give it to you in his own appointed season.
I heard a story this week of a man who owned a sheep ranch. He couldn’t make enough on his ranching operation to pay the principal and interest on the mortgage, so he was in danger of losing his ranch. With little money for clothes or food, he had to live on government subsidy.
One day a seismographic crew from an oil company came into the area and told him there might be oil on his land. They asked permission to drill a wildcat well, and he signed a lease contract. They found a huge oil reserve, and he became a multimillionaire. The day he purchased the land he had received the oil and mineral rights. He’d been rich from that day. Yet, he'd been living on relief. A multimillionaire living in poverty. The problem? He didn't know the oil was there even though he owned it.
Many Christians live in spiritual poverty. They are entitled to all the privileges and benefits of being God’s adopted sons, but they are not aware of their rights. They live like orphans rather than living off the rich reserves of grace that are theirs.
I love what Spurgeon said. “Ask for enjoyment.” Ask God to make his love real to you. Meditate on the gospel. Purse the means of grace. Flee from sin. If you are in Christ, you have the identity of his child. Ask him for the enjoyment of that privilege. Live in light of who you really are.
We’ve said that this is revolutionary. We’ve seen that this is the heart of the Christian message, and that it gives us a new identity and a new experience. But there’s one more thing that it gives us:
Third, we have a new destiny.
Paul says in verse 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” (Romans 8:17). He may have saved the best for last. Paul’s talked about our present enjoyment of the benefits of adoption: that we have a new identity, and that we can experience that identity here and now. But in this verse he paints the future for us. Now that we’re adopted, we have an inheritance coming our way. Paul’s going to spend the rest of the chapter talking about this, so we won’t go into depth, but we’ll spend just a few minutes talking about it today.
When God adopts us, we become heirs. “Your eternal happiness hinges on this one thing: Are you a child of God?” (Ray Ortlund). If you are, you are richer than you can imagine. You have an inheritance coming to you that is unbelievable. God will wipe the tears from our eyes. We will be like Jesus. We will experience life better than we’ve ever imagined. I love what Mike Wittmer writes about the new earth that we will enjoy:
So the new earth will be an exciting, interesting place to be. We will be always growing, always learning more about ourselves, the world, and God. We will never bottom out and become bored, for we will never know as much as God knows. There will always be some new joy to discover, some place to visit or revisit, some new dish to create, a new flower to breed, a new song to sing, a new poem to write, a new golf club to try out, a new lesson to learn and then pass on to someone else, some person to know more deeply, something new in our relationship with God. And this stretching and growing will go on forever…Nothing will be more satisfying than dwelling with our Father on the earth we call home, enjoying the well-rounded, flourishing lives he intended for us all along. Our next life will look an awful lot like this one, lacking only the suffering that arises from sin. (Heaven Is a Place on Earth)
Doesn’t that sound great? This is the inheritance that awaits the children of God. Amazingly, it’s all ours because it’s all Christ’s, and we are co-heirs with him. Because he inherits it, we will too.
But Paul does add a condition. He says, “provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.” It’s odd for Paul to mention suffering at this point. He was on a roll. I was feeling pretty encouraged until Paul brought this up. Why does Paul bring this up?
I believe it’s because Christianity is real about our problems. You are adopted, and you get to experience that adoption, and you even get to inherit all things, but that doesn’t exempt you from suffering. The gospel enables us to face up to the hard realities of this world rather than denying them. Jesus said, “In the world you will have tribulation” (John 16:33). Suffering is common. It’s actually part of the Christian life.
Peter and John were jailed. Stephen was killed. Paul himself was imprisoned, beaten, shipwrecked, starved, threatened, and exposed to the elements. And what was true of these early preachers soon became true of their followers as well. They were ridiculed, hated, abused, and eventually martyred for their faith in great numbers. In addition, they endured the many disappointments, deaths, deprivations, and disasters common to all human life in a fallen and extremely sinful world…Suffering is as common to God’s people today as in New Testament times. (James Boice)
Paul is not saying that suffering is how we earn our status as children, or gain our inheritance. He is saying that it’s proof that we are God’s children. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, who explores this line of thought extensively in his study of Romans 8:17, says, “If you are suffering as a Christian, and because you are a Christian, it is one of the surest proofs you can ever have of the fact that you are a child of God.” But we can’t miss what Paul says in the next verse: “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18). This is how J.I. Packer puts it:
And throughout our life in this world, and to all eternity beyond, he will constantly be showing us, in one way or another, more and more of his love, and thereby increasing our love to him continually. The prospect before the adopted children of God is an eternity of love.
This is what this passage tells us. We are adopted, and it changes everything. It gives us a new identity. It gives us a new experience, here and now. And it gives us a new destiny. Knowing this sustains us even when things get really tough here and now.
I want to close by saying two things. First, if you are here today and don’t consider yourself to be a Christian, we are so glad you are here. We are honored to have you. I want you to understand that this is what Christianity is all about. It’s not a set of rules. It’s not about rituals. It’s about adoption. This is the whole of the New Testament teaching. It’s the test of if you understand Christianity. As you consider the claims of Christ, I want you to see that the heart of Christianity is a God who adopts unworthy people and calls them his own. You’re invited. This is open to anyone who comes to Jesus Christ and confesses him as Lord.
Second, I want to speak to those of you who are followers of Jesus Christ. It is my great privilege to tell you that you have not just been forgiven; you have been adopted. You can now approach God with boldness. God now cares for you, protects you, provides for you, and corrects you. He will not revoke your adoption. You now receive all that he has promised you as heirs, a fellow heir with Jesus. And this isn’t just head knowledge. He wants you to experience this.
I want to close with great advice from J.I. Packer:
The immediate message to our hearts of what we have studied in the present chapter is surely this: Do I, as a Christian, understand myself? Do I know my own real identity? My own real destiny? I am a child of God. God is my Father; heaven is my home; every day is one day nearer. My Savior is my brother; every Christian is my brother too. Say it over and over to yourself first thing in the morning, last thing at night, as you wait for the bus, any time when your mind is free, and ask that you may be enabled to live as one who knows it is all utterly and completely true. For this is the Christian’s secret of—a happy Life?—yes, certainly, but we have something both higher and profounder to say. This is the Christian’s secret of a Christian life, and of a God-honoring life, and these are the aspects of the situation that really matter. May this secret become fully yours, and fully mine.