28 May 2015

Romans 8:14-17

“For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God.” (vv. 15-16)

Psalm: Psalm 139


In the Graeco-Roman world of Paul's time, the institution of slavery was the underpinning of the economic order; it would have felt completely normal. The relationships between masters and slaves could vary a great deal, though of course every slave was subject to the will, or whim, of their master or mistress. Anyone could find themselves in this situation of bonded labour, if they were unfortunate enough to be conquered in battle or ended up in impossible debt, so some slaves were well-educated and held responsible posts. But many slaves were born into the condition. It was possible to be freed; many masters gave their slaves their freedom as a legacy in their wills, and such 'freedmen' took the surname of their former master and could inherit significant wealth - but they remained ex-slaves.

But there was another way in which your status could be changed, and this was completely transformative. Not only children but adults could be formally adopted into someone's family, taking their name and in every sense being given the status of an heir. This was an honour usually granted by someone who had no heir but chose a young man (it was usually a man) they respected to be their son. So when Paul speaks about the "spirit of adoption", this is what he means. Becoming a Christian and receiving the Spirit of God gives us every conceivable right to address God as our father in the most intimate way, as one whom he regards as truly his child.

This passage also conveys beautifully what is going on when we utter our prayers to God. We do not need to rely on our own efforts, but on the Spirit who is "bearing witness with our spirit", whether or not we know what words to use. I am part of a team at church who do Godly Play with the children (a special way of creating sacred space and letting them hear a Bible story), and at the end we have a prayer time. We have a candle and a little ceramic dove, which represents the Holy Spirit, and I tell them how the Spirit helps us pray without words. Then these small children easily and reverently hold a deep silence together as we let the Spirit help us pray.

To Ponder

  • Are you ever gripped by a spirit of fear - perhaps due to anxiety, stress, loneliness or grief?  If so, how does it help to recall this passage?
  • Try spending some time in silence, inviting God's Spirit to bear witness with your spirit as you pray without words.