The Work and Witness of the Holy Spirit

The Spirit of Bondage and of Adoption - A Devotional Paraphrase

(Sermon 9 in the Standard Sermons of John Wesley)
By: Michael Roberts

“For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption, and are able to cry, “Abba! Father!” Romans 8:15

We have two options presented here – the spirit of bondage and fear, on the one side, and the spirit of adoption, on the other. How do we move from one to the other? To answer this question, we need to examine a typical way that God leads us through our journey into God’s love. We will look at three “modes of living” and how God works in each. We will call them the “natural state,” the “legal state,” and the “evangelical state.”

First, the natural state. This condition may be represented as deep sleep. In this state, they (we) discern neither spiritual good nor evil. The eyes of understanding are closed. There is certainly no concept of that evangelical holiness, without which no one shall see God or know the happiness that God has in store for all whose “life is found in Christ.”

In this state, there is a sense of false peace – peace as comfort or status quo. We cannot tremble at dangers that are not known. There is no sense of the need to be transformed or to have one’s heart expanded into a greater love. In this state, we just exist, trying to make it through, unaware of better possibilities. There can be a sense of easiness and comfort in this state, for compassion and desires to grow and serve, come only when God gets in and transformation begins to happen.

In this state, we may imagine that we possess great wisdom and goodness, and are able to make it just fine on our own. In terms of religion, we might “play” at it, giving in to a form of “cheap grace,” saying “why should we fear, for God is gracious.” Or we might be negative towards people of faith, seeing the religious as superstitious or as hypocrites, while failing to see our own bondage to forms of superstition, falsehood, and hypocrisy. In our delusion, we might think that we are free “from the enthusiasm of weak and narrow souls ... always righteous over much.” In this state, we feel no condemnation, while willing to put others down.

Then, by God’s prevenient grace, the Spirit moves to touch the hearts of those who are “asleep” in darkness and in the shadow of death. The soul is shaken out of this sleep and awakens into the consciousness of real spiritual danger. Perhaps in an instant, or perhaps by degrees, the eyes of understanding are opened and reality is discerned. In this awakening, it is common to see God as a “consuming fire,” as the great avenger who repays us for wicked ways. In this state, one can no longer project this wickedness onto others. It is revealed in one’s own heart. The result is fear.

The inward, spiritual law of God now glares upon the heart, exposing not only outward sin but all inward sin as well. The words of Jesus ring with such force – “To hate another is the same as murder; to look with lust is to commit adultery.” All pretension and delusion is exposed. All things are naked and open. All “fig-leaves are stripped away, all poor pretension to religion and virtue, are laid bare.” At this point the pleasant delusion and false peace of the natural state ends. The sins of the souls – whether pride, anger, self-will, malice, envy, revenge, or any other – become perfect misery. Sorrow and remorse take hold of our hearts. We fear wrath, punishment, and the gates of hell.

This is a description of us in, what can be called, our “legal state,” that state where we face our own accountability and judgment, born out of a God-given vision of some higher purpose. We begin to see the light of God’s ways and also how short we fall.

Next, along this common journey, we start to think that we must merit God’s blessings and work to avoid God’s punishment. The struggle to do so can be overwhelming and the fear great. As we strive to “break loose from sin and live up to God’s law, we soon discover that we cannot conquer sin by our own ingenuity and effort. Sin is too deep. In this state, we bite at the chains of bondage, but cannot break them. And at some point, along this common journey, we cry out, “Who shall deliver me from this bondage of sin, from this body of death? (Romans 7:24-25). The answer to this question moves us into the third state, the evangelical state, or the state of love.

In this evangelical state, or state of love, we are delivered and set free “by the grace of God, through Jesus Christ our Lord.” When this good news gets in, we are no longer under the law, but under grace. This grace opens our eyes yet again, to a new dimension, where we see, feel, and know, deep within, the pure love of God – not only for the whole world, but also for “me” and for “you.”

With this love planted within us, we are able to then trust in this love and give ourselves to it. We call this “faith.” This faith is a divinely given conviction of “the deep things of God” and specifically of “the pardoning love for all through Christ our Lord.” In this love, we are reconciled to God, and our sins not counted against us. We are able to cry out, “My Lord and my God.”

At this point on the journey, the guilt, remorse, and anguish that once filled our wounded hearts receives healing. The power of death is conquered. We know, deep within, that “if this earthly house be dissolved, we have a home, not made with human hands, but eternal in the heavens. By grace, our mortality is swallowed up into life.” (2 Corinthians 5:1). The chains that have held us in the bondage of fear are broken. God, who was once seen as an angry judge, is now seen through the light of pure and perfect love. We are able to live by faith in the one who loves us and gave himself for us (Galatians 2:20).

In this love, we receive a new Spirit – the Spirit of adoption. We are filled with the assurance that we are children of God, not because we are so good but because God is so good. In this relationship, the Spirit works to purify our hearts from the love of the world, from the lust of the flesh, and from the pride of life. We are then filled with good fruit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness. This becomes our way of life as children of God.

To sum it up, in the first state, there is no light upon the things of God. We neither fear nor love God. In the second state, the light exposes sin and moves us to sorrow. We become aware of our sin. In the third state, the joyous light of heaven breaks through with forgiveness and grace. In the first state, there is a false peace. Upon awakening, there is no peace at all. Upon believing in Christ, true peace comes.

Now, as always, the call is to examine yourself. Where are you along this typical spiritual journey? What is the ruling principle in your soul? Is it love of the world, of pleasure or gain, or ease, or reputation? Is it fear? Or is it love of God? Do you have the Spirit of adoption? Do you know that you are a child of God? Is heaven in your heart? Have you given yourself to truth in the love and mercy of God? If not, Awaken! Call upon the Lord before the deep swallows you up. Wherever you find yourself along this way of life, know that God is with you. The God of peace is working to bring you into God’s pure and perfect love, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.