Abba, Father!

Sermon preached on Romans 8:12-30 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 1/30/2011 in Novato, CA.

Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
Romans 8:12-30

“Abba, Father!”

Next week we will begin a new sermon series through 1 Peter. Before we began that, I wanted to take another week off and deal with the topic of prayer. A few weeks back as we started out the new year, I called us to really think about discipleship this year. To really take serious this year your discipleship. Often when we think about discipleship, we probably think about what we are learning. About learning the teachings of Christ. Well, certainly Jesus taught about prayer. But he taught about it, so that we would do it. Prayer is one those most fundamental spiritual disciplines that disciples do. Following Christ includes praying like he taught, and even praying like he himself did. I think for most of us, this is something we need to ever continue to grow in. We need to ever grow in our prayer life.

Of course one of the things that Jesus particularly taught us about our prayer life was to approach God as our Father. That’s how the Lord’s Prayer starts out, “Our Father.” This is an emphasis we see quite a bit in the New Testament. It stands out, because it was not an emphasis in the Old Testament. Certainly we can see how God was a Father to his people in the Old Testament, and yet that’s just not a focus in Old Testament prayer and worship. Jesus and the apostles in the New Testament, very much bring this out. In the era where the grace of God is so clearly revealed, his adoption of his people as his children is a part of that revealed grace.

And that’s what we find in our passage today. This passage teaches about adoption, and relates that to our prayer life. And related to this, it also discusses Christian suffering. We’ll consider these interrelated topics today, with the overall focus to understand how our adoption as sons and daughters of God encourages our prayer life. That’s what I want us to leave today with: to be encouraged in how being a child of God affects our prayer. I think most Christians recognize, in some sense, the value of prayer. And yet I think many of us also find our prayer life lacking in what we know it could be. It’s my hope to encourage us today; to think about not only God’s call for us to pray, but about how his Spirit is at work in us, to grow us in our prayer life, as his children.

Let’s begin first this morning by thinking about our adoption. Theologically, we affirm that when we become a Christian, that God adopts us into his family. We see that teaching in this passage. Verse 14 calls us sons of God and verse 16 calls us children of God. But the verse in between tells us in what sense we are his sons and his children. Verse 15, “For you did not receive the spirit of bondage again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption by whom we cry out, “Abba, Father.” Verse 15 is talking about a change that took place right at the beginning of our Christian life. Before we became a Christian, we were not in this sense sons of God. We were not his children. But at that initial point of faith in Christ, we underwent a status change. We usually talk about that change in terms of justification: that when we first turned in faith to Christ, we found forgiveness of sins, and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. At that point of initial faith, in a legal sense before God, we had a change of standing. We suddenly went from being seen as a condemned sinner, to being seen as a righteous believer. That’s our justification. But verse 15 reminds us of another change of status that happened at the same time. We were adopted. God adopted us as his children.

In the Greek, this word for adoption that we see in verse 15 is a legal term. It carries with it much the connotation that we have today with our word for adoption. When we use that word, part of what we think is the legal process that causes a change of status. At first a child you want to adopt is not your legal child. You go through the adoption process, and finally one day the process is officially complete. On that day, the legal status of the child changes. Just like that. One moment they are not your child, the next moment they are “adopted.” They are then officially your child. That’s what this word means in the Greek. And that’s what happens for us at the point of faith. One moment we are not God’s children. The next moment, we become one of God’s. When we believe in Jesus, we are both justified and adopted at that same moment. It’s a wonderful change of status that takes place.

We see part of the fruit of that status change in verse 17. We have become heirs. Under Roman law at the time, if adoption meant anything, it meant this. You were entitled legally to the inheritance. Often adoption would happen to people that were already grown, as a way to pass on an inheritance. Roman emperors, for example, often did this to pass on who would be the next emperor. As Christians, we’re told in verse 17 that part of this forensic transaction of being adopted means that we now are heirs. We share in a divine inheritance with Christ.

What I find amazing about this passage’s teaching on adoption, however, is that it shows that God’s work of adoption is more than just a legal transaction. It is that; but it’s more than that. God not only adopts us in a legal sense, but he begins a transformation in us. We are not only officially on paper, so to speak, his children. But he also begins to change us from the inside to think and act as his children. There’s nothing cold and impersonal about God adopting us. It’s not just a convenient legal transaction, like so many in the Roman world were. No, remember what we just read in verse 15. In adopting us, God sends us the Spirit of adoption. This Spirit of adoption, it says in verse 15, causes us to cry out, “Abba, Father!” It goes on to say in verse 16, that this Spirit bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God. This Spirit, of course, is the Holy Spirit; who by the way in verse 9 is called simultaneously both the Spirit of God, and the Spirit of Christ.

And so our adoption is not just forensic and legal. It’s also transformative. God sends the Spirit of Christ into us, that we would begin to actually become children of God. People who think and act as children of God. Verse 16 put this in terms of assurance when it talks about the Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are his children. In faith, we should personally know that we have been adopted. That we are God’s children; because the Bible tells us so. And yet I guess God wanted to encourage us more than that. Because, God then also sends his Spirit to impress upon our spirits that this is true; that we are his children. That’s the point of verse 16.

But then notice the transformation described in verse 15. It makes us to cry out, “Abba, Father!” That’s prayer language, in case you didn’t notice it. It’s talking about how we now cry out to God in prayer. There’s so many ways we could address God in prayer. And yet we’ve said how Jesus especially emphasizes how we call to God saying, “Our Father.” And so, it’s no surprise then that the Spirit of Christ within us makes us to pray, “Abba, Father.” Abba is the word for father, in Aramaic, by the way. Jesus and the Jews would have spoken Aramaic of course. It’s often pointed out that this is a more endearing or intimate term for Father, and that’s true. Paul then translates that Aramaic word into Greek as “Father”; the letter he was writing, was of course written in Greek. Both Jesus and the Holy Spirit show us the value of praying to God as Father.

And yet that’s not saying enough about verse 15. Yes, the Holy Spirit does work this in us. But verse 15 says that’s part of the Spirit’s work as the “Spirit of adoption.” In other words, this is a tangible result of our adoption. The Spirit isn’t just showing us the value of calling God “Father.” No, because we’ve been adopted, God is having his Spirit change us so as to call him Father. This isn’t just God teaching us to call him Father. It’s God transforming us to call him Father. And verse 15 puts this as a benefit of our adoption. Yes, our adoption is a legal change of status. But the Spirit also makes our adoption have an internal change in us, as well. And to our topic today, that’s a change that affects how we pray. He makes us so that when we pray, that we approach him as his children.

And so, our adoption should inform our prayers. But this is not just in some legal sense that’s true. Rather, our adoption should not only inform our prayers, but it should characterize our prayers. This should encourage us and even empower us. My basic point here is that our relationship in prayer with God is especially one of father and child. And that is emphasized here in the most dramatic way, by the Spirit inside us. The Spirit is working this kind of prayer inside us. The kind of prayer Christ would pray as a Son; that’s the kind of prayer the Spirit is working inside us.

The next point I’d like to make is how our suffering in life is related to this. In the interest of time, I’m only able to make this point briefly here. We see that our sonship implies suffering in this life. Look at verse 17. It says that we’ll also know we are his children as we suffer along with Christ. Verse 18 compares this suffering here and now against the glory that we’ll have in the future. Verses 18-30 pictures our already and not yet life as Christians. Already we’ve been adopted. That’s clear here. And yet there’s a sense in which our adoption is not fully realized. Verse 19 says that the creation is waiting for revealing of the sons of God. That will happen at Christ’s return. Our new status will be made abundantly clear to the world. Verse 21 says that until then the creation itself is under bondage. It’s waiting for the liberty of the children of God. That again is going to happen at Christ’s return. We see in verse 23 that we ourselves are still awaiting the adoption, it says. There it defines that waiting for us: we are waiting for the redemption of our bodies. There’s something incomplete with our adoption as long as we still have our earthly bodies that are affected by sin; bodies that break down and die because of sin.

And so this passage puts this already, not yet, aspect another way. It talks about the creation groaning, and it talks about us as God’s children groaning. The creation groans in verse 22. We are said to groan in verse 23. We both essentially grown for the same thing; the return of Christ. What happens then? The creation becomes anew. The old creation is transformed into the new creation. Scripture calls that the New Heavens and the New Earth. As it says in verse 21, the liberty, the freedom, of the children of God will at that point come to the creation itself. We know that this world is affected by sin. Even at the fall, God’s curse affected the creation – think of the thorns in Genesis 3:18. The creation groans, waiting for its transformation. That is the groaning we make as well. Our groaning in verse 23 is groaning for the new bodies. Just as the creation is made anew, so our bodies will be made anew at Christ’s return. That’s when we will taste of the fullest liberty. That’s when it will be clearly revealed who are the children of God: when our bodies are made anew. That’s the fullest expression of our adoption. That’s the already and not yet. Already it’s been said that we’ve received the Spirit of adoption, verse 15. But our bodies have not received the redemption yet, which is also described as adoption in verse 23. Our adoption has an already and not yet component to it. Our adoption has already fundamentally, legally, taken place; but the full rights and benefits of our adoption will be experienced in glory; then we taste of that inheritance reserved for us. An inheritance that includes a new body. Until then we groan for that day.

Bring this groaning together with our suffering. This passage has said that until the day of Christ’s return, we suffer, and we groan. We suffer in this body. We groan for the salvation from this suffering. Verse 24 uses the language of hope. In the midst of suffering we are yearning for our hope to be realized. It’s a certain hope. It’s not just a possibility. But our yearning is expressing our patience amidst suffering. We hope for that day when our suffering will be no more, and our hope will be seen.

What can we do brothers and sisters in the midst this suffering? Well, let’s start by asking what God is doing in us during this suffering? In verse 28, we’re told God is at work in us for good. Even in the sufferings. Verse 29 tells us the final outcome of this work. That we be conformed to the image of his son, the firstborn among his brethren. Again, adoption language, but in the transformative sense, not just the legal sense. God is making us, not just legally, but inwardly, his children. And he does that in part through our present sufferings.

So bring this all back around to prayer. This passage says the creation suffers, and so it groans, yearning for what we will be. It says that we suffer, and we too groan, yearning for what we will be. Then verse 26 brings that back to the Spirit inside us, helping us in our prayer life. Look at verse 26. It says, “Likewise, the Spirit also helps in our weaknesses. For we do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered.” And so the creation groans, we groan, and the Spirit groans inside us. And that groaning of the Spirit is actually then described as prayer. The Spirit, in words we can’t even understand, is inside us, praying to God for us. It says that he knows what our needs are, even if we don’t. Certainly we can appreciate that. In the midst of a trial; in the midst of some suffering, sometimes we don’t even know where to start (in prayer). But the Spirit does. And the Spirit inside us will pray for us. In our weaknesses in this life, the Spirit is at work.

Of course, this is part of how he is transforming us as children of God. When Christ suffered, what did he do? He prayed to his heavenly father. When we suffer in this life, the Spirit of Christ is inside us, interceding for us. Verse 34 further encourages us in this too. There it says that Christ is in heaven before the Father, there also interceding for us. Christ in heaven prays for us. The Spirit of Christ in us on earth prays for us. What a wonderful picture of our prayer life. Even when we ourselves struggle to pray, we have the Spirit and the Christ praying for us.

But brothers and sisters, I hope you see this is not just about them praying for us. This is them praying with us. You see, for the Spirit to be in us, praying for us, groaning along with us, it is about the transformative work he’s doing. The Spirit is transforming us to be God’s children. That God’s adoption to us might be even inward; even reflected in our prayers unto God. Verse 26 implies that we are to be praying as well. It uses the word “help.” The Spirit helps us. The Greek word here and the context imply that he’s helping us in our prayers. Not just praying for us, but in and even with us. Remember back in verse 15, it was this Spirit that worked in us to cry, Abba, Father. You see, the Spirit is not just separately praying for us. He’s also the one working in us to pray. That’s why Paul can talk about in Ephesians 6:18 as praying in the Spirit. We don’t pray alone. The Spirit of adoption is working prayer inside us.

This doesn’t mean that we just sit back and wait for it to happen. No, otherwise the Bible wouldn’t be filled with exhortations to pray. No, as Christians, we act in faith, and so we proactively pray. And when we pray in faith, we know that the Spirit is at work inside us as we pray. We know that the Spirit is praying with us. Through our prayer life, he is growing us children of God. It’s part of how he conforms us to the image of Christ, who is himself constantly praying in heaven to God.

Saints of God, we’ve been talking today about the connection of our adoption and our prayer life. I hope you’ve been encouraged by the reality of what God is doing by his Spirit in and through your prayer life. I’d like to finish up today by stepping back for a moment and think about some final practical applications; applications about growing in your prayer life. As we think about the connection of our adoption and our prayer life, we’re reminded of the New Testament on prayer. Teaching that reminds us of the importance of coming to God as his child in prayer.

Of course you have the passages like Matthew chapters 6 and 7. There Jesus repeatedly describes our relationship to God in prayer as us coming to our Father with our needs. And he repeatedly emphasizes God’s love to us as a Father. One application toward growing then: spend some time meditating on those two chapters as a way to look to practically apply today’s message. Use those two chapters to help you grow as praying to God as your Father, and you as his child. The Spirit works especially through his Word, and he is at work in your prayers, as we’ve said. As a disciple of Christ, use this to help you grow in your prayer.

As you sit here today, I recognize there are many roadblocks we often encounter when we try to grow in our prayer. Too many to go through today, but I’ll mention two. One obstacle is that we say to ourselves that we are too busy to pray. Well, that is one I can relate to. But my response to that would be to point you to the “groanings” today that we see in our passage. These groanings are supposed to be saying that this world is not enough. That this world in its current state is not what we really desire. We yearn for the new age to come. And yet when we find ourselves too busy to pray, it’s probably because we’re saying the opposite. We’re saying that the things of this world are more important to handle. Rather, when our temptation is to make the things of this world the most important things in our life, remember those groanings. Yearn again for the far better world to come. Then look to put those groans to words; spend some time in prayer. Ask then for God to be reorienting your priorities and perspectives, that you would yearn all the more for heaven. I’m not saying to ignore your earthly responsibilities; I’m calling your rightly prioritize them; to put them in the right perspective.

Another roadblock that can come in our prayers is cynicism. Maybe you can just call it plain unbelief. We can say, why bother praying, my prayers never seem to get answered anyways. Well, I like how one commentator put it, in light of verse 26. Verse 26 says that we don’t always know what we should be asking for in our prayers, and so the Holy Spirit will also pray for us. Well, this commentator suggested that maybe your prayer didn’t get answered the way you wanted, because the Spirit prayed about the same issue and asked for something different than you did. If your prayer request is competing with the request of the Holy Spirit on your behalf, aren’t you glad when God grants the Spirit’s request over your own? But that shouldn’t deter you from continuing to pray. Rather, recognize that God’s still growing you in your prayers; helping you to learn more and more about what to be praying for. So, keep praying, and trust that while you’re doing that, the Spirit is growing you in your prayer life.

It’s my hope today that as God’s Word on this subject has been proclaimed, that the Spirit even right now is working in each of us on this issue. It’s my prayer that you would sense again today that yearning and groaning inside you. That you’d sense today a yearning to be grown in your prayer life. That you’d realize today that you want more. That the Spirit of adoption inside you would groan for more of God in your life. More communion; more fellowship; more intimacy. That this would be expressed and experienced in your prayer life. As a child approaching his loving father. If you sense that yearning today, recognize God nudging you in that way. Recognize the Spirit at work inside you. Don’t resist the Spirit. Walk in the Spirit. Follow him today. Follow him by getting down again today on your knees in prayer.

Asking that your heavenly father would make you more consistent in your prayers. More thankful. More believing. Believing and trusting that God as your father hears your prayers; that he wants to give you good gifts. That he wants you to bring your requests to him. That he wants to grow you in prayer, and grow you, even through prayer. And if our own children can get their requests granted by us by their over and over again asking, know that our loving heavenly father wants you as well to keep bringing your requests to him.

One final appeal to the men in our service. Actually an invitation. Every Sunday at 9:45 before the start of our services, we have a short 15 minute men’s prayer time. It’s very brief. But we begin the Lord’s Day in prayer. We ask for him to do amazing things that day at church. It’s an opportunity for the men of God at this church to be leaders; leaders through praying for this church. I invite you to be a leader in the church as a man of God by coming out to this short prayer meeting before the start of the services.

Let’s close in prayer, even now.

Copyright (c) 2011 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.


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