Commentary on Romans 8:12-17
In the ancient Roman world, unwanted children were routinely abandoned or sold into slavery.
Sadly, such cruel realities persist today in many parts of the world, where families crushed by poverty abandon infants they cannot afford to raise, or sell children into the slavery of child labor or child prostitution. In much more positive cases — both then and now — parents might give their children up for adoption with the hope of offering them an opportunity for a better life and a more hopeful future.
Roman society placed a high value on producing offspring and heirs, and childless couples of means were often eager to adopt. Under Roman law, as with our own, adopted children had the same legal status and inheritance rights as biological children.
Paul writes to the church in Rome: “For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption” (Romans 8:15). Paul assures his readers that although we struggle in a world of sin and death, we have not been abandoned to lives of slavery and fear. In Christ, God has adopted us as God’s very own children and heirs.
We have assurance of this adoption because God’s Spirit “bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God” when we cry out to God as a child to a parent, “Abba! Father!” (Romans 8:16; cf. Galatians 4:4-7). The spirit of adoption or “sonship” (huiothesia) we have received is the Spirit of Christ, God’s Son (Romans 8:9; cf. Galatians 4:6). The Spirit links us with Christ as fellow children and heirs of God, and enables us to call upon God with the same intimate language Christ used: “Abba! Father!”
Because we are joint heirs with Christ, we can expect to share in his sufferings as well as his glory (Romans 8:17).
Suffering is not evidence of separation from God, but a sign of living in the conflict zone between “this present time” and the “age to come,” a sign of being indwelled by the Spirit of God which is at odds with the rule of sin and death (Romans 8:1-10). It is a suffering we share with the whole creation in bondage, waiting with eager longing for “the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Romans 8:18-21). We, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan together with creation “while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:22-23).
Several themes touched on here might open up fruitful engagement for a preacher and congregation.
To make a connection with Holy Trinity Sunday, one might emphasize the Trinitarian threads in this passage. The Spirit of God who dwells in and among us empowers us to call on God as Father and assures us that we are children of God and joint heirs with Christ. Father, Son, and Spirit all work together for the purpose of claiming us as God’s children.
The adoption language in this text opens additional avenues to explore.
In observing several adoption processes among friends and congregation members, it has been moving for me to witness the anguish of families waiting to adopt, as well as their steadfast resolve in the face of disappointments and setbacks. The energy and resources they will expend in order to make a child their own seem to have no limits.
Perhaps these experiences of human families give us some small measure of insight into what God has done in adopting us as God’s children. In Christ, God has spared no expense in order to save us from a life of slavery and fear, thereby making us God’s very own children and heirs. God will stop at nothing to make us God’s own — not even at the cross — and God pursues us relentlessly until our adoption is complete.
The adoption metaphor also sheds light on the reality of our lives as children of God.
The adoption papers have been signed; we have been sealed by the Spirit at baptism. Yet we continue to experience anguish and suffering while we wait for the completion of our adoption, “the redemption of our bodies.” Though we are God’s children and heirs now, we look forward to the “not yet” — to the day when we will be truly “at home” with God.
Our adoption as God’s children means that we share in the sufferings of Christ for the sake of God’s good purposes — the liberation of a world in bondage. At the same time, we trust that “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18).
Whatever evil or suffering we face, we have the blessed assurance that God will see to the completion of our adoption, and nothing in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:38-39).