A Commentary by John Stott
Romans 8:14-17. d). The witness of the Spirit
What is immediately noteworthy about this paragraph is that in each of its four verses God’s people are designated his *children* or *sons* (which of course includes ‘daughters’), and that in each this privileged status is related to the work of the Holy Spirit. Only in verse 16 is it specifically said that the Spirit *testifies…that we are God’s children*. Yet the whole paragraph concerns the witness he bears us, that is, the assurance he gives us. The question is: precisely how is the Spirit’s witness borne? Paul assembles four pieces of evidence. First, the Spirit leads us into holiness (verse 14 being linked to verse 13 by the conjunction *because*). Secondly, in our relationship to God he replaces fear with freedom (15a). Thirdly, in our prayers he prompts us to call God ‘Father’ (15b-16). Fourthly, he is the firstfruits of our heavenly inheritance (17, 23). Thus radical holiness, fearless freedom, filial prayerfulness and the hope of glory are four characteristics of the children of God who are indwelt and led by the Spirit of God. It is by these evidences that he witnesses to us that we are God’s children.
First, the Spirit leads us into holiness (14). It is somewhat artificial to begin a new subsection at verse 14, as we have done, since the topic is still the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit. Yet verse 14 clarifies verse 13 (*because*) by changing the imagery. Those who through the Spirit put the body’s misdeeds to death (13b) are now called *those who are led by the Spirit* (14a), while those who have entered into fullness of life (13c) are now called *sons of God* (14b). Both clarifications are important.
To begin with, the kind of ‘leading’ by the Spirit which is the characteristic experience of God’s children is evidently more specific than it sounds. For it consists of, or at least includes as one of its most substantial features, the prompting and strengthening which enable them to put to death the body’s misdeeds. ‘The daily, hourly putting to death of the schemings and enterprises of the sinful flesh by means of the Spirit is a matter of being led, directed, impelled, controlled by the Spirit.’
Other commentators describe God’s children as ‘driven’ by the Spirit. For example, Godet writes that there is here ‘something like a notion of holy violence; the Spirit drags the man [sc. the person] where the flesh would fain not go’. Professor Kasemann also speaks of being ‘driven by the Spirit’, and interprets it of charismatic ‘enthusiasts’ who are ‘carried away’ by the Spirit. Professor Dunn follows him, claiming that ‘the most natural sense’ is that ‘of being constrained by a compelling force, of surrendering to an overmastering compulsion’. Yet the verb *ago*, although indeed it has different shades of meaning, does not, either necessarily or normally, imply the use of force. (1)
The interpretation of this verb, however, is not just a semantic question. Dr. Lloyd-Jones rightly enters a theological caveat at this point, relating to the nature and operation of the Holy Spirit. ‘There is no violence in Christianity…’, he writes. ‘What the Spirit does is to enlighten and persuade.’ Because he is a gentle, sensitive Spirit, he can easily be ‘grieved’ (Eph. 4:30). ‘The Holy Spirit never browbeats us…. The impulse can be very strong, but there is no “driving”, there is no compulsion.’
Next, if to be ‘led by the Spirit of God’ (14a) is an elaboration of to ‘put to death the misdeeds of the body’ by the agency of the Spirit (13b), then the statement that you *are sons of God* (14b) elaborates the promise ‘you will live’ (13c). The new, rich, full life, which is enjoyed by those who put their misdeeds to death, is precisely the experience of being God’s children. It is evident then that the popular notion of ‘the universal fatherhood of God’ is not true. To be sure, all human beings are God’s ‘offspring’ by creation (Acts 17:28), but we become his reconciled ‘children’ only by adoption or new birth. (E.g. Jn. 1:12; Gal. 3:16; 1 Jn. 3:1, 10). Just as it is only those who are indwelt by the Spirit who belong to Christ (9), so it is only those who are led by the Spirit who are the sons and daughters of God (14). As such we are granted a specially close, personal, loving relationship with our heavenly Father, immediate and bold access to him by prayer, membership of his world-wide family, and nomination as his heirs, to which Paul will come to in verse 17. He now enlarges on some of the privileges.
————————— Notes ————————–
(1) The same verb is used of the Spirit ‘leading’ Jesus from his baptism in the Jordan to his temptation in the desert (Lk.4:1). It is true that Mark’s parallel has *ekballo* (1:12), which can mean ‘drive out’, expel, literally, throw out more or less forcibly’. But it can also be used of to ‘send out’, in this case ‘without the connotation of force’ (BAGD). Since in addition it expresses the action of ‘removing’ a splinter from the eye (Mt.7:4f.), Dr Lloyd-Jones writes: ‘Here is a man who is going to perform a very delicate eye operation; so if you insist that this word always means “force”, “thrust”, “drive”, let me express the hope that, if ever you have a foreign object in your eye, you may not be treated by such a violent oculist, or optician!’ (vol. 7, p.172)
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of Romans: Christ the Controversialist. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.