A Commentary by John Stott
Romans 8:14-17. d) The witness of the Spirit (continued).
Fourthly, the Spirit is the first fruits of our inheritance (17,23). Paul cannot leave this topic of our being God’s children without pointing out its implication for the future. Now if we are children, then we are heirs as well – heirs of God and co-heirs of Christ (17a). At first sight this seems to refer to that heavenly inheritance, which ‘can never perish, spoil or fade’, which God is keeping in heaven for us. It is possible, however, that the inheritance Paul has in mind is not something God intends to bestow on us but God himself. Indeed, ‘it is difficult to suppress the richer and deeper thought that God himself is the inheritance of his children’.
This notion was not unfamiliar to Israel in Old Testament days. The Levites for example, knew that they had been given no inheritance among their brothers because the Lord himself was their inheritance. And godly individual Israelites could confidently affirm that God was their portion. For example, ‘Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion for ever’. Moreover, the day is coming when God will be ‘all in all’, or ‘everything to every one’ (RSV). As for the further astonishing statement that God’s heirs are also co-heirs with Christ, we recall how Jesus himself had prayed that his own might be with him, and might see his glory and share his love. And although it is still future, our inheritance is certain, since the Holy Spirit is himself its firstfruit (23), guaranteeing that the harvest will follow in due course. Thus the same indwelling Spirit who assures us that we are God’s children also assures us that we are his heirs.
There is a qualification, however: if indeed we share in his suffering in order that we may also share in his glory (17a). Scripture lays a strong emphasis on the principle that suffering is the path to glory. It was so for the Messiah (‘did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?’). It is so for the messianic community also (5:2f). Peter teaches this as clearly as Paul: ‘Rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed.’ For the essence of discipleship is union with Christ, and this means identification with him in both his sufferings and his glory.
I do not feel able to leave these verses without alluding to an interpretation of them to which Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones has given currency. He devoted four chapters to the expression ‘you received the Spirit of adoption’ (15) and eight more to ‘the witness of the Spirit’ (16). Following Thomas Goodwin and other Puritans, he understood the former as ‘a very special form or type of assurance’, more emotional than intellectual, given subsequent to conversion though not essential for salvation, and conveying a profound feeling of security in our Father’s love. Similarly, he interpreted the witness of the Spirit (which he identified with the ‘baptism’ and the ‘sealing’ of the Spirit) as a distinctive and overwhelming experience, which confers ‘an absolute assurance’. ‘This is the highest form of assurance possible; there is nothing beyond it. It is the acme, the zenith of assurance and certainty of salvation. Although ‘it is wrong to standardize the experience’, since it comes with many variations of intensity and duration, yet it is a direct and sovereign work of the Holy Spirit, unpredictable, uncontrollable and unforgettable. It brings a heightened love for God, an unspeakable joy, and an uninhibited boldness in witness. Dr Lloyd-Jones went on to defend his thesis by appealing to an impressive array of historical testimonies. Despite the diversity of their ecclesiastical background, they manifest ‘a strange and curious unanimity’.
I have no wish whatever to call in question the authenticity of the experiences described. Nor do I doubt that many Christian people continue to be granted similar profound encounters with God today. Nor is there any problem in affirming that the ministry of the Spirit of adoption (15) and the inner witness of the Spirit (16) are designed to bring us assurance. My anxiety is whether the biblical texts have been rightly interpreted. I have the uneasy feeling that it is the experiences which have determined he exposition. For the natural reading of Romans 8:14-17 is surely that all believers are ‘led by the Spirit’ (14), have ‘received a Spirit of adoption’ (15, REB), and cry ‘Abba, Father’ as the Spirit himself bears witness to them that they are God’s children (16) and therefore also his heirs (17). There is no indication in these four verses that a special, distinctive or overwhelming experience is in mind, which needs to be sought by all although it is given only to some. On the contrary, the whole paragraph appears to be descriptive of what is, or should be, common to all believers. Though doubtless in differing degrees of intensity, all who have the Spirit’s indwelling (9) are given the Spirit’s witness too (15-16).
Looking back now over the first half of Romans 8, we have seen something of the multiple ministries of the Holy Spirit. He has liberated us from the bondage of the law (2), while at the same time he empowers us to fulfill its just requirement (4). We now live each day according to the Spirit and set our minds on his desires (5). He lives in us (9), gives life to our spirits (10), and will one day give life to our bodies too (11). His indwelling obliges us to live his way (12), and his power enables us to put to death our body’s misdeeds (13). He leads us as God’s children (14) and bears witness to our spirit that this is what we are (15-16). He himself is also the foretaste of our inheritance in glory (17, 23). It is his indwelling which makes the fundamental difference between Romans 7 and Romans 8.
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.