Our God in Heaven wants us to be ...

Not Slaves but Sons

"Ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father." Romans 8:15

Adoption in the Roman Empire

"There were, however, some ways in which Romans could gain the perceived benefits of having children even if choice or circumstance rendered them childless. Adoption was the obvious means of gaining virtually all the benefits listed above as functions of children within the family. Even the notional physical continuity could be gained by adopting a relative; and indeed the majority of attested adoptions, many of them included in wills, so that they were performed posthumously, were of nephews or grandsons. In the case of sisters' sons or daughters' sons, adoption had the effect of continuing the family name, which normally passed through the male line, and of ensuring that the cult that went with it was maintained."

"It must say something about Roman attitudes towards children - and about our own - that they usually adopted adults, while we of the urbanized West associate adoption with newborns. There are, to be sure, examples of the adoption of young children in documents from Roman Egypt and some instances of the adoption of females. There is even an attempt by a woman to simulate adoption by requiring her heir to take her name. In general, however, adoption was conducted between males and involved the legal transfer of the adoptee into the agnatic family of the adopter. The distinction between adoptio and adrogatio rests in the status of the adoptee: if he was in the power of his father, the process was called adoptio and must be done with the father's permission; if he was sui iuris, it was called adrogatio and the adoptee and any people in his power were also transferred to the adopting family. Adoption did not sever normal relations with the original family any more than marriage or emancipation from the father's authority would have done and the law still observed certain obligations between the adopted child and his biological father. In general, adoption altered hereditary succession, and the adoptee was subject to the same legal privileges and limitations of a legitimate biological son."

Suzanne Dixon (1992) The Roman Family. Baltimore MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press

"Just as divorce takes on meaning only by its relation to the politics of alliance, so too adoption takes on meaning only by the extreme importance attached by the Romans to status and filiation. In contrast to adoption at the end of the eighteenth and in the nineteenth century, it was not conceived as a humanitarian solution to the large-scale abandonment of children (related or not to the increase in illegitimate births). Neither, in contrast to contemporary adoption, was it a standard response to a couple's sterility. The loving couple introduced in the so-called Laudatio Turiae perhaps envisaged such an adoption: after having rejected the formula of divorce and remarriage, which could have provided the husband with the progeny of which he was deprived, they do seem to have formed a plan to adopt a daughter (not a son). The first, typically `Roman' thought was, however, to put an end to the childlessness (orbitas) of the husband: it should not be forgotten that the wife of the adopter did not become mother of the adopted child."

"In Rome, adoption was normally linked to politics of succession and transmission. For Cicero - in a polemical context, it is true (De domo 35), since it concerns a challenge to the validity of the adrogatio of P. Clodius - only the transmission of name, wealth, and rites (hereditas nominis pecuniae sacrorum) could be a legitimate reason for such an adoption. ... Adoption was governed by strict rules, namely those of the transmission of a collection of real and symbolic possessions, the first and foremost of these being the family name."

Mireille Corbier (1991) Divorce and Adoption as Roman Family Strategies in Beryl Rawson (Ed.), Marriage, divorce, and children in Ancient Rome, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

H. R. Mackintosh: Many people are dimly conscious of a lack somewhere in their religious life, which is unaccountable to themselves. The fact is a grief to them, as well as a perplexity, yet there it is with a growing weight. Instead of religion curing all their cares, it proves only a new burden, perhaps the weariest burden of them all. Instead of healing other failures, it is the department in which they fail most frequently. Everything in the Bible stimulates the hope that religion will bring new life, power, confidence, joy; but to them it appears to bring only a sadder sense of weakness and troubled doubt.

It is actually possible, then, to be the Father's child, yet live on in the spirit of bondage. It is possible to belong to God's family, while we continue to have the feelings of the outsider. Would some of us here confess this, if we were talking quietly to a trusted friend? Of course, if we are Christians at all, the thought of God is a happy thought for us; but is it always so instinctively or at once? Does it there and then fill us with peace and joy? Or is it not often the case that to remember Him is in a real measure to be alarmed, not quieted; saddened, not gladdened; paralyzed, not empowered? If it be so, small wonder that even Christian hearts should be visited by an atmosphere of foreboding, doubt and care - in short, the spirit of bondage not of sonship.

Let us try to get hold of the needed corrective which this text puts in our hand. It declares that despondency and gloom are out of place in hearts to which Christ has spoken. There is money in Chancery waiting for the rightful heirs; and if we have hoped in Jesus, we are the heirs of God, and blessings are there for us, of peace and courage, waiting to be taken. There is a continual temptation to question it, no doubt. We are tempted to regard that liberty of soul as a close privilege reserved for a special inner circle; it looks like a remote and all but inaccessible height to be scaled by an adventurous spirit here or there, but not really for people like ourselves.

When Christ's love is offered in its fullness, we incline to accept a very little, then turn away mistrustfully: "such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high, I cannot attain to it." So we fail to meet God in the spirit in which He comes to us. We refuse to drink because we are so thirsty, or to eat because we are faint with hunger. Yet all the time, as we know perfectly, the only right thing, the only thing that is sincere and wise and that will bear being looked back upon, is to take the Father at His word. We are not subjects of His merely, He tells us, or His pupils, or even His guests; we are His children - dear to His heart, never out of His mind, ransomed at a great cost. Let us for a moment consider this fact and its implications, as our text may guide us.

Note, first of all, the contrast of these two types of spirit - bondage and sonship. The chief symptom of bondage is fear; of sonship the mark is child-like prayer.

You and I can scarcely believe how crushing the blank sense of fear was in that old pagan world into which the Gospel burst. There was nothing men of that age needed so much to be saved from as just the sickening and stupefying dread of things. Life was hemmed round with darkness, and the darkness was full of devils. To understand what that signifies for human life, you need only talk to a modern missionary. He is up against the same phenomenon. It is pretty safe to say that at this moment the dark pall which hangs over every heathen soul in Africa-the great background of existence-is fear: fear of nature, fear of man, fear of God. And, what is the most pathetic feature of all, the terror at its worst is purely religious.

Constantly the near approach of the divine is felt as a danger too awful to be endured, for the divine and the diabolical are much the same. It is easy enough for us, gathered here under the shadow of the Cross, to find it nearly incredible that men should be so afraid, so panic-stricken, so unnerved by unknown mysterious dangers; but to the expert it is the merest commonplace. And if we have escaped these haunting terrors which once filled the world, it is not because we are so strong-minded, or such powerful reasoners; it is because God came close beside us in Jesus, and we knew Him as our Friend.

If we have escaped - but then, have we? We may no longer believe in unclean and malicious spirits continually waiting to seize upon and ruin us; that phase may have vanished. But even as we sit here in Church, are there not some amongst us whose outlook is overlaid darkly with fear, in the most varied forms? Fear perhaps of our own passions; the consequences of sin; the cloud of financial trouble; danger to our children; the failure of bodily powers; the loneliness of life; an impending operation-anything at all it may be, which can enter these hearts of ours and make us afraid.

As was said the other day: "There are men and women in plenty whose lives are fettered and their moral energies imprisoned by an undefined but haunting fear. They are afraid of life and afraid of death; they are even half afraid of themselves." I would ask you to note that this at bottom is a matter of religion. These fears flow from our wrong thought of God, and in turn they disturb and poison our relations with God. If our sense of God were different, the fear would die; and if it were dead, how near we might live to Him!

Fear in religious men has two roots mainly. It may spring, in the first place, from doubt of God's love. It is the easiest thing to drift into the impression that God loves us in direct proportion to our goodness. Hence when we fail or wander or forget, that means we instantly suppose that His love is blotted out. We toil through duty lest we should forfeit His compassion; we strive to obey, in the hope that He will treat us kindly; like children, we make spasmodic efforts to be good, and so have Him love us. We must persuade Him to be our Father. But is not the New Testament there all the time to tell us this is a pure mistake? From the first the persuasion has all been on His side. He invariably takes the first step.

What else does revelation mean? What are Christ and His salvation for, and all the patient faithfulness that has guided us since first we listened to His voice but just to prove that we belong to Him and can claim Him, not because we are worthy, but because His love has given us all we need. And for all that do you know what return He is seeking? Just that you should believe it. Nothing more than that you should take and keep it as a warm, irradiating conviction in the heart, and let it work there day by day. Then you will be obedient, not that He may make you His child, but through the glad revolutionizing knowledge that you are His child, and that His mercy never ends. The sight of His love casts out fear.

Now this strikes some people as presumption. They regard it as wiser and much more humble not to be too sure even of something God has made quite clear. At most they would say, "Well, I hope, I hope, I am a child of God;" and they do not much care to hear anybody else go further than that. But that is not the Bible's way. Think of that greatest of all texts on this subject, "Behold, what manner of love the Father hath bestowed on us, that we should be called the sons of God." At the close of that verse we now have in the Revised Version the well-authenticated addition: "and such we are." That is a sort of rapid aside, striking the note of personal assurance. It echoes from earth the name "sons" spoken from heaven.

"Such we are" - yes, such we are, notwithstanding failures and stains and wrong-doings, in all our hardship or monotonous drudgery; "sons of God we are," if God declares it. And when a man receives a declaration of that kind with mere humble-sounding protests that he is not worthy, then all you can say is that he is thinking far too much about himself, and what is best for him is that he should forget all about worthiness or its opposite, and show the filial spirit of confidence by responding to the name by which God calls him. We never can trust Him too completely. We never can be too sure that for Him to say this or that makes an end of the matter for good and all. So, when He stoops down and you hear Him say, "Son, thou art ever with Me, and all that I have is Thine," do not put it away from you as too good to be true, but take it with both hands, thankfully, and refuse to let it go.

Or again, fear may spring from doubt of God's power. It is very widespread at this moment. Men are swept away by dread, feeling themselves in the grip of ruthless and inscrutable forces, against which it is vain to strive - forces that produce famine, war, disease, shipwreck, death. Does the sway of God's control extend over these? I am quite sure that the secret of victory here, too, is not hard thinking, but a deeper faith generated by living in Jesus' company. A child may decline to jump from a burning house at the word of a stranger, but she will make the venture when her father holds out his arms.

We are afraid of life only when we suspect all things are against us, and that the Unknown is full of terrors; but if we know that God in Christ is Father and that He is almighty, the fear will subside. Has there ever been one so masterfully triumphant over cowardice as Jesus, and has there ever been a life like His of deep, unbroken Sonship? The Sonship was the unseen cause of the courage, or rather the courage was but the outer side of the fabric, of the conscious Sonship within. "I am not alone, for the Father is with Me."

And you and I, brethren, though at the long interval between Redeemer and redeemed, can be delivered from haunting fears through all that Christ has been and is, and in the strength of that filial spirit granted us when we lay hold of Him. When like Him, and in His name; we place all life in the Father's hand, when in His presence we open our hearts to the bracing call, "Be of good cheer, it is I; be not afraid," then the black pall of uncertainty is lifted off, and we breathe freely. Fear has torment, but perfect love casts it out.

Note, secondly, some implications of this sonship for daily living.

For one thing, the thought of sonship imparts a new meaning to life as a whole. There are secrets which will always be secrets till you try this key. There are melodies which the chords of experience will yield only to fingers that possess this touch. No man can persist in quarrelling with fortune and abusing fate who knows that God has called him son, and that the world is part of the Father's house. It is impossible to go on whispering suspicion to ourselves, or asking whether or not life is worth living, if we have once grasped the biggest, grandest truth ever offered to the human mind.

Let me put the question Thomas Erskine put to the solitary shepherd on the hills one autumn, and to which a year later he got an affirmative answer: "Do you know the Father?" Can you look up and say: Thou art mine, and I belong to Thee? That makes everything new. The very woods and lakes will be more lovely for you, when that song is in your heart.

"The sky above is softer blue,
Earth around is sweeter green,
Something lives in every hue,
Christless eyes have never seen.
Birds with gladder songs o'erflow,
flowers with deeper beauties shine,
Since I know, as now I know,
I am His, and He is mine."

Again, sonship is a pledge of personal goodness. Jesus once began by saying, "Be ye perfect"; and if He had stopped there, we should have despaired. Perfect - we find it hard enough to be respectable! But, as you remember, He went on "As your Father is perfect," and that makes all the difference. If God is Father, why, then, like other fathers, He will help us. He will bear with failure that He may nurse us back to victory. He will make us holy, not that He may love us, but for the reason that He loves us now. He will value our poor beginnings.

I have seen a child pluck a daisy from the lawn and bring it, stumbling, to his mother as though it were some rare exotic flower; but I did not observe that she made light of it, or flung it away in scorn; no, she pinned it on her breast to wear. How like God that is! It is dear in His sight when a man does what he can. No work so cheerless as trying to earn the love we need; but to work out from sonship in Christ as our starting-point and our source of power at every moment-there is the secret that opens the gates of attainment and self-control.

Then, again, think how sonship casts light on the great hereafter. The Gospel would be no Gospel at all unless it flung its beam right across the black, gaping gulf of death, and lit up enough of the new world concealed there to show that it is a home. Yes, a home; because dwelt in and pervaded by God. There is always a home where there is a father.

When Jesus came to die and was speaking to the Twelve, that last night, of what lay before Him, how did He describe the future? Did He talk of it with bated breath or tremulous uncertainty? Did He fall into any thing even remotely similar to that strange habit of speech common even among good people when they refer to a Christian who has passed forward as "poor So-and-So"? Very far otherwise. He perceived how the men beside Him were sunk in grief, and to cheer them He said, "If ye loved Me ye would rejoice." Why? "Because I go to the Father." And again, later in the same talk, "A little while, and ye shall see Me, because - I go to the Father." This is what our Forerunner saw: death is going to the Father. Well, then, the fact which He so clearly saw, we by His help can look through His eyes and see for ourselves. To grasp the Father who touches and blesses us in Christ that of itself gives faith in immortality.

Strength for that untrodden journey comes only from the grasp, which may tremble but does not slacken, of the Father's hand here and now. "I am continually with Thee; Thou wilt guide me with Thy counsel and afterward receive me to glory." When God's will for you here is ended, and you depart, you will have to say farewell to many things - to familiar scenes, to treasured objects, even for a time to beloved friends. But never, never, if you know Him, will you have to say farewell to God your Savior." Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for Thou art with me."

Finally, sonship gives a new and deeper sense to prayer. That, you will note, is a point the apostle particularly touches upon. "The spirit of sonship," he writes, "whereby we cry, Abba, Father." He means that we cry thus to God in emergencies of stress and pain. "Abba, Father" - we seem to have heard these words before. Are they not an echo of something familiar? Yes: in the Garden of Gethsemane, was it not? They were first uttered in that hour when Christ fell on the ground and prayed, "Abba, Father, take away this cup; nevertheless not what I will, but what Thou wilt." Sonship was there, but also pain and struggle, struggle and pain was there, yet the spirit of sonship reigned over all, and Christ went on with fearless eyes to the Cross awaiting Him.

So, too, it may be with us. Even when the billows are going over us, the sense of belonging to God can hold us up. Though in ignorance and weakness, like children in the dark, our hearts are troubled, still if we cry with no bated or hesitating breath, "Father, Father," the presence we long for will calm the fear. Just as we wake in the night, and look out, and see the stars, and know that while we slept and when we sleep again, their shining eyes look down; so also it is with that unsleeping Lord to whom our prayers rise.

So let me leave this question on your hearts, as I would strive to do on my own: Are we not mysteriously unwilling, in spite of all that we know of Christ, to believe that God is love, and that He is our Father? Do we not cling strangely to our fears? There was a time when men surmised that if the great Nile were tracked up to its fountainhead, its origin might prove to be some tiny spring, some scanty nameless rivulet. But when explorers pierced the secret, it was to find that the river sprang from a vast inland sea, sweeping with unbroken horizon round the whole compass of the sky. And we, too, are ready with our fears lest the river of life and salvation that streams past our doors, and into which we have dipped our vessels, if followed back to its farthest source, might rise in some grudging and uncertain store.

But in truth the Father's mercy is like that great inland sea in the continent's heart, from which the river breaks full and brimming at its birth. It is from everlasting to everlasting. I ask you to rise up and claim it for your own. Let it daily fill your heart and garrison the inward life with peace.

"Trust in the Lord, for ever trust,
And banish all your fears;
Strength in the Lord Jehovah dwells,
Eternal as His years."

Sermon preached by Dr. H. R. Mackintosh of Edinburgh, Scotland, ca. 1920


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