“You did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this evening is the Epistle lesson read a few moments ago from the eighth chapter of Paul’s letter to the Church of God in Rome. Dear friends in Christ, we are debtors. We owe someone something. You can’t avoid it; you stand in someone’s debt, the question is, who will that be? “So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh.” What do we owe our sinful flesh? What did it ever do for us? It held us in bondage, separated us from God and other people, and promised us great things while delivering only death. We don’t owe the flesh anything. We are not in its debt any longer; it used to have a claim on us, because we were chained to it, living in its bondage, but no more. We have been saved. Jesus, the stronger man, came, and robbed the strong man’s house. Whatever we owed to our sinful flesh He paid, dying our death in our place. He killed our sinful flesh when He dunked us under the baptismal waters. If we are debtors to anyone, we are debtors to Him. Not that we owe Him anything to pay for our release—the price has been paid—instead, having been released, we live under Him as His debtors in grateful love.
However, the flesh keeps knocking, it keeps calling for our allegiance, it keeps asking for its bills to be paid. The flesh wants us to believe that we are still in bondage, it wants to keep us in slavery. In fact, Saint Paul calls our sinful flesh the ‘spirit of slavery.’ “You did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’” Like an unwelcome houseguest that you just can’t get to leave, the spirit of slavery hangs around even after you have been released from his bondage. The spirit of slavery calls for our obedience, it wants us to think that we are still in chains. Even though we have been set free, even though the chains have been removed by the work of Christ, the spirit of slavery wants us to return to our cells and put the chains back on. And the remarkable thing is, we actually do it. Day after day, we, who have been set free from sin, put ourselves back into its bondage. We willingly, openly, put the chains back on and settle into our cold, hard, cells. We believe this lie, this ridiculous lie, that slavery is freedom.
This is the message trumpeted forth in every corner of our world: slavery is freedom. The world claims that living in sin is actually freedom, that doing what your sinful flesh wants is freeing. This is most often spoken of with regard to sexual sins—free love, sexual liberation, ‘I’m free to do what I want with my body’—but the same lie is told about every sin. The spirit of slavery claims that it’s the ‘Christians’ who are actually repressive, that the Bible wants to put you in chains. This even finds its way into the Church, where the freedom of the Gospel is used to excuse or cover for living in the bondage of sin. It doesn’t make any sense, but people believe it, and you, who have been set free, fall for it all the time. Repent! “For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” Sin enslaves, as any addict can tell you, it grabs onto you and controls your life. Indulging in sin is putting the chains around your ankles and making sure they’re nice and tight. The end of these things is death; that is all that the flesh can give you, and Paul is quite clear that the freedom of the Gospel is not the freedom to do whatever you want, to live however you want. The freedom of the Gospel is exactly that, freedom from sin and its bondage.
For we have been given another spirit, not the spirit of slavery, to return to our chains, but the Spirit of adoption. “All who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.” Our status has changed dramatically. We were born into slavery, chained to sin by virtue of our birth as sons and daughters of Adam and Eve. We had no choice, that was our identity. Our natural birth was one of slavery; the chains placed upon us even in the womb. But then we were adopted. The Spirit of adoption came to us in our chains and set the prisoners free, for the price of our release had been paid upon a cross two thousand years ago. Jesus came to be our brother; He came and saw us in our chains, and even though He was without sin, He submitted Himself to our slavery and paid its ultimate price—death. Then He broke the bars of death with His resurrection, and set us free. But we were not freed from prison to run around on our own. We were given a new status; no longer slave, but adopted child. “For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’” We are sons of God, given a watery birth in place of our natural birth, made children by adoption instead of slaves by nature, destined for life instead of death.
Why return to the slavery of your birth? “For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” The life of the free is a daily putting to death of the spirit of slavery. That spirit entices us with its chains, its assertion that you can only be free by living in sin’s bonds, but the Spirit helps us resist its call by reminding us of our identity: our baptism into Christ, where the Spirit of adoption made us God’s children. Martin Luther teaches us to confess in the Small Catechism: “What does such baptizing with water indicate? It indicates that the Old Adam in us should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, and that a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.” The spirit of slavery is put to death only by repentance, when we see our sin and turn away from it, drowning the Old Adam in a return to the font. The Christian life is one of daily, continual repentance, as we see our sin better and better and drown the Old Adam again and again.
This isn’t easy. The spirit of slavery, the Old Adam, is a tenacious swimmer, and his enticing words lead us astray again and again. We are tempted to despair of our identity as God’s children, especially when the Law confronts us and calls us out for not living as Christians should live. But we are not left alone. “The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.” There are three spirits in our text: the spirit of slavery that wants to bind us, the Spirit of adoption that sets us free, and our spirit, which needs reassurance as the struggle goes on within us between slavery and freedom, peace and fear, old man and new. The Holy Spirit doesn’t just make us God’s children through our baptism into Christ, He is daily active and working within us, killing the spirit of slavery and reassuring us of our status before God as we struggle and suffer in the battle against sin, death, and the power of the devil.
“The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with Him in order that we may also be glorified with Him.” We will suffer death to our flesh, the daily drowning we are called to, we will suffer the opposition of a world that doesn’t understand why we refuse its bondage, and we will suffer the ravages of sin in a creation that is still fallen. But the Spirit reassures us, bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and that we have an inheritance with Jesus. You are God’s beloved child, you belong to Him, that is your status right now, but you are also an heir, for you have an inheritance that is still to come, waiting for you on the Last Day. For as Jesus suffered and then entered into His glory, so your suffering, too, will only be temporary, and not worth comparing to the glory that is to come. You are children of God, adopted through the work of the Spirit, and an eternity of freedom awaits you, your inheritance won by your brother, your Lord Jesus Christ. In His Name, Amen.