N. T. “Tom” Wright has just released another paradigm-shifting book suggesting a new, more scriptural way of understanding the atonement, The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion. Wright delves deeply into how the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus accomplish our salvation.
Romans 8:14-17, Part 2
(Rom. 8:14-17 ESV) 14 For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. 15 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!” 16 The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 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.
V. 16 has always been difficult, especially for me growing up in the Churches of Christ. My Baptist friends insisted that this verse promises a subjective assurance not only of salvation but of perseverance — that you’ll never fall away. But by high school, we all knew kids who’d “been saved” and clearly weren’t living the lives of Christians. My Baptist friends assured me that such people had never really been saved and that their internal assurance had been self-deception.
I granted the theoretical possibility but told them I failed to see any advantage in an internal, subjective assurance that might really just be self-deception. They were not happy with me at all, and they correctly pointed out that their doctrine was better than my “hardly ever saved” doctrine. And so this passage has always held a fascination for me.
“The Spirit itself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.” It is presumably this same intense consciousness of sonship expressed in the cry “Abba, Father” which Paul still has in mind—a sense that it is not just himself praying but his inner being enabled to pray by the enabling of God (cf v 26). Here beyond dispute it is an inner confirmation or assurance that Paul has in mind, not simply the repetition of hallowed phrases, nor a logical assurance deduced from such repetition, or from a baptism or right confession made some time in the past.
Paul certainly does not reduce assurance to a matter of feeling (as vv 13–14 confirm), but a felt assurance is what he has in mind here. The continuity of thought from v 14 implies that for Paul conversion was as much as anything else a liberation of the emotions. It was certainly his own experience (as the almost unconscious switch back from second to first person testifies), but he is able to assume the same to be true of his readers. The emotional quality of his faith and spirituality thus once again comes clearly to the fore. He would have had little personal sympathy with a purely rational faith or primarily ritualistic religion. The inner witness of the Spirit was something not just important for him but at the heart of what distinguished his faith as a Christian from what he had known before.
Significant here too is the way in which Paul sees the Spirit as the common denominator in the train of thought running through these verses. Previously described in terms of mind-set and lifestyle (vv 5–6, 13–14), the Spirit is here spoken of in irreducibly emotional and experiential terms. For Paul the Spirit is the power of God which integrates emotion, thought and conduct in a life-giving way (there is of course an alternative, pernicious integration of flesh and sin on the way to death). But it does so precisely as the Spirit of Christ, the Spirit who brings us to share in the same intimate sonship which Jesus enjoyed on earth, and does so as the beginning of that process which ends in the final integration of the body into the wholeness of complete salvation (vv 9–11, 15–16).
To possess the Spirit is to have the Spirit of Christ, is to share his sonship, is to live as a son led by the Spirit. The extent to which these different facets of Paul’s thinking interlock would probably be more fully appreciated by the first readers of Paul’s letter to Rome than has been the case in subsequent centuries.
James D. G. Dunn, Romans 1–8, Word BC 38A; Accordance electronic ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1988), 462.
The key point, I think, is that Paul is indeed speaking of a subjective experience — a feeling, a sense of assurance — that we are children of God (present tense). I see nothing that says we are assured that we’ll never fall away. Rather, the presence of the Spirit assures us that we’re presently saved because, after all, only the presently saved can possess the Spirit.
Paul now shifts from “sons of God” to “children of God,” surely to clarify that we are all heirs even though we are not all males — contrary to the Law of Moses.
God promised “the land” to Abraham as part of his covenant.
(Gen. 15:7 ESV) 7 And he said to him, “I am the LORD who brought you out from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to possess.”
Under the Law of Moses, the land is often called an “inheritance.” We think of an “inheritance” as what we receive from our parents when they die. The Torah speaks more in terms of owning land that one might leave to one’s descendants. And as we see in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, it was possible for a son to receive his inheritance before his father dies.
In the NT, “inheritance” takes on a broader meaning than the Promised Land or Canaan.
(Matt. 5:5 ESV) “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”
(Mk. 10:17 ESV) 17 And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
(Rom. 4:13 ESV) 13 For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith.
(1 Cor. 6:9-10 ESV) 9 Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, 10 nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.
(Heb. 1:1-2 ESV) Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.
The “inheritance” has expanded to include the entire world. After all, Abraham was promised that he would bless all nations — which would seem to include the entire world.
The world will be changed to become the eternal Kingdom — making it the New Heavens and New Earth. Hence, when Paul speaks of our becoming “heirs,” just like Moses, he has real estate in mind, but unlike Moses, he’s thinking of the entire world — even the heavens which, after all, will be merged with the earth when the New Jerusalem descends to earth so that God may be enthroned with humankind.