From Sermons by Hugh Ross Mackintosh (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1938).
THE SPIRIT OF ADOPTION
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
NOT a few people are dimly conscious of a lack somewhere in their religious life, which they themselves find unaccountable. 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 of them all. Instead of healing other failures, it is the department in which they fail most hopelessly. Everything in the Bible encourages 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 doubts.
So that it is actually possible to be the Father's child, yet live on in the spirit of bondage. It is possible to belong to God's family, yet have the feelings of an outsider. Would some of us here confess to this, if we were talking quietly with 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? Does it there and then fill us with peace and joy? Or is it not the case, often, that to remember Him is in a real measure to be alarmed not quieted, saddened not gladdened, paralysed not strengthened with power? 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 a slave, not of a son.
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 that belong to Christ. 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 perpetual 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 us. When Christ's love is offered in its fulness, 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; we will not 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 just to take the Father at His word. We are not His subjects 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; that of sonship is childlike prayer.
You and I can scarcely realise 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 terror of things. Life was hemmed round with darkness, and the darkness was full of devils. To understand the meaning of that for human life, you need only talk to a modern missionary. He is up against the same situation. It is pretty safe to say that at this moment the dark pall which hangs over every heathen soul in Africa—the very background of existence—is fear: fear of nature, fear of man, fear of God. And, what is the most pathetic feature of all, the worst of the terror is connected with religion. 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 panicstricken, so unnerved by unknown mysterious dangers; but to the expert man on the spot it is the merest commonplace. And if we have escaped these haunting terrors, it is not because We are so strongminded or such powerful reasoners; it is because God came close beside us in One who took our nature and died our death, and we knew Him as our Redeemer.
If we have escaped, but then, have we? We may no longer believe in unclean and malicious spirits constantly waiting to seize upon us; that phase may have vanished. But even as we sit here in church, are there not some amongst us whose outlook is overlaid with fear in the most varied forms? Fear of our own passions; the consequences of former sin; anxieties about money; the political condition of the world; 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 a 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!
Now in religious men fear 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 just in proportion to our goodness. Hence, when we fail or wander or forget, we instantly suppose His love has ceased. 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 efforts to be good and so have Him love us. It is as if we must persuade Him to be our Father. Well, but is not the New Testament there all the time to tell us all this is a pure mistake? From the first the persuasion has been all 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 as ours, not because we are worthy, but because His love has chosen us and given us all we need. And do you know what return for that He is seeking? Just that you should believe it. Nothing more than that you should take it in 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 revolutionising knowledge that you are His child, and that His mercy endures for ever. The sight of His love casts out fear.
Now this strikes some people as more than half 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 don't much care to hear anybody else go further. But that is not the Bible's way. Think of that greatest of all texts on this subject: St. John's words, " Behold, what manner of love the Father has 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 says so. And when a man receives a declaration of that kind with mere humble-sounding protestations 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 childlike 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 tell us something 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 as too good to be true, but take it, 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 unemployment, war, disease, famine, shipwreck, death. Does God's control cover these things too ? I am quite sure that here also the secret of victory is not hard thinking but a deeper faith produced by living in Jesus' company. A child may decline to jump from a burning house at the word of a stranger, but when her father holds out his arms she will make the venture. 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 our Father and that He is almighty, the fear will subside. Has there ever been one so 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," He said, "for the Father is with Me." And you and I, though at the long interval between Redeemer and redeemed, can be delivered from haunting fears through all that Christ has been and done for us, above all in His great act at Calvary, and in the strength of that childlike 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, what the spirit of sonship may do for us in 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 only yield to fingers that have this touch. No man can persist in quarrelling with fortune and abusing fate who knows that God has called him son, and that this world is part of the Father's house. It is impossible to go on whispering suspicion to ourselves, asking whether or not life is worth living, if once we have grasped the biggest, grandest truth ever offered to the human heart. 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, 0 God, and I am thine"? That makes everything new. The very woods and lakes will be more lovely for you, when that song is in your heart.
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 the pledge and secret of Christian character. 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, 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 in order that He may love us, but for the reason that He loves us now. He will treasure 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 that is to God! 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 gulf of death and lit up enough of the new world beyond to show that it is a home. Yes, a home; because dwelt in and made blessed 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 anything 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"? Far from it. He saw 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." Then once again, later, in the same conversation: "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 is 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 Saviour." 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, of course, you will note, is the point the apostle specially 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 the echo of something familiar? Yes; they were spoken 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 were 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. For, 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 leave it on my own. In spite of all that we know of Christ, are we not mysteriously unwilling 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 supposed that if the great river Nile were tracked up to its fountainhead, its origin might prove to be some tiny spring, some scanty nameless rivulet flowing down a distant hill. 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 flows past our doors, and into which we have dipped our little vessels, if followed up and back to its farthest source, may prove to have its 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 bless your inward life with peace.
in the Lord, for ever trust, And banish all your fears;
Strength in the Lord Jehovah dwells, Eternal as His years."