The Spirit at Work – Romans 8:14-16

For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God. For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God (Romans 8:14-16).



Romans 8:14-16 addresses the ministry of the Holy Spirit within our Christian lives. The Christian life is not just hard—it is impossible. The only one who has lived it perfectly is Jesus Christ Himself. Therefore, the only way that we can live the Christian life is through Jesus Christ in us. In and of ourselves, we cannot do it. We must have Christ in us, who is “the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27).


Jesus Christ lives in His believers through the indwelling presence of His Holy Spirit. Christ presently has a glorified body and is seated at the right hand of God the Father. It will be in this glorified body that He will return at the end of this age. So then, Christ presently indwells believers by the third Person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit.


In Romans 8:9, the Holy Spirit is referred to as “the Spirit of Christ.” The Holy Spirit brings the fullness of Christ to our lives. He is referred to as “the Spirit of God” (verse 14), because He is sent from God in order to bring the fullness of God to dwell in us. It is the present ministry of the Holy Spirit, who is sent by the Father and the Son, that enables us to live the Christian life. We do not think often enough throughout our day about the Holy Spirit being powerfully at work within us.


In verses 14-16, Paul addresses three distinct ministries that the Spirit of God is actively producing in our lives. These are not the only three—we could go to many other sections of Scripture and enlarge the list of what the Spirit is doing in our lives—but these three are specifically addressed in Romans 8. These ministries deal with our sanctification, which refers to the entirety of our Christian life as we grow in Christlikeness. The Spirit is producing Christlikeness in us. He is convicting us of that which is not Christ-like, pruning and pairing it away, and then watering and fertilizing our lives to bear the fruit of Christlikeness.


As we look at these verses, we will see that the Spirit leads us (verse 14), the Spirit liberates us (verse 15), and the Spirit assures us (verse 16).


I. The Spirit Leads Us (8:14)


Paul writes, “For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are the sons of God” (verse 14). This verse begins with the word “for,” which tells the reader that this is an explanation of the previous verse. In verse 13, Paul told us that we are to be “putting to death the deeds of the body” as we live our Christian life. Therefore, when Paul writes that we are “being led by the Spirit” in verse 14, the focus is not upon the Spirit leading us to make certain day-to-day decisions such as what food to eat, where to have dinner, or what road to travel on the way to work. The Spirit does lead us to make decisions, but the primary focus of this verse is that we are being led to put to death the deeds of the flesh. We are being led in our sanctification. The context is important for our interpretation.  Paul’s use of the word “all” tells us that this is true for all believers. All those who are indwelt by the Spirit of God are also being led by the Spirit of God. If you are born again, then this is true of you.


Notice that “are being led” is in the passive voice. We are not the one doing the leading. We are passive, while the Spirit of God is active. He is laying hold of us in a dynamic, powerful way such that we are being acted upon. This verb is in the indicative mood, which means it is a statement of fact. You do not have to pray for this. The Spirit of God is leading you. The question we must ask is: Am I yielded, submissive, obedient, and following His lead? This is also stated in the present tense, which means that as a believer, the Spirit is always leading you—every moment of every day. This is not just for Sunday mornings, or when things are going well in your life, but in every moment—even when you are being tempted and confronted with trials. No matter the circumstance, the Spirit is continually leading you toward personal holiness and godliness.


Paul writes of those who are being led by the Spirit of God, “these are the sons of God” (verse 14). This is a very clear statement. If you are not being led by the Spirit of God, you are not a son of God. Rather, you belong to another family. All who are in the family of God are being led by the Spirit of God. “These” is in the plural, referring to all believers. It is also an emphatic statement, meaning these and these only.


Truths to Hold

There are five truths that we can draw from this one verse. First, all believers are being led by the Spirit. Not some believers, not many, not most—all. If you are a believer, the Spirit of God is leading you. Second, there are only two families in the world. There are the sons of God, and those who are not sons of God. Third, the only way to become a son of God is by the new birth. This verse presupposes that you have been supernaturally birthed into the family of God by the Spirit, which is the doctrine of regeneration. The same Spirit who birthed you into the family of God is also leading you in the Christian life. The Spirit has an ongoing, continual ministry in your life. Fourth, we entered this world by a physical birth, which made us children of the devil. We came into this world lost and separated from God. Even if you attended church as a young child, there must still come a time when you are birthed into the family of God. Fifth, part of the assurance of our salvation is that we see and sense the Spirit of God leading us to personal holiness. If you are not being led into a godly, righteous life, then there is a serious question of whether or not you are a true child of God. Every child of God is being led to put to death the deeds of the flesh.


As believers, we are not to coexist with, give place to, or tolerate sin in our life. Rather, we are to mortify the sin in our life. We must put to death the deeds of the body. We do this by the power of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of God wants to remove from our lives our bad attitudes, bad reactions, bad vocabulary, and bad treatment of others. The Spirit of God is actively enabling us to put these things to death.


The Spirit is also leading us to obey the law of God. Paul previously wrote, “So that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Romans 8:4). The Spirit of God is leading us into obedience to the word of God, specifically to obey the moral law of God. The Spirit is not going to lead you into disobedience, but will always lead you into obedience. However, we must actively choose to obey. The Scripture also presupposes that we know what the law requires of us in the Ten Commandments.


In verses 5 and 6, the Spirit is also leading us to set our minds on the things of the Spirit. That is to say, we are narrowing our focus upon eternal things, those things that honor and glorify God. Even in our vocation, family life, and recreational life, we are to have a mindset of glorifying God in everything we do.


How the Spirit Leads

In what way does the Spirit lead us? First, He leads us personally. Just as He indwells us individually, He also leads us individually. This is very personal and individual. Second, He leads us internally, from the inside out. This is something that is taking place in the depth of your soul. Third, He is leading us scripturally. The Spirit of God inspired and authored the Scripture, and is leading us to pursue and obey it. He is not leading us with dreams, visions, and subjective emotional impulses. He is leading us through the written, objective word of God. Fourth, He leads us blamelessly. Meaning He never leads us into sin, but always away from sin into personal holiness. Fifth, He is leading us convictingly. When we fail to follow His leading into personal holiness, the Spirit convicts us and puts His finger on the live nerve within our soul. There is a haunting sense that we have strayed from the path. The Spirit of God is like a sharp knife poking in our side to make things right with our fellow man and with God. We must continually confess our sins to God on an ongoing basis. Sixth, He is leading us perfectly. The Holy Spirit never misleads or misdirects us. He always provides flawless leadership. Lastly, He is leading us permanently. The Spirit will never stop leading us. Even on our deathbed, He will still be leading us into sanctification and personal holiness. We will never reach a plateau in our Christian life where we do not need the Spirit of God leading us into godliness.


I want you to be consciously aware as you live your Christian life that the Holy Spirit is in the leadership position. He is leading you into the will of God and a life of obedience. He has taken hold of you and will never let go. If we drag our feet or stray from the path, He will come with conviction and prod us back onto the path. We should praise God for this ministry of the Holy Spirit. If it were not for this leading of the Holy Spirit, we would surely be stagnant, either at a standstill or even regressing in our Christian life. Like a shepherd, the Spirit of God prods us forward in our sanctification.


I must ask you, are you consciously following the leadership of the Holy Spirit into the will of God as revealed through His written word?


II. The Spirit Liberates Us (8:15)


Verse 15 is a continuation of the flow of thought from the previous verse. Paul writes, “For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, ‘Abba! Father!’” (verse 15). Here, Paul first gives a negative denial, then a positive assertion. He tells us what we did not receive, and then what we did receive. When Paul uses “received,” he is referring to the moment of conversion. The moment you were born again you received something.


First, we did not receive “a spirit of slavery leading to fear again.” “Slavery” refers to the sin that mastered us before we were converted to Christ. We were slaves to sin. It was driving us to live a self-centered, self-focused life. There was fear and dread of having to meet a standard that we could not keep, as well as the dread of an eternal punishment. Whether this fear was heightened in our conscious or not, it nevertheless was there. There was a fear and slavery in which we lived. We were in chains to sin. This is why there is really no such thing as free will in the purest sense. All mankind is born enslaved to sin. The only way you can exercise your will toward God would be for Someone greater than sin to come unlock those chains and to set you free. We know this was accomplished by the Lord Jesus Christ. “So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36). Until He sets you free, you are in bondage to your sin. Not just your mind and emotions, but also your volition—your will—as well.


Some commentators believe “spirit” in verse 15 means the Holy Spirit. Others believe it is simply the human spirit. Regardless of which way you interpret the word, it does not affect the meaning of the passage. The Spirit of God is working inside our human spirit. The idea is that we did not receive the spirit of slavery leading to fear again. We already had that. This is where we were living before we were converted. “But you have received a spirit of adoption as sons.” This points back to the time when you were birthed by the Spirit into the kingdom of God.


The Importance of Adoption

The word “adoption” is not used in the Old Testament and is only used in the New Testament by Paul. He uses it a total of five times in his thirteen epistles, and three of those times are in the book of Romans. We should take note of this rare use of the word “adoption.” From the divine perspective, you come into the family of God by two ways. There is one plan of salvation, but two metaphors to explain it. One is through the new birth, and one is through adoption. Believers experience salvation in both ways. In the new birth, you enter into the family of God as a new baby. This pictures how you will spend the rest of your Christian life growing and developing into Christ-likeness. It is a supernatural conception and delivery.


Adoption comes at it from a different angle. In adoption, you come into the family of God as a fully-grown adult son or daughter. This is important because you immediately enter with all the privileges and rights of an adult heir. You would not turn the keys of a car over to a little child. You do not turn a vast inheritance over to a little baby who would squander it away. With adoption, you come into the family of God as a mature adult, such that your inheritance can begin to be turned over to you immediately. There is a sense in which we receive part of the inheritance in this lifetime, and we will receive the fullness of the inheritance in the life to come. The initial part of the inheritance that we receive right now is the down payment of the Holy Spirit, who immediately comes to indwell us. We have already received the first part of our inheritance, but there will await us a vast estate, the size and the sum of which far exceeds our wildest comprehension.


Paul wants us to know that we have been liberated out of our previous spirit of slavery and fear into a spirit of adoption. When we are brought into the family of God, the Spirit liberates us and we enter into a brand new relationship with God. We are no longer alienated from God. We are no longer the objects of His wrath. We are adopted as sons, brought into the Father’s house, and shown the vastness of the inheritance.


An Intimate Relationship

Paul continues, “By which we cry out, ‘Abba! Father!’” Notice “we” is plural, still referring to all Christians. “Abba” is an Aramaic word that carries the idea of a loving, intimate relationship with God the Father. It is almost like saying, “Daddy” or “Papa.” This is the initial part of the inheritance that we have already received. We have a relationship with God that is close and intimate.


Some sons have very strict fathers and cannot understand a close relationship with God as Father. Martin Luther, the great German reformer, said that because his father was so strict, he could never begin the Lord’s Prayer with “Our Father who is in heaven.” He could not think of God as his Father. Likewise, there are some who grow up with a stern taskmaster of a father. They never hear the words “I love you.” Ken Ventura won the 1964 Congressional US Open. His father never once said, “I am proud of you.” Ventura went to his deathbed never having his father’s approval. A poor earthly example of fatherhood can make it difficult for some to understand God’s relationship to believers as Father.


However, Paul says that we have a totally different kind of relationship with God the Father. He is not an unloving, unexpressive, stern taskmaster who always frowns and never smiles. We have a close relationship with God to the point that we can say, “Abba Father,” meaning Daddy or Papa. This is a really big deal. Today’s Christianity puts such an emphasis on God’s love that we have lost perspective on how profound it is that we have such a close relationship with God. Paul says, “we cry out.” Not that we hesitantly whisper with uncertainty, but that we cry out with our hearts and our voices. We can approach the throne of grace with confidence (Hebrews 4:16). This speaks of prayer and praise. Whether it is audibly expressed, or just a thought in our mind that is inaudibly internalized, as we go throughout the day, we have confidence to cry out “Abba Father.” The Spirit of God has been deposited within us as the first part of our inheritance, and He is moving us with confidence to cry out.


When we pray, we pray to God the Father through the Son and by the Spirit. We approach the Father when we pray. But the only basis of approaching the Father is through the Son. Our prayers are energized by the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of God enlarges our confidence to come boldly before the throne of grace knowing God is our Abba Father and we can bear our soul to Him. We can bring our requests to Him.


Someone once asked G. Campbell Morgan, after preaching a sermon in London, “Pastor, can I pray for little things, or only big things, when I pray to God?” He said to her, “Ma’am, everything in your life is little compared to God.” This does not mean you are unimportant to God, because you are very important to Him. But from where God sits compared to where we live, it is like standing on top of the Empire State Building and looking down at the people on the sidewalk. They look like ants. Everything is small from that high perspective. The believer brings everything the Spirit of God leads him to bring before the Father—big things, small things, all things. We come to Him crying out, “Abba! Father!,” because the Spirit of God has transformed us from slaves to sons. The Spirit of God is creating within us an awareness of this sense of intimacy and acceptance with the Father.


III. The Spirit Assures Us (8:16-17)


Finally, the Spirit assures us of our salvation. Paul writes, “The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God” (verse 16). By Paul stating “the Spirit Himself,” the emphasis is upon the Spirit alone and no one else. It is not an angel or a prophet doing this work. This is an onsite ministry of the Spirit of God. It has not been delegated or hired out to a subcontractor. The Holy Spirit is the One testifying to our own spirit. “Testifies with our spirit” is in the present tense. He is always bearing witness with our spirit, always confirming in our heart this truth that “we are children of God.” The Spirit confirms to us that we belong in the family, God is our Father, and we have been born again.


We have assurance of salvation both externally and internally. Externally, we see the Spirit leading us into holiness (verse 14) and we see Christlikeness being produced in our lives. We should be able to look at our lives and see how God is working in and through us to make us more like the Lord Jesus Christ. Internally, there is a subjective witness of the Spirit of God bringing an overwhelming sense of God’s presence in our lives. The Spirit of God brings a profound awareness of God at work in our hearts. The Spirit brings a deep persuasion of the Father’s acceptance of us and our relationship to Him. This is subjective, but our emotions are real. We feel the pull and the tug in our heart that we are rightly connected to God.


The Spirit’s Work

Assurance of salvation comes from the Holy Spirit. It does not come from a man, a church, a new members’ class, an evangelist, or a pastor. It comes from the Holy Spirit. He takes ownership of your assurance of salvation. He is the One who convicted, drew, regenerated, granted repentance and saving faith, sealed you in Christ, and has come to indwell you. He is not going to give up the task of assurance of salvation to someone else. The Holy Spirit will finish the work and bring it to completion. He guarantees our eternal security all the way to heaven. Until we reach glory, He will continue to give us the assurance that we belong to Him.


I do think it is possible for a true Christian to have a low sense of assurance of salvation. Sometimes it is because of their personality. They may be an obsessive, perfectionistic person who is hard to assure of anything. But also, some Christians sit under such poor Bible teaching in hyped-up emotional worship services that it is hard for them to know what is truly involved in their salvation. You may have very little understanding of how you were birthed into the kingdom of God and what has happened to you in your salvation. But if you are sitting under clear, sound Bible teaching, the Spirit of God has a lot to work with in your heart and soul. You can see in verse 16 that “the Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God.” The Spirit of God is omnipotent, sovereign, and indwelling us. He is fully able to get the message across to our hearts that we belong to God.


This is the third ministry of the Holy Spirit that Paul speaks of in these verses. It would be very difficult to live the Christian life if you did not have the assurance of your salvation. It would be very difficult to move forward if you did not know whether you are in or out of the kingdom of God. It would be very difficult for you to enjoy the voyage across the ocean if you are not sure that you belong aboard the ship, or that the ship will actually make it to the harbor on the other side. In order for you to enjoy your salvation and move forward in the Christian life, you need to know that you are a child of God. You must be confident that you have been born again. Paul puts this in the very heart of Romans 8 as a critical part of your sanctification. You cannot move forward if you always have this haunting doubt whether you are truly saved. There is both an external an internal witness. Externally, you should be able to see a changed life with a new direction that you are now moving in. You know that you could not fake this. It is God producing the change in your life. There is also the internal witness of the Spirit of God pulling your heart and anchoring you to the throne of grace.




Are you following the leading of the Holy Spirit? You do not need to pray for the Spirit to lead you. It is a statement of fact in verse 14 that He is leading you. He is constantly, continually, daily, leading you into the will of God and into personal holiness. The Spirit works through the written word of God. These are not vague, opaque thoughts, but very specific steps in which the Spirit is leading, both in our internal attitude and our external actions. The Spirit is moving us forward. We cannot passively observe this. We must keep instep with the Spirit. If we do not, He has a way of prodding us with correction and discipline.