For 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 viii. 15.
Some of you here may not understand this text at all. Some of you, perhaps, may misunderstand it; for it is not an easy one. Let us, then, begin, by finding out the meaning of each word in it; and, let us first see what is the meaning of the spirit of bondage unto fear. Bondage means slavery; and the spirit of bondage means the spirit which makes men look up to God as slaves do to their taskmaster. Now, a slave obeys his master from fear only; not from love or gratitude. He knows that his master is stronger than he is, and he dreads being beaten and punished by him; and therefore, he obeys him only by compulsion, not of his own good will. This is the spirit of bondage; the slavish, superstitious spirit in religion, into which all men fall, in proportion as they are mean, and sinful, and carnal, fond of indulging themselves, and bearing no love to God or right things. They know that God is stronger than they; they are afraid that God will take away comforts from them if they offend Him; they have been taught that He will cast them into endless torment if they offend Him; and, therefore, they are afraid to do wrong. They love what is wrong, and would like to do it; but they dare not, for fear of God's punishment. They do not really fear God; they only fear punishment, misfortune, death, and hell. That is better, perhaps, than no religion at all. But it is not the faith which WE ought to have.
In this way the old heathens lived: loving sin and not holiness, and yet continually tormented with the fear of being punished for the very sins which they loved; looking up to God as a stern taskmaster; fancying Him as proud, and selfish, and revengeful as themselves; trying one day to quiet that wrath of His which they knew they deserved, by all sorts of flatteries and sacrifices to Him; and the next day trying to fancy that He was as sinful as themselves, and was well-pleased to see them sinful too. And yet they could not keep that lie in their hearts; God's light, which lights every man who comes into the world, was too bright for them, and shone into their consciences, and showed them that the wages of sin was death. The law of God, St. Paul tells us, was written in their hearts; and how much soever, poor creatures, they might try to blot it out and forget it, yet it would rise up in judgment against them, day by day, night by night, convincing them of sin. So they in their terror sold themselves to false priests, who pretended to know of plans for helping them to escape from this angry God, and gave themselves up to superstitions, till they even sacrificed their sons and their daughters to devils, in some sort of confused hope of buying themselves off from misery and ruin.
And in the same way the Jews lived, for the most part, before the Lord Jesus came in the flesh of man. Not so viciously and wickedly, of course, because the law of Moses was holy, and just, and good; the law which the Lord Himself had given them, because it was the best for them then; because they were too sinful, and slavish, and stupid, for anything better. But, as St. Paul says, Moses's law could not give them life, any more than any other law can. That is, it could not make them righteous and good; it could not change their hearts and lives; it could only keep them from outward wrong-doing by threats and promises, saying: "Thou shalt not." It could, at best, only show them how sinful their own hearts were; how little they loved what God commanded; how little they desired what He promised; and so it made them feel more and more that they were guilty, unworthy to look up to a holy God, deserving His anger and punishment, worthy to die for their sins; and thus by the law came the knowledge of sin, a deeper feeling of guilt, and shame, and slavish dread of God, as St. Paul sets forth, with wonderful wisdom, in the seventh chapter of Romans.
Now, let us consider the latter half of the text. "But ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry Abba, Father."
What is this adoption? St. Paul tells us in the beginning of the fourth chapter of his epistle to the Galatians. He says: As long as a man's heir is a child, and under age, there is no difference in law between him and a slave. He is his father's property. He must obey his father, whether he chooses or not; and he is under tutors and governors, until the time appointed by his father; that is, until he comes of age, as we call it. Then he becomes his own master. He can inherit and possess property of his own after that. And from that time forth the law does not bind him to obey his father; if he obeys him it is of his own free will, because he loves, and trusts, and reverences his father.
Now, St. Paul says, this is the case with us. When we were infants, we were in bondage under the elements of the world; kept straight, as children are, by rules which they cannot understand, by the fear of punishment which they cannot escape, with no more power to resist their father than slaves have to resist their master. But when the fulness of time was come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under a law, that He might redeem those who were under a law, that we might receive the adoption of sons.
As much as to say: You were God's CHILDREN all along: but now you are more; you are God's sons. You have arrived at man's estate; you are men in body and in mind; you are to be men in spirit, men in life. You are to look up to the great God who made heaven and earth, and know, glorious thought! that He is as truly your Father as the men whose earthly sons you call yourselves. And if you do this, He will give you the Spirit of adoption, and you shall be able to call Him Father with your hearts, as well as with your lips; you shall know and feel that He is your Father; that He has been loving, watching, educating, leading you home to Him all the while that you were wandering in ignorance of Him, in childish self-will, and greediness after pleasure and amusement. He will give you His Spirit to make you behave like His sons, to obey Him of your own free will, from love, and gratitude, and honour, and filial reverence. He will make you love what He loves, and hate what He hates. He will give you clear consciences and free hearts, to fear nothing on earth or in heaven, but the shame and ingratitude of disobeying your Father.
The Spirit of adoption, by which you look up to God as your Father, is your right. He has given it to you, and nothing but your own want of faith, and wilful turning back to cowardly superstition, and to the wilful sins which go before superstition, and come after it, can take it from you. So said St. Paul to the Romans and the Galatians, and so I have a right, ay, and a bounden duty, to say to every man and woman in this church this day.
For, my dear friends, if you ask me, what has this to do with us? Has it not everything to do with us? Whether we are leading good lives, or middling lives, or utterly bad worthless lives, has it not everything to do with us? Who is there here who has not at times said to himself: "God so holy, and pure, and glorious; while I am so unjust, and unclean, and mean! And God so great and powerful; while I am so small and weak! What shall I do? Does not God hate and despise me? Will He not take from me all which I love best? Will He not hurl me into endless torment when I die? How can I escape from Him? Wretched man that I am, I cannot escape from Him! How, then, can I turn away His hate? How can I make Him change His mind? How can I soothe Him and appease Him? What shall I do to escape hell- fire?"
Did you ever have such thoughts? But, did you find those thoughts, that slavish terror of God's wrath, that dread of hell, made you any BETTER men? I never did. I never saw them make any human being better. Unless you go beyond them--as far beyond them as heaven is beyond hell, as far above them as a free son is above a miserable crouching slave, they will do you more harm than good. For this is all that I have seen come of them: That all this spirit of bondage, this slavish terror, instead of bringing a man nearer to God, only drove him further from God. It did not make him hate what was wrong; it only made him dread the punishment of it. And then, when the first burst of fear cooled down, he began to say to himself: "I can never atone for my sins. I can never win back God to love me. What is done, is done. If I cannot escape punishment, let me be at least as happy as I can while it lasts. If it does not come to-day, it will come to-morrow. Let me alone, thou tormenting conscience. Let me eat and drink, for to-morrow I die!" And so back rushed the poor creature into all his wrong-doing again, and fell most probably deeper than ever into the mire, because a certain feeling of desperation and defiance rose up in him, till he began to fancy that his terror was all a dream--a foolish accidental rising up of old superstitious words which he learnt from his mother or his nurse; and he tried to forget it all, and did forget it--God help him!--and his latter end was worse than his first.
How then shall a man escape shame and misery, and an evil conscience, and rise out of these sins of his? For do it he must. The wages of sin is death--death to body and soul; and from sin he must escape.
There is but one way, my friends. There never was but one way. Believe the text, and therefore believe the warrant of your Baptism. Believe the message of your Confirmation.
Your baptism says to you, God does NOT hate you, be you the greatest sinner on earth. He does not hate you. He loves you; for you are His child. He hateth nothing that He hath made. He willeth not the death of a sinner, but that ALL should come to be saved. And your baptism is the sign of that to you. But God hates everything that He has not made; for everything which He has not made is bad; and He has made all things but sin; and therefore He hates sin, and, loving you, wishes to raise you out of sin; and baptism is the sign of that also. Man was made originally in the image and likeness of God, and of Jesus Christ, the Son of Man, the express image of God the Father; and therefore everything which is sinful is unmanly, and everything which is truly manful, and worthy of a man, is like Jesus Christ; and God's will is, that you should rise out of all these unmanly sins, to a truly manful life--a life like the life of Jesus Christ, the Son of Man. And baptism is God's sign of this also. That is the meaning of the words in the Baptism Service which tell you that you were baptised into Jesus Christ, that you might put off the old man--the sinful, slavish, selfish, unmanly pattern of life, which we all lead by nature; and put on the new man--the holy and noble, righteous and loving pattern of life, which is the likeness of the Lord Jesus. That is the message of your baptism to you; that you are God's children, and that God's will and wish is that you should grow up to become His SONS, to serve Him lovingly, trustingly, manfully; and that He can and will give you power to do so--ay, that He has given you that power already, if you will but claim it and use it. But you must claim it and use it, because you are meant not merely to be God's wilful, ignorant, selfish children, obeying Him from mere fear of the rod; but to be His willing, loving, loyal sons. And that is the message which Confirmation brings you. Baptism says: You are God's child, whether you know it or not. Confirmation says: Yes; but now you are to know it, and to claim your rights as His sons, of full age, reasonable and self-governing.
Baptism says: You are regenerated and born from above, by water and the Holy Spirit. Confirmation answers: True, most true; but there is no use in a child's being born, if it never comes to man's estate, but remains a stunted idiot.
Baptism says: You may and ought to become more or less such a man as the Lord Jesus was. Confirmation says: You can become such; for you are no longer children; you are grown to man's estate in body, you can grow to man's estate in soul if you will. God's Spirit is with you, to show you all things in their true light; to teach you to value them or despise them as you ought; to teach you to love what He loves, and hate what He hates. God wishes you no longer to be merely His children, obeying Him you know not why; still less His slaves, obeying Him from mere brute coward fear, and then breaking loose the moment that you forget Him, and fancy that His eye is not on you: but He wishes you to be His sons; to claim the right and the power which He has given you to trample your sins under foot; to rise up by the strength which God your Father will surely give to those who ask Him; and so to be new men, free men, true men, who do look boldly up to God, knowing that, however wicked they may have been, and however weak they are still, God's love belongs to them, God's help belongs to them, and that those who trust in Him shall never be confounded, but shall go on from strength to strength to the measure of the stature of a perfect man, to the noble likeness of the Lord Jesus Christ Himself.
For this is the message of the blessed sacrament of the body and blood of Christ, to which you have been all called this day. That sacrament tells you that in spite of all your daily sins and failings, you can still look up to God as your Father; to the Lord Jesus Christ as your life; to the Holy Spirit as your guide and your inspirer; that though you be prodigal sons, your Father's house is still open to you, your Father's eternal love ready to meet you afar off, the moment that you cry from your heart: "Father, I have sinned;" and that you must be converted and turn back to God your Father, not merely once for all at Confirmation, or at any other time, but weekly, daily, hourly, as often as you forget and disobey Him; and that he will receive you. This is the message of the blessed sacrament, that though you cannot come there trusting in your own righteousness, you can come trusting in His manifold and great mercies; that though you are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under His table, yet He is the same Lord whose property is ever to have mercy; that He will, as surely as He has appointed that sign of the bread and wine, grant you so to eat and drink that spiritual flesh and blood of the Lord Jesus Christ, which is the life of the world, that your sinful bodies may be made clean by His body, and your souls washed in His most precious blood, and that you may dwell in Him, and He in you, for ever.