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What is the difference between the spirit of bondage and the Spirit of adoption (Romans 8:15-16)?

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Romans 8:15-16 “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!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God,”

To understand the meaning of the “spirit of bondage/slavery” and the “Spirit of adoption” is to understand our position in Christ and to know what we have been “delivered from” and what we are “delivered to”. Understanding this truth will enable us to live a life of genuine relationship with Christ. Amen!

Let us begin by looking at the meaning of the “spirit of bondage”. Some translations use the word “bondage”, and others use “slavery”. The dictionary definition of “bondage” is “the state of being another person’s slave” (Cambridge Dictionary) or “the state of being bound by or subjected to some external power or control.” (Dictionary.com). 

There are three ways we can look at the spirit of bondage or slavery.

Firstly, from a biblical perspective, spiritual bondage and slavery are anything that holds us from submitting to Christ. An unbeliever is a slave to sin. 2 Timothy 2:25-26 says, “…God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will.” Also, Jesus says to the unbelieving Pharisees in John 8:34, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin.”

Secondly, in contrast, Romans 8:12-17 is talking to believers. In Romans 6:17-18, we are told that we were once slaves to sin, but now thanks be to God, we have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness. The fruit of being a slave to righteousness leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life. The wages of being slaves to sin is death, whereas the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen! (Romans 6:22-23). We are to be dead to sin and alive to God. So in Romans 6, we see that sin is a spirit of bondage and slavery, in which we were all until Christ set us free. Paul is encouraging us not to “fall back into that fear and the spirit of bondage.” Christians can sometimes live with a mindset of slavery because we constantly go back to our habitual sins rather than living in the freedom of being in Christ. We are no longer to continue in sin because we have died to sin and are no longer under the spirit of bondage but have been set free and adopted as children of God. 

Notice here that when we become a slave of righteousness or slaves of God, it means that we abide with Christ, just like slaves used to abide with their masters. In other words, we are to submit our will to His will, everything we have is of Him, and we belong to Him. It also means that we are both sons and servants of God. Just like Jesus Himself came to do His Father’s will and serve. John 6:38 says, “For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me.” Also, Mark 10:44-45 says, “and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Thirdly, following on from Romans 6 and moving into Romans 7, Paul goes on to talk about another “spirit of bondage”, and this time he talks about being released from the bondage of the “law”. Romans 7:4-6 says, “Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God. For while we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death. But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code.”

In other words, Jesus Christ came to set us free from the burdensome, legalistic lifestyle when we rely on our works and the law for righteousness. That is why Galatians 5:1-4 says, “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace.” Paul teaches that the law was a guardian until Jesus Christ came, protecting us until we could be made right with God – justifying us by faith (Galatians 3:24). Paul goes on to describe in Romans 6:14, saying, “For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under the Law but under grace.” (NASB). 

If we are to look back at the verse in Romans 8:15, Paul is encouraging believers by saying they did not receive the spirit of bondage/slavery “to fall back into fear”. In other words, if we have come to Christ by faith through grace, and yet we are living according to the flesh in habitual sin or we are trying to earn God’s favour through legalistic works, then we are still in the spirit of bondage and living in fear. Instead, if the Spirit of God dwells in us, we are not in the flesh; we are no longer a slave to sin and are no longer under the Law but under grace. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him (Romans 8:9) and is still under bondage. John 8:36 says, “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” Notice that the law is not sin (Romans 7:7), and the law is not overthrown through faith; instead, we uphold the law (Romans 3:31). The issue is when you try to use the law and works to earn salvation or favour. Rather, obedience to the law must be the fruit of salvation which is only possible by grace through faith. 

In contrast, what does it mean to have the Spirit of adoption? Before Christ, the Law led people to Christ (Galatians 3:24). Now that we have received Christ and, through Him, salvation, the guiding role has been handed over to the Spirit, who guides us into all truth (John 16:13). This is the Spirit of adoption or the Spirit of sonship. The big difference is that the Spirit of adoption is about family relationships, whereas the other is about slavery. We cry “Abba! Father!” by the Spirit of adoption because we are sons and children of God. Amen! We are both! When we are called the children of God, the focus is family relationships. When we are called “sons”, the focus is our legal standing. 

In essence, we need to understand our position in Christ, and everything we do must be an outcome of it. You need to have the right mindset when you come before God. If you come to the presence of God with an attitude of being His slave, then you will try to earn your way to God through works and the law. Whereas if you have the Spirit of adoption, then your mindset and view of God are as a loving Father, and we are His sons and daughters, and all the good works we do is an outcome of our love for Him. It is a result of our love relationship with our Abba, Father. 

We need to examine ourselves to check if we are living with a mindset of slavery and bondage rather than a mindset of adoption. Suppose you are a believer in Christ, but you are trying to earn His favour by being religious, seeking something in return for your works, doing a lot of religious activities to earn God’s favour, or living in fear. In that case, you are clinging to a spirit of slavery. We are no longer enslaved people who serve their masters. Instead, we are sons and daughters who serve their Father. 

When we understand our position in the family of God, then everything changes in our lives and our relationship with God. When you have a mindset of an enslaved person, then all of your motivation is out of duty, to perform and work for your wage, you are in fear of punishment or disapproval, there is no joy in your activity, you feel burdened. When you have a mindset of a child of God, having the Spirit of adoption, then you want to obey your Father because of your love for Him; you are always looking for ways to see what you can do to please your Father, rather than fear, you love Him. There is joy in all you do for Him, and you aim to glorify God. 

From a slave, we have become a child of God and heirs with Christ. What an amazing and beautiful truth. This means as we share in the sufferings of Christ as a cost of discipleship and then we also partake with Him at the coming glory that we may also be glorified with Him (Romans 8:17, 1 Peter 4:13). 

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