Romans 8:15 says, “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!’” (KJV). This verse contrasts two spirits: an impersonal “spirit of bondage” or “spirit of slavery” and the Holy Spirit, called here “the Spirit of adoption.” Other translations render the phrase the Spirit of adoption as “God’s Spirit when he adopted you as his own children” (NLT), “the Spirit makes you God’s children” (GNT), or “a Spirit that shows you are adopted as his children” (CEB).
Two different spirits. Two different mindsets that we can have in our approach to God: we can approach Him as slaves in bondage, or we can approach Him as adopted children. The Bible presents a high view of adoption and uses it to parallel the relationship God wants to have with us. The spirit of slavery views God has a slave owner and we His trembling subjects. The spirit of adoption views God as a loving Father and we His beloved sons and daughters.
A spirit of slavery is manifested in legalistic religion. Many cults and even some Christian denominations put such emphasis on rule-keeping that they instill fear and a sense of dread in their members. God is presented as a taskmaster who is never quite satisfied with anything we do. The bar is always set a bit too high, so people find religious activities to keep themselves busy in the hope that God will accept them for their effort. Even those who have been born again through faith in Christ’s sacrifice for their sin (John 3:3) can cling to a spirit of slavery, never realizing the freedom that is theirs with the Spirit of adoption.
This spirit of slavery was rampant within the Jewish culture when Jesus came to earth. He soundly rebuked the religious leaders for instilling such legalism in people with whom God desired to have a loving relationship (Mark 7:7–9; Matthew 23:15–16). Paul cautioned the early churches to be watchful for the return of that spirit of slavery. In Galatians 5:1 he wrote, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.”
In startling contrast is the Spirit of adoption, the Holy Spirit of God who brings us into God’s family. Jesus invited believers to address God as “our Father” (Matthew 6:8–9). God explained His desire to treat His people as sons and daughters (2 Corinthians 6:18). God has made this spiritual adoption possible through faith in His only begotten Son, Jesus Christ (John 3:16–18; 1:12; 14:6; Romans 8:14). Based on our faith and confession of allegiance (Romans 10:9–10), God adopts us into His eternal family. He makes us joint heirs together with Jesus Christ (Romans 8:17). We receive the Spirit of adoption when we accept, by faith, the grace that has been offered to us in Christ (Ephesians 1:5; Romans 8:23; Luke 10:27). It is the Spirit of adoption who teaches us to call out to God as our “Abba, Father.”
There is a vast difference between the way sons serve their fathers and the way slaves serve their masters. Slaves may perform duties; sons perform acts of love. Slaves dutifully obey; sons gladly obey. Slaves are motivated by fear of punishment; sons are motivated by love of relationship. Slaves ask, “What is required?” Sons ask, “What else can I do for you?” The Spirit of adoption changes us from fearful slaves to joyful sons and daughters. The Spirit of adoption allows us to “come boldly before the throne of grace” (Hebrews 4:16) as a beloved child runs to his father in times of trouble. Because of the Spirit of adoption, we can enjoy serving God without fear or obligation. Serving in our Father’s kingdom becomes life’s highest ambition (2 Corinthians 5:20).