People coming for biblical counseling often struggle with the question of assurance of salvation. Perhaps they have misunderstood what assurance is (for example, they might believe that they have assurance because they prayed a sinner’s prayer as a child), or it could be that they are rightly lacking assurance because they have not been bearing the fruits of repentance and faith (cf. Mt 3:8; Acts 26:20; Eph 2:10, 5:9). While there are a number of Scripture passages that speak directly to the relationship between spiritual growth and assurance (see 2 Pet 1:5-11, for example, or the entire epistle of 1 John [cf. 1 Jn 5:13]), one I have found particularly useful in the counseling room is Romans 8:12-17:
12 “So then, brethren, we are under obligation, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh—
13 for if you are living according to the flesh, you must die; but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live.
14 For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God.
15 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!”
16 The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God,
17 and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him.”
Overview of Romans 1-8
I usually try to connect the particular passage I’m teaching with the larger context of the book in which it’s found. In this case, since Paul’s argument in Romans 1-8 lays the foundation for what I want to teach from chapter 8, I will give a brief overview of his argument.
Paul’s purpose in writing Romans is to explain and apply the gospel of salvation by grace alone through faith alone for all believers (1:15-17). He first works to establish the universal need for salvation, arguing from 1:18-3:20 that there is none — neither Jew nor Gentile — who is good; all (without exception) are guilty before God, rightly exposed to his wrath, and unable to produce the righteousness necessary for salvation. The way of salvation is by faith in the propitiating (that is, bearing-God’s-wrath) death of Jesus (3:21-26). This righteousness by faith in propitiation is the only way of salvation for all time, a reality Paul demonstrates through the cases of Abraham and David (3:27-4:25). Paul concludes the positive case for his gospel of grace with an assertion of its absolute infallibility: because it is the work of God (5:1); it is through our union with Christ (5:1, 11-21); and it is guaranteed by the Holy Spirit (5:5), it cannot and will not fail to save the one who receives it by faith.
Chapters 6 and 7 represent Paul’s anticipation and denial of two wrong responses to the gospel of grace alone by faith alone in Christ alone. First, he asks: “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase?” (6:1). The remainder of chapter 6 is devoted to arguing that one who is united with Christ in his death must not (and will not) continue to give himself over to sin. One who is saved by grace must not respond by living as if it’s okay to go on sinning because Jesus already paid sin’s penalty. Chapter 7 addresses the (in a sense) opposite error: The one who is saved by grace must not respond by living as if the Christian life is simply one of law keeping.
Chapter 8 answers the question: If the Christian life is not one of cheap grace — and it is also not one of living by the law — then what must it look like? In short, it looks like a life lived in dependence on the ministry of the Holy Spirit, who indwells the one who believes (8:9-11) and directs his path in order to guarantee his ultimate glorification (8:26-30), which therefore (and because this all was purchased at the cost of Jesus’ death) will happen without fail (8:31-39). Within this argument, Paul also addresses how this relates to assurance for the individual believer: If my assurance doesn’t come from a care-free attitude about sin, and if it doesn’t come from a diligent adherence to the law — where does it come from?
Assurance Gained Through Putting Sin to Death
One of the reasons I have found this text to be helpful in counseling about assurance is that people will often take Romans 8:16 out of context and apply it in a mystical way. For example: “I know that I am saved because his Spirit testifies with my spirit — I just feel it, and I just know it, that I am his.” In any case, verse 16 is a helpful entry point to understanding the relationship between assurance and the mortification of sin: In order to understand in what way the Holy Spirit testifies assurance to us, we must take a closer look at what the verse actually says and how it is connected to the surrounding verses.
The first thing to notice is that what the Spirit is testifying to specifically is the sonship of the believer. This connects verse 16 back to verse 14, which indicates what the Spirit is doing in those who are sons: He is leading them. At this point, it may be helpful to ask the counselee to consider whether he sees that he is being led by the Spirit. When we think of being “led by the Spirit,” we often will think of things like “I sensed God’s leading to marry my wife,” or “to take this job,” or “to go to that school.” Although this might be a legitimate way to think about being led by God in other contexts, Paul here has in mind a particular way in which the Holy Spirit leads those who are children of God: He leads them to do battle with their sin. This is truly a life or death struggle, and it is one in which it is the duty of the believer to make Spirit-empowered effort against his own sin: “So then, brethren, we are under obligation, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh — for if you are living according to the flesh, you must die; but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (8:12-13).
So the Spirit of God is bearing witness to the sonship of the believer by leading him to do battle with his sin, to put it to death. Continuing in verse 15, we find that this is quite different for Paul from law-keeping: Law-keeping is a matter of slavery — a servile-fear-driven effort to always keep the law in order to find acceptance — while Spirit-empowered mortification leads the child of God to cry out “Abba! Father!” Where he used to love and enjoy his sin, the Spirit has now “turned the light on,” so that the child of God now sees his sin for the deadly poison that it is. When he sees the clinging nature of sin and the weakness of his flesh (cf. 7:14-24), he looks not to the law, but to his Savior for rescue (7:25-8:4). In this way, the Spirit is demonstrating that the child of God is an heir together with Christ as he suffers with him, in anticipation that he will one day be glorified with him (8:17). This is the testimony the Spirit bears in the hearts of all of those who are his children.
There is often great explanatory power in getting to this point in understanding Paul’s argument: If the counselee has not been battling his sin, he now sees more clearly why he lacks (or perhaps why he should lack) assurance. He must be encouraged to identify sin in his life that he needs to put to death with God’s help. In making this effort, he must not find hope in his own ability to keep the law, and in depending on God he must not adopt a casual attitude toward his sin. God is committed to accomplishing this work in his children, and as he does so it will be a sweet (if difficult) testimony to his adoption of them and their hope of eternal glory.
- I started using this text for this purpose after hearing an exposition of it by John Piper (available at https://www.desiringgod.org/messages/a-spectacular-and-scary-promise). I would encourage all counselors to make a practice of listening and reading broadly, noting expositions that might be particularly useful in various cases.
- Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations in this post are from the NASB translation.
- From a number of comments found throughout the epistle (cf. 1:13; 2:17; 4:1; 9:24; 11:13), it is evident that Paul discerned a need for unification among the believers in Rome, that is, that they would come to an understanding that all — whether Jew or Gentile — are in equal need of the gospel, and that the gospel serves as a great “leveler” so that all sinners are equal in humble estate at the foot of the cross.
- Paul’s teaching in this (in some ways difficult) chapter is clearest when considering its similarities with Galatians 3 (see especially Gal 3:3). (Much of Gal 3-4 parallels Rom 7-8.)
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