A Personal Spirit of Adoption

March 10, 2017

by David Garner

Building on the spiritual renovation of the adopted sons, Romans 8:15–16 develops the argument concerning the sonship of those who are led by the Spirit (v. 14). Paul posits two contrasting and mutually exclusive notions: the spirit (or Spirit?) received is one of slavery or the spirit (or Spirit?) received is one of adoption. Determining the proper rendering of pneuma (“spirit”) in these occurrences has produced some interpretive disagreement. Does Paul speak of a human pneuma or of the divine pneuma? Or does he speak of a human pneuma with pneuma douleias (“spirit of slavery”), and the divine pneuma with pneuma huiothesia (“Spirit of adoption”)? Exegetical clues within Romans 8 provide important guidance, but before we consider them, a brief New Testament survey concerning pneuma is in order.

Though the term pneuma is frequently used of a human dispositional complex, spirit, or habitus (e.g., 1 Cor. 4:21; 16:18), with arguably no exception, when considered as a gift from God in a soteriological context, the term refers to the Holy Spirit. God gives only his Spirit and, in this eschatological age, gives only the Spirit of his Son. Contrary to this assertion, Luther, Dodd, Lenski, Meyer, Sanday and Headlam, Moo, and others take the occurrences of pneuma in Romans 8:15 as a human spirit. Yet this rendering does not cohere. In fact, when the New Testament, in a soteriological context, speaks of God’s giving (didōmi) or mankind’s receiving (lambanō) pneuma, it is arguably always in reference to the person of the Holy Spirit, not an abstracted impersonal or even a human disposition.

A plausible exception is found in Ephesians 1:17, where Paul prays for the Ephesians, hina ho theos tou kuriou hēmōn Iēsou Christou, ho patēr tēs doxēs, dōē humin pneuma sophias kai apokalupseōs en epignōsei autou (“that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him”). Yet the context of this prayer does not suggest that Paul prays for a gift of human disposition, but Spirit-wrought understanding. Paul beseeches the Father to equip the Ephesian saints with spiritual discernment and intimate understanding of the depths of God’s blessings for them through Christ the Spirit (Eph. 1:17–19). This spiritual understanding comes only by the persuading and illumining power of the Spirit of Christ, by whom they are already sealed (Eph. 1:13). The petition for epistemic clarity and genuine understanding presupposes the redemptive presence of the Spirit, who blesses his people with the pneumanoetic effects of regeneration (cf. 1 Cor. 2:1–16). Paul does not pray that believers receive the gift of the Spirit whom they already have, but that they understand and embrace the gift from the Spirit of spiritual understanding. Even this passage maintains the personal, divinely spiritual meaning.

Another use of pneuma frequently interpreted as a human “spirit” appears in 2 Timothy 1:7 (NIV, KJV, NASB, ESV), yet in this text, which in many ways parallels the thrust of Romans 8:15, this anarthrous pneuma also ought to be translated “Spirit.” Paul says, ou gar edōken hēmin ho theos pneuma deilias alla dunameōs kai agapēs kai sōphronismou (“for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control”). Though translation “with a lower case s is possible (since the definite article is absent in Greek), . . . it is most highly improbable and quite misses both the relationship of this sentence to verse 6 as well as Paul’s own usage and theology elsewhere” [Gordon Fee, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, 226]. Finally, the other apparent exception occurs in Romans 11:8, where God clearly gives a spirit other than his own. This giving is one of judgment, however, not of soteriological blessing, and therefore does not alter this consistent New Testament treatment of the divine gift of the divine pneuma.

The Eschatological Spirit of the Son 

Redemption is not reducible to a philosophy, an ethic, or even a fresh perspective, precisely because God sends the Spirit of his redeeming Son into the redeemed sons. The cosmic and eschatological outpouring of the Holy Spirit at the hinge point of the ages entirely frames the salvific themes that dominate the Pauline Spirit. Without vacillating, Paul affirms that the redeemed receive this very eschatological Spirit, who is the agent of redemptive-historical change. Soteric blessing, as the gift of the covenant-keeping God, is personal. The believer is given none less than the Spirit of the Son of God.

The Holy Spirit existentially causes the Christ-union, faithfully confirms the union in the heart of the adopted son, and effectively energizes filial obedience.

The Spirit is the agent of change—cosmic, eschatological, ecclesiological, and personal. Returning to Romans 8:15–17, Paul identifies the pneuma of the Son of God as the soteric and filial source of the eschatological age and therefore also as the personal, eschatological blessing given to the adopted sons. God does not merely give the sons a demeanor; he does not dispense a positive attitude or outlook. This pneuma bestowal is neither a mystical power nor an impersonal force; he is the very person of God, the Holy Spirit of the risen Christ, the Spirit through whom believers receive the adoption. In other words, the gift from God is a person, not a personality; the Almighty and redeeming God personally sends his personal, eschatological Spirit, not merely an impersonal and subjective motivation for improvement or even a positive human response engendered by the legal blessing of justification.

Summarily, what is true in the application of redemption is true because of the accomplishment of redemption. The cosmic, redemptive-historical ministry of the Spirit grounds the soteriological blessing of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit existentially causes the Christ-union, faithfully confirms the union in the heart of the adopted son, and effectively energizes filial obedience consistent with that Christ-union. United to the eschatological Son by the eschatological Spirit, the adopted sons are called, motivated, and enabled unto obedience in this age of the new covenant: this Christological, pneumatological, and eschatological age.

This piece is adapted from David B. Garner, Sons in the Son: The Riches and Reach of Adoption in Christ, (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2016), 115–118. Used with permission of the publisher.

David Garner

Dr. Garner (PhD, Westminster) is associate professor of systematic theology and vice president for advancement at WTS.

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