Romans 8: Reading with Thomas Brooks
“For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. 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.” – Romans 8:14-16
Paul has been leading us higher and higher into the refreshing atmosphere of Romans 8, and for the past couple of verses we’ve seen the astounding truth that all those who have the Spirit of God (i.e., believers) are also able to know that they are sons of God (vs. 14). Or, to put it in a way that keeps with the logic of what Paul has been arguing: how do I know I am a child of God? You will know it if you have the Spirit of God. Well, how do I know I have the Spirit of God? Paul tells us that “if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live, for all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God” (vs. 13-14). In other words, are you putting to death sin in your life? Are you pursuing holiness? Do you loathe and feel remorse over your sin? Then this is evidence that you are filled with God’s Spirit and therefore evidence that you are a child of God.
But now in verses 16 we see Paul take us a step even higher, and from that better vantage point he gives us an even deeper sense of encouragement and assurance. So first, notice the way in which Paul describes the ministry of the Holy Spirit. He is said to “bear witness with our spirit that we are children of God.” Now, to be sure, Paul has already said something like this in Romans 5 verse 5, where we’re told, “God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” Thus, we see an internal witness which the Spirit works in those who are saved by Christ. He makes us to know God’s love and He reassures us of our adoption, which is another way of saying we know that God loves us as a Father.
Secondly, we cannot separate what Paul says here in verse 16 from what he’s just told us in verse 15. There we see that all those who “have received the Spirit of adoption as sons,” also “cry, “Abba! Father!” (vs. 15). In other words, there’s an intimate connection between knowing the love of God as Father and praying to God as Father. Perhaps we can state the connection this way: the evidence of being a child of God, and thus the fruit of knowing God’s love to you, is seen in our prayer life. The Christian is that person who cannot but go to God in prayer. Prayer for the child of God is like breathing; without it we die.
This is especially seen in private prayer, or what the Puritans termed prayerful prayer; really wrestling with God till there’s a spiritual sweat, kind of prayer. This isn’t the same as “saying your prayers” where you rattle off your routine and rote prayers, recycling the same over-used phrases and tropes which allow you to merely check off the box of duty entitled prayer. Paul speaks of prayer here as “crying, Abba, Father!” It’s a crying out, a heartfelt plea. It’s the kind of prayer which looks like a young child running to her daddy after she’s just been humiliated at school and only her dad can bring the kind of comfort she needs in that moment.
As the Puritan Thomas Brooks commented, private prayer is of first importance when it comes to any kind of praying or religious duty, “for secret prayer... prepares and fits the soul for family prayer, and for public prayer.” In fact, says Brooks, “the command [to pray in private] sends us as well to the closet as well as to the church; and he is a real hypocrite that chooses the one and neglects the other... He that puts on a religious habit abroad to gain himself a great name among men, and at the same time lives as an atheist at home, shall at the last be uncovered by God and presented before all the world for a most outrageous hypocrite.” In other words, the stakes are high. Private prayer is essential to the Christian life for it is private prayer which both evidences and assures us of our adoption as children of God. But how?
Listen again to Brooks as he encourages us to constant private prayer. “Frequency begets familiarity, and familiarity confidence. We can go freely and boldly into that friend’s house whom we often visit. What we are in the habit of doing, we do with ease and delight. A man who is in the habit or accustomed to write, to read, to ride, to run, or to play on this or that musical instrument, does it all with delight and ease; and so does a man who is in the habit of closet prayer. He will manage it with delight and ease.” And we can add, the man who is in the constant habit of prayer is the man who knows God to be his Father. And it is in this way that we see the practical outworking of how “the Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.”
To be sure, this practical outworking of the Spirit at work within us is what conforms us to the actions of our Savior, who as the true Son of God, was always praying to his Father. Throughout the gospels we see him, “rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, and he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed” (Mark 1:35). Jesus, the Eternal Son, was fond of praying alone and communing with His Father. Consider how Matthew emphasizes Christ’s aloneness in Matthew 14:13: “He sent the crowds away, He went up on the mountain by Himself to pray; and when it was evening, He was there alone.”
Jesus’ example is a good reminder that in his earthly ministry he was so dependent upon his Father and sought Him constantly in prayer that upon further reflection we can’t help but ask ourselves: are we so self-sufficient that we need not seek our Father in private prayer like Christ? No, the example we see in Jesus ought to convict us of any lack of duty or zeal. As Mark Jones comments on Jesus’ prayer life, “Christ does not expect his people to carry out directives that he was not prepared himself to observe. This includes a vigorous prayer life in dependence upon God.” Indeed, a vigorous prayer life is evidence of God’s Spirit at work within believers!
“For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. 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” (Romans 8:14-16).
O that you would find your heart more and more stirred to commune with God in real heartfelt prayer. During that season of COVID-19 “quarantine” there was a silver-lining in the fact that we were all quite deprived of all those usual distractions which keep us from prayer. I certainly found myself praying more. But alas, as the world has opened back up, perhaps we find ourselves falling back into those old distractions, feeding our spirit not with the assuring witness of the Holy Spirit through His word and prayer, but with the pleasures of this world, bearing witness that perhaps we’re more children of this world than we are of God? May it never be!
Dear saint, devote time to doing nothing but praying to God. Hear from him as you read His word, but pray to Him out of what his word promises. Plead your Father’s promises back to him. What God declares and promises you in Scripture, bring to him in prayer. This is the kind of prayer which our Lord loves. Indeed, this is the kind of relationship a child enjoys with his or her Father.
Stephen Unthank (MDiv, Capital Bible Seminary) serves at Greenbelt Baptist Church in Greenbelt, MD, just outside of Washington, DC. He lives in Maryland with his wife, Maricel and their two children, Ambrose and Lilou.
 Thomas Brooks, The Secret Key to Heaven, (The Banner of Truth Trust, 2009), p. 1-2.
 Ibid., p. 274.
 Mark Jones, Knowing Christ, (The Banner of Truth Trust, 2016), p. 94.