By Pastor Glenn Pease
William Stidger tells this fascinating true story out of history: It was the final battle in the war between the Tartars and the Russians as they faced each other across the Oka River in 1462. For several days they were engaged in bitter fighting. Time after time the Tartar hordes tried to drive across the river, but they were thrust back. The Russians were far inferior by number, but the water of the Oka was their protection.
Then something happened that struck fear into the hearts of the Russian defenders. A cold wave swept down from the snow-clad peaks of the Ural Mountains, and the waters of the Oka began to freeze over. Once the ice was strong enough the Tartars could cross over and annihilate the Russian forces. As they sat around the camp fire talking of the advantage the enemy would soon have, and as they felt the weather getting colder and colder, their fear grew to a panic, and before midnight the whole army was fleeing back to Moscow.
The following morning when the Tartar sentries were able to look across the river, they were amazed to find that the enemy had vanished. The Tartars immediately suspected a trick. They thought that perhaps the Russians had crossed the river several miles down and were planning to attack from the rear. Uncertainty as to what the Russians were up to caused fear to spread through the camp, and in less than two hours the Tartar host had abandoned its tents, and was in full retreat. Two panic stricken armies were running from each other, both having been conquered by fear.
Fear is a great conqueror. It is one of the most universal and powerful forces that man has to contend with. Every man, even the bravest, has to fight with fear on many different fronts. We feel fear because of inadequacy. We fear people who are superior. We fear those with more education, and those with more talent. We fear those who are more widely traveled. We fear dozens of different relationships with others because of our ignorance and inadequacies. The result is that we flee in retreat and let fear defeat us and deprive us of many of life's blessings and opportunities.
Not only do we have social fears that control us, but we have bodily pain fears. Certainly it is a rare person who does not fear a heart attack every time they get a pain in the chest. We hear so much about physical problems in all age groups that we are conscious that no one is immune from serious and fatal diseases. The result is a constant weight of fear pressing down on us. Add to this the fear we have over economics. We fear inflation and depression. We fear we won't be able to afford to send our children to college. We fear a thousand different things in relation to money. When a woman says she hasn't a thing to wear she is saying that she fears to be out of style. Fear even plays a role in determining our wardrobe.
Children fear they will not win their parents affections, and parents fear they will not raise their children right. Parents fear they will not maintain their love and loyalty to each other. Everything seems to be built on shifting sand, and there is no certainty. Therefore, fear reigns, and masses go down in defeat before fear every day. We haven't even mentioned the dozens of religious and superstitious fears that fill our institutions for the mentally ill.
We quote, "I will fear no evil for thou art with me," but then we do not walk in fearlessness as we talk. We shun the conflict with the enemy like weaponless orphans. Boldness and courage are quenched by fear, and we do not witness as we ought. God says to go and conquer, but like the Israelites of old, we let our fear reign and reply that there are giants in the land. Every obstacle looks like a giant, and we feel like pigmies. I can't, I can't, is the theme song of the average Christian. What they mean is, I fear, I fear. There is no victory march of certainty ringing in their ears. They hear only the dismal dirge of doubt which holds them down.
John Masefield in The Hell-Hounds tells of a priest who let fear terrorize him into cowardice. He became faithless to his duties, and he hid himself in fear. Then he heard the message of some birds singing-
Open the door, Good saint, they cried;
Pass deeper into your soul!
There is a power in your side
Which hell cannot control.
The story is fiction, but the message is one of the most essential biblical facts that every child of God must grasp. We do not need to be controlled by fear. We have a power within that can control fear. This is one of the major messages that the Apostle Paul communicated in his letters. Here in Romans 8 he makes it so clear that none can miss it. We can be sure, and have complete certainty, and absolute assurance that deprives fear of a foothold in our lives. Uncertainty is what gives fear its power.
People are uncertain about life, its meaning, purpose, and goals. This leaves them helpless victims of fear, but Paul says the Christian can have certainty in all of these areas. We can be certain of being led by the Spirit. We can be certain of immortality of the body as well as of the Spirit. Man fears non-existence, but the Christian need not do so, for he can have assurance of eternal life. Man fears to be nobody, and to be insignificant. The Christian need not fear this, for over and over Paul says the Christian can be assured that he is a child of God. He has a place in God's family for time and eternity.
Men fear that they will have nothing to show for having lived, but Paul says the Christian can be assured of an eternal inheritance. We will be co-heirs with Christ of all the infinite riches of God. With assurance of immortality, identity, and inheritance, you would think Christians could march boldly on to victory unhindered by fear. Unfortunately, this is not the case, for what is possible is not necessarily actual.
William Adams Brown writes, "A noticeable feature of contemporary religious life is the loss of the sense of certainty." It is considered to be pride to absolutely sure of anything. Someone said that we are not even sure that we are not sure. Men are even fearful of being certain. Part of this is due to the false certainties of past. Men have been dogmatic in science and religion, and they were so sure they were right that they persecuted those who came up with something new. Certainty led to intolerance and narrowness, and a loss of freedom to pursue the truth. In reaction to this the modern man has gone to the other extreme and says that we cannot be certain of anything. The task of the Christian is to find the happy medium between these two extremes.
In the first place, the Christian must recognize that certainty is not essential in all areas. It would be interesting to know exactly who is right as to just how God created the universe. Did He do it in 7 literal days, or 7 ages? Did He do it directly, or by process? It would be interesting to know for sure, but such certainty is not necessary for effective Christian living. It is not essential for life abundant to know if the church will go through the tribulation or escape it. We can survive and even thrive with uncertainty in many areas over which Christians debate. What we need to know for sure is, are we saved, are we children of God, and do we have eternal life? If we have certainty in these areas, that is what really matters, for that gives us a solid basis from which we can fight off all the fiery darts of fear.
The second thing we must recognize is that certainty does not mean infallibility. To be certain of something does not mean you possess full knowledge of it, and can never change. Certainty is not to be confused with changelessness. I can be certain of my salvation as a child, but my account of it and its basis at that point may be radically revised as I get older, and grow in my knowledge of God's Word. Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever, but in relationship to me He is ever changing as I grow in knowledge. Yesterday Jesus may have been an enemy to a man, today a Savior, and tomorrow a Lord to be followed. Our relationship, our maturity, our knowledge causes us to be changing all the time, but through it all we can be certain that we are children of God.
Paul states it clearly in verse 16 where he says that the Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God. The value of a testimony depends upon the character of the witness. Paul says we have the highest possible witness to assure us of being children of God, and that is the Holy Spirit Himself. The Holy Spirit is the author of absolute assurance. Conversion is followed by confirmation. God does not leave His children ignorant as to their identity. What a cruel picture is suggested by those who say you cannot know you are saved. It pictures God as an irresponsible Father, who give birth to children, but never gives them a name to establish their identity. If we cannot be certain that we are children of God, then fear must reign supreme, and Christianity has nothing to offer a fear filled world. If all we have to offer is a hope-so salvation, and not a know-so salvation, we are not preaching a Gospel, but a gamble. Take a chance, and maybe you will make it, and maybe not. This leaves you yet in the grip of fear.
Christians who feel assurance is a sign of pride fail to pay attention to God's Word. If it is our spirit only that claims we are children of God then it would be pride, but Paul says there is a duel witness. Not only does our spirit bear witness, but the spirit of God bears witness with our spirit. Assurance is based on a duel witness, and it is not pride to accept the witness and testimony that God has given to empower us to overcome fear and live victoriously. It is pride to refuse the witness and power of God and seek to live in your own strength.
Many Christians develop fear even as they read this verse for the conquering of fear. They never hear any voice from heaven saying they are children of God. They never have any visions or supernatural revelations, and so they fear they lack this witness of the Spirit. What Paul is saying here is that the proof of your sonship lies in how you address God. If you call Him Father, that very fact that you can do so is the witness of the Holy Spirit that you are His child. Luther said, "Whoever believes with a firm faith and love that he is a child of God, is a child of God." The child of God addresses God as Father.
Abba Father here is really Father repeated twice. Abba is father in Aramaic, which was the language that Jesus spoke. When He taught the Lord's Prayer He doubtless said, "Our Abba who art in heaven." In Mark 14:36 Jesus prayed in Gethsemane and said, "Abba, Father, all things are possible to Thee." In Gal. 4:6 Paul uses the phrase again, "And because you are sons God has sent the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, Abba! Father!" It is universally acknowledged among Bible scholars that calling God Father is the witness of the Holy Spirit to our sonship. Even a liberal like Paul Tillich writes, "Only he who has the Spirit has the power to say Father to God." He also says, "The whole message of Christianity is contained in this statement. Christianity overcomes law and despair by the certainty that we are the children of God. There is nothing higher than this."
When even a liberal sees that assurance of salvation is the key to power over all fear, God forbid that we neglect this precious truth. If we serve God out of fear that He will punish us, this is a slave mentality, and not the spirit of sonship. If you have this attitude toward God, you are living on a sub-Christian level. Many churches in the past have encouraged this sub-Christian living by playing down the doctrine of assurance, and the witness of the Holy Spirit. If men are free and independent, and their assurance of salvation and sonship comes directly from the witness of the Spirit, they will not be dependent upon the institutional church. Therefore, to maintain a loyalty to the institution people were kept blind to the doctrine of assurance. This produced weak and ineffective Christians. Paul's approach is one that needs to be followed. You make individual Christians strong through assurance so they can conquer fear. These kinds of Christians are what make the institutional church strong.
The tragedy is that so few professing Christians have assurance of their salvation. Many times it is due to sheer ignorance of what the Bible teaches. The founders of all the major denominations made it clear in their commentaries on this 16th verse, but the people are kept in ignorance. Protestants are as much in the dark about some vital biblical subjects as are Catholics. The witness of the Spirit, and the assurance of sonship is one of the subjects.
Calvin said, "No one can be termed a son of God who does not acknowledge himself to be one." Our own spirit must bear witness that we are children of God, and then we must have the witness of the Holy Spirit which enables us to say Abba Father, or as Philip has it, "Father, my Father." John Wesley said, "This is the privilege of all the children of God, and without this we can never be assured that we are His children." If you cannot call God Father, you need to make a decision that will open your heart to God and allow you to see Him as your heavenly Father.
H. Harold Kent, and architect and preacher in Canada, bought a dog from a man just to protect him. The man beat the dog repeatedly. The dog was beautiful, but it lived in fear, and even when he first had this dog at home he would call Wolf, and he would snare and slink into a corner in fear. After a time of much love and no beatings he began to realize he was not going to be hurt, and so he began to greet him when he came home with a wagging tail. He had conquered fear by the spirit of love. He had learned that he was a member of the family. Perfect love had cast out fear. It works even in the life of a dog.
One of the main reasons the Lord's Prayer begins with Our Father is so that it might become a habit for God's children to address Him as Father. It is one of the unique aspects of Christianity that Christians call their God Father. God is called God by the billions through history, but Christians call God Father. If you do not then you have not developed one of the key ways to have assurance of your salvation. You can think of God as the Creator and the Lord of history and still be uncertain, but you cannot think of God as your Father and live in uncertainty of His love.
As Christians we need to learn that God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power, of love, and of a sound mind. We are to be assured that we are members of God's family, and this assurance will give us the victory over life's most potent fears. Let us not live on the level of I hope I am saved, or I hope I am a child of God, but let us live on the biblical level of I know. An unknown poet wrote-
What wondrous blessings overflow,
When we can truly say, I know-
I know in whom I have believed,
I know the one I have received,
I know His blood avails for me,
I know that I was blind, but see,
I know that my redeemer lives,
I know the gifts He freely gives,
I know He'll keep me to the end,
I know He's my unfailing friend.