What Does It Mean to Cry, ‘Abba, Father’?
We close the week with a question from me, Pastor John, about one of Paul’s most profound statements of applied theology — and it’s too often overlooked. It’s on my mind because I heard you recently explain it off-air. You were leading us in a devotional at a Desiring God Leadership Team meeting, something we do to open every meeting together. We gather and begin with a brief devotional and pray together, to focus our minds and hearts before we go on to plan and dream and make decisions.
And last time we met as a Leadership Team, you led us in a study of Galatians 4:4–7. It was a great little devotional. The guys in the room were all met pretty powerfully there, as you explained this cry: “Abba! Father!” And as soon as you were done, I was like, “Wow, I want that recorded and shared with the APJ audience.” So here we are. “Abba! Father!” What exactly is this experience? What’s happening to us — and in us? Is this “Abba! Father!” cry my own cry? Is it the Holy Spirit crying in and through me? Explain that. And then, does this text apply to struggling believers? How so? Explain all this for us on the podcast if you would.
What I have found, Tony, over the years is that being a Christian Hedonist — that is, being a person who believes that God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him — what this has done to me is make me hungry for experiential theology. In other words, I have a discontent with theology that floats in the air above my life with no connection to my living now or living forever. So, I am on high alert when I read the Bible for statements that are intensely theological and intensely experiential.
Inward, Experiential Reality
One of those texts that took hold of me months ago is Galatians 4:4–6. So let me read the text and break it into four parts, and then I’ll address some of those things you ask.
The first part: “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law . . .” So there’s the incarnation and the life of Jesus, lived perfectly under the law in fulfillment of the law.
Then the text goes on part two: “. . . to redeem those who were under the law . . .” So when Jesus died, a redemption price was paid to set free slaves of sin and death, slaves of law-keeping. A kind of legal transaction happened by which the Father satisfied all the demands of his own justice and purchased for himself a people.
Third, the text goes on: he redeemed those who were under the law “so that we might receive adoption as sons.” Now, the effect of that legal redemption, that price that was paid, was that God now legally possesses a people for himself — he bought them. They are legally his, his children. He’s adopted them, paid the necessary price for them. They are sons of God.
“Because we are legally sons, God gives us the experience of sons.”
Now, the last part, verse six: “And because you are sons” — so the legal transaction has taken place at the cross — “God has sent the Spirit of his son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’” Now, this is where that magnificent, glorious theology in the first three parts of those verses becomes intensely experiential. Until now, we have incarnation, we have redemption, we have legal transactions on the cross securing our adoption. All of that is historical, outside of us. That’s not inside of us. This is different. Now, he says, our hearts are in view — our hearts, the place of spiritual experience, the experience of perceptions and the experience of affections. Because we are legally sons, God gives us the experience of sons. The Spirit of the Son of God is sent into our hearts, and he cries in our hearts, “Abba! Father!”
Cry of Every Christian
Now that should shake everybody up and make every Christian say, “Have I experienced that? Am I real?” Now, Paul had already said just a few verses earlier: “You are all sons of God, through faith” (Galatians 3:26). So, there are at least three ways that we can talk about becoming sons of God. One, Ephesians 1:5 says, “He predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Christ Jesus.” Number two, Galatians 4:5 (we just read it) says, “. . . to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.” And third, now Galatians 3:26 says, “In Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith.”
Predestination is not an experience in the heart. Redemption is not an experience in the heart — it’s on the cross. But faith is an experience in the heart. And that’s what Paul is describing when he says that God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!”
Let’s think about this experience for just a moment. Every Christian has experienced this. And if that shakes you up and you say, “I can’t remember when I got the Spirit, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’” well, just listen carefully. Every Christian has experienced this, at least in some measure. Some of us have been so badly taught or not taught at all that we experienced this — we really did — and we had no idea what was happening to us. No one ever explained it to us. Oh, how keenly interested we should be in understanding what has happened to us to make us Christians and how we should understand our experiences as Christians. Paul is not saying that God sent the Spirit of his Son into a few special Christians — like pastors — crying, “Abba! Father!” That’s what he does to all the redeemed sons of God.
The Spirit Gives Us Our Voice
So, what is it like? What is this experience of the Spirit of the Son of God crying in our hearts, “Abba! Father!”? To answer that question, let’s bring in the really close parallel from Romans 8:15–16:
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.
In Galatians 4:5, Paul says the Spirit is poured into our hearts, he himself crying, “Abba! Father!” But in Romans 8:15, he says we have received the Spirit, and we cry, “Abba! Father!” So, is this an experience of us crying, “Abba! Father!” from our heart, or the Spirit crying, “Abba! Father!” in our heart?
And then Romans 8:16, the next verse, gives us the answer: “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are the children of God.” We don’t hear a voice inside of us saying, “Abba! Father! Abba! Father!” as though we were separate from the experience, watching it happen and then deciding whether we like it or not. That’s not at all what’s happening here. This is the Spirit of the Son of God taking possession of God’s child and giving voice.
He’s giving voice to the child, his Spirit witnessing with our spirit — a voice, our voice, inside our heart. It’s a voice of recognition, a voice of affection, a voice of joy. It says something like this: “I have God as my Father. He has paid for me. He has adopted me. He cares for me. He wants me. He loves me. He protects me. He provides for me. He has made me an heir of all that he owns. God is my Father.”
Now, the word crying — crying, “Abba! Father!” — doesn’t mean lament. I mean, in English, the word cry so often has been connected with weep. That’s not the meaning here. This is a cry of joy — unspeakable joy. It’s the same word used when the children back in the Gospel said, “Hosanna to the son of David!” (Matthew 21:15). They were crying that, and that’s the way we should hear the word crying here — not weeping, but crying, “Hosanna! Father! Abba! I can’t believe I’m a child.”
That’s the spirit of this cry. And the word abba is the Aramaic word used by Jesus himself in speaking to his Father in Mark 14:36. When Paul chooses to use this Aramaic word, taken over into Greek — it isn’t a Greek word — he takes it straight over and transliterates it in Greek as abba. When he does that, he makes clear that we are being drawn into the very experience of the Son of God. The Son of God called his Father, “Abba! Father!” and that word stuck with the early church because the Holy Spirit creates the very experience of the Son of God toward his Father in our heart so that we are sensing the same kinship with God that the Son of God has as our elder brother in the family.
So, this experience is the inner voice of the Spirit-indwelt child of God. It’s the experience of God’s Spirit causing to rise up in us a spiritual sight of God’s blood-bought, fatherly care and a spiritual taste of the sweetness of Christ’s own love for his Father. It’s the Spirit of the Son crying, “Abba! Father!” in and with our spirit.
Now, let me make one more connection that I had never seen before when I was thinking about this a while back. In John 7:37–39, Jesus stood up, and it says, he “cried out, ‘If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, “Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.”’” And then he adds this: “Now this he said about the Spirit.” So, believing is described as the thirsty soul coming to Jesus to drink. And the effect of that drinking, that believing, Jesus says in John 4:14, is that we will never be thirsty again. The water will become a spring, a spring of water, ever self-replenishing.
And then, he says in John 7:38, “No, more than a spring — a river.” And then he adds, “This is the Spirit.” This is the experience of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of the Son of God, the Spirit of the risen Son of God: the sight and the taste of God becoming our all-satisfying Father through Christ.
Word to Strugglers
So, you asked, Tony, “How does this apply to a struggling believer?” So may I put it like this? Jesus was trying to help his disciples experience the loving provision of God as their Father in Matthew 6, remember, where he said, “Don’t be anxious about anything. Your heavenly Father feeds them. Your heavenly Father knows that you need them all.”
“God is very patient with his children as they grow up into the wonders of what their adoption really means.”
He’s trying to persuade these disciples, “If you follow me, come to me, trust me, God almighty will be your all-providing Father.” And then he says, “O you of little faith” (Matthew 6:30). So, I take that to be the struggler. I mean, what else is struggle except, “I hear John Piper talk about this — I don’t know if my faith reflects what he’s just described”? That’s who I’m talking to right now. So what did Jesus say when he said, “O you of little faith”? “Get out of here I’m done with you”? Thank God he doesn’t do that. Instead, he gave them eight reasons to trust their heavenly Father. He didn’t throw them out. He named them as little-faith strugglers, and then he kept on pleading with them, “Listen to me. Listen to me. I’m talking about the birds; I’m talking about the lilies.” There are eight reasons to trust him as our Father.
So, I would say to all strugglers: Get to know what has happened to you. Get to know it. You’ve got to learn it from the Bible. You can’t learn it any other way. We can’t interpret what has happened to us if we don’t read our Bibles through and through. Get a biblical understanding of how you came to faith, because you probably don’t know how you came to faith, if nobody’s taught you truly.
Get a biblical understanding of all those emotions in your heart. You can’t even name them. You can’t describe them. You don’t know what’s going on inside of you when the Holy Spirit is stirring you up from within. God is very patient with his children as they grow up into the wonders of what their adoption really means.