How You Can Know You’re a Child of God

The Church at Brook Hills | Birmingham, Alabama


The following is a lightly edited transcript.

My goal is to help you who are borne of God know that you are children of God — know it beyond a shadow of a doubt, feel it in your bones, and thus walk in confidence, and boldness. “I am a child of God” — to be able to say that to yourself, to God, and to others with confidence. And not say when somebody says, “Are you a Christian?” I hope so.

I want, from the word, by the Spirit, to be an instrument in giving you the assurance of your salvation. That’s the aim.

Struggles with Doubt

Why would I talk about that? In my experience of 33 years at Bethlehem, it probably was the most common thing I prayed with people about after church. People would be unsure, and they wanted to be sure, so that’s the first reason.

I grew up in Greenville, South Carolina, in a Southern Baptist Church, and that was marked, I would say, by a vague handling of the word of God — vague in the sense that I felt like mainly I was hearing generalization about texts, rather than specificities about texts, not details about texts.

And what I’ve come to see is that where a church is fed on generalizations, and non-specificities — that the pastor kind of hovers over the text, and you never kind of land on words, and phrases, and how they connect — this hovering above the text creates uncertainty. It creates vague faith. It creates generalized faith. It creates weak faith.

People talk in generalities. Nothing’s ever quite rooted. We can’t say, “There it is. There it is. Beyond a shadow of a doubt. It’s right there.” I do not want to be that this morning. I don’t want to treat this doctrine, and this hugely emotional, critical, existential issue of, Am I going to heaven or not? with generalizations. My aim is to show you words, phrases, and logic from the inspired apostle Paul, from which you can draw out solid conviction concerning how the Holy Spirit witnesses that you are a child of God.

In my context growing up, they mainly emphasize getting people saved, not helping people know what it means to be saved. and not how to appropriate the glorious riches, that are here in the Scriptures, for knowing, feeling, and enjoying God. That was very sad, and I’m so thankful that your pastor didn’t do that.

The Spirit’s Path to Assurance

Then in the text, if you’re confident that you’re a child of God, you have an inheritance. I want to talk about the inheritance because I think that is included here to buttress and give incentive to the thrill of being a child of God. “If children, then heirs,” and I think Paul wants to open the inheritance to you, so that your confidence, and your thrill, and your boldness as a child of God would be deepened and heightened.

“If you’re led by the Spirit, you’re a child of God.”

And then Paul adds, “provided we suffer with him, in order that we may be also be glorified with him.” If somewhere you have been taught that to be a child of God is to have a great inheritance, and that you don’t have to walk through sufferings to get there, you’re going to come into crisis, because the text says you only get there through suffering. That’s what the text says.

So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but 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. 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, and if children, then heirs — heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.

First, let’s look at Romans 8:9:

You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.

So, I know beyond the shadow of a doubt that everyone in this room who belongs to Jesus has the Holy Spirit. That’s what Romans 8:9 says. I know who I’m talking to. I want to talk to those people. Those of you who don’t have the Holy Spirit — that is, who do not yet belong to Jesus — should listen because the way God saves people, and draws them into Christ, and puts the Holy Spirit in them, is by hearing the gospel. Faith comes by hearing, and so I’m eager for everybody to listen.

My aim is to talk to those who have the Holy Spirit, and thus belong to Jesus, and open for you what he does in Romans 8:16.

The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.

Clearly, he wants you to know — to have assurance. Woe to those religions that keep their people off balance, to manipulate them with fear. He wants to know. He wants you to be congregation full of people rock-solid and ready to die for Jesus because they know. That’s why you have the Holy Spirit. “The Spirit himself bears witness with our Spirit that we are the children of God,” and my question is, How does he do it?

Two Ways the Spirit Assures

My guess is that the how of the Holy Spirit’s working, ensuring the children of God that they are his own his richer, fuller, and deeper than we can imagine. But my job is not to just imagine. My job is to point to the text’s answer as to how he does it, and I see two things in this text that explain how he does it. And as I show you those, you should be asking, Are those happening in my life?

Kill Sin by the Spirit

The first way is seen in the connection between verses 13 and 14. Romans 8:13: “If you live according to the flesh” — if your life is keying off of the non-spirit, the non-God, just the impulses that come naturally, apart from the Holy Spirit, apart from the word of God — “you will die” — you will perish, you will go to hell. Alternatively, “if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.”

Let’s make sure we understand the two halves now. You’ve got the Holy Spirit, enabling you to make war on your sinful impulses, and if you are making war on them and sending death blows at your sinful impulses, by the Spirit — not legalistically — then the other half is you’re going to live.

Led by the Spirit

Then Paul gives a reason in Romans 8:14: “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are the sons of God.” That is how the Holy Spirit shows me I’m a child of God. It says, “Everybody who is led by the Spirit is a child of God.” Now I know how I can know if I’m a child of God: Am I being led by the Spirit? If I’m being led by the Spirit, I’m a child of God. That’s what it says.

“To know you’re a Christian, you have to know how bad you are.”

Does it mean being led to marry the right person? Being led to go to the right school? Being led to have the right job? Being led to witness to somebody this afternoon? No, it doesn’t mean that. How do I know that? Because the for at the beginning of the verse connects it to the preceding verse, and makes it a ground of, “if you put to death the deeds of the body by the Spirit, you will live.” Because if you’re led by the Spirit, you’re a child of God.

That’s not readily obvious how that works. It wasn’t to me, anyway. How does that because or that for at the beginning of verse 14 work to support verse 13? How does that work? That’s the essence of Bible reading. I’m so thankful for Mrs. Adams in the seventh grade. All we did was diagram sentences. I learned everything I know about the English language in the seventh grade. That’s an overstatement, but I feel deep gratitude that I’m now enjoying the assurance of my salvation, partly because of Mrs. Adams’s sentence diagramming.

I totally mean that, and will write a book next February to support it. That’s the plan, anyway. Because if I don’t understand how the for at the beginning of verse 14 works, I won’t know what it means to be led by the Spirit, and thus enjoy the assurance that I’m a child of God.

Evil Deeds Are Dead

If you put to death the deeds of the body by the Spirit, you will live because all who are led by the Spirit are the children of God. For that to work as an argument, it must mean the reason you will live is because you’re being led, and if you’re led, you’re a child of God, and the children of God don’t die and go to hell. They go to heaven. They live. If you put to death the deeds of the body by the Spirit, you’ll live because those who are led by the Spirit are children of God, and they don’t die. They live. And therefore, what does leading mean? It means led into war with sin.

Are you with me? I just made a huge conclusion. It shapes everything about how I understand this. If you put to death the deeds of the body by the Spirit, you will live because those who are led into war on their sin — by the Spirit — are children, and children live. That’s how the logic works. So now I know what leading means in verse 14. It’s not about whom you marry. That’s nowhere near the context here. The context is, if you are led by the Spirit, you make war on your sin. One of the beautiful, deep, rich, wonderful evidences of the work of the Holy Spirit that you are a child of God is that you hate your sin and make war on it.

And notice how I’m saying it: I am not telling you that you need any particular level of success. I checked again in the Greek this morning. These are present tenses, meaning ongoing, continuous action. If you live according to the flesh, you’ll die. If you stay in sin, just settle in there, make peace with your flesh, live according to the devil, you’re going to go to hell. But if by the Spirit you are continually putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live forever because those who are led to do that are the children of God.

What does a witness do? He gives evidence. He might have been there at the crime scene, and say, “I saw it,” or he might be some expert in DNA, and he’s testifying in the courtroom and the jury is supposed to put all that together. The Holy Spirit is giving evidences that you are a child of God, and the first evidence I’m pointing to is: you make war on your sin.

Fight Your Own Battle

Notice I’m not saying you make war on other people’s sin. I don’t mean you saying, “What’s happened to America? I hate all this liberal stuff that’s going on in America. And I know I’m a Christian because I got my back up about this.” Not necessarily. You better get your back up about your attitude toward your wife. You better get your back up about your sloth as a dad. You better get your back up about your lust, and your pornography, and about your lying, and about your cheating, and you better be your issue.

The mark of the presence of the Holy Spirit in your life, showing you’re a child of God is: Do you hate your sin more than you hate other people’s sin? This is not hard. John Piper looks in the mirror, and I know I’m a sinner. Praise God, I hate that sight. It’s horrible and wonderful at the same time. To know you’re a Christian, you have to know how bad you are, and hate it, and turn, and by the Spirit, make war on your sin. The Spirit bears witness that we are the children of God by leading us into war, killing on our sin, our own sin, and thus a clear mark that rises up in my heart and testifies to me: You’re saved. You hate your sin, and are taking steps to kill it.

Of course, if you love your sin, have no intention of making war on it, you don’t have any assurance. I’m not going to make this easy. This is reality. We’re talking about reality here. In a sense that’s the easiest thing in the world, to know I’m a bad person. It’s easy to know how horrible you are. It’s if you are willing.

Cry “Abba! Father!”

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!” 16 The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.

The Spirit leads us to kill and our sin, and he leads us to cry, “Abba! Father!” Now I’m going to ask, *Do you find, daily, regularly, welling up from deep in your soul, a cry, “Abba, Father”? Then you’re a Christian. That’s the Holy Spirit talking, to which skeptics should respond, and I’m one, you can program a computer to say, “Abba, Father.” What kind of evidence is that? Don’t mock the Bible, but do ask serious questions. If you don’t understand it, ask.

Not Just Verbal

There are two clues for me here, why this doesn’t mean the mere ability to verbalize those words. Clue number one is the word Abba. Paul could have just said Father. Why put that Aramaic, tender, intimate, sweet, daddy-like word at the front of the word Father? Why do that? Because that’s what he means for you to know in your heart. Do you know that? In other words, is that what’s coming up?

“With Christ, we will inherit the earth, and we will get God himself.”

The second clue is the word cry. He could have said say. You can’t program a computer to cry. I think the word cry is intended to carry an emotional authenticity, depth, sincerity, and earnestness. Does there rise up from within you an earnest, sincere, intense longing, expression, not just to some vague father figure, but to: Daddy, I need you. I love you. Help me.

Imagine you have a thirty-year-old son, who’s left the home, left the faith, left everything, — prodigal-like —and he’s dying of cancer. You haven’t seen him for ten years, and you hear about it, and you go to see him. You walk in the hospital room, and he opens his eyes and says, “Daddy, I’m sorry.” That’s what we’re talking about. That’s the Holy Spirit. Has that ever happened to you? “I need a Father. You, through Jesus Christ, have opened your heart to me, and I am finding everything in me rising up and saying, “Abba, Father.” Only Christians experience that.

Authentic, Earnest Cry

Here’s another illustration to show you that that’s the way Paul’s thinking. First Corinthians 12:3:

Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking in the Spirit of God ever says “Jesus is accursed!” and no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except in the Holy Spirit.

That’s just another example of the very same kind of witness of the Holy Spirit. No one can say Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit. No one can say earnestly, intensely, authentically, from the heart, “Jesus is my Lord.” It’s the same thing as saying, “I hate my sin. Join me in war, Master Jesus.” Those are my two answers. How does the Holy Spirit bear witness in your life, that you are the child of God?

  1. He leads you. All who are led by the Spirit are the children of God. Contextually, what is the leadership referring to? It’s referring to verse 13 because of the connector for, and the thing that is referred to in verse 13 is by the Spirit we are making war. We are putting to death the deeds of the body. Therefore, you can know you’re a child of God if you hate your sin and make war on it.

  2. The Spirit testifies with our spirit we’re children of God by welling up, and crying, “Abba! Father! You’re my father. I need you. I love you. I depend on you. What would I do without you?”

That’s how we know we are children of God, and if children, then heirs — heirs of God, and fellow heirs with Christ.

What Will We Inherit?

Children of God, what are you going to inherit? Do you have a clear sense of your inheritance? Let me tell you three things you’re going to inherit, and as you hear them, let them entice you out of sin, and out of indifference to the fatherhood of God, into hatred of sin, and an intense cry to God as your Father.

Win the World

You are going to inherit the world. Romans 4:13:

For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith.

And then we need to read that alongside Galatians 3:29:

And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.

This is called putting the pieces together, right? If you belong to Jesus, you are Abraham’s offspring because you’re united to Christ, who is the offspring. And therefore, you get the inheritance Abraham gets, and it’s the world.

One of the reasons I don’t like the prosperity gospel is because it just gets the timing wrong. They say you should get the world now, and I say, later. Your best life later. Suffering now, the world at the resurrection. First Corinthians 3:21–23:

So let no one boast in men. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future — all are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.

All things belong to you, Christians. Christians need to take a deep breath and believe the impossible. You walk through life here in Alabama, and everything feels so absolutely ordinary. You feel really ordinary (and you are) but ordinary people indwelt by the Spirit, and united to Christ, are going to be heirs, are heirs of everything.

You’ll own Alabama, Russia, Australia. Where would you like to go? Name it and it’s yours. You don’t need to grasp it, crave it, claw to have, and have, and have. You know that message in this church, but oh, that you would feel the unspeakable wonder of this inheritance because it will make you enjoy being a child of God, and it will heighten and deepen your boldness, and your readiness to speak and suffer.

Get God

Second, God is your inheritance. Romans Chapter 5:2:

We exult in the hope of the glory of God.

If you want to have an inheritance that is minus all tears, minus all disease, and minus all frustrations, and minus God, you’re not a Christian. God will be in this world, making the world what it is, and the world will be a means of enjoying God, and God will make the world enjoyable without idolatry. He’s the key to everything, and so it says in 5:2, “We exult in the hope of the glory of God.

And if you say, “Well, maybe the glory of God and God are different things, and so it’s really glory and not God that is our inheritance,” I just say that we keep reading down to Romans 5:11 and other texts:

More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.

Behold the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God Himself will be with them as their God. (Revelation 21:3)

Whom have I in heaven but you?    And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail,    but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. (Psalm 73:25)

With Christ, we will inherit the earth, and we will get God himself as the capstone of all our pleasures. Even though sin tells you that you find most pleasure in stuff, you don’t. You are a personal soul, and persons and relationships are where you find most deep satisfaction. God is that person for which we are made to enjoy.

Receive Resurrected Bodies

And the third and last thing I’ll mention about the inheritance is that you will have, as part of your inheritance, a glorified body. I’m looking to the near context of Romans for these inheritances, and just a few verses down in Romans 8:23 we read,

And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.

That’s why I’m not a prosperity, health and wealth person. I’m waiting for that future reality. I’m waiting. At 69 years old, the waiting gets more intense, right? It’s just physically downhill from here. Doesn’t matter how much I jog, how far I bike, it’s downhill.

“Right now, every enjoyment I have on the earth tempts me to be an idolater.”

I read again this morning that the body “is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power (1 Corinthians 15:43). Visit a nursing home if you’re naïve, all right? It makes you want to say, “God, these are your children.” And he says, “I know they’re my children. And in just a few days, they’ll be in glory with a new body” — a new body that according to Jesus, will shine so bright like the sun, we will be tempted to worship those old ladies in the nursing home. Yes, we will. They will shine with such queenlike brightness in the kingdom with their new bodies someday that we will marvel. And by the way, they will remember your visits, and thank you.

Those are my three descriptions of the inheritance. You’re going to get the world. You’re going to get God, and you’re going to get a glorified body. And when I say it’s glorified, I mean that it is made a spiritual body and a glorious body, so that God can be fully enjoyed, and the world can be fully enjoyed, without compromising God being fully enjoyed. Right now, every enjoyment I have on the earth tempts me to be an idolater, right? I could prefer sex over God, money over God, pizza over God, Diet Coke over God. Everything is a threatening idol. That won’t be true anymore.

There’s no idolatry in the kingdom, not even the slightest temptation toward it. Every bite you take will be worship. Eat up! But you need a new body for that, new brains, new eyes, new ears, new everything. You’re going to be remade for that. That is the inheritance.

Suffer with Him

And if children, then heirs — heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. (Romans 8:17)

What does that mean? Let’s look at a few other texts to help us.

And he said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23)

So, if you want to follow Jesus, it involves cross-bearing.

Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted. (2 Timothy 3:12)

“For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.” It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? (Hebrews 12:6–7)

But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. (1 Peter 4:13)

So, is Paul saying I have to get some persecution to go to heaven? Then I could say to you, when you leave here, just make sure you go find somebody to treat you badly. If you get treated badly this afternoon, you sleep well tonight, because you can know you’re a Christian.”

I don’t think that’s the way Paul’s thinking. I don’t. I don’t think a strategy for assurance is to seek out persecution. The text might look like that. If you suffer with him, you will be glorified with him, and if the suffering means persecution, you got to get some, or you can’t be glorified. Here’s why I don’t think he’s thinking that way. Because the next verse says,

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.

So the question is, What’s that? That’s the same suffering as Verse 17, right? He didn’t just start over again. What are those? To get that answer, you just read the paragraph.

For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. (Romans 8:19–23)

That’s not persecution. That’s the rotting of John Piper’s body. That’s kidney failure. That’s loss of eyesight. That’s loss of hearing. That’s the degradation of the glorious creation because of the fall. Then you get to the part about groaning in our bodies, waiting for our adoption. When Paul says, “Provided we suffer with him,” the emphasis falls on with him. Everybody’s going to suffer. Are you willing to stay with Jesus through all your suffering?

“I love him because he loves me — far more than I love myself.”

You’re going to suffer, folks. Period. I don’t care how rich you are. You can’t run from it. You’re going to suffer. The question is: Will you do it with him? Will all your suffering be sanctified by the conscious confidence: “This, for me, is discipline from my Father, to knock all the props of self-reliance out from under my life, so that I lean wholly on him.”

That was my answer to the question, Why would he do this? Why would he make suffering the necessary path to the inheritance? Here’s the reason: because if we fallen people were not brought into trial, after trial, after trial, I would fall ever more deeply in love with the eases, and comforts, and prosperity, and delights physically of my life, and forget God. That’s why. He knows us. He’s a Father. He disciplines all of his children. He knows a therapy that you need in order to make it to the inheritance, and the therapy is different for everybody.

John Piper’s suffering regimen is different from yours. I don’t like mine, but I do not get angry at my God. I have a doctor who must break my leg to save me, or amputate it, because it’s got cancer, and I love my surgeon. I love him because he loves me — far more than I love myself.

So yes, if we suffer with him, if we don’t shake our fist in his face and say, “I’m out of here if this is the way you treat your children. I’m out of here.” If you say that, you’re gone. It’s over. But if you say, “Father, Daddy, I hate my sin more than I hate losing these pleasures. Have at me, Daddy. Surgeon, Daddy.” Then you can know.