Indebted Sons and Heirs of God

A sermon on Romans 8:12-17a by Coty Pinckney, Desiring God Community Church, Charlotte, NC 5/4/03

If Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness.  11 If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you. 12 So then, brethren, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh-- 13 for if you are living according to the flesh, you must die; but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live. 14 For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God. 15 For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, "Abba! Father!" 16 The Spirit Himself testifies to our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ (Romans 8:10-17a)

What picture comes to your mind when you hear the words “heirs of God” and “fellow heirs with Christ”? A picture more or less the equivalent of “heirs of Bill Gates” – and thus a picture of enormous wealth? A picture of jewels and gold and fancy clothes?

When does an heir receive the benefits his inheritance? Isn’t it when the owner dies? So if we are heirs of an immortal being, heirs of God – is there a benefit for us?

I assure you, the benefits of being an heir of God are great – millions of times greater than the benefits of being the heir of Bill Gates! But because being the heir of God is completely different from being the heir of the legendary deceased rich uncle, we need to consider the biblical evidence carefully to figure out what Paul means here.

Indeed, there are three key terms in this passage that apply to all true believers. We can look at each and apply the term to ourselves:

All the terms are interrelated and all are confusing, to some extent, for although they are parallel in some ways to our earthly usage, they also differ in important ways. We’ll use these three descriptions of our position before God as our outline as we try to understand both what Paul means, and why this is important for our lives as individuals and as a church. So after reminding ourselves of what we saw last week and looking at the structure of the passage, we’ll follow three headings:

The Biblical Context

Recall that last week we asked ourselves the question: Can a Christian lose his salvation?

The answer clearly is “No”, but then we asked a second question:

Is there ever a point at which sin should cause a professing believer to question whether or not he is saved?

This is question raised by chapter 7: a professing Christian finds himself in sin. Should he question his standing before God?

Paul gives us an incredibly balanced and carefully nuanced answer: There is NO condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus! But those who are in CJ will walk according to the Spirit, not according to the flesh. He tells us that thinking you are a Christian does not mean you are one, just as thinking you are the fastest man in the world does not mean you are.

During the last 2 weeks we have studied three questions that Paul tells us to ask ourselves as tests to see if we are in the faith:

If we can say that our minds are set on the things of the Spirit, if we know we have the Spirit within us, if we are responding to sin by killing it, then we can have confidence that we are in the faith, and thus face no condemnation for our sins.

Look again at v13.

13 for if you are living according to the flesh, you must die; but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live.

This verse brings to a conclusion this theme of the struggle between the flesh and the spirit. The turning point becomes clear when we consider the common words in each section of this passage. The words “flesh,” “body,” “death,” and “dead” appear 19 times in 7:24-8:13 (15 verses); they only appear 3 times in 8:14-39 (26 verses: see 23, 36, and 38), and even those three times are in much different contexts.

But if v13 is the conclusion of a theme, v12 is actually the point at which Paul begins the new theme. Verse 13 is almost a parenthesis – an exceptionally important parenthesis, but a parenthesis nonetheless.

To see this, look back at verse 12:

So then, brethren, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh

This sentence is incomplete – and Paul never completes it. He explains in v 13 why we are not debtors to the flesh, but he never says to whom we are indebted. He must have thought the answer to be so obvious he didn’t need to say it!

So how should we complete the sentence? “We are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh, but to blank to live according to blank.”

How would you fill in the blanks? The second blank is easy for anyone who has read the entire passage. Time and again “flesh” is contrasted with “Spirit,” - see verses 4, 5, 6, and 9 – and in verses 4 and 5 Paul explicitly contrasts living/walking according to the flesh with living/walking according to the Spirit. So the complete thought should read, “We are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh, but to blank to live according to the Spirit.”

What about the first blank? There are two possible choices here: “God” or “Spirit”. Verse 11 helps us to see that “God” is the better choice:

If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.

Who raised Jesus from the dead? This verse pictures God as the actor and the Spirit as the instrument He uses in that action. Verse 12 is thus best understood to continue that idea – and thus the full thought of verse 12 is:

“We are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh, but to God, to live according to the Spirit.”

After the parenthesis of verse 13, he then explains this thought in verse 14:

14 For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God.

This verse explains why we are debtors, why we are obligated to God: Because we are His sons!

Is that clear? Clear as mud, probably! In what sense are sons indebted to their father? Surely they aren’t expected to pay him back for all their meals! So let’s figure out what Paul means by “debtor” here.

The Debts of Sons

Paul says, “We are debtors to God, because we are sons of God.”

Is a child indebted to his parents? Are my six children indebted to Beth and me?

Surely the answer is yes – but not in the usual way the term “debtor” is used in the financial world.

If I have a financial debt, I am both morally and legally obligated to repay it. Consider my mortgage with CitiMortgage. If I quit sending in house payments, Citimortgage will initially send me a late payment notice and charge me a fine; then they will send more threatening letters. And eventually they will get the courts to throw me out of the house. I must repay that debt according to the schedule we agreed upon. Upon buying our house, we signed papers saying that $100,000 today is worth much more than that in payments over the next 30 years – and we must pay until the scales are balanced: my payments of principal must eventually equal the amount I borrowed.

A child’s debt to his parents is not like that. How is Jonathan indebted to Beth and me? He is indebted to treat us with love and respect; he should honor us; but there is no balancing going on.  Beth is not keeping accounts, saying: “OK, Jonathan, rubbing my feet tonight makes up for two dinners I prepared for you. You have 45,236 more dinners to make up for.” No. Jonathan is obligated; all his life he will be obligated to us; he will never be able to burn the mortgage, so to speak, to end the obligation; and he doesn’t have to. This is an obligation growing out of a family relationship, not a financial transaction.

Just so between God and us. We are obligated to Him, we are indebted to Him, but we cannot pay Him back – indeed, even to think that in any way we can pay Him back is an affront to Him. He is the giver.

Another analogy that is germane to the text might be helpful here. Paul has used courtroom imagery here: “There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus”; “the righteous requirement of the law is fulfilled in us”. God is pictured as the judge who pays the penalty and sets you free.

Now, if that happened to you, if a human judge did that for you, you would be under obligation to him. But consider the difference between that picture and another one:

You are a poor, sick, helpless child in an orphanage. A couple comes and adopts you into their family. How are you obligated to those parents, and how is that obligation different from the obligation to the judge who sets you free?

The obligation to adopted parents is not only different in MAGNITUDE, it is a completely different KIND of obligation. You are obligated to love your parents, to live a life worthy of being their child; you have no such obligation to the judge.

So I believe Paul here moves from legal language to familial language to emphasize the completely different type of obligation we are under: An obligation, yes, to live according to the Spirit, but we do this NOT in an attempt to pay God back, but because, like the adopted child, we are obligated to live like we really are children of our adopted parents.

Thus, our obligation to God to live according to the Spirit is an obligation of relationship, not of legal transaction

This idea of debt or obligation arising out of relationship – in contrast to an impersonal legal or financial debt - is used elsewhere in Romans.

13:8 Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.

15:1 We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves.

Both of these obligations come about because we are one with each other, we are similarly saved by grace. Just so our obligation/debt to God is not that which results from the benefits he gave us in a legal sense, but his making us His sons!

We are sons, we are part of the intimate family of God – and thus we have an obligation to behave as sons, to live according to the Spirit.


Look at verse 15:

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!"

This verse explains how we are sons, strengthening the emphasis in the preceding verse on the relationship we have with the Father. We are not fearful slaves, but dear, adopted sons who call out to our Daddy!

How is a slave different from a son? In many ways, but let me highlight two:

First, a slave has a different RELATIONSHIP than the son: he is family instead of property. The son is confident that the father has best interest at heart. So he will trust the father, even when what the father asks or does may not look like it is in the son’s best interest. A slave, on the other hand, sees that the master is using him for the MASTER’s best interest. Thus he will be fearful that the master will act contrary to the slave’s best interest – causing him to miss out on the benefits of life. He can have no confidence that the master will arrange matters for his interest.

Second, a slave has a different MOTIVATION for work. The son is motivated through his obligation to love and honor the family, to do good for those who have done so much for him. The slave, on the other hand, is under no such obligation. His motivation for work is primarily the fear of punishment.

Understanding the difference between a slave and a son is key to understanding the difference between being religious and being a believer.

One can be very religious, in any religion, and have no relationship to God. This is true whether we are talking about animism, Islam, Hinduism, or pseudo-Christianity. One may participate in religious rituals time and again trying to placate the gods, trying to balance your good and evil deeds, trying to make sure your enemies don’t use the gods against you. Basically, you are then like the slave: working to avoid punishment, fearful that without your work, the gods will harm you.

But as sons of God, we have a completely different relationship and thus a completely different motivation for all that we do.

How do we know that we are sons of God? Look at verse 16:

The Spirit Himself testifies to our spirit that we are children of God

(Your translation may say “testifies with our spirit”. The Greek verb has a prefix that normally connotes “with”, but by the time of Paul its usage had broadened so that frequently it no longer had that connotation. The translation thus could go either way, so we must look at the context. Surely our spirit has no authority to tell us we are children of God – the first part of chapter clearly implies that some are self-deceived about their status before God. So “to”, I believe, is the better translation.)

This verse emphasizes once again the intimate relationship between God and us. This Spirit is an indwelling presence; part of God Himself is within us. We are not victims of an arbitrary God. We are not forgotten creatures on a planet set in motion eons ago and left to its fate. We are not financial debtors trying to balance the books, trying to earn enough credits to offset our debts before we die.

Instead, we are SONS, indwelt by the Spirit of God Himself, empowered by Him, enabled by Him to call out “You are my Daddy!”

Heirs of God

Look now at verse 17:

and if children, then heirs- heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ

There is so much we could say under this heading. In the New Testament, there is much more written about our being heirs even than about our being children of God.

So in the brief time we have left I want us to focus on the central point: What does “heirs of God” mean? What is it that we inherit? We’ll then draw one implication.

So what does “heirs of God” mean? Our inheritance is described with many different phrases in the New Testament:

Consider this last one, as Matthew records Jesus’ statement in 19:29

And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name's sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life.

We will inherit eternal life. And what is eternal life?:

John 17:3 And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.

Now, remember what we said at the beginning about inheriting something from a person who never dies? At first glance, it would seem that if your rich uncle never dies, you will never receive the benefit of your inheritance. But if your inheritance, eternal life, is knowing God Himself – then the only way you receive and continue to enjoy the inheritance is if He never dies!

That is the key to understanding - this is not a normal inheritance! Your inheritance is GOD and CHRIST JESUS Himself! He cannot die, He need not die, for HIS presence with us IS the inheritance.

You might ask, “But I thought you said we are to inherit all things?” Indeed, but all that is trivial compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus our Lord, of seeing Him face to face, of dwelling in His house, of gazing at His beauty.

Listen to how John describes this in Revelation:

Revelation 21:3-7 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "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. 4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away." 5 And he who was seated on the throne said, "Behold, I am making all things new." Also he said, "Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true." 6 And he said to me, "It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment. "He who overcomes will inherit these things, and I will be his God and he will be My son.

What are the “these things” we inherit? The whole emphasis of the passage is on the presence and tender care of God Himself, the benefits of having Him as our God, of being His sons, of being satisfied with Him, of drinking freely from His spring of the water of life (see John 4:14). God Himself is our inheritance.


Consider how understanding our inheritance impacts our life in the case of a major loss. Pick out a sports figure, actor, famous businessman, or politician: someone who is wealthy and also, as far as you know, is a wonderful person. Keep that person in mind: let’s call him or her your very rich hero.

Now imagine that you are in your early 20’s; both parents are dead; you have no siblings; you are scraping by: working at MacDonald’s, driving a 1988 Civic with 200,000 miles.

Then one day you receive a letter from that very rich hero, saying:

Dear friend:

An investigation has shown me that it is likely your mother and my mother were first cousins. I have heard of your hardship, and I want to invite you to come and meet me. I’ll be at the penthouse suite at the Hilton in Manhattan all month; come whenever you can. I want to give you an initial gift of $10,000,000; more than that, I invite you, if you choose, to come and live with me. I look forward to meeting you.

Sincerely Yours,

Your Very Rich Hero

So you pack quickly, and about midnight that very evening, you get in your Civic and start driving. But about noon the next day, when you are near the Newark airport, a few miles from Manhattan, you hear a pop, steam starts billowing out from under your hood, and you notice that the temperature gauge has gone up into the red zone. So you pull over and stop. You open the hood, and what you see is not pretty. This car is not going anywhere.

Now, how do you react? Do you say, “Oh, my Civic! my Civic! How can I live without my Civic?” Do you wail and cry, and get all depressed? Do you lie down in the back seat and say, “Oh, I just don’t think I can make it any longer!”?

No! You say, “I have 10,000,000 dollars and a very rich hero awaiting me a few miles from here – I can walk there if I have to in a few hours. Goodbye Civic – Very rich hero, here I come!”

Do you see the point? Our inheritance, our relationship as sons of God – these are so much greater than $10,000,000 and the chance to live with a very rich hero. And these are ours! We belong to Him!  But how often do we fret and worry and become depressed or angry because something goes wrong with our Civic – the possessions and life we have here. 


Debtors, Sons, Heirs. In normal usage, you can be a debtor and have no personal relationship with your creditor. That could possibly be the case with an heir also. But we have seen today that in our passage, all three terms refer specifically to our relationship to God as sons, to personal relationships. How is your personal relationship with God?

Test yourselves: Does the Spirit testify to your spirit that you are child of God? Do you delight in Him? Or does the prospect of sharing eternity with Him sound boring? Do you want His gifts more than you want Him – His riches, His watchcare, His healing – do you want these more than you want to know Him?

Look one last time at verse 17: we are heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ. FELLOW HEIRS with Christ! God’s riches and love come ONLY through Christ – He is our fellow heir, and He Himself is our reward. Oh, how I hope and pray that Desiring God Community Church would be a church where we savor Jesus Christ, where we seek Him day by day, where we spur each other on to love Him more and more, where, seeing the value of what we have in Him, we take loss and the problems of this life in stride.

So cast yourself on His mercy. Say, “Oh, Lord Jesus, forgive my rebellion against you, my valuing other things more than you, my allowing my mind to be set on the worries and frets of this world! Save me by your grace! Renew my mind! Put your Spirit within me, and help me to rightly value the inheritance you offer – the inheritance of you yourself.

This sermon was preached at Desiring God Community Church in Charlotte, NC on 5/4/03.

Copyright © 2003, Thomas C. Pinckney. This data file is the sole property of Thomas C. Pinckney. Please feel free to copy it in written form, but only in its entirety for circulation freely without charge. All copies of this data file must contain the above copyright notice.

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