Ken Totton, Cambridge, England
In biblical thought, adoption means the acceptance into the family of someone who does not by nature belong there. Whilst the New Testament often describes believers’ incorporation into God’s family by the new birth (or regeneration), and subsequent spiritual growth, adoption points to a distinct truth. Both lines of teaching emphasize the grace of God, but adoption has in view the entry of sons into the full status, dignity, privilege, and inheritance conferred by the Father.
As we review the teaching associated with this important term, we discover the wonder of God’s gracious eternal purposes in elevating us into an utterly undeserved position and condition of blessing and honour to enable us to express His character, and one day to share His glory.
First, we will note the national adoption of Israel as taught in the Old Testament. We will then consider Paul’s teaching in his epistles.
Israel: national adoption
When Paul enumerates the distinctive privileges of Israel, prominent in his list stands ‘adoption’, Rom. 9. 4. When Moses approached Pharaoh, he was directed to declare, ‘Thus saith the Lord, Israel is my son, even my firstborn: And I say unto thee, Let my son go, that he may serve me: and if thou refuse to let him go, behold, I will slay thy son, even thy firstborn’, Exod. 4. 22, 23. Much later in Israel’s history God testified, ‘When Israel was a child, then I loved him, and called my son out of Egypt’, Hos. 11. 1. In calling Abraham, and establishing His covenant with him and his posterity, He entered into an irrevocable covenant relationship with Israel. He reminded Israel through Amos, ‘You only have I known of all the families of the earth: therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities’, Amos 3. 2. One consequence of God’s special revelations and covenant commitment to Israel was the higher ethical standards expected of them, and therefore the rod of God’s chastisement.
God’s establishment of Israel as His special people was a matter of pure grace; there were no attainments on their part meriting such an amazing commitment, Deut. 7. 7, 8. In view of this His gifts and calling are irrevocable, Rom. 11. 29. After centuries of failure and idolatry, God could yet affirm, ‘They shall come with weeping, and with supplications will I lead them: I will cause them to walk by the rivers of waters in a straight way, wherein they shall not stumble: for I am a father to Israel, and Ephraim is my firstborn’, Jer. 31. 9.
Thus we see that God’s adoption of His people Israel was corporate and national, all of grace, and irrevocable. It did not guarantee individual salvation, but it certainly established an environment of unique spiritual privilege, Rom. 9. 4-5.
In addition to the Old Testament background of Israel’s national adoption, we must consider the individual adoption practices and ceremonies current in Paul’s day. In contrast to Jewish law, adoption was a common practice under Roman law. Among the ruling classes, there were instances where emperors adopted men not related to them by blood with the intention that they should succeed them as rulers. Crucially, once adopted into the new family, the son was in all legal respects on a level with those born into that family. It was also possible for a testator to adopt someone into his will. Moreover the Roman process of adoption required the presence of seven witnesses. If after the father’s death the natural heirs contested the legal validity of the adoption, the witnesses had to testify that a valid adoption had taken place in their presence. 1 According to Francis Lyall, ‘The adoptee is taken out of his previous state and is placed in a new relationship with his new paterfamilias [master of the house]. All his old debts are cancelled, and in effect he starts a new life. From that time the paterfamilias owns all the property and acquisitions of the adoptee, controls his personal relationships, and has rights of discipline. On the other hand, he is involved in liability by the actions of the adoptee and owes reciprocal duties of support and maintenance’. 2
To simplify our consideration of Paul’s use of adoption in relation to Christians, we will consider the term in relation to the past, the present, and the future.
The past: Ephesians 1. 4, 5
‘In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will’, Eph. 1. 4, 5 ESV.
In this majestic introduction to the letter, Paul shows that the believer is eternally blessed in accordance with the will of God, through the sacrificial work of the Son, and enjoys the witness of the Holy Spirit, Eph. 1. 1-14. The loving predestination of the Father results in adoption ‘to himself’. God marked believers out in advance as those who were to receive a most honourable status as His sons. This purpose goes beyond the new birth and admits the one adopted to all the rights and responsibilities of mature sonship. This glorious status is brought about ‘through Jesus Christ’, v. 5; through the unique and eternal Son of God the believer has been foreordained to become a son of God. ‘To himself’ intimates the personal interest and glory God purposes in so doing, operating in sovereign grace alone, v. 5b.
A monument of grace,
a sinner saved by blood,?The streams of love I trace
up to the fountain, God, ?And in His sovereign counsels
see eternal thoughts of love to me.
The present: Galatians 4. 1-7
Adoption is realized in the experience of the believer through faith in Christ, Gal. 4. 6. The context in Galatians stresses ‘by faith’ as opposed to the works of the law of Moses, for Galatian believers were in danger of succumbing to false teaching that would result in spiritual bondage. The law demanded obedience, but was powerless to enable its demands to be met, 3. 21. The provisional nature of the law is seen in three analogies: the jailor, 3. 22-23, the child supervisor (or pedagogue), 3. 24, and the child’s guardian, 4. 1-3. By contrast the gospel leads to freedom, mature sonship, and heirship, 3. 25-29; 4. 4-7. This is as a result of the blessings of justification and adoption, and the gift of the Spirit of God’s Son. Now that ‘faith had come’, 3. 25, to re-engage with the law would be to hark back to an era of bondage and spiritual minority.
In this passage we learn that:
- The adoption of believers was a specific objective of the redeeming work of Christ, 4. 5.
- In the marvellous logic of grace, God animates His adopted sons with the very Spirit of His own Son, ‘whereby we cry, Abba, Father’. This gracious and radical work in our hearts far transcends what was possible in any human process of legal adoption. ‘Abba, Father’ is the cry of believers conscious of their new-found dignity, status, and intimacy with their loving Father, Mark 14. 36; Rom. 8. 15. Abba is the Aramaic word for ‘father’, cp. Rom. 8. 14–17; father is pater, a Greek word added for emphasis, and perhaps further suggesting the uniting of Jew and Gentile in Christ.
- Because Christians are already sons and ‘of age’, they are in a position to receive the Father’s inheritance, beginning with the promised Spirit of God’s Son, v. 6, cp. Luke 15. 31.
- Since redemption means that the enslaved are set free, God’s adopted sons must be wary of anything that would entangle them in bondage, Gal. 5. 1.
The present: Romans 8. 14-17
This passage forms a transition from the believer’s present, 8. 1-13, to his or her future, vv. 18-30. Those who are led by the Spirit of God are already God’s sons. In echoes of the Galatians passage considered above, they have received the Spirit of adoption whereby they cry ‘Abba, Father’. In so designating the Holy Spirit, Paul is pointing to the Spirit as the One who brings about our adoption by uniting us with Christ, setting us free from anxious fear, irrespective of whether one’s past was in Judaism or paganism. Verse 16 confirms the fact that we are God’s children; this knowledge is conveyed to us by His Spirit.
As adopted sons and therefore heirs of God we are destined to attain the glory of God, and in verse 17 our union with Christ is most emphatic. On the other hand, we do not yet enjoy all that God’s gracious adoption has purposed for us. Because we are one with Him, we must follow His pathway to glory through suffering – sufferings which under God can be formative in rounding out our characters as those redeemed by blood, Rom. 5. 3-5.
The future: Romans 8. 23
The ultimate goal of adoption is the restoration of human beings to perfect freedom and harmony with God their Father. It is fitting that the final reference to our adoption should be seen against the broad background of the coming cosmic emancipation, Rom. 8. 18-30. The believer experiences the groans and yearnings for full liberation that are reflected across the entire burdened creation.
F. F. Bruce comments, ‘The “adoption” here is the full manifestation of the status of believers when they are invested as sons and daughters of God (cp. verses 14-17) and enter on the inheritance which is theirs by virtue of that status. “The redemption of our bodies” is the resurrection, a theme on which Paul had recently enlarged in 2 Corinthians 4. 7 – 5. 10’. 3
Adoption takes believers out of their former state, and places them in a new relationship with God. They are made part of God’s family forever, with corresponding duties and rights. All their time, property, and energy should from that time forth be brought under God’s control. All the Father’s wealth is theirs to inherit. This is a surpassing honour, and should lead to a deep sense of personal obligation, 1 Pet 1. 17-19.
1 F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Galatians, New International Greek Testament Commentary, Eerdmans, pp. 197, 198.
2 F. Lyall, Roman Law in the Writings of Paul: Adoption, Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 88, No. 4, Dec. 1969, pp. 458-466.
3 F. F. Bruce, The Letter of Paul to the Romans: An Introduction and Commentary, Tyndale New Testament Commentary series. Revised ed., IVP, 1985, pp. 164, 165.