A NEW FATHER AND A NEW HEART
THE PERMANENCY OF OUR ADOPTION INTO GOD’S FAMILY
Martin Luther, whose tormented conscience and anguished thinking launched the Protestant Reformation, once remarked, “If the doctrine of justification is lost, the whole of Christian doctrine is lost.” It is hardly surprising, then, that there is voluminous Protestant literature on justification.
The doctrine of adoption, by contrast, has been largely neglected. Yet the two are inseparably linked.
GRACE BEYOND AND ABOVE
Which is not to say that they are identical. Adoption is a grace beyond and above justification. In justification, God acquits sinners of all the charges against them. Indeed, he goes further still and declares that in Christ their righteousness meets the highest possible standards. They are as righteous as Christ himself (2 Corinthians 5:21). There is not a stain on their characters.
At this point, in normal human systems of justice, the accused is then simply free to go, and both he and the judge hope they will never see each other again. But the divine judge not only acquits. He invites the sinner home — and not just for an evening. He adopts us as his own forever, tells us we are to call him “Father,” and pronounces us lawful heirs to all he is and to all that he has.
Paul is the only New Testament writer who uses the term adoption, but he is not the only one who speaks of believers being God’s children. John also highlights it, particularly in 1 John 3:1. “See,” he exclaims, “what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are.” Yet while they speak of the same subject, the two apostles use different language, and to get anything like the full doctrine we need to look carefully at each.
CHANGE IN STATUS
The word adoption, like the word justification, refers not to a change in our disposition and character, but to a change on our status. It speaks of a revolution in our relationship with God. As unbelieving sinners, we were utterly alienated from him: total outsiders, as far as his family was concerned. Now we belong, and by using the term adoption, Paul is using formal legal language to remind us that our membership of our new family is absolutely secure. It can never be undone.
There is a parallel to all this in the story of Moses. The abandoned Hebrew baby, born as a slave under sentence of death, is taken into the palace by a royal princess, and formally adopted as her son. It is just so with believers in relation to God. He is committed to us. He has given us his name. He has made us his heirs, and solemnly pledged that as our heavenly Father, he will provide for us with the lavishness that befits his means as possessor of all the riches of glory (Philippians 4:19).
He has said, in effect, “From now on, you have nothing to worry about (Matthew 6:26). I will care for you (1 Peter 5:7), and if you do ever find yourself overtaken by anxiety, come and talk about it to me at once (Philippians 4:6–7). Always remember that I am your home, and that I will never disown you; and should you ever go astray, I will always take you back (Luke 15:20). My love will never let you go.”
TRANSFORMATION IN HEART
But adoption as a human transaction leaves the heart unchanged, and this is why the language of John is such an important complement to the language of Paul. Where Paul speaks of “adoption,” John speaks of being “born again”; and where Paul emphasises our being God’s “heirs,” John speaks of our being his “children.”
Adoption, whether in the ancient world or the modern, gave rights, but it did not transform; but when we are “born of God,” his “seed” (sperma) is in us (1 John 3:9). This is why Peter can even go so far as to say that we become partakers of the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4), while Paul declares that at the heart of God’s purpose for the universe lies his determination that one day every one of his adopted sons and daughters will be as glorious as his only begotten Son (Romans 8:28–29).
For the time being, sadly, this is not how we appear: To deny that we are sinners is to deceive ourselves (1 John 1:8). But by the time Christ returns, our likeness to our Father will be unmistakeable (1 John 3:2), and he will have no hesitation about making us stand in the full light of his glory (Jude 24). We will be his pride and joy.
A NEW PEOPLE
Divine adoption, then, secures what no human adoption can secure. It is always accompanied by a radical and total transformation at the very core of our being. Not only have we a new status. We are new people (Ephesians 4:24).
Should we, then, just sit back passively and let grace do its work? Not for a moment! Indeed, the seed that God has implanted in us won’t let us sit back, nor will the hope that God has given us. The assurance that our destiny is to be “like him” impels us to set about purifying ourselves, and to do so with the utmost rigour, satisfied with nothing less than to be as pure as God himself (1 John 3:3).
As John sees it, the Christian believer should react to the discovery of any personal impurity with the same shock-horror as God would react to the discovery of a blemish in himself.
THE MELODY OF JOY AND SALVATION
Adoption was widely practiced in the ancient world, but there was one crucial difference between secular practice and what we see in the New Testament.
In the secular world, adoption was usually for the benefit of the adoptive parents, not for the benefit of the child. For example, a farmer might want help with tilling his land, or a childless couple might want someone to look after them in old age, or an aristocrat might want someone to perpetuate the family name. In the New Testament the benefits are all the other way.
While we may be sure that adoption gives God immense satisfaction, he never adopts in order to meet some need of his own. He adopts us because he loves us, not because he needs us.
And far from exploiting us and subjecting us to a life of drudgery, he showers upon us every spiritual blessing (Ephesians 1:3) and fills our lives with the melody of joy and salvation (Psalm 118:15).
FURTHER CONSIDERATIONS –
Question – I know that as Christians we are “born again of incorruptible seed” (1 Pet. 1:23). Why then do several places in the Church Epistles speak of our being “adopted” by God?
The Greek word translated “adoption” is huiothesia, and it occurs only five times in the New Testament, all in the Church Epistles (Rom. 8:15, 23; 9:4; Gal. 4:5; Eph. 1:5). According to Vine’s Lexicon it means: “the place and condition of a son given to one to whom it does not naturally belong.” Louw and Nida’s Greek Lexicon says: “to formally and legally declare that someone who is not one’s own child is henceforth to be treated and cared for as one’s own child, including complete rights of inheritance.” Huiothesia literally means, “to place as a son.”
“Adoption” clearly indicates that a Christian is a member of God’s family. In the Roman culture, the adopted son or daughter had four major changes: a change of family, a change of name, a change of home, and a change of responsibilities.
Most importantly, by using the word “adoption,” God emphasizes that salvation is permanent for the Christian, which is why it appears only in the Church Epistles. Some versions translate huiothesia as “sonship,” but we believe that is not as good as “adoption.” While it is true that someone adopted into the family attains sonship (the status of a son), “adoption” is more accurate to the Greek meaning of the word, and it correctly expresses the fact that the adopted child is permanently placed in the family.
Birth seems so much more desirable than adoption that it is fair to ask why God would even use “adoption.” The answer is that the Romans recognized that when a baby was born, “you got what you got,” whether you liked it or not. This would include the sex of the child, birthmarks, etc. Thus, according to Roman law, a naturally born baby could be disowned from the family. However, people adopting a child knew exactly what they were getting, and no one adopted a child unless that specific child was wanted as a family member, so according to law an adopted child could not be disowned. He or she was permanently added to the family. Many early believers were Roman citizens, and using the word “adoption” was one of God’s ways to let the Church know that He chose the children brought into His family, and they could not be taken from it.
The Roman historian William M. Ramsay writes:
“The Roman-Syrian Law-Book…where a formerly prevalent Greek law had persisted under the Roman Empire—well illustrates this passage of the Epistle. It actually lays down the principle that a man can never put away an adopted son, and that he cannot put away a real son without good ground. It is remarkable that the adopted son should have a stronger position than the son by birth, yet it was so.” [W. M. Ramsay, ‘A Historical Commentary on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians’, Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, MI]
“The term adoption, as understood by the Romans, differs from what occurs with believers in one important detail: Believers are BORN AGAIN, literally RECREATED, as God’s sons. We move from one species to another species. That’s what the Greek for “new creation” means. We become the SAME SPECIES that Jesus is. This is not like adoption is anywhere on earth. A born again believer is recreated WITHIN Christ. We become PART OF HIM. An adopted Roman child contains no biological similarity to his or her adopted parents. We, on the other hand, as believers, are Jesus’ brothers and sisters IN EVERY WAY. We are bone of His bone and flesh of His flesh; we have to be because we, as the Church, are His Bride, and will MARRY HIM one day. So while comparing what we are to Roman adoption is useful in SOME aspects, it does not capture who we are to Him in a VERY IMPORTANT aspect. We are truly ONE with Him.” – Jeffery Stewart