Many words come to mind when thinking about the believer’s salvation accomplished in and through Jesus. Forgiveness. Election. Regeneration. Redemption. Propitiation. Reconciliation. Perhaps the most commonly emphasized term is justification, the doctrine Martin Luther described as the “one and firm rock…the chief article of the whole Christian doctrine.” And it is right that we uphold and emphasize justification as the bedrock of our salvation. God’s declaration that we are righteous in His sight on account of our faith alone in the finished work of Christ is the foundation of all the other blessings we enjoy in Christ.
However, when discussing the many facets of salvation, one incredibly important and beautiful biblical concept is often overlooked: our adoption as sons and daughters of God. During the New Testament period, adoption was a legal act whereby the adopter formally assumed responsibility for the adoptee, granting him or her the full privileges of a true son or daughter. These privileges included many legal rights, an inheritance, and a social status equal to that of a biological son or daughter. Because it was primarily adults who were adopted in Roman times, adoption also entailed the assumption of any and all of the adoptee’s debts by the adopter. Simply put, in society and under the law, an adopted son was absolutely no different than a biological son.
It was into this context that the Apostle Paul penned his epistles, which upon careful reading, ooze familial (family) language. Perhaps the most important of these familial terms is huiothesia. The word is actually made up of two Greek words, huios (son) and thesis (placing) and thus denotes “the process or act of being placed or adopted as sons” (1). This word occurs five times in three of Paul’s letters and is always employed metaphorically (2). For example, in Ephesians 1:3-7, Paul writes,
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved.
God’s loving adoption of all who believe makes us God’s children and allows us to call out to Him as our “abba” (an intimate, yet respectful title similar to “dearest father” or “papa”), just as Jesus did in the Garden of Gethsemane (Mark 14:36) (3).
In his book Adopted into God’s Family: Exploring a Pauline Metaphor, Trevor J. Burke argues that adoption into the family of God is one of Paul’s “key metaphors for the new status believers have obtained” (4). Sadly, despite the important place that this doctrine seemed to have occupied in Paul’s mind, adoption has often been misunderstood throughout the history of the church. Specifically, Reformed theologians frequently make the mistake of conflating adoption with justification in their attempt to understand it within the ordo salutis (order of salvation). Essentially, they view adoption as the “flip-side” of being declared righteous. However, as Burke points out, this “eradicates the distinctiveness of adoption, thereby diminishing the theological importance of this Pauline term” (5).
Other Reformed theologians have subsumed the doctrine of adoption under justification, viewing it almost as a subsection of the latter. It is seen as an effect or benefit of justification. This, Burke argues, is also a mistake, diminishing the importance of the doctrine of adoption. He writes,
“The subsuming of adoption under justification allots a secondary role to the former, which has resulted in the theological integrity of adoption being compromised and the expression being relegated to a secondary position…” (6)
Burke presents the following table as a helpful outline of the different positions commonly held by Reformed theologians, arguing that only Murray rightly understands adoption as distinct from, yet related to, justification and regeneration:
Abraham Kuyper: Regeneration/adoption – faith – justification – sanctification – glorification
Louis Berkhof: Regeneration – faith – justification/adoption – sanctification – glorification
John Murray: Regeneration – faith – justification – adoption – sanctification – glorification (7)
In regard to justification, Burke writes,
“To be sure, adoption is related to justification and is incomplete without it…justification is the primary blessing of salvation upon which all the other saving benefits depend…[However,] adoption emphasizes aspects of the believer’s relationship to God that are not present in justification.” (8)
Burke quotes J.L. Girardeau, who notes,
“The Scriptures make a difference between [justification and adoption]. They treat adoption as something over and beyond justification…justification…introduces the…sinner into the society of (the) righteous…adoption…introduces the sinner into the society of God’s family.” (9)
It would behoove us to re-examine this wonderful doctrine, a doctrine which John Murray boldly called “the apex of redemptive grace and privilege” (10). It is a doctrine Paul placed at the center of some of the most glorious expositions of the Gospel found in the New Testament. Adoption speaks to the incredible new relationship that believers enjoy with the God of the universe on account of Jesus’s work at the cross. We are no longer sinners in the hands of an angry God. Nor are we merely righteous men and women on account of Jesus’s imputed perfection. We are more. We are God’s redeemed children and he is our loving father. As beloved children, God not only forgives us, but he also satisfies us. He has taken our debt, but he has also given us an eternal inheritance. We call out to him as Lord and Abba. As Paul writes in Galatians 4:4-7,
“When the fullness of time had come, God send forth his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba, Father!’ So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.”
Thanks be to God…our Father.
Trevor J. Burke, Adopted into God’s Family: Exploring a Pauline Metaphor
Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, Chapter 37: Adoption (Membership in God’s Family)
Walter A. Elwell, Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, “Adoption”
(1) Trevor Burke, Adopted into God’s Family: Exploring a Pauline Metaphor, 21-22.
(2) Romans 8:15, 23; 9:4; Galatians 4:5-6; Ephesians 1:5
(3) Trevor Burke, Adopted into God’s Family: Exploring a Pauline Metaphor, 90-95.
(4) Ibid., 22. He later argues that adoption is, in fact, an “organizing soteriological metaphor” for Paul. (41)
(5) Ibid., 23. Burke cites a number of these Reformed theologians.
(6) Ibid., 24.
(8) Ibid., 24-25. Wayne Grudem agrees in his Systematic Theology, when he writes, “in adoption we are given many of the greatest blessings that we will know for all eternity.” (738-739)
(9) Ibid., 25.
(10) Ibid., 26. J.I. Packer agrees: “Adoption is…the highest privilege that the gospel offers; higher even than justification.”