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Definition

“Adoption is an act of God’s free grace, whereby we are received into the number, and have a right to all the privileges, of the sons of God.” (Westminster Shorter Catechism, 34)

Summary

The word “adoption” (Greek, huiothesia) appears only five times in Scripture, but rooted in the purpose of God and prefigured in the Old Testament, the theme gets woven into the fabric of New Testament theology—in particular the writings of the Apostle Paul. With notable connections both to justification and to sanctification, the meaning of adoption exceeds the boundaries of both. A term both of privilege and identity, adoption introduces superlative components of what Jesus provides in salvation and expresses who it is that enjoys those blessings.

With compelling brevity and gravity, J. I. Packer offers this three-word summary of the gospel, “adoption through propitiation….” He then exclaims, “I do not ever expect to find a richer or more pregnant summary of the gospel than that.”1 God’s righteous anger against sinners is fully satisfied by his righteous Son’s substitutionary death and vindicating resurrection/ exaltation (Rom. 1:3–4; 4:25; 1 Tim 3:16). By divine grace, as he absorbs God’s wrath in our place, the Savior turns the Father’s countenance toward us in full forgiveness (Num. 6:22–24). What wondrous reconciliation!

But this grace-saturated reckoning with our sin and sinfulness does not expend the gospel. Christ’s propitiatory work on our behalf surges with exceedingly greater blessing—the glories and riches of adoption. As Scripture affirms, forgiven sinners do not enter Christ’s kingdom as mere paupers. We become royal sons, members of the family of God, siblings of the King of kings—brothers of whom he is not ashamed (Heb. 2:11).

Since the concept carries such dazzling freight, we might expect the term adoption (huiothesia) to appear with generous frequency throughout the New Testament, yet it appears only five times: Galatians (1x), Ephesians (1x), Romans (3x). Its relative infrequency (in contrast to justification, for example) might tempt us to conclude that adoption is delightful and compelling, but perhaps not as central to our understanding of the gospel as Packer has made it. By what measure does he invest so much gospel capital into this rarely appearing term?

Packer is not alone. Calvin weaves adoption throughout his entire corpus, with such emphasis that his theology of salvation has been dubbed the “gospel of adoption.”2 One hundred years later, John Owen described adoption as the “great and fountain privilege”3 of salvation in Christ. More recently John Murray labeled adoption the “apex of grace and privilege.”4

As deeply as they appreciate the doctrine of justification, these towering theologians insist that “biblical motifs for salvation are not left in the cosmic courtroom, but… boldly and intimately proceed into the home and fatherly heart of God. God is not exclusively Judge; he is a gracious Father—the believer stands not merely as an acquitted criminal, but as an adopted son….”5

The Apostle Paul’s use of adoption must further guide and inform us.

Adoption and Divine Counsel

In Ephesians 1, the apostle launches into soaring praise, marveling over gospel splendor. Ordained by the eternal Father (Eph. 1:3–6), redemption is accomplished by the Son of God (Eph. 1:7–10) and applied by his Spirit (Eph. 1:11–14). As he bears witness to the harmony of the Triune God in this salvation, the apostle testifies to God’s all-wise counsel, which put history in motion. Notably, adoption takes center stage in the mind of God: “before the foundation of the world… he predestined us for adoption” (Eph. 1:4­–5). In the Ephesians 1 framework, adoption explains the meaning of history, the reason for Christ’s incarnation and redemptive work, and God’s goal for the universe. Bearing witness to the pre-creation intra-Trinitarian pact, Paul discovers the aim of history is the adoption of God’s people.

Adoption and Israel

Adoption’s prominence continues to shine in Romans 9. When answering apparent objections to his claims concerning Jesus the Messiah and his gospel proclamation to the Gentiles, Paul reminds his Jewish brothers of the Messiah-anticipating privileges they have known. “What extraordinary advantage had God not given to this people?”6 Paul identifies ancient Israelite privileges as a blessed foretaste of full blessing and promise realized in the New Covenant age.

To make his apologetic point, Paul reminds his readers of six grace-filled features enjoyed since the days of the patriarchs. These Old Covenant privileges reach fulfillment in Christ:

They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen. (Rom. 9:4–5).

Stunningly, adoption gets first mention in this list of gifts. Though Israel’s corporate adoption lacked the substance and security of the full adoption in Christ, drawing upon divine purpose (Ephesians 1), Israel’s sonship provides the historical/theological parentage for the perfect adoption to come in the Messiah.

Despite important contrasts between Israel’s adoption and final adoption, points of continuity are robust. “Even its shadowy redemptive-historical unfolding, adoption … commends moral and ethical conformity, and its adoption-unto-obedience construct actually anticipates the eschatological enabling presence of the Spirit of Christ Jesus [for believers] to attain conformity to the Son—that is, conformity to him his full obedience (Rom. 8:29; 2 Cor. 6).”7 In Exodus 4:22–23, Israel as “son of God” was given obligations to faith, obedience, and worship (cf. Deut. 14:1–2; 32:5–6; Isa. 43:1–7, 24–27; Hos. 11:1). Israel’s failed filial obedience accentuated the desperate need for the coming Savior, the adoption-procuring Son.

In contrast to and solution for Israel’s disobedience, the blameless Son of God secured and confirmed faith, obedience, and worship for the adopted sons of God. “Only when the Father is known through the Son by the Holy Spirit is adoption a fully coherent notion.”8 Israel’s adoption planted the seed and anticipated the fully bloomed adoptive blessings secured by Christ Jesus.

Adoption and Christ Jesus

Christ, the Son sent by the heavenly Father, arrived at “the fullness of time” (Gal. 4:4), and took on human flesh “to redeem those who were under the [curse of the] law” (Gal. 4:5a). His gracious redeeming act possesses a stated purpose—adoption! As expressed in Galatians 4:5, adoption marks the Son’s supreme reason for coming to earth. The adoption purposed before time (Ephesians 1) and prefigured in corporate Israel’s experience (Romans 9) is the adoption secured by the incarnate Son of God. Christ came, suffered and died for our full and final adoption.

Adoption and the Spirit

In its two other mentions, adoption’s already roaring fire takes on additional fuel. Prior to chapter 8, Paul has mentioned the Holy Spirit only five times in Romans. Then in Romans 8 alone, he speaks of him twenty (20) times! As in Ephesians 1 and Galatians 4, the apostle pans history––from creation to consummation. With fixed optimism about history’s finale, he celebrates the power and presence of the “Spirit of adoption” (Rom. 8:15–17) to reveal the adopted sons of God in Christ (Rom. 8:18­­–23).

In the Old-to-New Testament promise/fulfillment structure, the outpouring of the Spirit confirms God’s promises have been delivered (Rom. 9:1–5; Joel 2:28–32; Acts 2) and that the Messiah and his divine salvation have come (Gal. 4:1–7). In the work of the Son of God and by his Spirit, God once-for-all procures the glorious destiny for his people—a destiny defined by adoption. Drawing on the cosmically critical events of Christ’s work and the Spirit’s outpouring, Paul exclaims electrically that the Spirit of adoption is given to us now (Rom 8:15). And this same Spirit will deliver the final phase of adoption, our bodily transformation (Rom 8:23)! In solidarity with the Father’s will and Christ’s work, the Spirit of Christ is given for our glorious adoption.

Adoption and Identity

Having surveyed the five texts where the term adoption appears, and discovered its expansive role in expressing the gospel, it would be difficult to overstate adoption’s remarkable grace and glory. Infrequency of its explicit mention gives way to the expansive manner of the term’s use. The gospel, as Paul sees it, is adoption.

With such permeating reach, adoption not surprisingly informs the other benefits of our union with Christ. In this regard, John Calvin’s “gospel of adoption” identifies two strands­­—double graces (duplex gratia)—of gospel benefit in Christ: justification and sanctification. Giving answer to the “what” of Jesus’ work, these theological terms identify, respectively, the legal and transformative aspects of what Jesus has secured for us. Adoption includes more of the “what” of Christ’s work, yet by exposing key kingdom privileges of the royal family of God, it ultimately answers the “who” of the gospel. Adoption exposes our lavish spiritual identity: children of God, brothers of Christ, joint heirs with him, and co-regents in his kingdom.

Adoption and Justification

Though many have treated adoption as a synonym for justification, the two concepts carry distinct features. Scripture graphically portrays the guiltiness of sinners before God (Psalm 32; 51; Rom. 3:9–20). Justification reckons with our guilt, so that we are blessedly forgiven in Christ: “Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man against whom the LORD counts no iniquity” (Psalm 32:1–2a). Blessed indeed. All our sin is entirely and justly forgiven by the Righteous Judge because Christ stands as our righteous Advocate (Rom. 3:26; 1 John 2:2). Justification affirms our right standing before God in and through Christ Jesus.

Adoption describes justified sinners differently (though compatibly). Roman imperial adoption, which provides the first century context for Paul’s use of the term, helpfully illumines his theological interest. Adoption, as practiced by Roman emperors, ensured the perpetuation of the dynasty. Convinced his biological offspring offered poor options for his replacement, the emperor would choose an adult son outside his immediate offspring as successor to throne. The emperor chose this successor-son based upon his demonstrated excellence, marked character, and proven dependability. Adopted by the emperor, this already proven adult son inherited the entire kingdom and was appointed to rule over it.

Gospel analogy is resplendent. As indicated in the Old-to-New Testament framework for Paul’s concept of salvation,  God transfers forgiven sinners into Christ’s kingdom (Col. 1:13).9 Paul unpacks a treasure trove of spiritual blessings in the heavenly places (Eph. 1:3) shared by Christ with the adopted family. The justified sons of God receive the full inheritance and even reign with Jesus Christ, the King of kings and Lord of lords. As recipients of the Spirit of adoption, the justified reign with Christ, because God has “raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:6).

Adoption and Sanctification10

A core feature of the Spirit’s ministry is producing holiness in the lives of God’s people. With a view to the perfection of our future and full conformity into the image of Jesus Christ (Rom. 8:29), Paul connects growth in holiness with the Spirit of adoption.

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!’ (Rom. 8:12–15)

With the Spirit of adoption as our internal Motivator and Enabler, obligation to God engenders delight; for the child of God, the Father’s commandments are not burdensome (1Jn 5:3). The “who” of the gospel features prominently here. Freed from obligation to the flesh (Rom. 6:14), the adopted sons are freed for obedience (Gal. 5:1) and joyfully seek to put remaining sin to death (mortification; Rom. 8:13). Effectiveness in this battle with sin depends wholly on the indwelling Spirit of adoption (Rom. 8:15).

Paul does not mince words: without sanctification, there is no spiritual life. Thus because of the indwelling Spirit of adoption, the sons of God genuinely progress in sanctification (cf. Heb 12:14) “The activity of the believer [in combating sin] is the evidence of the Spirit’s activity and the activity of the Spirit is the cause of the believer’s activity.”11 By the work of the Spirit of adoption, the children of God grow in the holiness of Christ.

Adoption and Glorification

Enjoying the presence of the outpoured Spirit of adoption, we rest in Christ’s righteousness yet find ourselves increasingly impatient for complete Christlikeness. The grace of adoption delivers an astonishing answer to our stubborn restlessness. On the Last Day, by his Spirit of adoption, “the Lord Jesus Christ … will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body” (Phil. 3:20b–21a). We will become glorified sons who look like, indeed become like, our glorified Elder Brother: “when he appears we shall be like him” (1Jn. 3:2b). In the life-giving Spirit (1Cor. 15:45), we shall experience our final “adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Rom. 8:23b). The Spirit of Christ will crown our adoption with glorification—comprehensive transformation into the image of the resurrected Son of God (Rom. 8:17, 29).

Adoption and Family Blessing

A deeply personal theme, adoption is no private privilege. All believers are united to the same Christ by the same Spirit of adoption. This Spirit of adoption generates and sustains fellowship of the body of Christ, the brothers and sisters in Christ’s church—who love (Eph. 4:2), forgive (Eph. 4:32), and encourage (1 Thess. 5:11) one another. These family practices and their underlying familial solidarity depend upon the pure adoption procured by the Son of God on behalf of his siblings “so that he might be the firstborn among many brothers” (Rom. 8:29b).

Further, adoption in Christ shines glorious light in discouraged and darkened souls. Sinclair Ferguson describes the Spirit-wrought verbal reflex of the children of God in suffering, when we call out to our Father: “this filial cry [“Abba! Father!”] … comes to expression not only in the heights of spiritual ecstasy but in the depths of … need.”12 The Puritans mined adoption’s deep pastoral treasures. In adoption they discovered—and we must discover afresh by the Spirit of adoption—marvelous assurance and comfort for the darkest of days: “When oppressed with sin, buffeted by Satan, enticed by the world, or alarmed by fears of death, the Puritans encourage believers to take refuge in their precious, heavenly Father.”13

The glorious contours of adoption for the family of God offer resources that are as sweet as they are spectacular. Forgiven and sanctified saints are the adopted sons of God—adorned with royal, familial privileges, interminable comfort and stunning glory.

Footnotes

1J. I. Packer, Knowing God, 20th anniversary edition (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1993), 214.
2Brian A. Gerrish, Grace and Gratitude: The Eucharistic Theology of John Calvin (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1993), 89.
3John Owen, Of Communion, (https://www.ccel.org/ccel/owen/communion.i.vii.x.html)
4John Murray Redemption Accomplished and Applied, 134.
5David B. Garner, Sons in the Son: The Riches and Reach of Adoption in Christ (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2016), 25
6Nygren, Romans, 356, emphasis added.
7David B. Garner, Sons in the Son, 165.
8Sinclair B. Ferguson, “Some Reflections on the ‘First Title’ of the Holy Spirit,” in The Holy Spirit and Reformed Spirituality (ed. Joel R. Beeke and Derek W. H. Thomas; Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage, 2013), 105.
9No chauvinism should be perceived in Paul’s choice of the masculine terms “adoption [literally ‘to place as a son’],” “son” and “sons.” Roman imperial adoption occurred only for men, but the apostle unashamedly applies adoption to men and women in God’s family. He makes this gospel application to all explicit (Gal. 3:28) and implicit (his use of the term “children” in Rom. 8:16–17, for example).
10This section on sanctification draws upon David B. Garner, Sons in the Son, 112–113.
11John Murray, The Epistle to Romans (2 vols. Combined; Reprint, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 1:295.
12Ferguson, ‘First Title’, 107.
13Joel R. Beeke and Mark Jones, A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage, 2012), 554.

Further Reading

Books on Adoption:

  • Beeke, Joel R. Heirs with Christ: The Puritans on Adoption. Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage, 2008.
  • Ferguson, Sinclair. Children of the Living God. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1989.
  • Garner, David B. Sons in the Son: The Riches and Reach of Adoption in Christ. Phillipsburg: P&R, 2016.
  • Packer, J. I. Knowing God. 20th anniversary edition. Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1993.

Online Resources on Adoption:


This essay is part of the Concise Theology series. All views expressed in this essay are those of the author. This essay is freely available under Creative Commons License with Attribution-ShareAlike (CC BY-SA 3.0 US), allowing users to share it in other mediums/formats and adapt/translate the content as long as an attribution link, indication of changes, and the same Creative Commons License applies to that material. If you are interested in translating our content or are interested in joining our community of translators, please reach out to us.