Prof. Ronald Cammenga, rector and professor of Dogmatics and Old Testament in
the Protestant Reformed Theological Seminary and member of Southwest PRC in
Wyoming, Michigan

We are the children of God. This is our distinction! This is the great honor that has been bestowed on us! “Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is” (I John 3:2). This is the reality that must frame our understanding of the Christian life. As children of God, we must live for the praise of our heavenly Father. It is serious enough that a son brings shame on his earthly parents. How much more serious that we bring reproach on our heavenly Father by what we do or say. Being God’s children is also our comfort. Nothing can be against us because the God from whom all things come is our Father. He loves us and there is nothing that can separate us from His love or cause His love towards us to turn cold.

We are all the children of God by adoption. None of us is naturally a child of God. By nature we are children of wrath, children of our father the Devil, as Jesus teaches in John 8:44: “Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do.” If there ever was a father who abused and exploited his children, the Devil is that father. But by adoption, God has delivered us from that abusive relationship and made us His own dear children.

Adoption: The witness of the Reformed creeds

The Three Forms of Unity only mention the truth of adoption here and there, without any extended development of the doctrine. In Q&A 33, the Heidelberg Catechism contrasts Christ’s sonship as the only begotten Son of God and the sonship of believers: “Christ alone is the eternal and natural Son of God,” whereas “we are children adopted of God, by grace, for His sake.” In Q&A 120, in which the Catechism is explaining the address of the Lord’s Prayer, “Our Father,” we are taught that “God is become our Father in Christ.” If God “becomes” our Father, we are not the natural children of God, but His adopted children.

There are two references in the Form of Baptism to adoption (we regard our liturgical forms as “minor confessions”). These references are quite striking since, for the most part, the Form of Baptism is read at the time when baptism is administered to the biological children of believers. The first reference to adoption is early in the Form when it is explaining why we are baptized in the name of the triune God. When we are baptized in the name of God the Father, “God the Father witnesseth and sealeth unto us, that He doth make an eternal covenant of grace with us, and adopts us for His children and heirs, and therefore will provide us with every good thing, and avert all evil or turn it to our profit.” The title of this article on adoption is taken from this statement in the Form of Baptism.

There is a second reference to adoption in the “Prayer of Thanksgiving” at the end of the Baptism Form. In prayer, we “thank and praise” God that He has “adopted us to be [His] children, and sealed and confirmed the same unto us by holy baptism.” In baptism, God seals and confirms our adoption.

The Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter 12 is entitled “Of Adoption.” There is only one paragraph in the article, but it is an important paragraph that touches on significant aspects of the glorious truth of adoption.

All those that are justified, God vouchsafeth, in and for His only Son Jesus Christ, to make partakers of the grace of adoption, by which they are taken into the number, and enjoy the liberties and privileges of the children of God, have His name put upon them, receive the Spirit of adoption, have access to the throne of grace with boldness, are enabled to cry, Abba, Father, are pitied, protected, provided for, and chastened by Him, as by a Father: yet never cast off, but sealed to the day of redemption; and inherit the promise, as heirs of everlasting salvation.

How comforting is the truth of adoption! We have a heavenly Father who “pities, protects, provides for, and chastens” us who are His adopted children. No matter what the circumstances of our lives, our Father loves us and cares for us!

Adoption: The testimony of sacred Scripture

Scripture speaks frequently of adoption. In the Old Testament, the truth of adoption is not so often referred to as it is implied. The Old Testament does give us an outstanding example of adoption in Moses’ adoption by the daughter of Pharaoh. As the adopted son of the Egyptian princess, Moses was taken into the family of Pharaoh, lived in Pharaoh’s court, was educated with the members of Pharaoh’s household, and may even had been a contender for the Egyptian throne—something possibly included in “the treasures of Egypt” referred to in Hebrews 11:26.

Although adoption is not explicitly referred to, time and again the nation of Israel is referred to as the “children of God” and the “son of God.” This designation implies adoption and the love of God in choosing the Israelites to be His children, as indicated in Deuteronomy 7:7-8: “The Lord did not set his love upon you, nor choose you, because ye were more in number than any other people; for ye were the fewest of all people: but because the Lord loved you, and because the Lord would keep the oath which he had sworn unto your fathers.” Referring to Old Testament Israel, Paul says in Romans 9:4 that to them “pertain[ed] the adoption, and the glory, and the covenant.”

It is the apostle Paul who more than anyone else speaks of adoption. In Ephesians 1:5, the apostle dovetails predestination and adoption: “Having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of his will.” The purpose of our election is that we should be God’s adopted sons and daughters. In Galatians 4:4-5, he connects adoption to the redeeming work of Christ: “But when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, to redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons.” The apostle goes on in the very next verses to relate the work of the Holy Spirit to adoption: “And because ye are sons, God hath sent forth the Spirit of his Son into your hearts, crying, Abba, Father.” In Romans 8—the great chapter on the Holy Spirit—the Spirit is called “the Spirit of adoption,” who has delivered us from “the spirit of bondage” (v. 15).

Adoption: A legal or forensic concept

Adoption, like justification, is a legal or forensic concept. The Greek word used in the New Testament Scriptures underscores this reality of adoption. The word is made up of two words: the noun for “son” and the verb that means “to set, to place.” In adoption, one is not born a son, but is set or placed as a son. Although not a son, he is made to be a son legally.

At the same court hearing at which the verdict of God the Judge declares us righteous, He also declares us to be His own adopted children. Children who are adopted cannot point to a birth certificate to prove that they are the children of their parents. Rather, they point to their adoption papers, ratified in a court of law and signed by the presiding judge in order to prove that they are the children of their parents. Although their adopted child has not been born to them, adoptive parents have legally become the father and the mother of that child.

And our spiritual adoption papers are signed in blood. The blood is the blood of God’s only begotten Son, His own dear Son. For, you see, none of us is by nature a son of God and none of us deserves to be a son of God. Jesus’ death on the cross was the death of our elder Brother, who gave Himself for us, His adopted brothers and sisters. The apostle teaches in Galatians 4:4-5, as we have seen, that God sent His Son “to redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons.”

That they are adopted children does not mean that they are children of a lesser status in their family. Because they are adopted does not mean that they are inferior to and have fewer rights than biologically born children. Like God, some earthly parents have an adopted child or children, while at the same time having one or more biological children. From time to time it happens that after they have adopted, parents altogether unexpectedly conceive. From a legal standpoint, their adopted children are no less their children than their birth children. Hopefully, the parents love and show their love equally to their children, whether adopted or biological. In both cases, they share fully the rights and responsibilities as children of their parents. And hopefully, whether adopted or biological, the children love and honor their parents equally.

One aspect of the equal status that biological children and adoptive children enjoy is that both are the heirs of their parents. All other things being equal, children by adoption share the inheritance equally with those who may be the biological children of their parents. In Galatians 4, after the apostle has spoken of Christ’s purpose to redeem those who were under the law, “that we might receive the adoption of sons” (v. 5), and has referred to God’s sending forth the Spirit of His Son into our hearts so that we cry, “Abba, Father” (v. 6), he adds in verse 7, “Wherefore thou art no more a servant, but a son; and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ.” The inheritance that we will one day possess is the riches of salvation in everlasting life and glory in the presence of our Father, in His house of many mansions (John 14:2-3).

Adoption: The bridge to sanctification

Although strictly speaking adoption is a legal concept, at the same time it serves as the bridge between the doctrines of justification and sanctification. In the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms, adoption is treated between justification and sanctification. This does justice to its close relationship with justification, but it also does justice to the close relation between adoption and sanctification.

This close relationship is due to the fact that God does with His adopted children what no human adoptive parents can do. God works by His Spirit to transform His adopted children into His own image. Earthly adoptive parents cannot do this. They can and must do many things, but one thing that they cannot do is impart their natures to their adopted children. This can be one of the challenges of adoption. Adopted children partake of the natures of their biological parents, even though they may never know them. That can from time to time raise a number of difficulties in the adoption experience. But divine adoption is different; divine adoption is transformative. By the Holy Spirit we are actually begotten again—begotten of God. For this reason, the apostle John frequently refers to us as “born of God,” as in I John 5:1, “Whosoever believeth that Jesus is the Christ is born of God.” (See also I John 2:29; 3:9; 4:7; 5:4, 18.)

As those who have been reborn by the Spirit of God, we bear the image of our heavenly Father. As those who bear the likeness of their heavenly Father, we live as His children in the world. This is precisely the application that the apostle John makes in I John 2:29: “If ye know that he is righteous, ye know that everyone that doeth righteousness is born of him.” And in I John 3:10, he contrasts the “children of God” to the “children of the devil” in this way, that “whosoever doeth not righteousness is not of God.” As children who love their father and mother delight in obeying their parents, so the children of God delight in pleasing their heavenly Father.

Adoption: Underscoring the grace of God

Several marvelous truths are underscored by the biblical truth of adoption.

First of all, adoption underscores the truth of God’s covenant. By adoption, we are taken up into God’s family. The purpose of adoption is that we who were by nature God’s enemies and who deserve to be the objects of His wrath are made the objects of His love and favor. Now the fellowship forfeited in Adam when our first parents were driven from God’s presence in Eden is restored. Through adoption, we are brought again into living communion with our beloved Father.

Adoption also highlights that the salvation of the children of God is due to the sovereign will of God. That, too, is pictured in earthly adoption. It is not the will of the child that determines that he will be adopted or that determines who will be his adoptive parents. But what stands behind earthly adoption is the will and decision of the parents to adopt. No childless couple is obligated to adopt. It is simply their decision to adopt, their decision even determining whether they will adopt a boy or a girl, and in many instances choosing from various profiles whom they will adopt. What is true naturally is also true spiritually. The will of God determines that He will adopt and whom He will adopt as His sons and His daughters. In John 1:13, the apostle speaks of the adopted children of God as they “which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of [the will of] God.”

But especially does adoption underscore the grace of God in salvation. Adoptive parents freely determine to share their love and their home with the child whom they adopt. Freely they commit themselves to care for, provide for, protect, rear, and above all love their adopted child. So it is the grace of God that moves Him to adopt, and to adopt whom He does—only the grace of God. Adoption exalts God’s grace in salvation.

What exalts this grace of God even more is that those whom God adopts deserve the opposite. They deserve wrath and judgment, but instead God opens up His heart and His home to His adopted children. From being the slaves of the Devil, they are not only delivered from Satan’s bondage, but they are elevated to the status of sons and daughters of God. It would be similar to earthly parents adopting the young man who yesterday assaulted and robbed them, and whom today they found wallowing in his own vomit as he lay in the gutter in a drunken stupor. To open up their home to such a person, clean him up, give him a new change of clothes and a bedroom of his own, seat him at their table in order to join them in feasting on God’s bountiful provision—that is grace.

And that is a picture of God’s adoption of you and of me. It is a picture of amazing grace!