The word “adoption” is a word which is used only five times in Scripture and all five times in the New Testament. Nevertheless, the concept is found throughout the Old and New Testaments and is a very important and comforting part of the gospel of God’s grace. Adam himself is called the son of God in Luke 3:38, and though perhaps his sonship differs in some respects from ours, it is still a sonship by virtue of adoption. So too, one of the most common names given to the saints in Scripture, and which implies the truth of adoption, is the name “children of God” or “sons of God.”
In spite of its importance in Scripture, however, this truth of adoption tends to be somewhat neglected. In most Dogmatics textbooks, for example, it is treated in connection with the truth of justification as one of the benefits of justification, and though this may be the proper place to speak of it, it receives there at best a very cursory treatment. Even in our creeds adoption is only mentioned twice, once in connection with the divinity of our Lord Jesus in Lord’s Day XIII of the Heidelberg Catechism, where Christ’s Sonship is distinguished from ours, and once in Canons V, 6 where, in connection with the truth of perseverance, we are assured that even in our falls God does not suffer us to lose the grace of adoption. Besides these two there are only some indirect references to our sonship in the creeds and nowhere is this truth developed there. Thus this article.
There are two things that must be emphasized in our development of this truth. First of all we must remember that Scripture uses the truth of adoption to make clear to us that our salvation is all of grace. Adoption must be gracious or it is not adoption. Lords Day XIII connects grace and adoption when it speaks of the fact that in distinction from Christ Who is the eternal and natural Son of God, we are “children adopted of God, by grace, for His sake.” It is here too that Adam’s sonship is somewhat different from ours. He was first of all a son of God by virtue of his beingcreated in the image of God. For us, adoption takes on a new meaning, since we are born in this world children of the devil (John 8:44), “strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12). This grace of adoption is also prophetically revealed in Hosea 1:10 where the prophet tells the church “that in the place where it was said unto them, Ye are not my people, there it shall be said unto them, Ye are the sons of the living God.”
The second thing that we must bear in mind in connection with our adoption is that the use of the word adoption to describe our salvation is not a figure of speech. Sometimes our salvation is described with figures of speech, as in John 15:1-8 where the figure of a vine and its branches is used. Adoption is a reality. If it were only a figure of speech, the most that could be said of us is that we are like children of God; but John says, “Beloved, now are we the sons of God . .” (I John 3:2). So much is this true that the earthly adoption which we practice in this life is only a very faint picture of the glorious spiritual reality and falls far short of it. This too we shall see as we look at the testimony of God’s Word concerning our sonship and adoption.
In the spiritual reality of adoption there are four steps or stages distinguished by Scripture and each of these can be compared with the earthly shadow. Scripture speaks of election as part of our adoption, first of all. Then the work of Christ on the cross in the second place and the work of the Spirit of Christ in the third place belong to our adoption. Lastly, there is a final glorious revelation of the sons of God in the judgment day. We may say then that our adoption is predestinated from eternity, prepared in Christ, possessed through the Spirit, and perfected in heavenly glory. In election is the eternal reality of our adoption. The work of Christ provides the legal basis for sonship, and that sonship we have a right to in Christ is applied to us by the Spirit of adoption. Finally our adoption is realized perfectly and revealed gloriously in heaven. Those are the four aspects of our adoption of which Scripture speaks.
The grace of God in adoption is revealed first of all, then, in our election. There are two passages of Scripture which are important here: Ephesians 1:3-6 andRomans 8:28-30. In Ephesians 1:4 Paul speaks of our election, that God has “chosen us in Him (in Christ) before the foundations of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him.” In verse 5 he tells us that there is something even more basic and fundamental than our election, and that is the love of God which marks us out (predestinates us) for sonship. In other words, election is God’s sovereign choice of some in Christ to be His sons and daughters; but behind this choice lies God’s decree that He shall have many sons in His house and that His only begotten Son shall be the firstborn among many brethren. When Paul says, “In love having predestinated us . . .” that love of which he speaks is the love of God the Father according to which He chooses us from all eternity to be His children.
Paul emphasizes the wonder of this in various ways. We must remember first that Paul is speaking to common ordinary people, fathers, mothers, and children, artisans and workers, even slaves, and to them he says, “God has marked you out for sonship from all eternity.” And what is even more amazing is that he says this to those whom he describes in chapter 2 as “children of wrath.” From every point of view it is a wonder of grace. It is “in Christ.” There is no reason at all in us that we should be the sons of God except that in Christ the good pleasure of His will, is revealed. It is an amazing wonder in that God takes such as we are and chooses us to dwell in the closestpossible relationship with Him; as Paul says, “He has predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to Himself” so that we may dwell with Him, the living God, forever.
This same truth is presented in Romans 8:28-30. Here too Paul teaches that God’s purpose to make His Son the Firstborn among many brethren lies behind even our election. The foreknowledge of which Paul speaks in verse 29 is the same as the love of God in Ephesians l-a love of a Father for His children. That love is the deepest reason for our election. Our adoption begins, therefore, with God’s eternal and unchangeable love and with the choice that proceeds forth from that love.
Paul also makes it very clear here that our adoption is no afterthought in God’s work. Adoption is not a repair work to restore that which we lost in Adam. It is not a new plan which God made when Adam fell, but our adoption in Christ and the setting forth of Christ as the Firstborn in the house of God is His eternal and unchangeable purpose. From all eternity He determined to lead us to sonship through the deep way of the fall and sin and grace. This is also taught inColossians 1:15-18, where the Apostle teaches that Christ is before all things as the Firstborn and as the Head of the body, the church. The fall and sin, then, are part of God’s plan to lead many sons to glory through Christ the Firstborn, and all for the glory of His Name.
This electing love of God can be compared to the earthly adoption that we know. To make this comparison will help us see the grace of God in our adoption and will show us how much more glorious the heavenly reality is.
Just as in our adoption God’s love and God’s choosing are first, so it is in the earthly picture. Scripture’s testimony is that “We love Him, because He first loved us” (I John 4:19). The earthly picture reflects that. When parents adopt a child, the very first thing they do is go to the adoption agency to choose a child for their own. They do not choose the child that loves them the most. All the children there are strangers. Their love and their choice is first. And as that love which they bestow and the choice they make is free, so also with our adoption. The child does not choose his parents, but he is chosen even before he can say “my father” or “my mother.” So God chooses us to be His sons and daughters without any regard for what we are or what we will be, in sovereign freedom. Thus it is that the glory of the riches of God’s grace is revealed. An adopted child has no right to the love and care of his parents before he is adopted. There is no blood tie which he can claim as a basis for asserting his right to a place in their home. He is given those rights by the goodness and good will of those who adopt him. God’s children are also without any rights or privileges, not only as fallen creatures, but simply as creatures. Adam, even in the state of innocence, had not any right to God’s favor and love. His relationship with the living God was a gift of grace from God and even when he did all that was required of him he was still an unprofitable servant in God’s sight—he had not earned anything, neither the right to dwell with God as God’s son (cf. Luke 17:10). In the basic character of election, in its freedom, and in its glorious character the spiritual reality and the earthly shadow agree.
Nevertheless, the earthly shadow falls short of the reality. When we adopt children then our choice is not completely free. We are limited in our choice to the number of children at the agency to which we go, and even there we are attracted to one child and not another by something we see in that child. Again, having made our choice and taken the child as our own we may be disappointed. God’s choice is completely free in that He chooses us before we are born, before we have done good or evil, nor is He limited to what is available, but sovereignly He determines to create His children in Christ and by the Spirit of Christ, and to create them in such a way that He is never disappointed in them, but forever delights in them.
This grace of God in adoption, then, reaches back into eternity and is a marvelous revelation of the amazing wonder of God’s goodness to us. Understanding this, we exclaim with the apostle John: “Behold, what manner of love the Father hath bestowed on us that we should be called the sons of God” from before the foundations of the world (I John 3:1a).