Adoption: Welcome to the Family
Passage: Galatians 4:1–4:7, Romans 8:12–8:17, Ephesians 1:3–1:14, Hebrews 12:1–12:11
Forty years ago, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis announced an “Adoption Week” in his state. Its purpose was to promote public awareness of the need for adoptive families of children who were in foster care. Eight years later President Ronald Reagan proclaimed the first “National Adoption Week,” and in 1995 President Bill Clinton expanded Adoption Awareness from one week to an entire month. Since then, every November has been declared by Presidential proclamation, “National Adoption Month.”
Today in the United States there are nearly four hundred thousand children living in the foster care system without permanent families. More than a hundred thousand of those children are eligible for adoption, but nearly a third of them will wait more than three years in foster care before being adopted. Some will never be.
Although we seem to hear a lot about the need these days, the total number of adoptions—both domestically as well as from other countries—has declined by as much as fourteen percent over the past decade. Part of the reason for that is the rising number of children who need of permanent families and homes.
In recent weeks you and I have been considering the great biblical truths related to salvation. If you are a Christian, having experienced the saving grace of God by faith in the finished work of the Lord Jesus Christ, then much more has transpired on your behalf than you are likely aware.
Thus far in our study, we have observed that those who are “in Christ” were elected for salvation according to God’s good pleasure from before creation. At a point in time, God called to Himself through the human proclamation of the Gospel, those who were His so that they responded to Him in saving faith. Their ability to respond was the result of their having been regenerated by Him and given spiritual life. At that time they were converted through the renunciation of sin and the embracing of Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. They were thus justified, or declared “not guilty” by God, who removed their debt of sin and imparted to them the righteousness of Christ.
But that wasn’t all. In addition to these things, every elected, called, regenerated, converted, and justified believer was said in Scripture to have been “adopted” into the family of God.
But what does that “adoption” imply? Let’s take a few moments to consider...
The biblical concept of “adoption.”
Although the subject of “adoption” is employed repeatedly throughout the New Testament, the word itself is found only five times (Romans 8:15, 23 and 9:4; Galatians 4:5; and Ephesians 1:5). In the Greek, it is a term (“‘υιοθεσια”) that is rich with meaning. It is a compound word that literally refers to “the placing of a son.” Perhaps a clearer way of getting a handle on its meaning would be to think of it as “sonship.” Interestingly, Paul is the only writer to employ it and he does so in a metaphorical sense derived from Roman law. The legal standing of a son in early Roman times was little better than that of a slave, although the extent to which that was enacted was at the discretion of the father (cf. Galatians 4:1-3). The son was considered the property of his father, who could transfer ownership of him by adoption or by sale. In extreme situations he even had the right to put him to death.
A son who was adopted by another father was considered like a son who had been born into that family. He was granted the position and all of the accompanying privileges—as well as all the responsibilities—of a natural-born son. The relationship with his new family was exclusive, meaning that his former relationships had been severed. No longer was he able to inherit from his natural father or be held liable for his debts. So far as his former family was concerned, he was considered dead.
The Roman law of “sonship” and its relationship to God’s method of adopting sons into His family is referred to in the first seven verses of Galatians 4. There we read:
“...the heir, as long as he is a child, is no different from a slave, though he is the owner of everything, but he is under guardians and managers until the date set by his father. In the same way we also, when we were children, were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world. But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the 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.” (Galatians 4:1-7)
From this passage we learn that we are not just children who need to grow up, but we are slaves who need to be redeemed, bought out of our bondage and brought into a new family relationship. Paul uses similar language and develops this thought more completely in Romans 8. Beginning in verse 12, he reminds his fellow-believers...
“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!’ The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.” (Romans 8:12-17)
Were we to read on, we would see in verse 23 that the complete realization of our “sonship” relation with the Father awaits the consummation of the end of the age when all of creation will be redeemed. But even now, the position of every believer in Jesus Christ, is secure. As adopted heirs, they have been granted the full rights—as well as responsibilities —of a natural-born son.
There is one more passage of Scripture we need to look at as we consider the biblical concept of “adoption.” It is found in the 1st chapter of Ephesians, where with a compression of language Paul expresses God’s sovereign action which resulted in His adopting work, and then he enumerates its effects on those who are its recipients. We have seen these words in recent weeks in previous messages, but notice them again within the context of “adoption.” We’ll begin at verse 3:
“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. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight, making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.
“In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.” (Ephesians 1:3-14).
Those three passages present rich truths with regard to our family relationship with the Lord as His adopted children. Adoption is a serious matter under any system. When used as a figure of speech to express spiritual truth, it emphasizes the sovereign and gracious character of God in adopting those who would be His, as well as in our solemn obligation to live as His chosen heirs.
The Puritan Thomas Watson wrote, “We have enough in us to move God to correct us, but nothing to move him to adopt us.” What then was it that motivated God to takes us into His family and become a Father to us? That leads us to consider...
The basic cause of “adoption”
Although John the Apostle employs different terminology, he answers that question for us in chapter 3 of his first epistle. There he writes, “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are” (1 John 3:1).
“Adoption” is a specific act of God’s grace that, although related, is distinct from regeneration, justification, and sanctification. It is that act by which we become “sons of God” and enter into a “family relationship” with Him. The Scriptures do not support the notion that all human beings are “children of God.” On the contrary, it is only those who have entered through the doorway of faith in response to His grace that God is pleased to call His sons and daughters. No one had been “adopted” into God’s family who not been regenerated, justified, and sanctified by the Spirit of God.
We might be prone to treat regeneration and “adoption” as synonymous because, as we have seen in recent weeks, when a person is regenerated he is said to be “born again” (cf. John 3:3). “Adoption,” at first glance, seems to be just another way of describing “the new birth,” but that is not the case. It has been pointed out historically that “adoption” in the time of the biblical writers generally took place in adolescence and even adulthood, rather than in infancy. Regeneration and “adoption” deal with two different issues. Whereas regeneration deals with our nature—transforming us from God-haters to lovers of the Heavenly Father—“adoption” deals with our status, taking us from a state of alienation from God to cherished children of God.
Neither is “adoption” synonymous with justification. That is because “adoption” provides a richer blessing, and may be viewed as the relational aspect of justification. In other words, whereas justification is conceived of in terms of one’s legal standing with God— having sins forgiven and being accepted as righteous in God’s sight—“adoption” refers to the believer’s intimate relationship with God as Father. To put it simply, justification relates to law and views God as “Judge,” whereas “adoption” relates to love and sees Him as “Father.”
In a similar vein, “adoption” should not be thought of as synonymous with sanctification. Rather, it is through the sanctification process that the believer is brought into a greater awareness of his “adoption.” Sanctification, which we will consider in greater depth next Sunday, is simply a living out of one’s “adoption” or “sonship.”
While it is possible for something other than “love” to prompt someone to “adopt” another into his family, clearly with God that is not the case. Both Paul (cf. Ephesians 1:5) and John (cf. 1 John 3:1) agree that the basic cause of the believer’s being “adopted” into the family of God was His “love.”
“Adoption” is the act of God whereby he makes us members of His family. It has to do with our relationship with Him as Father...a good and loving Father. Practically speaking, “adoption” means that the Christian has become the recipient of God’s fatherly care.
As with most things in the Christian life, the changes that occur in the life of those who have been “adopted” into God’s family will be gradual and at times imperceptible. That being said, the transformation will over time be observable and certain. Let’s consider a few of...
The bold contrasts of “adoption.”
Although they didn’t always agree on what those would be, the Puritan writers consistently argued that certain “marks” would inevitably come to characterize and reveal who were the members of God’s family. Among those listed by William Perkins were the following (and I quote):
- “An earnest and hearty desire in all things to further the glory of God.
- “A care and readiness to resign our selves in subjection to God, to be ruled by his word and spirit, in thought, word, and deed.
- “A sincere endeavor to do his will in all things with cheerfulness, making conscience of everything we know to be evil...
- “A continual combat between the flesh and the spirit, corruption haling and drawing one way, and grace resisting the same and drawing another way.”
Roger Drake, another of the Puritans, said that God’s adopted children would be marked by faith and dependence upon the Lord, prayer, assurance of salvation, an evidence of conversion, freedom in Christ, as well as patience, and love.
These lists suggest the transformational work of the Holy Spirit within the one who was “adopted.” Under Roman law, “adoption” was a legal act by which a man chose someone outside the family to be an heir to his inheritance. There would have been new relationships forged with the “adoption.” The one whom God has adopted, therefore, would also expect to have his relationships with both the Lord and the Lord’s people altered and redefined.
Love and communion with God lie at the heart of “adoption.” The believer has severed relationships with his old family because he now belongs to a new family. He has been set free from all of the legal obligations of the family from which he came. And best of all, he has been invested with all the rights, privileges, and advantages of his new family.
It also needs to be pointed out that all three members of the Trinity are involved in God’s “adoptive” process. “Adoption” is the gracious act of God the Father whereby He chooses us, calls us to Himself, and bestows on us the blessings and privileges of being His children. God the Son earned those blessings for us through His sacrificial death on the cross and applies them to us as our “Elder Brother.” And God the Holy Spirit changes us from being children of wrath, which we are by nature, into children of God. And He unites us to Christ by sealing and securing our “sonship.”
But there are other relationships that are changed as well, namely those with our “fellow heirs,” our brothers and sisters in Christ. As God’s “adopted” sons and daughters, we have been placed into a great family. As we grow to understand this more clearly, our attitude toward our fellow heirs will be profoundly affected. We are called repeatedly in the New Testament—both by Jesus Himself and those who composed the Scriptures—to “love one another” (cf. John 13:34-35, Romans 13:8, 1 Peter 1:22, I John 3:11 and 23, 4:7 and 11, and 2 John 1:5). The lack of love for others within our new family should caution us against presumption when evaluating our own relationship within the family.
In addition to these bold contrasts, there are additional benefits and privileges that are part and parcel of our new position.
The beneficial components of “adoption.”
Let us not forget that God’s “adopted” children are members of a royal family and co-heirs with Jesus Christ. In Him, according to 1 Corinthians 3:21 through 23, we have become possessors of all things. To those who are His, God gives not sparingly, but abundantly of His Kingdom (cf. Matthew 25:21 and 23). We would not have time to cite all the blessings that come to us by being united with Him in this way. At the risk of overlooking some which should be mentioned, allow me to name just a few here in bullet-point fashion. As a result of our newly “adopted” status into the family of God, the New Testament tells us that...
- We are cut off from the family to which we naturally belong...that is, the family of Adam. No longer are children of wrath (cf. Ephesians 2:3-5).
- We are given the freedom to address God as “Father” (cf. Romans 8:15 and Galatians 4:6).
- We are given a new name (cf. Revelation 2:17 and 3:12).
- We are given “the Spirit of adoption” (cf. Romans 8:15), who lives within us.
- We are being conformed to the image His Son (cf. Romans 8:29).
- We are given the gift of prayer (cf. 1 Thessalonians 5:17).
- We are given gifts by which to serve Him (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:7).
- We are chastened and disciplined for our sanctification (cf. Hebrews 12:6).
- We receive comfort in times of affliction (cf. Romans 5:5).
- We are given freedom from the world and all of its powerful temptations (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:13).
- We are granted security from falling away (cf. 1 Peter 1:5).
- We are provided everything we need (cf. Philippians 4:19).
- We are given His angels as “ministering spirits” to serve us for good (cf. Hebrews 1:14).
All of these benefits are granted to the “adopted” heir of God. The fact that we may not sense these benefits and privileges to the extent that we one day will does not make them any less real. They are to be claimed by faith and cultivated daily as we live as His children.
This supposes a responsibility on our part...not a work, mind you, but a willing reception of these privileges. In light of that, something needs to be said about...
The believing commitment to “adoption.”
What I am implying is that there are some duties and responsibilities inherent with being an “adopted” child of God. For example,
- We are to show childlike reverence and love for our Father in everything. We should reflect often on His glory and majesty and never lose our sense of awe in His omnipresence. Let us remember that He sees everything and even knows the very thoughts and intentions of our hearts.
- In addition, we are to submit to our Father in any and every circumstance.
- Furthermore, we are to obey and imitate our Father, striving to bear the “family likeness.”
- Also, we are to love others who bear the Father’s image and seek to preserve the “family unity” at all times.
- What’s more, we are to resist every hindrance that keeps us from relishing the Father’s “adoptive” grace. There must be no murmuring or complaining, thanklessness, trying the patience of God, selfish ambition, prejudice of any kind, and over-scrupulousness. All of those things rob us of the joy of being His chosen child.
- Besides these, we are to rejoice being in the Father’s presence. In heaven our joy will be full and our “adoption” perfected. Until then, we are to wait and long for that day, just as children await the arrival of Christmas morning. One day we shall receive our full inheritance, that for which our heart has longed.
There is one more responsibility that I need to mention, and I have saved it for last. It comes out of the first eleven verses of Hebrews 12, and I would like for you to look at that with me. The writer of this epistle begins by referring to the examples of “the heroes of faith” mentioned in the previous chapter. Chapter 12 begins by pointing us to the greater example of Jesus Himself. It is here that we read these words addressed to Christians...the “adopted” children of God:
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.
“Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself. So that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons?
“‘My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord,
nor be weary when reproved by him.
For the Lord disciplines the one he loves,
And chastises every son whom he receives.’
“It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.” (Hebrews 12:1-11).
In summary of this passage and to add to the list of our duties and responsibilities as God’s “adopted” children, we are to receive the Father’s discipline as a sign of His love. Every “Dad” worthy of the title seeks the very best for his child, and no less is that true of the Perfect Father. Every painful stroke that God permits His child to endure is an expression of His paternal care. We must remember that He sees the “long term” when we cannot. One day it will all become clear to us, and we will understand what the Scriptures mean when they say, “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are...we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.” (1 John 3:1-3).
There are some within our church family who have experienced the “adoptive process” firsthand, either as an “adoptive parent” or a child who has been “adopted” into a new family. I am told that when an adoption takes place, the child who is involved receives a new birth certificate with the names of the adoptive parents. What is noteworthy is that there is nothing on that birth certificate that would indicate that the child had not been born to that father and mother. As far as the law goes—and certainly in the eyes of the parents—it’s as if they were naturally born into that family. As one parent put it, “It’s as if history has been rewritten.” What’s past is erased, and what’s now is all that matters.
One of the rules for foster parents is that no corporal punishment can be administered to the children in their care. One set of adoptive parents recently told the story that when the formal adoption of a brother and sister was finalized, they were asked by the children, “Are we going to get spanked now?” It was a curious question, but upon further reflection an understandable one. It was as if those children now looked forward to the “privilege” of receiving discipline. Why? Because they recognized that it meant that they would truly and permanently be a part of their new family.
In a similar way, this is how it is when God “adopts” children into His family. We truly become His children, and we have the “privilege” of experiencing His discipline. After all, as we have just read, “The Lord disciplines the one he loves.”
If you stop and think about it, “adoption” into God’s family is the highest privilege one can receive. In fact, it provides the foundational relationship upon which the entire Christian life is built. Because we can now address God as “Our Father” (Matthew 6:9), we have a personal Pattern by which to measure our Christian conduct, as well as having direct access to Him in prayer. Indeed, as recipients of the Father’s love, we are able to live lives of faith, hope, holiness, and assurance.
What is left to ask is if you personally have been “adopted” into God’s family. If not, then there is a word for you that comes from the first chapter of John’s Gospel. There it is said concerning the Lord Jesus that to everyone who receives Him, who believes in His name, He gives the right (or authority) “to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:12-13). Do you believe in this Jesus and are you trusting Him to have been your sin-bearer when He died upon the cross? There is no other path of entry into the family of God except through Him.
If you have already been given a new spiritual “birth certificate” where God’s name has been written as your Father, then let me pose several questions as we conclude:
- Do you understand and value your “adoption”?
- Do you remind yourself each day of your privileges and responsibilities as His child?
- In addition to being your Lord and Savior, do you recognize Jesus as your “elder Brother,” the One who draws near to you in order to provide you comfort and strength in time of need?
- Are you learning to hate the things your Father hates, as well as to love the things He loves?
- Do you look forward to “family reunions” whenever the saints come together, and do you look anticipate that day when those gatherings will never end?
- Are you proud of your Father and His family, and unashamed to tell others of your family identity? In short, are you accurately bearing the family image?