HOPE THROUGH ADOPTION
What do the baseball player Babe Ruth, Wendy’s founder Dave Thomas, singer Faith Hill, announcer Harry Caray, and Apple CEO Steve Jobs have in common? Surprisingly, all of these famous people were adopted. What could have been a short or miserable life for these people turned out quite well, at least in the eyes of society. Adoption brought them protection, privileges, and opportunities that they would not have had otherwise. Adoption gave them hope in life knowing that they were loved and cared for. Famous people, such as the ones mentioned earlier, are not the only ones who receive benefits from adoption. The majority of people who are adopted become better off than they would if they had not been adopted. Adoption is an excellent way for Christians to show the love of God, and to give hope to the hopeless through the benefits of adoption. While adoption among humans is a good thing, adoption in Scripture is a far greater and important concept. J. I. Packer calls adoption, “The highest privilege that the gospel offers: higher even than justification.” While the concept of adoption is hinted at in the Old Testament, it finds its greatest mention in the New Testament, and specifically in the writings of Paul, where it provides the Christian with hope and blessings in the present and future to come. No Christian is exempt from the challenges and discourages of life, especially during periods of suffering, and therefore a correct understanding of biblical adoption is vital in maintaining biblical hope and joy. Biblical adoption provides blessings and hope in several ways, which will be seen as adoption is examined in more detail in the following.
While almost all people know what adoption among humans is, not all know how adoption relates to God. Horizontal adoption would be adoption among humans, while vertical adoption would be between God and his people. Vertical adoption, while not discussed in a large number of verses, is still a major concept in Paul’s letters, including Romans 8:15, 8:23, 9:4; Galatians 4:4-6; and Ephesians 1:5. While adoption is different (but connected with) than justification, it still is just as important, which is why Paul wrote about it and tied it in with the gospel message. To be sure, adoption is an underemphasized doctrine that should be studied and taught as much as justification.
To begin, definition of vertical adoption needs to be established. Paul is the only New Testament writer who uses the Greek word for adoption, huiothesia (υἱοθεσία, 5206). This word is from huios, “a son,” and thesis, “a placing,” and signifies the place and condition of a son given to one to whom it does not naturally belong. Paul uses huiothesia in Romans 8:15, 8:23, and 9:4, Galatians 4:5, and Ephesians 1:5. When Paul uses this word in these verses, he uses it metaphorically, not literally, and in a way that is unique in the New Testament. In other words, adoption is an invisible act of God, not a visible one like one would see in society today, even though God’s act of adoption is even greater than any human act. What this definition of adoption means in practical terms can be summed up by Wayne Grudem, who says, “Adoption is an act of God whereby he makes us members of his family.” Being members of his family would provide the Christian with not only blessings, but also, “All the rights, privileges, and responsibilities afforded to all the children of the family.” In light of this definition, it is clear that adoption is different than justification, despite the common confusion between the two. Traver Burke explains, “To be declared righteous at the bar of God is one thing: It is, however, quite another to be adopted into God’s family and able to call him ‘Abba, Father’.” Adoption then, refers to a legal act or transfer from the family outside of God into the family of God, which highlights the fact that believers become part of God’s family by adoption.
Since Paul was writing in a different time and culture, the meaning he intended for adoption must be obtained in light of the original culture. In other words, a 21st century understanding of adoption should not be forced upon the text if that meaning would not have been understood by the original audience of Paul’s letters. A difficulty arises in knowing what culture Paul uses to explain adoption to his audience. He was of course, living in the Roman world and would have been familiar with the Roman understanding of adoption. Not all scholars are convinced that Paul had the Roman view of adoption primarily in mind though, arguing that Paul had in mind the Hebrew understanding of adoption when he wrote.
In defense of the view that Paul had an Old Testament Hebrew view of adoption in mind, scholars argue that Paul was a Jew who was writing to Jews, through the use of Jewish Scriptures as support. In light of this, Paul would not have brought a Roman or Greek view of adoption to mind since his audience was more Semitic than Roman. Secondly, because Paul was utilizing the Old Testament, he would have had Old Testament examples of adoption in mind to support his argument. Moses, Israel, and Eliezer are all examples used to show that adoption would have been familiar to Old Testament Jews, and therefore acceptable examples for Paul to have in mind in the New Testament.
Scholars that hold to a Roman background in view would say that the relationship between Israel and God in the Old Testament would be better described as one of sonship, rather than adoption. God was the Father, Israel was the son, and the language to describe this relationship was different that what Paul used in terms of adoption. The examples of Moses, Ephraim, Manasseh, and Esther that have been given by those advocating a Jewish background from the Old Testament in Paul’s writings are brought into question as well. Hebrew Scripture did not mention adoption or give directions for it, so it would be questionable to bring in the adoptive practices of the surrounding neighbors to the text, especially in light of their differences. In response to the argument that Paul was writing to Jews as a Jew with Jewish Scripture, these scholars would say that Paul’s use of huiothesia was not to Jews, but only “in letters to communities directly under the rule of Roman law (Galatia, Rome, Ephesus).” Furthermore, Paul was in Roman society and utilized the benefits of citizenship, so there would be no reason why he would not have had a Roman understanding of adoption in mind. Added to this, many Roman emperors such as Octavian, Tiberius, Gaius, Claudius, and Nero had adopted sons to continue the succession of power through family lines. The process of adoption and the legal ramifications that followed would have been well known and familiar to those Paul was writing to. Adoption in Paul’s time would have given the adopted son, “Legal position and privileges [that] were the same as of a legitimate biological son.”
Having noted the different views on the background of adoption, can a case be made that one view is preferable to the other? The answer cannot be strictly limited to either a Hebrew background or a Roman one, because these two cultures were tied together in many fashions. While it is true that Paul was a Hebrew, he was also a Roman citizen in a Roman world. He would have used elements from both cultures in his teaching, and with adoption, would have not limited his understanding to just the Roman or Hebrew background. Given the familiarity of adoption in the Roman world at the time Paul was writing, and the lack of evidence in the Old Testament that the Old Testament authors were referring to the relationship between God and Israel in terms of adoption rather than sonship, it would be better to understand Paul’s view of adoption coming more from Roman background than Hebrew. Burke remarks:
What remains to be seen is whether the points elucidated above have influenced or shaped Paul’s huiothesia terminology, and whether there is any concrete evidence to show Paul is relying on a Roman sociolegal background. Moreover, even if there are occasions where there are parallels between the practice of adoption in antiquity and Paul’s use of this in his letters, there may be times when this is not the case. It may be here that we are in touch with aspects of Paul’s own unique and creative thinking on adoption, where he provides novel insights to serve his own theological purposes.
In conclusion to the background of adoption, aspects of both the Hebrew and Roman understandings will help give meaning to how Paul uses the term. Care must be taken not to read a meaning from either background into the text that was not intended. The importance in Scripture is on the blessings and importance of adoption, and how adoption relates to the gospel. With the background that aids in understanding what adoption is, the focus will now shift to the blessings and hope that come through adoption.
Adoption, as noted before, is referred to in five places in the New Testament, all in the letters of Paul. While society today would view adoption as having present value, few would think of it in a future tense, yet the adoption that Paul speaks of has both present and future aspects. To begin, adoption gives hope to the believer because adoption transfers them from one family to another. By nature, believers are “Children of wrath,” (Eph. 2:3) and not naturally part of the family of God. Adoption changes the status of the believer, transferring them from the family of the “Children of wrath” to the family of God, and with the transfer, assurance of salvation. Romans 8:15-17 notes this transfer with, “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.” This change of position should not be taken lightly, for:
Under Roman law, the only thing that stood in the way of a person adopting a child not his own, was the fact that the child did not come of his own flesh and blood. This obstacle was surmounted by the fact that the law gave him the right to make the child his own if he fulfilled the proper legal requirements. But under the divine government of the universe, there were two things that stood in God’s way of making human beings His children, the fact that they were not His children by birth and the fact that they were law-breakers. The first could easily have been remedied by regeneration, but the thing that stood in the way of this act of mercy on God’s part was the fact that human beings are sinners, and God’s justice demands that sin be paid for before mercy can be righteously bestowed.
As a result of the change of families, believers are no longer under God’s curse but now are under God’s blessings, and are in God’s family with all of the benefits of being in the family. Believers can rejoice and have great joy in knowing that God wanted them to be a part of his family, and Christ paid the great price to make this happen. Being rejected is a feeling that no one enjoys or desires, so while rejection can be a part of the believer’s life in his or her relationship to the world, it is not in their spiritual life. Just like children do not need to worry that their parents will remove them from the family if they mess up or do not live up to their parents expectations, so believers can have confidence that they will never be rejected by God even if they mess up or fail. J. I. Packer states:
The depressions, randomnesses and immaturities that mark the children of broken homes are known to us all. But things are not like that in God’s family. There you have absolute stability and security; the parent is entirely wise and good, and the children’s position is permanently assured. The very concept of adoption is itself a proof and guarantee of the preservation of the saints, for only bad fathers throw their children out of the family, even under provocation; and God is not a bad father, but a good one. When one sees depression, randomness and immaturity in Christians one cannot but wonder whether they have learned the health-giving habit of dwelling on the abiding security of true children of God.
Along with the assurance of salvation, believers find hope and blessings from adoption in the family of God by being able to relate to God in a personal way. The same is true with human adoption, as the newly adopted child now has a father that will bond and communicate with him. It would be a tragedy if this were not the case, with the father being distant and far off. As mentioned earlier, God is not the believer’s “natural” father, but because of his love has chosen the believer and now is their new father. He is then personal and the believer is able to relate to him in a personal way, even being able to say, “Abba, Father.” God as Father is a central focus in the letters of Paul, with around 40 references in all of his writings and eight of those references in Ephesians, giving the Fatherhood of God and adoption a strong connection. God does not adopt believers and then withhold the blessings and privileges of being a son or daughter from them, but rather relates to them as their father who wants the best for them. The believer can have great hope and joy in knowing that they can approach God with confidence and trust, knowing that God is the perfect Father who will never fail them, and is always there when they need him. This means that Christians are the children of God and are cared for and loved by the creator of the universe, making their status incredibly special. Douglas Moo notes:
In crying out “Abba, Father,” the believer not only gives voice to his or her consciousness of belonging to God as his child but also to having a status comparable to that of Jesus himself. The Aramaic abba was the term Jesus himself used in addressing his Father, ….[and] in ascribing to Christians indwelt by the Spirit the use of this term in addressing God, Paul shows that Christians have a relationship to God that is like (though, of course not, not exactly like) Christ’s own relationship to the Father.
Having this special relationship to God as Father allows Christians, no matter what their sin is or what circumstance they find themselves in, to turn to and cry to God for his help that will in turn come because He is Father.
Christians are therefore able to cry out and pray to God in a personal way. The way that Paul uses abba is significant in understanding the blessings and hope that the adoption of God gives. In his letters Paul did not explain the meaning of abba, meaning his audience would have been familiar with the Aramaic word. The word most likely “is a family term used both by children and adults and expresses intimacy and affection for parents.” Other than Paul, only Jesus is recorded in the Bible as using it as he prays to the Father. It follows then, that Paul uses abba in a way that connects adoption to Christ’s relationship with God. What significance does abba have in Paul’s theology of adoption? Burke notes that:
‘Jesus’ usage of the Aramaic term abba is still without parallel, and because abba is a Jesus word, the only credible solution as to why Paul retains it in his letters is the fact that it was an expression of Jesus’ own making that was subsequently remembered. Jesus is the conduit who enables his disciples to employ the same language he himself used in addressing God as Father.
Paul picked up on Christ’s use of the word in his letters, knowing that the audience to whom he wrote would have been familiar with it as well. The significance for Christians today is that they too can address God in a similar way that Christ did. It should be noted however, that rather than to see abba as meaning “daddy,” in a very informal way as some have suggested, it is better and far more important to see and use abba in a way that is both reverent and prayerful in addressing God as Father. Neither Jesus nor Paul use the word in a way that would fail to respect God, but instead they both use the word in a way that expresses their trust, hope, dependence, and thankfulness in Him. All of these elements are present in the cry of “Abba,” as both Christ and Paul recognized that the Father was willing and able to sustain them through the trials that they faced, and was worthy to be praised for being the perfect Father that He was. Christians therefore, can take hope in knowing that God the Father who sustained and provided for Christ and Paul will provide for them through their struggles as well. Burke adds:
Abba may not only be a prayer that signals the adopted son’s new status but may also be a cry of dependency upon God the Father for support and strength in the days ahead. Thus, while abba may be a cry of ‘familial joy,’ the other side of the coin is our present suffering as part of creation, depicted by Paul as our groaning and longing for the future and final adoption as sons, the redemption of the body.
It is an incredible privilege then to be able to speak to God, the one who created and upholds the universe by the word of his power, in such a term as abba, Father! Great blessings are found in this relationship with God as Father and the believer as an adopted child.
Another hope and blessing that comes through adoption and the relationship with God as Father comes through the inheritance that is received by the believers as sons. God gives part of the inheritance now, but other aspects and blessings are still to come. In Paul’s letter to the Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians, two benefits of adoption as relating to an inheritance are found. Paul identifies Christians as “heirs” who have an inheritance that is given them by God. Before adoption, Christians were slaves but after adoption, are now sons, and even “fellow heirs with Christ” (Rom. 8:17). “As sons” is an important phrase in the text because the son received the inheritance directly, while the daughter received it indirectly. Paul is not downplaying the importance or worth of women at all. He uses “sons,” as Russell Moore notes, “not because the gospel is anti-woman, but because it is not.” In order to understand what this means, an understanding of inheritance is necessary. This will be examined in more detail in the following paragraphs. Paul’s audience would have understood that the son was the primary focus of the father’s inheritance, not the daughter. Moore notes:
Those reading the apostolic letters for the first time would have understood completely that an inheritance didn’t go to the daughter of a tribal patriarch. She received her inheritance through her husband. That’s why we contemporary Westerners retain the act of a father “giving away his daughter” at a wedding ceremony. The inheritance, though, went to the sons, and particularly to the firstborn son.
Paul’s usage of “as sons” is encouraging then both to men and women because it means no one who is adopted is excluded from the inheritance. Had Paul added, “and daughters,” the Jews could have referred to themselves as “sons” and the Gentiles as “daughters.” That would have made them the heirs of the inheritance instead of the Gentiles. The same could be said with men in general as well, but when Paul speaks “as sons,” women are equally included in the inheritance just as the Gentiles are. The beauty of adoption and the words Paul uses to describe it show that the inheritance is for all who have been adopted, not just a select few.
As with adoption, the Old Testament background has relevance in Paul’s understanding of inheritance. While in the Old Testament the concept of inheritance was understood as a physical blessing (such as the land) or as a future reward for the godly at the judgment, Paul’s use of the term in his letters connects sonship and adoption in a way that was different from anywhere in the Old Testament. What this means is that Paul draws the importance of the inheritance from the Old Testament, but shows that adoption is the basis for inheritance, not inheritance the basis for adoption. Inheritance then, flows from being adopted, and without being adopted, there would be no inheritance. While this connection may seem obvious and the argument unnecessary, the Christian can forget that they receive the inheritance because of adoption. Remembering this connection in the right order provides hope and comfort because those receive the inheritance are part of God’s family, with all of the blessings mentioned earlier. Specifically, being adopted provides the believer with an inheritance that includes everything God has, including God himself. Lest that seem irreverent or arrogant, consider the statements that Paul makes regarding this. In 1 Corinthians 3:21, Paul tells the Corinthians, “For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, and you are Christ's, and Christ is God's.” On this inheritance Grudem remarks, “All the great privileges and blessings of heaven are laid up for us and put at our disposal because we are children of the King, members of the royal family, princes and princesses who will reign with Christ over the new heavens and new earth.” Interestingly, unlike modern day inheritance terms in which the inheritor receives the inheritance upon the death of the owner of the estate, and in which the heir is not considered a real “heir” until the actual death of the estate holder, Paul’s usage from Roman culture is different. Here, what Paul (and Roman culture) builds upon is, “The heir was understood to be the embodiment of the testator-the father lived on, so to speak, in the son-not from the time of the father’s death but from the time of the son’s… adoption.” In other words, adoption makes believers heirs, not the death of the father (who in the case of God would never die).
One part of this inheritance that is overlooked is God himself. In Romans 8:17, Paul says that believers are “heirs of God.” Some commentators understand this in the traditional sense of inheritance, where the believer inherits the promises and blessings of God. Other scholars though believe that while it is true that believers inherit the promises of God, they also inherit God himself. Thomas Schreiner states:
Paul asserts that believers have inherited the promise of Abraham, and this promise is an astounding one, for Abraham is heir of the world. Here he says something even more stunning: believers are “heirs of God” himself. The wording suggests not merely that believers are heirs of what God has promised but of God himself.
What this means, and why inheriting God is so great, is that God becomes the believer’s God who shares with his children the glory of himself. Instead of being someone else’s god, or a god that is far off, God is uniquely the believer’s God that has a connection too amazing to fully comprehend or explain in terms humans can understand in this life. God’s glory is part of who God is, and when the believer is connected to God through adoption and becomes heir, God’s glory is shared in a way that brings God more glory. In no way is this disrespectful or dishonoring to God, but the opposite as God’s adoption and the inheritance he gives brings even more glory to himself. All of this gives great hope and blessing to the believer, who can look forward to inheriting God himself, as well as his blessings. As Burke concludes, “Because Abba’s sons are also Abba’s heirs, the inheritance believers can look forward to is God himself.” This is made possible because believers are “fellow-heirs” with Christ, as Paul notes in 8:17. Christ, through his work, has made adoption possible and cannot be separated from the believer or God in adoption. In other words, the believer cannot be adopted or receive the inheritance without Christ. Christ’s work then, gives the believer great assurance and hope that the adoption or the promises of the inheritance will never fail.
The discussion of adoption in Romans comes in the context of Paul’s reminder to the believer of God’s everlasting love that was demonstrated through Christ’s suffering and work. When Paul says, “For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord,” he means that nothing will be able to break or undo the adoption of the believer. Believers do not have to worry that sin or failing will cause God to “unadopt” or disinherit them. Daniel Bennett points out:
It is he [God] who foreknows, who plans, who calls, who justifies, and who glorifies. Our security rests not on our own efforts but on God’s sovereign oversight. In verses 38-39, based on his confidence in the work of God at every step, Paul draws this conclusion: There is nothing that can separate us from God.
To have this assurance of God’s never failing, never ending love that has been shown through his adoption is an incredible privilege. Despite the challenges and oppositions that Satan and the world throws at believers, they can always have hope and joy in knowing that God is always for them, and as their Father will always provide and protect them.
Not only is the provision of God the Father for believers in this life, but also in the life to come. Paul explains that adoption is both a present and future event. Moo notes, “Christians, at the moment of justification, are adopted into God’s family; but this adoption is incomplete and partial until we are finally made like the Son of God himself.” The final fulfillment of adoption will come in the next life, as God glorifies his children. In Romans and Ephesians especially, Paul points to the future glorification, which gives hope through the midst of the struggles in life. Believers may be frustrated in their struggles with their spiritual life, thinking that they will never measure up or amount to anything. They also can be frustrated with how the world views them and perhaps even with a lack a seeing the blessings of adoption. The final aspect of adoption though shows that God will ultimately change them so that they will experience and glorify God in the way that God has always intended. This mindset motivates Christians to keep pressing on through their struggles and to not give up by knowing their efforts are the response to God’s grace, and not the basis for it. In other words, knowing what God has done and will do generates a thankful response in the hearts of Christians to continue on serving and growing in Christ. How the world views the Christian or how the Christian view his or herself ultimately will be made right in the next age when the Christian is glorified. Burke remarks, “In their present condition, God’s adopted sons may be without honor in the eyes of this world, but one day this will give way to the honorable disclosure of who they really are when their huiothesia will finally be revealed.”
Adoption provides great blessings and hope for Christians. They can be assured that God loves them and will sustain and glorify them. Even though they sin and fall short often, the Christian should never lose assurance and hope because they are part of God’s family and can never lose that standing. God is giving them blessings of his inheritance now and in the age to come. Adoption then, brings God the glory and praise that is rightly due him as He takes sinners that are outside of his family and makes them heirs of it through Christ. Adoption is a doctrine that should be more fully explained as it gives much needed hope and joy to struggling Christians. In light of the wondrous doctrine of adoption as seen through the letters of Paul, Christians should thankfully and joyfully live their lives fittingly and to the glory of the most high God as his children.
J. I. Packer, Knowing God (Downer’s Grove, Il: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 206.
W.E Vine, Merrill F. Unger, and William White, “Adoption,” Vine's Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1996).
 Travor J. Burke, Adopted into God’s Family, ed. D.A. Carson, New Studies in Biblical Theology 22 (Downer’s Grove, Il: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 22.
Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), 736.
Stan Norman, “Adoption,” in The Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary, ed. Chad Brand, Charles Draper, and Archie England (Nashville: Holman, 2003).
Burke, Adopted into God’s Family, 25.
William H. Rossell, “New Testament Adoption-Graeco-Roman or Semitic?,” JBL 71 (1952): 233.
Burke, Adopted, 61.
All Scripture taken from ESV
K.S.Wuest, “The Spirit of Adoption,” Wuest's word studies from the Greek New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997).
Packer, Knowing God, 209.
Burke, Adopted, 73.
Douglas J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 502-503.
Burke, Adopted, 93.
Russell D. Moore, Adopted for Life (Wheaton, Il: Crossway, 2009),48.
Burke, Adopted, 97.
Grudem, Systematic Theology, 740.
Burke, Adopted, 98.
Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008), 427.
Burke, Adopted, 99.
Daniel J. Bennett, A Passion for the Fatherless (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2011), 77-78.
Moo, Romans, 521.
Burke, Adoption, 193.