Abba Changes Everything
No Natural-born Children of God
Little Maxim's scream changed everything—more, I think, than did the judge's verdict and the notarized paperwork. It was the moment, in his recognizing that he would be heard, that he went from being an orphan to being a son. It was also the moment I became a father, in fact if not in law. We both recognized that something was wrong, because suddenly, life as it had been seemed terribly disordered.
Up to that time, I had read the Abba cry passages in Romans and Galatians the same way I had heard them preached: as a gurgle of familiarity, the spiritual equivalent of an infant cooing "Papa" or "Daddy." Relational intimacy is surely present in the texts—hence Paul's choice of such a personal word as Abba—but this definitely isn't sentimental. After all, Scripture tells us that Jesus' Spirit lets our hearts cry "Abba, Father!" (Gal. 4:6). Jesus cries "Abba, Father" as he screams "with loud cries and tears" for deliverance in the Garden of Gethsemane (Heb. 5:7; Mark 14:36, ESV, used throughout). Similarly, the doctrine of adoption shows us that we "groan" with the creation itself "as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies" (Rom. 8:23). It is the scream of the crucified.
The gospel of adoption challenges us, first of all, to recognize ourselves as spiritual orphans. The gospel compels us to see our fallen universe—and our own egocentric kingdoms therein—as not the way it's supposed to be.
With our evangelistic emphasis on the sinner's prayer, evangelicals ought to recognize this more than we often do. "Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved" (Rom. 10:13), we rightly insist. But we rarely feel how desperate—and how liberating—the call is. We assume it's a cry only at the beginning of the Christian walk, not through the ongoing work of the Spirit. We grow complacent in the present age, too comfortable to cry out for a Father we can sense only by faith.
The Abba cry of our adoption defines who we are and what family we belong to. That's why Scripture's witness to the doctrine of adoption has everything to do with church unity, away from the divisions of Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female, rich and poor (Gal. 3:28). None of us are natural-born children of God, entitled to all this grace, all this glory. It's not just the Gentiles—with their uncircumcised penises and pig-flesh-eating mouths—who were adopted into this family. The Jewish Christians, too, received adoption (Rom. 9:4). Yes, Abraham was the father of the Israelites, but he was an Iraqi Gentile before he joined the household of God. We Christians receive newcomers because, in Christ, we have been received. Our identity and our inheritance are found in Christ, or they are not found at all.
I was at first reluctant to adopt, because I assumed an adopted child would always be more distant than a child "of my own." I was wrong. And I should have known better. After all, there are no "adopted children" of God, as an ongoing category. Adoption tells us how we came into the family of God. And once we are here, no distinction is drawn between those at the dinner table. Love based on the preservation and protection of genetic material makes sense in a Darwinian—not a Christian—view of reality.