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Biblical Adoption Is Not What You Think It Is
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I was an only child—except for the year I was in third grade. That year, Ronnie and Jerry invaded my bedroom and shared my parents. I thought it was cool to have brothers for a change, even if they were temporary foster brothers.

At the end of the school year, my father took me aside. We could provide a permanent family for Ronnie and Jerry, he said. My parents had discussed adopting them, but they didn't want to decide without talking to me.

There were complicating factors, Dad said. There was a third brother who was behaviorally challenged, and the social worker wanted us to adopt all three. She thought it was vital to try to keep the family together.

Then there was my inheritance. It would have to be split four ways.

In Romans 8:14–17, Paul teaches that we are adopted through the Holy Spirit, and that as God's adopted children, we become heirs. The apostle, in fact, addresses the same issues my parents did with Ronnie and Jerry.

Adoption Then and Now

First, there is intimacy with the Father. Ronnie and Jerry didn't call my dad Dr. Neff, like my other friends did. He wanted them to call him Dad. If my parents had adopted them, he would truly, fully, legally, and in every way but one have been their dad. And Paul writes that the Spirit of God prompts us to call God Abba, the intimate Aramaic word for Dad. Not only that, the Spirit gives us an internal assurance that God is indeed our Abba.

Second, there is adoption itself. In 1984, Scottish law professor Francis Lyall published an excellent study of the legal metaphors in the Epistles (Slaves, Citizens, Sons, Zondervan). Lyall shows that Roman—not Jewish, not Greek—adoption law was at the heart of this teaching. There ...

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Past Imperfect
David Neff
David Neff was editor in chief of Christianity Today, where he worked from 1985 until his retirement in 2013. He is also the former editor in chief of Christian History magazine, and continues to explore the intersection of history and current events in his bimonthly column, "Past Imperfect." His earlier column, "Editor's Bookshelf," ran from 2002 to 2004 and paired Neff's reviews of thought-provoking books and interviews with the authors.
Previous Past Imperfect Columns:
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Biblical Adoption Is Not What You Think It Is
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December 2013

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