Adoption was quite common in the Graeco-Roman world. Under Roman law an adopted son was fully accepted as a member of the family, regarded in all respects as a real son. Certain formalities of adoption were observed. Witnesses were necessary who could vouch for the regularity of the procedure. Anyone who became a son by adoption was required to renounce all his former ties; even his debts were canceled, it appears. He was in many ways a new creature.

The discovery of the Nuzi archives throws some light on the practice of adoption in a Semitic culture. At Nuzi it was customary for a childless couple to adopt a son who would in every sense be a son while they lived and would receive the inheritance. But a natural son born after the adoption would become the chief heir.

The New Testament points to men and women who, having put their trust in Jesus Christ, are welcomed into God’s family, and duly recognized as sons of God (John 1:12, 13; Rom. 8:14–17). Adoption is seen as one of the objectives of divine predestination (Eph. 1:5, 8). Elsewhere there is reference to the future completion of this adoption at the time of the resurrection (Rom. 8:23); adoption is completed by the redemption of the body. Pfleiderer distinguished distinct moments in adoption. Here and now, adoption means freedom from the Law and the possession of the Spirit of adoption, which enables believers to address God as Father. Adoption will be completed with the full inheritance with Christ in glory. As another commentator, Meyer, has put it: “Believers have this blessing [adoption] already, but only in an inward relation and as Divine right, with which however the objective and real state does not yet correspond” (cf. Rom. 8:23).

Adoption as a son in God’s family is a relationship of grace and is of course different from the unique sonship of Christ, who was a son by nature. Nevertheless, the adopted son is given full family rights, including the right of access to the Father (Rom. 8:15), and he also shares with Christ in the divine inheritance (Rom. 8:17).

A. A. Hodge in The Confession of Faith makes these distinctions between several theological terms:

Justification effects only a change of relations. Regeneration and sanctification effect only inherent moral and spiritual states of soul. Adoption includes both. As set forth in Scripture, it embraces in one complex view the newly-regenerated creature in the new relations into which he is introduced by justification.

Just as justification is the consequence of our Lord’s atoning work, so adoption is the sequel of justification. On the basis of our acceptability to God, we have a new relationship and standing with him (Gal. 4:4, 5). This new position is confirmed to us by “the Spirit of adoption” (Gal. 4:6; Rom. 8:15)—the inward conviction established in us by the Holy Spirit himself.

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Regeneration describes the change of nature that occurs when we are brought into God’s family, while adoption describes the change of position or status that is involved in the transition. The former is an inward and spiritual transformation; the latter points to the rights and privileges of sonship resulting from that transformation. In God’s purpose in grace, he foreordains us to “the adoption of sons.” He implements this by the work of the Holy Spirit in regeneration.

The benefits of adoption are many, the greatest no doubt being that the believer becomes a “partner of the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4), bearing the divine stamp upon him and being the object, in a very special sense, of the divine love (Rom. 5:5–8).

C. A. Anderson Scott points out that “the crisis of what is called the conversion of John Wesley came when, in his own words, he ‘exchanged the faith of a servant for the faith of a son.’ ” In other words, he realized he had been adopted into God’s family.

The fatherhood of God in a personal and spiritual sense is applicable only to those who have received Christ as Saviour, even though in a general and philosophical sense God may be described as “the Father of the Universe.” Prayer is on the basis of filial relationship. Christ encouraged his disciples to address God as Father. And those who address God as Father must by implication belong to the same family and are, therefore, to see themselves as brothers and sisters in Christ.

The bearing of the doctrine of adoption on interpersonal relations is of particular significance at a time when there are so many breakdowns in this area of human experience. While adoption, first and foremost, means a new relationship with God, and this must ever be given the emphasis it deserves, the fact that as a corollary men and women from varied cultural, social, and racial backgrounds find themselves within God’s family on the basis of a fraternal relationship is of great importance. The psalmist declared, “God gives the desolate a home to dwell in” (Ps. 68:6), and this is good news indeed. The Church in the New Testament is described as both the household of faith (Gal. 6:10) and the household of God (Eph. 2:19). So often the impression given of the Church is that of an institution rather than a household. No doubt in the days when believers met for worship in one another’s homes it was easier to preserve the picture of family life. In some parts of the Western world where the Church as an institution is losing ground, there is evidence of its being renewed through house groups where men and women meet together in an informal atmosphere as brothers and sisters in Christ. Could it not be that with the passing of time the more institutional aspect of the Church has tended to predominate at the expense of the sense of close fellowship implied by the doctrine of adoption?

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Our new status as children of God should be an incentive to holy living, since we now share a concern for the family name. In rejoicing in this new standing before God, we should always bear in mind that it has been made possible solely by the will of God the Father and in the light of the work of God the Son. “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:1, 2).

The early Church faced a heresy known as Adoptionism. The Ebionites, one of the earliest Jewish Christian groups, held such views, which were more clearly enunciated by the later Monarchian school that went by the name of Dynamism. Paul of Samosata, bishop of Antioch, was probably the outstanding spokesman of this school. Adoptionism holds that the man Jesus was promoted to be Son of God as a reward for his perfect obedience to God.

Those who follow this line come perilously near to the error of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who are prepared to speak of our Lord as “Son of God” but only in “a secondary sense.” As G. C. Berkouwer comments, “the Gospel does not present Jesus Christ as a man whose secret is that, as a reward for his faithful fulfilment of a task, he is adopted as Son of God: it rather speaks to us of the divine quality of this work which he, the man Jesus Christ, has performed.”

We, sinful men and women, have by the matchless grace of God been “adopted” into the divine family. The Divine Son, however, enjoys a unique position as God’s only Son. Yet such is the measure of God’s grace that despite this distinction, we are nevertheless referred to as “heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ” (Rom. 8:17).


Stiff necked, without voice:
Original sin
Was built in.
But given a choice
Of ark
Or shark
I bent my head to save my skin.

George M. Marsden is associate professor of history at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan. He has the Ph.D. (Yale University) and has written “The Evangelical Mind and the New School Presbyterian Experience.”

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