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 was no Jewish adoption law, because when a man died without male offspring to continue his line, his closest male relative was commanded to sleep with his widow and produce an heir. Roman law, by contrast, allowed a man to create an heir from outside his family.

The reason for legal adoption was never for the sake of the child, Lyall writes. Children could always be fostered, but adoption was to preserve the family. The Roman household was a worshiping unit, and it needed a male priest at its head to offer prayers and sacrifices to the family gods. Worshiping families were the building blocks of Roman society.

In adoption, the adoptee got a new identity. His old obligations and debts were wiped out, and new obligations were assumed. From the standpoint of the family religion, the adoptee became the same person as the adopter.

Third, there is the matter of inheritance. In modern law, we do not become heirs until someone dies (though we may be "heirs presumptive"—people entitled to the inheritance). Paul's metaphor fails in modern law because we can't be God's heirs without God's death. But in Roman law, all the members of a family held their property jointly with the paterfamilias. Youth were not automatically emancipated at age 21, and thus given control of their own property. All children of any age—natural or adopted—were already heirs while their father lived and had joint control of their property.

This is the legal background to Paul's saying that "if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ" (Rom. 8:17). In other words, "Birth, not death, constituted heirship," says Lyall.

How does this legal background illuminate Paul's teaching? In summary, God has adopted us into his family to help carry on the worship life that, in Roman culture, made a family a family. He has made us certain of that new relationship by the testimony of his Spirit. And he has made us rich by granting us co-ownership of glorious things to come.

Something Precious

I loved the consultative way my father ran our family. He was clearly concerned for my feelings. But what could a third grader grasp about inheritance? Or about raising behaviorally challenged children?

I'm sure my parents had good reasons when they ultimately decided not to adopt the three boys. I wish I knew how their lives unfolded after we left Ronnie and Jerry at their grandmother's trailer in rural Wisconsin. And I wonder how my parents' love and sacrifice bore fruit in their lives.

Still, that year gave me a taste of something precious. For about nine months, we lived as though Ronnie and Jerry were my parents' children, and if children, then heirs, and joint heirs with me. In human households, such trial periods are sometimes necessary. Fortunately, in God's economy, there are no probationary children. Our adoption—and God's promises—are forever.

David Neff is former editor in chief of CT.

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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.
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