The Doctrine of Adoption

[Note: This writing uses the term “son” throughout, but this designation is generic and applies to both men and women. The Roman law that provides the background for the doctrine applies specifically to sons. God’s adoptive purposes do not.]

Although the Old Testament records instances of adoption, they have no direct bearing on the New Testament usage of the term. Paul is the only writer to use the word. He derives the term from Greek usage and Roman law.

Adoption translates from the Greek huiothesia (υἱοθεσία) from huios, “a son,” and thesis, “a placing.” The term signifies the place and condition of a son given to one to whom he does not naturally belong.

In Galatians 4:1-3, Paul states the Roman law of Sonship. 

Now I say, That the heir, as long as he is a child, differeth nothing from a servant, though he be lord of all; But is under tutors and governors until the time appointed of the father. Even so we, when we were children, were in bondage under the elements of the world:

The legal situation of a son in ancient Rome differed little from that of a slave. A son’s status made him the property of his father, who could transfer ownership by adoption or by a true sale.

The adopting family regarded the son as one born into the family. Adoption severed all ties with the son’s biological family, as if he were dead.

Paul writes in Galatians 4:4, 5 that God sent his Son to redeem a people enslaved by the law, elevating them to the status of adopted children. 

But when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, To redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons.

Two keywords shed light on the transaction of adoption into the family of God.

Redeem, from the Greek exagorazo (ἐξαγοράζω), denotes to buy out of the hands of a person; to redeem, set free, (Galatians 3:13) or to redeem, buy off, to secure for oneself or one’s own use. 

Redemption here is not the buying out as found elsewhere, but a word emphasizing the release from all restraints and limitations and transferred to another. This corresponds to receiving a son by purchasing him from his original family under Roman law. God purchased his elect people by the giving His only begotten son as the price for their redemption. 

Received derives from the Greek apolambánō (ἀπολαμβάνω) meaning, in this case, to receive in full what is one’s due. An adopted child of God not only becomes a member of a new family, but he also comes into possession of all that appertains to his new position.

The adopted ones may now address God as Abba, Father (v. 6) and as full-fledged members of their new family they receive what is due true sons. Paul expands on this in Romans 8:14-16.

For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God. For ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father. The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God: 

When God adopts a son, He bestows His Spirit as evidence of the transaction, and to provide the wherewithal to live as a child of God free from former ties. 

The highest privilege that belongs to those brought into the family of God is their new position as brethren of God’s only begotten Son. Hebrews 2:11 says of the sanctified ones that “He (Christ) is not ashamed to call them brethren.” John Calvin writes of this glorious truth in his commentary.

Appropriately and suitably does he say that he is not ashamed; for how great is the distance between us and him? Much, then, does he let down himself, when he dignifies us with the name of brethren; for we are unworthy that he should deem us his servants. And this so great an honor conferred on us is amplified by this circumstance ― Christ does not speak here as a mortal man while in the form of a servant, but when elevated after the resurrection into immortal glory.

In keeping with the simile of Divine adoption and Roman law, being a member of the adopting family also carries with it the right and privilege of an inheritance. Paul writes it this way: 

Wherefore thou art no more a servant, but a son; and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ. (Galatians 4:7)

And if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together. (Romans 8:17)

To borrow from the Rachel Field novel, we have All This, and Heaven too! 

Finally, in Ephesians 1:4-6. Paul speaks of God’s action and purpose in bringing sons and daughters into His family.

According as he hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love: Having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of his will, To the praise of the glory of his grace, wherein he hath made us accepted in the beloved.

Adoption doesn’t occur randomly in time or operate because of any human merit. The transaction lies wholly in the sovereign and gracious choice of God before He framed the worlds. God makes the bestowal of sonship absolute by predestinating all things toward that end. That’s the often-misunderstood purpose of predestination. It pertains to the subjects of adoption becoming like God’s only begotten Son. 

For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren. (Romans 8:29)

Transliterating the above clarifies the sense of the passage.

For God knew his people beforehand, and predetermined the means and goal of fashioning them to be like his Son, so that his Son would be the first and preeminent One among many brothers.

When we are adopted into God’s family we carry that honor wherever we are and in all situations. The redeemed will never find themselves cut off from the privileges and care God bestows on His children in Christ. This also carries with it the responsibility of conducting ourselves as a member of the family of God. As a child’s behavior reflects on his parents, so it is with a son of God. Always, we must remember who we are and whose we are.

The hymn written by Hattie E. Buell (1877) captures the essence of our adoption into the family of God.

I once was an outcast stranger on earth,
A sinner by choice and an alien by birth;
But I’ve been adopted, my name’s written down,
An heir to a mansion, a robe and a crown.