What is the Doctrine of Adoption?

Series: Theology in the Everyday 

by Noah Senthil November 15, 2023

Editor’s Note: The Theology in the Everyday series seeks to introduce and explain theological concepts in 500 words or less, with a 200-word section helping explain the doctrine to kids. At For The Church, we believe that theology should not be designated to the academy alone but lived out by faith in everyday life. We hope this series will present theology in such a way as to make it enjoyable, connecting theological ideas to everyday experience and encouraging believers to study theology for the glory of God and the good of the Church. This week, adoption.

There are hundreds of thousands of orphans in the United States alone and millions around the world. A distinctive feature of Christianity has been caring for these orphans (Ja. 1:27), but this was always expected of God’s people (Isa. 1:17). In the Old Testament, the ethical imperative to care for orphans was grounded in God’s character. He is a Father to the fatherless (Ps. 68:5). However, in the New Testament, we receive a fuller revelation, teaching us that Father is a proper name. God is eternally Father, Son, and Holy Spirit apart from the created order.

The apostle Paul prays to “the Father from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named” (Eph. 3:14). In other words, creaturely fatherhood derives from the eternal Father, who eternally begets His beloved Son. Similarly, all sonship is derivative of the Son. We might be tempted to think that when the Bible speaks of believers being adopted, it is merely a metaphor based on the context of adoption in the ancient Greco-Roman world. But to the contrary, earthly adoption is a metaphor, a shadow, a sign to the reality of salvific adoption, whereby a spiritual orphan becomes a son of God. Fatherhood and Sonship precede all creation, and adoption is nothing less than participation in the life of the Trinity through union with the natural Son of God. In love, the Father predestined us for adoption to Himself as sons through Jesus Christ (Eph. 1:4-5). In Him we have obtained an inheritance—a fitting thing for a son to receive—and the Holy Spirit is our downpayment (Eph. 1:11-14). The distinct missions of the Son and the Spirit are achieved in order for us to become sons and heirs (Gal. 4:4-7). As Fred Sanders has written, “Salvation by adoption is the salvation than which nothing more fitting can be imagined by a triune God.”[1]

Adoption is a much “bigger” doctrine than most recognize. Our predestination, effectual calling, justification, and glorification are centered around adoption (Rom. 8:12-30), containing legal, transformational, and eschatological elements. The doctrine of new birth (or regeneration) is distinct but intertwined with adoption, given that both testify to our soteriological sonship through the Son. Adoption is admittedly a more Pauline way of speaking, while becoming children of God by being “born of God” or “born from above” is Johannine language (John 1:12-13, 3:3), but both of these distinct emphases testify to a salvation that participates in the eternal Father-Son relation. We are granted a filial status because we enter into that union as the Spirit of the Father and the Son fills us with His presence.

The entire New Testament also assumes this doctrine through two marvelous notions we haven’t yet mentioned: the family of God and prayer. Every apostolic writer presupposes that Christians have become a family, which consists of brothers and sisters, even fathers and mothers. How can Jews and Gentiles, Pharisees and tax collectors, bondservants and masters—people of every tribe, tongue, and nation—be considered a family? Jews may cry, “Abba,” and Greeks, “Father (patēr),” but it is by the same Spirit of adoption to the one Father of all (Gal. 4:6). Sonship is the underlying framework for our basic ecclesiology. Furthermore, our communion with God depends on this reality. We approach the throne of God in prayer, not as orphans but as children, and we beseech Him with the pattern of prayer handed down to us, “Our Father in Heaven” (Matt. 6:9). We pray to our Father through His Son in the Holy Spirit!

For the Kids:

Can you imagine not having a mom or a dad? As sad as it is to think about, some children grow up without parents. They don’t have anybody to take care of them—to feed them, clothe them, play with them, discipline them, or teach them about Jesus. But God cares about every orphan. That’s why he commands Christians like us to care for them (Ja. 1:27). There are different ways to care for kids without parents, but one of the most obvious and beautiful ways is by adopting them into your own family. If your parents adopted a child, they would become your new brother or sister, and they would have a new mother and father. If you’ve been adopted or know anybody who’s been adopted (or even if you can imagine it), then you’ve seen a picture of how the gospel works.

God is a Trinity. He is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and that is who He’s always been. God never changes. So before there were any families with fathers and sons—before anything was created at all—God the Father had a Son, the Son had the Father, and they both had the Holy Spirit. And before the world even existed yet, God the Father chose us to be adopted into His family through His Son. But why did we need adopted?

We’re born as sinners, which means that we’ve been separated from God and have become spiritual orphans without God as our Father. But the Father sent His own Son to save us by His life, death, and resurrection, so that we could be brought into His family forever. When we believe in Jesus the Son, we become adopted by God the Father, receive the Holy Spirit, and get lots of new brothers and sisters too!

[1] Fred Sanders, Fountain of Salvation: Trinity and Soteriology (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing), 102.

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