A Confessional View of Adoption

As we saw last time, adoption into God’s family is a glorious doctrine, one which is “most precious, heartwarming, and practical of all of our theological beliefs.” We've already examined some helpful definitions of adoption, but the one I would like to focus on in this post is found in the Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter twelve.[1] Here the authors say:

All those that are justified, God vouchsafeth, in and for His only Son Jesus Christ, to make partakers of the grace of adoption, by which they are taken into the number, and enjoy the liberties and privileges of the children of God, have His name put upon them, receive the Spirit of adoption, have access to the throne of grace with boldness, are enabled to cry Abba, Father, are pitied, protected, provided for, and chastened by Him as by a Father, yet never cast off, but sealed to the day of redemption, and inherit the promises as heirs of everlasting salvation.

Note four things about this definition:

The Recipients of Adoption

The writers of the Confession describe those who are adopted by God as “all those that are justified.” This is important to understand because while justification and adoption are separate doctrines, as previously mentioned (the former being a legal blessing of salvation, the latter being filial), they are always linked. The point is, all whom God declares “not guilty” and imputes to them “the righteousness of Christ” (justification) become a son or daughter of the living God (adoption). Simply stated, there is not a justified person in all the world who does not receive the tremendous blessing of being brought into God’s family. In fact, just as justification is a one-time, immediate, and permanent act, so also is adoption. Hence, John Murray aptly notes, “The person who is justified is always the recipient of sonship.”[2] He writes, “Adoption is, like justification, a judicial act. In other words, it is the bestowal of a status, or standing, not the generating within us of a new nature or character.”[3] Joel Beeke further observes,

“Justification is the primary, fundamental blessing of the gospel; it meets our most basic spiritual need—forgiveness and reconciliation with God. We could not be adopted without it. But adoption is a richer blessing, because it brings us from the courtroom into the family. ‘Justification is conceived of in terms of law, adoption in terms of love. Justification sees God as judge, adoption as a father.’”[4]

The Author of Adoption

God the Father is the author of adoption. It is He who, as the Confession states, “vouchsafeth” or graciously grants that we who are true believers would receive this spiritual blessing. In love, He predestined us or literally “marked us off in advance” for adoption as sons (Eph. 1:3–6). In His rich mercies, He ordained that believers would be taken out of the fallen mass of mankind who were headed to hell, and be brought safely into His redeemed, spiritual family on the earth. This was His eternal choice concerning us. For the great I AM said about us, “And I will be a Father unto you, and ye shall be my sons and daughters saith the Lord Almighty” (2 Cor. 6:18). When such a grand truth is set against our great rebellion toward the Almighty, it is astounding. Who can fully comprehend it? Scotty Smith warmly remarks,

Of all the magnificent riches of the gospel, none is more to be treasured and pondered than our adoption in Christ. When the Father lavished his love upon us and made us his children, we weren’t just street-wandering orphans looking for a good meal and a warm bed. We were self-absorbed slaves to sin and death. Indeed, we weren’t in the orphanage of loneliness; we were in the morgue of hopelessness. Adoption, therefore, is the quintessential freedom for which we long, and for which we’ve been redeemed.[5]

The Mediator of Adoption

Jesus Christ is the sole Mediator of our adoption (Eph. 1:5; Gal. 4:4–5). The Westminster divines say this unequivocally when they write that our becoming the supernaturally born children of God was “in and for His only Son Jesus Christ.” By saying, firstly, that this was done “in…His only Son Jesus Christ,” the authors show us that they clearly understood that everything we receive as Christians comes to us not by a natural connection with Abraham or Moses, but exclusively through a spiritual connection with Christ. On this point Richard Muller concludes, “The concept of adoptio, therefore, also rests upon the Reformed teaching of the unio mystica (q.v.), or mystical union with Christ: graciously united with Christ, who is Son of God by nature, believers are made sons of God by grace.”[6]

The Reformed teach us that Jesus is the exclusive source for how we, who are joined to Him by faith alone, become the children of God. For it is only in union with Him, who is the beloved of God, that we are accepted with God (Eph. 1:6). All of this is based not on our works, but completely on the sinless life and substitutionary, sin-bearing work of Jesus on our behalf.

Consequently, adoption has only one ground: The person and work of Christ. Paul says this explicitly in Ephesians 1:5, when he writes that we have been predestined to adoption as sons “by Jesus Christ.”[7] This prepositional phrase can be rendered as “through (dia) Jesus Christ,” and its use in this verse in the genitive case sets forth Christ as the divine agent through whom our adoption is effected. This is so because Jesus came to “redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption as sons” (Gal. 4:5). Sam Waldron notes, “The whole story of the Bible is the story of how mankind’s original, filial relationship with God as their father is restored through the work of Christ.”[8] Dan Cruver further comments,

“Paul is revealing that adoption was not given to us apart from or in isolation from Jesus. Nor was it given to us in addition to Jesus. Rather, adoption is nothing less than the placement of sons in the Son. These two concepts—adoption unto the Father, and being in Christ—are so necessarily joined to one another as to be inseparable.”[9]

Second, the authors say that God ordained our adoption “for His only Son Jesus Christ.” I take this language to mean that our being adopted into God’s family was not only for our sake, but for Christ’s also.[10] In fulfillment of what is commonly called, “the covenant of redemption” Christ will see the salvation of His spiritual seed for whom He died and they will be given to Him as spoil (Isa. 53:10, 12; John 6:37–39). He will see the “travail of his soul, and be satisfied” (Isa. 53:11, cf. Heb. 2:11–13). The late Dr. R. C. Sproul put it well when he said,

It is through the grace of God that we are brought into the family of God through adoption. And we, in turn, are the Father’s gift to the Son. From all eternity, the Father and the Son were in agreement in this enterprise, and so the Father was pleased to give us to the Son, and the Son was pleased to receive us from the Father. The Son was so pleased about this gift that He laid down His life for us while we were still His enemies, so that we might be His brothers and sisters.[11]

The Blessings of Adoption

We will now consider five blessings of adoption, according to the supporting Scripture provided in chapter 12 of the Westminster Confession.

A. We are Received into the Family of God

The confession says that we are made partakers “of the grace of” or the undeserved mercy of adoption, by which we are “taken into the number…of the children of God.” This means that our Father who is in heaven “cuts us off from the family to which we naturally belong in Adam as children of wrath and of the devil and grafts us into His own family to make us members of the covenant family of God.”[12] It means that we who were once “not a people” are “now the people of God” (1 Peter 2:10), since He has delivered us “from the power of darkness, and hath translated us into the kingdom of his dear Son” (Col. 1:13).

B. We are Privileged as the Children of God

The Westminster divines say that we “enjoy the liberties and privileges of the children of God” (John 1:12; Rom. 8:17). Then they put forth four of these liberties and privileges:

First, believers “have his name put upon them” (2 Cor. 6:18; Rev. 3:12). This speaks about ownership. It speaks about possession, as when a stranger is “taken into the family of another, [they] receive the name of the adopter, and those whom God adopts ‘are called by a new name, which the mouth of the Lord hath named’” (Isa. 62:2).[13] The point is that Christians now belong to God forevermore. He Himself has marked us out to be His very own cherished ones in Christ. Further, it means that we are no longer our own apart from Him, for our new identity is now in Christ. Our identity is Christian (Acts 11:26; 26:28). Consequently, Thomas Boston says, “Our old name is forever laid aside.”[14]

Second, believers “receive the spirit of adoption” (Rom. 8:15–16) or the spirit who testifies to our spirit, that we are the adopted children of God, which spirit is the Holy Spirit.[15] The Puritan Samuel Willard said it best when he wrote that the Holy Spirit “ratifies our Sonship to be immutable, and confirms our title to all the Promises irreversibly. As such a Spirit, he gives his testimony in us, to ratify all our evidences, and fully assure us of our Sonship and Heirship.”[16]

Third, believers “have access to the throne of grace with boldness.”[17] This means that the way to God for believers is no longer barred. Rather, we can draw near to Him with great joy and make our requests known to Him because of Jesus’s atoning work on our behalf. It means that God’s throne is no longer a condemning throne of judgment to us, but one of complete grace. Thus, we can confidently come before Him through Christ, without any fear. John Owen, the great Puritan, affectionately writes,

“there is with God in Christ, God on his throne of grace, a spring of suitable and seasonable help for all times and occasions of difficulty. He is ‘the God of all grace,’ and a fountain of living waters is with him for the refreshment of every weary and thirsty soul.”[18]

Fourth, believers “are enabled to cry Abba, Father,”[19] which cry is the result of the Spirit of God in our hearts, for He “not only bestows ‘adoption’ on us; he also makes us aware of this new relationship.”[20] Martin Luther’s observations on the believer’s use of the word “Abba” are tenderly put:

This is but a little word, and yet notwithstanding it comprehendeth all things. The mouth speaketh not, but the affection of the heart speaketh after this manner. Although I be oppressed with anguish and terror on every side, and seemed to be forsaken and utterly cast away from thy presence, yet I am thy child, and thou art my Father for Christ’s sake: I am beloved because of the Beloved.[21]

C. We are Cared for as the Redeemed of God

Again, the Westminster divines state four examples of how we as adopted children receive the care of God:

First, God’s chosen children are “pitied” (Ps. 103:13), which does not mean that God looks down upon us with disdain and despises us because of our pitiful condition before Him in and of ourselves. God forbid! Rather, it means that as our loving heavenly Father, He cares for us as “a father pitieth his children” (1 Peter 5:7). It means that with divine compassion, He sympathizes with us in our weaknesses, for “He knoweth our frame; He remembereth that we are dust” (Ps. 103:14). Jeremiah Burroughs writes, “God, who is the infinite glorious first-being, embraces them with an entirely fatherly love. All the love that ever was in any parents towards children, is but as one drop of the infinite ocean of fatherly love that there is in God unto his people.”[22]

Second, God’s children are “protected” (Prov. 14:26; 18:10), which means that God is always a shield and refuge for His people. He is our mighty fortress, a bulwark never failing. He defends us from the assaults of the world, the flesh, and the devil. In the words of Psalm 46:1, “God is our refuge and our strength, our very present help in trouble.” Regarding this Psalm, it is said of Luther that there were times in his life which were so dark and dangerous, that when he fell into discouragement he would turn to his close friend and co-worker Philip Melanchthon and say, “Come Philip, let’s sing the forty-sixth Psalm.”[23]

Third, God’s children are “provided for.”[24] God knows our needs. He knows them even before we ask (Matt. 6:8). And knowing our needs, He graciously supplies them (Matt. 6:25–32). King David well understood this and said, “I have been young, and now am old; yet have I not seen the righteous forsaken, nor his seed begging bread” (Ps. 37:25). Matthew Henry expounds,

Your heavenly Father knows ye have need of all these things; these necessary things, food and raiment; he knows our wants better than we do ourselves; though he be in heaven, and his children on earth, he observes what the least and poorest of them has occasion for. You think, if such a good friend did not but know your wants and straits, you would soon have relief: your God knows them; and he is your Father that loves you and pities you, and is ready to help you.[25]

Fourth, God’s children are “ chastened by him as by a Father” (cf. Heb. 12:5–10), which according to the Bible is a benefit to us, for “God’s corrections are our instructions, his lashes our lessons, his scourges our schoolmaster.”[26] While God punishes His enemies, He only chastens His children. He does this in love when we sin, not to break us, but to make us more like Christ, so that “we might be partakers of his holiness” (Heb. 12:10). Therefore, His chastenings are “badges of our sonship and of the Father’s love” (cf. Heb. 12:3–11).[27]

D. We are Preserved by the Power of God[28]

God’s disciplined children are “yet never cast off” (Isa. 54:8; Lam. 3:31), but sealed (Eph. 1:13) to the day of redemption.”[29]This means that although God disciplines us, He never disowns us (Phil. 1:6; Heb. 13:5; Jude 24). It means that although we must face many tribulations as we enter the kingdom of God (Acts 14:22), as God’s adopted children we are eternally secure in the Savior until glory by His eternal decree, seeing that the “gifts and calling of God are without repentance” (Rom. 11:29). Thomas Watson wisely remarks, “God’s decree is the very pillar and basis on which the saints’ perseverance depends. That decree ties the knot of adoption so fast that neither sin, death nor hell can break it asunder.”[30]

E. We are Graced with the Promises of God

God’s adopted children also “inherit the promises as heirs of everlasting salvation.”[31] This means that as God’s children, we have much to look forward to. Our eternal prospects are extremely bright (cf. 1 Cor. 2:9) and this is because all of His promises, which are “exceedingly great and precious” (2 Peter 1:4) are His “storehouse of blessings and a chest of goodwill” toward us.[32]They are “yea, and in him Amen” (2 Cor. 1:20), which means they will certainly come to pass, seeing that “God never promises more than he is able to perform.”[33] Moreover, since the Lord “is not a man that he should lie” (Num. 23:19), William Gurnall helpfully counsels us and says, “The wise Christian will store himself with promises in health for sickness, and in peace for future perils.”[34]

The Applications of Adoption

Following the reality of the privileges and promises we have as children of God, there are several principles we must apply if we would grow in greater awareness of our adoption as God’s children:

  1. We must regularly reflect on this stunning teaching of Scripture and all that it means for us personally.
  2. We must regularly recall what our new identity is as adopted sons or daughters of God and live in light of it.
  3. We must regularly resolve to love all the true people of God, who like us have been adopted by God.
  4. We must regularly reject the ways of the world, which belong to the children of the devil.
  5. We must regularly reach out to God in prayer, knowing that His ears are always open to our petitions.
  6. We must regularly rejoice, knowing that what awaits us in the eternal state is truly wonderful.

Conclusion

Adoption is a glorious doctrine! It is also a gracious doctrine which tells us that although we do not deserve it, God in unspeakable love and mercy has made us members of His family. In His unfathomable kindness and grace, He has bestowed upon us the great honor and status of sons and daughters. Thus, I agree with Packer that “the revelation to the believer that God is his Father is in a sense the climax of the Bible.”[35] John Murray concurs when he says that this teaching is “surely the apex of grace and privilege.”[36]

May the astonishing nature of this grand theme continually fill our hearts and minds with great joy and praise. May it consume our thoughts so that we can happily and habitually say with the apostle John, “Behold, what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called the sons of God!” (1 John 3:1).

Editor's Note: This post and more can be found in Growing in Grace, edited by Joel Beeke and newly released by Reformation Herritage Books. Adapted with permission from the author.


Rob Ventura (MDiv, Reformed Baptist Seminary) is one of the pastors of Grace Community Baptist Church of North Providence, Rhode Island. He is the author of A Portrait of Paul and Spiritual Warfare, and is the general editor of Going Beyond the Five Points, Covenant Theology, and Lectures in Systematic Theology. He is also a contributor to the Reformation Heritage KJV Study Bible and Growing in Grace. He and his wife, Vanessa, and family live in Rhode Island.


Related Links

"Adoption as New Life" by David Garner

"Adoption and Edward Leigh" by Ryan McGraw

"'Great kindness; great mercy': Augustine on Adoption" by Scott Swain

Children and Heirs: God's Glorious Adoption [ Audio Disc  |  MP3 Disc  |  Download ]

Adoption (A Place for Truth Series) [ Print Booklet  |  Download ]


Notes

[1] The parallel statement in The 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith, chapter 12, is almost identical.

[2] Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied, 140.

[3] Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied, 140.

[4] Joel R. Beeke, Heirs with Christ: The Puritans on Adoption (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2008), 28.

[5] Scotty Smith, “The Freedom of Adoption,” in Reclaiming Adoption, ed. Dan Cruver (Adelphi, Md.: Cruciform Press, 2011), 69.

[6] Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1985), 27.

[7] In commenting on this verse, Clint Arnold helpfully says, “The final purpose of election is then relational. God is bringing together people whom he can delight in and enjoy.” Clinton E. Arnold, Ephesians, Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), 83.

[8] Waldron, A Modern Exposition of the 1689 Baptist Confession, 166.

[9] Dan Cruver, “Adoption and Our Union with Christ,” in Reclaiming Adoption, ed. Dan Cruver (Adelphi, Md.: Cruciform Press, 2011), 51.

[10] R. C. Sproul says something similar in Truths We Confess: A Systematic Exposition of the Westminster Confession of Faith, rev. ed. (Sanford, Fla.: Reformation Trust, 2019), 285.

[11] Sproul, Truths We Confess, 285.

[12] Beeke and Jones, Puritan Theology, 548.

[13] Robert Shaw, An Exposition of the Confession of Faith (Ross-shire, Scotland: Christian Focus, 1973), 139.

[14] Beeke and Jones, Puritan Theology, 548.

[15] John Murray, New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968), 296.

[16] Beeke and Jones, Puritan Theology, 548.

[17] Rom. 5:2; Eph. 2:18; 3:12; Heb. 4:16.

[18] John Owen, An Exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1980), 4:437.

[19] Matt. 6:9; Rom. 8:15; Gal. 4:6; Eph. 2:18. Scholars tell us the sense of the word is that of intimacy or endearment. It is the cry of one saying to God, “My dear Father.”

[20] Douglas J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 502.

[21] Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, 503.

[22] Beeke and Jones, Puritan Theology, 550.

[23] Cited in James Montgomery Boice, Psalms (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996), 2:388.

[24] Ps. 34:10; Matt. 6:30–32; 1 Peter 5:7.

[25] Matthew Henry, Commentary on the Whole Bible (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1991), 5:69.

[26] Thomas Brooks, quoted in The Complete Gathered Gold, comp. John Blanchard (Darlington, England: Evangelical Press, 2006), 68.

[27] Beeke and Jones, Puritan Theology, 549.

[28] For a further exposition of this matter, see chapter 17 of The Westminster Confession of Faith, “Of The Perseverance of the Saints.

[29] Eph. 4:30; Heb. 13:5; 1 Peter 1:5; Jude 24.

[30] Blanchard, The Complete Gathered Gold, 172.

[31] Heb. 1:14; 6:12; 9:15; 10:36; 1 Peter 1:3–4.

[32] Joel R. Beeke and James A. LaBelle, Living by God’s Promises (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2010), 2.

[33] Matthew Henry, quoted in Blanchard, The Complete Gathered Gold, 510.

[34] Matthew Henry, quoted in Blanchard, The Complete Gathered Gold, 510.

[35] Packer, Knowing God, 182.

[36] Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied, 134.