Growing in Awareness of Our Adoption

Family matters. Being part of a family matters. Being part of God’s family matters most. True Christians are part of God’s family.[1] They make up the family of God on the earth (Gal. 6:10). When they pass from this life to the next, they will join the family of God in heaven (Eph. 3:14–15). How does this great spiritual change happen in the lives of people who by nature are children of the devil (John 8:44)? How do sons of disobedience become sons of God and members of His household (Eph. 2:2, 19)? The answer, according to the Bible, is adoption. Adoption into God’s family is a glorious doctrine. It is one which is “most precious, heartwarming, and practical of all of our theological beliefs.”[2]

Concerning this topic, Reformed luminary J. I. Packer famously wrote,

You sum up the whole of the New Testament teaching in a single phrase, if you speak of it as a revelation of the fatherhood of the holy creator. In the same way, you sum up the whole New Testament religion if you describe it as the knowledge of God as one’s holy Father. If you want to judge how well a person understands Christianity, find out how much he makes of the thought of being God’s child, and having God as his Father. If this is not the thought that prompts and controls his worship and prayers and his whole outlook on life, it means that he does not understand Christianity very well at all. For everything that Christ taught, everything that makes the New Testament new, and better than the Old, everything that is distinctly Christian as opposed to merely Jewish, is summed up in the knowledge of the fatherhood of God. “Father” is the Christian name for God.[3]

Some Preliminary Matters

  1. Adoption is Trinitarian in nature. God the Father from before the foundation of the world predestined those who would be adopted into His family (Eph. 1:3–5). God the Son purchased and earned this right for them through His sacrificial death on the cross (Eph. 1:7; Gal. 4:4–5). And God the Holy Spirit gives them the filial privileges as sons, by giving them natures as sons, through regeneration (Ezek. 36:27; John 3:3–8; Rom. 8:14–16; Gal 4:6; Titus 3:5).
  2. Adoption is a Pauline doctrine. While other authors refer to our sonship, such as the apostle John (cf. John 1:12–13; 1 John 3:1), it is only Paul who actually uses this term. He uses it in five places (Rom. 8:15, 23, 9:4;[4] Gal. 4:5; Eph. 1:5). For the apostle, the word “adoption” symbolized “God’s love and grace in accepting believers as His children, intimate members of His family.”[5]
  3. Adoption is rooted in Roman custom.[6] Scholars are almost unanimously agreed on this. In Paul’s day, in the context of the Roman Empire, a person could become a son to a father by the father adopting the son into his family, who was not his son by natural procreation. When this happened, it “secured for the adopted child a right to the name and the property of the person by whom he had been adopted.”[7] When this occurred, “it carried no stigma; on the contrary, it was special to have been adopted. It meant that someone important had set his love upon you and adopted you to be his son, his heir.”[8]
  4. Adoption is a separate element in our salvation. Sadly, some theologians have not stressed this point enough in their treatments of this subject, making adoption to be merely the positive side of justification, but not a stand-alone topic. However, while the two matters are connected (along with the subject of regeneration), the biblical definitions of each are not the same and should be treated distinctly. John Murray astutely notes, “Justification means our acceptance with God as righteous and the bestowal of the title to everlasting life. Regeneration is the renewing of our hearts after the image of God. But these blessings in themselves, however precious they are, do not indicate what is conferred by the act of adoption. By adoption the redeemed become the sons and daughters of the Lord God Almighty; they are introduced into and given the privileges of God’s family.”[9]
  5. Adoption is eschatological in its expectation. While it is true that adoption pertains to our lives in the here and now, we must never forget that the New Testament also points forward to a fuller and final adoption with our resurrection unto glory. This is what we might call our consummated adoption, which Paul says, causes us, who are God’s children, to groan “within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body” (Rom. 8:23). This ultimate aspect of our adoption, of our resurrected, glorified bodies at Christ’s return, will “signal our final and full status as the sons of God manifested before all creation”[10] (Rom. 8:17–18; Phil. 3:20–21; 1 John 3:1–3).

The Definition of Adoption

The English term “adoption” derives from the Latin adoptio (from ad, “to” and apto, “choose”).[11] The Greek word for adoption (huiothesia) is made up of two Greek words and literally means “to place as a son” or “to put in the position of a son,” hence, “to adopt a son,” or “to give one the status as a son.” Fundamentally, the word describes the supernatural change of relationship that happens to Christians in salvation from being slaves of sin, to the legal and loved sons and daughters of the living God, which takes place at the moment of conversion by faith (John 1:12; Gal. 3:26; 4:3–7).[12] Other definitions concerning adoption abound. The Westminster divines wrote in the Shorter Catechism about this subject.[13] In Question 34, they say, “Adoption is an act of God’s free grace, whereby we are received into the number, and have a right to all the privileges of the sons of God.”[14]

Dutch Reformed theologian Wilhelmus à Brakel said, “The manner in which believers are children of God is by way of adoption as children.”[15] Charles Spurgeon, well-known Reformed Baptist preacher of the nineteenth century, said, “Adoption is that act of God, whereby men who were by nature the children of wrath, even as others, and were of the lost and ruined family of Adam, are from no reason in themselves, but entirely of the pure grace of God, translated out of the evil…family of Satan and brought actually and virtually into the family of God.”[16]

All these definitions are helpful, but the one I'd like to expound is found in the Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter twelve.[17] We will pick-up with that definition and some further thoughts next time (Update: Read part 2 here).

Editor's Note: This post and more can be found in Growing in Grace, edited by Joel Beeke and newly released by Reformation Heritage 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 is currently writing a new commentary on Romans (Mentor Books). 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 ]


[1] For the specific marks of the children of God, I point the reader to Wilhelmus à Brakel, The Christian’s Reasonable Service, ed. Joel R. Beeke, trans. Bartel Elshout (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2007), 2:427–30. Also, see Joel R. Beeke and Mark Jones, A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life(Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2012), 545.

[2] Ian Duguid, “The Family of God,” Tabletalk, March 2007, 8.

[3] J. I. Packer, Knowing God (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1973), 182. Of course, this understanding of adoption does not deny the fact that there were Old Testament believers, saints who savingly knew God as Father through faith in Jesus the coming Messiah (Ps. 89:26; Isa. 63:16; 64:8). They knew Him this way, not because of natural generation from Abraham, but because of spiritual regeneration by God, for there was a truly saved “Israel within Israel” (Rom. 9:6–8).

[4] In this passage Paul refers to national Israel as receiving “the adoption.” In the Old Testament, the Israelites are described as God’s sons in some passages (cf. Ex. 4:22; Deut. 14:1; Isa. 1:2). However, in Romans 9:4, he is not speaking about spiritual adoption, since not everyone in the entire nation was God’s spiritual child. Spiritual adoption only happens when one receives Christ the Messiah by faith alone, which many Old Testament Jews did, but not the nation as a whole (John 1:11–13; Rom. 4:1–8; 11:1–5). Paul, then, in Romans 9:4, is referring to that theocratic adoption of the Israelites as a nation which set them apart as God’s own from all the other people groups of the world. In commenting on this matter, Sam Waldron writes, “Thus, implicitly in Romans 9:4 and explicitly in John 1:11–13, there is a clear contrast between the typical sonship of the Old Testament and the real, substantial and anti-typical sonship conferred by the New Covenant.” Sam Waldron, A Modern Exposition of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith (Darlington, England: Evangelical Press, 1989), 167. Further, Paul’s language here of the adoption of Israel points forward to the adoption of the true Israel, namely, the church of Jesus Christ, which is made up of both Jewish and Gentile believers.

[5] Trent C. Butler, ed., Holman Bible Dictionary (Nashville, Tenn.: Holman Bible Publishers, 1991), 20.

[6] While there were examples of people being adopted into families in the Old Testament, such as Moses (Ex. 2:10) and Esther (Esth. 2:7), scholars tell us that adoption was not formally part of Jewish law. Further, while there are examples of adoption coming out of Greek background, Harold Hoehner rightly says, “It is highly improbable that the people of the first century A.D. would be following Greek law when the Romans had overtaken the Greek territory more than a century ago. Hence, it is implausible that Paul relied on the Greek law and customs in his use of υἱοθεσία, for in all five instances he was addressing people who lived under Roman law.” Harold Hoehner, Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002), 195.

[7] D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, God’s Ultimate Purpose: An Exposition of Ephesians 1 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1978), 109.

[8] Richard D. Phillips, “The Good News of Adoption,” in Reclaiming Adoption, ed. Dan Cruver (Adelphi, Md.: Cruciform Press, 2011), 60.

[9] John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied (1955; repr., Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015), 139.

[10] W. R. Downing, A Baptist Catechism with Commentary (Morgan Hill, Calif.: PIRS Publications, 2000), 182.

[11] Downing, A Baptist Catechism, 181.

[12] It is important to note that contrary to an early heresy in church history known as Adoptionism, the term adoption is never used of Christ even though He is God’s Son. This is because He has always been the Son of God by nature, being equal in substance, power and eternity with God the Father and God the Spirit. Additionally, it is vital to note that while the apostle Paul calls unsaved people “the offspring of God” (Acts 17:29), the reference here is to their being creations of God, not children of God (cf. Mal. 2:10). Becoming a child of God only happens when one puts personal faith in Christ alone for salvation. As Paul says in Galatians 3:26, “For ye are all children of God by faith in Christ Jesus.” Along these lines, John Murray wisely notes, “To substitute the message of God’s universal fatherhood for that which is constituted by redemption and adoption is to annul the gospel.” Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied, 143. Cf. Waldron, A Modern Exposition of the 1689 Baptist Confession’, 166.

[13] They also addressed this matter in the Westminster Larger Catechism (Q. 74).

[14] As to how much the Puritans spoke about the subject, see Joel R. Beeke and Mark Jones, A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2016), 537–38.

[15] Brakel, The Christian’s Reasonable Service, 2:416.

[16] Charles H. Spurgeon, “An Act of Pure Grace,” Free Grace Broadcaster, issue 246, Adoption (Winter 2018): 9–10.

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