A World of Riches

A World of Riches

As Colin Hansen recently reported in a Christianity Today article, in some biblical translations, selected vocabulary has been removed to eliminate cultural stumbling blocks. [1]   For example, missionaries in the 1980's replaced familial language for ostensibly less offensive terms in a Bangladeshi translation of Scripture: "Messiah" for "Son of God," "Guardian" for "Father."  Naturally, Muslims take offense to the sonship of Christ and the Fatherhood of God as the familial language threatens their view of the unity and transcendence of Allah.[2] The Koran speaks without qualification: "It is not befitting to (the majesty of) Allah that He should beget a son. Glory be to Him! When He determines a matter He only says to it 'Be,' and it is" (Surah 19:35). Moreover, believing Jesus' divine sonship as blasphemous, followers of Allah could never dare consider themselves God's sons.

The offense is universally recognized.  What missiologists do not share is how to address it.  In the wake of modern biblical and sociological studies, discerning the theological boundaries of contextualization has created an entirely new context for debate.  If bread were religiously offensive (or even simply unfamiliar) to a culture, would we possess the right to exchange Bread of Life for Rice of Life?  If shame-based cultures do not readily grasp legal culpability, are we free to substitute the doctrine of objective guilt with the teaching of restored honor?  Is proclaiming a human messiah as the rice of life who died to remove my shame the Gospel?  What are the appropriate limits for contextualization? [3]    

Our particular purposes here are not to answer these vast, complex missiological questions.  Such investigations are vital, but they are beyond our purview.  It is our task, rather, to discern whether or not the familial language - specifically that of adoption - in Scripture possesses essential, irreplaceable, and transcendent theological significance. 

Even a surface reading of the New Testament evidences how speaking of Jesus apart from his sonship at the very least obscures Scripture's descriptions of his eternal and incarnate identity.  He is the messianic and resurrected Son of God because He was first the eternal Son of God (Hebrews 1:1-4).  For our purposes here, we simply point out that sonship does not serve peripherally concerning the identity and work of Jesus Christ (see, e.g., Romans 1:1-7); rather Christ's eternal sonship provides the very structures for who he is and what he does in history.  Grounded in his eternal sonship, Christ's incarnation bursts with meaning, culminating in his unprecedented sonship status attained at the resurrection (Rom 1:3-4).  As Herman Bavinck puts it, though "Son of God" bears kingly significance in its fuller biblico-theological contours, "the name Son of God when ascribed to Christ has far deeper meaning than the theocratic....  He is Son of God in a metaphysical sense: by nature from eternity." [4]  

In addressing biblical translation, Vern Poythress usefully clarifies the distinction between referent and content:  "'Messiah' is not an adequate substitute for 'Son of God.' Both have the same referent, namely Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God. But they do not have the same meaning." [5] Yet as represented by the Bangladeshi "Insider" translation, a contextualizing train continues to barrel down the tracks in many countries and contexts, its cars empty of the familial language which dominates the New Testament in its presentation of Christ, the Trinity and the Church.  Besides the revelational, interpretive and epistemological questions raised by such translation substitutions, whether or not we can even speak the Gospel properly apart from sonship language is an all-important question.  More specifically, does Paul's presentation of the Gospel of God require the familial terms he employs?  Is adoption in the Son of God at the heart of the Gospel?

Challenges to the familial cast to the Gospel are not new and they are not only missiological. At various points since the Reformation, the familial thrust of the Gospel has found itself virtually orphaned.  In part, ironically, this neglect stems from the Reformation's rediscovery of the Gospel.  With the need to articulate and defend the exclusively forensic character of justification against Roman synergy and infusion, the Reformers rightly trumpeted alien imputed righteousness.  As forensic justification gained its proper prominence among Protestants, Law/Gospel paradigms centered soteriology in legal language: "The Gospel is, strictly speaking, the promise of forgiveness of sins and justification because of Christ." [6]  Justification truly is a most stunning Gospel privilege that centuries of reflection have yet to exhaust.  

To be fair we must note how Luther also appreciated Gospel sonship: "It is not enough to say that we are friends.  No, John says we are called children of God." [7]  For many Reformers (Calvin particularly excepted), however, familial Gospel dimensions did not permeate their understanding in a manner even commensurate with the legal blessings.  Yet though some might lay surly charges, the first generation of reformers is hardly to blame for understating the filial, because their context of infusion confusion necessitated the unrelenting articulation of the thoroughly forensic character of justification.  

Thankfully in recent years, "the impact of biblical theology on systematic theology has demanded a reorientation of soteriology towards the concept of sonship." [8] But this fresh focus on sonship has birthed a mixed blessing, as along with many valuable insights concerning biblical sonship has come a host of distortions.  From the Federal Vision (FV) revisionism of covenant theology according to social and familial Trinitarianism, [9] to the birth of the Jack Miller sonship model, in which an exclusively ordo salutis model of adoption diminishes not only other redemptive benefits but sonship itself, the full-orbed biblico-theological riches of adoption have suffered reductionism both by neglect and misrepresenting exposure.  Even since the grand and unprecedented attention given adoption in the Westminster Confession of Faith, this doctrine "has been more often in the dark than in the light." [10]  

To be sure, the pressures of current biblical scholarship simply do not help.  I remain convinced that a driving component popularizing the New Perspective on Paul (NPP) is a sense of dissatisfaction with the preponderant forensic articulation of the Gospel.  Though coupled to most post-Reformation dogmatic forensic emphases (justification) are transformative components (sanctification), oft squeezed from prominence are the relational and ecclesiological: the familial (adoption).  And while FV and NPP have improperly turned the epiphenomenon of the church into the Gospel phenomenon, [11] squashing the soteriological beneath the ecclesiological, these movements' concerns for the communal and familial ought not go neglected.  This is not because N. T. Wright is right, but because N. T. (New Testament) Paul is.  Let us turn briefly to the apostle.

Although the Apostle Paul (and he alone) uses the term "adoption" (Greek, huiothesia) only five times, its sparse use belies its significance.  Tempting would be to weigh adoption's significance on the scales of its textual appearances.  Wiser would be to consider the way in which the term is used and the way in which its usage and the related familial themes of sonship, inheritance and family permeate Paul's understanding of the Gospel of the Son of God. 

Huiothesia for Paul engages the Gospel's Christological, Pneumatological, eschatological, relational, covenantal, forensic and transformational themes.  The believer as adopted child of God is united to the risen Son of God, and by this union enjoys the fullness of that resurrection dynamic in all of its familial and relational glory.  The nature of its five uses exposes a significance that explodes beyond ordo salutis categories into historia salutis ones, in which the believer as a fallen son of Adam is united to the eschatological Son of God by the Father's adoptive grace.  I can here only render a brief summary of the treasure trove which adoption tenders in its expansively rich biblico-theological contours, but even a brief survey discloses a splendid filial tapestry.

Let us first look at adoption in its pre-creation context.  In Ephesians 1:3-6, the Pauline doxology sets huiothesia in the purposes of the Father from before the world's very foundations.  Adoption is the goal of his predestinating love through his own Son, Jesus Christ.  In other words, as Paul extols God's elective love in Christ, he describes this pre-temporal determination attaining an exalted (and exalting!) end for the believers. This end is adoption.  The parallel structures of verses four and five underscore how realized holiness and blamelessness will occur by the believer's union with the Son (1:6).  As determined by the Father before time, eschatological holiness is filial holiness in his beloved Son.  According then to the wisdom of God before all worlds, redemptive transformation of the elect sons of Adam was to occur in the Son of God by adoptive grace. [12]  Adoption here entails the culminating redemptive blessing determined in the mind of the Father.

Out of God's eternal wisdom flows an unfolding of revelation in history. In Romans 9:4-5, Paul lists the uniquely enjoyed privileges of old covenant Israel, typological blessings which come to their eschatological realization in the risen Christ.  Paul's anguish over his unbelieving kinsmen is intensified by his awareness that the very redemptive privileges historically enjoyed and owned by Israel actually find their raison d'être and come to fruition in Jesus Christ.  Paul strikingly infers the question, "What extraordinary advantage had God not given to this people?" [13]  Notably, at the top of Paul's list of Israelite privilege is adoption. This typological and corporate adoption evidences God's faithful paternal care to his ancient people, but also demonstrates the familial strands of loving grace which attain their consummate realization in "the Christ who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen" (Rom 9:5b).  In considering his own adoption in the Son of God, Paul sees himself as "never more truly a Jew than when he had become a Christian." [14] Or more to the point here, Paul's Israelite adoption in type found its comprehensive realization in his union with the true Israel, Jesus Christ the Son of God.  It is this Son, sent by the Father, from whom he will never be separated (Rom 8:31-9:3).  Typological adoption is historically and eschatologically secured in the Son of God par excellence.  At the coming of Christ then, typological adoption culminates in eschatological cursing for those who reject the substance of its blessing, the Son of God incarnate (Rom 9:1-2, 22-24), and in eschatological blessing for those predestined for conformity into this Son's resurrected image (Rom 8:29).  Truly, the "wow" of the Gospel for Paul centers in adoption realized: in his dynamic personal union with Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God.

Paul sustains this biblico-theological outlook in his presentation of huiothesia in Galatians 4.  Having shown that both Jews and Gentiles under the pre-Christ era find themselves imprisoned in sin (3:22) and enslaved under the law and its inadequacy to provide redemption, Paul rejoices in the fullness of the time (4:4a) wherein those conjoined to Christ are "justified by faith" (3:24).  Prominent in chapters three and four of Galatians is realized sonship for those who are the spiritual heirs of Abraham by faith (3:7-9, 26, 29).  The eschatological realization of sonship centers in the divinely sent, incarnate Son of God (4:4).  Huiothesia serves here to encapsulate the entire scope of Christ's redeeming work, as it describes the eschatological, Spiritual, existential and familial blessing that Christ's work renders on behalf of his people (4:4-7).  Even the grammatical structure of Galatians 4:5 points us to recognizing the teleologically comprehensive status of adoption.  In other words the two purpose clauses in this verse draw us to recognize adoption as the ultimate purpose of Christ's humiliation and, by clear inference, his exaltation.  The Spirit's cry in the adopted sons' hearts, which mimics that of the messianic Son (Mark 14:36), reinforces their filial solidarity with the Son.  The Spirit's cry is "because you are sons" (4:6a), a marker of the eschatologically privileged relationship enjoyed by those in this age of mature redemptive revelation.  The fullness of time brought the Son of God so that we might attain the divinely bestowed familial inheritance in Him; this in Christ, in the Son, apprehended inheritance is for Paul captured in huiothesia

Paul's remaining treatment of huiothesia occurs in two places in Romans 8, where he centers his thoughts upon the Spirit of God.  Having mentioned the Spirit only four times in Romans 1-7, Paul now employs the term pneuma (spirit) twenty-two times in this chapter alone! [15]  Of course, this Spirit-focus here "represents before anything else the stage of salvation which the Church of Christ had reached by the coming of the Son." [16]  The eschatological tension of already but not yet realities converges in huiothesia, as Paul speaks lucidly about adoption present and future - Spiritually linked in the believer's filial solidarity with the resurrected Son of God.  Present living involves joining in the suffering of the Son (8:12-15); future living involves joining in the glorious bodily resurrection of the Son (8:23).  Adoption displays that filial and eschatological solidarity of the believer with the life, death, and resurrection of the Son (8:1-3, 10-11), which consummates on the last day in his fully glorified transformation in the Son of God (8:29-30).  The utterance here (8:15) once again of the exact words of the humiliated Son in his Garden of Gethsemane crisis (this time by the child of God himself in the Spirit of adoption) discloses how adoptive grace involves full participation in Christ's suffering. As we await the Son's return our adoption requires that we suffer like him, for our filial union with him now prepares us for our fully realized filial union with him in glory (8:17).  Paul then confirms, by his equating our consummate bodily redemption with final adoption, that adoption involves more than just a forensic declaration, but a constitutive transformation (8:23).  It is in our resurrection on the last day that we come to the full enjoyment of our adoptive solidarity in the Son. 

It ought not surprise us that Paul "adopts" this familial term.  In what better way could he maintain the incomparable uniqueness of Christ's sonship and yet preserve the believer's comprehensive participation in the Son's humiliation and exaltation?  Bringing together the familially rich themes of imago Dei (e.g., Rom 8:29), inheritance (e.g., Eph 1:13-14), and Christological union, Paul employs the term huiothesia to speak of resplendent Gospel reality.  The compound term derives from two other words, huios (son) and tithemi (to place or put).  It is in Christ as resurrected Son (Romans 1:3-4) that we are placed, becoming blessed participants in his unprecedented glorified filial status.  We are sons of God in Christ the Son of God.  

By the grace of the Father then, "believers are... put in the same position as Christ, who is the firstborn among many brothers (Rom. 8:29).  He was the Son of God by nature (8:32) and was so designated at his resurrection (1:3); believers become the 'children of God' by adoption." [17] While he has attained his sonly throne by right, we in Him attain to that glory by grace through faith.  His resurrected sonship is our resurrected sonship.  For Paul the entirety of our redemption - from the mind of God before creation itself until its eschatological completion in our bodily resurrection - is expressed by filial reality, filial identity, filial union ... by adoption.

What does this brief survey of adoption reveal to us about our opening questions?  Can presenting an incognito, sonless [18] messiah adequately commend the Gospel?  Not hardly.

No matter our motivation, there is no pure Gospel apart from the ontological and incarnational sonship of Jesus Christ.  Some will protest: sonship and messiah-ship are functionally interchangeable.  To be sure, the redemptive-historical theme of Scripture interweaves Christ's kingly and messianic functions with his sonship status.  But the Christological fabric becomes unraveled when we rip the messianic warp from the filial woof.  We cannot speak of Christ as Messiah apart from understanding that regal and redemptive functioning in light of him being the Son of God.  We also cannot speak of his exalted Sonship apart from his reign as King.  Sonship and regal redemptive reign are mutually informative and indivisible; but though the ideas share referentiality, their meanings are not identical.  So when the biblical authors employ language laden with such distinct qualities, we have no interpretive right to regard that language as negotiable.

And it is because Jesus is Son of God that we must speak of Christians as adopted sons and daughters of God.  We must express Gospel truth in a way that honors the true familial expressions of Scripture, and avoids compromise by unintentional truncation or even well intended yet obstructive contextualization.  We cannot speak of the true Gospel apart from the filial character of our union with Christ, for we are united to the Son of God and no one else.  The filial and familial language of the Gospel then is not contextually optional; it is transcendently central.  

Paul's warnings in Galatians 1 ought give us terrifying pause.  Removing familial language eclipses the Christ of the Gospel and it distorts the Gospel of Christ.  Ultimately an incognito Christ is a misrepresented Christ.  A misrepresented Christ is a false gospel.  A false gospel is the turf of the sons of darkness.  Tragically strands of the "Insider Movement" and their sonless messiah will leave people outside the kingdom of the Beloved Son.  This tragedy is no arcane matter, as many in places like Bangladesh have followed a false christ, an image put inside their minds in part by Insider translations, persuading them of a messiah that is not the Son of God.  Some may be mercifully rescued; others will die in their sins.

While many post-Reformation formulations of the Gospel are not guilty of the overt and corrupting compromises of these missiological methods, too many continue to betray the thoroughly filial cast to the Gospel.  This is no call to bury the forensic beneath the filial or to conflate justification and sanctification in cloaked Romanizing argumentation.  Rather it is to remember that, as Paul points out unequivocally, Christ as Son and believers as sons of God by adoption are the content of the Gospel.  These rich realities set the divinely revealed, trans-cultural context.

Accordingly, we must revel in and broadcast boldly the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  We must relish and declare the grace of our familial union with the Messiah.  Capturing the prominence of adoptive grace in the Gospel, Richard Sibbes puts it so well, "All things are ours by virtue of adoption, because we are Christ's and Christ is God's.  There is a world of riches in this, to be sons of God." [19]  As adopted sons of the Father, we possess this world of riches; we must proclaim these riches to the world. 

Dr. David B. Garner is associate professor of systematic theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia and a former missionary to Bulgaria.

[2] It is also true that the offense in Islam to Christ as Son of God derives from the blasphemous idea that sonship necessitates God engaging in sexual activity for procreation.
[3] This latter question, as popular as it has become, should itself be carefully scrutinized.  Should addressing contextualization questions derive from pressing the limits of propriety?  How should the unique authority of Scripture functionally shape the contours of contextualization?
[4] Herman Bavinck, The Doctrine of God (transl. and ed. by William Hendriksen; Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1977), 270.
[6] Melanchthon in article IV of "Apology of the Augsburg Confession" in Theodore G. Tappert, ed. and trans., The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1959), 113.
[7] Martin Luther, "Lectures on the First Epistle of St. John," trans. Walter A. Hansen, in Luther's Works, vol. 30, The Catholic Epistles, American Edition, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan and Walter A. Hansen (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1967), 265, emphasis added.
[8] Sinclair B. Ferguson, "The Reformed Doctrine of Sonship," in Pulpit and People: Essays in Honour of William Still (ed. by Nigel M. De S. Cameron and Sinclair B. Ferguson; Edinburgh: Rutherford House, 1986), 84.
[9] See, for example, Peter Leithart, "Trinitarian Anthropology: Toward a Trinitarian Re-casting of Reformed Theology," in The Auburn Avenue Theology (Fort Lauderdale, FL: Knox Theological Seminary, 2004), 58-71.
[10] Nigel Westhead, "Adoption in the Thought of John Calvin," Scottish Bulletin of Evangelical Theology 13 (1995): 102.  Some contend that the isolating locus treatment of adoption in the Westminster Confession has served to obscure the concept from its broader contours.
[11] See, for example, N. T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997). See especially, pp. 151ff.
[12] Adoption for Paul refuses a forensic straightjacket.  While justification is exclusively legal and sanctification/glorification are transformational, huiothesia establishes the familial solidarity of the believer with the Son of God, identifying the justified and sanctified one as a son placed in the fullness of Christ's resurrected sonship.
[13] Anders Nygren, Romans (transl., Carl C. Rasmussen; Philadelphia: Muhlenberg, 1949), 356.
[14] R. Alan Cole, The Letter of Paul to the Galatians (TNTC; 2d ed.; Leicester: InterVarsity, 1989), 148.
[15] In one additional use of pneuma in Romans 1-7, he speaks of his own human spirit.  Of the twenty-two times pneuma appears in Romans 8, only one of these times he necessarily means human spirit (the second pneuma in Rom 8:16).
[16] Herman Ridderbos, When the Time Had Fully Come: Studies in New Testament Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1957), 52.
[17] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics (4 vols.; ed., John Bolt; transl., John Vriend; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008), 227.
[18] Of course, by sonless we mean not being a son.
[19] Richard Sibbes, Works of Richard Sibbes (7 vols.; ed. Alexander B. Grosart; Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1983), IV.502, emphasis added.