Families grow through one of two ways: birth or adoption. Of course there are foster situations, but the foster care system is intended to be a short-term solution or lead to adoption. Both are reasons for great joy for a mother and a father.
Scripture uses both metaphors of birth and adoption for how God brings you into his family. Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be born again (John 3:3). But throughout Paul’s epistles, he primarily focuses on the image of adoption. But throughout Scripture, God’s people are often described as his children. Like today, adoption in the Hellenistic world of the first century had several components that made it a perfect image of what God has done for us in Christ.
The Confession says, “All those that are justified, God vouchsafed, in and for the sake of 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.”
Paul says in Ephesians 1:5-6 that God “predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved.” An adopted son has all the same rights and privileges as a son by birth.
Why does Scripture always speak of adoption as sons? Because that was the means of passing on the familial estate. Daughters married men from other families and thereby joined themselves to that family. Sons were considered to have stayed in the same family. It is not at all inappropriate to say that female Christians are sons in this sense; in fact, it is a great blessing. Women share equally in the inheritance laid up for us all. Having said that, Paul does say that we “shall be sons and daughters to [God]” in 2 Corinthians 6:18.
How, then, were we adopted? It is “in the Beloved.” Through the work of Jesus Christ, the first Son, we are now free and clear to become sons, as well. His perfect obedience, as God’s one and only begotten Son from all eternity, we are counted worthy to be adopted. In Paul’s day, the most common type of person to be adopted was a former slave. If the time came for a slave to be free, he could do so. If he wanted to stay with his master because of the station in life it afforded him, the patriarch of the family could (though not always) offer to adopt this man at whatever age he was.
After all the pomp and ceremony, this man was now a son who would become an equal heir with any other sons in the family (though usually adoption was reserved for families without any natural-born sons; it ensured the family estate passed on without falling into chaos). The same is true of God’s family. Paul says, “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Romans 8:16-17).
When we are adopted into God’s family as a full son, we become heirs with the only begotten Son. What is it we inherit? We inherit all that Christ already has—a kingdom defined by righteousness. We will conquer the nations with him, and we will receive his own name (Revelation 3:12). We will have the full blessings of being sinless, which is perfect communion with the Father.
Adoption comes with many benefits, of which the primary benefit is a loving father. For all the malodorous feculence on the internet, I have seen a few videos of children being told that they’ve been officially adopted. I’m not crying, you’re crying. The child may have lost a family through some great tragedy, or the child may be being fostered. Regardless, when you’re adopted into a loving family, you have achieved a level of joy that children born into a good family do not usually feel or recognize.
Our “liberties and privileges” of adoption into the heavenly family far surpass the joy of an earthly family. What can an earthly father, with all our faults, offer a child that God the Father cannot offer in spades? The Psalmist tells us, “As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him” (Psalm 103:13). And the proverb says, “In the fear of the Lord one has strong confidence, and his children will have a refuge” (Proverbs 14:26).
Fear is not unhealthy if it is reverent. Having a healthy fear of a good and loving father does not come from the terror of abuse; it comes from the knowledge that my father will never harm me, but any displeasure I have from his discipline is a natural outpouring of his great love for me. You only have to see the statistics of fatherless homes to desire the good that comes from a reverent fear of an earthly father. How much more should we fear our heavenly Father! And no matter the relationship you have with your earthly father, you are welcomed with loving arms by the heavenly Father.
His children also reap the benefits of the providence of God. He is not only sovereign over this world, but he guides and directs the affairs of this world for his own glory and for our own benefit. We can rest in the truth that whatever comes our way, God has not left us or abandoned us. Whatever tragedy he gives us, it is better if we endure it. Whatever good thing he takes from us, it is better if we suffer its loss. Our finite minds are yet incapable of understanding the secret things of God.
But regardless of what the day brings, a real source of joy and peace is that our adoption, ordained by the Father and purchased by the Son, is sealed by the Spirit. Paul warns us of grieving the Holy Spirit, because it is the Spirit who “sealed [us] for the day of redemption” (Ephesians 4:30). Our adoption is foundational. It is unchanging. The adoption papers are stamped with the divine seal.
It is through the providence of God, it is through enduring and enjoying the trials and blessings of our adoption, that we grow into greater Christ-likeness. Next week, we’ll see in greater detail this lifetime process of sanctification.