Pauline Metaphors – Part 3: Adoption

Introduction

The word adoption only occurs five times in the New Testament and is confined to Paul’s letters.1 There are indications of this doctrine in the Old Testament, e.g., Exod. 4. 22, 23; Hos. 11. 1, hence Paul’s reference in Romans chapter 9 verse 4, but, principally, it is a doctrine established in the New Testament. Strangely, the doctrine of adoption is perhaps the least taught of all the theological aspects relating to the gospel and God’s dealings with men. It is strange because the truth unfolded in this subject lies at the very core of God’s purposes for His people. The doctrines of salvation, reconciliation, justification, redemption, and sanctification are all profound, and the reality thoroughly undeserved, but what is revealed in the doctrine of adoption sets before us God’s ultimate purpose for us.

The meaning of the word

In general usage the word adoption refers to the legal process whereby someone is brought into a family to which it did not belong by birth. The child that is adopted becomes a fully integrated member of the family and enjoys parity with any who were actually born into it. However, whilst there might be some similarities between the secular use of the word and the biblical teaching of adoption, the two are far from identical.

One very significant difference is that the biblical use of the word as it relates to believers refers to those who are already children of God, having been born of God. Thus, we have the seemingly peculiar situation in which we are born into God’s family and at the same time we are adopted by Him. This apparent anomaly is easily explained when we look at the meaning of the Greek word translated ‘adoption’.

It is a compound word, the first part of which means ‘son’ and the second part derives from a word meaning ‘to set’ or ‘to place’. In summary, therefore, we may say that the biblical teaching on adoption relates to our being placed as sons and this definition removes the difficulty set out in the previous paragraph. All believers are children of God and, equally, we are all sons of God, but the two terms are not synonymous.

Being a child of God emphasizes our relationship to God, we are part of His family by means of the new birth. Being a son emphasizes more than relationship for it involves having an inheritance. We are not adopted to the position of a child, but we are adopted to the position of a son. The distinction between being a child and being a son is taught by the Apostle Paul in the opening verses of Galatians chapter 4.

Galatians chapter 4

The commencement of this chapter must be understood against the backdrop of the doctrinal error being foisted on the churches of Galatia. Judaizers were seeking to bring the Christians into an adherence to law-keeping and Paul’s objective is to highlight the folly of such a retrograde step. The apostle declares in chapter 3 verse 24 that the purpose of the law was temporary and completed when Christ came. He compares Israel before Christ came to a child who is under tutors and governors even though that child might be an heir to a vast estate.

C. F. Hogg in Gospel Facts and Doctrines states, ‘In order that those who were in the child and slave state under the Law might be redeemed therefrom, in the fulness of time God sent forth His Son that all who accept Him should have the status of sons. In Gal. 4. 5, therefore, the idea of dignity attaches to the word adoption, a dignity manifest by the contrast drawn between the servile and infantile state of Israel under the Law’.2

Israel’s adoption

Romans chapter 9 begins a three-chapter dispensational section of the Epistle. In the opening verses, Paul expresses his grief and constant sorrow for his fellow countrymen because they had rejected the gospel and God’s Son. Consequently, God had now set them aside even though they had once been so greatly privileged. Some of their privileges are enumerated in verse 4, ‘Who are Israelites; to whom pertaineth the adoption, and the glory, and the covenants, and the giving of the law, and the service of God, and the promises’.

Israel’s adoption was national, not an individual matter. As a nation, God had chosen them and conferred upon them privileges and blessings far above that which He bestowed on any other people. They were a unique people and were brought into a unique relationship with God. In Exodus chapter 4, God commissioned Moses to go into Pharaoh to secure Israel’s release from the Egyptian slavery and He told him to say, ‘Thus saith the Lord, Israel is my son, even my firstborn: And I say unto thee, Let my son go, that he may serve me: and if thou refuse to let him go, behold, I will slay thy son, even thy firstborn’, vv. 22, 23. Though currently set aside, one day Israel will be brought into blessing and restored to the privileges of being God’s firstborn.

Paul’s teaching on believer’s adoption in Ephesians

If we were able to tabulate the various factors that motivated each of us to trust the Saviour, I am confident that two would outnumber all the others. Either we felt our need of salvation because we were burdened about our guilt, or because we were fearful of being left behind at the rapture. For those brought up in a Christian family, it is probably the second of these two that was the most concerning to us. Whatever the motive may have been, I am sure that few of us, if any, fully appreciated what God had in mind when He saved us.

Even though Paul was writing this Epistle whilst in bonds under house arrest in Rome, he scales the very highest peaks in divine revelation. In chapter 1 verse 3, he states that we have been ‘blessed … with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ’. In verse 4, he informs us that God has chosen us in Christ ‘before the foundation of the world’. Then, in verse 5, he declares, ‘Having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of his will’.

The words ‘adoption of children’ are the translation of one Greek word which, as already noted, means ‘to place as sons’. The term ‘sons’ is not a gender term; all believers, brethren and sisters, are classed as sons, for God’s ultimate intention has always been to make us sons. That was in the mind of God from eternal ages; the choosing of us in verse 4 was the way by which that eternal plan was accomplished - He chose us ‘having’ determined to make us sons.

In verse 4, God elected us in His sovereignty, but the emphasis in verse 5 on His predestinating us is the good pleasure of His will. It was at the Jordan 2, 000 years ago that the Father expressed His good pleasure in His Son, ‘Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased’, Mark 1. 11. That Father has determined to have for Himself countless people conformed to the image of His Son and from whom He will derive eternal good pleasure.

God’s love is infinite, God’s ability is without measure, and in verse 5 we reach the apex of what God’s love and power can do. It takes those who were once children of the devil and places them in His presence, not as children but as sons. Herein we have reached the acme of divine revelation as it relates to us as rebel sinners. Surely, as Paul wrote these words, he was unaware of the chain that bound him. He may have been in house arrest in Rome but in spirit he was soaring to the highest heaven.

That was God’s will for us and the execution of it brought Him pleasure. Why God should derive pleasure from saving us is truly an amazing thought, but why He should want to make us sons and therein derive eternal pleasure is beyond comprehension. This glorious truth was captured so succinctly by J. N. Darby in his well-known hymn:

‘And is it so - I shall be like Thy Son?
Is this the grace which He for me has won?
Father of glory (thought beyond all thought!) -
In glory, to His own blest likeness brought!

Nor I alone; Thy loved ones all, complete
In glory, round Thee there with joy shall meet,
All like Thee, for Thy glory like Thee, Lord,
Object supreme of all, by all adored’.

Romans chapter 8 verse 23 Although all believers are sons now, there is a future aspect of adoption that is yet to be realized and this is presented to us in this verse, ‘And not only they, but ourselves also, which have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body’. In the previous verse, Paul shows that the whole creation groans and travails in pain; it is waiting for the manifestation of the sons of God. However, we also wait, we wait for the ‘adoption’, that is the redemption of our body.

Over the last two millennia, countless numbers of believers have died and even those Christians who will be alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord have bodies that are mortal and corruptible. However, whether dead or alive there is going to be a glorious day of resurrection and change for us all. Then our bodies shall be transformed, and they shall be ‘fashioned like unto his glorious body’, Phil. 3. 21. Then we shall be conformed to His image physically and morally, and we shall enter into the full wonder and enjoyment of that which God had planned for us before time began.

The heart is satisfied; can ask no more
All thought of self is now forever o’er:
Christ, its un-mingled object, fills the heart
In blest adoring love - the endless part.

Endnotes

1

See: Rom. 8. 15, 23; 9. 4; Gal. 4. 5, and Eph. 1. 5.

2

C. F. Hogg, Gospel Facts and Doctrines, Pickering and Inglis, 1951, pg. 99.

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