“Gratitude is the attitude that sets the altitude for living.” This is the very first “proverb” (“Jamesism”) I remember learning from James MacDonald when I visited Harvest Bible Chapel for the first time back in the 90’s. He was right then, and he’s right now. One of the most significant things that will impact (even play a role defining) the course of our lives is our thankfulness … or lack thereof.
On this special day of gratitude, I want to express my deep and abiding thanks to God for my family, but I thought I’d add a little twist and consider “family” in two distinct-but-very-real senses of the term. First, I am exceedingly grateful to my earthly family for their love and their patience as God continues to be about His sanctifying work in my life, and to God for the gift of their lives intertwined with mine. I thank God…
- For my beautiful, godly wife, who challenges me to pursue God with my whole heart, just as she pursues Him with hers
- For my beloved son who teaches me more about my Father than any sermon could
- For my 60%-adorable, 40%-pathetic dog whose only ambition in life is to be together
- For my brother, with whom I laugh like I can with nobody else
- For my parents, who have given me reasons for gratitude beyond number
- And for dear friends — you know who you are — who show the love and grace of God to me, and who truly are family
But secondly and most of all, I want to express my gratitude for my adoptive Father, to whose crazy-amazing love and faithfulness I want to bear witness, on this Thanksgiving Day.
As you may know, I’m in my second year of seminary at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. As part of my biblical theology class this semester, I am required to select and trace a biblical theme through the Scriptures. Because my wife and I ourselves adopted a child, and because I have always felt that being a father – particularly an adoptive father – has been an invaluable source of insight into the heart of God the Father towards His children, I elected to write my paper on the theme of divine adoption. Having recently completed this study, my primary reaction to its implications is one of profound awe and deep gratitude. It has been intensely worshipful for me to meditate on the reality that the Son of God Most High, “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, He humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2:6-8) … that I might be accepted into His family and share in an incomprehensible inheritance with Him. That is a breathtaking truth!
So, in honor of the Thanksgiving holiday and in overflowing gratitude to God for His love for me, I thought I’d share some of what I discovered in my study. A few times in the past, I have directly shared sermons or academic papers in their entirety (e.g. — on racism and racialization, on belonging to Christ, etc.). But this time, I thought I’d adapt just excerpts of the paper to more of a blog format. We’ll see how that goes (feedback welcome). And if by some crazy stretch you are reading this and want the whole paper, just ask and I would think we could work that out.
Divine Adoption is a Pauline Metaphor
The Greek word “huiothesia” (Strong’s 5206), translated “adoption as sons”, appears only five times in the whole of Scripture – all in Paul’s epistles in the New Testament, and each referring to the Christian’s divine adoption by God. There is no equivalent construction in the Old Testament, but the concept of adoption in general and divine adoption specifically is well represented by other terms and formulae, such as Hebrew words like “nachalah” (Strong’s 5159), translated “inheritance”. Because word studies are not the best way to develop a Biblical theme, however, the goal of this conversation is to a) show in Scripture that God has adopted Christians as sons, b) explore what that really means, and c) demonstrate that this metaphor thoroughly deserves the awe-induced response it inspired in me during my studies.
Adoption in Biblical Times
First it’s important to establish how those who originally heard Paul preach live would have understood Paul’s adoption metaphor. This is a key step in interpreting Scripture well.
Adoption in the 1st century Roman world significantly resembles its equivalent in our day. It was and is “the legal establishment of a kinship relationship … equivalent to one based on physical descent,” in which “a child from one family becomes part of another family by adoption.” Adoption in Rome took place solely at the initiative of the adoptive paterfamilias (the father or head of a Roman household), whose will was absolute. Adoptees completely severed ties with any former family, including any benefits or right to inheritance, and came completely and permanently under the authority of the adopting paterfamilias. “All of [the adopted son’s] previous debts and other obligations were eradicated,” and he became completely legally indistinguishable from a natural son. The adopted son inherits the new father’s honor, with the obligation to uphold it and guard against any action which would bring dishonor upon the father’s name or house.
Jewish (Old Testament) custom regarding adoption was bound up less in “continuing the adoptive parent’s line” than in “conferring the benefits of the family on the adoptee.” Though “formal, technical adoption is absent [in the OT],” we see several examples of adoption. For example, Moses is clearly adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter (Ex 2:1-10) and Mordecai “took [Esther] as his own daughter.” (Esth 2:15) She was “almost certainly adopted, probably according to non-Israelite law.” Both demonstrate the presence of an adoption pattern in the OT, but neither adds significantly to a trajectory of divine adoption.
An Adoption Formula
As I traced the theme of divine adoption through Scripture, I developed a specific “adoption formula,” which seems to me to conjoin Roman and Jewish traditions and to repeatedly represent how God interacts with us to draw us to Himself. In this formula, God
- Sovereignly chooses someone who is estranged and enslaved
- Redeems him
- Adopts him as His own son
- Seals him / the adoption with the Holy Spirit
- Bestows upon him a glorious inheritance.
Tracing the Adoption Trajectory Through the Scriptures
Romans 8:15, 23; 9:4
I view Romans 8:14-17 to be the pivotal verse in Scripture on divine adoption. Earlier in the chapter (8:1-13), Paul sets up a dichotomy between living “in the flesh” – by which we are “slaves” and face “death” – and living “in the spirit” – by which we are “free” and can anticipate “life” (c.f. vv2, 12-13). It is in this context that Paul says, “All who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For … you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons.” (vv14-15a). Paul explicitly links life in the Kingdom of God with being led by the Holy Spirit (v13) and with adoption by God the Father (v15). By this we understand that life in God’s Kingdom is also life in God’s family as adopted children. The Spirit of life is in fact the Spirit of adoption! And we confirm receipt of this Spirit as we cry “Abba!” (v15b) – “an informal Aramaic term for ‘father’, connoting intimacy, tenderness, dependence, and complete lack of fear or anxiety.” In fact, “Abba” is how Jesus referred to His Father in Gethsemane (Mark 14:36).
Paul continues, “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.” (Rom 8:16). God’s promises of life result in His sworn testimony that we are His children. This legal language reminds us of the Roman legal process of adoption, which required formally attestation by seven witnesses. The Spirit of God both makes possible our adoption and testifies – with great “vigor, certainty, [and] unassailability” – to its fulfillment. Once we were slaves, but now we are children of the Father. Paul’s listeners would readily have attributed this change to the legally-attested process of adoption.
The concepts of heirship and inheritance further validate the Christian’s full and legal status as a child of God. Paul states, “if children, then heirs – heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ” (v17a). Today, heirship is mostly a financial concept, but inheritance in the OT is bound up with having a place (in the Land) and with the “rest” that awaits God’s people. “The land [is] an inheritance to Israel as an expression of their filial relationship to Yahweh.” Jesus also equates God’s Kingdom with our inheritance, inviting us to “inherit the kingdom prepared for [us] from the foundation of the world.” (Matt 25:34)
Paul’s next reference to adoption is in Romans 8:23 (“we wait eagerly for adoption”). At first blush, when combined with what we already saw in Romans 8:15 (“you have received the Spirit of adoption”), this may seem like a contradiction. But in fact, it forms a classic eschatological formula theologians commonly refer to as “the already, but not yet”. In one sense, God has fully completed the transaction of our adoption (v15), but in another sense, its fullest realization of our establishment in God’s family won’t be until the we live directly in God’s presence in the New Jerusalem (v23, c.f. Rev 21).
In Romans 9, we read Paul’s third and final use of the term “huiothesia” in his letter to the Romans. Referring to the nation of Israel, Paul exclaims that “to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship …” and many other blessings (Rom 9:4-5). Here we see an explicit correlation between God’s adoption of Israel and the Abrahamic covenant. In the context of his larger argument, Paul is also implying that Israel’s rejection of God’s promises has resulted in God’s offering this same glorious adoption to the Gentiles (c.f. Rom 11:11). By applying the same adoption metaphor both to Christians in Romans 8 and to Israel (and by implication, even to Gentiles) in Romans 9, Paul establishes that adoption is synonymous with God’s election of a chosen people – a subset of broader humanity to bear His name and mediate His presence to the world, “a kingdom of priests” (Ex 19:6; 1 Pet 2:9). Here we establish a clear pattern for divine adoption: Both with Israel and with the Church of Jesus Christ, God the Father sovereignly chooses those who do not deserve to be chosen, frees them from slavery, adopts them into His family, seals them with His Spirt, and grants them an inheritance.
In Galatians, Paul establishes the superiority of God’s promises, emphasizing that the covenant between God and His people is ratified by God’s promise, not by the Mosaic Law. He concludes chapter 3 by proclaiming that “if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.” (Gal 3:29) Paul’s description of the Christian as an “heir of the promise of God” refers to “the spiritual promises given to Abraham.” He then argues that Christ’s death and resurrection fully accomplishes our adoption as sons and guarantees our inheritance of eternal life. In the course of this argument, Paul, using the familiar term “huiothesia” (Gal 4:5), replays the classic adoption formula we saw in Romans: God sovereignly acts (v4), choosing us who were “slaves” to the world (v3), redeems us (v5a), adopts us into His family (v5b), making us both sons and heirs (v7), and seals us by His Spirit (v6). Here again, God’s seal of the Spirit prompts us to call out to our “Abba, Father” (v6). “The fact that a believer has an intimate relationship with God, and can confidently cry out to Him as Father, is beautiful and magnificent proof of sonship.”
The opening verses of the Book of Ephesians constitute an “outline of God’s master plan for salvation”, including our election (Eph 1:3-6a), our redemption (vv6b-11), and our future consummation (vv12-14). God chose us to be holy and blameless before Him (v4). This was impossible to achieve on our own, because we were slaves to sin, but God the Father, in Christ, chose to draw us to Himself to be adopted sons. Paul relates our “adoption” to God’s love for us (v4) and “the purpose of His will” (v5), by which He grants us “redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses” (v7) and “unite[s] all things in Him” (v10). The “result of God’s election is our adoption as sons … more than citizens and servants, and even more than friends … God lovingly draws redeemed sinners into the intimacy of His own family”. Making us His sons is thus bound up in God’s loving us, choosing us, redeeming us from sin, and uniting us by Christ’s blood with Himself. And we know this transaction is full and complete because we have obtained our inheritance (v11) and have been sealed “with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance” (v14). Here again, each element of the adoption formula is present.
The Eschatological Hope of Adoption
As with many Biblical themes, we find the culmination of our adoption as sons in the New Jerusalem: “He who overcomes will inherit these things [the Kingdom of Heaven; eternal life in God’s very presence], and I will be his God and he will be My son.” (Rev 21:7 NASB) With finality, the sovereign God has elected those who will be His sons (v27). Our justification by the blood of Christ is the ultimate legal transaction, purchasing our freedom from slavery, our pardon from sin, and our acceptance before God (Rev 1:5, 5:9, 12:11). God declares that we are His sons (Rev 21:7b) and that we have a glorious inheritance in the New Jerusalem (vv1-7a). In fact, God Himself is our inheritance: “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man.” (v3) “The greatest blessing God’s children will have in heaven will be the eternal presence of their God.” This is the true culmination of the adoption metaphor; we are adopted by God to ultimately and finally be with God.
Wrapping it up
I realize that this has been a little long, and a little more academic than much of what I write, but I hope it serves God and you. If you have turned from your sin and accepted Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, then God has not just sent His Son to die for your sins, as astounding and profound as that is. He chose you. He rescued you from death and hell. He adopted you into His family — legally transferring you from a family of shame and dishonor to a family of infinite greatness and glory. He sealed you with His very Spirit, who lives in you as a downpayment on and guarantor of your inheritance. And He has made you a co-heir with Christ, to inherit with Him the Kingdom of God — life directly and eternally in God’s presence.
That is a wonder beyond wonders! And on today of all days, I am overcome with exceeding thankfulness. I hope that you too find it worshipful (and it moves you to deep gratitude) to remember your fleshly family of origin, your forever family of the Spirit, and your ultimate destination in a room in God’s house as His beloved adopted child.
 T. Desmond Alexander et al., eds., New Dictionary of Biblical Theology (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 376.
 James M. Scott, Adoption as Sons of God (Tübingen: Mohr, 1992), 75.
 Trevor J. Burke, Adopted Into God’s Family: Exploring a Pauline Metaphor (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 64.
 Burke, 68-9.
 John MacArthur, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Romans 1-8 (Chicago: Moody, 1991), 437.
 Burke, 63.
 Ibid., 153-4.
 J. D. Douglas et al., eds. New Bible Dictionary. 2nd ed. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1962), 17.
 David A. Gundersen, “Adoption, assurance, and the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit,” Journal of Family Ministry 2, no. 1, Fall-Winter 2011, 25.
 Douglas, 16.
 MacArthur, Romans, 437.
 Burke, 68.
 Gundersen, 21.
 Douglas, 514.
 Alexander, 623.
 MacArthur, Romans, 464.
 John MacArthur, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Galatians (Chicago: Moody, 1987), 101.
 Ibid., 110.
 John MacArthur, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Ephesians (Chicago: Moody, 1986), 5.
 Ibid., 15.
 MacArthur, Romans, 444.
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