Biblical Adoption Is…


 “…You received the Spirit of Adoption.” (Romans 8:15)

This book was the 12th book I’ve read in the New Studies in Biblical Theology Set and by far, this one was the most academic of them all. This book is a barely-simplified version (of only 200 pages!) of Trevor J. Burke’s doctoral dissertation. The author isn’t afraid to “show his work” as he goes through and so I found this one to be a pretty slow, dense read. Plenty of scholarly detail that I didn’t necessarily need for my own purposes. What I did enjoy though, was that throughout the book, the author lays out a theology of adoption firmly rooted in Biblical exegesis. As there are only five passages to go to in the New Testament on this theme – this book ends up with a lot of thought for each section of Scripture discussed. Very focused research, filled with in-depth analysis and robust explanation.

A book like this is a bit more difficult to summarize than others because of how nuanced and comprehensive it is. However, I’m gonna give it a shot. At the least, I’ll present what seemed to me to be the most generally important findings. Essentially, Burke argues that Biblical Adoption (Greek: huiothesia) is…

A legal act or transfer from an alien family into the family of God (27). Adoption is thus its own thing – tied to but also distinct from other theological themes such as regeneration, for example (which is a renewal of our human nature occurring within us through the Holy Spirit). We find also that Biblical adoption is distinguished from justification (which emphasizes the penal aspect of salvation connoting the drama of the law court); redemption (which emphasizes deliverance as from the realm of the slave market), and propitiation (which emphasizes the cultic and is a metaphor stemming from Jewish sacrificial practice). So, uniquely, Paul’s adoption term underscores the notion of transference from one family to another. The act of adoption would happen typically when an adult son is taken out of one family and placed into another with all its attending privileges and responsibilities. As Francis Lyall puts it in describing the Roman socio-legal practice of the day:

“The profound truth of Roman adoption was that the adoptee was taken out of his previous state and was placed in a new relationship of son to his new father, his new paterfamilias. All his old debts were cancelled, and in effect the adoptee started a new life as part of his new family.” 

While some metaphors, such as propitiation, underscore the objective side of salvation, huiothesia tens to focus more on what happens to us – that is, it looks at salvation from the subjective or experiential side and thus focuses more on the result of what is achieved for the people of God. As an organizing metaphor, huiothesia (adoption) for the Apostle Paul (1) centers in the person and work of Jesus Christ, the Son of God; (2) shares a moral focus evident in other soteriological expressions; and (3) is eschatological in nature – expressing the already/not yet tension (41).

At the time Paul was using the term, adoption oftentimes secured the lineage of a family and was essentially a family term. As such, adoption was not entered into lightly (68) because of the effect adoption had. As Berger and Nicolas explain,

“The effect of adoption was to place the adopted person for all legal purposes in the same position as if he had been a natural child in the potestas of the adopter. The adopted son took his adoptive father’s name and rank. He acquired rights of succession on death in his new family and lost all such rights as he had in his old family.” 

We find out in Scripture that when God justifies people, God also adopts them as his children and favorably places his own life within, the life-giving power and energy of the Holy Spirit (See Romans 8:14-15 and Galatians 4:4-6 especially). As with all of God’s soteriological benefits, his giving of his Spirit to his children is an honor bestowed upon them and not something that can be earned or boasted about. Put simply, Biblical adoption is a beautiful, undeserved gift of God. Adoption as a divine selection takes place in eternity past and is provoked not by historical contingency or human merit, but solely by God’s sovereign grace. For God to predestine us to adoption is not a cold, calculated act of God. Quite the opposite, God predestines us “in love” to underscore the Father’s deep affection in marking us out as his adopted sons. As James I. Packer puts it,

“God adopts us out of his free love, not because our character and record shows us worthy to bear his name, but despite the fact that they show the opposite. We are not fit for a place in God’s family; the idea of His loving and exalting us sinners as He loves and has exalted the Lord Jesus sound ludicrous and wild – yet that, and nothing less than that, is what our adoption means.” 

So our honor is not acquired, it is ascribed by the Creator and Savior of the universe, initiated by Him before all of time began! This ludicrous and wild idea gives us great expectations: If we truly are sons and daughters of God – then our future is sure. We read in Scripture that our adoption leads to, one day, a perfect and imperishable glory of sharing in God’s life, forever. As adopted children, our inheritance becomes not just God’s good gifts or even just an association with God. As God’s adopted children, we will one day get God himself! Adoption is then for us humans an “unsurpassed honor” (157) since we become associated with the highest and most honorable “head of the household” in all the cosmos (158). Ultimately, as Alister McGrath puts it:

“Adoption is about being wanted. It is about belonging. These are deeply emotive themes, which resonate with the cares and concerns of many in our increasingly fractured society. To be adopted is to be invited into a loving and caring environment. It is about being welcomed, wanted, and invited. Adoption celebrates the privilege of invitation, in which the outsider is welcomed into the fold of faith and love.” 

Christian, this adoption is yours!

From God the Father, in Christ, and through the Holy Spirit!



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