Editor’s note: This is part of a six-story series about adoption. Other stories about domestic adoption are available here and here . Stories about international adoption can be read here , here and here .
FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–While waiting to check out, a gray-haired lady peeked around the side of a large beaded purse. My daughter smiled, and the game began.
The lady asked, “Where does her reddish hair come from?” I responded, “She’s adopted.” Her jovial expression faded like the clearing of an Etch-a-Sketch. Her body slowly contracted as she muttered, “Oh, that’s nice. Well, do you have any children of your own?”
I understood what she meant, but I couldn’t resist the devilish little boy inside. I responded, “Yes, this one is ours. We thought about buying a few more but with the economy, well, you know.” I smiled gently, letting her off the hook.
The extroverted stranger failed to understand that despite a lack of cellular heritage, I considered Rachel completely “my” daughter. This stranger, however, did clearly communicate societal priority on biological legacy and the popular misunderstanding of the true meaning of adoption. Unfortunately, many understand the theological concept of adoption less than they understand the cultural concept.
J.I. Packer wrote in “Knowing God,” “It is a strange fact that the truth of adoption has been little regarded in Christian history. Apart from two nineteenth-century books, now little known, there is no evangelical writing on it, nor has there been at any time since the Reformation, and any more than there was before” (p. 228).
While a few have responded to this call for writings on the subject, the lack of attention may cause you to wonder why adoption is important. The simple answer: “Because God is interested in adoption.” Each believer in Christ has been adopted by God, and to understand the Gospel completely, you must comprehend the theology of adoption. Let me elaborate on the chord of adoption woven through our biblical tapestry.
ADOPTION IN THE SCRIPTURES
The Old Testament displays God’s passion for adoption through the concept of Father, the sonship of Israel and adoption stories like Moses (Exodus 2:10), Genubath (1 Kings 11:20) and Esther (Esther 2:7).
The Old Testament reveals God as Father and contains about 40 references to the “fatherless.” These references include the commands to “treat the fatherless correctly” (Exodus 22:22) and to “bring justice to the fatherless” (Isaiah 1:17). Deuteronomy 24:17-21 compares the plight of the fatherless to that of Israel while in Egyptian bondage.
The adoption metaphor also extends to the nation of Israel. Moses received instruction to tell Pharaoh, “Thus says the LORD, Israel is my firstborn son” (Exodus 4:22). God used Moses, rescued through adoption, to speak of God’s adopting Israel as His firstborn son. You remember the story. Pharaoh commanded the death of all children under two, and Jochebed hid Moses in the bulrushes. Pharaoh’s daughter had mercy on this “orphaned” child and eventually reared him in the house of Pharaoh. Moses, saved through adoption, eventually led Israel, the nation adopted as God’s son, out of Egypt.
In the New Testament, four passages address the theological importance of adoption, two using the term “orphan,” and one special example of adoption.
Galatians 4:4-7, Romans 8:14-23, Ephesians 1:3-6 and Romans 9:1-4 all discuss adoption. These passages could have easily retained the well-established language of the new birth; instead, the Spirit-inspired Scriptures reveal imagery of adoption describing our salvation. From these passages, I draw four conclusions.
BIBLICAL VIEWS OF ADOPTION
First, adoption makes sons out of slaves.
From Adam’s choice to emulate Eve in eating the fruit rather than following God, mankind has been enslaved to sin. Our corrupt nature leads every human to fall short of the glory of God. Galatians 4 indicates that God sent forth his Son to redeem those in bondage by the law to adoption as sons. Jesus substituted Himself for mankind, making sufficient atonement for our sins. Those repenting of sins and confessing Jesus as Savior experience adoption as sons. Galatians 4:7 states, “So you are no longer a slave, but a son.” Romans 8:15 states, “For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons….”
Just as God adopted the slave nation of Israel to make them the children of Israel, God likewise adopts believers, making them sons with all pertaining rights and privileges — once slaves to sin, now sons of the Sovereign.
I remember my own adoption well. Most would have considered me an unwanted child. Relatively old and rebellious, my soon-to-be heavenly Father spoke to me as I sat in the second row, fourth seat from the end, during a Rodney Gage revival. That night I committed my life to Jesus and experienced firsthand the love of adoption — no longer a slave but now a son.
Second, adoption grants us the understanding of God as “Father.”
Galatians 4:6 states, “God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!'” Romans 8:15-16 expresses that we have “received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!'” Remarkably, these two texts use the Aramaic term “Abba.” The question naturally arises as to why Paul did not use Greek. Perhaps the answer can be found with Jesus’ prayer in the garden. Mark 14:36 records Jesus saying, “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me.”
Paul retained the Aramaic words that Jesus spoke to His Father. Imagine the startling nature of this revelation in a Jewish culture that refrained from speaking the name of their omnipotent God. The Holy Spirit indwells believers, testifying that the transcendent, holy, Creator of the universe is also the immanent, compassionate “Abba! Father.” This was the plan from the beginning. The fall of Adam did not surprise God. In the fullness of time, God sent His Son (Galatians 4:4) to redeem us by adoption through Jesus Christ. Adoption occurs “according to the purpose of His will, to the praise of His glorious grace” (Ephesians 1:5-6).
One Saturday afternoon, I reclined with legs extended, typing this article on my laptop. My daughter walked up and said, “Sit in your lap, Daddy.” I laid the laptop aside and cherished a four-year-old little girl wanting to cuddle with Daddy. In a priceless moment, she snuggled her head on my shoulder with bear and blanket in hand, her blue eyes gazed upward as she said, “I love you, Daddy.” Depressing the lump in my throat, I realized that my daughter did not refer to adoption papers, call a judge or look at a birth certificate bearing an unfamiliar name to understand that I am her “Daddy.” She simply knows. In like manner, we have neither a “new birth” certificate nor papers of spiritual adoption — unnecessary items, because we have the Holy Spirit testifying to our hearts that we are sons and God almighty is our “Abba! Father.”
Third, adoption imparts the Spirit confirming our salvation.
Romans 8:14 says, “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.” Scripture confirms that those led by the Spirit are adopted as sons, and vice versa, those adopted as sons are led by the Spirit. As part of salvation, believers receive the Spirit that confirms newly adopted sons as children of God. Romans 8:16 adds, “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.”
The Spirit confirms entrance into the family of God, which makes us brothers and sisters in Christ. While we nonchalantly use the term “brother” for forgotten acquaintances at church or greeting total strangers, adoption in Christ signifies our new family relationship. Adoption as brothers and sisters leaves no room for economic, racial or any other kind of prejudice.
Fourth, adoption turns orphans into heirs.
The Greek word orphanos occurs only in James 1:27 and John 14:28 in the New Testament. James 1:27 stresses the importance of ministry to orphans. In John 14:18, Jesus promises not to leave the disciples as orphans but to send the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit calls the lost and regenerates responsive orphans into sons, and as sons, we become heirs.
The designation of heirs makes the imagery of adoption as sons, in contrast to sons and daughters, essential. In the Jewish context, sons receive the birthright and the blessing. Galatians 4:7 states, “and if a son, then an heir through God.” Through our justification by grace, a radical rags-to-riches story emerges — orphans are transformed into heirs. Our new birthright through adoption awaits us in heaven as we trade dying, sin-infected vessels for resurrected, glorious bodies.
Perhaps the greatest human example of adoption comes in the person of Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus. Luke 2:41 and other passages refer to Joseph and Mary as the parents of Jesus. Joseph, who could have put Mary away, instead responded to God’s revelation by serving as Jesus’ father.
The stories of Moses and Jesus contain similarities. Both lived when leaders commanded children age two and younger to be killed. Moses came out of Egypt, whereas Jesus fled to and came out of Egypt. Pharaoh’s daughter “adopted” Moses. Joseph adopted Jesus. God used Moses to rescue the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, while Jesus rescued mankind from slavery in sin. The analogy breaks down, though, as Moses, a man of the law, could only look into the “Promised Land” while Joshua (Yeshua, the Old Testament name for Jesus) completed the journey across the Jordan. The law only reveals our sinfulness whereas Jesus brings us safe passage to our heavenly promised land.
Adoption should matter to us because adoption matters to God. Through adoption, we fulfill the Bible’s command to care for orphans and illustrate God’s plan of salvation. Adoption exhibits God’s concern and care for the fatherless. Adoption demonstrates true and undefiled religion. Through the planning, cost and pain of adoption we learn more about the divine love expressed in our spiritual adoption. These reasons, and more, should cause everyone to consider adopting or supporting adoption. Those who cannot adopt can help single moms or children with absentee fathers understand the love of our “Abba! Father.”
A PERMANENT HOME
The day for the finalization of our adoption came. Anxiously, I realized the judge could ask anything he wished. Surprisingly, the judge pontificated on the permanency of adoption. He stressed the finality of his signature, stating, “You cannot undo it. You cannot turn back the clock. After this, you cannot change your mind. Like it or not, until Rachel becomes 18 years of age, she is your responsibility. Do you understand?”
The devilish little boy emerged again. I responded, “Well, that is the point of adoption, isn’t it?” I quickly clarified, “Yes. I understand and gladly accept the responsibility, your Honor.”
Later that day it dawned on me that my theological understanding of adoption had affected my cultural understanding. I always understood the permanency of adoption because I understood that spiritual adoption contained eternal security. We express it as “once saved, always saved.” This past event of adoption guaranteed justification, sanctification and glorification. True sons will persevere unto the end. Just as my spiritual adoption as a son of God will never be revoked once finalized, this judge communicated that Rachel’s adoption would not be revoked once finalized. That day through a courtroom exchange, my appreciation for the theology of adoption grew deeper. I realized more than ever that adoption is at the heart of the Gospel.
Thomas White is vice president for student services and communications and associate professor of systematic theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. This story first appeared in the winter edition of the Southwestern News magazine that focused on adoption and is available online at www.swbts.edu/swnews