Adoption as New Life

On January 31, 2017, P&R Publishing released David Garner's new book, Sons in the Son: The Riches and Reach of Adoption in Christ. This excerpt (pp. xxi–xxiv) from the introduction to the book offers a quick taste of themes developed in the volume.[1]

When hearing the word adoption, most envision a once-orphaned child now legally joined to a new set of parents. A previously forlorn soul flees a loveless past and enters the permanent embrace of a welcoming family. For the child, life changes dramatically, with changes only slightly less marked for the parents and for the siblings. With legal status now wholly changed, the child takes on a new name, a new identity, and a new address, along with a new set of formal and formative relationships. The legal change effects relational changes. Adoption intercepts the probable destiny of heartache, and exchanges almost certain tragedy for rewarding care and provision. Virtually nothing remains the same for the adopter and the adoptee.

Adoption starts with the parents. A dream conceived turns to conversation and prayer, which in turn give birth to the pursuit of a particular child. Legal, administrative, logistical, and financial processes ensue, and after navigating the often-complex and costly journey, the parents receive the child legally as their own. For the child, newfound stability trounces previous insecurity, settled wonderment replaces sad wandering, and cruelty gives way to compassion. Narratives of this sort drip with altruism if not romance, compel us with their merciful transformations, and offer enthralling narratives to counter the harshness of our world.

With such emotive appeal, the parallels between divine and human adoption seem ready-made, supplying a cache of cognitive capital for appreciating the gospel’s redemptive familial conceptions. But the leap from human perception to theological insight easily misrepresents the truth. This distortion happens in at least two ways. First, although some adoptions feature joy and success, not all human adoptions flourish. Onerous problems, including keen mental and emotional traumas, plague many families—both for the adopted children and for their adopting parents. These all-too-common darker sides to human adoption, some of which last a lifetime, can get lost in the sentiment of noble narratives. Just ask myriads of adopting families. Human adoption experiences do not produce the gripping theological analogies quite as neatly as they might first seem to do.

But a second and even more foundational problem persists—not arising from any negative underbelly of human adoption experiences, but from the theological method that moves from common social conceptions to theological ones. Unscrupulous simplicity combined with bottom-up extrapolation is the mother of illegitimate theologizing, and a theology of adoption shaped by social-to-theological inference writhes in methodological error. Concepts of biblical adoption birthed largely out of contemporary practices or out of compelling altruistic analogies may brush with points of biblical insight, but at best suffer from truncated theological expression and at worst distort the theological riches of the believers’ adoption in Christ. The radical distinctions between divine adoption of sinners and human conventions—both in this age and in ancient society—must receive rigorous assessment according to careful hermeneutical and theological analysis.

In short, unlike human convention, divine adoption is mediatorial and redemptive—it comes through the divine Son, Jesus the Messiah. Divine adoption does not proceed from dissatisfaction in God, in which he pursues a family because he is incomplete or longs for something he lacks. Divine adoption moves from heaven to earth by sovereign grace, and transforms the children of wrath into the glorious and radiant possession of the heavenly Father. Divine filial grace is effectual in a way that human initiatives, however blessed they might be, can never attain. Divine adoption never disappoints. The children of the heavenly Father persevere by his grace, and none is lost by the sway of self-centeredness, dissatisfaction, rejection, or discontent. United to the perfect Son of God by faith, the children of God will know no ultimate eschatological distress! As the apostle Paul affirms, drawing from several Old Testament texts:

For we are the temple of the living God; as God said,

“I will make my dwelling among them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.

Therefore go out from their midst, and be separate from them, says the Lord, and touch no unclean thing;

then I will welcome you, and I will be a father to you, and you shall be sons and daughters to me,

says the Lord Almighty.” (2 Cor. 6:16b–18)

Divine pursuit and presence are stark and stunning. By grace, the Creator of all becomes the Father of his elect, transforming spiritual orphans and rebels into his blessed and holy children. The intimacy and efficacy of such redemptive grace simply stagger, making any rags-to-riches story of a human orphan rescued by altruistic parents pale in significance.

Notably, the nature of divine adoptive grace exceeds the human plane not only in degree, but also in scope. Human adoption is marvelous, but its customary strictures do not shape gospel adoption. To be specific, forensic and relational categories plainly do not exhaust biblical adoption. The power of the heavenly Father among his people changes their stubborn filial hearts even as it reverses their guilty filial state. Adopted sons of God enter radically different conditions and possess radically different constitutions. Because it breathes with spiritual vitality beyond a single soteriological aspect (the forensic), biblical adoption suffocates if relegated to legal categories.

To be clear, important similarities exist between biblical adoption and human adoption, but the theological parallels move from heaven to earth rather than from earth to heaven. The gospel may compel human adoption and should compel various acts of gospel mercy. But divine adoption, a blessing in a category all its own, as accomplished by the death and resurrection of the beloved Son of God, outshines and outwarms all human rescue efforts. When God takes those who are not his people and makes them his people, when the Almighty makes those who are not his children his sons and daughters, the benefits consume, overwhelm, and transform. Those once-spiritual orphans become the favored ones of the Almighty, objects of divine affection, recipients of privilege and security, and benefactors of new hearts and resurrected bodies! All these blessings come in and through the beloved Son in whom the Father is well pleased.

David Garner is vice president for advancement and associate professor of systematic theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, PA.

[1] In this online excerpt, the footnotes included in the book have been removed.


David Garner