The Riches of Adoption

In the treasure chest of the Gospel, many have argued that our adoption really is the brightest and most beautiful of gems contained in all that Christ accomplished for us. But even taking a closer look at that particular gem we see that adoption itself has many different facets which, when examined and turned in the light, gives us even greater awareness and delight in our God who saves.

            The puritan Thomas Watson remarked that “we have enough in us to move God to correct us, but nothing to move him to adopt us.” This is true enough, but when seen against the back drop of Imperial Roman adoption practices, I think we can see with even brighter clarity the beauty of his statement. In fact, Paul most likely intended this contrast to be seen in that he only used the metaphor of adoption when writing to churches under the rule of Roman law (Gal. 4:5; Rom. 8:15; 23; 9:4; Eph. 1:5).[1] It was during Paul’s own lifetime where adoption among Roman emperors actually became the norm. An emperor, rather than allowing the crown to succeed to one of his own biological sons, would instead adopt a man not related to him whom he thought to be better equipped to lead and rule the empire.

            This purposeful and intentional practice to bypass one’s own biological son in order to take someone who is not your son, making him to become the rightful heir of the Roman empire, has clear gospel implications - implications which Paul no doubt made use of. For instance, Paul makes it abundantly clear that our sonship under God is not by right or something inherent in us. In Galatians 4 he tells us that before becoming believers we were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world. It was only later when “God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Gal. 4:3-5).

            He says the same thing, just more sharply, in his letter to the Ephesians. Before salvation all people are “sons of disobedience” and “by nature children of wrath” (Eph. 2:1,3). But the grace of the gospel in Jesus Christ is that “in love [the Father] predestined us for adoption through Jesus Christ” (Eph. 1:5).

            What we see then is that Paul describes our salvation through the metaphor of adoption. On the one hand, we see quite clearly how God forsook his own son on the cross in order to adopt a people otherwise not his own. But on a deeper level we also see an ironic beauty in Paul’s using this metaphor. If in the Roman Kingdom the emperor would adopt a son because his own son was unfit to rule, in the Heavenly Kingdom God would adopt unfit and unqualified people to become sons through the forsaking of the most qualified and glorious Son. What grace!

            And the fulness of that beauty still awaits us as we look forward to the consummation of our adoption. Paul never separates our adoption as God’s sons from our union in the Son. In Romans 8 Paul is unpacking the current reality of our union in Christ, namely our sufferings and failings in a fallen world. In fact, Paul connects our current sufferings as part and parcel of what it means to be adopted in Christ. “You have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.”

            Do you notice that last line? Our adoption now is evidenced by enduring suffering with him, with Christ. We tend to highlight and focus on all the wonderful blessings we receive in Christ, but Paul reminds us that one of those blessings, one of those riches we receive as heirs now, is suffering. But notice he doesn’t end there. Our suffering now as children of God and fellow heirs with Christ is used by God and pointing us forward to the fulness and consummation of our adoption, namely our glory and reign with Christ. “Do you not know that we are to judge angels” (1 Cor. 6:3)?

            Indeed Paul goes on to say that in our suffering we “groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons.” In other words, we’re still looking forward to the fulfillment of what has already been inaugurated now, the day in which suffering will end and we will be fully “conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers” (Rom. 8:29).

            Thomas Watson was right, we certainly don’t have enough in us to move God to adopt us. But Paul is clear (and a bit more profound): “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things”(Rom. 8:32)?  Our salvation in Christ has secured for us wonderful blessings, but perhaps our adoption in Him is the richest of all.

Stephen Unthank (MDiv, Capital Bible Seminary) serves at Greenbelt Baptist Church in Greenbelt, MD, just outside of Washington, DC.  He lives in Maryland with his wife, Maricel and their two children, Ambrose and Lilou.

[1] Trevor Burke, Adopted into God’s Family: Exploring a Pauline metaphor. pp. 61 (IVP Downers Grove, IL 2006).


Stephen Unthank