The order of Salvation: Adoption

Justification is not the gospel in its entirety. It was not enough for God to only justify us in Christ. He has also insisted on adopting us in Christ: “In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ,…” (Eph. 1:5). The final purpose of divine election has always been relational not merely judicial.

Think of it this way. In justification God comes to us as Judge. He removes our criminal status before Him by declaring us not guilty in Christ. But in adoption God comes to us not as Judge but as Father.

What then is adoption? “Adoption is an act of the free grace of God, in and for his only Son Jesus Christ, whereby all those that are justified are received into the number of his children, have his name put upon them, the Spirit of his Son given to them, are under his fatherly care and dispensations, admitted to all the liberties and privileges of the sons of God, made heirs of all the promises, and fellow-heirs with Christ in glory.” (Q. 74, Westminster Larger Catechism)

If justification is the act of God’s free grace which removes our condemnation, then adoption is the act of God’s free grace which removes our alienation.

In justification we receive the donation of righteousness. In adoption we receive the donation of family love: “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are” (1 John 3:1).

As David Garner wisely said, a not guilty verdict by the Almighty Judge does not make a criminal a son. But adoption does. Adoption legally puts us in the bonds of the family where God obligates himself to be our forever Father. He will pity us, protect us, provide for us, even chasten us, indulge us, and keep a glorious inheritance for us, bringing us to it without fail.

Now let’s address a corruption of this doctrine. We could call this corruption the universal Fatherhood of God. Sometimes you hear a celebrity or a politician saying, “We are all God’s children.” This is the universal Fatherhood of God heresy which becomes the universal Brotherhood of man heresy.

What they mean is that God has accepted all people as his adopted children. All humanity is kept and defended by God simply because we have been created by God. Therefore, they say, we should all accept one another without concerns about sin or unbelief or the coming wrath of God. But, of course, it is all a lie. The devil’s lie. 

Consider again our earlier verse, Ephesians 1:5. Paul says our adoption is “through Jesus Christ.” This means our adoption could not happen without the ministry of this Mediator. Scripture elsewhere says, “for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith” (Gal. 3:26). No one can become a child of God without the ministry of Christ nor without faith in Christ.

Adoption is an accomplishment of redemption. It is not an accomplishment of creation. The very act of adoption assumes we were previously in a state of alienation. Being born did not somehow put us in better standing with God. The scripture says: “I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Psalm 51:5); and, “we were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind” (Eph. 2:3). As Spurgeon said, to teach the lie of the universal Fatherhood of God is “to stab at the heart of the gospel.” It is to send Christ back to heaven even before he leaves the virgin’s womb.

Finally, consider one more phrase from Ephesians 1:5. “He predestined us for adoption to himself as sons….” “To himself” refers to the divine Father. We are not adopted to the Son. We are adopted “through the Son” unto the Father. We are not adopted to the Spirit. We are adopted “in the Spirit” but unto the Father. The significance of this is of course that our adoption is through, in and unto the persons of the Holy Trinity. But we also see how far in and how far up we have come in Christ. For the Father of the divine Son is now the very same Father of the adopted sons. We have been brought into a sonship that finds its most clear exposition in the relation between the divine Father and the divine Son. Was Jesus pitied by the Father? Was Jesus protected by the Father? Was Jesus provided for by the Father? Was Jesus chastened by the Father? So shall be all the sons of God. 

John Hartley has been pastor of Apple Valley Presbyterian Church since 2010, having previously been a pastor for 10 years in Vermont. He is a Wisconsin native and a graduate of University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee as well as Dallas Theological Seminary. John lives with his wife Jen and their five children.

John Hartley