WCF 12: Of Adoption

Martin Luther said that justification is the doctrine upon which the church stands or falls. And justification is a vital, glorious reality. God declares that because of Christ’s righteousness the claims of the law are satisfied for everyone who believes. Justification is a verdict of “no condemnation” for hell-deserving sinners (Rom. 8:1).

But God’s kindness is deeper and richer than we could even imagine. He not only forgives our debts; he also receives us into his family. Those whom God justifies he also adopts as his dear children, both sons and daughters. Scripture commonly speaks of the “sonship” of believers not to exclude females but to emphasize the full right of inheritance to all believers which in the ancient world was the privilege of males. In quoting 2 Samuel 7 Paul explicitly expands God’s promise to be a father to David’s son saying, “and I will be a father to you, and you shall be sons and daughters to me, says the Lord Almighty” (8, 14; 2 Cor. 6:18).

God grants the justified the grace of adoption and takes them “into the number” and makes them “enjoy the liberties and privileges of the children of God.”

The Meaning of Adoption

Adoption is one way of picturing the entire gift of gracious salvation. Christ isn’t saving random sinners; he’s “bringing many sons to glory” (Heb. 2:10). Adoption was the goal from the beginning: “In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will” (Eph. 1:4–5). Jesus’ mission was to separate from the world a holy family for God (John 3:31–35; 19:25–27).

Fallen sinners are like orphans who have been cut off from life in God’s household. Unbelievers have no right to call God “father.” We are “by nature children of wrath, children of darkness, even children of Satan (Eph. 2:3; Col. 3:6; John 8:44).”[i] But even an unbeliever who is terribly alienated from God can become a son of God. That’s why Jesus came to earth! At just the right time God sent his Son to redeem cursed sinners “that we might receive adoption as sons” (Gal. 4:4–5). By his willing sacrifice our Lord Jesus died under “oppression and judgment.” Isaiah was right to ask about his posterity. “As for his generation, who considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people?” (Isa. 53:8). Jesus died without fathering a single natural child. So Isaiah’s conclusion is stunning: “he shall see his offspring” (10). Jesus’ labor brought forth many children for God. He is “the firstborn among many brothers” (Rom. 8:29).

Adoption is also a special work of “the Spirit of adoption.” As Jesus was conceived in Mary by the Holy Spirit (Matt. 1:18, 20), so the Spirit makes us God’s children (John 3:8), helps us to believe that we truly are God’s children (Rom. 8:16), and leads us to live as God’s children (Rom. 8:14). And he does this not as a mechanical force but as a living, feeling being. The Spirit “rejoices and is glad on our account, when we are obedient to him in all things” and is grieved by our sin.[ii] Believers have within them the same Spirit who ministered to God’s Son in his most troubled times.

Can there be a greater truth? The “Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” causes sinners to be “born again to a living hope” through the power of Jesus’ resurrection to an imperishable inheritance (1 Peter 1:3–5). It is a wonder that the only eternal, natural Son of God would be willing to share his status and privileges. But he is “not ashamed to call” the people he is rescuing “brothers” (Heb. 2:10).

The Benefits of Adoption

The idea of adoption is not difficult to learn; human adoption provides a clear analogy to heavenly adoption. The real challenge is for believers to truly trust and dwell on this truth: “That the eternal Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who out of nothing created heaven and earth and everything in them, who still upholds and rules them by his eternal counsel and providence is my God and Father for the sake of Christ his Son.”[iii] What does this mean for our Christian walk?

Adoption Gives Believers Special Access to God

How close you can get to someone says a lot about your relationship to them. Some of the people you may most like to meet will probably never acknowledge you. But the children of those same people see them every day in the most personal settings. God is not far from any of us (Acts 17:27). But his children have the privilege of calling for his notice at any time. We don’t make an appointment or form a line. We simply “cry, ‘Abba! Father!’” (Rom. 8:15). And to encourage us to call on him God gives us the name of his only beloved Son; Christians come to the Father through Christ with as much right to God’s attention as Jesus.

Adoption Grants Believers Special Treatment by God

God’s children “are pitied, protected and provided for, and chastened by God.” God isn’t a harsh Father; he pities us. “As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him” (Ps. 103:13). God isn’t a neglectful father; he protects and provides for us. Our Father feeds and clothes his children from a knowing and caring heart and from bottomless resources (Matt. 6:25–34).

God even chastens his children for their good. Some parents doubt that discipline is a true benefit. But God believes in discipline. “Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him” (Prov. 13:24). God loves his children so he disciplines us, deterring us from harmful habits and training us to trust and obey (Heb. 12:5–6).

Adoption Guarantees for Believers a Special Future with God

No matter how firmly God may discipline his children, no matter how distant he may seem, his Holy Spirit guarantees that we are “sealed for the day of redemption (Eph. 4:30). He is “the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it” (Eph. 1:13–14). He is a down-payment, a good-faith demonstration of God’s intention to grant to us complete salvation one glorious day. Certainty of sonship enables us to hope that one day we will be even more like him (1 John 3:1–2). Living as God’s child demands serious sacrifice. But everyone who follows Jesus will receive “now in this time houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life” (Mark 10:29–30).

We think too little about adoption. The topic is not even indexed in some standard systematic theology books. But it is hard to imagine a theme better suited to help us see our treasured place in God’s heart. We need to learn to say: “We are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared” (1 John 3:2).

William Boekestein pastors Immanuel Fellowship Church in Kalamazoo, Michigan. He has authored numerous books including, with Joel Beeke, Contending for the Faith: The Story of The Westminster Assembly.

[i] G.I. Williamson, The Westminster Confession of Faith for Study Classes, 2nd ed. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2004), 147.

[ii] John Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul to the Galatians and Ephesians (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1989), 301.

[iii] Heidelberg Catechism, Q/A 26.


William Boekestein