What is Adoption
Adoption as defined by the online dictionary is this:
The action or fact of legally taking another’s child and bringing it up as one’s own, or the fact of being adopted.
There comes a time in the Christian life that we must wrestle with uncomfortable realities. Too often; we sit back and rest on preconceived notions and religious truisms. As a result, we become complacent and lackadaisical in our approach to our fellow Christians, broader humanity and ultimately toward God.
Sadly, when this happens, we tend to double-down when we are approached with apparently new or contradictory information. I say all of this in-regards-to adoption because I am often rebuffed with the refrain, “We are all God’s children.” I hear this nearly every day from one person or another. Furthermore, the more I engage publicly in Advancing the Gospel, the more likely I am to hear this from Christians immersed in WCC.
That single phrase, maybe more than any other, represents the anti-intellectualism endemic to Christianity today. I would go a step further and insist that the thought that we are all God’s children is pandemic. It is this that drives me to discuss adoption from a biblical perspective and why it is so vitally important for us to grasp.
The Heresy of Adoptionism Isn’t the Doctrine of Adoption
In the second century theologians were struggling to understand the nature of Christ and the implications of the Hypostatic Union. As they wrestled with Jesus being 100% God and 100% man, they came up with varied theological theories, one of those was Adoptionism. Adoptionism taught that Jesus was merely a man who endured a time of testing by God and when he proved himself worthy God rewarded Jesus by granting him supernatural powers and making him His son. After Jesus died, he was rewarded for his righteousness with resurrection and then being adopted into the god-head.
Clearly, this is patently heretical. In many ways it resembles the LDS error of Eternal Progression. Subsequently, one cannot help but believe the Joseph Smith had to have been influenced by some form of Adoptionism as he invented LDS doctrine. Obviously, there are some differences, but there are some strong undercurrents of this aberrant doctrine in Eternal Progression.
It did not take long for wider Christendom to denounce Adoptionism. Even when it cropped back up in the eighth century it was put down, quickly. Even in our disagreements on other core doctrines, those of us in Reformed/Protestant Evangelicalism share the rejection of Adoptionism with Roman Catholics. So, while never shall the twain meet on many things, on this we stand united. Jesus Christ has always been God, and He has always been the Son. While we cannot fully grasp the inter-Trinitarian relationship and the Hypostatic Union, we can fully acknowledge that Jesus was not adopted into the God head.
If we do not reject this heresy it has dangerous ramifications for the Church as a whole.
The Dangers of Adoptionism and Misunderstanding Adoption as a Doctrine
If we fail to understand adoption properly while misunderstanding Adoptionism, we create a whole new category of heresy. A person who embraces Adoptionism and then looks at the Doctrine of Adoption in the bible and tries to understand it through the lens of Adoptionism runs the risk of believing that all those adopted by God the Father attain some level of deity. Thus, it is imperative for us to dismiss the faulty presupposition that all people are God’s children and to also embrace the eternal Sonship of Christ as the Second Person of the Trinity.
Understanding that and then exploring what the Scriptures teach about adoption will help protect us from all sorts of error. Shouldn’t that be an obvious goal?
Understanding the Historicity of Adoption
In the context of the New Testament books there were two groups of people being addressed. The first group being the Jewish people who really had no concept of adoption as we understand it. The second group being the Romans who had a practice of adoption that closely resembles our understanding of adoption today. While the concept of adoption wasn’t unheard of for Jews there wasn’t a massive amount of precedent for it in the Old Testament. On the other hand, Roman culture had well established practices and laws regarding adoption.
Paul pulls the Roman understanding of adoption into his epistles to varied churches and uses it with surgical precision. In ancient Rome valued and trusted slaves (do not get caught up in the debate about chattel slavery here) could be and often were adopted into Roman families. This was often done by a man who was concerned that his actual sons were too incompetent to rule the estate well. When Paul uses language such as “no longer slaves but sons” it hit home with the Roman audience. They understood what Paul was saying.
These people would understand the concept of moving from being a household servant with no authority to moving into a position of prosperity and prominence in the family. They became heirs of the master they once served. They were loved and valued as actual off-spring. Moreover, under Roman law, adopted heirs could never be disowned unlike the actual flesh and blood offspring of the one doing the adopting.
Why Adoption? Jesus Didn’t See Every Person as a Child of God
The Jesus of contemporary culture is this soft-fluffy-tender fella who sees everyone in the same light all the time. In one theological respect this is true. Jesus sees the hearts of all mankind as rotten and full of evil. However, the majority of folks in WCC do not perceive Jesus as seeing us that way. In WCC Jesus sees all people as basically good.
When you dare to point out that Jesus called the pharisees a brood of vipers and of their father Satan, feathers get ruffled. This isn’t the Jesus folks are comfortable with these days. Because so many come with the presupposition that all people are the children of God, Jesus couldn’t possible mean that the pharisees were truly children of Satan.
Numerous times throughout Scripture we see references to the reality that not all people are God’s children. We read the term “children of wrath” and vessels fitted for destruction amongst others. To misunderstand this is to make proclaiming the Gospel incredibly difficult. Adoption as sons means nothing if we are all children of God. Why would Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit, even speak in terms of adoption? Theologically, it makes no sense.
Worse yet, if the nascent theologians of modern WCC are correct, that all people are God’s children, then Jesus is wrong, and we have a massive redemptive problem. If Jesus is wrong on this, then Paul is wrong on this. If Paul is wrong, then everything he taught about Christ is wrong. Subsequently, if all of that is wrong, then Jesus isn’t God and there can be no atonement. No atonement means no redemption. That means no adoption. No adoption through Christ means no one is God’s child…
Adoption Because We Are All Created by God, but We Aren’t all His Children
“Hold on a second Todd!” you are screaming at me right now, “Doesn’t Acts 17:28 tell us Paul said that we are all God’s children?”
Sure, it does say that. Yet, what is Paul saying and better yet, who is he quoting? Many people believe that Paul was quoting Aratus of Cilicia. Aratus was a Greek poet/philosopher/doctor. It his poem, “The Phaenomena” where he speaks of all people being indebted to Zeus and being Zeus’ offspring that Paul quotes from.
Furthermore, the assertion of many theologians is that Paul was not so much calling all people actual children of God, as this would contradict Paul in so many other places, but he was referring to us as Imago Dei. Meaning, there is a general revelatory understanding, even amongst pagans, that humanity is spiritually shaped in the image of God.
No one of any reasonable intellect that considers themselves a Christian will deny that God has made everything and everyone. Scripture is crystalline,
God has done all things after the counsel of His own will. We understand that God has made all things to include all humanity. Therefore, we are all His creation, but we are not to automatically deduce that we are all His children because of that. Instead, we are all children of Adam and therefore fallen sinful creatures that need redemption.
Consequently, being fallen children of our father Adam in need of redemption, we can only become children of God through adoption in Christ.
The Importance of Adoption in Gospel Advancement
Sadly, I find my own emphasis on adoption while evangelizing, lacking. It is something that I need to work on while preaching Christ in public and in my one-to-one conversations. When I do abortion ministry I speak about adoption. Not only do I plead with pre-abortive women to choose adoption for their child, I also use the picture of adoption to proclaim the Gospel.
Yet, I believe that we, all Christians, especially those of us who are actually striving to obey the Great Commission, should speak about adoption more. It isn’t just a passing doctrine that doesn’t affect the Christian life. (Not that any doctrine doesn’t affect the Christian life.) However, there is profound depth to the Doctrine of Adoption that I believe will impact how we preach Christ crucified to the lost world.
First imagine the impact of this teaching on the readers of Paul’s epistles where he addresses it. Each of the letters where Paul speaks about adoption is a letter to a church in a Roman city. Galatia, Ephesus and Rome. While each of these cities would have had both pagans and Jews in its confines, adoption was, as I mentioned before, almost exclusively a Roman matter.
So even Jews in these Roman cities, would have been familiar with adoption. Paul was speaking to an audience that would get the impact of a slave being made a son. Moreover, the legal permanence of adoption would not be lost on his audience. Under the laws of adoption there was no disinheriting the adopted son. The adoption wasn’t contingent upon the will of the adopted. It was a matter of the father choosing the new heir. And that new heir was forever the rightful heir. Nothing could revoke that position.
Adoption Compels Awe
My contention is that as we evangelize the lost world, we must preach the Glory of God. Moreover, that glory is made manifest in the cross of Christ. By focusing on the adoption of slaves through the blood of the Redeemer we can see the sinner humbled. Expositing the Doctrine of Adoption and what it means for fallen man can accomplish that humbling.
We, who were once worthless, of no value but to be burnt up in our sin, have been washed clean in the blood of the Lamb. Furthermore, we have also been made sons and daughters in Christ. Co-heirs through Christ’s redeeming work. More-than-that, we are held secure by the binding covenant of the God-head’s trinitarian agreement. Not only was that agreement to purchase us at such a great price but to adopt us as His children.
If we could remember this as we preach and in boldness proclaim, “NO! We are not all God’s children! We are vessels fitted for destruction if left in our sins! But it is God who redeems us and makes us His own! It is the Lord, through adoption as sons and daughters, who makes us valuable!”
This is awe inspiring if we preach it with intensity and accuracy.
It is incumbent upon us as Christians to accurately portray this truth. We should not be quick to correct if there is no error. However, we should be willing to correct faulty understanding. Especially any understanding that overemphasizes the value of man and teaches that all people are God’s children. That view is pagan at its core and has no place in Christian teaching.
A pragmatic person desires to make the Gospel more appealing. However, it is impossible to accurately preach the Gospel if we are all already children of God. No, instead adoption magnifies the Glory of God in condescending to us and in the form of the Incarnate Son. Then the God-man makes propitiation for the sins of those who deserve hell.
Now go and preach Christ!
Soli Deo Gloria!