God's children by adoption

This post continues a review of key points in Ron Highfield's book, God, Freedom & Human Dignity: Embracing a God-Centered Identity in a Me-Centered Culture. For other posts in the series, click a number: 123456, 7, 8, 10111213.

For All Mankind
by Liz Lemon Swindle
(used with permission)
Last time in this series, we saw that our true humanity and human identity are found in the perfected humanity of Jesus, the incarnate Son of God. This time we'll examine that identity from the perspective of the Bible's teaching that by the grace of adoption, all humans are God's dearly-loved, forgiven and accepted children. In Christ, all are included in the family of God. What that means in the experience of individuals will be noted as we proceed.

The fatherhood of God revealed by Jesus

We begin by noting that the Gospels (Matthew in particular) emphasize the fatherhood of God. In the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), God is called "Father" 15 times. As Highfield notes, Jesus clearly related to God as his Father:
Jesus does not approach God as a distant Creator, Lord and Judge, much less an impersonal cosmic force. His way of speaking to God, according to Jeremias, "expresses the heart of Jesus' relationship to God. He spoke to God as a child to its father: confidently and securely, and yet at the same time reverently and obediently." Jesus brings us into the intimate family room of God, where with childlike boldness we hear him address the Lord of the universe as Abba. (pp.160-161)

God's children through the grace of adoption

For Jesus, God is Abba---a term for father that connotes great affection and intimacy. The wonderful good news here is that Jesus, God's Son, does not reserve this intimacy with God the Father for himself alone. The Son of God, our Creator and Sustainer, through the Incarnation, added our humanity to his divinity---two natures in the one person of the God-man Jesus Christ. In and through his vicarious humanity, Jesus includes all humanity in his filial relationship with God, his Father. The NT refers to this inclusion using the term adoption---God's act by which he confers on humanity, in Jesus, the status and privileges of being his children. Here is a statement summarizing that stunning reality:

Through, in and by the humanity of Jesus, via an act of grace referred to as  
"adoption," God has made us all his children. And as his children, we are given,
through the Spirit, a share in Jesus' Sonship---his own relationship with his Father. 

What does this mean to individuals? 

The oft-repeated platitude, "We all are God's children" has, unfortunately, largely stripped the biblical doctrine of adoption of its true meaning. Being made a child of God via adoption is a mind-boggling reality that means far more than being a physical creation (creature) of God. Yes, all people are God's creatures, but the doctrine of adoption speaks to the stunning spiritual reality that God the Father, through and in Jesus and by the Spirit, has made all humans, fallen though they be, his beloved children. This means that our true human identity and destiny is as dearly loved, accepted, forgiven children of God. It means that, by adoption, we have been included in the family of God where God truly is our Father and Jesus truly is our brother. Now that's good news!

When do we become children of God?

In trying to wrap our minds around this stunning truth, we must deal with nuanced aspects of our Incarnational Trinitarian faith, which Highfield implies but does not explicitly address. A key question is this: When do we become children of God? Some would say it happens the moment we accept Jesus as Savior. Certainly personal faith has a part to play, but to think that our profession of faith is the "trigger" that moves God to adopt us is a misunderstanding of the biblical testimony that places our adoption further back in time---way back, in fact.

Read Ephesians 1:3-14 noting how Paul addresses our adoption as children of God from the perspective of the grand sweep of history (and pre-history). He notes that adoption was God's plan "before the creation of the world" (v4)---a plan accomplished within time and space when the "time of fulfillment" had arrived (v10; and see Romans 5:6). That time was when the Son of God acted on our behalf through his Incarnation, becoming human on our behalf in the person of Jesus. Then, as God in the flesh, he lived, was perfected through suffering, died, was buried, was resurrected from death, and ascended into heaven as a glorified human. All this he did for us, as one of us (on our behalf; in our place). Through the "Christ event," God, via the humanity of the eternal Son of God, brought all humanity into the inner circle of the Triune communion. In and through Christ we have been adopted into the family of God.

With this grand sweep of salvation history in mind, we are able to comprehend the wonderful truth that all humans were, in the mind, heart and plans of God, his beloved children, even prior to creation. And then at "just the right time" (Romans 5:6)---about 2,000 years ago from our vantage point in time---God acted in Christ to make it so.

We are thus not merely "potentially" God's children. In Christ, a child of God is "actually" who we are (every one of us). Unfortunately, many (most?) people do not know this. They do not know that God is their Father because they do not know what he has already done in and through Christ to adopt them as his children.

The sad reality is that our true identity as God's beloved children is not always our personal, defining, reality. But when, by the illuminating power of the Holy Spirit, we come to know (believe) that Jesus truly is our Savior (as our elder brother), our eyes are opened to grasp the reality of our true identity. Note how John addresses this unfolding reality in John 1:1-13 ESV:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men.... The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.

We receive who we are

One might (erroneously) read into John's words the idea that we do not become children of God until our conversion. But note how John looks at the full sweep of history (and pre-history), starting with the "time" before time ("in the beginning"), where he identifies Jesus (the Word) as Creator and thus source of life (and light). Elsewhere in his Gospel and in his epistles, John unpacks this "cosmic" perspective, which then zeroes in on our personal experience of that reality. It is "in Christ" and "by Christ," quite apart from our own human efforts and participation that we are God's children. However, there comes a time in our awareness that we become children of God via our personal experience, and from that personal perspective, everything changes (it's like being "born again"---see Jesus' words in John 3:3).

In receiving (believing) the truth of our adoption, we become who we truly are already---beloved children of God. And so personal faith plays a part, but believing/seeing do not create a new reality. That reality, that truth, has existed in God's mind from all eternity, and then in time and space it has existed since the Christ event nearly 2,000 years ago.

We become who we are

Note, however, that even now as believers we are not fully who we are destined to be. As Highfield notes, "We are God's children even now, but 'when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as his is' (1 John 3:2)." Our experience of our true identity as adopted children of God awaits our, yet future, glorification, which will occur at the resurrection of our bodies. And what a glorious revealing that shall be! (Come Lord Jesus!) Highfield comments:
We are in a sense already "children of God," but the future promises a more dramatic transformation and revelation of the children of God. "The creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed" (Romans 8:19). On that day creation will share in "the freedom and glory of the children of God" (Romans 8:21). Paul compares waiting for this event to groaning in childbirth. The first stirrings of the Spirit make us eager for "our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies" (Romans 8:23). (p. 163)

Already, but not yet

As is the case with several of the metaphors used in Scripture to speak of salvation in Christ, there is the "already---but not yet" aspect of our adoption to sonship. In one sense, we were adopted in Christ before time and space came into being ("before creation"). Then 2,000 years ago God accomplished that adoption ("at just the right time") in the Christ event---an event of re-creation that reached back in time and forward to change the reality of all time and all of creation. Ever since that event, and continuing today, one person at a time, by the power of the Spirit hearts are being opened and minds are being changed (the gifts of illumination, repentance and faith) to personally receive the stunning reality of our true identity as children of God. And from that time forward, led by the Spirit, individuals (in communities of faith) are led to "live into" the reality of that identity, and in so doing to experience the true freedom that is their as children of God.

Living into the reality of who we truly are

The apostle Peter refers to this experience of living into the reality of our true identity as God's children as participation in the divine nature (see 2 Peter 1:3-4). Jesus, in his Sermon on the Mount, addressed this subject by saying that his followers are to "be perfect" like their Father in heaven (Matthew 5:48). Peter and Jesus are not setting up a NT form of legalism, instead they are making statements concerning family relationships, referring to the reality that God's children become more and more like their Father---sharing in his perfect (and perfecting) nature by grace.

Take My Hand by Greg Olsen
(used with  permission)
Our true identity is that we are God's dearly loved, forgiven and accepted children. And as we rest in that reality---as we embrace our true identity---by the power of the Holy Spirit, our very beings (hearts) are reshaped, leading to the reshaping of our behavior. In that way, our being and doing, through the power of the Holy Spirit, are brought into alignment with who we truly are: God's children. By grace we are, in Christ, God's children. And by grace we participate in (experience) that reality---we become who we actually are!

A superficial reading of the Sermon on the Mount might lead us to ask, "Who on earth can live up to the standard Jesus is advocating?" The answer is, "We can't, but God can (and does)." And as we live into who we truly are, we become more and more like our Father and our elder brother Jesus. Together, they love their enemies, never seek revenge, and keep their promises (thus needing no oaths). That is who we are at the core of our beings as God's adopted children, and that is who we are becoming, and when glorified, that is who we shall be fully. As Highfield notes, "Our true identity is established in a relationship with God" (p. 169), for it is in that relationship that we experience more and more who we truly are. He comments further:
Like the eternal Son of God, we receive ourselves from the Father and we can act as ourselves only by returning ourselves to our Abba, Father.... being God's child is the highest dignity possible for us, and receiving, returning and sharing Gods love are acts of perfect freedom. (p. 169)