What does the term "adoption" tell us about the gospel?

What is being conveyed in the New Testament concerning the gospel in its use of the term adoption? This post will look at the biblical and cultural evidence in seeking to answer that question.

In the Old Testament

In the Old Testament, we find only limited, and then only indirect, references to adoption. This is probably because in Israelite law, there was no provision for adoption per se. Orphans were provided for, not through adoption, but through levirate marriage. There are, however, a few references to adoption-like circumstances in the Old Testament. These tend to be in circumstances where slaves became heirs of the “adopting” owner. We also note in the Old Testament that God chose the nation of Israel to be his “son”--a concept taken up by Paul when he notes that “theirs [Israel’s] is the adoption as sons” (Rom. 9:4).

God the Father by Conegliano
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

In the New Testament

Though the New Testament's use of the term  adoption (huiothesia in Greek), is limited to Paul’s writings, the concept is found in other New Testament authors, particularly in the use of the concept of sonship (which is picked up from the Old Testament). We also find frequent use in the New Testament (in both Paul's and John's writings) of the related concept of a new birth, which pertains to the idea of regeneration. Perhaps the theme of a new birth was borrowed directly from Jesus who spoke with Nicodemus of a new birth (John 3:1-8).

But one might object, are not all people God’s “children”? Adam and his descendants are, indeed God’s children, but only from the perspective of creation. However, in a spiritual sense, it is a different matter. The uniqueness of the Fatherhood of God for those who have personally experienced the new birth in Christ is an important theme in the New Testament.

While it is true that God has, in Christ, reconciled himself to all people (thus setting humankind on an entirely new footing in Christ), for individuals to experience (live into) that reconciliation, and so be personally reunited with God in a filial relationship, there must be a new birth---regeneration---or as Paul says, an adoption. What God, in Christ, has done for all, in an objective sense, individual people must experience personally (in a subjective sense) through the ministry of the Holy Spirit.

The legal-cultural background

Paul was masterful in adapting his gospel to his audience. Though he never compromised the content, Paul freely adapted the language he used in order to effectively communicate the gospel. The metaphor of adoption seems to be one such adaptation. In the Greco-Roman culture of Paul’s day, adoption was common, particularly among the upper class where it was often used to gain political and/or economic advantage. The laws of adoption held as their basic premise that a father had near absolute legal authority over his child, an authority extending to the power of life and death and continuing as long as the father was alive, no matter the age of the child. We learn that Roman adoption did not confer an inferior form of sonship. Rather, an adopted son had all the rights and privileges of a natural-born son.

It is this legal-cultural view of adoption, along with the Old Testament ideas of fatherhood and sonship, that seem to be in Paul’s view when he picks up adoption as a metaphor to illuminate salvation. Let's now look at Paul's use of the term in three of his epistles.

Romans 8

In Romans 8:15, 23, Paul uses the concept of adoption to emphasize our new relationship with God. He conceptualizes salvation as being set free from an oppressive master—in this case the “law of sin and death” (Rom. 8:2), which bears with it slavery to fear (Rom. 8:15). Now set free, we move from being slaves who are “dead,” to being “sons of God” who are truly alive (Rom. 8:14). The life-giving Spirit that accomplishes this setting free in individuals is called the “Spirit of adoption” (Rom. 8:15, KJV). As we, through the Spirit, experience this new status, we are enabled and privileged to call God “Abba,” an Aramaic word used affectionately for one’s human father.

This new status and privilege of sonship is now ours because we are “in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1) and thus Jesus’ Father becomes our Father (John 20:7). Our relationship with the Father involves our personal sharing in the relationship Jesus has with him—so personal and intimate that we, together with Jesus, can call God Abba (Mark 14:36).

In addressing this point about sonship (which he equates with adoption and the new birth), T.F. Torrance makes this comment:
The resurrection carries with it the doctrine of adoption or sonship. By his great mercy we have been born anew to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and to an inheritance which is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God's power are guarded through faith (that is, God's faithfulness which calls for answering faith from us) for a savation ready to be revealed in the last time. In Pauline language, we are constituted joint-heirs with Christ who is the first-born among many brethren, for we are made to share sonship with Christ the incarnate Son of God. Our human nature is set within the Father-Son relationship of Christ. We share brotherhood with Jesus and so share with him the Fatherhood of God, and in and through him we share in the one Spirit of the living God.... In the epistle to the Hebrews... we hear of the Son who, having been "made like his brethren," ascends to the Father as their representative and high priest, presenting them to the Father as sons and daughters consecrated through his own self-offering.... Through the consecrated bonds of our union with Christ we are made to share in the union of the Son with the Father. ("Atonement: The Person and Work of Christ," pp. 229-230) 
Note in Romans 8:15 that being God’s child by adoption is a status that contrasts with being a slave. This comparison reminds us of the Old Testament era practice of adopting slaves and the Roman practice of rewarding favored slaves with adoption, thus conferring upon them the privileges of sonship including the rights of inheritance. As believers we are said to be co-heirs with God’s eternal Son Jesus (Rom. 8:17).

Lest we think that adoption is only an event that occurs at regeneration, Paul notes that we endure certain sufferings in the present, looking forward to “our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Rom. 8:23). Though we are now God’s children in certain ways (Rom. 8:16), we still look forward to the full outworking of our adoption when, in the resurrection, our salvation will be complete in the glorification of our bodies. Because of these and other nuances of Paul’s use of the adoption metaphor, we should be cautious about pushing the details too far and thus being too specific about the place of adoption in the order of salvation (ordo salutis).

Galatians 4

There are distinct similarities between Paul’s use of adoption in Galatians 4:5 and his use of the metaphor in Romans 8. Once again, we see the slave-son contrast. Paul says to those who did not know the true God at all (gentiles in particular) that they are now “sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:26). This new sonship is by virtue of their inclusion in Christ (Gal. 3:28). Moreover, in Christ, they are set free (“redeemed,” Gal. 4:5a) and given “full rights of sons” (Gal. 4:5b).

No longer slaves, but now sons (Gal. 4:7a), they are indwelt by the Spirit who calls out in and through them “Abba, Father” (Gal. 4:6b). With this sonship, which is theirs by adoption (see Gal. 4:5, KJV), they are given rights of inheritance (Gal. 4:7b).

In Galatians, Paul is making his point about a believer’s new status in Christ using the imagery of adoption in order to counter the false teaching of the Galatian judaizers who were trying to turn believers (Jews and Gentiles) to the Torah as their rule for living. Paul counteracts these false teachers by reminding the believers that their status as God’s children is conferred separate from Torah observance. He reminds them in no uncertain terms to seek a right relationship with God their Father through walking in the Spirit, not through observance of the Torah.

Ephesians 1

In Ephesians, Paul makes a passing reference to adoption, noting that God, the Father of Jesus Christ (Eph. 1:3) has “predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ” (Eph. 1:5a). Again, Paul emphasizes that our status as adopted sons is conferred on us because we are in Christ, who is uniquely God’s eternal and preeminent Son.

Further, Paul assures Christians in Ephesus of God’s Fatherly concern and care—for it is his “pleasure and will” that we should have this privilege (Eph. 1:5b). For Paul, adoption as God’s children is thus far more than an impersonal forensic transaction. God places the redeemed into a relationship with Christ, and in so doing lavishes on them his Fatherly care with attendant privileges. Moreover, Paul notes that it is no accident that we are adopted as God's children. He chose us in a deeply personal way—a way beautifully expressed through the use of the metaphor of adoption.


That Paul would speak of God becoming our Father via adoption seems to have no greater significance than the useful connotations it bears in the historic-cultural-scriptural setting of Paul’s day. But that God becomes the Father of all that are brought into union with Christ by the Spirit is of great importance to understanding and experiencing our salvation. Perhaps this is nowhere more true than when we are in the midst of trials. Indeed, trials are evidence of Father God’s superintending care for us (see Rom. 8:17-23 and Heb. 12:1-13). We can be grateful that in saving us God makes us his children. Abba, Father!

For other posts on this topic, click here and here.