Becoming Children of God

The Sub-Doctrine of Adoption

This lesson begins an explanation of those sub-doctrines that describe God's plan of salvation from different perspectives.
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We have been studying the fifth great doctrine of the Bible which is the doctrine of reconciliation. This doctrine has been explained in the following way: God, in His mercy, devised a plan that would reconcile man back to Himself. This plan or process of reconciliation is explained in the Bible using 10 sub-doctrines. So far we have studied five of these:

  1. Election: God chooses Christ.
  2. Predestination: God knows that His choice of Christ will succeed in reconciling men to Himself.
  3. Atonement: God pays the moral debt man owed for sin through the death of Christ on the cross.
  4. Redemption: God frees man because the debt for sin is paid for.
  5. Regeneration: God breathes new life into the freed sinner.

Now these five sub-doctrines taken together are "God's plan of salvation." Our faith, repentance, confession of Christ, baptism; these are not the plan of salvation. These things are man's proper response to God's plan to save us. Many people confuse the two when trying to preach the gospel to someone.

We need to remember the true context for biblical information when sharing with another:

A. The story of the gospel

This is the actual historical story of Jesus, His life, ministry, death, burial and resurrection (I Corinthians 15:1-5). People need these basic facts in order to establish the true object of faith (Christ) and witness for the power of God (resurrection).

B. The meaning of the gospel

This is God's plan to reconcile man to Himself through Christ. The meaning behind the gospel story is laid out in the doctrines or teachings that explain the gospel message. These doctrines explain why Christ came, what He accomplished and how we are affected. (This is what we have studied until now: reconciliation and the explanatory sub-doctrines).

C. The response to the gospel

God requires man to respond to Him, to Christ, to the good news. This response is described in terms of faith expressed in the actions of repentance, baptism and holy living. So when you are teaching about baptism, you are not proclaiming the story of the gospel or what it means, you are explaining how to respond correctly to the gospel message from God.

Let us get back to our five sub-doctrines. I have said that these first five doctrines explain what God has done, His "plan" to save and reconcile mankind to Himself. Now, the next five sub-doctrines are interesting in that they do not add any more information about reconciliation. The purpose of the next five sub-doctrines is to describe God's plan of salvation from five different perspectives. For example,

  1. Adoption: God's plan seen from a human perspective.
  2. Justification: God's plan seen from a legal perspective.
  3. Perfection: God's plan seen from a heavenly perspective.
  4. Sanctification: God's plan seen from an inward perspective.
  5. Salvation: God's plan seen from an eschatological perspective. (What it looks like when it is completed.)

In this chapter we begin with the doctrine of adoption and look at God's plan of salvation from a human perspective.


Old Testament ideas of adoption

The main idea or image of adoption in the Old Testament is expressed in God's adoption of Israel as His special child.

Then you shall say to Pharaoh, 'Thus says the Lord, "Israel is My son, My firstborn."
- Exodus 4:22

When we examine relationships that people have with God in the Bible we see that only Jesus shares God's divine nature as God, the Son. Only Jesus is referred to as the "only begotten" of God.

On the other hand, mortal men and the nation of Israel, were said to be adopted by God for a special purpose. In describing the sub-doctrine of atonement and explaining the genealogy of Jesus I said that God chose Abraham and his descendants, the Jews, to be His adopted sons. He did this for these people so His only begotten Son, Jesus, would have a physical and cultural heritage and identity when He entered the stage of human history in order to complete His work of atonement on the cross.

New Testament ideas of adoption

In the New Testament the idea of adoption to describe God's plan for reconciliation appears only in the writings of Paul the Apostle (Romans 8:15-23; Romans 9:4; Galatians 4:5; Ephesians 1:5).

He writes about adoption from the Greek and Roman concept of the word and practice. We better understand Paul's point in his description of reconciliation from the perspective of adoption if we are familiar with Greek and Roman adoptive customs.

The basic definition of adoption at that time was:

A legal process by which a man might bring into his family, and endow with privileges of a son, one who was not by nature his son or kindred.

Some of the social and legal customs of the time:

  • In Roman and Greek societies, the father had absolute legal power over his children as well as his slaves, wives and property.
  • Adoption was not considered a benevolent act. Girls were rarely adopted. Adoptions were done primarily to continue the family line and, at times, an adult male was adopted while his natural parents were alive in order to fulfill a son's role in another family.
  • When a male child was adopted, however, he was considered a full son and enjoyed equal rights and privileges of natural sons.
  • Roman custom called for a public transaction and a legal ceremony to take place in order for an adoption to be complete. In the case of a child taken out of one family and into another, a ceremony signaled the severing of ties with one family and the adoption into another. As far as the natural family giving up the boy was concerned, the ceremony was the point where they ceased having any relationship with their child.

And so when Paul describes God's plan to reconcile mankind to Himself, he compares it to an adoption process, a very human experience that his readers at the time could easily understand and relate to.

Concept of Adoption in Paul's Writings

There are several passages where Paul explains God's plan using the image of adoption.

He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will,
- Ephesians 1:5

Here Paul explains in human terms the end result of God's plan. Those separated from Him by sin would ultimately become His children, His sons again through the process of adoption. The end result of His plan was that we would be reconciled as sons and daughters.

23But before faith came, we were kept in custody under the law, being shut up to the faith which was later to be revealed. 24Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith. 25But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor. 26For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. 27For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's descendants, heirs according to promise. 1Now I say, as long as the heir is a child, he does not differ at all from a slave although he is owner of everything, 2but he is under guardians and managers until the date set by the father. 3So also we, while we were children, were held in bondage under the elemental things of the world. 4But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, 5so that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons. 6Because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, "Abba! Father!" 7Therefore you are no longer a slave, but a son; and if a son, then an heir through God.
- Galatians 3:23-4:7

Again in this passage Paul explains the relationship between God's plan and its results. He does this by making a comparison between two types of slavery (4:1).

In those days, you could be a slave to a master who gave you no rights or freedoms until you could somehow purchase your freedom or be adopted by your master as a son (this was done but happened rarely).

On the other hand, you could be the young son in a family and as such would be like a slave, completely under your father's rule, until at his discretion you were released through a formal transaction and became legally independent.

The point he makes in this passage is that both child and slave long for the time they can be free to enjoy the privileges of an adult son. Paul says that it is this desire in people (to be sons and daughters of God again) that God responds to with His plan of reconciliation.

No matter who you are (slave, free; male, female; Jew, Greek) the end result is that you share the same sonship/adoption through the reconciling work of Christ. This passage did not mean that these people no longer had their sexual or cultural identities and roles; it explained that their relationship with God had changed.

15For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, "Abba! Father!" 16The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God, 17and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him.
- Romans 8:15-17

Here, Paul describes the nature of this adoption. In the Roman world the adopted son was legitimized through a legal procedure. A seal or certificate was made and given to authenticate one's new position within the family. Similarly, God's plan is to have man fully integrated back into fellowship with Him by putting into man the presence of God's Holy Spirit.

Those who become God's sons and daughters through His plan resulting in adoption know and are sure of their new status because they have been "legitimized" in several ways:

  • They have been sealed with God's Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38, Ephesians 1:3).
  • They call upon God as their own personal Father (Romans 8:15-16).
  • They are like God's natural Son, Jesus, in that they share His past (suffering and death) and they share in His future (resurrection and glory) (Romans 8:17).
who are Israelites, to whom belongs the adoption as sons, and the glory and the covenants and the giving of the Law and the temple service and the promises,
- Romans 9:4

Paul refers to the fact that this has always been the end purpose of God (to adopt sinners as sons). He explains that it was first promised to the Jews, but they refused His plan (reconciliation through Christ) to achieve it. The Jews thought (and still do to this day) that they were legitimate sons of God through culture and genealogy. And so, in these passages Paul explains the very human experience of adoption as a reference to demonstrate one of the things God's plan of reconciliation does for mankind. In the end God's plan permits lost children to be adopted by a loving Father.


Let us summarize the information we have so far:

  • The doctrines of original goodness and the fall explain how mankind had become lost and helpless orphans separated from God.
  • The doctrine of reconciliation has 10 sub-doctrines and the first five of these explain God's plan to remove the sin that separated mankind from Himself.
  • The sixth sub-doctrine explains that one result of this plan is that sinful man has been adopted by God to be His child.

One last point about adoption in the first century: in the Roman era, children who were deformed or ill, or adult candidates for adoption who were convicted of crimes were unadoptable. In the same way, we were unadoptable by God because of our sinfulness and imperfection. The imperfect could not become a member of the perfect family. And so, before our adoption could be completed, our imperfections caused by sin and our condemnation as guilty sinners had to be set aside; and this was done through God's plan:

  • He knew Christ would succeed: predestination.
  • Christ paid the debt for our sins: atonement.
  • Once our debts were paid we were freed from condemnation: redemption.
  • Now that we are free, God gives us a new life to live: regeneration.
  • Once we are free and alive we are qualified to become part of God's family: adoption.

The adopted child in the Roman world had a new home, family, life style and future. The child adopted by God has:

A summary of the first six doctrines in 10 words: "God promised that Christ's atonement would produce legitimate spiritual children."

Discussion Questions

  1. Name and explain the elements of salvation.
  2. Provide a short explanation for the following concepts
    1. The story of the gospel
    2. The meaning of the gospel
    3. The response to the gospel
  3. What is the main image of adoption from Exodus 4:22?
  4. What is the difference between Jesus as God's only "begotten" son and man as God's "adopted" children?
  5. What is the main point of Paul's concept of adoption?
  6. How can you use this lesson to grow spiritually and help others come into a relationship with Jesus?
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