The New Testament Greek word for “adoption” is huiothesia. This is a compound of the root words for “son” and “a placing”. It implies more than placing a child – it is the placing of a son. The importance of this will be studied later in this teaching.
A. PAUL’S USAGE OF ADOPTION
The apostle Paul is the only New Testament writer to use the word adoption. Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit, uses this “word picture” five times in the New Testament.
The word “adoption” is used once in reference to Israel (Rom 9:4); it is used three times to refer to the life of the born-again believer (Rom 8:12-17; Gal 4:1-5; Eph 1:3-6); and finally, Paul uses “adoption” to refer to our hope for the future when we will fully experience the completion of our faith at Christ’s second coming (Rom 8:22,23).
- DEFINING ADOPTION
Before we continue this study of adoption, it is important to briefly present another biblical truth that will aid our understanding. When the Bible uses the word “son” in reference to a follower of Christ, that term includes people of both male and female gender. Thus, in this teaching, we will use the biblical word “son” when referring to the adopted child, which can mean either a male or a female.
This “sonship” for both male and female believers means that the full inheritance from God is received by every person who is saved by faith in Jesus Christ (see Galatians 3:26-28 and Colossians 3:11). There is no difference between the male or female heir. Every person is equally entitled to his or her inheritance in Christ, and to the full benefits and privileges of being a son.
LIMITS OF HUMAN ADOPTION
In order to fully understand the scriptural principle of adoption, we must clearly define how it is used in the New Testament. Paul’s usage of this term is radically different from how we may think of this term in everyday life.
Most of us understand adoption as the means by which a child who is not born into a family can become a full member of a family. This adopted child will likely have very different characteristics than the adopting parents. The adopted child and the adopting parents may differ in height or build, in personality, in emotional responses, or even in habits or patterns of speech.
Normally, the adopting parents recognize a quality or characteristic in an orphaned child that causes them to be drawn to that child. It might be the physical appearance, a charming personality or a happy disposition. Perhaps it will be the desperate need of an unwanted child, or compassion for a child’s physical or mental limitations and the desire to help the child.
Regardless of the motive for the adoption, the act of human adoption does not automatically impart to the adopted child the nature, disposition or characteristics of the adopting parents.
But in this regard, there are radical and wonderful differences between the human adoption process and our spiritual adoption into the Family of God!
A NEW CREATION
The first and most important difference is the fact that EVERY person who is adopted by God (huiothesia = placed as a son) has first been born again as a child of God (John 1:12,13). Adoption by God is not the making of a son. Rather, it is the placing of one who has already become a son by salvation through Christ.
When a person is born again by grace through faith in Christ (Eph 2:8-10), that person is immediately accepted by God as a child of His. Jesus’ sacrificial death and resurrection provided the way for every person who receives salvation through Jesus Christ to be restored to God as His child. God then immediately and sovereignly adopts that person into His family! Spiritual adoption takes place the moment a person receives Christ as their Savior and is born again by the Spirit.
The Bible reveals that when we are saved, we become a new creation in Christ (Gal 6:15). At our salvation, the former nature that we once had is changed (1Cor 6:9-11). We have become “born again”, and all things to us become new (2Cor 5:17). We begin to live life as a forgiven, blood-washed individual. We have the presence of Christ by the Holy Spirit now living within us. We are a brand new person in our inner man, beginning a brand new spiritual life for the first time.
As this brand new person, we are then immediately placed in a new family – the Family of God. We are more than an orphan being moved into a different family. We are instead newly born into the Family of God as a brand new son. We are a full member of the Body of Christ.
We do not have to earn our sonship or prove our worth before we are accepted into God’s Family. From the moment of our salvation, we are considered a son of our heavenly Father!
FULL SONSHIP – IMMEDIATELY!
This immediate spiritual adoption also means that we have immediate maturity of position in Christ. So then, ALL of the responsibilities and privileges of being a son in God’s family are immediately ours.
There is not a “childhood phase” in God’s expectation for our life. We are to immediately begin living a life of holiness, service and Christian responsibility, to the best of our ability and as God gives us the supernatural grace and help to do this (Phil 1:6). We are to begin to live as a member of God’s Family, obeying His commands and serving Him as our loving Father.
Of course, there is a need for every new Christian to mature and grow as a believer in Jesus Christ. We will not become fully mature or perfected all at once (Phil 2:12,13). But in spite of this, it is vitally important for us to realize that at the moment of our salvation, we are spiritually placed as a full son. We immediately have ALL of the responsibilities – and privileges – of being a member of God’s Family, regardless of our level of spiritual maturity in Christ. This is what it means to be given the position of a mature son.
PASTOR TO PASTOR
Pastor, this spiritual positioning from God is one of the reasons it is vitally important to teach and train New Believers. They need to understand Who God is, what He has done for them through Jesus, and what He expects of them. They must learn how to function as beloved sons of God, and how to live as His ambassadors on this earth.
Just like any small child, those who are “babes in Christ” must be nurtured, taught and trained. As shepherds of the flock of God, that is our primary calling (1Pet 5:2).
This pastoral role is a high calling and carries with it a great responsibility. God entrusts us with His “lambs”. We are to care for them, feed them with God’s Word, and lead them to know how to walk with the Lord. We do not have to be brilliant, talented or have lots of education. But we must be faithful, just as Moses was (Heb 3:2).
As pastors, we are called to love the sheep and protect them from those who might harm them (Acts 20:27-29). We are to lovingly serve our flock, helping them to mature and grow as sons and daughters of our Father in heaven.
As church leaders, we must do our best to faithfully represent the Great Shepherd to His sheep. We must always strive to rightly teach the Word of God, guiding those we lead to know and understand their heavenly Father. We will one day give an account for how faithfully we carried out this holy calling (Heb 13:17; 1Pet 5:2-4).
MISTAKEN HUMAN LOGIC
There is often misinterpretation of the scriptures about spiritual adoption. This leads to a misunderstanding of our true standing before God after salvation.
In human society, it is usually the mature adult son who receives the privileges of being an heir to the father’s property. Some people mistakenly apply that same human logic to a key passage wherein Paul writes about the principle of adoption (Gal 4:1-7). But before we examine that passage, let us first look at the previous chapter of Galatians. This will help set the context for Paul’s revealing statements about our spiritual adoption.
PURPOSE OF THE LAW
Paul forcefully argues that no one can be justified by the law (Gal 3:10-14,21,22; see also Galatians 2:16; Romans 3:9-28). It is impossible for humans to completely obey all of the law. So the law can never save us or restore us to our place as sons of the Living God.
But the law, as given by God, still had great purpose: That purpose was to reveal to us our sin and our need of a Savior Who could fulfill the requirements of the law and redeem us (Gal 3:19-22).
Paul then uses the Roman characteristics of adoption to further show how God used the law. Scripture states that “before faith [salvation] came” we were “kept under guard” by the law and the “law was our tutor” (Gal 3:23,24).
In Romans households, it was common to have an adult steward or guardian who was responsible to discipline and care for the children. Thus, Paul contrasts being “kept under guard” by a steward (the law) with our new position as sons upon our salvation: “For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ” (3:26).
The Greek word for “sons” used by Paul in this passage is huios. Notice that it is the same root word used for “adoption” (huios/thesia, son/placing). Paul’s use of this word reveals to us that the moment we are born again, we are no longer under the “guardianship” of the Law (Gal 3:25; Rom 7:6). Rather, we are placed by God’s sovereign action as full sons in God’s family. In other words, at salvation, God places us in the position of a mature son.
Now, with this context in mind, let us look at Paul’s key passage regarding our spiritual adoption.
OUR SPIRITUAL CONDITION BEFORE ADOPTION
“Now I say that the heir, as long as he is a child, does not differ at all from a slave, though he is master of all, but is under guardians and stewards until the time appointed by the father. Even so we, when we were children, were in bondage under the elements of the world. But when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into your hearts, crying out, ‘Abba, Father!’ Therefore you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ” (Gal 4:1-7).
In this passage, Paul is using a “word-picture” of Roman cultural adoption to reveal spiritual truths. The child in the family was little more than a slave in terms of his freedoms (v.1). Yet he had the potential to be placed as a son and receive the benefits when he grew to full maturity or when the father died.
Paul then makes a statement as to the spiritual condition of the “children” in verse 3 – that they are “in bondage under the elements of the world”. This reveals a key point in understanding spiritual adoption.
ADOPTION: A FREE GIFT
The word “elements” used by Paul has two meanings in the New Testament. It describes both the elementary principles of Old Testament law and the pagan religious practices of Gentiles (see Galatians 4:8-11; Colossians 2:16-23).
Jewish law and pagan religious expressions would seem to have little in common. However, what they both did in practice was to try and replace true salvation by faith in Christ and the presence and power of the Holy Spirit with rituals, traditions and customs of men (see also Galatians 3:1-9). But neither the rituals of the law nor the practice of pagan religions could ever bring anyone salvation.
When Paul speaks of those in bondage to the elements of the world, it is clear that Paul is referring to the unsaved person (Gal 4:3). He was not referring to someone who was newly born again or simply immature in the things of God.
Thus, Paul was not saying that we only earn our spiritual sonship as we mature in Christ. Paul’s word-picture is clear in its meaning: We cannot earn our placement as God’s sons. Instead, when we receive Christ as our Savior, at salvation the “child” immediately becomes the son. We are placed in a mature position in full relationship with the Father and as a full heir.
This placement is not something we have to work to fulfill. We cannot earn the position God freely gives us, that of being His sons. Instead, it is a free gift. This gift empowers us to fulfill God’s will and bring more glory to His name. Hallelujah!
GOD’S PERFECT TIMING
Paul goes on in this passage to reveal God’s actions in the flow of human history. Prior to the coming of Christ, one could only choose to serve either a false pagan religion or the Jewish Law. And neither could bring salvation or restore one to God.
But at the right moment, when the “fullness of time had come, God sent forth His Son” so that the Son would fulfill the law (Matt 5:17,18) and make salvation by faith in Him possible.
PASTOR TO PASTOR
In Galatians 4:8, Paul writes, “But then, indeed, when you did not know God, you served those which by nature are not gods.” Paul then writes about “the weak and beggarly elements” (Gal 4:9). It is clear that Paul, by the Holy Spirit, is linking demonic spirits with the practice of human religious rituals and philosophies.
The demonic realm is not concerned when people are religious. After all, it is demons that have invented and promoted false human religions and the slavery to these deceptions that destroys people around the world.
However, Satan and his demons are concerned when confronted with the true power of God. For they know that their power was broken at the Cross of Jesus Christ (Col 2:14,15; Heb 2:14; 1John 3:8; 4:4). They also know they are doomed to eternal damnation (Rev 20:10).
God did not send Jesus to give us a new religion, philosophies or rituals. Rather, Jesus came to give us abundant life (John 10:10) – Life that is anointed by the power of the Holy Spirit (Eph 5:18) to equip us to do His work now (Col 1:27-29) and to anticipate with sure hope our eternal destiny to come (1Pet 1:3-9).
Through Christ, we have been set free from the “weak and beggarly elements” of false religion and deception, that we might walk in the light and truth of God’s dear Son (Col 1:13). Hallelujah!
FULLY SONS FROM THE MOMENT OF SALVATION
Paul continues on with his word-picture in Galatians. He reveals that just as Roman adoption required a witness, so too are Christians given a witness: The Holy Spirit! (Gal 4:6) When we are saved, the Holy Spirit bears witness that we have become part of the Family of God.
The Holy Spirit is given to us at salvation (John 3:5-8; Titus 3:5). Paul goes on to tell us more of what happens at the moment of salvation:
- we have available to us immediate intimacy with the Father (Gal 4:6; Rom 8:15,16);
- we are made full heirs with Christ (Gal 4:7).
These things that coincide with our spiritual adoption take place immediately at our salvation. They are accomplished solely by God’s sovereign work of grace. Our adoption, like our salvation, cannot be earned, nor can it be achieved by any effort of our own.
At salvation, we are placed as full sons into the Family of God by the loving hand of our Father God. To be sure, as we grow in personal maturity and discipline in the things of God, we will become more fruitful and effective in our service to Him. However, our service will not make us more loved by God or more His sons. We are fully sons from the moment we are saved.
Our identity as a believer is first that we are a son of God and part of His family; then all else follows. We are not a pastor who is a son. We are a beloved son who is doing the work of a pastor!
Though it is important in this life what you do and who you are becoming, we must remember: the most important thing in this life for every Christian to understand is that they are first loved by God and placed as His sons – then all else that they are and will do should flow from that understanding.
In later sections, we will discuss more fully the privileges, responsibilities and freedoms that come to us as beloved sons who have been spiritually adopted into God’s Family.
REGENERATION AND JUSTIFICATION
This study has allowed us to confidently assert that our spiritual adoption – our placement as sons into the Family of God – takes place the moment we are born again. At this same moment, we also receive justification by our faith in Christ (Gal 2:16), and we experience regeneration by the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:5).
Justification briefly means that when we come to salvation through faith in Christ, God declares us righteous. This is solely based upon our faith in the sacrifice of Christ for our sins at the Cross (Rom 4:3). We can never become righteous by our own works.
But justification is more than forgiveness of our sin and the removal of our guilt. When God justifies us, He places into our spiritual account the perfect righteousness of Christ (1Cor 1:30; 2Cor 5:21). Our full debt for the penalty of our sin has been paid by Christ’s perfect sacrifice for us. We need only to receive His saving work.
Regeneration is a sovereign work of God, by the Holy Spirit, that takes place at our salvation (John 3:5-8). Regeneration, or new birth, is an inner re-creation of our fallen human nature. We were dead in our trespasses and sins, but at salvation we are regenerated and made a new creature who is now alive in Christ (Eph 2:1,5).
Regeneration is closely related to adoption, and is bound together with it. Regeneration prepares us for a new life as a member of God’s Family. It also prepares us for living in, and exercising the privileges of, adoption. Those who are regenerated are sovereignly adopted by God, placed into the mature position as heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ (Rom 8:15-17; Gal 4:6,7).
DESTINED TO BE SONS
Our adoption was planned in the eternal councils of God, “having predestined us to adoption as sons by Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will” (Eph 1:5). Our placement as sons is not an afterthought of God. He created us to be His children, but we lost our inheritance through sin. So God, in His love and mercy, provided a way for our true inheritance and position to be restored – through the sacrificial death and resurrection of Jesus Christ for our sins (Gal 4:4,5).
We cannot place ourselves as sons. Only God the Father can do this for us. For all those who have surrendered their hearts to Christ and believed on Him for salvation, it is God’s will that they are adopted – placed as sons – into His Family! There is no earning, working or waiting to prove that one is worthy to be accepted as His son.