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“Were you adopted?” The questioner leans in, eager to confirm a rumor or to verify a hunch. Perhaps the young girl’s mannerisms seem unlike other family members. Perhaps the boy’s distinct skin tone begs for a black-and-white answer.

But why do we ask at all? Why does it matter that this child is adopted? Some long to feed their appetite for a rags-to-riches story, and adoption often mercifully extricates children from drugs, poverty, and the most inhumane conditions. For some, the quest to know sprouts from sincere longing to taste gospel grace. Even if we don’t openly utter it from our lips, deep in our souls we relish the compassion extended an orphaned child. Human adoptions retell and refresh our own redemption story. We echo John’s astonishment: “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are” (1 John 3:1).

How could we not celebrate? Respect pulsates through our souls as we watch adopting parents embrace a crippled child from an Indian orphanage. We esteem the extravagant love that welcomes one or even more foster children. These magnanimous parents seem to adopt the daunting future with tenacious joy. Gospel grace resounds through them as they bring salvation to those who once were orphans. The lost are now found. Amazing grace.

But in our appreciation for adoption and its gospel parallels lurks a disturbing though unspoken conviction. Surely life could have been better for this boy if his parents had not been needled with heroin. Surely life would have been better if this little girl’s birth mother had abandoned prostitution rather than her child. Disappointment and delight dance a two-step in our minds; grief and gratitude ricochet violently within the walls of our souls.

Jesus is the One in whom the Father is pleased. By grace through faith, the Father finds pleasure with us in Christ.

Beneath this internal conflict lies an offensive yet no less pressing perception that adoption is less than optimal. Some wrongly believe that no matter how noble the adopting family’s efforts, the adopted child is still not quite family—at least not in the way the biological children are. Oh, the new child may find herself tenderly positioned between siblings in the family photo, but still she is the adopted daughter. The young lad may fish with his father and devour mom’s chocolate cake like his brothers. But he is still adopted, and bound to, well, an inferior standing.

To be clear, most adopting parents and siblings do not behave or feel this way—ever. But despite compassion for the adopted children and respect for adopting parents, many secretly count adoption as second class.

This warped outlook has bulldozed into our thinking about biblical adoption. We affirm that redemption is marvelous. Justification and forgiveness deliver blessings beyond words. Yet however gratefully we receive adoption, it seems a second-tier backup plan. Surely if God had kept Adam from sinning, our present and our future would be better. We timidly wonder what we miss as adopted sons that “real” sons would enjoy. We hail our adoption with a secret sigh, hoping God won’t notice or be offended by our disappointment.

But if such disappointment is valid, the good news of adoption has a terrible leak in its goodness. And why do Paul’s words about adoption drip with delight? Perhaps the Apostle contrasts our sinful state with our new adoptive status, relishing redemption’s retrieval over its riches. Perhaps he finds being a second-rate son sufficient. After all, being a redeemed slave in God’s kingdom is surely preferable to being a son of perdition.

So, should we understand our adoption in Christ with such qualification? Hardly. Paul cringes at our distortion of his Spirit-given words.

Adam and Eve, created in the image of God for His glory, defaced their God-given image. They looked at their Father, weighed His word, and defiantly decided they had a better idea. Theirs was a sin of commission—we will eat the forbidden fruit. Theirs was a sin of omission—we will deny our Father honor. “Thanks a bunch for everything, but we’ll be our own gods,” the divine glory robbers muttered.

Just then, Almighty God appeared in Eden as His pathetic impostors sought to turn paradise into the garden of the gods. At the moment of anticipated wrath, the sovereign Father spoke words of grace. Instead of executing final judgment, He pronounced promise. Genesis 3:15 was as stunning as it was freeing, and our first parents’ terror dissolved into awe.

God told of a Son to come. This Son would obey the covenant requirements; this Son would crush the serpent’s head; this Son would reverse the curse to save fallen sons and daughters of Adam.

From that Edenic sermon forward, generations from Adam to Joseph awaited just one excellent son. They looked for just one who would rescue the desperate from their desperation; just one who would live after God’s own heart, rather than his own; just one who would receive divine affirmation and secure divine pleasure; just one who would solve the cosmic dilemma; just one who would be the Just One.

When the Apostle Paul penned his epistles, his audiences were quite familiar with the practice of Roman imperial adoption. In first-century Rome, when an emperor sought an heir to his throne, he first considered his biological sons. As he surveyed his offspring, he hunted for one with the competence to rule. To preserve his name and dynasty for future generations, the king wanted proven strength, reliability, integrity, and courage, not to mention unqualified devotion to his own vision for his kingdom.

Many times, biological offspring disappointed the emperor. Having squandered their privilege and lived recklessly, his sons were hardly wise candidates for the throne. Faced with their debauchery or immaturity, the emperor looked outside the family to find a son in whom he could be well pleased. Upon identifying and selecting the most excellent candidate, the king adopted this proven adult son to sit on his throne.

Adoption exceeds original sonship, because the Beloved Son of God carried human sonship to its glorious, royal finale.

This first-century practice presents low-hanging fruit for the Pauline adoption analogies. Yet we must understand how Paul fuses this Roman practice with the history of redemption from first to last Adam. Through the generations, “the eyes of the Lord run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to give strong support to those whose heart is blameless toward him” (2 Chron. 16:9). In thousands of desperate years after Adam, no truly blameless son arrived—no, not one—that is, until the stillness one starry night in Bethlehem broke with angelic announcement: “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11). One voice inadequately conveyed this cosmic moment, so the skies of heaven opened up in angel chorus: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased” (v. 14). A different kind of Son had been born—one who would indeed prove wholly “blameless toward him.”

This Son, from His conception by the Holy Spirit, joyfully yielded to His Father. As this Son matured in wisdom and stature and walked in faith and obedience, Fatherly favor upon Him blossomed (2:52). Led by the Spirit into the wilderness for temptation (4:1–13), the hungry Son fed on His Father’s will. There in that desolate desert the Son learned obedience (Heb. 5:8). To trust and obey the Father—there was no other way for Jesus. And so He did, from the wilderness to Golgotha.

No wonder the Father gave His nod of approval. “This is my beloved Son; listen to him” (Mark 9:7). Having fulfilled the obligations and borne the punishment of the law, Jesus was raised the Son of God in power (Rom. 1:3–4). Here at Christ’s resurrection, the heavenly Father delivered His final approving verdict. Of this mature covenant Victor, the Father declared, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you” (Heb. 1:5). Chosen from among the sons of men, the risen One now reigns, the excellent and exalted Son of God sits “at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (v. 3).

To be clear, there is no hint here of the ancient adoptionist error that claimed Jesus only became the Son of God at His baptism or His resurrection. Rather, as Scripture and nearly two millennia of church creeds affirm, Christ is the eternal Son of God by His divine nature. He was the Son of God before He became the Son of Mary. Yet upon His birth to the virgin woman, He had to do God’s appointed work flawlessly. He had to become the perfected human son.

In this way, our adoption rides on Christ’s perfection and the Father’s absolute satisfaction with Him (Gal. 4:1–7). Our adoption is in Christ, the Son of God. The eyes of the Father searched to and fro across the whole earth and His eyes came to rest on Jesus the Beloved Son, whose heart proved blameless. By grace alone through faith alone, we are beloved and blameless sons in Christ. Jesus is the One in whom the Father is pleased. By grace alone through faith alone, the Father finds pleasure with us in Christ. Jesus is the Son who reigns supreme over all things (Eph. 1:15–23). By grace alone through faith alone, we reign as sons, seated with Him on the throne (2:6).

Surely at this point we can see how viewing adoption as merciful but mediocre crumbles. Adoption in Christ offers no second rate, it’s-the-best-we-can-get-considering-the-fall status. It is the greatest kind of human sonship there is. Adoption is a first-rate privilege. Adoption exceeds original sonship because the Beloved Son of God carried human sonship to its glorious, royal finale. Adoption in Christ secures unparalleled riches, privilege, and glory.

If anyone leans in and eagerly asks, “Were you adopted?” the question demands an exuberant “Yes!” Our adoption in Christ, as John Murray has put it, is the “apex of grace and privilege.” We are first-rate sons in Jesus the first-rate Son. No caveats. Nothing inferior. No disappointment, ever.

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