In Redemption Accomplished and Applied, John Murray defines adoption as a legal act. According to Murray, “It is the bestowal of a status, or standing” whereby we are transferred into the family of God.1 The marvel of biblical adoption is that we are given the status of children with all its rights and privileges. Those adopted by God the Father receive the Spirit of adoption who enables us to cry out “Abba! Father!” (Rom. 8:15; Gal. 4:6). The Westminster Confession of Faith rightly states that those justified in Christ are adopted to enjoy the “liberties and privileges” of being God’s children. The confession notes that while children may be chastised for sins, believers can never be permanently abandoned. Those whom God adopts are heirs to an everlasting salvation (WCF 12.1). Undergirding the richness of the Reformed tradition is also a substantial biblical history.

Adoption in the Greco-Roman World

Indeed, the Old Testament is operating in the background of Paul’s view of adoption. Herman Ridderbos rightly states that “sonship” was a special status afforded to Israel but now given to the church with deepened significance (2 Sam. 7:14; Rom. 9:26; 2 Cor. 6:18).2 In addition, knowing how adoption worked in the Roman world can also be illuminating. One of the most well-known cases of adoption is found in the figure of Caesar Augustus, during whose reign Jesus was born (Luke 2:1). Caesar Augustus, originally known as Octavian, was the grandnephew of Julius Caesar. After attaining victory over the Roman general Pompey, Julius Caesar was able to secure his reign over Rome. After Caesar’s assassination, however, Octavian discovered in Julius Caesar’s will that his granduncle had made him heir. This was secured through the posthumous act of adoption. Octavian’s father quelled a slave rebellion once led by Spartacus. His mother was related to Julius Caesar. Yet, it was not his genetic lineage that gave him the right to rule Rome but the legal act of adoption.

Did Paul know about Augustus? The Apostle Paul was born into a world inundated with discussions concerning the Roman Empire.3 Edicts were declared. The elite class had access to literature, and Augustus used court poets such as Ovid, Virgil, and Horace to disseminate Roman propaganda. Cities and provinces dedicated statues, temples, and inscriptions to the emperor. Such veneration had the potential to benefit homes, cities, or provinces. A biography of Caesar called the Res gestae was published on monuments. Augustus’ Res gestae began with his adoption. Roman roads signposted the identity of the emperor on mile markers. And coins had messages. For instance, Rome had come to regard Julius Caesar as a god much like the Greeks had declared Alexander the Great to be divine. Originally, declaring someone a god meant superhuman status. Yet, Augustus leveraged his relationship to an alleged divine emperor to his advantage. He had coins minted with the words divi filius—“son of a god”—to indicate his relationship to Julius Caesar. And Augustus declared that he saw Caesar’s soul ascend to divinity in a form of a comet. These ancient forms of media ensured that people knew about Augustus and his rise to power.

Augustus’ adoption at eighteen to nineteen years of age gave him claim to wealth, military forces, and Roman imperial authority. Though Cleopatra is well known for her love affair with Mark Antony, it was common knowledge then that Julius Caesar had a son with the Egyptian queen. Yet, the act of adoption superseded Caesar’s own bloodline. Hence, New Testament historian Robert Lewis states that “there could be no higher claim than to have been adopted” by the ruler of Rome.4 And adoption continued to be used. The Roman emperor Nero, who church traditions tells us beheaded the Apostle Paul, came to power by adoption. Adoption was well known throughout the empire.

Pauline View of Adoption: Romans 8:14–17

For Paul, Jesus was not merely a person with superhuman status. Rather, Paul equated Jesus with Yahweh—the old covenant revealed name for God. In Romans 10:9, Paul calls Jesus “Lord” (Greek kyrios). Paul is referring to Joel 2:32, quoting from the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament. In Hebrew, the word translated “Lord” is Yahweh.5 The Roman church by this time had become largely gentile with a Jewish minority. This was because the Roman emperor Claudius expelled the Jews from the city of Rome in AD 49, and it wasn’t until the decree was lifted that Jews were allowed to return. Many of the gentiles whom Paul addressed were likely low-status individuals such as slaves and freed-persons.6 In addition, the Jews who settled in Rome around the second century BC were originally brought in as slaves when Pompey conquered Jerusalem in 63 BC.

The grace of adoption was afforded to slaves of sin to make them coheirs with Christ.

For Paul to declare that those who were once slaves to sin were adopted was an influential message. The slave metaphor was personal to many. Furthermore, when a person was adopted, a change in commitment was expected.7 It was the norm to carry the name, estate, and religious rites of the adoptive family. It was a new lineage. The notion that they had been brought into the household of God through adoption was transformative. They were not simply freed slaves who were often considered only slightly better than slaves who were still in bondage. Even a manumitted slave who amassed wealth still faced class restrictions. So, when Paul states that the Christians were not simply freed but adopted, they understood that they had received greater privileges.

What are some of the privileges of being adopted by God? First, Jews and gentiles alike in Christ are called “sons of God.” Ethnic reconciliation is implicit in biblical adoption. Second, the phrase was applied to Israel (Ex. 4:22–23), Israelite kings (2 Sam. 7:14; Ps. 2:7), and angels (Gen. 6:2; Job 1:6; 38:7; Dan. 3:25).8 As Ridderbos notes, that special covenantal relationship given to Israel is enjoyed by the church. And, those who possess the Spirit of adoption have the Spirit of Christ and are no longer slaves to sin (Rom. 8:9–14). Third, though slaves in the ancient world had much to fear, especially when they served a harsh master, believers who received the Spirit of adoption had the Spirit bear witness to their spirits that they had intimacy with God—they could cry “Abba! Father!” (Rom. 8:15–16; Gal. 4:6).

In Romans 8:17, Paul indicates that those adopted are “children” (Greek tekna). Paul uses the word “children” rather than “sons” because in the Roman world daughters could also be appointed heirs.9 While believers are not shielded from present sufferings, those who suffer with Christ will also share in His glory (Rom. 8:17). Hence, Paul speaks in Romans 8:23–25 about a future aspect of adoption, namely, the redemption of our bodies at the future resurrection. The same Spirit who raised Christ from the dead guarantees our resurrection. In addition, there is a cosmic significance to our adoption. All creation waits for the revealing of the “sons of God” (Rom. 8:19–23). When glory fully comes upon the children of God, creation will be set free. In the meantime, the Spirit of God helps us in our weakness and intercedes for us when we know not how to pray (Rom. 8:26–27). And God works all things for the good of His children, for our adoption is based on God’s predestinating activity in order that we may be conformed to the image of the Son (Rom. 8:28–30). For those adopted, there is now no condemnation since we are justified (Rom. 8:1, 30–34). Nothing can separate us from the love of God (Rom. 8:35–39).


Knowing the meaning of adoption, which preserved Roman power, illuminates the Pauline message. The grace of adoption was afforded to slaves of sin to make them coheirs with Christ. Adoption was not an unwelcomed status. Rather, it was a coveted status among those who could potentially rule the Roman world. There was nothing more joyful than to discover that one had been adopted by a powerful Roman family. For Paul, the Roman emperors were no gods, for they were mortal, subject to moral corruption.10 Rather, there was greater joy in knowing that one was adopted by God the Father through faith in Christ. For in Christ, we enjoy the liberties and privileges of being the children of God.


  1. John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1955), 133–134. ↩︎
  2. Herman Ridderbos, Paul: An Outline of His Theology, trans. John Richard de Witt (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1975), 197–204. ↩︎
  3. This section on the dissemination of Roman propaganda along with the historical aspects of slavery, emperor worship, and adoption in the Greco-Roman world have been mostly gleaned from Robert Brian Lewis, Paul’s “Spirit of Adoption” in Its Roman Imperial Context (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016), 1–95. ↩︎
  4. Lewis, Paul’s Spirit of Adoption,” 16. ↩︎
  5. Gordon D. Fee, Pauline Christology: An Exegetical-Theological Study (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 2007), 254. ↩︎
  6. Lewis, Paul’s Spirit of Adoption,” 99–101. ↩︎
  7. The following on slavery and adoption is taken from Lewis, Paul’s Spirit of Adoption,” 182–185. ↩︎
  8. Colin G. Kruse, Paul’s Letter to the Romans, ed. D.A. Carson, Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2012), 337. ↩︎
  9. Kruse, Paul’s Letter to the Romans, 339–340. ↩︎
  10. Lewis, Paul’s Spirit of Adoption,” 114. ↩︎

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