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. 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). 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. 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. 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. 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. 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.