It happens every day in courts across America. A judge utters a few words, pounds his gavel on the desk, and a child receives a new family. This moment is always bittersweet. Adoptions take place because biological parents are either unable, unfit, or unwilling to care for the child they brought into the world. But these events are wonderful, because when the hammer strikes, that child belongs fully to parents committed to love and care for him.
During the past couple decades, I’ve witnessed a growing interest in adoption. It’s often hitched to James 1:27, where we’re told that undefiled religion includes visiting “orphans and widows in their affliction.” It’s good when Christians open up their homes to those in need. But the practice of adoption is grounded in more than one verse; it is rooted in the incomparably sweet doctrine of adoption.
What Is Adoption?
Adoption is the gracious act of God wherein He makes justified sinners His beloved children. The Westminster Confession says to be adopted is to receive God’s name and to have access to God’s throne, His pity, His protection, His provision, His discipline, and His promise to never abandon us.
Most adopted children, after the gavel has been struck, are tempted to question if their new home will last. They wonder if they really belong to their family and if this new home really belongs to them. But when it comes to God’s adoption of His people, there can be no doubt or uncertainty. He is forever their Father. It is, after all, the will of God that makes justified sinners His children (John 1:12). God’s will is perfect, and it cannot be broken.
Adoption is rooted in God’s eternal plan and inexhaustible love. Before mountains rose, rivers ran, or birds flew, God “predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ” (Eph. 1:5). His desire to place sinners in His family through the work of His Son precedes even the work of creation. We can only marvel at the kindness of God who would not call us merely His friends (James 2:23; see Isa. 41:8) but also His own sons and daughters. “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).
The Sweetest Doctrine
Perhaps it is presumptuous to call adoption the “sweetest” doctrine. But theologians throughout the ages have recognized its preeminence. John Dagg called it a “blessing of grace [that] rises higher than justification.”1 A judge, he said, can acquit you; it takes a father to adopt you. Robert Dabney argued that adoption is “the strongest proof” of our justification.2 Robert Webb may have put it best:
When we approach Him in the intensity of worship, we gather up all the sweetness involved in Fatherhood and all the tenderness wrapped up in sonship; when calamities overcome us and troubles come in like a flood, we lift up our cry and stretch out our arms to God as a compassionate Father; when the angel of death climbs in at the window of our homes and bears away the objects of our love, we find our dearest solace in reflecting upon the fatherly heart of God; when we look across the swelling flood, it is our Father’s House on the light-covered hills beyond the stars which cheers us amid the crumbling of the earthly tabernacle.3
And it wasn’t just professional theologians who appreciated this doctrine. The precious reality of adoption sustained Christian slaves in America as they endured the brutality of bondage, and even helped some to risk their lives in search of freedom. They saw God not merely as their sovereign Lord, but as their tender Father. Slaves William and Ellen Craft clung to the doctrine of adoption when they ran away from their masters: “When the time had arrived for us to start, we blew out the lights, knelt down, and prayed to our Heavenly Father mercifully to assist us, as he did his people of old, to escape from cruel bondage; and we shall ever feel that God heard and answered our prayer.”4
The Bible's Story Line
The Crafts knew what every Christian should know: adoption is at the heart of the story line of the Bible. Adam and Eve embraced God as their holy and heavenly Father. They enjoyed His care and provision. He even walked in their midst (Gen. 3:8). But Adam severed that relationship when he sinned, leading God to cast them out of the garden, away from His presence (Gen. 3:24; Rom. 5:12).
When Adam’s descendants through Abraham wound up slaves in Egypt, something tremendous happened. God didn’t just save them from Pharaoh; He called Israel His own son (Ex. 4:23). God was at work, bringing a fallen people near Him. He brought them into the land He had promised to Abraham and pledged, if they would serve Him, that He would once again walk among them—just as He did in Eden (Lev. 26:12).
Sadly, Israel failed. They repeatedly rejected God’s law and His love. David knew God was a compassionate Father to those who feared Him, but no one feared Him as they should (Ps. 103:13).
What God did next still sends a thrill up the Christian’s spine. The perfect, sovereign, just Creator—the eternal Father—sent His only begotten Son, Christ Jesus, into the world. Jesus gave up His life, bearing His Father’s wrath as He suffered and died on the cross. Yet by this tragedy, God accomplished the unthinkable—He accomplished atonement for His people. In the application of that atonement, He justifies sinners (Rom. 3:24) and gives them new birth (2 Cor. 5:17). Not only that, but the Father welcomes them into His family (Gal. 3:26; 4:4–7). Is there better news?
We live in a world full of people longing for a home, a place to belong, and a seat at the table. God the Father, through God the Son and by the power of God the Spirit, does so much more. He gives repentant sinners His very name and makes them His heirs (Rom. 8:17).
Is This Doctrine Sweet to You?
This doctrine should be sweet to you for many reasons.
First, the doctrine of adoption is closely related to the doctrine of assurance. All who have “received the Spirit of adoption” have God’s Spirit testifying within them that they are “children of God” (Rom. 8:15–16). The doctrine of assurance is as wonderful and mysterious as a father’s undying love for his prodigal son (Luke 15:11–32). If you struggle with the assurance of your salvation, run to God who adopted you. The blood of Christ did more than justify you—it also made God your Father.
Second, the doctrine of adoption helps us understand and appreciate the church. If you’ve ever traveled abroad and spent time with believers in other countries, you likely rejoiced about all you have in common. Regardless of language and cultural differences, you share the same love of God, view of the world, and hope of a new heaven and earth. Why? Because they are your brothers and sisters. You have a global family.
Not only has God given you a global church, but He calls you into a local church. When Jesus told His disciples that following Him would mean losing everything, He encouraged them with promise of a new family:
Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life (Mark 10:29–30).
The Christian life is hard, but it comes with a home—a local church. This is a family of justified sinners who are now your family. If you struggle with feelings of loneliness, not only can you remember God is your Father, you can also remember that you are part of a local church filled with your spiritual siblings and parents.
Third, the doctrine of adoption is a motivation to act. A few years ago, when my wife and I became foster parents, it wasn’t out of guilt. We did not think James 1:27 implied that every Christian had to open up his home to an orphan. God simply captivated us with the biblical theology of adoption. He warmed our hearts with the truth that when we were weak and ungodly, Christ died for us, providing us with adoption into the family of God (Rom. 5:6–11). Our own adoption of a little girl in 2015 is nothing but the dimmest reflection of the love God has lavished on us.
Meditate on the doctrine of adoption. The Spirit will make it sweet to you. More than that, He will lead you to act. You may not adopt an orphan, but you will most certainly give of yourself to others, expecting nothing in return. This is the doctrine of adoption at work.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on January 21, 2019.
- J.L. Dagg. Manual of Theology (1857; repr., Harrisonburg, Va.: Gano, 1990), 275. ↩︎
- R.L. Dabney, Systematic Theology (1871; repr., Edinburgh, Scotland: Banner of Truth, 1985), 627. ↩︎
- Cited by J. Theodore Mueller, “Adoption,” in Basic Christian Doctrines, ed. Carl F. H. Henry (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1962), 220–21. ↩︎
- Cited by Albert J. Raboteau, Slave Religion: The ‘Invisible Institution’ in the Antebellum South (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2004), 305. ↩︎