- a-dop'-shun (huiothesia, "placing as a son"):
I. THE GENERAL LEGAL IDEA
1. In the Old Testament
II. PAUL'S DOCTRINE
1. In Galatians as Liberty
2. In Romans as Deliverance from Debt
III. THE CHRISTIAN EXPERIENCE
1. In Relation to Justification
2. In Relation to Sanctification
3. In Relation to Regeneration
IV. AS GOD'S ACT
1. Divine Fatherhood
2. Its Cosmic Range
This term appears first in New Testament, and only in the epistles of Paul (Gal 4:5; Rom 8:15,23; 9:4; Eph 1:5) who may have coined it out of a familiar Greek phrase of identical meaning. It indicated generally the legal process by which a man might bring into his family, and endow with the status and privileges of a son, one who was not by nature his son or of his kindred.
I. The General Legal Idea.
The custom prevailed among Greeks, Romans and other ancient peoples, but it does not appear in Jewish law.
1. In the Old Testament:
Three cases of adoption are mentioned: of Moses (Ex 2:10), Genubath (1 Ki 11:20) and Esther (Est 2:7,15), but it is remarkable that they all occur outside of Palestine--in Egypt and Persia, where the practice of adoption prevailed. Likewise the idea appears in the New Testament only in the epistles of Paul, which were addressed to churches outside Palestine. The motive and initiative of adoption always lay with the adoptive father, who thus supplied his lack of natural offspring and satisfied the claims of affection and religion, and the desire to exercise paternal authority or to perpetuate his family. The process and conditions of adoption varied with different peoples. Among oriental nations it was extended to slaves (as Moses) who thereby gained their freedom, but in Greece and Rome it was, with rare exceptions, limited to citizens.
In Greece a man might during his lifetime, or by will, to take effect after his death, adopt any male citizen into the privileges of his son, but with the invariable condition that the adopted son accepted the legal obligations and religious duties of a real son.
In Rome the unique nature of paternal authority (patria potestas), by which a son was held in his father's power, almost as a slave was owned by his master, gave a peculiar character to the process of adoption. For the adoption of a person free from paternal authority (sui juris), the process and effect were practically the same in Rome as in Greece (adrogatio). In a more specific sense, adoption proper (adoptio) was the process by which a person was transferred from his natural father's power into that of his adoptive father, and it consisted in a fictitious sale of the son, and his surrender by the natural to the adoptive father.
II. Paul's Doctrine.
As a Roman citizen the apostle would naturally know of the Roman custom, but in the cosmopolitan city of Tarsus, and again on his travels, he would become equally familiar with the corresponding customs of other nations. He employed the idea metaphorically much in the manner of Christ's parables, and, as in their case, there is danger of pressing the analogy too far in its details. It is not clear that he had any specific form of adoption in mind when illustrating his teaching by the general idea. Under this figure he teaches that God, by the manifestation of His grace in Christ, brings men into the relation of sons to Himself, and communicates to them the experience of sonship.
1. In Galatians as Liberty:
In Galatians, Paul emphasizes especially the liberty enjoyed by those who live by faith, in contrast to the bondage under which men are held, who guide their lives by legal ceremonies and ordinances, as the Galatians were prone to do (Gal 5:1). The contrast between law and faith is first set forth on the field of history, as a contrast between both the pre-Christian and the Christian economies (Gal 3:23,24), although in another passage he carries the idea of adoption back into the covenant relation of God with Israel (Rom 9:4). But here the historical antithesis is reproduced in the contrast between men who now choose to live under law and those who live by faith. Three figures seem to commingle in the description of man's condition under legal bondage--that of a slave, that of a minor under guardians appointed by his father's will, and that of a Roman son under the patria potestas (Gal 4:1-3). The process of liberation is first of all one of redemption or buying out (Greek exagorasei) (Gal 4:5). This term in itself applies equally well to the slave who is redeemed from bondage, and the Roman son whose adoptive father buys him out of the authority of his natural father. But in the latter case the condition of the son is not materially altered by the process: he only exchanges one paternal authority for another. If Paul for a moment thought of the process in terms of ordinary Roman adoption, the resulting condition of the son he conceives in terms of the more free and gracious Greek or Jewish family life. Or he may have thought of the rarer case of adoption from conditions of slavery into the status of sonship. The redemption is only a precondition of adoption, which follows upon faith, and is accompanied by the sending of "the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, Abba, Father," and then all bondage is done away (Gal 4:5-7).
2. In Romans as Deliverance from Debt:
In Rom 8:12-17 the idea of obligation or debt is coupled with that of liberty. Man is thought of as at one time under the authority and power of the flesh (Rom 8:5), but when the Spirit of Christ comes to dwell in him, he is no longer a debtor to the flesh but to the Spirit (Rom 8:12,13), and debt or obligation to the Spirit is itself liberty. As in Galatians, man thus passes from a state of bondage into a state of sonship which is also a state of liberty. "For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these (and these only) are sons of God" (Rom 8:14). The spirit of adoption or sonship stands in diametrical opposition to the spirit of bondage (Rom 8:15). And the Spirit to which we are debtors and by which we are led, at once awakens and confirms the experience of sonship within us (Rom 8:16). In both places, Paul conveys under this figure, the idea of man as passing from a state of alienation from God and of bondage under law and sin, into that relation with God of mutual confidence and love, of unity of thought and will, which should characterize the ideal family, and in which all restraint, compulsion and fear have passed away.
III. The Christian Experience.
As a fact of Christian experience, the adoption is the recognition and affirmation by man of his sonship toward God. It follows upon faith in Christ, by which man becomes so united with Christ that his filial spirit enters into him, and takes possession of his consciousness, so that he knows and greets God as Christ does (compare Mk 14:36).
1. In Relation to Justification:
It is an aspect of the same experience that Paul describes elsewhere, under another legal metaphor, as justification by faith. According to the latter, God declares the sinner righteous and treats him as such, admits into to the experience of forgiveness, reconciliation and peace (Rom 5:1). In all this the relation of father and son is undoubtedly involved, but in adoption it is emphatically expressed. It is not only that the prodigal son is welcomed home, glad to confess that he is not worthy to be called a son, and willing to be made as one of the hired servants, but he is embraced and restored to be a son as before. The point of each metaphor is, that justification is the act of a merciful Judge setting the prisoner free, but adoption is the act of a generous father, taking a son to his bosom and endowing him with liberty, favor and a heritage.
2. In Relation to Sanctification:
Besides, justification is the beginning of a process which needs for its completion a progressive course of sanctification by the aid of the Holy Spirit, but adoption is coextensive with sanctification. The sons of God are those led by the Spirit of God (Rom 8:14); and the same spirit of God gives the experience of sonship. Sanctification describes the process of general cleansing and growth as an abstract process, but adoption includes it as a concrete relation to God, as loyalty, obedience, and fellowship with an ever-loving Father.
3. In Relation to Regeneration:
Some have identified adoption with regeneration, and therefore many Fathers and Roman Catholic theologians have identified it with baptismal regeneration, thereby excluding the essential fact of conscious sonship. The new birth and adoption are certainly aspects of the same totality of experience, but they belong to different systems of thought, and to identify them is to invite confusion. The new birth defines especially the origin and moral quality of the Christian experience as an abstract fact, but adoption expresses a concrete relation of man to God. Nor does Paul here raise the question of man's natural and original condition. It is pressing the analogy too far to infer from this doctrine of adoption that man is by nature not God's son. It would contradict Paul's teaching elsewhere (e.g. Acts 17:28), and he should not be convicted of inconsistency on the application of a metaphor. He conceives man outside Christ as morally an alien and a stranger from God, and the change wrought by faith in Christ makes him morally a son and conscious of his sonship; but naturally he is always a potential son because God is always a real father.
IV. As God's Act.
Adoption as God's act is an eternal process of His gracious love, for He "fore-ordained us unto adoption as sons through Jesus Christ unto himself, according to the good pleasure of his will" (Eph 1:5).
1. Divine Fatherhood:
The motive and impulse of Fatherhood which result in adoption were eternally real and active in God. In some sense He had bestowed the adoption upon Israel (Rom 9:4). "Israel is my son, my first-born" (Ex 4:22; compare Dt 14:1; 32:6; Jer 31:9; Hos 11:1). God could not reveal Himself at all without revealing something of His Fatherhood, but the whole revelation was as yet partial and prophetic. When "God sent forth his Son" to redeem them that were under the law," it became possible for men to receive the adoption; for to those who are willing to receive it, He sent the Spirit of the eternal Son to testify in their hearts that they are sons of God, and to give them confidence and utterance to enable them to call God their Father (Gal 4:5,6; Rom 8:15).
2. Its Cosmic Range:
But this experience also is incomplete, and looks forward to a fuller adoption in the response, not only of man's spirit, but of the whole creation, including man's body, to the Fatherhood of God (Rom 8:23). Every filial spirit now groans, because it finds itself imprisoned in a body subjected to vanity, but it awaits a redemption of the body, perhaps in the resurrection, or in some final consummation, when the whole material creation shall be transformed into a fitting environment for the sons of God, the creation itself delivered from the bondage of corruption into the liberty of the glory of the children of God (Rom 8:21). Then will adoption be complete, when man's whole personality shall be in harmony with the spirit of sonship, and the whole universe favorable to its perseverance in a state of blessedness.
See CHILDREN OF GOD.
Lightfoot, Galatians; Sanday, Romans; Lidgett, Fatherhood of God; Ritschl, Justification and Reconciliation.