January 04, 2020

by David Garner


“Adoption is an act of God’s free grace, whereby we are received into the number, and have a right to all the privileges, of the sons of God.” (Westminster Shorter Catechism, 34)


The word “adoption” (Greek, huiothesia) appears only five times in Scripture, but rooted in the purpose of God and prefigured in the Old Testament, the theme gets woven into the fabric of New Testament theology—in particular the writings of the Apostle Paul. With notable connections both to justification and to sanctification, the meaning of adoption exceeds the boundaries of both. A term both of privilege and identity, adoption introduces superlative components of what Jesus provides in salvation and expresses who it is that enjoys those blessings.

With compelling brevity and gravity, J. I. Packer offers this three-word summary of the gospel, “adoption through propitiation….” He then exclaims, “I do not ever expect to find a richer or more pregnant summary of the gospel than that.”1 God’s righteous anger against sinners is fully satisfied by his righteous Son’s substitutionary death and vindicating resurrection/ exaltation (Rom. 1:3–4; 4:25; 1 Tim 3:16). By divine grace, as he absorbs God’s wrath in our place, the Savior turns the Father’s countenance toward us in full forgiveness (Num. 6:22–24). What wondrous reconciliation!

But this grace-saturated reckoning with our sin and sinfulness does not expend the gospel. Christ’s propitiatory work on our behalf surges with exceedingly greater blessing—the glories and riches of adoption. As Scripture affirms, forgiven sinners do not enter Christ’s kingdom as mere paupers. We become royal sons, members of the family of God, siblings of the King of kings—brothers of whom he is not ashamed (Heb. 2:11).

Since the concept carries such dazzling freight, we might expect the term adoption (huiothesia) to appear with generous frequency throughout the New Testament, yet it appears only five times: Galatians (1x), Ephesians (1x), Romans (3x). Its relative infrequency (in contrast to justification, for example) might tempt us to conclude that adoption is delightful and compelling, but perhaps not as central to our understanding of the gospel as Packer has made it. By what measure does he invest so much gospel capital into this rarely appearing term?

Packer is not alone. Calvin weaves adoption throughout his entire corpus, with such emphasis that his theology of salvation has been dubbed the “gospel of adoption.”2 One hundred years later, John Owen described adoption as the “great and fountain privilege”3 of salvation in Christ. More recently John Murray labeled adoption the “apex of grace and privilege.”4

As deeply as they appreciate the doctrine of justification, these towering theologians insist that “biblical motifs for salvation are not left in the cosmic courtroom, but… boldly and intimately proceed into the home and fatherly heart of God. God is not exclusively Judge; he is a gracious Father—the believer stands not merely as an acquitted criminal, but as an adopted son….”5

The Apostle Paul’s use of adoption must further guide and inform us.

Adoption and Divine Counsel

In Ephesians 1, the apostle launches into soaring praise, marveling over gospel splendor. Ordained by the eternal Father (Eph. 1:3–6), redemption is accomplished by the Son of God (Eph. 1:7–10) and applied by his Spirit (Eph. 1:11–14). As he bears witness to the harmony of the Triune God in this salvation, the apostle testifies to God’s all-wise counsel, which put history in motion. Notably, adoption takes center stage in the mind of God: “before the foundation of the world… he predestined us for adoption” (Eph. 1:4­–5). In the Ephesians 1 framework, adoption explains the meaning of history, the reason for Christ’s incarnation and redemptive work, and God’s goal for the universe. Bearing witness to the pre-creation intra-Trinitarian pact, Paul discovers the aim of history is the adoption of God’s people.

Adoption and Israel

Adoption’s prominence continues to shine in Romans 9. When answering apparent objections to his claims concerning Jesus the Messiah and his gospel proclamation to the Gentiles, Paul reminds his Jewish brothers of the Messiah-anticipating privileges they have known. “What extraordinary advantage had God not given to this people?”6 Paul identifies ancient Israelite privileges as a blessed foretaste of full blessing and promise realized in the New Covenant age.

To make his apologetic point, Paul reminds his readers of six grace-filled features enjoyed since the days of the patriarchs. These Old Covenant privileges reach fulfillment in Christ:

They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen. (Rom. 9:4–5).

Stunningly, adoption gets first mention in this list of gifts. Though Israel’s corporate adoption lacked the substance and security of the full adoption in Christ, drawing upon divine purpose (Ephesians 1), Israel’s sonship provides the historical/theological parentage for the perfect adoption to come in the Messiah.

Continue reading at The Gospel Coalition


David Garner

Dr. Garner (PhD, Westminster) is associate professor of systematic theology and vice president for advancement at WTS.

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