First-Rate Sons

February 12, 2018

by David Garner

“Were you adopted?” The questioner leans in, eager to confirm a rumor or to verify a hunch. Perhaps the young girl’s mannerisms seem unlike other family members. Perhaps the boy’s distinct skin tone begs for a black-and-white answer.

But why do we ask at all? Why does it matter that this child is adopted? Some long to feed their appetite for a rags-to-riches story, and adoption often mercifully extricates children from drugs, poverty, and the most inhumane conditions. For some, the quest to know sprouts from sincere longing to taste gospel grace. Even if we don’t openly utter it from our lips, deep in our souls we relish the compassion extended an orphaned child. Human adoptions retell and refresh our own redemption story. We echo John’s astonishment: “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).

How could we not celebrate? Respect pulsates through our souls as we watch adopting parents embrace a crippled child from an Indian orphanage. We esteem the extravagant love that welcomes one or even more foster children. These magnanimous parents seem to adopt the daunting future with tenacious joy. Gospel grace resounds through them as they bring salvation to those who once were orphans. The lost are now found. Amazing grace.

Human adoptions retell and refresh our own redemption story.

But in our appreciation for adoption and its gospel parallels lurks a disturbing though unspoken conviction. Surely life could have been better for this boy if his parents had not been needled with heroin. Surely life would have been better if this little girl’s birth mother had abandoned prostitution rather than her child. Disappointment and delight dance a two-step in our minds; grief and gratitude ricochet violently within the walls of our souls.

Beneath this internal conflict lies an offensive yet no less pressing perception that adoption is less than optimal. Some wrongly believe that no matter how noble the adopting family’s efforts, the adopted child is still not quite family—at least not in the way the biological children are. Oh, the new child may find herself tenderly positioned between siblings in the family photo, but still she is the adopted daughter. The young lad may fish with his father and devour mom’s chocolate cake like his brothers. But he is still adopted, and bound to, well, an inferior standing.

To be clear, most adopting parents and siblings do not behave or feel this way—ever. But despite compassion for the adopted children and respect for adopting parents, many secretly count adoption as second class.

This warped outlook has bulldozed into our thinking about biblical adoption. We affirm that redemption is marvelous. Justification and forgiveness deliver blessings beyond words. Yet however gratefully we receive adoption, it seems a second-tier backup plan. Surely if God had kept Adam from sinning, our present and our future would be better. We timidly wonder what we miss as adopted sons that “real” sons would enjoy. We hail our adoption with a secret sigh, hoping God won’t notice or be offended by our disappointment.

But if such disappointment is valid, the good news of adoption has a terrible leak in its goodness. And why do Paul’s words about adoption drip with delight? Perhaps the apostle contrasts our sinful state with our new adoptive status, relishing redemption’s retrieval over its riches. Perhaps he finds being a second-rate son sufficient. After all, being a redeemed slave in God’s kingdom is surely preferable to being a son of perdition.

. . . continue reading at TableTalk.

David Garner

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

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