Saved as Sons in the Son

January 31, 2017

by David Garner

Redemptive solidarity with the Son of God is at the heart of Paul’s soteriology, and the filial terms employed by Paul communicate this Spirit-wrought union. To the point, Paul’s huiothesia exploits the etymological connections between huios (“son”) and huiothesia to depict the soteric and eschatological solidarity of the redeemed sons with the Redeemer. While the nature of solidarity far exceeds mere etymology, note that Paul’s choice of huiothesia and the verbs commonly associated with the act of adoption do point to an official, permanent placing of sons in a new family (cf. Burke). Adoption is, literally, son placing, and this literal rendering tacitly upholds the apostolic intention for appreciating the filial contours of the gospel in Christ. The cognate relationship between huios and huiothesia lexically channels the theological wellspring of filial solidarity.

The ordo salutis is salvation of/for the sons because the historia salutis is salvation in/by the Son.

Thus, for Paul, huiothesia occasions Spirit-facilitated gracious placement in and perfect solidarity with the huios. The shared lexicography (huios and huiothesia) provides apt verbal means for profiling filial gospel grace. All that Jesus Christ, the Huios par excellence, is and acquires in his transforming resurrection comes to those redeemed huioi united to him. Adoption as sons, then, sustains the exquisite filio-Christological connection, and comprises the comprehensive sons-in-the-Son theology of the apostle Paul. To express the Spirit-wrought concatenation of the sons with the Son, the apostle Paul exercises a theological possessio of huiothesia, and thereby makes explicit the in-Christ union in all its redemptive-historical, eschatological, and filial richness. The ordo salutis is salus filiorum (“salvation of/for the sons”) because the historia salutis is salus Filio (“salvation in/by the Son”).

Can Daughters be “Sons”? 

An important contemporary contextual comment is in order. As does modern culture at large, modern academia prefers to neutralize gender whenever possible. It might seem preferable to employ “adopted child” or some other gender-neutral formulation in the translation and derivations of huiothesia. As noted already, however, the Greek term for “adoption,” huiothesia, contains the masculine term huios. While in some cases gender-neutral terms may properly convey the meaning and organic (intracanonical) theology in biblical revelation, the use of huiothesia is generally not one of those cases.

Because the shared etymology between huios and huiothesia aligns the redeemed sons of God with the redeeming Son of God, opting for a gender-neutral term in English muddles this verbally poignant Son/sons solidarity. Since Christ is not teknon, the chosen conception for filial grace is not teknothesia. To preserve this sons-in-the-Son solidarity that shapes Pauline theology, I will normally use the word son, while celebrating how the Pauline adoption concept unambiguously indicates privilege for both male and female (2 Cor. 6:18; cf. Gal. 3:25–27). In fact, at times Paul speaks of the huioi as tekna (e.g., Rom. 8:15–17); we can be assured that Paul’s choice of huiothesia and huioi representing both sexes perpetuates no gender bias and divulges no misogyny. With its etymological composition, huiothesia prominently serves his pervasive in Christ soteriology in a way that should govern our understanding of both tekna and huioi as they reference the redeemed people of God.

In short, the gender-specific sons speaks without an iota of prejudice against the “daughters.” In fact, the very opposite is true. Paul will argue that in this Son, the sons of God are neither male nor female; all are one in the one Son (Gal. 3:27–29). Men, women, slaves, and free—all the redeemed are sons in the Son. The selection of “son” (huios) or “sons” (huioi) serves Paul’s purpose to expose the inviolable, indissoluble filial solidarity of the redeemed with the Redeemer. Just as the Pauline label of the church as the bride of Christ (Eph. 5:21–32) does not exclude males, the choice of huios does not eliminate or alienate believing females, who are also the sons of God. Though the complaints about sexism might well be gagged purely by calling into question contemporary bias, Paul’s gender-indeterminate solidaric theological framework muzzles any perceived male chauvinism on its own.

Huiothesia captures the whole scope of filial grace enjoyed by means of the Spirit-wrought union with the resurrected Son of God.

Adoptive grace extends to both genders, and in contradistinction to the model of Roman huiothesia, divine adoption serves to improve not the destiny of the Father (as if that were possible) but rather the destiny of the adopted sons—males and females alike. Furthermore, it is not as though Paul avoids gender-neutral terms such as tekna (“children”; cf. Rom. 8:17), which he uses interchangeably at points with huioi, but his gospel-union paradigm prefers huios and huioi because at its core the full redemptive inheritance by the Spirit of adoption (v. 15) comes to the redeemed sons (huioi) in union with Christ the Son (huios). These sons in the Son are of both sexes: the sons of God (the huioi tou theou) are the children of God (the tekna tou theou).

With his redemptive-historical, eschatological framework and his doxological and pastoral zeal, the apostle Paul celebrates the grace of adoption in the Son of God by calling on a feature-rich Roman cultural practice. Huiothesia captures the whole scope of filial grace enjoyed by means of the Spirit-wrought union with the resurrected Son of God. To state it otherwise, adoption moves in the full orbit of union with Christ, and offers a comprehensive filial complex, divulging the filially framed forensic and transformative contours of this union.

This piece is adapted from David B. Garner, Sons in the Son: The Riches and Reach of Adoption in Christ, (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2016), 51–54. Used with permission of the publisher.

David Garner

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