Adoption: Plenty of Room in the Family
January 7, 2007
When Leslie Lynch King, Jr. died earlier this week, it made headlines around the world. Commentators talked about his legacy, and in the United States flags were lowed to half-staff in his honor. That always happens when a president dies.
But who was President King? You can’t find any record of a man by that name occupying the White House. But he did. Leslie Lynch King, Jr. served as president during a crisis moment in American history. He is remembered as a decent and honorable man whose solid Midwestern values guided his political career. You can’t find any record of President King because no one by that name ever served as president.
Leslie Lynch King, Jr. was born on Monday, July 14, 1913 in Omaha, Nebraska. His parents separated sixteen days after his birth and were divorced the following December. According to press reports (cited by Wikipedia), his father was abusive and had a drinking problem. His mother took her baby and moved back to her parents’ home in Grand Rapids, Michigan where she later married Gerald Ford, a paint salesman. He later adopted young Leslie and gave him his own name. Thus Leslie Lynch King became Gerald Ford, the 38th president of the United States. As I write these words, he is lying in repose in California, awaiting the formal state funeral in Washington next week.
I never knew he was adopted until he died, and therefore I never learned his birth name until I read it in the news reports. Born Leslie Lynch King, by adoption Gerald Ford entered a new family and was given a new name.
Adoption is not a subject we talk about very much in church. We don’t often think about it from a biblical point of view. But as I begin this message, I realize that there are many people who are intimately acquainted with adoption. You may have been adopted, or you may have adopted a child yourself, or perhaps you were raised in a family that included adopted children. If any of those things is true about you, you probably have a better understanding of the biblical teaching than those who have never experienced adoption first hand.
I. Adoption Defined
Many Christians don’t realize that adoption is a profoundly biblical concept. It is one of the key words that the Apostle Paul uses to describe our relationship to God. Let’s begin with a simple definition.
Adoption is the legal act of permanently placing a child with a parent or parents other than the birth parents. Adoption results in the severing of the parental responsibilities and rights of the biological parents and the placing of those responsibilities and rights onto the adoptive parents. After the finalization of an adoption, there is no legal difference between biological and adopted children in most jurisdictions (From the Wikipedia article on adoption).
We can summarize this further in three statements:
1) There is a person who is not a member of your family by birth.
2) There is a legal process.
3) There is now a new member of your family as a result.
In a number of places, the New Testament uses the word adoption to describe how we come into God’s family (Romans 8:15, 23, 9:4; Galatians 4:5; Ephesians 1:5). However, the meaning is not exactly the same as our common English usage. The Greek word for adoption means to place as a son within a family with full family privileges as an adult member of the family. That’s the background of Paul’s thought in Galatians 4:1-7.
The heir, as long as he is a child, is no different from a slave, though he is the owner of everything, but he is under guardians and managers until the date set by his father. In the same way we also, when we were children, were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world. But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.
Verses one and two describe a common situation in the first century. Imagine a son whose father is extremely wealthy. One day the son will inherit the entire estate for himself. Under Roman law, because he is a minor child, being raised as a minor child, he is treated no differently than a slave. He is heir to all that his father owns, but while he is growing up he has no more rights than a slave does. Although he will one day inherit the whole estate, he is subject to guardians, nannies, babysitters, tutors, helpers, hired people and trustees who watch over him until the time set by his father. Although he is an heir, he is treated as a slave until the time his father decides to set him free.
In verse four we see what God did by sending his Son to the world (vv. 4-5):
1) God sent him to redeem those under the law.
2) That we might receive full rights as sons.
When we come to Christ, God sends the Holy Spirit into our hearts to give us new life and the assurance that we are God’s children. This is the “still, small voice” of God that speaks to the soul and whispers, “You are now a child of God.” That same Holy Spirit within us cries out “Abba, Father.” The word “Abba” comes from an Aramaic word that little children would use to speak to their fathers. It is an intimate, personal word of endearing affection. In English you might say “Dad” or “Daddy” or “Papa” or “Dear Father.” It’s a very tender way of talking to our Heavenly Father. No longer is he some distant God up in the sky. Now he is our “Heavenly Daddy.”
In all the world there was only one person I called “Dad.” When I or my three brothers Andy, Alan and Ronnie said, “Dad,” our father would turn and listen to our voices. The privilege of calling him “Dad” was given to us and only to us. The same is true of my three sons. Josh, Mark and Nick are the only people in the world who have that unique relationship with me. Others may call me “Dad,” but it doesn’t mean the same thing. I was one of my father’s four sons; I am the father to my three sons. They have a unique claim on me that other children don’t have. So it is in the spiritual realm. If we know Jesus as Savior, God is now our Heavenly Father and we can come to him in prayer anytime, anywhere, for any reason, and he will never turn us away. When we are in trouble, when the world has turned against us, when we are so discouraged that we feel like giving up, when we are confused about what to do next, the Holy Spirit whispers, “Talk to your Father in heaven. He’s waiting to hear from you.” The Spirit within us brings us back to our Father again and again and teaches us to say, “Abba, Father.”
Here are six blessings Paul mentions in Galatian 4 that flow to us because Christ came.
1) We are redeemed (5a).
2) We are adopted (5b).
3) The Holy Spirit now lives within us (6a).
4) We call God Father (6b).
5) We are now God’s children (7a).
6) We are the heirs of God (7b).
Verse 5 is the heart of the matter. Christ came “to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.” The NIV uses the phrase “full rights of sons” to bring out the meaning of adoption. Christ came to redeem us and to adopt us into God’s family. To redeem means to set free from slavery by the payment of a price. You redeemed a slave by paying the purchase price and then setting him free. Now suppose that in addition to freeing that slave, you also said to him, “Come with me to my home and live with me. I want you to legally join my family, take my name, and take an equal share in my inheritance.” As amazing as it sounds, that’s what God did for us the moment we trusted Christ. He set us free (redeemed us) from the slavery of sin with the purchase price of the blood of Christ. Then he brought us into his family and gave us “full rights” as his own children. The concept of “full rights” means that no matter how badly we may have sinned before conversion, there are no second-class children in God’s family. God has no stepchildren. In the Jewish culture, young boys are considered men by going through a ritual called a Bar Mitzvah. You might say that when we come to Christ, we are “Bar Mitzvahed” into God’s family. We come in as full members of the family with rights and privileges equal to those who have been there for 40 or 50 years. We can pray and claim God’s promises on the same basis as everyone else.
Let’s suppose that one of my three sons does something wrong and later feels bad about it. So he comes to me and says, “Dad, I’m very sorry for what I did and I’m going to try to do better in the future. I’m going to try to be more of a son to you from now on.” When I hear those words, I’ll say something like this, “Son, I love you and I’m glad you feel bad about what you did and I know you want to do better in the future. But I want you to know that no matter what you do, you could never be more of a son to me than you are right now. Being my son has nothing to do with what you do or don’t do. You are my son by virtue of being a part of my family. Nothing you do can ever change that fact.” Think about that for a moment. If one of my boys should rebel against all that I have taught him, and if he should move to some distant place and change his name so that no one will know he is my son, and if he should adopt some way of life that is far removed from what I believe is right, I will be heartbroken and perhaps I will be angry, but no matter what he does, he will always be my son and I will always love him. Once a son, always a son. Nothing my boys can do can ever change that fact.
The same is true in our relationship with God. Our standing isn’t based on our performance. That’s good news because we all fail sooner or later. Our standing is based on God’s grace, which means it doesn’t depend on us. Once a child of God, always a child of God. We may do things that displease our Heavenly Father. If we persist in disobedience, we will be disciplined by the Lord. But that discipline, painful though it may be, comes to us because we are God’s children (see Hebrews 12:4-11). It is a mark of our salvation. We are disciplined because we are the children of God, not in order to stay in God’s family. Our standing is secure because it is not based on our performance.
II. Adoption Explained
Where did Paul get his concept of adoption? He did not get it from the Old Testament because there is not much about adoption in the Old Testament.
Legal adoption was not prescribed in Jewish law or practiced by the Israelites. In fact, the term “adoption” does not occur in the Old Testament. While there are several possible allusions to adoption, such as Moses (Exodus 2:10), Genubath (1 Kings 11:20), and Esther (Esther 2:7), the incidents recorded take place in foreign societies (Egyptian and Persian) and there is no evidence that legal adoptions were enacted (Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology).
When Paul talks about adoption, he is not referring back to the Old Testament. He is referring to the Roman law of his day. Wealthy childless couples often practiced adoption to provide a legal heir for their wealth. They would adopt a slave and bring him into their family so that their wealth could be passed on to another generation.
There are three keys to understanding Roman law regarding adoption.
1) The absolute right of the father.
Under Roman law fathers had absolute right over their entire estate. They had rights over all that they owned, and their children were considered to be their personal property. In fact, a father in ancient Rome had the power of life and death over his children and in the early days of the Roman Empire, if a father wanted to put his children to death, he could legally do it and nobody could say anything to him about it. So great was the power of a father under Roman law that the son would never be out from underneath his father’s authority as long as the father was alive. A son could be 70 years old and the father could be 93 years old, and under Roman law he was still under his father’s authority.
2) The right of the adopted son.
If a son was adopted into a new family, he was guaranteed legal rights to his father’s property. That is always one of the questions if you have biological children as well as adopted children. How will it all work in terms of the family inheritance? Roman law made it clear that an adopted child had exactly the same rights as all other children and no one could come before the adopted child–not the biological children and not other adopted children. He gained full inheritance rights with all the other children of the family.
3) The disappearance of the old life.
Adoption not only gave you a new name and a new family, it also mean your old life was gone forever. So complete was the transformation that if you were adopted into a new family and you had old debts, at the moment of adoption all those old debts were canceled, wiped away forever. The adopted son in Rome was regarded as a new person, entering a brand-new life.
Scholars tell us that the adopted son went through a very serious and impressive ceremony. Because the father had absolute power in that situation, if the biological father was going to give up his son for adoption, the biological father would go into a public place carrying copper and scales. He would three times go through an action that signified he was selling his son. The first time he would buy him back. The second time he would buy him back. The third time he would sell his son, but he wouldn’t buy him back. That would signify the father was giving up his absolute right over his son. Then the adopted father would go before the magistrate and present papers proving he had the right to adopt the son. (See The Sons of God for more detail.)
Here are the words of William Barclay:
It is Paul’s picture that when a man became a Christian he entered into the very family of God. He does nothing to deserve it. God, the great Father, in his amazing love and mercy, has taken the lost, helpless, poverty-stricken, debt-ladened sinner and adopted him into his own family, so that the debts are canceled and the glory inherited.
III. Adoption Distinguished
To speak of adoption in these terms leads to a logical question. Doesn’t the Bible say we are born into God’s family? The answer is yes (John 3:3; 1 Peter 1:3). If that is true, how can we be adopted?
Are we born again or are we adopted? The answer is yes.
Both are correct because we are both born again and adopted into God’s family. Here is the difference. The new birth establishes a new relationship with God. That is why Jesus said to Nicodemus, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again” (John 3:3 NIV). The new birth emphasizes how we come into God’s family—as helpless children who are born into the family only by God’s sovereign grace (John 1:13).
John Fok helps us understand the difference between adoption and other key salvation terms:
As the Greek word indicates, adoption (read Romans 8:15, 23; 9:4; Galatians 4:5; Ephesians 1:5) is literally “placing as a son.” Regeneration has to do with our change in nature; justification, with our change in standing; sanctification, with our change in character; adoption, with our change in position. According to Paul, the chief advantages of sonship are deliverance from the law (Galatians 4:3-5) and the possession of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of adoption and sonship (Galatians 4:6; cf. Romans 8:15f).
We are born into Gods family through the new birth and through adoption we are immediately advanced to a state of full privilege and responsibility. From the moment of salvation God treats us as full adults, not as little kids. The following chart makes the difference clear:
From Spiritual Death
Children needing growth
Full rights and privileges
When you graduate from a college or university, you receive a degree that is conferred with “all rights and privileges pertaining thereto.” It means that when you graduate, you get all the rights that go with having the degree.
When you become a citizen of the United States, you become a full citizen. There is no second class citizenship. If you are a citizen, you have the same rights any other citizen has. If you become a citizen, it doesn’t matter whether you were born in the United States or whether you are a naturalized citizen, by law the same rights apply to everyone. It is the same way in terms of adoption and the spiritual realm.
Adoption guarantees the following seven things to every believer:
1) You are a full member of God’s family.
2) You have full rights and privileges in heaven.
3) You have immediate access to God.
4) You belong to his family.
5) You bear his name.
6) You have a full share in the inheritance he promises his children.
7) Satan has no claim on you because you are no longer a part of his family and he is no longer your father.
IV. Adoption Applied
1) Adoption means that you have a new family. The old family is gone forever. The old master is gone forever. The old name is gone forever. God is your Father, the Lord Jesus is your Savior, and the Holy Spirit lives within you.
2) Adoption means that you have a new privilege. You have the same right as the oldest saints of God. In our world there are exclusive clubs with members dependent on who you know and how much money you have. There is a children’s membership, a family membership, associate membership, blue-level membership, green-level membership, silver-level membership and for the hoity-toity people on the top, there is a gold-level membership. But God only has one level of membership. Everyone who comes into the family of God comes in the same way because the ground is level at the foot of the cross. He only has one class. Everyone in God’s family has gold card standing. Everyone is born again. Everyone has full rights. Everyone is at the head of the class. Everyone comes in at the best possible level.
3) Adoption means you have a new responsibility. What God says to any believer he says to every believer. The same Holy Spirit who is given to the gray-haired Christian is given to the new Christian. No one need feel like a second class citizen. No believer can use that as an excuse. You can never say, “Well, I don’t want to read my Bible. I am just a new Christian.” That won’t wash with God. Nobody can say they can’t pray because they are just a new Christian. God will not accept that excuse. You can’t say you won’t testify for Christ because you have recently been born again and aren’t as good as those who have been saved for a long time. That is not a biblical thing to say because what God says to any of his children, he says to all his children. The responsibility that is laid on one is laid on all.
There are great advantages in being born again at an early age. If you have been saved for a long time, you ought to have a deeper understanding of God. You should be more skillful in walking by grace. But God does not give anything to the oldest saint of God that he doesn’t also give to the newest Christian. The moment you come to Jesus Christ, all the resources of heaven are put at your disposal.
What does all this mean?
You are rich now. Don’t live like a pauper.
You have the Holy Spirit. Don’t live in the flesh.
You have access to God. Use it.
You have brothers and sisters. Lean on them.
You have spiritual gifts. Put them to work for Christ.
You have been set free from Satan’s power. Don’t mess around with the devil anymore.
You have a new family. Stop living like you belong to your old one.
Earthly adoption offers a wonderful picture of God’s gift to us because for adoption to happen, the parents must be willing to do it and they must be able to do it. They must choose to do it. To those of you who are adopted, God bless you. To those of you who have adopted children, God bless you. Thank you for modeling for us what God’s great love really looks like.
If they understand this truth, adopted children can say, “Someone must have loved me very much.” Adoption never just happens. There is no such thing as an accidental adoption. It takes trouble, time, expense, effort, sweat, heartache and tears. Somebody has to open their heart and their home for children to be adopted. In the very same way, biblical adoption is only possible because God is willing to add more children to his family. That is one of the sweetest thoughts I have ever come across.
On earth, adoption gives a child a new name, a new home, a new address, a new history and a new destiny. The same is true with God’s adoption. It gives the child of God a new name, a new home, a new address, a new history and a new destiny. The poet Robert Frost defined home as “the place where, when you go there, they have to take you in.”
Brothers and sisters, God is our true Heavenly Father because he chose to add us to his family. Because of adoption, when we go to him, he always opens the door and says, “Welcome, my child. This is your home forever.” Amen.