I only ever did one adoption as an attorney, but I vividly remember preparing the parents before the hearing. As they stood before the judge, I wanted them to get the right answer to one question, a question likely to throw them for a loop. "Why do you want to adopt this child?" In the heat of the moment, with a judge staring at you, any number of reasons can flood into the mind. Which one is the right one? Which answer is the judge looking for? Often, people try to outthink the judge or give him the answer they think he is looking for. As I prepared these parents, I asked them this question. I cannot remember what they said. I do remember the advice I was taught to give. The answer every judge looks for. You adopt out of love.
Adoption plays an important role in the biblical story of redemption. From the first family, the Lord promises a split of people, as the seed of the woman would be at enmity with the serpent. (Genesis 3:15) Abraham was set apart as the family of faith into whom many would be ingrafted. Paul would speak of adoption as a part of the application of redemption in Galatians and Ephesians. "But when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, to redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons." (Galatians 4:4-5) God sent His Son into the world that we might become His sons through adoption. In Ephesians, Paul writes, "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath blessed us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ: according as he hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love: having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of the glory of his grace, wherein he hath made us accepted in the beloved." (Ephesians 1:3-6) We were chosen as His sons before the foundation of the world and adopted in the fullness of time.
Adoption denotes the changing of familial relationship. Before adoption, we were part of one family and after part of another. This means that before our conversion, we were part of the family of sin but God brought us into the family of God. Part of our concept of identity, who we are has fundamentally changed in adoption.
This doctrine brings with it great joy. Paul writes about adoption much in Romans 8.
"The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God: and if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together." (Romans 8:16-17)
Paul describes adoption as that which makes us heirs of the riches that Christ possesses. The glorified life promises great wealth and power, as great as that of the humanity of the Son.
Paul earlier spoke of adoption as that which encourages us to live different from the dead works of the world.
"Therefore, brethren, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live after the flesh. For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live. For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God. For ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father."
Here, adoption is listed as the reason that we cannot live like we used to.
Reformed Christianity recently endured another controversy regarding the conflict between so-called "legalism" and "antinomianism." This conflict did not initially appear in the present moment, but can trace its origin as far back as the early church. Reformed theology added to the confusion as the discussion generally concerns the theological issues of justification and sanctification. As it applies to our study, we will not address these two doctrines as separate studies, for their content appears elsewhere. Justification appears in our discussion of the gospel. Sanctification constitutes the totality of this series. After all, the process of sanctification involves learning to live Christian in an unchristian world.
Returning to the battle regarding sanctification, the true issue is the confusion between justification, adoption, and sanctification. These three doctrine form the core of our understanding of what benefits we receive from Christ our mediator. To understand adoption, we must understand it in context of the other two.
To begin, we return to the Westminster standards, and specifically, the Shorter Catechism. These simpler definitions will help us form the contextual picture. According to the catechism, "Justification is an act of God’s free grace, wherein he pardoneth all our sins, and accepteth us as righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone." (WSC 33) Notice three elements we have already mentioned. Justification is an act, a one time, never to be repeated, event. It is forensic, having to do with the judgment of God regarding us, declaring us righteous. It is based on imputation, Christ's righteousness imputed to us and our sin imputed to Him, by faith.
In contrast, the Catechism summarizes sanctification with the following definition. "Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness." In contrast to justification, which is an act, sanctification is a work, a process, something that takes time to improve. Whereas justification is the act of God alone, sanctification is based on the activity of God but also involves the work of man. Finally, justification is a declaration of righteousness, but sanctification is the practical working of righteousness.
In the battles that rage, many who assert the necessity of the law focus on the absolute distinction between justification and sanctification. Those who focus on the subordinate role of the law discuss the interrelationship between justification and sanctification. What I am afraid both sides forget is the significance adoption plays in the interstices between justification and sanctification. I assert that without adoption the law tends towards legalism and without adoption grace tends toward antinomianism.
What then is this critical doctrine? We return to the Shorter Catechism. "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." Notice that like justification, adoption is also a once for all act of God alone. This act makes us part of God's family with all rights and privileges appertaining thereto. In summary, we could say that justification is the judicial part of redemption, sanctification is the practical pare of redemption, and adoption is the relational part of redemption. Justification is an act that judicially makes us righteous. Sanctification is a process that makes us more righteous. Adoption is an act that makes us one of the family of the righteous.
Here is where adoption plays such a critical role in the controversy regarding sanctification. If one eliminates it, you lose the context of the law and the motivation of grace. The law was given to the people of God, not as the way to obtain God's favor, not as the means of retaining God's favor, but as instructions for life to those who eternally have God's favor. God will not eject His own from His family. We obey the law not out of fear of abandonment, but for joy of our acceptance. The law is no heinous imposition to spoil our fun. It is no set of hoops to jump through for a peaceful life. It is the household code, defining the rules of God's family.
Think of the law this way. Humanity was created in holiness, which we lost in the fall. In Christ, we have been redeemed from the fall. We have been promised the restoration of that pre-fall life. The law describes the new life we have. The law describes who we are as Eden restored. How can we ignore the law? How can we not love the law, seen in this light? The law is our dearest friend as it describes what we have in Christ.
Adoption reminds us that living in an unchristian world requires an element of separation. This world is not our home. That is to say, that we are not a part of the family of fallen humanity anymore. We are strangers to them, as we should be. We cannot think that the rules of the world will fit with the law of God. We will ever struggle with the different. We will ever face the temptation to revert to our old family ways. Adoption reminds us that we are not of this world and must live different.
Adoption also motivates us to this new life. We don't have to seek the approval of the world. We no longer have to march to their tune lest they reject us. We are rejected of the world, yet eternally accepted in Christ. We long to live authentically Christian, authentically human because we are new in Him.
Adoption gives us the freedom to live for others because we no longer have to live for ourselves. Living Christian in an unchristian world demands a lack of self-centeredness. As we have already seen, we are called upon to love our neighbor in the way the God' has loved us. We can do this because adoption reminds us that the relationship we have with God never changes. We ever will be His children. In this assurance, we can spend our lives for others. We can love others secure that we are loved by God.