Category Archives: Adoption

Adoption in Context

J. I. Packer rather famously wrote, “were I asked to focus the New Testament message in three words, my proposal would be adoption through propitiation, and I do not expect ever to meet a richer or more pregnant summary of the gospel than that” (Knowing God, 214). Adoption is precious, and that line from Packer is worth memorizing.

But there’s a much broader historical-redemptive context for understanding our adoption as David B. Garner explains in his excellent chapter, “The First and Last Son: Christology and Sonship in Pauline Soteriology,” published in Resurrection and Eschatology (P&R, 2008).

Here is Garner’s thick-and-rich-like-dark-chocolate conclusion. Best enjoyed in small bites:

Behind the creation of the cosmos—and most relevantly here, behind the creation of man—exists the archetypal, eternal sonship of Christ. Man, made in the image of God, a finite replica (ectype) of the eternal, ontologial Son (archetype), is, at creation, necessarily a son of God.

While the fall skewed sonship and alienated the relationship of the created son with the Father, just as man did not completely lose the divine image, he likewise did not lose the broad sense of his sonship. Still sons, but alienated and depraved, the first man and his progeny stood under the curse of their Creator/Father, and were in need of the judicial declaration of God to rectify their sonship status, and the redemptive power of God to restore their sonship constitution, indeed to vouchsafe their eschatological familial telos.

In view of the failure of the first son of God, the realization of this declaration and redeeming power by God’s grace came through the Last Adam, the Son of God par excellence, whose redemptive work provided the reversal of the curse on man and the attainment of adoption for the fallen sons of Adam. In Christ, created sons of Adam become the adopted sons of God.

While the entire redemptive-historical development and realization of redemptive sonship organically derive from his messianic sonship, Christ’s pre-temporal constitution plays the prior, ultimate role. In fact, all biblical sonship flows from an anterior, ontological principium—the eternal Son of God, in whom the ectypal, typological, and antitypical sonships find their raison d’être.

This principium of christological sonship unites the sonships of Adam, of Israel, of the incarnate Christ, and of the eschatologically adopted believer in covenantal, redemptive-historical continuity. The first Adam finitely replicates the First Son; the Last Adam fulfills the telos of the first created son. In this way, Christ is not only the eternal Son, he is also the archetypal Adam. Further, by his covenantal obedience as the Last Adam, he became the glorious, exalted, eschatological Son of God in power (Rom. 1:4).

We see therefore in Pauline soteriology an exhaustively christological cast, wherein the filial, ontological, and redemptive-historical are securely tethered in Christ the Son of God, the Source, Epicenter, and Consummator of all reality. He is the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End, the First Son and the Last. (279)

Adoption: Legal and Relational

Michael Horton, in his book Covenant and Salvation: Union with Christ, makes the point that the believer’s spiritual adoption carries both a relational emphasis and also a forensic/legal emphasis. “Before orphans can enjoy the love and care of a new family,” he writes, “they must be legally adopted” (248). Good point. Sometimes folks like us—who rightfully emphasize the forensic side of justification—can view God as a distant and impersonal Judge who does no more than declare the wicked innocent in a cold courtroom. Innocence and righteousness before that Judge is a gift of incredible grace, but it’s not the whole story. Justification entails a relational aspect that can go neglected. This harmony between the legal and the relational aspects of salvation is a harmony displayed in spiritual adoption. “Adoption, like justification, is simultaneously legal and relational” (247).

Justification and Adoption: Sermon excerpt from C.J. Mahaney

I want to point you to an excellent sermon on Galatians 4:1-7 by C.J. Mahaney, titled God as Father: Understanding the Doctrine of Adoption. Here is one particularly helpful excerpt on the connection and distinctions between justification and adoption:

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cjmahaney.jpg… Notice God’s purpose was both to redeem and to adopt — “to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (v. 5).

I’m sure you will agree that redeeming us from slavery to sin and the penalty of sin would have been sufficiently astounding. But God’s purpose did not conclude with redemption, it culminated with adoption. He made slaves into sons through the death of His Son. And here in this phrase, and this passage, we encounter the deepest insights into the greatness of God’s love!

Now, historically in Covenant Life Church and Sovereign Grace Ministries, we have taught more on the doctrine of justification than we have on adoption. I don’t think we should ever teach less on the doctrine of justification. I do think we should teach more on the doctrine of adoption. Actually, the doctrine of justification must always remain primary because all saving benefits depend on justification by faith alone, through grace alone, in Christ alone. One can’t understand adoption apart from justification. Adoption depends on justification. Grasping justification positions us to fully appreciate adoption.

There are those who speak about the Fatherhood of God without reference to the Cross or the doctrine of justification. We cannot, we should not, and we must not, speak of the Fatherhood of God apart from the Cross and apart from the doctrine of justification.

So with those qualifying remarks let us distinguish between justification and adoption without separating justification and adoption. Let’s distinguish between them because they are not the same thing.

Understanding the differences is of critical importance to experiencing adoption. Dr. J.I. Packer helps us understand the difference and has written the following helpful remarks:

“That justification – by which we mean God’s forgiveness of the past, together with his acceptance for the future – is the primary and fundamental blessing of the gospel is not in question. Justification is the primary blessing, because it meets our primary spiritual need. We all stand by nature under God’s judgment; his law condemns us; guilt gnaws at us, making us restless, miserable, and in our lucid moments afraid; we have no peace in ourselves because we have no peace with our Maker. So we need the forgiveness of our sins, and assurance of a restored relationship with God, more than we need anything else in the world; and this the gospel offers us before it offers us anything else. … But contrast this, now, with adoption. Adoption is a family idea, conceived in terms of love, and viewing God as father. In adoption, God takes us into his family and fellowship – he establishes us as his children and heirs. Closeness, affection and generosity are at the heart of the relationship. To be right with God the Judge is a great thing, but to be loved and cared for by God the Father is a greater” [Knowing God, pp. 206, 207].

I love that last sentence – “To be right with God the Judge is a great thing.” I just want to say it is indeed “a great thing” to be right with God the Judge through the person and work of Jesus Christ. It is “a great thing” to be forgiven of sin. It is “a great thing” to be freed from fear of future wrath. It is “a great thing” to know this day that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. It is “a great thing” to know that on the final day there is no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus. To be right with God the Judge – that is “a great thing”!

But to be loved and cared for by God the Father is greater. Now they are inseparable. There is no greater apart from the great. The great precedes the greater. But it’s possible to understand the great and not comprehend and live in the good of the greater.

And if you are right with God the Judge — through the person and work of Jesus Christ — let me just say that is a “great thing”! But as incomprehensible as it is, there is something greater. The greater is to be loved and cared for by God the Father. That’s the greater. This is part of Paul’s burden in this passage, that we not only experience the great (“redeemed”) but the greater (“adoption”).

Do the words closeness, affection, and generosity describe your perception and experience of God? Do they? If not, perhaps you are more aware of your sin than you are the adopting grace of God.

In order to experience more of the love of God, the affection of God, the closeness of God, the generosity of God, I want to recommend that for a season you study the doctrine of adoption until you are assured and secure in the love of God. If you are unfamiliar with the gift of adoption, I want to encourage you to restrict your spiritual diet (if necessary and for a season) to this topic so that you might experience the greatness of God’s love. If you are a Christian and you are not convinced of God’s love for you then I would recommend you confine yourself to this topic. Confine yourself to your study to this passage and other passages that reference adoption. Confine yourself for a season of time to the study of the doctrine of adoption. Immerse yourself in extended study.

– C.J. Mahaney, sermon, “God as Father: Understanding the Doctrine of Adoption” (Dec. 2, 2007) 34:08-41:35.

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Shortly thereafter, C.J. recommended the following books for extended study:

I encourage you to listen to the full sermon audio here:


Or download the sermon MP3 here.

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