Theology from the Couch, a recent online event from Western Australia, featured a talk from Clare Deeves on the blessing of being adopted as God’s child in Christ. She was kind enough to let Essentials rework it into an article.
In the Lord’s Prayer Jesus teaches his disciples to pray, ‘Our Father in heaven’, and in Ephesians 1 we read that in love God the Father ‘predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will.’ There is a stunning change of place involved in this adoption. Think of what we were before God adopted us (whether we knew it or not): deserving of wrath, far away, without God and without hope in the world, slaves to sin. And it is God’s pleasure and will to adopt us! Now we may—and should!—call God our Father, and take our place with him, as his.
To more deeply understand and appreciate this, let’s reflect on three questions. First, why did this happen? Second, how did it happen? And third, what does it mean for us? Ephesians 1 gives us something to chew on when it says that God ‘chose us in him before the creation of the world’. That is, our adoption was God’s choice, God’s initiative. You know that in adoption the initiative lies with the adopting parents: they decide whether to adopt and whom to adopt. No child can insist on it. And so too, we were adopted because God decided to adopt, and to adopt us: ‘he predestined us for adoption.’ And he did it in love, for to love is his good pleasure and will: God was just pleased to do it: it was according to his pleasure; it was his love for us. God chose you because he loves you and wants you to be his child. It wasn’t an accident nor was he surprised by what he got. He knew who he was choosing when he chose you.
When it comes to how it happens, Ephesians 1 tells us that happens in Christ. Every spiritual blessing comes to us ‘in Christ’, including our adoption, for he chose us ‘in him’, that is, in Christ, and our adoption to sonship is ‘through Jesus Christ’. Adoption comes to us the same way as our redemption and forgiveness, namely, as we are united to Christ by faith, and are found ‘in him’. There is no other way to be adopted as God’s child. We only receive this blessing in Christ. And every Christian has it: if you are in Christ you are God’s loved, adopted child. That’s how it happens.
So, third, what does it mean? What does adoption bring? Romans 8 will help us here, especially verse 15:
The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.”
Adoption delivers us from any reason we have to fear God, and into an open and intimate relationship with God. There’s more than a hint here of the hardship of slavery. The spirit of that master-slave relationship has a big streak of fear running through it. But we’re not slaves of God, meaning that we are not in a relationship marked by fear. There is a right awe of God and reverence for him as God, but this is not the fear felt by a slave whose wellbeing lies in their master’s power. Rather, the spirit of our relationship with God is the intimacy of a child with a perfect father. The word Abba was a word used by children (whether young or grown) to address their fathers. It’s probably best translated by something like ‘Dearest Father’ It is both intimate and respectful. We cry out to God, ‘Abba’, Father. We approach God, we turn to him for help as children do. Now, human parents don’t have the power that kids think they do and not everything a kid wants is a good thing. But when we cry out to God as our Father we are crying out to one who is absolutely in control and who is completely wise and does know the best answer to our requests. To cry out in prayer with all our fear and pain and worries is a right way to pray because God is our Father.
Elsewhere the New Testament teaches that we have other things from God because he is our Father—things like protection, provision, discipline and the expectation of an inheritance. Further down in Romans 8 we see that we have God’s ultimate protection—that nothing in all of creation can separate us from his love. In Matthew 6 we see God’s provision; we’re assured that the Father who clothes the grass of the field knows what we need too. In Hebrews 12 the author says that God disciplines those who are his children. He helps us grow to maturity, making us holy. God also gives us an inheritance. ‘Now if we are children, then we are heirs – heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ’ says Romans 8:17. We have a glorious hope, a share in God’s kingdom, a place in the new creation.
Our adoption means that we have a Father God who does the things that we associate with a loving, capable Father and part of our response to that is simply to enjoy that relationship, to rest in it and know ourselves to be loved and not just watched and weighed by God. There was a time for me when I think I thought God’s main concern was that I do the right thing. That I live the right way. Although I did see him as a merciful God, I saw him primarily as the Rule Keeper (which wasn’t a very personal sense of God to have). It was coming to understand him as Father that most changed the way I related to him. I don’t know how you see God. But he’s not harsh or distant or inaccessible. He’s not against us. He presents himself to us as our Father. And our first response to being adopted ought to be to make the most of that.
But that is not all our adoption means for us. Exactly because our adoption is real and personal, because we really are members of God’s household, there is a certain way that we live that testifies to whom we belong. As Paul says, ‘those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God.’ (Rom 8:14). Being Spirit-led and being a child of God go together. If you see someone who is led by the Spirit, that’s a child of God. If you’re a child of God, you’re led by the Spirit, and the Spirit leads us to ‘put to death the misdeeds of the body’ (Rom 8:13). The Spirit leads us to do what is right, and to live in love. As John writes in 1 John 3:10;
This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are: Anyone who does not do what is right is not God’s child, nor is anyone who does not love their brother and sister.
Just as our human families have particular ways of doing things, so having God as our Father ought to lead to a particular way of living, God’s way of righteousness and love, which is itself the blessing of being adopted by such a wise and holy Father.
A last implication of our adoption is our sisterhood and brotherhood with our fellow Christians. Since we have all been adopted by the one Father, then all Christians are our brothers and sisters. The church is not striving to be like a family, rather the church is a family and we’re doing a better or worse job of loving each other. Part of what we get when we’re adopted is one another, and that’s not meant to be the downside; that’s part of the blessing of being adopted. The main way our family relationships will be played out is in the context of our local churches. There we are involved in one another’s lives and can love each other practically, encourage each other, give and seek wise counsel, teach one another, rejoice with one another and grieve with one another.
Our adoption by God transforms the way we think about our relationship with God and our relationships with one another. If we let it, knowledge of our adoption brings a new richness to those relationships. To live by faith is to trust that our adoption by our heavenly Father, through Christ is real. To live by faith is to be led by the Spirit to live out of this incomparable new status we have received as God’s beloved child.