Sonship vs. adoption

By | November 22, 2017

Perhaps it is appropriate here to comment generally on the biblical concept of sonship insofar as it relates to the notion of incorporation. The Bible version quoted in this post (Recovery Version) renders the Greek word υἱοθεσία (huiothesia) as ‘sonship’ (Rom. 8:15, 23; 9:4; Gal. 4:5; Eph 1:5), in distinction to most other English versions, which render the word as ‘adoption’ or some variant thereof. The majority rendering is natural enough, in that conceptually it is not easy to understand how God can make human beings His sons except through some declaratory or legal way. Further, Paul uses the term in a few places (Rom. 8:23; 9:4) with reference to one of the legal benefits of being sons, that is, inheritance. But the question is: Is the legal concept of adoption in full accord with what the New Testament says about the way God makes human beings His sons? Happily, it does not seem to be, for there are at least two particular New Testament truths related to the believers as the sons of God which are not adequately conveyed by the concept of adoption: the divine birth of the believers and the incorporation of the Son and the Spirit of the Son in the believers. While a full examination of the truth related to the divine birth is beyond the theme of this study, it is perhaps sufficient to note here that the New Testament clearly teaches that human beings become the children of God through an organic process, not a legal one. They are said to be born anew, born of the Spirit, begotten of God, regenerated, and that of incorruptible seed (John 1:13; 3:3-8; Titus 3:5; James 1:18, 21; 1 Pet. 1:3, 23; 1 John 2:29; 3:9; 4:7; 5:1, 4, 18). Thus, there is an organic reality which underlies the believers’ identity as children and sons of God, a reality based in the divine life of God and actuated through the divine birth that the believers experience at regeneration. Unlike an adoption in any usual sense of the term, the believers’ becoming the children of God is through birth and by life, that is, the divine life of God the Father in the Son through the Holy Spirit. Further, what God the Father does in begetting human beings as His sons testifies to His generative function as Father, not to an inability to have children, as adoption in any usual sense of the term does. Personally, I find the concept that God adopts children a bit at odds with the reality of His eternal paternity. God is eternally the Father and eternally able to give life as a Father; thus, to say that His believers are His adopted sons is awkward and not in line with His genuine Fatherhood. Of course, the notion of adoption fits the natural concept of many Christian teachers because in point of fact the human beings who become sons of God are already in existence when they are made His sons and do not come into existence as created beings through the act of being made His sons. Adoption is the act of making someone (who obviously has already been born of someone else) a legal child and heir of the adoptive parents; what the adoptee is naturally and organically is not affected by the legal action. But here again the notion of adoption is at odds with the truth of the New Testament because through God’s salvation every believer becomes a new creation in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17) and enjoys the new life of God. While each believer has come into physical existence through his or her natural birth by earthly parents, what each believer is in Christ is in reality something newly created according to the divine life of God, and thus each believer indeed has a genuine birth. Thus, in God’s salvation every believer is affected both naturally and organically; a new life—the divine life of God—and a new nature are imparted, and every believer is a new creation. Sadly, those who insist on an adoptive relationship with God must either deny or ignore the reality of the believers being born of God by His divine life and becoming a new creation in Christ. But let us be clear that according to the teaching of the New Testament God does not adopt human beings of the old creation to be His sons but rather regenerates them with His divine life to make them each a new creation in His Son and genuinely—that is, according to His own life and nature—His children and sons.
In addition to the divine life with its nature that makes the believers genuine sons of God, there is also the Spirit as the reality of the Son within the believers, and further, this Spirit constantly witnesses and attests to their genuine sonship in Christ. This is a sonship that goes beyond that which natural human children experience in relation to their parents. As natural-born children of human parents, at most we can say that we have the life and nature of our parents. The same is true of the children of God, as we have said above. But with the sons of God there is a far deeper reality involved because they have not only the life and nature of God but also the very Son of God within them, made real by the Spirit who indwells them. As children of our human parents, we cannot say that we have anything more of our parents than their life and nature, but as sons of God, we can say that we have not only the divine life and nature but also the divine Son in the divine Spirit as the reality of our sonship. The Spirit bears the reality of the Son in the sons of God, and He also constantly bears witness to this genuine sonship in Christ. Human adoptees, if they know that they are adopted, live with the constant sense that they are not natural children of their adoptive parents. This may not matter practically, as adoptive parents generally love their adopted children as much as they would natural ones. But the natural and organic identity cannot be loved into existence and may from time to time betray the actual relationship, even in adopted children who do not know that they are adopted. Unlike adopted children, the believers have a constant inner witness, from God the Spirit Himself, that they are sons of God. And this witness is not simply testimonial; it is an incorporation of the Spirit as the reality of the Son of God in the believers. On the one hand, the Spirit is within them, crying, “Abba, Father!” as the reality of the Son (Gal. 4:6), but on the other hand, they incorporate the Spirit as the reality of the Son within them, and they themselves cry, “Abba, Father!” as sons of God in reality (Rom. 8:15). They are sons of God by incorporation into the unique Son of God. Thus, the believers are genuinely sons of God, not adopted at all, because they have been born of God, possess His divine life and nature, are new creations in Christ, incorporate the unique Son of God inwardly, and bear the Spirit’s operation to testify inwardly to their sonship. When they cry, “Abba, Father!” inwardly, they cry as genuine sons of God and not as adopted ones. There is no adoption in God’s economy, and neither should we understand Paul’s use of the Greek word υἱοθεσία (huiothesia) as pointing to adoption.

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