The Message of Jesus: Our Adoption As God’s Children

In joyous praise the apostle Paul writes of our salvation in Jesus Christ:

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will—to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves (Ephesians 1:3-6).

Here Paul examines our salvation in Christ as one might scrutinize a masterfully cut diamond. He first pauses to appreciate the grandeur of the entire gem. Then he re-focuses to examine the masterwork of the gem’s individual facets.

For Paul, the grand organizing principle of salvation is our union with Christ. More precisely, it is the divine life, which flows from that union.1 In Paul’s words, it is the gracious gift of our God, who being “rich in mercy” has “made us alive with Christ… ” (Ephesians 2:4-5a). Paul is careful never to lose sight of this integrated whole of our salvation. But he is also interested in examining the individual facets that together reveal the full nature of our life in Christ. One such facet is our adoption as God’s children.2

In examining this topic, I acknowledge an inherent danger. That danger is that we might over-objectify salvation by focusing on one of its component parts. In so doing, we risk stripping salvation of its essential oneness and splendor. Each facet of salvation is part of a unified and unifying whole (the new life in Christ) and must never be thought of in isolation. With this note of caution, we will now examine a particularly glorious facet of our new life in Christ—our adoption to become God’s children.

Biblical background outside Paul’s writings

In the New Testament, direct and specific discussions of “adoption” (using the Greek wordhuiothesia)3 are limited to Paul’s writings.4 The concept, however, is found in other New Testament authors and also in the Old Testament.

In the Hebrew Scriptures, we find limited and only indirect references to adoption. This is probably because in Israelite law, there was no provision for adoption per se.5 Orphans were provided for not through adoption but through extended family assistance. There are, however, a few references to adoption-like circumstances in the Old Testament. These tend to be in circumstances where slaves became heirs of the “adopting” owner (see Genesis 15:1-4 [Eliezer], Exodus 2:10 [Moses], Proverbs 17:2 [a slave of unknown identity]). We will see later how Paul picks up this slave-becoming-son idea in speaking of the adoption of believers. We also note in the Old Testament an awareness that God chose the nation of Israel to be his “son” (see Exodus 4:22, Hosea 11:1; Isaiah 1:2; Jeremiah 3:19).6 It seems that this concept of Israel as God’s son is taken up by Paul when he notes of Israel that “theirs is the adoption as sons” (Romans 9:4).

In the New Testament, though we don’t find the word adoption outside the Pauline writings, we do find the related theme of sonship. In his Systematic Theology, 19th century theologian John Miley notes that in the Gospel of John…

To be born of God is to be born into his family, and to become his child. Sonship is thus immediately from regeneration…. “But as many as received him, to them he gave the power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name: which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.”7

The idea of a new birth is prevalent in both John’s and Paul’s writings. Perhaps it is a theme borrowed directly from Jesus—the Gospel of John tells us that Jesus spoke with Nicodemus of a new birth (John 3:1-8). Being born of God implies that the believer becomes his child. In that respect, we learn (at least by inference) that those who are regenerated by the new birth in the Spirit become God’s children in a new and unique sense.

Uniquely God’s children?

But one might object, are not all people God’s “children”? As Miley notes, Adam and all his descendants are indeed God’s children, but only from the perspective of creation.8 In a spiritual sense, however, it is a different matter. Jesus confronted those who did not believe in him, saying that they would believe in him and would love him “if God were your father” (John 8:42). The inference, of course, is that God was not their father. This inference is made explicit when Jesus says further, “you belong to your father the devil” (John 8:44).

Oden, noting Jesus’ assertion, comments that the related scriptural teaching about God’s unique Fatherhood of believers has, unfortunately been…

preempted by a thinner modern version of the “father[mother]hood of God and the brother[sister]hood of humanity” that denies the history of corrupted freedom and, in the interest of tolerance, romanticizes human innate goodness.

This view promotes a distorted vision of the family of God, as if human creation had never actually fallen, so as to remove any need for rebirth from above. Though modernity clings desperately to the belief that we are by nature children of God, postmodern Christianity knows that we are “by nature children of wrath” (Ephesians 2:3, KJV). It is only by the grace of adoption that we become children of God “through faith in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:26).9

Theologian J.I. Packer makes a similar point in his classic book, Knowing God:

What is a Christian? The question can be answered in many ways, but the richest answer I know is that a Christian is one who has God as Father.

But cannot this be said of every person, Christian or not? Emphatically no! The idea that all are children of God is not found in the Bible anywhere. The Old Testament shows God as the Father, not of all, but of his own people, the seed of Abraham…. The New Testament has a world vision, but it too shows God as the Father, not of all, but of those who, knowing themselves to be sinners, put their trust in the Lord Jesus Christ as their divine sin-bearer and master, and so become Abraham’s spiritual seed…. Sonship to God is not, therefore, a universal status into which everyone enters by natural birth, but a supernatural gift which one receives through receiving Jesus…. The gift of sonship to God becomes ours not through being born, but through being born again.10

The uniqueness of the Fatherhood of God for those who are in Christ thus seems to be an important theme in the New Testament and one also foreshadowed through Israel’s experience in the Old. For humans to be reunited with God in this filial relationship there must be a new birth. The idea of the new birth and the Fatherhood of God are thus important scriptural backdrops to Paul’s idea of adoption.

The Roman cultural context

In addition to the aforementioned biblical context for Paul’s teaching on adoption, commentators generally agree that there is an important secular-cultural context that also influences Paul’s thinking. Paul was masterful in adapting his gospel to his audience. He never compromised the content of that gospel, though he adapted the language. The metaphor of adoption seems to be one such adaptation for the sake of effectiveness in communicating the gospel.11

In the Greco-Roman culture of Paul’s day, adoption was common, particularly among the upper class, where it was often used to gain political and/or economic advantage.12 Several Roman emperors adopted men who were not blood relatives for the purpose of conferring upon them certain authority and other privileges.13

The law of adoption held as its basic premise that a father had near absolute legal authority over his child (patria potestas).14 That authority extended to the power of life and death and continued as long as the father was alive, no matter the age of the child. Thus children were viewed in law as the possession of and under the absolute power of the father.

Because of the seriousness of this parental authority, adoption was a significant and solemn legal transaction. As was often the case, a Roman man of wealth and prominence might want to adopt a young man in order to elevate that young man to a position of prominence. But for that to happen, the absolute authority and power of the birth father over the son had to be transferred to the adoptive father. This transference occurred symbolically in an impressive two-part ceremony of adoptio.15 During the course of adoptio, the birth father would first symbolically sell and then buy his son back two times, but after selling him a third time he would not buy him back—this symbolized the breaking of the authority and ownership rights of the birth father. In the second step, the adopting father went to a Roman magistrate and presented the legal case for the transference of the rights of the son from his birth father to the adopting father. With that, the adoption was complete.

Roman adoption did not confer an inferior form of sonship. Rather, an adopted son had all the rights and privileges of a natural-born son. It is this legal-cultural view of adoption, along with the Old Testament ideas of fatherhood and sonship, that seem to be in Paul’s view when he picks up adoption as a metaphor to illuminate salvation.

Paul is using the idea of adoption as a metaphor—an analogy that serves as a useful teaching tool. He is using adoption as a parable in the rabbinical tradition followed by Jesus himself. And just as we are careful not to read too much into the details of Jesus’ parables, we exercise caution when interpreting the details of Paul’s parable-like teaching regarding our adoption as God’s children.

That Paul uses the concept of adoption as a literary device rather than as a literal truth is substantiated by noting that whenever he uses it, he does so to make a point about something else. In particular, he introduces the idea in order to contrast our new position “in Christ” with our position before our new birth. We’ll now look at each use of the concept.19

Romans 8:15, 23

In the passage that includes these two verses, Paul uses the concept of adoption to emphasize our new relationship with God. The passage begins in Romans 8:1-2, where Paul notes, “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death.” Paul here takes up a familiar theme wherein he conceptualizes salvation as being set free from an oppressive master—in this case the “law of sin and death,” which bears with it slavery to fear (verse 15).

We are set free from this condemnation and slavery when we receive the Holy Spirit (verse 9). This same Spirit raised Jesus from the dead and is thus fully able to give us new life (verse 11). Now set free, we move from being slaves who are “dead,” to being “sons of God” who are truly alive (verse 14). The life-giving Spirit who accomplishes this is the “Spirit of sonship” (NIV) or the “Spirit of adoption” (KJV). With this new status we are enabled and privileged to call God Abba, an Aramaic word used affectionately for one’s human father.

This new status and privilege of sonship is now ours because we are “in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). In this new status, Jesus’ Father becomes our Father (see, for example, John 20:7). And our relationship with the Father can be like the relationship Jesus has with him—so personal and intimate that we, like Jesus, can call God Abba (Mark 14:36).

Note in this passage that being God’s child by adoption is a status that contrasts with being a slave. This comparison reminds us of the Old Testament era practice of adopting slaves. It also reminds us of the Roman practice of rewarding favored slaves with adoption, thus conferring upon them the privileges of sonship, including the rights of inheritance. As believers we are said to be co-heirs with God’s eternal Son Jesus (8:17).

Lest we think that adoption is an event that occurs only in this life, Paul notes that we endure certain sufferings in the present, looking forward to “our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (8:23). As Paul frequently does with other aspects of salvation, he sees adoption as having past, present and future implications. Though we are now God’s children in certain ways (8:16), we still look forward to the full outworking of our adoption when, in the resurrection, our salvation will be complete in the glorification of our bodies.

Calvin speaks of adoption in this future context, noting if there is no resurrection “… the power of the Gospel would be totally lost: there would be no adoption and no final salvation.”20 Contemporary theologian P.H. Davids makes a similar point:

Adoption…is not entirely a past event. The legal declaration may have been made, and the Spirit may have been given as a down payment, but the consummation of the adoption awaits the future, for the adoption of sons includes “the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:23). Thus adoption is something hoped for as well as something already possessed.21

Because of these and other nuances of Paul’s use of the adoption metaphor, we should be cautious about pushing the details too far and thus being too specific and thus overly limiting in our conceptions regarding the place of adoption in the scheme and order of salvation. Paul himself does not try to find a specific place for it when he offers an “order of salvation” just a few verses further into Romans 8. In his list he includes foreknowing, predestining, calling, justifying and glorifying of the saints (vs. 28-30); he does not try to place adoption as a distinct step in that sequence.

Romans 9:4

In this passage, as noted earlier, Paul picks up the idea of Israel as God’s son, noting of Israel that “theirs is the adoption as sons” (Romans 9:4b). Paul is not implying here the transference of sonship from Israel to the church. Rather he is making a point about God’s continuing election and affection with regard to Israel, who, for the time being, has rejected her Messiah.

 Galatians 4:5

There are distinct similarities between Paul’s use of adoption in Galatians and his use of the metaphor in Romans 8. We again see the slave-son contrast. The passage begins in Galatians 3:26, where Paul addresses Gentile Christians in particular (note the use of “you” when he is speaking to Gentile Christians as compared to the use of “we” when he is addressing Jewish Christians).

He says to those who did not know the true God at all (Gentiles) that they are now “sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:26). This new sonship is by virtue of their inclusion in Christ (3:28). Moreover, in Christ, they are set free (“redeemed,” 4:5a) and given “full rights of sons” (4:5b). No longer slaves, but now sons (4:7a), they are indwelt by the Spirit who calls out in and through them “Abba, Father” (4:6b). With this sonship, which is theirs by adoption (see the KJV translation of 4:5), they are given rights of inheritance (4:7b).

In Galatians, Paul is making his point about a believer’s new status in Christ using the imagery of adoption in order to counter the false teaching of the Galatian Judaizers. Their goal is to turn believers (Jew or Gentile) to the Torah as their rule for living. Paul counteracts the Judaizing teachers by reminding the believers that their status as God’s children is conferred separate from Torah observance. He reminds them to seek a right relationship with God their Father through the Spirit, not through observing Torah regulations.

Ephesians 1:5

In Ephesians, Paul makes a passing reference to adoption, noting that God, the Father of Jesus Christ (1:3) has “predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ” (1:5a). Our status as adopted sons is conferred on us because we are in Christ, who is uniquely God’s eternal and preeminent Son.

Further, Paul assures Christians in Ephesus of God’s Fatherly concern and care—for it is his “pleasure and will” that we should have this privilege (1:5b). For Paul, adoption as God’s children is thus far more than an impersonal forensic transaction. God places the redeemed into a relationship with Christ, and so doing lavishes on them his Fatherly care with attendant privileges.

Moreover, Paul notes that it is no accident that we are adopted as God’s children. He chose us in a deeply personal way—a way beautifully expressed through the use of the metaphor of adoption. Paul is able, however, to make similar points without referring to adoption. He does so in the book of Colossians, which closely parallels the content of Ephesians. Paul exults:

[Give] thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light. For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves (Col. 1:12-13).

Paul emphasizes our inheritance rights and our rescue, but no mention need be made here of adoption.


As we consider Paul’s use of the concept of adoption we note that his purposes are primarily apologetic. He wishes to establish and defend the position that believers have in Christ. He wishes to establish in a positive way the great benefits that are theirs. And he wishes to defend them from heresies that would diminish or demean those benefits. In particular, as we saw in both Romans and Galatians, Paul wishes for believers to understand and protect the freedoms they have in Christ. He does so by emphasizing their status as children as over against slaves. And he encourages them to highly value and protect that status with all that it confers upon them—particularly their inheritance rights.

Throughout Paul’s apologetic defenses he also asserts God’s tender and fatherly concern for his adopted children. In this way Paul turns an apologetic purpose into an opportunity for pastoral encouragement. J.I. Packer notes this purpose:

To those who are Christ’s, the holy God is a loving Father; they belong to his family; they may approach him without fear and always be sure of his fatherly concern and care. This is the heart of the New Testament message.22

That Paul would choose to speak of God becoming our Father via the mechanism of adoption seems to have no greater significance than the useful connotations it bears in the historic-cultural-scriptural setting of Paul’s day. But that God becomes the Father of all who are brought into union with Christ is of great importance to understanding and experiencing our salvation. Perhaps this is nowhere more true than when we are in the midst of trials. Indeed trials themselves are evidence of Father God’s superintending care (see Romans 8:17-23 and Hebrews 12:1-13).

We can be very grateful that in saving us God has made us his children.

Abba, Father.


1 I am indebted to Thomas Oden for his thoughtful way of conceptualizing salvation as taught by Paul. See Life in the Spirit, Systematic Theology: Volume Three. Peabody, MA: Prince Press, 1998, p. 254.

2 I prefer to write of our adoption as “children” rather than as “sons” to avoid confusion with Paul’s related teaching that, in Christ, there is neither male nor female—both have “full rights of sons” (Galatians 4:5). At the same time, I do not overlook the fact that “sonship” is of importance from the perspective of Old Testament references to Israel as God’s son. Moreover, we are brought into union with Jesus who is God’s preeminent Son.

3 According to Cowen, “huiothesia (adoption) is formed by combining huios (son) and thesis (a placing) and literally means ‘the placing as a son’ or ‘adoption.’ Vine says that huiothesia ‘signifies the place and condition of a son given to one to whom it does not naturally belong.” See Cowen, Gerald. Salvation, Word Studies from the Greek New Testament. Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1990, p. 126.

4 Rees, T. “Adoption; Sonship,” p. 53ff in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, volume one. Geoffrey W. Bromiley, editor. Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s, 1979, p. 53.

5 Davids, P.H. “Adoption,” p. 13. In Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, Walter A. Elwell, editor. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1984, p. 13.

6 Davids, p. 13.

7 Miley, John. Systematic Theology. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1989, p. 337. The verse here is John 1:12-13.

8 Miley, p. 337.

9 Oden, p. 199.

10 Packer, J.I. Knowing God. Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1973, p. 200-201.

11 That Paul uses the concept of adoption in addressing an audience in a Gentile setting is important. Though the concept has some relevance in a Jewish setting, its primary application seems to be in a Gentile setting. This may explain why neither Peter nor John, who wrote primarily to Christians with Palestinian/Jewish backgrounds, use the term “adoption” in their Gospels or epistles.

12 I am indebted to Cowen’s helpful description of the Roman practice of adoption. See Cowen beginning on p. 126.

13 Hansen, G. Walter. Galatians. IVP New Testament Commentary Series. Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1994, p. 119.

14 According to Rees (p. 54), this power of the father over the child was similar, in law, to the power of a slave owner over a slave.

15 Scott, J.M. “Adoption, Sonship,” p. 15ff. In Dictionary of Paul and his Letters. Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin, Daniel G. Reid, editors. Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1993, p. 16, 2.2.2.

19 In surveying Paul’s use of the word “adoption” we are examining his use of the Greek wordhuiothesia, which is translated adoption in some cases and sonship in others, depending on the translation.

20 Calvin, John. The Institutes of Christian Religion, edited by Tony Lane and Hilary Osborne. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1987, p. 225.

21 Davids, p. 13.

22 Packer, p. 203.

For a more recent study, see Trevor Burke, Adopted Into God’s Family: Exploring a Pauline Metaphor (New Studies in Biblical Theology 22; InterVarsity Press, 2006).

Author: Ted Johnston

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