All posts

Knowing God as Father (Understanding the Doctrine of Adoption)

This post is adapted from a message (available as audio or video) at Worship God 2015, a conference devoted to “Exploring what it means to worship and enjoy God as Father, Son, and Spirit.” 

Galatians 4:1-7

Russ Moore is the author of Adopted for Life, The Priority of Adoption for Christian Families and Churches. The following is a moving account of Russ and his wife Maria’s experience adopting two children from Russia:

When Maria and I first walked into the orphanage, where we were led to the boys the Russian courts had picked out for us to adopt, we almost vomited in reaction to the stench and squalor of the place. The boys were in cribs in the dark, lying in their own waste.

Leaving them at the end of each day was painful, but leaving them the final day, before going home to wait for the paperwork to go through, was the hardest thing either of us had ever done. Walking out of the room to prepare for the plane ride home, Maria and I could hear Maxim calling out for us, and falling down in his crib convulsing in tears.

When Maria and I at long last received the call that the legal process was over, and we returned to Russia to pick up our new sons, we found that their transition from orphanage to family was more difficult than we had supposed. We dressed the boys in outfits our parents had bought for them. My mother-in-law gathered some wildflowers growing between cracks in the pavement outside the orphanage.

We nodded our thanks to the orphanage personnel and walked out into the sunlight, to the terror of the two boys. They’d never seen the sun, and they’d never felt the wind. They had never heard the sound of a car door slamming or had the sensation of being carried along at 100 miles an hour down a Russian road. I noticed that they were shaking, and reaching back to the orphanage in the distance.

I whispered to Sergei, now Timothy, ‘That place is a pit! If only you knew what’s waiting for you: a home with a Mommy and a Daddy who love you, grandparents, and great-grandparents and cousins and playmates…and McDonald’s Happy Meals!’ But all they knew was the orphanage. It was squalid, but they had no other reference point, and it was home.

We knew the boys had acclimated to our home, that they trusted us, when they stopped hiding food in their high-chairs. They knew there would be another meal coming, and they wouldn’t have to fight for the scraps. This was the new normal.

They are now thoroughly Americanized, perhaps too much so, able to recognize the sound of a microwave ding from forty yards away. I still remember, though, those little hands reaching for the orphanage, and I see myself there.

I am always affected when I read this. I have the deepest respect for those who have adopted children. Those children are unusually blessed. Adoption is a compassionate, unselfish act, and a deeply moving life-changing reality. But most profoundly, it is a picture of something even more significant. As moving as human adoption is, it is but a picture of an even greater reality: divine adoption.

In his classic work, Knowing God, J.I. Packer explains the profound significance of divine adoption when he writes:

“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…Our understanding of Christianity cannot be better than our grasp of adoption…The truth of our adoption gives us the deepest insights that the New Testament affords into the greatness of God’s love. 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 the gospel than that.

According to Dr. Packer, “the doctrine of adoption” is the richest answer to the question, “What is a Christian?” and the truth of adoption gives us the deepest insights into the greatness of God’s love. It is my hope that every Christian who has turned from their sins and trusted in the Savior’s substitutionary sacrifice on the cross for the forgiveness of their sins would be freshly reminded of God’s personal, particular, and passionate love as revealed in the doctrine of adoption.

Over the past 40 years of ministry I have interacted with many genuine Christians who are not certain of God’s love for them. In light of the holiness of God and their sinfulness they can be suspicious of God and His love for them. They tend to think of God as merely tolerating them and often disappointed with them. Doubts about God’s love for them personally are a frequent companion.

Perhaps you are one of them.

If so, I pray this passage will become a defining moment for you, altering your view of God and convincing you of His love for you. It has been my experience that those Christians who are not convinced of God’s love for them have been largely ignorant of the doctrine of adoption and introducing them to adopting grace has made a significant, even dramatic, difference in their lives. The doctrine of adoption has provided for many what Dr. Packer describes as the deepest insights the New Testament affords into the greatness of God’s love. There is no Christian alive who isn’t in need of this reminder.

There are 3 points I want to draw your attention to, each I trust drawn from this magnificent text.

1) Our Prior Condition (vv. 1-3)

Our condition prior to adoption reveals our need for adoption. It’s a challenge to begin in chapter 4, verse 1. It’s a little like arriving late at a gathering of friends: the conversation has already begun and you find yourself trying to discern what they are talking about. Let me provide you with a little background so that we might accurately discern what Paul is talking about as we listen in on his communication to the Galatians and discover its relevance for us.

The Galatian churches were made up primarily of Gentile Christians in the process of deserting the gospel because of the influence of false teachers and teaching.

It was as if a “spell” had been cast over them. Paul writes, “who has bewitched you?” (Gal 3:1). That spell was the often subtle and always serious error of legalism.

Having previously received the grace of God through the proclamation of the gospel (3:1), the Galatians were being tempted to add to their faith in Christ obedience to the Mosaic law as a means of salvation. They were told Christ was not enough, that the law was necessary for their salvation. By adding the law to Christ they were being seduced to now seek to earn forgiveness from God, justification before God, and acceptance by God through their obedience to the law of God.

This was a complete misunderstanding and misapplication of the law. It was a distortion of the law and a desertion from the gospel. The law was never meant to save from sin but instead was meant to reveal sin in light of the holiness of God and the need for a Savior from sin.

And so in chapter 3 Paul provides the Galatians with a survey of the history of the law informing them about the divine intent and purpose of the law in order to protect them from misunderstanding and misapplying the law.

Paul asks in 3:19, “Why then the law?” We discover why in verses 23-24: the law, “held them captive, imprisoned,” and was their “guardian.” This explanation continues in chapter 4. In verses 1-3, Paul deploys yet another metaphor to illustrate: “why then the law?” Israel under the law was like a child under the care of a guardian waiting for their inheritance.

Although the inheritance belongs to them, they haven’t come of age yet and so they cannot use it. In this way they are really no different than slaves. For the Jews the law “held them captive,” “imprisoned,” and “was their guardian until Christ came, in order that they might be justified by faith in Christ not by the works of the law.” Paul is informing the Gentile Galatians about the purpose of the law in order to show how foolish it is for them to base their relationship with God upon the law.

While Paul’s analogies refer to Israel under the law, there is application to all people who seek to relate to God by law, obedience, performance or in any other way apart from the grace of the gospel. The Galatians—the original recipients of this letter—were Gentiles, not Jews, and prior to their conversion they were largely ignorant of the law but no less enslaved by their sin than those under the law. Their enslavement is described in 4:8. Prior to their conversion they were enslaved to the idols of their creation and imagination, enslaved to false gods. So whether it’s the Jews imprisoned and enslaved by the law and their sin or the Gentiles enslaved by their idolatry and sin, all are enslaved.

All are humanly incapable of altering this condition. All are held captive by sin. All are in need of divine intervention. All are in need of saving: a salvation God graciously provides in Christ. By abandoning the gospel and subjecting themselves to the Mosaic law as a means of salvation the Galatians were in effect returning to a pre-conversion form of enslavement.

Paul is saying you are foolish to depend on what God intended to hold captive, to imprison, to function as a guardian. The Law was intended to be temporary and preparatory for the person and work of Christ. For these Gentile Christians their reliance on the law for salvation was a different but similar form of enslavement they experienced prior to conversion.

Why, Paul asks, would you want to return to that? He asks, “But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more?” (Gal 4:9). The good and righteous law of God was never meant to be relied on as a means of salvation. Properly understood, the law of God revealing the holiness of God and our sinfulness is a gracious gift to prepare us for the provision of a Savior and the gracious act of adoption.

Our condition prior to conversion—whether Jew or Gentile—is enslavement to our sin and by our sin. We are humanly incapable of altering this condition. We need the intervention of God. We need divine provision. It is the action of God himself that changes the way people relate to him and that action is revealed beginning in verse 4.

2) God’s Decisive Action (vv. 4-5)

These verses reveal the sovereign, gracious, decisive action of God in response to our enslaved condition. The provision of a Savior for those who are enslaved under the law and by their sin is wonderfully described in verse 4. While we are enslaved to sin and by our sin, God graciously acts and everything changes. In these words and from these words we discover that God has graciously intervened to address our sinful condition: “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son…”

While we were yet slaves to sin and incapable of altering our condition, God sent forth his son on behalf of enslaved sinners like you and me. Behold the love of God revealed through the initiative of God in sending forth his Son for those enslaved to sin. Charles Spurgeon writes of this announcement and action:

When the fullness of time was come, God sent forth His Son. We moved not towards the Lord, but the Lord towards us. I do not find that the world in repentance sought after its Maker. No, but the offended God himself in infinite compassion broke the silence, and came forth to bless his enemies. All good things begin with him.

It was infinite compassion indeed, breaking the silence and blessing his enemies. And the Son sent forth by the Father was uniquely qualified to be our Savior: “God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law…” In order to be our Savior he must be like us (born of woman) and yet he must be unlike us (God the Son, perfectly fulfilling the law). If he were not fully man he could not have died in our place as our substitute. If he had not been a man he could not have redeemed men. If he didn’t perfectly keep the law he could not redeem us from the curse of the law. If he had not been a righteous and sinless man he could not have redeemed unrighteous and sinful men.

He was truly God and fully man, the mediator between God and men. God the Son, born of woman, perfectly kept the law and died a unique death as the substitute for sinners on the Cross. In verse 5 the purpose and effect of the cross is described, “…to redeem those who were under the law…” Let that sink in: to redeem those held captive by the law and sin. God sent forth his Son to redeem: to liberate from imprisonment by the law and enslavement to sin.

We were enslaved by sin and condemned by the law, objects of God’s righteous wrath. We needed someone to redeem us, to liberate us from our sin and the just penalty for our sin. God takes action on behalf of sinners like you and me by sending forth his Son to be our sin-bearing, wrath-absorbing substitute. God sent forth his Son to endure the curse of the law—the wrath of God—for sinners like you and me so that we might be liberated from this curse and spared this penalty for our sin. Those once bound in slavery to sin and the consequences of sin are redeemed by the Savior’s sacrifice for their sin. God sent forth his Son to redeem…

But notice the sentence hasn’t concluded yet. It continues, “…so that we might receive adoption as sons.” Redemption wasn’t the ultimate purpose. God sent forth His Son with an atoning purpose and an adopting purpose. God went beyond redemption to adoption. 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, right here we encounter “the deepest insights into the greatness of God’s love.”

The deepest insight into the greatness of God’s love is revealed in the phrase: “…so that…” All the action of God previously described was “so that” he might take this action, “…so that we might receive adoption as sons.” If all the action of God previous was “so that we might receive adoption as sons” then we must give appropriate attention to the grace of adoption.

J. I. Packer argues that the doctrine of adoption has been “unduly neglected.” I think this observation is accurate and certainly applies to me as for years I taught much more on the doctrine of justification than I did the doctrine of adoption. Please don’t misunderstand; I don’t think we should teach the doctrine of justification less. Actually the doctrine of justification must always remain primary because all saving benefits depend upon justification by faith alone through grace alone in Christ alone.

Adoption depends upon justification. I don’t think we should teach less on justification but I do think we should teach more on adoption. And without separating justification and adoption, we must distinguish between justification and adoption for they are not the same. Let Dr. Packer helps us understand the difference between justification and adoption because understanding the difference is necessary for us to have ‘the deepest insights into the greatness of God’s love.’

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…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 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 greater.

John Piper has said, “Books don’t change people’s lives; sentences do.” We just read several sentences with that potential. “To be right with God the judge is a great thing, but to be loved and cared for by God the Father is greater.” This sentence will help you understand this passage and feel the full impact of this passage.

It is indeed a GREAT thing to be right with God the judge through the redeeming work of Jesus Christ on the cross. It is a GREAT thing to be forgiven of sin. It is a GREAT thing to be freed from fear of future wrath. But, to be loved and cared for by God the Father is GREATER! Paul’s burden in this passage is that we understand and experience the GREATER! It’s possible to understand the great thing—“He sent forth his Son to redeem”—and fail to comprehend the greater, “so that we might receive adoption as sons.”

So, let me ask you, do the words closeness, affection, and generosity describe your perception of God and your experience with God? If not, perhaps you are ignorant of adopting grace. Adopting grace is meant to convince you of God’s love for you. Adopting grace is meant to convince you of His affection for you, his closeness with you, his generosity toward you. Adopting grace is about being wanted, personally wanted, by God the Father. Adoption reveals his deep affection… for you.

Are you convinced of God’s love for you? If not the implications are serious. If you are uncertain about the disposition of the Father’s heart toward you, it will affect everything about you. If you aren’t convinced of his love for you, you will be vulnerable to legalism, condemnation, introspection, and despair. There will be a distinct absence of joy in your life. You will live with a low grade form of guilt and fear.

All Christians are to be certain they are loved by God because all Christians have been adopted by God. All Christians are to be certain they are loved by God but where you look for that certainty makes all the difference. Where do you look in order to be assured of God’s love for you? I ask you this question because we all have a certain impulse to look in the wrong place. We all have a certain impulse to look within ourselves to find a reason for His love. This impulse will not serve us. If you look within yourself in order to find some reason for His love for you, you won’t find it there, because it doesn’t exist there. Pretty much all you will find there is sin. Thomas Watson explains,

We have enough in us to move God to correct us, but nothing to move him to adopt us therefore exalt free grace-begin the work of angels here; bless him with your praises, who hath blessed you in making you his sons and daughters.

We have an impulse to look within to find a reason for His love because we have an arrogant desire to be worthy of His love. We want to find in ourselves some reason to be deserving of His love. It is a false hope that we will discover something within us that inclined God to love us. There is not a thing within us that inclined God to love us. The more you look within the more you will discover reasons for him to correct you, not to love you. And I think this forms the daily challenge for each of us, theologically, personally, and experientially. How can I be certain of His love for me since I am unworthy of His love?

This passage protects us from the arrogant, futile impulse to look within to find a reason for God’s love toward us. Because this passage directs our gaze away from ourselves and outside of ourselves to the heart of God, the initiative of God, and the decisive action of God revealed in verses verses 4-5. This passage is the theological remedy for our subjective impulse.

In some 40 years of pastoral ministry I have encountered many genuine Christians in the midst of discouragement, depression and despair who are saying and lamenting:

  • How could God love me?
  • Why would God love me?

They are looking within to find a reason for his love and discovering instead all manner of sin assuming and concluding He couldn’t possibly love them. They have concluded: because I’m unworthy, I’m unloved. Often, I seek to serve them by saying something unexpected to them. Rather than disagreeing with them and affirming something wonderful about them I will say to them (with a smile on my face): I am as perplexed as you are as to how God could possibly love you. Given what I know of you I find it difficult to love you so I’m clueless how God could love you. My purpose is to affectionately and humorously challenge their arrogant impulse to look in the wrong place for assurance of his love.

Instead, I want to direct their attention to a hill called Calvary. I want to direct their attention away from themselves and outside of themselves to God the Father who sent forth his Son to redeem them from their enslaved state to sin so that they might receive, not earn or achieve, adoption as sons. I want to help them understand they are not worthy of his love and they will always unworthy of His love but they will always be loved because God adopts us because of His love. To understand adopting grace is to be amazed by grace! And understanding adopting grace will protect you from becoming less amazed by grace as the years pass. To understand adopting grace is to be convinced of his love! To be convinced of his love for those unworthy of his love.

No wonder John writes: “Behold…” (1 John 3:1). Hey, if you begin your sentence with “behold” you are creating an expectation. So this better be good. you best follow “behold” with something worth beholding. And does he! “Behold what manner of love the Father has given to us that we should be called the children of God.” John draws our attention to adopting grace, celebrates adopting grace, and invites us to celebrate with him. My friend, if you are a Christian, this is true of you and we aren’t pleasing God if we do not receive this grace and rejoice in this grace. It grieves God when we do not receive His love. John Owen effectively captured this and conveyed this when he wrote:

The greatest sorrow and burden you can lay on the Father, the greatest unkindness you can do to him is, not to believe that he loves you.

Why would this be the greatest sorrow and burden I could lay on the Father? Why would this be the greatest unkindness I could do to him? Here’s why: Because of all He’s done to demonstrate His love for you. Because he sent forth His Son to redeem and adopt you! In light of all God has done to demonstrate His love it’s as if he says to us in our doubt of his love: “Not love you?! What more could I do to convince you of my love for you?! I sent forth my Son for you, to die for you, in your place condemned he stood, I crushed him with the full fury of my wrath as he bore the full weight of your sin on the cross. Not love you?! I sent him to suffer in your place so that I might redeem you and ultimately adopt you. What more could I do, what else could I do to convince you of my love for you?” Don’t waste adopting grace. Sinclair Ferguson puts it this way:

How many of us will get to the throne of grace and with a twinge of regret say, “If only I had known you were this gracious.

I don’t want to be that guy! So if you aren’t convinced of His affections, closeness, and generosity I recommend you familiarize yourself with the doctrine of adoption and if necessary restrict your spiritual diet to this topic until you are convinced of His love for you.

In order to experience more of the affection of God, the closeness of God, the generosity of God, I recommend you study the doctrine of adoption until you are assured of and secure in the love of God. For here you will encounter and experience “deepest insights the New Testament affords into the greatness of God’s love.” Immerse yourself in an extended study of this passage and other passages on this doctrine. Allow a godly scholar to hold your hand and lead you as you study and explore this topic.

I recommend:

As you study this doctrine you can anticipate experiencing the affection of God, the closeness of God, the generosity of God.

3) The Experience of Adoption (v. 6)

Now Paul draws our attention to the person and work of the Spirit in relation to adoption. Let it not escape our notice that all three members of the Trinity are involved in this. Once again our attention is directed to the initiative of God once again revealing the love of God. The more you are aware of the initiative of God in your salvation the more you will be amazed by the grace of God.

Our position and status as adopted sons and daughters was secured by God’s initiative and action in sending His Son (vv. 4-5). And our experience of adoption is the result of God’s initiative and action in sending His Spirit (v. 6).

The gift of adoption is accomplished by the Son and applied to our lives by the Spirit. This inaugural, special work of the Spirit is evident in conversion as we transition from slaves to sons, from fearing God as judge to addressing God as Father. There is a new cry in the heart of the newly converted: ‘Abba! Father!” This is the precious privilege and common experience of all genuine Christians. This cry is evidence we have received adopting grace.

Paul does direct us to look within here. This is theologically informed introspection for the purpose of discerning the work of the Spirit in the form of the new cry, “Abba! Father!” And this cry testifies to our adoption and assures us of God’s love for us. This cry is a means of assurance. I hope you find assurance of his love for you in an unexpected place. I’m going to ask my historical hero Charles Spurgeon to explain:

I once knew a good woman who was the subject of many doubts, and when I got to the bottom of her doubt, it was this: she knew she loved Christ, but she was afraid he did not love her. ‘Oh!’ I said, ‘that is a doubt that will never trouble me; never, by any possibility, because I am sure of this, that the heart is so corrupt, naturally, that love to God never did get there without God’s putting it there.’ You may rest quite certain, that if you love God, it is a fruit, and not a root. It is the fruit of God’s love to you, and did not get there by the force of any goodness in you. You may conclude, with absolute certainty, that God loves you if you love God.

This cry, Abba! Father!, “never did get there” by the force of any goodness in you… God put it there. And your transformed heart is an evidence of adoption and a means of assuring you of his love.

Are you aware of this work of the Spirit, this cry to the Father within your soul? It’s possible to grow less aware of this cry, less sensitive to this cry. Paul is writing to those who are growing deaf to this cry of the Spirit within because they have been seduced by legalism and they are no longer enjoying adopting grace. Many voices cry out for our attention each day, seeking to distract our attention from the voice of the Spirit crying “Abba! Father!” These voices seek to turn our attention from adopting grace. The cries of indwelling sin, legalism, and condemnation are loud and distracting voices. Which voice are you more aware of?

If you are distracted by other voices and the noise in your soul created by sin and legalism and condemnation have seemingly silenced this cry of “Abba! Father!” then let me recommend you familiarize yourself with adopting grace so you become more aware of the Spirit’s cry within your soul.

Finally verse 7: “So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.” Paul seems to transition from general instruction to a personal exhortation. It’s as if God is making eye contact with you in this verse and from this verse. He is addressing you personally. God wants you to be certain of His love. He wants you to receive His love. “So you are no longer a slave but a son…” But the verse isn’t finished yet! “…and if a son, then an heir.”

In the ancient world a father’s inheritance could only be passed along to a son therefore if a father didn’t have a son he would by necessity adopt so he could have an heir. But God didn’t need to adopt sinners like us because the Father has a Son, the Father has an heir. So there was no need for the Father to adopt sinners like you and me. And yet he did, thus revealing the gracious nature of adoption, thus revealing His love. We are sons. We are therefore are “heirs” of God. As heirs we are recipients of an inheritance. What is our inheritance?

Our inheritance is all God has promised and most importantly, God himself. Trevor Burke puts it like this, “We are not only heirs of what God has promised but we will inherit God.” Oh my. It just takes your breath away.

But we aren’t done yet, because Paul doesn’t want us to forget this is only possible and all possible “…through God.” One cannot be a son through human effort. Adoption is a gift of God’s grace, therefore, this excludes all human effort. Adoption is a gift of God’s grace, therefore, this excludes all human merit. One can only be a son through God. The verse concludes appropriately drawing our attention to God and not ourselves. The verse concludes drawing our attention away from ourselves and to God. All this is through God and only because of God therefore all glory should be assigned to God.