Studies on Strong Doctrine 12 Adoption

Studies on Strong Doctrine 12 Adoption


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For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now, And not only they, but ourselves also, which have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body” (Rom. 8:22-23).
Here is introduced to us a doctrine which is very badly misunderstood by the large majority of Christians, and not only by the average layman, but also most theologians do not have a proper grasp of it. This writer has puzzled over the common interpretations of this doctrine for many years, and has been dissatisfied with almost all of them, because it seemed so obvious that they contradicted some other very important doctrines of the Bible, notably the doctrine of the new birth. Understand! The doctrine of adoption is not of first-line importance; that is to say, it is not such that a mistake concerning it will everlastingly damn the soul; on the other hand, the doctrine of the new birth is such a doctrine, for it is concerned with the eternal destiny of the soul, and to be in error concerning it is to be in danger of eternal condemnation. For this reason we must very tenaciously hold to the truth of the new birth, and never allow anything to corrupt this doctrine.

This writer desired for a long time to write on this subject, setting forth what he believed to be the true scriptural teaching on it, but he felt his own inadequacy to set forth properly, and so, though he could see the error in the common interpretation, yet he was hesitant to set forth what he believed to be the right interpretation. At the same time, he was hesitant to disagree with so many great and godly theologians of the past, whose interpretations of this doctrine on the one hand either contradict the doctrine of regeneration, or else on the other hand, make adoption and regeneration to be identical. To illustrate this, we quote the following from Dr. J. M. Pendleton. We do this, not just to try to show up this great man, for his general soundness as a Baptist theologian is unquestioned, but in order to show that even the best men may be misled by putting extra-biblical ideas upon biblical terms, or by interpreting Bible words apart from the context in which they appear. Dr. Pendleton says:

…Spiritual adoption is the act by which God takes those who were by nature children of wrath into a new relation to himself—a filial relation—involving their recognition and treatment as children. They are distinguished by the appellation “sons and daughters” of the “Lord Almighty.” (See 2 Cor. 6:18.). —Christian Theology, pp. 290-291. American Baptist Publication Society, Philadelphia, 1878.

It is to be observed that this definition could almost serve as a definition of regeneration, so close is it in meaning to it. The definition of the late T. P. Simmons, though making a distinction between adoption and regeneration, is also liable to objections. In his great book on theology, he says:

Adoption is a legal term. It is the immediate result of justification. It is not the same as regeneration. Adoption makes us children of God legally, while regeneration makes us children of God experientially. Adoption brings a mere change of legal relationship. Regeneration changes our moral nature. Adoption has to do with us as the spiritual and moral children of the Devil by nature. Regeneration has to do with us as those who are by nature devoid of spiritual life. —Systematic Study of Bible Doctrine, p. 280. Associated Publishers, Daytona Beach, 1969.

We all recognize that we are not naturally the children of God; but by the new birth we are supernaturally the children of God, and the fact that we are by the new birth a child of God, makes unnecessary any legal process of adoption. Who ever heard of any one adopting by a legal process one who had been born into his family. Yet this is exactly what almost all theologians hold adoption to be. The great endeavors of many theologians to adequately distinguish between adoption and regeneration only serves to show the confusion that an erroneous view of the former has brought about. See the theological writings of J. P. Boyce, R. L. Dabney, John Dick, F. Turretin, Buchanan, et al.
The whole problem lies, we believe, in the fact that men have taken the legal meaning of the English word “adoption” and have taught what they assumed it means, rather than noting very carefully what the Scripture itself declares is the meaning of this word. May God grant us understanding as we study this doctrine.

One thing that will help our understanding of this matter is to realize that there is a difference in what is suggested by a “son of God,” and a “child of God.” These certainly refer to the same people, just as “disciple,” “saint,” “believer,” etc., all refer to the same people, but they look at them under different aspects. This is related to the doctrine that we are presently studying. Observe how Paul contrasts the “child” (or literally “babe”) with the “son” in Galatians 4:1-7. The child, though he is due to inherit all that is his father’s, and is lord of all, differs not at all from a mere servant until he comes to full age and has the inheritance committed to him. Thus, a “child of God” is anyone who has experienced the new birth, but a “son of God” is one who has come to a higher, more mature grasp of his spiritual position than a mere child has. It is instructive to observe that adoption always deals with “sons” and never with “children,” so that it is necessarily separated in time from regeneration.


The Greek word translated “adoption” is huiothesia, and appears only in Romans 8:15,23; 9:4, Galatians 4:5 and Ephesians 1:5. It is a compound word formed of huios—”son,” and thesis—”to place.” Its meaning is therefore “to place as a son,” “to give to one the position of a son.” In Greek secular writings this word was often used in the same sense that we use the English word “adoption;” i.e., to take one who was not by nature of one’s family, and to legally receive and treat him as a born child. This was not a uncommon practice in the ancient world, however there is no evidence that this was ever practiced among the Jews in their own land. However, many of them became familiar with this practice through their contact with other nations, and the infant Moses was adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter (Ex. 2:10), and Mordecai adopted his cousin Esther (Esther 2:7).

However, though many people speak of believers as being adopted into the family of God, and of their becoming children of God by adoption, this is contrary to biblical usage of this word. In our study of the Word of God, we must consult, not only the literal meaning of a word, but also its usage, to determine the scriptural significance of a doctrine. Often the usage of a word will modify the meaning of a word so as to give a different shade of meaning to it. At the same time, man is notorious for taking secular, or modern meanings of words and applying them to words whose ancient biblical meanings were something entirely different. Such is the case now before us.

There are several insurmountable difficulties against the common interpretation of Adoption, and it will be our duty to now examine these. First, every true child of God became one, not by some legal process by which he was “adopted,” but by the new birth. This is the only way of entrance into the family of God: “But as many as received him, to them gave he 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” (John 1:12-13). “Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Marvel not that I said unto thee, ye must be born again” (John 3:5-7). “Of his own will begat he us with the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures” (Jam. 1:18). “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, which according to his abundant mercy hath begotten us again unto a living hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Pet. 1:3). “Being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God, which liveth and abideth for ever” (1 Pet. 1:23). “Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God” (1 John 5:1, King James II Version).

Nor are these all the texts that speak of the new birth as being the means of entrance into the family of God, for there are many more. On the other hand, not a single text says nor implies that believers are “adopted into the family of God.” Indeed, the verb form of this word never appears in the New Testament. All this is very significant, and makes the common interpretation of this doctrine appear very suspicious.

Second, one becomes a child of God when he believes in the Lord, yet adoption is still future for all believers. All of the appearances of the word “adoption point forward to a future fulfillment of it, with the exception of Romans 9 which is a national sense of the word. It is here applied to Israel, whom God set forth before all the world as His “son” (Ex. 4:22). In regeneration, we receive “the Spirit of adoption” (Rom. 8:15); i.e., the Holy Spirit Who bears witness of the future adoption, and Who comforts us as the children of God. The adoption itself is yet future, else we would not be “waiting” for it (Rom. 8:23). Too many people mistake having received the “Spirit of adoption,” for the adoption itself. Obviously if “now are we the sons of God” (1 John 3:2), yet we have not received the adoption but wait for it, then adoption cannot be a part of entrance into the family of God. We must either give up this common interpretation, or else concede that no one is now a child of God, but must wait until some future time to be sure that he is in the family of God. But with how many other scriptures would such a view antagonize? It is characteristic of error in interpretation that one error will antagonize with another Bible doctrine, and if that doctrine is adjusted to harmonize with the erroneous interpretation, it will antagonize with two more Bible doctrines, which, if adjusted to agree with the erroneous interpretation, will throw four more Bible doctrines out of harmony, ad infinitum. Once we start adjusting Bible doctrines to agree with an interpretation, there is no stopping place. True doctrines, on the other hand, will harmonize with all other truths, for there is a unity to truth, coming as it does from a single mind.

Third, adoption relates to “sons” of God, not to “children” of God, and so it looks forward to the time when all believers shall have reached full spiritual maturity. One becomes a “child of God” as soon as the new birth takes place, but many believers never make much spiritual growth, nor achieve spiritual maturity in this present life. Nor does any believer enter into the full enjoyment and exercise of his position as a mature “son of God” until after the judgment seat of Christ, for this is necessary for the determination of the extent of his inheritance in the coming age. The whole creation awaits and groans for this time when the “sons of God” shall be manifested before the whole world in their true glory: “For the earnest expectation of the creature waiteth for the manifestation of the sons of God” (Rom. 8:19; see also vv. 21-22). Today many, many people claim to be children of God, but their lives too often belie their profession, but in that day will be manifested who are truly the children of God, for they will each be given positions of authority over the millennial earth, while all empty professors, those with a feigned faith, and the self-deceived, will be shut out from that glorious world.

Fourth, the common interpretation cannot be accepted because, as our text declares, adoption relates to the redemption of the body (Rom. 8:23), not to the redemption of the soul. Indeed, the soul never enters directly in to this matter. This is why there may be the national use and application of this word (Rom. 9:4), for Israel as a nation was physically given the position as the son of God in spite of the fact that by far the majority of the nation at that time were unbelievers who died because of their unbelief (Heb. 3:15-19). This is also the reason why the adoption is always spoken of as future for the believer—because the redemption of the body, which is what the adoption is, is yet future for all believers; God has “predestinated us unto the adoption of children (literally, “sons”) by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of his will” (Eph. 1:5). And so this is certain, yet we are still “waiting for the adoption” (Rom. 8:23), while having received “the spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father” (Rom. 8:15). If we may judge by the context here, the cry “Abba, Father,” is a part of our groaning occasioned by the frailties and infirmities of our bodies of clay, and through the Spirit we thus cry out in desire for the adoption, the redemption of these poor, frail, sinful bodies. Little wonder, then, that David could say, “As for me, I will behold thy face in righteousness: I shall be satisfied, when I awake, with thy likeness” (Ps. 17:15).

Fifth, adoption is distinguished from the redemption of the soul in Galatians 4:4-6: “But when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, to redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons. And because ye are sons, God hath sent forth the Spirit of his Son into your hearts, crying, Abba, Father.” Here the adoption is shown to be a result of redemption of the soul, and so obviously it is not the same thing, nor does it even take place at the same time. This text alone is fatal to the theory that adoption takes place when we are saved, for the phrase “might receive” shows that the adoption is yet future when one is redeemed. Indeed, all references to the adoption point to the future, and show that it has not yet taken place for anyone.

Dr. B. H. Carroll comes nearer being correct about this doctrine than most theologians, yet even he has erred in one point about it. In his comments on Romans, he says:

That brings us to the word “adoption.” What is adoption? Etymologically it is that legal process by which one, not a member of a family naturally, is legally made a member of it and an heir. There are three kinds of adoption which the apostle discusses in this letter:

(1) National adoption, Romans 9:4: “My kinsmen according to the flesh who are Israelites, whose is the adoption.” Many times in the Old Testament Israel is called God’s Son, the nation as a nation being his particular people.

(2) The adoption of the soul of the justified man, Romans 8:15: “Ye received the spirit of adoption.”

(3) The adoption of our bodies when they are redeemed from the grave and glorified, Romans 8:23: “Waiting for our adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body.” —An Interpretation of the English Bible, Vol. 14, p. 160. Broadman Press, Nashville, 1947.

We believe that Dr. Carroll is correct on all except the second point, for to receive the Spirit of adoption is not the same thing as to receive the adoption itself, and inasmuch as no text declares that we are “adopted when we believe,” nor that adoption has any application to the salvation of the soul, we believe that we are going beyond what is written to hold to three kinds of adoption. We hold, therefore, that the word “adoption” has two and only two applications, viz., (1) A natural sense of Israel, which was, as a nation placed by God as His son, and so recognized by all the surrounding nations. (2) An individual sense, of the body of the believer, which shall be manifested before all the world to be God’s son at the resurrection and enthronement of the saints.
What is meant, therefore, by this term? We believe that Dr. W. E. Vine expresses the meaning of this word when he says:

God does not adopt believers as children; they are begotten as such by His Holy Spirit through faith. Adoption is a term involving the dignity of the relationship of believers as sons; it is not a putting into the family by spiritual birth, but a putting into the position of sons. In Romans 8:23 the adoption of the believer is set forth as still future, as it there includes the redemption of the body, when the living will be changed and those who have fallen asleep will be raised. —Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, Vol. I, p. 33. Fleming H. Revell Company, Westwood, N. J., 1966.

Dr. C. I. Scofield also says of this:

Adoption (huiothesia, “placing as a son”) is not so much a word of relationship as of position. The believer’s relation to God as a child results from the new birth (John 1:12, 13), whereas adoption is the act of God whereby one already a child is, through redemption from the law, placed in the position of an adult son (Gal. 4:1-5). The indwelling Spirit gives the realization of this in the believer’s present experience (Gal. 4:6); but the full manifestation of the believer’s sonship awaits the resurrection change and translation of saints, which is called “the redemption of the body” (Rom. 8:23; 1 Thess. 4:14-17; Eph. 1:14; 1 John 3:2). —Scofield Reference Bible, note on Eph. 1:5. Oxford University Press, New York, 1945.

The Lord has given to us many great and precious promises and assurances, among which is the assurance that “Now are we the sons (literally ‘children’) of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be” (1 John 3:2). But though we are now the children of God, we have not yet received our inheritance, nor have we been manifested and owned by God before the world as His adult sons. The present life is, for the believer, a time of preparation for him to enter in to his inheritance; God is presently testing us as to how faithful we are willing to be with the things He has committed to us. We are being tested, not only as to our faithfulness with material things, but also as to our faithfulness with our time and talents. Not only are we to return unto the Lord that portion of our material possessions that belong to Him, but we are also to “redeem the time” (Eph. 5:16), and to be “good stewards of the manifold grace of God,” in regard to each gift received from Him (1 Pet. 4:10). How faithful we are in this present life will determine the greatness of our inheritance in the corning life, as it is written: “He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much: and he that is unjust in the least is unjust also in much. If therefore ye have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will commit to your trust the true riches? And if ye have not been faithful in that which is another man’s, who shall give you that which is your own?” (Luke 16:10-12).
Often believers excuse their unfaithfulness by saying that their unfaithfulness is only in small things, that they would be faithful if some great task were given them, but as the text above shows, God tests by little things, for this is the best test; for example, if someone should hand a person a nickel and ask him to keep it safe for him, he would probably not be too concerned about it, because of its intrinsic insignificance; but should one be handed the Kohinoor diamond, he would be careful with it because of its intrinsic value. But the Lord would have us to be faithful with what we have, simply because He has committed it to us, and not because we think that the thing is of value in itself. This test in little things will determine the believer’s position in the world to come, for it will reveal his attitude toward God who has committed these things to him.

What the adoption is, is declared in no uncertain terms in Romans 8:23; it is “the redemption of the body.” We all have the present consciousness of the indwelling of sin in our mortal bodies, and so it is clear that the body was not redeemed when the soul was; we would not still be “waiting” for it, if this were the case. The adoption then involves the resurrection and renovation of the saints’ bodies, as is declared in 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17. The dead bodies of the saints of the past are first raised, then the bodies of the living saints are instantly changed into the likeness of Christ’s glorified body, and they shall be manifested before all the world to be in truth the sons of God. Today, most people in the western world are members of some church, and all are assumed to be the true children of God by the world, but in that day, great multitudes will be left behind with the Lord’s statement of Matthew 7:23: “I never knew you,” ringing in their ears. Thus the resurrection is called “the manifestation of the sons of God” (Rom. 8:19), for none are raised at the first resurrection but the saved. It is said of them therefore, “And are the children of God, being the children of the resurrection” (Luke 20:36).

The adoption is the third and final stage of salvation for God’s elect. These three stages are: (1) The salvation of the soul from the penalty of sin, which becomes effective to the individual when he trusts his eternal destiny to the Lord. It is an instantaneous transaction, and is above human consciousness and understanding, and is only known by its effects. (2) The salvation of the life from the power of indwelling sin by a process of daily sanctification. It is a continuing process which goes on throughout the life of the believer. (3) The salvation of the body from the presence of sin, which is an instantaneous transaction that takes place at the resurrection, and is called “the adoption.” This is sometimes called “consumative sanctification” for it is the final act in God’s redemptive dealings with man.

The adoption, though it refers specifically to the redemption of the body, involves and includes a number of other things as well, for it marks a period of transition into another and higher plane of life for the saint. Therefore we pass on to consider—

It is unfortunate that so many people have this whole matter turned around backward; many think that sonship is the consequence of being adopted, but the reverse is true: adoption is the blessed result of being born into the family of God, for Christ came “…to redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons” (Gal. 4:5), so that adoption is the effect, not the cause, of sonship.

Romans 8:23 tells us one of the chief results of the adoption, namely, the receiving of a new, glorified body which will correspond to our redeemed soul. It is for this that we presently groan, earnestly desiring the fulfillment of this hope which the indwelling Spirit creates within us. Paul makes reference to groaning in this same connection in 2 Corinthians 5:1-6 where he says: “For we know that if our earthly house of this tabernacle were dissolved, we have a building of God, an house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this we groan, earnestly desiring to be clothed upon with our house which is from heaven: if so be that being clothed we shall not be found naked. For we that are in this tabernacle do groan, being burdened: not for that we would be unclothed, but clothed upon, that mortality might be swallowed up of life. Now he that hath wrought us for the selfsame thing is God, who also hath given unto us the earnest of the Spirit. Therefore we are always confident, knowing that, whilst we are at home in the body, we are absent from the Lord.”

From this, it is clear that God has prepared immortal bodies for each of His saints, and that these cannot be received while we are at home in our old corrupt bodes. It is for these immortal bodies that we groan, often unconscious of what we are groaning for, knowing only that we are not happy in our present state, and wishing for something better. It is not just for death and the severance from this present mortal body of clay that we groan, for this would leave us as a mere naked spirit, but we desire that the mortality of our present corrupt body might be swallowed up of the immortality of that heavenly body. That God has accomplished this for us is testified by the indwelling Holy Spirit who is the “earnest” —the pledge payment or guarantee—given to us until the completion of this transaction.

Another of the consequences of the adoption, which is intimated in the last verse of the Scripture above, is that with the coming of the adoption, we shall “ever be with the Lord” (1 Thess. 4:17f). The adoption will mark our transition from mortals to immortals (1 Cor. 15:50-53), and will fit us to eternally be in the presence of the Lord, for He “shall change our vile body, that it may be fashioned like unto his glorious body, according to the working whereby he is able even to subdue all things unto himself” (Phil. 3:21).

But our being ever with the Lord involves more than a mere physical presence with Him; it involves our being joint participants with Him in the inheritance of the Father, for “The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God: and if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together” (Rom. 8:16-17). The entering into our inheritance is part and parcel with adoption, for not only do we have an inheritance reserved in heaven for us, but we are also reserved by the power of God unto it, as it is written: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, which according to his abundant mercy hath begotten us again unto a lively hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance incorruptible, and undefiled, and that fadeth not away, reserved in heaven for you, who are kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (1 Pet. 1:3-5).

When the adoption comes to pass, we shall, as part of our inheritance, enter in to the administration of the millennial earth, for during that glorious one thousand years of Christ’s reign upon the throne of His father David, every governmental post on earth will be filled by one of the glorified saints, and our Lord Himself will be king over all the earth in that day (Zech. 14:9). Imagine the glory of the earth in that day when it will know a peace and fruitfulness that it has never before known. In that day “The wilderness and the solitary place shall be glad for them; and the desert shall rejoice, and blossom as the rose” (Isa. 35:1). How wonderful it is to know that as Revelation 3:21; 5:10; 20:4, 6; 22:5; et al tell us, we are to reign with Christ. It is wonderfully true that “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love Him. But God hath revealed them unto us by his Spirit” (1 Cor. 2:9-10). And it is this revelation of these things to us by the Spirit that causes us to “groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption.” God has created us for better things than what this present evil world has to offer, and He has predestinated us unto these, as it is written, “Having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure or his will” (Eph. 1:5). Paul was a saved man when he wrote this, and those to whom he wrote were saved people, but so far were they both from being already adopted that Paul said they were predestinated unto the adoption, but were still waiting for it.

The adoption deals with the inheritance of the sons of God rather than with their salvation, and this is why it is always futuristic in its outlook; it looks to the millennial kingdom when we shall be rewarded as the children of God according to our faithfulness; then we shall be placed in positions of authority as the spiritually mature sons of God.

Our faithfulness will determine our positions during the thousand years reign of Christ on the earth, but from the time that we come to Revelation 21 on through to the end, there are no distinctions made, for this marks the entrance into eternity where there are no distinctions. For a thousand years, the redeemed, glorified saints will be rewarded with positions of authority consonant with their faithfulness while in the world, and this will be more than enough reward for the most faithful believer. But as Revelation 21:1-3 shows, all distinctions disappear as the old earth fades away, and the new heavens and new earth appear, and there is seen only God and His redeemed people. And even more explicit is Revelation 21:7: “He that overcometh (See 1 John 5:4. 5 for who this means) shall inherit all things; and I will be his God, and he shall be my son.”

We have not yet received the adoption, but we have received the Spirit of adoption, and the Holy Spirit is the earnest, or pledge payment, of our inheritance, and He not only assures us that we are now children of God, but He also guarantees the final glorification of all believers together. “For ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but ye have received the Spirit of adoption whereby we cry, Abba, Father. The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God: and if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him that we may be also glorified together. For I reckon that the suffering of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us” (Rom. 8:15-18). Surely the word “glory” is this last verse is significant here; it anticipates what awaits us as glorified sons of God. Inasmuch as the extent of our inheritance will be determined by our faithfulness to God, we believe we cannot conclude better than with the question, How faithful are you being to the Lord?