Adoption, the Children of God, and the Spirit of Supererogation
Jeffrey R. Dickson
The Bible illustrates the wonder of redemption in many captivating ways—all of which demonstrate the goodness of a loving God. One analogy that has become especially meaningful to my family is that of adoption. The apostle Paul writes,
But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His son, born of a woman, born under the Law, so that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons. Because you are sons, God has sent for the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ Therefore you are no longer a slave, but a son; and if a son, then an heir through God. (Gal. 4:4-7)
Recently our family adopted a beautiful little girl and this process has provided us with a new appreciation for what God has accomplished for sinners. This growing admiration for what Christ has completed for the lost has come by means of several parallels that might be drawn between our family’s personal adoption story and Jesus’ program of redemption. To be sure, any comparison between Christ’s salvific work and my family’s experience should not be taken as a suggestion of congruency between the two. However, several similarities do exist that elucidate the heart of spiritual adoption, something of the abundance of God’s grace, and its implications for the believer.
First, my wife and I were under no obligation to adopt. In fact, prior to our newest addition we already had three children of our own. Though we tragically lost our third child (a son) a couple years ago, the only motivating factor behind our desire to adopt a new baby stemmed from a deep and mysterious yearning to show love to another child. Similarly, God was not obligated to redeem lost sinners in a way that would bring them into his family. As God is perfect and (as the passage above intimates) exists in triune community, there is no insufficiency, loneliness, or incompleteness that adopting sinners could possibly satisfy. Instead, it is his mysterious desire to share love, particularly for his Son, with others that motivates him to grow his family. If supererogation is defined as the performance of a work or activity that transcends what duty or obligation requires, God’s spiritual adoption of the sinner is supererogatory in excelsis and par excellence. (Admittedly, some would argue that God himself has no duties, in which case he can’t go beyond his duties, since he doesn’t have any; even if so, though, there’s something of the spirit of the supererogatory at play here in God’s unspeakable grace. Language of duties alone is inadequate to the task of capturing God’s great love.)
That God’s grace is beyond explication in terms of duties alone in adopting anyone manifests in several additional parallels that can be drawn between our family’s experience and the experience of redeemed sinners everywhere. For instance, the offer of adoption is not always reciprocated. For my wife and me, the process of being matched with a birth mother involved sharing our carefully crafted profile with several potential women. Five of these women passed us over for someone else in spite of what we believed was a fairly attractive and convincing presentation. Though we thought we had produced a convincing appeal to raise their biological children, they decided to choose another family. In the same way, Christ’s offer of adoption into the family of God is not always accepted either. This is especially curious given all the convincing proofs of his ministry (as witnessed, for instance, in the compelling case for the historicity of his resurrection), his glory (as seen in the beauty and design found in creation), and his goodness (as evidenced in common grace throughout the world and moral tendencies within the human person). In fact, God’s case for adoption includes the most compelling profile of all, rendering the proposition of passing it over for something/someone else especially grievous and tragic.
Adoption also comes at an unusually high price, often requiring great sacrifice. This was true in the life of our family as we counted the cost and sacrificed plans and pleasures to satisfy what was required to bring our girl home. Added to legal costs were traveling fees and other accommodations as we were made to go a long distance and remain a couple of weeks before being reunited with our older children. Even further, there were multiple hoops through which we were made to jump in order to bring our adoption to finalization. However, what was true in a financial, emotional, geographic, and legal sense for our family is even truer of Christ who, in providing for the adoption of sinners, was required to pay the ultimate price—his life. Not only that, but Christ traveled much farther in his efforts to arrange for sinners to be invited into the family of God and ripped through far more red tape.
. . .although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:5b-8)
This passage highlights not only the special and sacrificial barriers Jesus crossed, but also demonstrates the myriad of hoops he jumped through, as it were, in order to pave the way for the spiritual adoption of the redeemed.
Finally, for our family (and most others who adopt children), our new baby girl will not be considered a second-class child nor will she even be introduced as “my adopted daughter.” We consider her as much ours as our other children and her status as one of ours will never change. She has become another member of our family in every way for as long as God leaves us on the earth. In fact, she stands to inherit a portion of what little my wife and I may leave behind along with our other kids. Similarly, God’s adopted children are called “sons and daughters of God” in every meaningful sense. Their legitimacy as children in God’s family is further confirmed by the inheritance they will one day share—“therefore, you are no longer a slave, but a son; and if a son, then an heir through God” (Gal. 4:7). This would have proven especially meaningful to the first century reader as most adoptees were adult males and the reason for adoption was usually to pass on one’s inheritance [Hugh Lindsey, Adoption in the Roman World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 25, 28]. Finally, their status as one of God’s children is permanent as Jesus says, “and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand” (John 10:28-29). Again, first century readers would have no doubt appreciated the connotation of permanence associated with adoption as under Roman law a man could never disinherit an adopted son but could more easily put away a naturally-born child [Ramsay, A Historical Commentary on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1979), 353)].
Perhaps this is why the adoption image is utilized in the scriptures to speak of Christ’s redemptive work, for, in it, the unspeakably gracious nature of God is on full display, the high cost of Christ is in full view, and something of the permanence of the familial relationship that is forged as a result is adequately celebrated. All of these considerations demonstrate, among other things, the desperately helpless state of the adoptee (lost sinners) and something of the overwhelming benevolence of the adopter (the Lord God). Much as our little girl was helpless, if left unto herself, to enter a good home, so too are lost sinners without a relationship with Christ. That said, praise be to God that he arranged a program for adoption, provided for its cost in the giving of his Son, and paved the way for full and final inclusion in the family of God.
Jeffrey Dickson, PhD studied Theology and Apologetics at Liberty University where he now serves as an adjunct professor of Bible and theology. Dr. Dickson is also the senior pastor of Crystal Spring Baptist Church in Roanoke VA where he lives with his wife Brianna and their children.