Adoption or Sonship?

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Adoption or Sonship?

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As this booklet makes clear, Scripture reveals that man’s destiny is to be fathered by God in an actual sense, with His Holy Spirit implanted into our minds to engender us as His literal begotten children. Yet a few verses from the apostle Paul have been interpreted to say that God adopts us rather than directly begets us as His children. What difference does it make? And what is the truth of the matter?

As typically rendered, Romans 8:15 Romans 8:15For you have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but you have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father.
American King James Version×
says that Christians “have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father” (KJV). Romans 8:23 Romans 8:23And not only they, but ourselves also, which have the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body.
American King James Version×
says that we “who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for the adoption, the redemption of our body.” The next chapter says that Israel, God’s nation, was given the promise of, according to most English translations, “adoption” (Romans 9:4 Romans 9:4Who are Israelites; to whom pertains the adoption, and the glory, and the covenants, and the giving of the law, and the service of God, and the promises;
American King James Version×
). Similarly, Galatians 4:5 Galatians 4:5To redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons.
American King James Version×
and Ephesians 1:5 Ephesians 1:5Having predestinated us to the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of his will,
American King James Version×
in the New King James Version both use the phrase “adoption as sons” for the standing God gives us.

A number of versions, however, instead use the term “sonship” or something like it, as the New International Version does in Romans 8:15 Romans 8:15For you have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but you have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father.
American King James Version×
. In its entry on “adoption,” Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (1985) explains that the original Greek word here is “huiothesia … from huios, ‘a son,’ and thesis, ‘a placing,’ akin to tithemi, ‘to place’ ”—so the placing as a son. Scholars have noted that this word was used a few times in the ancient Greek world in reference to adoption, and that is certainly fitting.

Adoption means taking a child of other parents as one’s own son or daughter. It is a wonderful and noble act to provide a home and family to one who needs it—and it is typically a great blessing to both the adoptive parents and the child. There are many who accept and love their adopted children as much as they would a child of their own body—as well they should, for he or she is a human being made in the image of God. (Consider that Jesus Christ Himself was essentially adopted by Joseph, who was not His real father—that being God the Father.)

Yet there are problems in applying the terminology of adoption to our relationship with God.

Some might imagine that we are transferred from our biological parentage or from the devil as a father (see John 8:44 John 8:44You are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father you will do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and stayed not in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaks a lie, he speaks of his own: for he is a liar, and the father of it.
American King James Version×
) to God as our new parent. Yet all human beings are ultimately God’s offspring from the start even biologically (Acts 17:28-29 Acts 17:28-29 28 For in him we live, and move, and have our being; as certain also of your own poets have said, For we are also his offspring. 29 For as much then as we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Godhead is like to gold, or silver, or stone, graven by are and man’s device.
American King James Version×
)—as He was the Father of Adam and Eve by creation (Luke 3:38 Luke 3:38Which was the son of Enos, which was the son of Seth, which was the son of Adam, which was the son of God.
American King James Version×
) and because He is involved in the procreative process in the womb (Psalms 139:13-16 Psalms 139:13-16 13 For you have possessed my reins: you have covered me in my mother’s womb. 14 I will praise you; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made: marvelous are your works; and that my soul knows right well. 15 My substance was not hid from you, when I was made in secret, and curiously worked in the lowest parts of the earth. 16 Your eyes did see my substance, yet being imperfect; and in your book all my members were written, which in continuance were fashioned, when as yet there was none of them.
American King James Version×
).

Satan has been a father to people only in the sense of wielding dominion and influence over them and raising them in his way. Yet they are truly God’s children—and He redeems them (buys them back) through His plan of salvation. Moreover, when God spiritually engenders us as His own children, produced from His own being, this in no way equates to adoption.

Vine’s states: “The KJV, ‘adoption of children’ is a mistranslation and misleading. God does not ‘adopt’ believers as children; they are begotten as such by His Holy Spirit through faith.” This is important to recognize—as it directly impacts our destiny. In human adoption, the adopted children are human just as much as the new parents—yet only because the children were adopted from other human parents who physically begot them. But if God merely adopted us and did not truly beget us in His image, we would be different kinds of beings from Him altogether—as He would not be adopting us from others like Himself. It could be likened in some sense to adopting a pet as a family member (albeit one that could talk).

Sadly, this is close to what many envision—that we are and forever will be totally different, lesser kinds of beings than God. And so they have no problem with taking the Greek word in question in the verses we’ve seen to mean adoption. But this notion of God’s purpose for us is not the truth, as Scripture makes clear that God actually begets us spiritually in His own image—with the intention that we ultimately become the same kind of beings He and Jesus Christ now are.

So what was Paul talking about? While huiothesia (placing or setting as a son) was certainly applicable to adoption, Paul obviously meant it in a different sense.

We can start to see what he means in Galatians 4:1-5 Galatians 4:1-5 1 Now I say, That the heir, as long as he is a child, differs nothing from a servant, though he be lord of all; 2 But is under tutors and governors until the time appointed of the father. 3 Even so we, when we were children, were in bondage under the elements of the world: 4 But when the fullness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, 5 To redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons.
American King James Version×
, where the NIV translates the word as “full rights of sons.” Notice why from the context: “What I am saying is that as long as the heir is a child, he is no different from a slave, although he owns the whole estate. He is subject to guardians and trustees until the time set by his father. So also, when we were children, we were in slavery under the basic principles of the world. But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons” (Galatians 4:1-5 Galatians 4:1-5 1 Now I say, That the heir, as long as he is a child, differs nothing from a servant, though he be lord of all; 2 But is under tutors and governors until the time appointed of the father. 3 Even so we, when we were children, were in bondage under the elements of the world: 4 But when the fullness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, 5 To redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons.
American King James Version×
, NIV).

Note that in the parallel the one receiving the huiothesia (the setting as a son) was already the child of his father who was setting him as such. So this circumstance was not adoption.

Paul’s imagery fit well with the Roman world of the time. Historian Will Durant tells us: “The child found itself absorbed into the most basic and characteristic of Roman institutions—the patriarchal family. The power of the father was nearly absolute … He alone of the family had any rights before the law in the early Republic … Over his children he had the power of life, death, and sale into slavery” ( The Story of Civilization, Vol. 3: Caesar and Christ, 1972, p. 57). By Paul’s day this had softened somewhat, but it was still generally the case.

During a boy’s teen years, his father would determine when it was time for him to pass from childhood to adulthood—typically around 14 or a little later. In a formal public ceremony, having put aside his childhood toga, he would appear in the toga virilis (toga of manhood), mark of citizenship and his right to now vote in the assembly:

“When the boy was ready, the procession to the Forum began. The father had gathered his slaves, freedmen, clients, relatives and friends, using all his influence to make his son’s escort numerous and imposing. Here the boy’s name was added to the list of citizens, and formal congratulations were extended … Finally they all returned to the house, where the day ended with a dinner party given by the father in honour of the new Roman citizen” (Roman Children,” ClassicsUnveiled.com).

A son’s status was elevated at this point. He was now legally invested with all the rights, powers and privileges of a son and heir of his father—and of a citizen.

This coming of age at maturity must be what Paul is referring to. God has begotten us as His children. And in one sense He reckons us as already having reached a certain maturity—considering us beyond the status of being as slaves to being set as sons with certain privileges (even though we are as mere babes!). Yet the fullness of our coming of age is yet future—at the time of “the revealing of the sons of God” in the resurrection (Romans 8:19 Romans 8:19For the earnest expectation of the creature waits for the manifestation of the sons of God.
American King James Version×
).

Notice Romans 8:23 Romans 8:23And not only they, but ourselves also, which have the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body.
American King James Version×
in the New Living Translation: “And even we Christians, although we have the Holy Spirit within us as a foretaste of future glory, also groan to be released from pain and suffering. We, too, wait anxiously for that day when God will give us our full rights as his children [ huiothesia ], including the new bodies he has promised us.”

So these verses from Paul do not in any way take away from our destiny as God’s full and literal children. Indeed, they only confirm and clarify this incredible biblical truth!