Adoption: The Merriam Webster dictionary defines adoption today as follows:
adopt: verb ə-ˈdäpt - to take a child of other parents legally as your own child
This modern definition is not the idea we should import into our thinking when we read a passage of scripture mentioning adoption. It is true of course that the new birth brings a new believer into the family of God. But biblical adoption is actually speaking of something else, something more; it is the official declaration of the Father that the son is just that, a son. The Greek New Testament word for adoption is huiothesia which means to "place as a son". To begin, we read a key scripture on the topic:
Galatians 4:1-7 1 Now I say that the heir, as long as he is a child, does not differ at all from a slave, though he is master of all, 2 but is under guardians and stewards until the time appointed by 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 had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, 5 to redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption as sons. 6 And because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into your hearts, crying out, “Abba, Father!” 7 Therefore you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ. nkjv
The background and context of Galatians is important and so is the cultural understanding of this topic at that time in history. We must remember that CONTEXT is always paramount in interpreting scripture:
Paul writes to believers in Galatia who are being pressured to be circumcised and to put themselves under the law of Moses as a rule of life (See Gal. 3:3 that proves more than justification is in view-but rather a life rule is being pressed by the Judaizers)
Paul will show that the law-principle is akin to slavery, while the grace principle is tied to sonship, thereby illustrating the danger of returning to the law principle. The believer is a son, not a slave. Do not return to the yoke of slavery.
1st century sonship / adoption was a Hebrew, Roman, and even a Greek practice, with varied applications for each culture. The metaphor was known and meaningful to all living in that era.
The background usually involved a wealthier family, having a son who has reached a certain age, and the Father chooses when to make the declaration of his sonship. A great many privileges and responsibilities come to the newly declared son at that time of the Father's declaration of adoption.
The Torah had no direct teaching on the subject of adoption though theological teachings were given (like Psalm 2:7) that spoke of the nation Israel as God's son (nationally-not individually).
Galatians 4:5 tells us that the believer's redemption brings him into the adoption. In other words, at CONVERSION, the believer is placed/declared as a son by God. We also learn that his adoption as a child of God was determined by God in eternity past: God "predestined us to the adoption of sons through Jesus Christ" (Eph 1:5). The believer does not merit this adoption, rather, it is the outworking of God's love, mercy, and grace.
The importance of this cannot be overemphasized. Let us again pay attention to the two things Galatians is contrasting:
Slavery is tied to the law principle. The law makes demands - the flesh being at enmity cannot meet it.
Sonship is tied to adoption. The minor child is now a son, and is brought into the privileges of administering the Father's possessions, by the declaration the Father has made concerning sonship/adoption.
This is why we must continually guard against thinking of the New Testament doctrine of adoption from our current cultural practice. In the scripture "being added into the family" is NOT in view in adoption. Rather, it is the declaration the Father is making of the position, responsibilities, and privileges of the son now has, having moved (by the Father's declaration) from being a minor, under the guardianship of those in the household that were over him....into the position of a son. How interesting it is to think about the minor child in such a home, gradually becoming aware of his coming status, yet for a time being under guardians as a minor. Surely over time he became anxious to get out from under the tutors/guardians over him, to the place and position where he in reality would be over them.
In Galatians, the guardian was the law, but once the sonship has been declared, the minor child is now a son, and no longer under the guardian. It cannot be more clear with regard to the believer and the law of Moses, that the Torah made demands of him and was his guardian until the adoption as a son.
It is true that in the cultural practice of adoption, the child was in the family from birth until adoption, being a minor until then. In the NT teaching we see that the status of being added into the family (new birth) and sonship are simultaneous, rather than separated by a period of time as was the cultural practice.
CONVERSION is the time a believer becomes a son, is placed as a son. The Father has said so. Let us not return the law-principle and act as slaves under a guardian, when we have been declared by the Father to be sons.
The believer's adoption into the family of God declares his release from the slavery of sin and the law principle and into a new position as a free heir of God - meaning - sonship/adoption.
The entrance into salvation brings with it the rights and privileges of that free sonship: "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" (Rom 8:15). Both Galatians 4 and Romans 8 tell of this wonderful heart-cry "Abba, Father". There is an intimacy of relationship with God as Father in contrast to the ownership of slavery. It happens at conversion, and is a declaration of the Father, and the new believer (male/female/boys/girls) can begin to understand and grow into the privileges and responsibilities of sonship into which he has been brought. It is an awesome thing to be such an heir.
John 15:15 seems to allude to this truth where the Lord Jesus said: "No longer do I call you servants, for a servant does not know what his master does; but I have called you friends, for all the things that I heard from My Father I have made known to you." Here we see a tender additional meaning in the contrast between sons/friends vs. servants/slaves. Particularly, the slave is told what to do, but never why, for he is a slave. The son/friend enters into the thoughts of the Lord, and in measure is made aware of the reasons and purposes for various activities. The son participates in the Father's work from a far more wonderful perspective of nearness, in joy and fellowship...and RESPONSIBILITY
This is remarkable. This is adoption.
There are other aspects to biblical adoption that are yet future: freedom from this present corruption, being like Him- fully conformed to His image, all of which could extend the teaching herein considerably.
Some will argue that if we do not have the "law" to control behavior, people become lawless, and thus the charge of antinomianism arises. But the New Testament does not teach this perspective, rather two things are given with regard to behavior. 1. The believer is to walk in the Spirit (Rom 8:4), and 2. The believer looks forward to the coming & revelation of Christ (I John 3:2-3) and that is a powerful incentive to holiness. "Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. And everyone who has this hope in Him purifies himself, just as He is pure." What the law demands - but man cannot meet - the indwelling Spirit brings to pass...thus we read that the holy character of a believer is the FRUIT of the SPIRIT in Galatians 5.
Also: There is a great breadth of teaching in the New Testament that does speak of the slavery of believers, being slaves to God. Our translations often use the weaker "servant" or "bondservant" terms, to our detriment. It is from a different perspective that the believer in Christ is a slave-than what the law-slavery encompassed. Adoption speaks to the sonship/heir status of a believer, in contrast to the law principle, working with the father in privilege, joy and responsibility. NT Slavery - in the sense where a believer is a slave after conversion, speaks more to the rights of God with regard to the believer and also that the Lord possesses the believer. This is not the same type of possession that a law principle has in view.... unfortunately this is a topic much too broad for a postscript here. We merely add it for an explanatory recognition of another NT truth.