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The Trinitarian Beauty of Adoption: The Father

Certain statements grab our imagination. For me, J.I. Packer’s assertion about the doctrine of adoption has provoked much thoughtful reflection. He wrote that adoption ‘is the highest privilege the gospel offers: higher even than justification.’[1]It is an amazing truth that when considered for an extended period should humble us and cause rejoicing in the relationship that we now have with the Triune God.

Yet, the striking reality is that while this blessing of our salvation is immense, the language of adoption is unique to Paul and only appears five time in his writings (Rom 8:15, 23; 9:4; Gal 4:5; Eph 1:5). Even while the language of God’s fatherhood and the sonship of particular people (i.e. Adam and David) and the nation of Israel, the concept of adoption never shows up in the Old Testament, and Paul only uses the language when he is writing to a church in a city under direct rule of Roman law.[2] Thus, what we see is that Paul reflects on what God has done in Christ and uses adoption as understood in Roman law as a metaphor for this reality.

Even while the language of adoption is used sparingly in the Bible, the importance of this doctrine is profound. Nevertheless, when we look at many standard treatments of Christian theology (i.e. Turretin, Bavinck, Berkhof, etc.) the doctrine of adoption is underdeveloped and/or subsumed into justification. However, in recent years there have been various studies which are starting to reclaim the doctrine of adoption. I want to argue that we cannot fully appreciate the nature of this doctrine unless we consider it in a Trinitarian perspective. In this I follow Herman Bavinck who stated:

The thinking mind situates the doctrine of the Trinity squarely amid the full-orbed life of nature and humanity. A Christian’s confession is not an island in the ocean but a high mountaintop from which the whole creation can be surveyed. And it is the task of Christian theologians to present clearly the connectedness of God’s revelation with, and its significance for, all of life. The Christian mind remains unsatisfied until all of existence is referred back to the triune God, and until the confession of God’s Trinity functions at the center of our thought and life.[3]

We have been adopted by the Father through the Son, by the Spirit into the family of God as sons and daughters, not by nature but by grace. It seems that examining the doctrine of adoption in its Trinitarian contours will only aid us in our grasping “how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ” (Eph 3:18).

God Our Father

When Jesus taught his disciples to pray, he started by telling them how to address the Lord. He said that when we pray we should say, “Our Father in Heaven.” We can often approach this language with well-worn acknowledgment. We are used to saying, “Our Father in Heaven.” We teach our children to pray “Dear Heavenly Father.” Yet it is overwhelming when we think about what we are saying. In this one phrase we are reminded of both the fatherly care, concern, and goodness of God. Our status as his children is implied in this one phrase. The affection of a father-child relationship is set before us. At the same time, it is stressed that this father is unlike any other father. He is the father on which all other fatherhood is based. The reason there are father-child relationships is because of this Father who is in heaven. This Father is the sovereign one, the majestic one. He is our Father in Heaven.We have been adopted by the Father through the Son, by the Spirit into the family of God as sons and daughters, not by nature but by grace. Click To Tweet

The fatherhood of God is brought to the fore in the book of Ephesians. Almost one-quarter of the times Paul uses the language of father in reference to God are found in this book (1:2, 3, 17, 2:18; 3:14-15; 4:6; 5:20; 6:23). It would not be an overstatement to say that to understand Ephesians we need to understand what the fatherhood of God means. Paul opens by greeting the Ephesians “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 2). Immediately following from this praise flows from his pen “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us” (v. 3). He proceeds to list the blessings that the Father has poured out on us: election (v. 4), predestination (v. 5), redemption (v. 7), and forgiveness (v. 7).

Nestled in the middle of this list of blessings that flow from the Father is adoption. Paul says that it was in love that the Father predestined us. The remarkable thing that Paul does here, however, is not just say that we are predestined, but that we are predestined to something. We are from eternity past predestined to a relationship. We are predestined for adoption to God as sons through Jesus Christ. As Paul continues to reflect on what the Lord has done through Christ by the Spirit to bring us into his family, he can do little more than turn in doxological praise to the “glorious Father” (v. 17).We are from eternity past predestined to a relationship. We are predestined for adoption to God as sons through Jesus Christ. Click To Tweet

It is the reality of God’s fatherhood and our adoption into his family that then charts the course for much of the rest of the book of Ephesians. In chapter 2 Paul picks up on this idea and says that our adoption into God’s family changes how we interact with each other in the church. Old hostilities and divisions have been destroyed for we have been brought into a new family, we are “members of the household of God” (2:19). In 3:14-15 Paul builds this ‘Father- adoption-household’ metaphor even more. Paul implicitly argues that if God is your Father, Caesar is not. One commentator put it this way, “It should be no surprise that… the Christians he [Paul] encountered swear allegiance to Caesar, the paterfamilias of the Empire. Early Christians would swear no such allegiance, because, like Paul, they had encountered another paterfamilias in God.”[4] If God is our Father, then our ultimate loyalty is to him. This then allows for the breaking down of divisions and secures the unity for which Paul prays in this passage.

The Westminster Confession of Faith says that this doctrine of adoption teaches us that because God is our father we are “pitied, protected, provided for, and chastened by him… yet never cast off”(XII.1). We have seen that all other fatherhood exists because of God’s fatherhood primarily to his Son and flowing from this to us his sons and daughters. There is something extremely comforting about knowing that God is our father. This relationship has been planned since before the foundation of the world. We have been adopted as sons and daughters into the family of the Triune God through the Son in the Spirit. Thus, we are able to pray “Our Father in Heaven.” We are able to turn to those in the church, people with whom often we have nothing in common and we embrace them as brothers and sisters. Finally, when the world demands that we choose sides, we are able to say that God is our father, the one who has our ultimate loyalty.

[1] J.I. Packer, Knowing God (Downers Grove: IVP, 1993), 206.

[2] Trevor J. Burke, Adopted into God’s Family: Exploring a Pauline Metaphor (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2006), 61. Burke does note that Galatia would have had significant Roman influence by the time of Paul’s writing.

[3] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics: God and Creation, vol. 2, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004), 330.

[4] J.M. Hollingshead, The Household of God Caesar and the Body of Christ: A Political Interpretation of the Letters from Paul (Lanham: University Press of America, 1998), 137. Cited in Burke, Adopted into God’s Family, 82.

Cameron Clausing

Cameron Clausing (Ph.D., University of Edinburgh) is the Lecturer in Applied Theology and Missional Engagement at Christ College, Sydney. He has been on the full-time staff at Christ College since 2021, prior to which he was a visiting Assistant Professor at Covenant College, Georgia, a Lecturer at Faith Mission Bible College in Edinburgh, an Assistant Pastor at Parish Presbyterian Church in Franklin, Tennessee, and a Missionary in Bogota, Colombia. He has edited The Sacrifice of Praise and the Guidebook for Instruction in the Christian Religion. Cameron is married to Taryn and they have two children.

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