Adoption or Sonship?
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.
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 says that Christians "have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father" (KJV). Verse 23 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" (9:4). Similarly, Galatians 4:5 and Ephesians 1:5 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. 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) to God as our new parent. Yet all human beings are ultimately God's offspring from the start even biologically (Acts 17:28-29)—as He was the Father of Adam and Eve by creation (Luke 3:38) and because He is involved in the procreative process in the womb (Psalm 139:13-16).
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 huio-thesia (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, 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" (verses 1-5, 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).
Notice Romans 8:23 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!
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