Pillar Journal

Beeke’s Book of the Month April 2023— Heirs with Christ: The Puritans on Adoption


This month, Heirs with Christ: The Puritans on Adoption by Dr. Joel Beeke is on sale for only $5 at Reformation Heritage Books. Enjoy this brief excerpt that introduces you to the fascinating subject of this book. (Note: All of the references in this article are properly footnoted in the full text of Heirs with Christ.)

“Reformed theologians, in general, and the Puritans, in particular, have gotten bad press for their supposed lack of teaching on adoption, that is, the biblical doctrine that every true Christian is God’s adopted child. In his otherwise excellent chapter titled, “Sons of God,” in the classic Knowing God, J. I. Packer writes, “Adoption has been little regarded in Christian history. Apart from two last-century books, now scarcely known (R.S. Candlish, The Fatherhood of God, R. A. Webb, The Reformed Doctrine of Adoption), there is no evangelical writing on it, nor has there been at any time since the Reformation, any more than there was before…. The Puritan teaching on the Christian life, so strong in other ways, was notably deficient [on adoption], which is one reason why legalistic misunderstandings of it so easily arise.” As recently as 1993, Douglas Kelly concurs, “As James I. Packer noted several years ago in Knowing God, Reformed Christians have failed to work through the doctrine of Adoption.” Statements such as these promote the familiar comment that adoption is the neglected aspect in the Reformed ordo salutis.

Such generalizations have found a degree of confirmation in the minimal attention that many Reformed systematic theologies give to adoption. For example, George Hill, Charles Hodge, W.G.T. Shedd, Augustus H. Strong, Robert L. Dabney, Louis Berkhof, and G. Henry Kersten, devote only one or two paragraphs to adoption at best. But this is by no means universally the case. William Ames, Francis Turretin, John Brown of Haddington, James Boyce, A.A. Hodge, Millard J. Erickson, James Garrett, and Robert Reymond, provide a more ample treatment of adoption (4-6 pages). Better yet, Thomas Watson, Samuel Willard, John Dick, Timothy Dwight, John Gill, James Boice, and Wayne Grudem, provide rather full treatments ranging from 9-13 pages. Most thorough, however, are Herman Witsius, The Economy of the Covenants Between God & Man (28 pages), and Robert Breckinridge, The Knowledge of God, Subjectively Considered (25 pages)—in fact, Breckinridge devotes more pages to adoption than to any other aspect of the ordo salutis! And, of course, let us not forget John Calvin, whose repeated references to adoption permeate his entire theology and “the whole ethos of the Christian life,” despite his lack of apportioning it a specific section in the Institutes.

But what about the Puritans? Is Erroll Hulse’s assertion correct that “the Puritans did little in exploring this truth apart from a few paragraphs here and there”?

The evidence suggests that adoption, though not developed as thoroughly as several closely knit doctrines such as justification, sanctification, and assurance, was certainly not a neglected topic among the Puritans. Treatment of the topic in the systematic theologies of William Ames, Thomas Watson, Samuel Willard, and Herman Witsius has already been noted. William Perkins, often denominated the father of Puritanism, addresses various aspects of adoption at some length in at least nine different places in his works. William Bates, Hugh Binning, Thomas Brooks, Anthony Burgess, Stephen Charnock, George Downame, John Flavel, Thomas Goodwin, William Gouge, Ezekiel Hopkins, Edward Leigh, and John Owen all provide some treatment of the subject. Other Puritans, such as Jeremiah Burroughs, Thomas Cole, Roger Drake, Thomas Hooker, Thomas Manton, Stephen Marshall, Richard Sibbes, John Tennent, and John Waite, preached one or more sermons on adoption.

So significant was the Puritan emphasis on adoption that the Westminster Divines were the first to include a separate chapter on the subject of adoption in a confessional statement: the Westminster Confession of Faith (chapter 12). The Larger Catechism (Q. 74) and the Shorter Catechism (Q. 34) also addressed it, as did numerous commentators of the Westminster standards ever since. Most importantly, some Puritans wrote entire treatises on adoption, including:

  • John Crabb, A Testimony concerning the VVorks of the Living God. Shewing how the mysteries of his workings hath worked many wayes in and amongst mankind. Or, The knowledge of God revealed, which shews the way from the bondage of darkness into the liberty of the Sons of God.
  • Simon Ford, The Spirit of Bondage and Adoption: Largely and Practically handled, with reference to the way and manner of working both those Effects; and the proper Cases of Conscience belonging to them both.
  • M.G., The Glorious Excellencie of the Spirit of Adoption.
  • Thomas Granger, A Looking-Glasse for Christians. Or, The Comfortable Doctrine of Adoption.
  • Cotton Mather, The Sealed Servants of our God, Appearing with Two Witnesses, to produce a Well-Established Assurance of their being the Children of the Lord Almighty or, the Witness of the Holy Spirit, with the Spirit of the Beleever, to his Adoption of God; briefly and plainly Described.
  • Samuel Petto, The Voice of the Spirit. Or, An essay towards a discoverie of the witnessings of the Spirit.
  • Samuel Willard, The Child’s Portion: Or the unseen Glory of the Children of God, Asserted, and proved: Together with several other Sermons Occasionally Preached.

Sadly, none of these books have been reprinted, which, in part, serves to promote the misrepresentation that the Puritans rarely addressed this subject.

The Puritan bibliographical materials recorded in this introduction amount to approximately 800 pages of writing on the doctrine of spiritual adoption. As far as I know, no one to date has recognized the significant amount of work done by the Puritans on this subject, nor has anyone ever done a study on it. When one considers that the Puritans regarded adoption to be the climax of the ordo salutis, as well as how extensively Puritan theology has been studied, it is astonishing that this subject has never been examined before.

This little book only begins to redress this neglect by letting the Puritans speak for themselves, for the most part; perhaps the footnotes will stimulate others to pick up where I have left off. Throughout, I show how Puritanism recognized adoption’s far-reaching, transforming power and comfort for the sons and daughters of God.”