The triune God delights in family planning. Unlike most modern human family planning, which is restrictive and limiting, God’s plans for His family are expansive and enlarging. Spiritual adoption—the wonderful teaching that every genuine Christian is an adopted child in God’s family—is a foundational and vital factor that God uses to fulfill His plans for His family.
The doctrine of spiritual adoption, which the Puritans defined as “an act of God’s free grace, whereby we are received into the number, and have a right to all the privileges, of the sons of God” (Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q. 34), is addressed in several places in the New Testament. Romans 8:14–16 and Galatians 4:4–6 may be the most familiar to us, but adoption is also a frequent theme in the first epistle of John. Particularly in 1 John 3:1–3, the apostle lays before us the central and major New Testament themes of the fatherhood of God and the corresponding sonship of believers. We do not have to read far in the New Testament before we realize that these themes are of critical importance for the entirety of the Christian life. Where there is some degree of spiritual maturity, some realization of our sonship to the heavenly Father, this Father-son relationship undergirds our prayer; indeed, it controls our entire outlook on life. Much of what Christ taught us can be summarized in the precious doctrine of the fatherhood of God. The revelation of God’s fatherhood to the believer is, in a sense, the climax of the Scriptures and one of the greatest benefits of salvation.
John begins the third chapter of his first epistle with a call for believers to drop everything and consider the great doctrine of adoption. “Behold!” is John’s opening cry. He is saying, “Look at this!” The apostle is so overwhelmed with the wonder of God’s adoption of believers that he is determined to direct everyone’s attention to it. He asks us to gaze with him upon this wonder: “Behold, what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us that we should be called the sons of God” (v. 1). It is as if John asks: “Do you know the wonder of this precious truth? Have you, by faith, apprehended this magnificent doctrine of adoption?”
John’s sense of astonishment is more evident in the original Greek. The Greek interrogative, potapos, originally meant, “from what country or realm?” It later came to mean more generally, “of what sort or manner?” Matthew 8:27 uses the same idiom to express how astonished the disciples were when Jesus calmed the winds and the sea: “What manner of man is this (literally, ‘from what realm does this man come?’), that even the winds and the sea obey him!
God’s adoption of believers is something unparalleled in this world. This fatherly love has come to us from another realm. The world does not understand such love, for it has never seen anything like it. It is beyond the realm of ordinary human experience.
John is astonished because God shows such amazing love even though we are by nature outcasts, rebels, and enemies to Him and His kingdom. God call us the sons of God; that is, He brings us into His family, giving us the name, the privileges, and all the blessings of His own children. He invites us to know Him as Father and to dwell under His protection and care, and to come to Him with all our cares and needs. John is overwhelmed at the thought of being received and acknowledged as a member of God’s family.
Have you ever considered what a stupendous wonder adoption is? Wilhelmus à Brakel (1635–1711) put it this way: “From being a child of the devil to becoming a child of God, from being a child of wrath to becoming the object of God’s favor, from a child of condemnation to becoming an heir of all the promises and a possessor of all blessings, and to be exalted from the greatest misery to the highest felicity—this is something which exceeds all comprehension and all adoration.”1Wilhelmus à Brakel, The Christian’s Reasonable Service, trans. Bartel Elshout, ed. Joel R. Beeke (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 1999), 2:419.
Perkins (1558–1603) said that a believer should esteem his adoption as God’s child to be greater than being “the childe or heire of any earthly Prince [since] the sonne of the greatest Potentate may be the childe of wrath: but the child of God by grace, hath Christ Iesus to bee his eldest brother, with whom he is fellow heire in heaven; hee hath the holy Ghost also for his comforter, and the kingdome of heauen for his euerlasting inheritance.” Perkins lamented how few people realize this experientially: “At earthly preferments men will stand amazed; but seldome shall you finde a man that is rauished with ioy in this, that hee is the childe of God.”2Workes of Perkins, 3:138 (2nd pagination).
The Puritans believed that God’s act of adoption is astonishingly comprehensive. Most Puritans placed their treatment of adoption in the ordo salutis between justification and sanctification, following the order set forth by the Westminster divines. Logically, that makes considerable sense, given the inevitable ties between justification and adoption, and between sanctification and adoption. Other Puritans, however, pointed out that though adoption can at times be viewed as one aspect of salvation, or one part of the ordo salutis, at other times it can be understood best as comprehending all of soteriology. For example, Stephen Marshall (1594–1655) writes, “Though sometimes in the holy Scriptures our Sonship is but one of our Priviledges, yet very frequently in the Scripture all the Beleevers do obtain from Christ in this world and the world to come, here and to eternity, all is comprehended in this one, That they are made the Children of God.” Marshall goes on to cite several examples. He writes, “I know not how often the whol Covenant of Grace is expressed in that word, I wil be their Father, they shal be my children.” He also invites readers to consider Ephesians 1:5, where, he says, Paul comprehends all of salvation “in this one expression, having predestinated us to the adoption of children.”3Works of Stephen Marshall, 37–38. Marshall also uses Romans 8:23 and the beginning of Galatians 4 to buttress Scripture’s frequent comprehensive use of adoption. Clearly, the Puritans ascribed a lofty and comprehensive place to the amazing wonder of adoption in their soteriology.
Do you stand in awe at the thought of this wonderful adopting love of the Father? Holy wonder and amazement is an important part of Christian experience. One of the devil’s tactics is to dull our sense of wonder, convincing us that we feel such wonder only in the initial stages of becoming a Christian. It is true that a sinner experiences a special sense of joy and wonder when he first comes to know Christ. We often refer to that time as the period of one’s “first love.” But John is writing here as an elderly man who has been a believer for more than sixty years. Yet his heart is still filled with amazement at being a son of God. He has never gotten beyond his initial sense of wonder at God’s comprehensive fatherly love.
The Beauty & Glory of the Father
Joel R. Beeke