Adoption brings blessings into every part of a believer’s life. It affects his relationship to God, to the world, to his future, to himself, and to his brothers and sisters in God’s family. Thus, the biblical doctrine of adoption is central to a proper understanding of every important aspect of the Christian’s life. The Puritans would agree with Packer: “Sonship must be the controlling thought—the normative category, if you like—at every point.”1Packer, Knowing God, 190. All relationships are put into their proper context only when believers grasp what God has done in adopting them as His children.
Christ Himself is the best proof of this truth. Jesus’ consciousness of His unique sonship with the Father controlled all of His living and thinking. As Jesus says in John 5:30, “I seek not mine own will, but the will of the Father which hath sent me,” and in John 10:30, “I and my Father are one.” “If I do not the works of my Father, believe me not,” Jesus says in John 10:37, and, “As my Father hath sent me, even so send I you” (John 20:21). More than thirty times in the Gospel of John, Jesus speaks of God as “my Father.”
Though the relationship of God the Father and God the Son is an obvious truth in the Gospels, what is not so obvious is how Jesus urges His disciples to let their thoughts and lives be controlled by the conviction that God is now their Father and they are His children. Jesus repeatedly cites sonship with the Father as the foundation of Christian discipleship. He tells His disciples that they are to be examples of trusting in their Father, enjoining them, “Take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed?…for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things” (Matt. 6:31–32). The disciples’ whole lives must be directed to glorifying their Father in heaven and doing His will, so Jesus teaches them to pray: “Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven” (vv. 9–10). The child of God is to live his whole life in relation to his Father, remembering that the Father has promised to give him His kingdom.
Practically speaking, the significance of adoption has great implications, as the New England Puritan John Cotton (1584–1652) particularly shows us. Our adoption transforms the following:
Our relationship to God
When the gospel breaks in upon us, we are led by the Spirit to discover the amazing truth that God is now our Father in Christ Jesus. The heartbeat of daily Christian experience is to live in fellowship with the Father and with the Son. A true Christian lives under God’s fatherly love, wisdom, care, guidance, and discipline.
People are hungry for security today. They look for it in all kinds of places and things, but they often go about it the wrong way. The only place in the universe where true security can be found is in the household of the heavenly Father, who is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. There is no security outside of fellowship with God the Father through the Lord Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit.
Many people are discovering that things that once gave them security are now failing them. They are facing failure in business or employment, or in relationships with family members and friends. The human race is beset with crises and catastrophes caused by terrorism, war, disease, famine, and death. Life is uncertain; the very ground under our feet is crumbling away. The most powerful corporation on earth may fold in the next recession. We learn that nothing in life is secure except God. He alone does not change (Mal. 3:6; Heb. 13:8).
Are you looking for security in the fatherhood of God? Are you daily being led deeper into the experience of His faithfulness as your Father? Jesus taught His disciples this truth in many ways. For example, He urged His followers to think about God’s fatherly love by comparing it to the love of human fathers. He said in Matthew 7:11, “If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him?”
The comparison is between earthly fathers, who are evil (i.e., they have fallen natures, with flaws, failures, and sins), and the heavenly Father, who is goodness itself, and whose love never falters or changes, even when we sin against Him. God’s fatherhood is flawless, in spite of our shortcomings that compel us to confess with Cotton: “Surely I am not a child of God, because I find much pride in my heart, and much rebellion and corruption in my spirit. Surely if I were born of Christ, I should be like him. But what says St. John here? We are the sons of God even now, though there is much unbelief in our hearts, and much weakness and many corruptions within us.”2John Cotton, An Exposition of First John (reprint, Evansville, Ind.: Sovereign Grace Publishers, 1962), 319. Even so, Jesus shows us that our heavenly Father’s love toward us is eternal, expansive, and glorious beyond imagination.
I do not know what your experience of human fatherhood has been. Some of us had no real relationships with our earthly fathers at all; some had or have good relationships with our fathers, and others had or have disappointing, even bitter, ones. Everything that fails in human fatherhood is corrected in God’s fatherhood. Everything good we experience in human fatherhood is a mere shadow of the full and perfect fatherhood of God.
If you are a father, you know how your heart sometimes aches and cries out with love for your children. Imagine multiplying that love by infinity. Then realize how even that falls short of the love of God for His people. Have you yielded to the embrace of your heavenly Father? Oh that you would allow yourself to partake of His immeasurable fatherly love!
To increase His people’s appreciation for God’s fatherhood, Jesus urges them to think of His own relationship to God the Father. We need to ponder the wonder of this, especially in the context of daily afflictions, remembering that Jesus experienced His Father’s love even while undergoing daily afflictions in this life. When you are under God’s discipline and He is permitting trials to fall upon you, remember that these difficulties are evidence of your Father’s love (Heb. 12:5–11). As a loving Father, God has a plan, a purpose, a vision for His people that embraces every affliction and heartache, every trial and hardship.
As parents, we dream of what our children might become when they grow up. Likewise, God has a vision for His children. He knows precisely what He wants them to be and become. He knows how He will mold and train them according to His plan, and inevitably, that involves discipline, because God will not permit His children to be less than what He intends them to be. He uses His fatherly discipline for their welfare (Lam. 3:31–33; Heb. 12:10). If we are born-again believers, we must ask for wisdom to see everything in our lives as coming not by chance, but from the hand of God our Father, who has adopted us as His own children.
Our relationship to the world
The believer’s adoption by God the Father also affects his relationship to the world. First John 3:1b tells us that this relationship is a troubled one: “Therefore the world knoweth us not, because it knew him not.” On the one hand, the believer shares with Jesus the infinite, eternal, and unchanging love of the Father, but on the other hand, he shares with Jesus the hostility, estrangement, and hatred of the world. The reason the world does not know (recognize or acknowledge) the children of God is because it does not know Jesus.
The world is baffled by what happens to God’s people, for it cannot understand why they love what they love and hate what they hate. This reaction of the world is another evidence of the believer’s adoption into God’s family, for the world did not know Jesus either: “He came unto his own, and his own received him not” (John 1:11). He was in the world that He had created, but the world did not recognize or receive Him as the Son of God. Ultimately, it crucified Him. “If God saw it meet that his Son should be thus afflicted in the world and drink of such a bitter portion of God’s wrath,” writes Cotton, “let us not think we shall go to heaven and partake of those heavenly mansions which Christ has prepared for us, without also drinking of the same cup that he drank of. Let us account ourselves happy that God will so esteem us as to make us his sons.”3Cotton, First John, 318.
When a sinner is born again and brought into God’s family, he comes to know the great blessings of deliverance in Christ. But the believer also discovers that worldly people no longer understand him. For example, when God converted me at age fourteen, I had to break some of my closest friendships to remain faithful to God. One friend was puzzled. “I thought I knew you, but I do not know what has happened to you,” he said. “I cannot understand you. Suddenly we are living in two different worlds.”
Believers and unbelievers do live in different worlds, in different kingdoms, in different families. That cannot help but have serious consequences. But adoption into God’s family means that we must be willing, for Christ’s sake, to live as His followers in the world even if we are misunderstood, rejected, despised, and hated, all the while giving no unnecessary offense to the world.
Our relationship to the future
John goes on to say, “Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2). The prospects for God’s adopted family are great, for His children will receive a glorious inheritance. They cannot even imagine the extent of that inheritance. God keeps that hidden, says Cotton, so that they may (1) be like their suffering Head, (2) have their faith exercised and be watchful, and (3) be tolerated to some degree in this world, for “if God should allow them to be perfectly holy in this world, the men of the world would not allow them to live among them long (Deut. 7:22).”4Cotton, First John, 320–21.
Here and now, in this world, we are God’s children, even though the world does not understand us. But we have something much greater in store for us —the infinite riches in glory that God the Father has laid up for us in Christ Jesus. God’s child is like a poor peasant who has been taken out of the mire and raised to the position of a prince of the realm. The adopted prince lives in the palace, has free access to the king, and enjoys the king’s favor, love, and protection. The prince tells the king he cannot comprehend the greatness of the king’s love. It is unspeakably great to him. The king responds: “You have not begun to see the extent of it. What you have now is only a foretaste. Your inheritance is still coming to you.”
If our present privileges as God’s adopted children are so great that the world cannot grasp them, our future prospects are so glorious that even we cannot grasp them. As 1 Corinthians 2:9 says, “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him.” Because God is our Father and we are His adopted children, we have a full inheritance awaiting us. The best is yet to be. Today we experience great blessings, despite our infirmities and sins, but one day we shall be received up into glory, free from sin and in perfect communion with God. Our heavenly Father keeps the best surprises for His children until the end, when He shall turn all their sorrow into joy.
Likewise, today we look at Christ by faith. Though what we see is shadowy and dim (as “through a glass, darkly,” 1 Cor. 13:12), we are being changed from glory to glory by the Spirit of the Lord (2 Cor. 3:18). One day all shadows will be removed. We will see Christ as He is, in all His glory. Moreover, God is shaping us to share in the glories of our Lord Jesus Christ. As 1 John 3:2 says, “When he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is.” God is changing us now, but then we shall be so changed that we will fully bear His image without spot or wrinkle. Paul tells us in Romans 8:19–23 that the whole creation waits for the day when the inheritance of the children of God will be given to them. What a future!
Our relationship to ourselves
The children of the heavenly Father know His will and purpose for them. Every adopted child of God also knows that holiness is an important part of God’s purpose for his happiness in God’s family. As 1 John 3:3 says, “And every man that hath this hope in him purifieth himself, even as he is pure.”
In holiness, the child of God identifies himself with his Father’s purposes. Sometimes children resent their father’s purposes, but the true adopted son of God identifies with his Father’s purpose for him. He does not try to find himself apart from his Father in heaven, but in his Father’s will. Because seeking God’s purposes for one’s life is inseparable from the pursuit of holiness, the believer gives himself to the purpose that his Father has for him.
John tells us, “Every man that hath this hope in him purifieth himself” (3:3). So we are to purify ourselves daily, “[laying] aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us” (Heb. 12:1). As Colossians 3 tells us, holiness means putting off everything that is dishonoring to our Father, who has loved us, and to the Savior, who died to save us. It means putting on “mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, longsuffering” (3:12). Purifying ourselves involves “the whole man,” says Cotton, including what we do with our minds, affections, wills, thoughts, tongues, eyes, hands, disappointments, injuries, and enemies.5Cotton, First John, 331. Purifying ourselves involves loving all that the Father loves and hating all that the Father hates. From the moment of conversion to the time we take our final breath, we have one pursuit: to purify ourselves before our Father in order to be more like Christ.
The Greek word for “purify” refers to being restored to undivided allegiance or having one’s eyes on one thing. It means praying as David prayed, “Unite my heart to fear thy name” (Ps. 86:11c). It implies wholeness and singleness of purpose, the very opposite of being “doubled minded” (James 1:8). It means having undivided motives in our living and our service, being wholly dedicated to living to glorify Jesus Christ. Christians become known as sons of God because they have a new goal for themselves, a new relationship toward themselves. By God’s grace, they purify themselves even as Christ is pure.
Our relationship to the family of God
If we rightly understand that we have been adopted into God’s family (note the usage of the plural throughout 1 John 3:1–2), our attitude toward our brothers and sisters in the family will also be affected (3:14–18). We have not been adopted to live apart from that family but to live within it. God’s purpose in adopting children is to create a household or family, that reflects His gracious purpose that will one day be fulfilled in heaven. He wants the love that exists between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit to be extended through the love between brothers and sisters in Christ. As Cotton says, “The sons of God ought to be the men of our love and delight (3 John 1, 2, 5; 1 Pet. 2:11; Phil. 4:1).”6Cotton, First John, 316.
The communion of saints is essential to the gospel. That is why it is so grievous when people in the church do not show love to one another. If we profess a Savior who in love laid down His life for us, and claim that we are part of His family, we ought to be willing to lay down our lives for other members of that family. We should uphold them, love them, and sacrifice for them. We should not grieve each other, wound each other, or gossip about each other. The way we behave toward other Christians proves whether or not we are adopted children of God (3:14–15). We are to love fellow adoptees of God, Cotton says, because of (1) “God’s singular love to them,” (2) “their love to God,” and (3) “the truth that is in every Christian believer (2 John 1, 2).”7Cotton, First John, 317.
If we show little love to other children of God, we prove that we have tasted little of God’s love in our lives, for those who have experienced much love from Him cannot help but love others. Those who have not tasted the love of God will not love the brethren. As Cotton concludes, “The lack of love to any of our brethren is a sign of abiding in the state of damnation, or in an unregenerate and carnal state.”8Cotton, First John, 372.
The Beauty & Glory of the Father
Joel R. Beeke