The doctrine of adoption in the order of salvation reveals God’s glory. J I. Packer said of adoption that it is “the highest privilege that the gospel offers”.1 John Murray offered similar sentiments when he wrote that adoption is the “apex of grace and privilege” in the gospel.2 Murray continued to point out that the grace of adoption is inconceivable had God not revealed it.3 Joining these men who possessed a high view of the doctrine of adoption must begin with an understanding of what it teaches. The place to start is with a good definition. Ligon Duncan offered the following definition, “adoption means that God graciously takes us for His own children. He welcomes us into His family.”4 Consequently, we can say that adoption is the doctrine that deals with the redemptive fatherhood of God.
A systematic outline of this doctrine can be found in The London Baptist Confession of Faith 1689 (LBCF1689). Consider the following quote from the confession:
All those that are justified, God vouchsafed, in and for the sake of his only Son Jesus Christ, to make partakers of the grace of adoption, by which they are taken into the number, and enjoy the liberties and privileges of the children of God, have his name put on them, receive the spirit of adoption, have access to the throne of grace with boldness, are enabled to cry Abba, Father, are pitied, protected, provided for, and chastened by him as by a Father, yet never cast off, but sealed to the day of redemption, and inherit the promises as heirs of everlasting salvation.
The framers of the LBCF 1689 sourced this chapter from the Westminster Confession of Faith. Its use in this Baptist confession shows the unity and agreement the framers had with the established reformed position on this doctrine. Samuel Waldron acknowledges that the framers of the LBCF 1689 used The Westminster Confession of Faith 1647 as a basic framework for the Baptist confession. He outlined that their purpose was to show the agreement between the Particular Baptists and the other reformed brethren in Britain regarding the foundational doctrines of the faith.5 This was necessary because the Particular Baptists existed in a society that was suspicious of them and ignorant to what they believed which lead to the prejudice associated with heretics.6 This reality links the truth of the aforementioned chapter to the wider historical development of the reformed tradition and by extension Protestant orthodoxy. In this way Reformed Baptists share in that history as well.
The historical background of the LBCF 1689 provides confidence that this chapter is communicating the reformed position on the doctrine of adoption. The chapter contains three general assertions which allow for a more manageable unpacking of its doctrine. These assertions will form the general outline of this section. They are: the recipients of adoption, the basis of adoption, and the blessings of adoption.
The confession begins by highlighting for us who are the persons adopted into God’s family. They are those who have been justified by faith in The Lord Jesus Christ. Here we see the link between the doctrines of justification and adoption. The truth taught here is that all those who are declared righteous by faith, through the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, are also adopted into God’s family. This is the case because the act of justification and adoption both occur within a legal context. Consider what the Apostle Paul said to the church in Rome.
Being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate. . . His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. Where then is boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? Of works? No, but by a law of faith. (Rom. 3:24-27)
Paul explains that the redemptive work of Christ for sinners was conducted in the context of law. Christ was the appeasement or satisfaction for God’s justice toward sinners to demonstrate the righteousness of God. This work allowed for God to remain the Just One because the believers’ sin and guilt was paid for through Christ’s substitutionary death. Conversely, the righteousness of Christ is gifted to the believer by faith. This is the great exchange that demonstrates God’s righteousness as the justifier of sinners to the praise of His glorious grace (2 Cor. 5:21).
Concerning adoption’s legal context, consider what the Apostle John wrote in his gospel. He said “But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (Jn. 1:12-13). The “right” given by God refers to the new status or standing granted to believers through Christ. Christ’s appeasement of God’s justice through His death, is the payment through which God buys out sinners. They become His in full through the action or working of adoption (1 Cor. 7:23). Geerhardus Vos states “by escaping His justice, they become His beloved children and their bodies and spirits can be called God’s.”7 This status change affords the believer the privilege of becoming part of God’s family. This is why Paul can say in Rom. 8:15 “but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, “Abba! Father!”” Holding these verses together, we see the immediate and permanent nature of the status change in adoption. The moment when faith is placed in Christ the believer receives the spirit of adoption, and their new standing as a child of God.8 This is significant because just as there is a permanent and immediate change of status in justification, we also observe a change of status in adoption. Just as the sinner’s status is changed from guilty to forgiven in justification on judicial grounds; so too is the sinner’s status changed from child of the devil and of wrath to the child of God in adoption (Eph. 2). The doctrines of justification and adoption are linked and yet distinct. They are linked in that they transport us to the Lord’s courthouse. Justification occurs in His criminal court where the sinner is pardoned. And adoption occurs in His family court, where the privilege of sonship is granted to the believer. The legality of adoption has to do with ownership rights. God Himself pays for the sinner to be transferred into His very own family as His child.9
The confession teaches us that this status change is a product of the grace of God. This is conveyed by the phrase “God vouchsafed”. To vouchsafe means to grant as a privilege or special favor, usually implying a condescension on the party granting the privilege.10 The goodness of God is captured by this tiny phrase. It signals to us that the adoption itself is a blessing and is bestowed freely as the outworking of His love. The scripture is clear on this as it says, “. . . In love He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, which He freely bestowed on us in the Beloved” (Eph. 1:4-6). God The Father had always planned to bring penitent sinners into His family. Additionally, this plan was framed in His love. This means that the blessing of adoption rests squarely on the Father’s love. Not merely in a general sense but as expressed through the believer’s union with the Person of His Son, Jesus Christ.
This truth is expressed in the confession where it states “in and for the sake of His Only Son Jesus Christ, to make partakers of the grace of adoption”. The major thought to be considered here is that the basis of the believer’s adoption rests solely in our spiritual connection with Christ. Galatians 4:4-5 says “But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, so that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons.”. Paul teaches that Christ was sent into the world by the Father to redeem those under the law, that is to be the means of recovering possession of, paying for, and rescuing by ransom those under the law. Ligon Duncan condensed this thought, highlighting that “adoption is enjoyed as one of the benefits we receive by virtue of our being “in Christ” and on the basis of who Christ is and what He has done on our behalf.”11 Rob Ventura outlined this truth by noting that the framers retained the language which suggests that the Lord Jesus Christ is the exclusive basis of adoption. He stated, “. . . the authors show us that they clearly understood that everything we receive as Christians comes to us, not by natural connection with Abraham or Moses, but exclusively through a spiritual connection with Christ.”12 Just as the Father’s bestowal of forgiveness in justification is grounded in the work of Christ, so too is the Father’s loving bestowal of sonship fixed in what Christ has done for the believer.
Thus far we have examined the assertions of the confession’s statement on adoption in terms of God’s gracious bestowal of the status of son. This is important and necessary to consider. However, it does not capture the full glory of what it means to be God’s child. Take note of the structure of the chapter. The majority of the statement is dedicated to listing the many blessings of adoption. It could be said that the framers understood that it was necessary to demonstrate the reality of the privileges of the child of God. A demonstration of these privileges is important because the scriptures are clear that sons carry the rights of an heir to God Himself. This is an example of one such blessing (Gal. 4:7, Rom. 8:17).
Considering the blessings or privileges of adoption should begin with the recognition that the adoption itself is a blessing. The confession states “the grace of adoption, by which they are taken into the number”, meaning that to be placed into the family of God is itself a blessing because it is by grace. This is what adoption is by definition as we saw previously. The glory of it, however, is captured by holding firm the context of the gospel. Believers were once part of the kingdom of darkness with the devil as their father; raging against God as their enemy (Col. 1:13, 21). But through union with Christ, God the Father in love, graciously transfers believers into the kingdom of Christ and His household; making them citizens and sons (Eph. 2:19). J I. Packer used the illustration of God’s nearness in the Old Testament versus the New Testament, in order to bring out this aspect of adoption. In the Old Testament, God is pictured at a distance while in the New Testament, He is the Holy God who brings sinners near, into His own family as joint heirs with Christ.13
According to the confession the children of God are privileged in four main ways, namely: we bear God’s name (Is. 62:1-2), receive the spirit of adoption (Rom. 8:15), have access to God’s throne (Eph. 2:18, Heb. 4:16, 10:19) and there are enabled to relate to Him as a child does to their father (Gal. 4:6). In summary, God takes ownership of believers as an immutable fact. This is indicated by the giving of His name and His Spirit to His children, empowering believers to enjoy relationship with God without hindrance as their new reality.
As children of their heavenly Father, the believers are “pitied, protected, provided for and chastened by Him.”. God treats His children with compassion (Ps. 103:13), powerfully protects them (Prov. 14:26), supplies their every need (1 Pet. 5:7, Matt. 6:26) and disciplines in love (Heb. 12:5-11). Note that these are the roles and functions of earthly fathers, through which their children know themselves loved. The confession shows this through the statement, “as by a father”, at the end of these particular blessings. Furthermore, God’s fatherly care extends for the preservation of His children. He protects, provides for and trains them because He will never cast them off. That is, He will never disown them (Heb. 13:5). Rather, the believers are kept from apostasy (Jude 24) and guaranteed His continual transformation of their lives precisely because they are His children (Phil. 1:6). This means that although God disciplines His children and purposes that they go through various tribulations, they will never be lost (Jn. 6:37-40).
The idea of heirship is inherent to the truth of adoption. As the children of God, believers are given the right to come into the inheritance of His promises. Peter said in his first epistle:
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to obtain an inheritance which is imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away, reserved in heaven for you” (1 Pet. 1:3-4)
The believer’s inheritance cannot perish, be reduced in quality or fade in glory. This is the case because believers inherit the promises of everlasting salvation as joint heirs through their union with Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:16-17). This means, as Thomas Ridgley explains, that all the blessings of salvation in Christ, those of this world and the next are granted to the children of God. He says in conclusion that “the blessings which are conferred upon us from our conversion to our glorification, are the privileges which God bestows on those who are His adopted children.”14 All of God’s promises which are described in scripture, are in Christ, confirmed and granted to the child of God as their right (2 Pet. 1:4, 2 Cor. 1:20). As God’s children we are assured now and forevermore of our inheritance from the Father through Jesus Christ our Lord (2 Tm. 2:13).
God’s truth is inexhaustible. Therefore, we can reap much more benefit from the truth and meaning of adoption. This is the realm of application. The reality of our adoption yields for us as individual believers the blessing and security of a new identity, an identity rooted in the Person and work of Christ. As He is immutable and His work finished, so too is our identity as His children, immutable and settled. Our adoption is not transient; it is a status applied to us forever. We are no longer defined by our sins but by the familial name of the true and living God. But the allure of identity politics in Western culture has grown on Christians. Many weak Christians are defining themselves according to their sins. This thinking and practice is contrary to God’s word. In the doctrine of adoption, we see that the Christian’s identity is not associated with sin, nor is it a construct of measuring oppression. Rather, it is the reality of liberty. Freedom from the guilt and oppression of sin, to be able to relate to God as Father, a privilege hard won by the Beloved (1 Cor. 6:20, Eph. 1:6).
In adoption we also see the relationship of the Father to His children. The confession outlines His fatherly care that shows His nearness to and love of His children. Through His actions they know themselves loved by Him and are affirmed of their standing as His children by the Spirit. There is great and valuable instruction here for earthly fathers. Our heavenly Father in adoption lays down the example and pattern for earthly fathers. Believers who never had a father or suffered under an abusive father have a potent example to follow. All they need to do is study how their heavenly Father cares for them, how God made them His sons, and how the He performs the role of father to them. Earthly fathers will learn the value of tenderness and compassion to their little ones, the courage and watchfulness involved in protecting and training, even the elation of rejoicing in the power they have to provide their children’s needs. Furthermore, they may even learn and engage in the process of adoption. Rescuing a child, not their own, from the status of fatherlessness and granting them the joy and blessing of an inheritance.
The final point in this treatment of applying the truth of adoption to the Christian life, strikes at the obvious. Christians call each other brother or sister. It is the truth of adoption that explains the connection of believers to each other in the congregation of the saints (1 Tm. 3:15). All those who are justified are granted the blessing of the grace of adoption. The family of God is a multitude, sharing a common faith, hope and love from the beginning of time till now. It is from this understanding that all true believers should resolve to love and preserve the unity of the church. This means that the truth of adoption is the basis of our encouragement to maintain unity and peace with each other (1 Cor. 1:10, Matt. 18:15ff). We cannot have church without the adoption of sons.
The LBCF 1689 affords us the big picture of the doctrine of adoption. It outlines the recipients of this grace and the Person and work upon which this grace was afforded. Lastly, the confession provides a list, not exhaustible but practical, for us to capture the grand privilege to be called and know ourselves as the children of God. The confession may be an introduction but the starting point is always the scriptures. They are the title deed of our adoption. The reality of our adoption is known by faith in the God of these scriptures as we endeavor to walk worthy of the Name we now bear.
1 James I Packer, Knowing God. (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1973), 206.
2&3 John Murray, Redemption: Accomplished and Applied. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1955), 134.
4 Ligon Duncan, “Adoption: Sons of the Father, in the Son, by the Spirit,” in Theology for Ministry: How Doctrine Affects Pastoral Life and Practice, ed. William R. Edwards, John C A. Fergusson, Chad Van Dixhoorn, (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing Company, 2022), 238.
5 Samuel Waldron, A Modern Exposition of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith. 5th ed. (Welwyn Garden City, UK: EP Books, 2016), 13.
6 Samuel D. Renihan, From the Shadow to the Substance: The Federal Theology of the English Particular Baptists (1642-1704). (Oxford, UK: Centre for Baptist History and Heritage, 2018), 108.
7 Geerhardus Vos, Reformed Dogmatics: A System of Christian Theology, trans. and ed. Richard Gaffin Jr. (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2020), 469.
8 John Murray, Redemption: Accomplished and Applied, 132
9 Charles H. Spurgeon, “An Act of Pure Grace,” Free Grace Broadcast, issue 246, Adoption (Winter 2018), 9-10.
10 Merriam-Webster Dictionary, s. v. “vouchsafe,” accessed March 6, 2023, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/vouchsafe.
11 Duncan, Theology for Ministry, 244
12 Rob Ventura, “Chapter 12 Of Adoption”, in A New Exposition of the London Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689, ed. Rob Ventura, (Scotland, GB: Mentor, 2022), 225-226.
13 James I Packer, Knowing God, 202-203.
14 Thomas Ridgley, A Body of Divinity: Wherein the Doctrines of the Christian Religion are Explained and Defended, vol. 3 (Philadelphia: William W. Woodward, 1815), 151. https://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/64185/pg64185-images.html#Page_146
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