Children of God by Adoption
In many circles, everyone is a child of God. “We are all God’s children” is commonly heard. On one level, there is truth in this. But what does the term “child of God” mean in the Bible? Christians know that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, but who are the “sons of God” that the New Testament refers to? They are God’s adopted children.
The Fatherhood of God in the Old Testament
Reading the Bible, we discover that God is not commonly portrayed as “our Father” in the Old Testament. One passage refers to God as the Father or Creator of humanity in general (Malachi 2:10). So in this sense, we are all children of God. A few verses refer to God as the Father of Israel (for example Deuteronomy 1:31 and 32:18). And in Psalm 68:5 God is called “a father to the fatherless.”
Though God could still be called the spiritual Father of all Old Testament believers, only several passages use “Father” in this way:
He will call out to me, ‘You are my Father, my God, the Rock my Savior.’ (Psalm 89:26)
But you are our Father, though Abraham does not know us or Israel acknowledge us; you, O Lord are our Father, our Redeemer from old is your name. (Isaiah 63:16)
The Fatherhood of God in the New Testament
But when we read the New Testament, we see that it overflows with references to God as “our Father,” to the “sons of god,” and to the “children of God.” Why is this? There really can only be one reason: the coming of Jesus Christ the “One and Only” Son of God into the world.
In the New Testament, the term sons of God is a generic term for children of God. Of course, it doesn’t refer only to men, but includes both men and women, adults and children. God brought forth Jesus his Son into the world so we could become his sons and daughters also. Jesus taught his disciples to pray “Our Father who is in heaven…” (Matthew 6:9). Through Christ we become personally related to the Father, not only in this life, but eternally.
In the incarnation, Christ came to identify with us—he became one of us. Then God provided that a special relationship with him be available through Christ. We now know that all those who have believed in him are “in Christ,” have been spiritually born of God, and belong to his family.
The New Birth
The Apostle and evangelist John states why his gospel was written:
… that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. (John 20:31)
This life is the eternal unchanging life of God that comes to dwell in those who have faith in Christ. And this life is given as a gift, given through our response of faith. The Apostle Peter wrote:
For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God. (1 Peter 1:23)
This is why believers in Jesus are said to be born again, or “born from above.” They have entered into eternal life with God because they have the very life of God—thus God himself—indwelling them. A child of God is something only God can produce—it is God’s work alone. So, it is not all of humanity who are the children of God, but those who come to faith in Christ. This sonship is by spiritual birth, not automatic through physical birth, and not natural based on our humanity.
Adopted Into the Family of God
In Ephesians Chapter One the Apostle Paul explains how God’s family came about:
For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will—to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves. (Ephesians 1:4-6)
Paul says that those who are God’s children were adopted by God. Adoption was not formally recognized by Jewish law, as the Jews had other means of dealing with orphaned children. But the Romans used adoption frequently in their culture. So, Paul used it in painting a picture of the salvation of the Gentiles.
The adoption process
An orphan is a child that has no legal permanent standing or connection to a family. Because of abandonment or tragedy that strikes the family, an orphan may be placed in an orphanage, or have temporary foster parents assigned by the government.
Many years ago, a few friends and I volunteered for a summer at a Catholic orphanage in the state of Michoacán, Mexico. The orphanage took in a number of unwanted children, including abandoned children, the children of prostitutes, and children rejected because of disabilities. We got to know these precious ones by living with them, sharing in their daily lives and struggles, and helping them move toward maturity. Very occasionally a family from the U.S. or Mexico would adopt a child. It was a joyous occasion for the adopted child, but for the others, maybe not so much. For the great majority of the children, the orphanage was their family.
Parents who adopt a child will communicate with the adoption agency which child they want to bring into their family. By the time they are ready to adopt the child, they have to be sure that this is the child they want.
Adoption a permanent relationship
Adopted children are not naturally born into the family but accepted by the adopting parents out of compassion and mercy. An adopted child receives a new home and new loving parents.
In the U.S., adoptions are permanent in most cases. A foster child can be given back if problems develop. But an adopted child can’t easily be sent back to the birth parents if things don’t work out. Once the parents make the decision and sign the papers, it is very difficult to go back. An adopted child belongs in the family from that time on.
This is the image the Bible uses to describe God’s mercy on his people. He permanently takes us into his family and loves and cares for us as his very own children forever.
Slaves versus Sons
On one occasion, the Jews who were listening to Jesus’ teaching complained when Jesus told them that they would be set free if they obeyed his teaching.
They answered him, “We are Abraham’s descendants and have never been slaves of anyone. How can you say that we shall be set free?” Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” (John 8:33-36)
To answer their question, Jesus used the allegory of a slave and a son. In a typical ancient Roman household, slaves had no personal rights. They were taken from their natural parents and sold as property. They worked in the home of their masters, who owned and controlled them and their future. But a son had full rights. Having a permanent legal status in the family, the son was truly free.
Even so, slaves could be adopted into another family with full rights and an inheritance. Even very prestigious and wealthy families adopted slaves who were then given large responsibilities, such as managing property.
How do we interpret Jesus’ allegory? Spiritually, we all start out as orphans and forcibly enslaved to serve in the house of a harsh task master. We are slaves to sin and to the dictates of the devil and the world. But when God has mercy on us, through faith in Christ he sets us free from the bondage of sin, to serve him as children in his household. We no longer have to obey the mandates of the devil and the world around us. We are now under the care of our loving Heavenly Father.
Destined to be like Christ
The term predestination has generated much discussion and disagreement among Christians. But in Ephesians 1:4-6 (quoted above) “predestined us for adoption” means that God’s plan from the beginning was to assemble a family of children through adoption. Although we never deserved it, God’s love, mercy, and grace were poured out on us through Jesus his Son, so that those who are in Christ are adopted into God’s family. Paul clarifies the meaning of predestine in Romans Eight:
For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. (Romans 8:29)
In this context predestination is not God predestining certain people to believe and others not to believe. It is God destining his adopted children to become like his Son Jesus, so they share in his likeness and glory. The emphasis is the glorious future God promises to his people. God had a final template in mind for his sons and daughters, and that template was Jesus his Son. Just like an adopted child, the believer is taken from destitution into glory by God’s kindness and mercy.
God’s plan was to create many sons and daughters like his firstborn Son Jesus, the pattern for all his spiritual children to be created. Thus, just as Jesus was the exact image of God in his nature, God planned from the beginning that his children would reflect himself and thus share his glory.
Our Birthright as Adopted Children of God
Although miraculous from a physical viewpoint, Jesus’ birth was by legal birthright, since he was rightfully God’s Son. He was with God and was God by nature from the beginning (John 1:1-2). However, our spiritual birth is not by legal birthright, but by adoption. We previously had no standing before God, but through his kindness, now we do. In John we read:
He [Christ] came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God… (John 1:11-12)
God brings forth many sons
Hebrews Chapter Two contains one of the most informative passages about the sonship of Jesus.
In bringing many sons to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the author of their salvation perfect through suffering. Both the one who makes men holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So, Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers. (Hebrews 2:10-11)
God the Father brought forth his Son into the world, so that he could bring forth many other sons (and daughters). And those children are brothers and sisters to the One who makes them holy, and members of the same family. And we are also children of God’s promise, like Isaac was the child of God’s promise to Abraham (Galatians 4:28).
Our faith in Jesus has brought us not only into the presence of God, but into the very inner circle of the closest of relations: the family. God’s ultimate purpose was to gather for himself a family of children that love and adore him, free from the tyranny of the devil and his power, and who resemble God himself.
Children reflect their Father
In short, Christ became like us, so we could become like him, and the relationship he has with the Father would be ours also.
And just as we have borne the image of the earthly man, so shall we bear the image of the heavenly man. (1 Corinthians 15:49)
One of the great eternal purposes fulfilled through Christ’s coming to earth was to redeem a great number of people to be his true spiritual children that reflect God’s glory forever. God’s children are to demonstrate what he is like to those around.
By his grace, the children of God are filled with the Spirit, presence, and life of God, like Christ the One and Only. We, like Christ, are unique from the world in that we are born of God by his Spirit. We are not like him in his eternal attributes, but we bear his spiritual image, and share in the nature of God. As a result, we are truly his brothers and sisters.
Our Inheritance in Christ
Adopted children receive everything a natural born child would receive, including the full inheritance of the parents. The Apostle Paul goes on to say in Romans:
The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory. (Romans 8:16-17)
We share with Christ the inheritance that is rightfully his from the Father. Paul also makes it clear that all believers in Christ regardless of race, gender, or social status are true children of God:
You are all sons of God through faith in Jesus Christ, for all of you who are baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:26-28)
The great privilege of being God’s adopted children
All of the major points we covered above are summarized in the following passage:
But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship. Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.” So you are no longer a slave, but God’s child; and since you are his child, God has made you also an heir. (Galatians 4:4-7)
“Abba,” an Aramaic word, was what small Jewish children called their fathers. God is truly our Father and we can call him such. As children of God and members of his family, we have a priceless inheritance from God.
He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? (Romans 8:32)
This inheritance includes “all things.” Included is God himself, dwelling in us and abiding with us forever. God is the most valuable treasure that anyone could ever possess, worth far more than all earthly treasures.
Have you entered into that special relationship with God? Come before him in humility and put your trust in Christ the Savior, and God will receive you into his family!
How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called the children of God! (I John 3:1)
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