From Adopted to Adopting

Nov 19, 2010 |Justin Taylor

The consequences for the Christian who's been adopted by a heavenly Father are considerable.  

We were talking recently with our next-door neighbors, a family from India, when the topic of adoption came up. The father had some confident advice for us: "Make sure you never tell your kids they were adopted. It's best that way." (My neighbor is a very nice fellow but not exactly the sharpest knife in the drawer: Our son is African American and my wife and I are Caucasian! We gently explained that we will tell them, it's nothing to be ashamed of, and we suspect it would dawn on our son before too long anyway!)

Adoption tends to be something appreciated or admired in America. But in other cultures, it's often a stigma. A friend who is a missionary to Middle Easterners once told me the fascinating story of why adoption is often a taboo for Muslims.

Adoption in Islam

The prophet Mohammed had adopted a former slave named Zayd. When Zayd grew up he married a woman named Zaynab, whom Mohammed himself eventually fell in love with her. Zayd divorced her in anger, and Mohammed took her as a wife. Soon after Mohammed received a "revelation" from Allah making adoption illegal: "Allah does not regard ... your adopted sons as your own sons."

It is now legal for some Muslims to adopt, but there are a number of rules surrounding it. Adopted sons are to be named after their biological father instead of taking the surname of their adoptive parents. The Qur'an tells adoptive parents that they are simply the "trustees" or someone else's child. Inheritance still comes from the birthparents, not the adoptive family. Adoptive siblings can even marry each other when they are grown. An adoption family can refer to their adoptive son as a "son," but they have to know that's really just a name to use, not a legal reality.

Adoption in Christianity

One of the problems in Islam, I think, is that they have a concept of Allah as a creator and ruler — but there's no concept of "the fatherhood of God." Consequently, they do not have a concept of being spiritually and legally adopted into the household of faith — which is at the center of biblical Christianity.

The great theologian, J. I. Packer (whose three children are adopted), has written an attention-grabbing line in his classic, Knowing God, "Our understanding of Christianity cannot be better than our grasp of adoption." Elsewhere he writes that "adoption is the highest privilege the gospel offers." Whereas "justification" gives us the righteousness of Christ, "adoption" makes us members of his family and gives us access to all of the family benefits and privileges.

But sometimes I wonder if the way we speak about physical, earthly adoption shows that we have not yet let the truths about spiritual adoption truly sink into our hearts and minds.

Watch Your Language

Fellow Christians will sometimes ask my wife and me if we know anything about our children's "real parents." We're also sometimes asked, "Do you have any children of your own?" Now we know what people mean when they ask these questions, and we also know that they are well-intentioned. But they are problematic nonetheless.

Russell Moore — dean of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and author of a forthcoming adoption manifesto — has drawn my attention to a parallel in the New Testament. He has written:

As I read through the Books of Ephesians and Galatians and Romans, it occurred to me that this is precisely the question that was faced by the apostle Paul and the first-century Christian churches.

As pig-flesh eating Gentile believers — formerly goddess-worshippers and Caesar-magnifiers and all the rest — began confessing Jesus as Messiah, some Jewish Christians demanded to know, "Are they circumcised?" The Gentile believers would respond, "Yes, with the circumcision made without hands, the circumcision of Christ." From the heated letters of the New Testament, it is evident that the response was along the lines of, "Yes, but are you really circumcised, and you know what I mean."

This was no peripheral issue. For the apostle Paul, the unity of the church as a household had everything to do with the Gospel itself. And where the tribal fracturing of the church was most threatening, Paul laid out a key insight into the church's union with Christ, the spirit of adoption.

In other words, these well-intended questions reveal that too many of us still accustomed to thinking that biology is more important than legality. The opposite of "real parents" is "fake parents." The opposite of "your own children" is "children not your own." There is something about "adoption" that makes us think that relationships are somehow less real.

But we must put on our gospel-centered glasses and ask ourselves: Am I really a child of God or not? Is God really my Father or not? Is Jesus really my brother? For those who trust in Jesus the answer is unambiguously Yes!

Remember, we have no biological connection to Jesus. We began our lives in a different household, slaves of a different master. But we have been adopted, and our new legal relationship is true, real, and glorious. A right understanding of spiritual adoption can transform the way we think about physical adoption.

Jesus Was Adopted

Have you ever stopped to think that Jesus Christ was himself adopted? Now we have to be careful — if we say that he was adopted by his eternal heavenly Father than we've expressed a heretical understanding! But at the same time, it's often easy to forget that Joseph was Jesus' earthly father — they had no biological connection but the relationship was very significant and real.

Believers Are Adopted

One of the hallmarks of liberal theology in the 20th century was the "fatherhood of man" and the "brotherhood of man" — God is the Father of everyone, and all of us are brothers and sisters. But both of these notions are unbiblical. God is everyone's Creator, but he is only the Father of believers.

First John 3:10 divides all of mankind into two categories: (1) "the children of God, and (2) "the children of the devil." Now "children of the devil," to our modern ears, tends to sound like a bad horror flick, something outlandish. But the Bible is clear: all of us "were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind" (Eph. 2:3). The members of our "spiritual household" were those who worshipped anything and everything but the one true and living God. God himself was our Creator. We remained in his image. But he was not our Father, and we were not his sons.

God the Father has one eternal Son: Jesus Christ. And before the foundations of the world he predestined that many of his creators — members of the household of unbelief and rebellion — would receive "adoption as sons through Jesus Christ" (Eph. 1:5). Through the Son, God the Father enables us to become sons. And we now become members of the "household of faith" or the "household of God" (Gal. 6:10; Eph. 2:19).

Paul spells it out in Galatians 4:4-7:

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, "Abba! Father!" So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.

Jesus was born for a mission: to proclaim the good news of the gospel of the kingdom, and to redeem those who were under the law. But why did he do it? Why did he willingly allow his body to be bruised and broken? Why did he choose to follow his Father's wishes and enter into a time of being forsaken by his eternal Father? Why did the most honorable person to ever walk the planet subject himself to scorn and mockery? Why did the only sinless man take upon his back the sins of the world?

One of the reasons was to demonstrate his Father's righteousness (Rom. 3:25-26). But it was also so that we might receive adoption as sons. Think of what this verse is saying: Jesus died so that you could be adopted. You used to be a slave to sin, impurity, and unrighteousness (Rom. 6:16-20). But now God has made you a son. And if you are a son, then you are also an heir of God! God has sent the Spirit of his Son into your heart so now you can cry Abba! Father! (see also Rom. 8:15).

Abba is Aramaic (probably the language Jesus spoke). It means something like "dearest father," a term of endearment and intimacy from a child to his father. Scholars have scoured the Jewish literature trying to find a single example of an individual using the word "Father" to address God. No other examples exist. Jesus was the first — but not the last! We too have the awesome privilege of calling the Creator of the Universe, the Eternal I AM, our dearest, heavenly Father.

Jesus died so that we could become his brothers, to become his co-heirs, to become God's sons. Amazing love how can it be! No wonder Packer can say, "Our understanding of Christianity cannot be better than our grasp of adoption."

Pure Undefiled Religion

Does the Bible tell us to adopt children? No, it doesn't address that issue one way or the other. But it does tell us to "Give justice to ... the fatherless" (Ps. 82:3), and it tell us that God himself is "Father to the fatherless" (Ps. 68:5). James tells us that part of "pure and undefiled" religion before God involves visiting orphans (James 1:27). Adoption is one way that we can imitate God and fulfill these commands.

Just Ask

How can we do to support adoption? I think one key thing each of us can be doing is to start by asking questions.

  • Ask your local crisis pregnancy center how you can help or volunteer. Crisis pregnancy centers are on the frontlines of the battlefield, doing everything they can to persuade birthmothers to choose adoption or parenting over abortion. Maybe they need help raising money to buy a new ultrasound machine. (When women actually see their baby move, they often realize that it's a lie that this is simply a clump of cells that can be discarded.) So maybe you can distribute empty baby bottles at church and encourage everyone to fill theirs up over the next month with change.
  • Ask families that are in the adoption process how you can help (babysitting their other kids, having a garage sale to help them raise money, etc.). They might not need anything right now — but you never know until you ask! And everyone can use prayer!
  • Ask the Lord if he might be leading you to be an orphans ministry in your church. (FamilyLife has some resources that could help).
  • Ask the Lord if adoption might be a part of your future. Whether you are single, engaged, or married, be open to the Lord's leading about your future and the role adoption in it. For many couples adoption is only a "second option" — something to consider if having biological children doesn't work out. But perhaps for some of us the Lord will plant a desire to adopt no matter what the fertility situation.

Finally, all of us can praise God — our Father — for the incredible gift of his Eternal Son and the privileged of being a part of their family.

Copyright 2007 Justin Taylor. All rights reserved. International copyright secured.

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