Adoption has been occasionally undervalued and neglected in church history. Yet Paul treated adoption as the end to which the Father predestined his elect (Eph. 1:5). Adoption is the sum of our privileges, or our “inheritance,” in Christ. Our adoption is in Jesus Christ, the natural son, that we might become adopted sons and daughters. The wisdom and prudence of God displayed in redemption through Christ’s blood—and the resultant forgiveness of sins—is the mystery of God’s will for our salvation (v. 6-9).
As God chose us in Christ, so the God, who works “all things according to the counsel of his will,” calls us in Christ, that we might reach the end of our predestination by receiving the inheritance entailed in our adoption, “to the praise of his glory” through faith (v. 10-11). “The Holy Spirit of promise” is God’s seal of these promises to us and he is the down payment of the inheritance that God’s children enjoy partly now and will receive fully in glory (v. 13-14). In this respect, everything in heaven and earth, including all three persons in the Holy Trinity, move and act in concentric circles toward adoption as the goal of the redemption of God’s elect.
Authors who did treat adoption often struggled with what to do with it. For some, such as Calvin, adoption was too big an idea to place alongside other benefits such as justification and sanctification. Adoption pervaded and encircled them both in his writings. For others, adoption was neglected in theological systems, but prominent where it appeared in biblical exposition. The Westminster Confession of Faith had the honor of being the first Reformed confession to include a chapter on adoption (chapter 12). Edward Leigh (1602-1671), a lay correspondent with the Westminster Assembly, was also one of the earliest theologians to write a dogmatic theology including a chapter on adoption. His treatment of the subject is helpful in understanding the doctrine itself and its relation to other elements of salvation.
Union and communion with Christ were the great realities standing behind Leigh’s view of adoption. He treated adoption following his treatment of the nature of union with Christ and saving faith and prior to his chapter on justification. This is a bit different than the order of WCF 12, which introduced union with Christ via effectual calling (ch. 10) and then treated justification (ch. 11), adoption (ch. 12), and sanctification (ch. 13). Reformed authors agreed, however, that union and communion with Christ served as the fountainhead of the application of his purchased benefits. The idea of first importance was that believers must be united to Christ through faith, so that all that Christ is and does might become theirs. The Spirit dwelling in their hearts constituted this union. All of the benefits of redemption (the ordo salutis) resulted from communion with Christ in his benefits, which, in turn, flowed from mystical union with him.
In a marginal note, Leigh wrote, “Unregenerate men have many communications from Christ, [yet] no communion; that [communion] is founded in union.” He added, “Communion with God, through Christ, by the Spirit is the great duty and privilege of the gospel” (Edward Leigh, Body of Divinity, 1654, pg. 510). Because communion with Christ included every aspect of the application of redemption, it brought honor and comfort with it. Note as well Leigh’s explicit and experimental appeal to each person in the Trinity, which is also needed greatly in theology today.
The next question was how to classify the benefits that flow from communion with Christ. Leigh attempted to do this by noting that in this life, the benefits that believers receive from Christ are either relative or moral (510). Adoption and justification came under relative changes because they referred to changes in our relation to God and to his church. Moral change includes our sanctification and its completion in our glorification. Leigh acknowledged here that some placed adoption first under the category of communion with Christ while others placed justification before it. He did not say why he chose to place adoption first, which may reflect a level of modest hesitancy to determine the issue decisively.
What, then, is adoption? Leigh argued that with adoption we are made children of God “in the Sonship of Christ” (510). He added the qualification that God has three kinds of sons. He has sons by nature (Christ), by creation (Angels), and by volition (the saints). Each kind of sonship relates to the others, while retaining their own character. Christ is the Son of God by nature and not by adoption. He is God’s only natural Son and his Sonship is by eternal generation only, whether before or after his incarnation. The angels are God’s “sons” because he is their Father by creation. This picked up on the language of Job 38:7, among other places, where the “sons of God” likely refers to angels.
By contrast to the angels, human beings lost their right to sonship by reason of sin. They are neither sons and daughters of God by nature, like Christ, nor by creation, like the angels. They can become sons and daughters of God by grace in Christ only. With these qualifications in view, Leigh defined adoption as, “the gracious sentence of God the Father on a believer, whereby for Christ’s sake he calls believers his children, and really admits them into the state and condition of children” (511). In his view, this included divine election (volition), the consent of the adopted (whose hearts the Spirit changes), and legal transition to sonship in a courtroom. The primary idea was that adoption is a legal transaction creating a set of family relationships. This is why Reformed authors tied adoption so closely to justification. Whether it preceded or followed justification, both benefits were relative changes that brought legal ramifications. Yet while both are legal, adoption is also more personal, which enabled it to be more comprehensive as well.
Yet some differences exist between divine and human adoption that offset its glory (511). First, human beings cannot put a new nature into the adopted party, but God can. Second, people often find some good in the adopted party, but God’s children have no good beyond what he puts into them. Third, men adopt because they have no children to inherit, but God did not need us due to his infinite delight in his own Son and his possession of the angels to glorify him. A bit later in the century, Herman Witsius (1636-1708) would write that believers are children of God by new nature via being born of the Spirit, by marriage through union with Christ, and in adoption by the Father’s electing love. As Paul put it, adoption is purely “according to the counsel of God’s will.” This shows us the magnitude and beauty of the Father’s electing grace coming to its own.
How, then, does God effect adoption in believers? (511). Leigh wrote, “It is done by applying Christ’s sonship to them.” This placed a premium on the Spirit’s work in uniting Christians to Christ by faith. Even though Leigh taught that Christ’s Sonship was unique and incommunicable to us, he rooted our sonship in union and communion with Christ’s person. Christ could not be an adopted Son, even according to his humanity, because this would violate biblical and historic Christology. Christ’s personhood constitutes his Sonship. Sonship is not a divine attribute, but a predicate of the whole person, who has two natures. Yet union with the natural Son makes us adopted sons and daughters because the Father who is well pleased in his only begotten Son is well pleased with those who are united to the Son as well.
If adoption has been neglected at times in church history, then it began to shine more prominently in seventeenth-century Reformed thought. However, it was (and is) hard to determine how adoption relates to the other elements of the ordo salutis. Most Reformed authors in the late seventeenth-century placed adoption after justification, making justification the legal ground of adoption and adoption the bridge between relative and moral changes in salvation.
This is certainly plausible. Yet Leigh noted well, “All the work of redemption is sometimes expressed by it,” such as in John 1:11-12 (511). Its benefits include being cut off from our old family and being engrafted into God’s family (511). By means of adoption, we receive the Spirit of sanctification, we have the honor of sons, we have the boldness of access of sons, and we have the inheritance of sons. The Spirit works faith in us to bring us to Christ and Christ then gives us the Spirit afresh as the Spirit of adoption.
In short, we have a “double right to heaven” in redemption and in adoption (511). This produces a child-like character in us that includes likeness to Christ, respect towards God, and the Spirit of prayer by which we come to the Father to supply all that we need (511).
Leigh’s treatment of adoption is rooted in Christ, makes sense of how adoption is related to justification and sanctification, and reflects good Christology. Above all, it is both modest and glorious, humbly walking on solid, biblical ground.
Ryan McGraw (@RyanMMcGraw1) is associate professor of Systematic Theology at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Greenville, South Carolina.
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