As part of our blog’s adoption interview series, I’m interviewing several theologians about the doctrine of spiritual adoption and its implications for earthly adoption. I believe that the practice of earthly adoption will be significantly enriched as we grow in our understanding of what it means to be adopted by God.
Our second interview with a theologian (you can read the first interview here) is with Dr. R. Scott Clark, Associate Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Westminster Seminary California since 1997. Dr. Clark has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary (Jackson), and Concordia University (Irvine). He is also presently Associate Pastor of the Oceanside United Reformed Church, where he preaches and teaches regularly.
1. What do you cherish most about the doctrine of adoption?
There are three things that should be mentioned. First it is the God by whom we have been adopted that makes adoption significant. The God who adopted us is the God who made all that is (Gen 1:1-3; John 1:1-3) and who, by the power of his will and grace, redeemed his people out of sin and bondage (Exod 20:2).
Second, we should remember that spiritual adoption is a significant truth embraced and confessed by the Reformed churches. It is expressed either implicitly or explicitly in our Reformed confessions and it underlies much of what is confessed by the Reformed churches even if the language of adoption is not used explicitly.
For example, the Heidelberg Catechism (1563) uses the truth that we are “also the children of God” as the basis for a question about Christ’s sonship. Though Christ “alone is the eternal, natural Son of God” we are “children of God by adoption, through grace, for his sake” (Q. 33). The Belgic Confession, (1561), speaks the same way (Art. 34). This doctrine is significant enough to the Reformed Churches that it merited an entire, albeit brief, chapter in the Westminster Confession of Faith (1647) where we confess that those who are justified by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone (WCF ch. 11) are to rest in the fact that we are also “partakers of the grace of adoption.” As a consequence of this free gift we, who are not God’s children by nature, are treated as if we are natural children, as it were. We have the “liberties” that belong to God’s children, we have his name, we have his Spirit, and we have free access to the Father. We are “pitied, protected, provided for, and chastened by him as a Father, yet never cast off, but sealed to the day of redemption.” In Christ it is as if we have done all that Christ did for us and, on that basis, we are heirs of all his promises.
Finally, the doctrine of adoption is a biblical doctrine. The Apostle Paul teaches explicitly that those who have true faith (and by that faith) are united to Christ (Gal 2:20; WCF ch. 12). By virtue of that union we have “received the Spirit of adoption as sons.” Therefore, we have the privilege of intimate, personal communion with the Creator and Redeemer God. The Spirit of God testifies to us that we, who believe, are God’s children (Rom 8:15-17). Paul teaches that we have been redeemed by grace alone, through faith alone “so that we might receive adoption as sons.” (Gal 4:5). Indeed, we who believe have been “predestined…for adoption through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will….” (Eph 1:5).
2. Do you believe that the doctrine of adoption has received its due attention within the history of the church?
Probably not, but I worry a little, in reaction to that neglect, that, in our time, we tend to overemphasize the relational aspects of the faith. We live in a time when “legal” ideas and categories are not in favor whereas “relational” categories are very much in vogue. There is a strong tendency in our culture and in our churches to set the one against the other. The problem is that the turn to relational categories (over against the legal) defies reality and Scripture. There is no good reason to set one against the other.
Those who are adopted are those who have been justified. God’s declaration of our righteousness in Christ is the legal basis for our adoption. Think of how husbands and wives relate. This is a most intimate or personal relationship that is based on a prior legal relationship. The words “husband” and “wife” imply a binding, legal relationship between persons that can only be broken by the gravest of sins and by legal action. That fact doesn’t make the marriage less relational, personal, and intimate.
The same is true with adoption. It is an eminently legal and personal, relational act. In adoption, someone chooses to incorporate someone else who, by nature, is not part of one’s family, into one’s family. Because adoption is a legal act, it has standing, it has permanence, and it has a firm basis. Because it is a personal act, it is not a mere “transaction.” By definition, a personal act entails a person coming to know and entering into deeper relations with another person. Adoption is a wonderful metaphor for God’s gracious relations toward us and more than a metaphor, it is a fact of the Christian faith.
3. Do you see a difference between the apostle John’s model of entrance into God’s family and Paul’s?
Each Biblical writer has his own favorite ways of speaking. Nevertheless, there is a strong affinity with John 1:12 where John uses the same sort of language as Paul. John’s “sphere of discourse,” as Prof. Murray used to say, is strikingly similar to Paul’s in Romans 8 and Ephesians 2. We see the same ways of speaking about our being Christ’s children in 1 John 3:1-2.
4. Paul’s references to adoption (Eph. 1:4-5; Rom. 9:4; Gal. 4:4-5; Rom. 8:15-16; 8:22-23) seem to serve as markers along the path of redemptive history. Would it be a fruitful exercise to view redemptive history (i.e. creation, fall, redemption, consummation) through the lens of the doctrine of adoption?
Yes, certainly. Scripture certainly uses this sort of language about Israel’s temporary adoption as the national people of God. Think of Deuteronomy 7:6-11. The covenant Lord, Yahweh, has adopted, as his peculiar people, Israel. He redeemed them out of Egypt and has delivered them into the Promised Land. There is one caveat about this analogy. The Lord entered into a special, temporary relationship with national Israel as the visible, institutional people of God. Not every one of those who were in that national people, who were part of this outward adoption, enjoyed all the benefits of that adoption. Paul makes this distinction quite clear in Romans 2:28 and Romans 9:6. Not all Israel is Israel. There is an “inward” Israel, united to Christ by grace alone, through faith alone and an “outward” Israel, who are members of the national covenant, who nevertheless, did not receive all the benefits of Christ because they were “were not united by faith with those who listened” (Heb 4:2).
5. What difference should the doctrine of adoption make in a Christian’s spiritual life on a daily basis?
Like all gospel truths, this one should form the basis for our Christian life. In Christ we are to die daily, moment-by-moment to sin and live daily, moment-by-moment to Christ. This touches on the choices we make, the things we love, the things that occupy our minds and energies. Because our gracious Father, in Christ, by the Spirit, adopts us we can and ought to live in that grace. If we had the consciousness of having once been orphans and having been brought into the household of the King, I think we would, to that same degree, lives worthy of the grace (Eph 4:1) that we have received.
6. More and more couples are considering adopting transracially adoption. What might the doctrine of adoption contribute to our thinking on the issue of transracial adoption?
At the risk of being trite and obvious, what matters in adoption is that we are adopted! It is true that those who are adopted may come from different backgrounds, and that is not an insignificant fact. The importance of our background, however, pales before the fact that we, who were once strangers and aliens (Eph 2:19), have now been included into the royal household. It was in view of these profound truths that Paul declared that in Christ, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). This glorious truth does not obliterate our humanity. We all have a history but that history does not trump God’s unmerited favor. The fact that we are “in Christ” is the first and most important fact that defines our identity. Our adoption practices ought to reflect this fact. Just as Christ has adopted us from every nation, tribe, and tongue (Rev 5:9) and therefore, having made a wise decision, ought to reflect that sort of love. Our children are members of the covenant of grace, not by solely in virtue of our birth, but by virtue of the fact that we are included in the house. In this regard, we should probably pay closer attention to the way Scripture regards the members of “households.” It was not only children who received the sign and seal of covenant initiation, but also those who were in the household and this was done without regard of national or racial origin.
7. Most people who read this blog have adopted children, are considering adopting a child, or are just interested in adoption. What implications might the doctrine of adoption have for couples who have adopted or are interested in adopting a child?
Though there are great analogies between adoption in this life and the adoption that we enjoy in Christ, there are differences. Human adoption is an act of love but it means inclusion of sinners into a fallen human family. We sin against our adopted children and they sin against us. We are joint heirs of grace. Thus, human adoption, as distinct from divine adoption, is not a panacea. It is a starting point, a way of thinking about our children and us. Those Christian parents who adopt children do so as those who themselves have been adopted. In other words, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us (Rom 5:8). All parents, whether adoptive or natural parents, need to remind themselves of the fact that they were are recipients of grace with their children. This consciousness of our own sin and of the grace of Christ should color our relationships with our spouses and our children.