Our next interview of a theologian is with Dr. Robert Peterson, professor of systematic theology at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri. In addition to teaching on the seminary level, Dr. Peterson has extensive experience as a pastor, including church planting efforts, and has preached in Uganda and Peru on short-term mission trips. His pastoral experience is reflected in the practical emphases in his systematic theology classes.
Dr. Peterson is the author of Adopted by God: From Wayward Sinners to Cherished Children. In it he considers the beauty of God’s grace through the lens of the wonderful doctrine of adoption. His treatment of this great doctrine is accompanied by moving personal stories of father-child relationships. You can listen to him lecture in seminary on union with Christ and adoption here.
1. Dr. Peterson, why did you write this book about theological adoption?
I wrote Adopted By God because the Bible’s teaching on adoption was so neglected. In 1688, an important theology book by Francis Turretin was published in which he subordinated adoption to justification. This book became a standard theology text, whose example other writers of influential theology books followed, including Charles Hodge, Louis Berkhof, and Millard Erickson. These books are partially responsible for adoption’s neglect by teachers and preachers who studied them. Justification is vitally important, but adoption deserves more attention than it has received.
2. What do you cherish most about the doctrine of adoption?
I cherish the fact that it powerfully communicates the grace of God to believers, as powerfully as any biblical teaching. “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are” (1 John 3:1). Adoption intimately communicates the Trinity’s love for each individual believer as well as for the people of God as a whole. “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!’” (Galatians 4:4-6).
3. What’s your favorite biblical text on adoption and why?
That is hard to answer because so many verses speak of adoption. The two primary passages are Romans 8:14-17, 23, 29 and Galatians 3:26-4:7. My two favorite texts may be Romans 8:16 and Galatians 4:7. I love the first because it tells that the Holy Spirit testifies in our hearts that the Father loves us as his children: “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Romans 8:16). I love the second because it contrasts our former state of spiritual bondage to our present one of being God’s sons (or daughters) and heirs: “So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God” (Galatians 4:7)
4. What’s the relationship between Christ’s Sonship and ours?
Christ’s sonship is by nature and is eternal. He always has been, is, and always will be God’s Son. In fact, he is God the Son. By contrast, our sonship is by grace through faith. We, who by fallen human nature are children of the devil (1 John 3:10), by God’s undeserved favor become his children when we trust his Son as Lord and Savior (Galatians 3:26). Christ’s unique divine Sonship is the basis for ours. We trust the Son to become sons (John 1:12; 1 John 5:11-12).
It should make a great difference because it is one way that God impresses upon us our new identity in Christ. We are his children and as such we bask in his love, live for him (what else can we do in response to such love!), and eagerly await his Son’s return, when our spiritual resemblance to Christ our older Brother will be complete (1 John 3:1-3; Hebrews 2:11-12). Knowledge of our adoption should fill us with patient hope that God that will raise and redeem our bodies (Romans 8:23-25) and grant us a glorious inheritance (Matthew 25:34; Romans 8:17; Galatians 3:29).
6. How does being adopted by God impact someone who has been adopted by a family? Or someone who has adopted a child?
I have found that people who have adopted or who have been adopted understand the Bible’s teaching on adoption best. This is because in their own lives they actually know a little of what it is like to play God’s role (I say this reverently) or our part as adopted children. Those who adopt have special experiential insight into God’s adoptive love for us. Those who are adopted have the same, this time from the children’s perspective.
7. In addition to your book, what other resources on adoption would you recommend to our readers?
Sinclair Ferguson’s Children of the Living God (Banner of Truth, 1989), J. I. Packer’s Knowing God (IVP, 1973) and for a more in-depth treatment, Trevor J. Burke’s Adopted Into God’s Family: Exploring a Pauline Metaphor (IVP, 2006).