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 third interview with a theologian is with Dr. Sam Storms, the founder of Enjoying God Ministries. I thought about interviewing Dr. Storms about spiritual adoption after my brother reminded me that he had written about it in his book The Singing God: Discover the Joy of Being Enjoyed by God (Creation House, 1998). His answers to the questions are very thoughtful and encouraging. As I read them, I found myself rejoicing afresh about my adoption into God’s family. You’ll find yourself rejoicing as well.
1. Why do you believe that adoption is the greatest gift of the gospel next to Jesus’ death for our sins? What makes it so great?
Although we should be careful when we compare the goodness of God’s gifts, I do believe that adoption is near the top of the list. This isn’t in the least to slight justification or forgiveness or the indwelling presence of the Spirit. All God’s saving gifts are precious and perfect. But I consider adoption to be the most marvelous proof of God’s love for us (next to the love demonstrated by the cross itself; cf. Romans 5). I draw this conclusion from what John said in his first epistle:
“How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! . . . Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:1-2).
John’s tone and terms virtually bristle with urgency and excitement. “Come quickly and see! Look! Listen! You can’t imagine what I have to tell you!” I like that. Here’s an elderly man nearing the end of life who still gets excited about the love of God. And he did so because he knew that God’s love has bestowed on us the greatest of all blessings: sonship. Here is the measure of God’s love. Here is the test of how deeply He treasures us.
2. Most Christians really don’t struggle believing that adoption brings us into God’s household, but they do struggle believing that God the Father feels the same way about His adopted children as He does about their Elder Brother, Jesus. Can you address this struggle?
I think one of the best and clearest of biblical texts that addresses this issue is Luke 12:32, where Jesus declares to his disciples, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom.”
As John Piper has said, “every little word in this stunning sentence is intended to help take away the fear that Jesus knows we struggle with, namely, that God begrudges his benefits; that he is constrained and out of character when he does nice things; that at bottom he is angry and loves to vent his anger. This is a sentence about the nature of God. It’s about the kind of heart God has. It’s a verse about what makes God glad–not merely about what God will do or what he has to do, but what he delights to do, what he loves to do and takes pleasure in doing” (The Pleasures of God: Meditations on God’s Delight in Being God [Portland: Multnomah Press, 1991], p. 271).
Jesus says the Father “has been pleased” to give us the kingdom. This translates one word in the Greek text, the verb eudokeo. This particular verb is found only six times in the four gospels. What makes this significant are the other five places where it occurs. In each and every case the word is found on the lips of the Father as He speaks about Jesus, His Son.
At the baptism of Jesus, “a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased’” (Matthew 3:17; likewise in Mark 1:11 and Luke 3:22; see also Matthew 12:18). On the Mount of Transfiguration, Peter is told by the Father to “shut up” and listen to the Son, with whom He is “well pleased” (Matthew 17:5).
It’s almost as if Jesus is saying to them, and to us: “Do you remember me telling you about my baptism, the dove, and the voice from heaven? Do you recall what I told you the Father said about His love for me? That’s how He feels about you, too. God is as happy and delighted about giving you the kingdom, with all its blessings, as He is about my doing what I’m doing in fulfillment of His will!” That’s how much God enjoys doing good things for you and me. That’s how much He loves us.
The Father is well-pleased with Jesus because he was everything a Father could want in a Son. He was perfectly obedient to the Father’s will (John 5:19-21; 8:28-29) and always sought the Father’s glory (John 17:4). Besides, the Father simply enjoyed the fellowship that He and the Son shared. In other words, the Father loved the Son (John 5:20).
I’ll be the first to admit that the relationship between the Father and Jesus the Son is unique in many ways. After all, this is a matter of God loving God. Jesus is the special, only-begotten Son of God (John 1:14,18). But I can’t escape the fact that what this text means is that as God delights in Jesus, as He is pleased and happy with and thrilled by His Son, so He is happy and excited and pleased about giving you and me all the blessings of His blessed kingdom.
J. I. Packer sums it up well when he writes: “God receives us as sons, and loves us with the same steadfast affection with which He eternally loves His beloved only-begotten. There are no distinctions of affection in the divine family. We are all loved just as fully as Jesus is loved . . . . This, and nothing less than this, is what adoption means. No wonder that John cries, ‘Behold, what manner of love . . .!’ When once you understand adoption, your heart will cry the same” (Knowing God, [Downers Grove: IVP, 1973], p. 196).
3. One of my hopes as Ministry Outreach Coordinator at Carolina Hope is that Christians who might not otherwise consider adoption would consider it as a result of their deepening understanding of spiritual adoption. Do you think this is a realistic hope?
Yes, absolutely. Once we gain a measure of insight into the unfathomable grace that accounts for our spiritual adoption, our hearts are energized to extend mercy and kindness to those who are not by nature our own children.
The biblical doctrine of adoption makes sense only when we remember that we are not naturally God’s children. It is true that God is the Father of all men and women insofar as He is the Creator. But many such “children” of God will spend an eternity in hell. One does not become a spiritual child of God by being born, but by being born-again.
It’s painful to read about the life that most orphans live, whether in a third world country or even here in America, especially those who have been cruelly abandoned by their biological parents. They are alone, discarded, often diseased and deformed, helpless and without hope.
It isn’t a pretty picture. It’s just as ugly when looked at spiritually. For we are all born spiritual orphans. Apart from Jesus Christ we too are abandoned, stricken with a fatal disease called sin. We have no family, no father, no future. Here is where God’s incalculable love makes its appearance.
“He [Jesus] was in the world, and though the world was make through him, the world did not recognize him. He 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 — children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God” (John 1:10-13).
“For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father.’ The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children” (Romans 8:15-16).
“You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:26).
This latter declaration of Paul’s makes it inescapably clear: there is no saving relationship to God as Father without a living faith in Jesus Christ. Being a child of God, therefore, is not a universal status upon which everyone enters by natural birth. It is rather a supernatural gift one receives by believing in Jesus. Adoption is wholly and utterly an act of God’s spontaneous and uncoerced love.
Packer reminds us that in the ancient word “adoption was a practice ordinarily confined to the childless well-to-do. Its subjects . . . were not normally infants, as today, but young adults who had shown themselves fit and able to carry on a family name in a worthy way. In this case, however, God adopts us out of free love, not because our character and record show us worthy to bear His name, but despite the fact that they show the very opposite. We are not fit for a place in God’s family; the idea of His loving and exalting us sinners as He loves and has exalted the Lord Jesus sounds ludicrous and wild — yet that, and nothing less than that, is what our adoption means” (Knowing God, p. 195).
4. What about the truth of our adoption by God might encourage Christian couples to at least consider adopting a special needs child?
Today most adoptions occur without the adoptive parents first seeing the child. But it didn’t use to be that way. When couples would visit an orphanage with a view to adopting, they invariably based their choice on physical beauty and intellectual skills. Rarely did one hear of a child with Downs syndrome being adopted. Rarely did the orphan with spina bifida go home with new parents.
Prospective parents wanted to know about a child’s natural father and mother. Was this child the product of rape? What is his ethnic origin? Did she come from “good stock”? What is his IQ?
But God’s choice of us is utterly and eternally different. He didn’t make us His children because we were prettier than others. Divine adoption isn’t concerned with physical health or financial wealth or potential or a person’s past history. God loves the unlovely and unappealing. God loves because God loves. That is why you are His child. Because He loves you. Once this truth is understood I think people will more readily open their hearts to infants and young children with special needs, whatever they may be.
5. Why do you think it’s true that those who have been adopted by their earthly parents often display unusual insight into spiritual adoption?
I think we have to begin with the fact that to be the recipient of such marvelously unsolicited love from people not one’s biological parents must be a tremendous thrill. I’ve sensed this time and again from one young lady who was adopted at birth. Her appreciation for having been adopted into God’s family is understandably immense. She seems to rejoice in this glorious spiritual truth on a level yet unattained by most of us. I have learned much from her as she has shared with me her thoughts on the subject.
Janie’s biological mother already had four children and for reasons of her own felt compelled to give up her fifth for adoption. From the moment Janie entered her new home she began to learn about the kind of love God has for His adopted children.
The love her new parents had for her could hardly have been greater had she been their natural born child. Nowhere is this better seen than in the saying Janie’s new mom kept on her noteboard. It read:
“Not flesh of my flesh,
Nor bone of my bone,
But still miraculously my own.
Never forget for a single minute,
You didn’t grow under my heart
But in it.”
It’s a bit difficult for me to explain how Janie must feel, so I asked her to put it in her own words. After doing so it only confirmed what I said earlier about adopted children often having special appreciation for this spiritual truth.
“Being adopted,” explains Janie, “gives me an unusual ability to understand my adoption into God’s arms. My parents had no idea whether I would be a boy or girl. They wanted me regardless of my gender. God also loves us irrespective of gender. Knowing that they loved me before I was born deepens my gratitude that God knew me and chose me before the foundation of the world!”
“My adoptive parents chose to ignore my impoverished past. The fact that my natural mother was on welfare didn’t diminish their love for me. Likewise, God knows our wicked past, our spiritual impoverishment, down to the smallest disgusting detail. Yet He loves us anyway! To have been twice adopted and loved in this way goes beyond any words in my vocabulary.”
Janie brought me a copy of the Final Adoptive Decree and pointed out a fascinating and instructive paragraph. It states that “for all intents and purposes whatsoever, the said child is and is hereby declared to be in the same relationship to the Petitioners [the adoptive parents] as if born to them by natural birth, and remaining in such relationship as if the child were their own . . .”
What this means, among other things, is that Janie is legally as much a child of these parents as any other born to them by natural means. She is a co-heir with all others in that family. We, too, are co-heirs with Christ our brother. The good news is, whereas this earthly adoptive decree is stamped and notarized by the state, our “Spiritual Adoptive Decree” is sealed with the blood of Christ and signed by the God who cannot lie!
Whereas sometimes the love of earthly parents falters and even fails, the love of our Heavenly Father is immutable. No one in heaven or on earth can challenge the eternal legality of what God has done for us in making you and me His beloved children.
Janie also pointed out yet another statement in the decree which says that “the rights of all other persons, if any they have, to the care, control and custody of said child be and the same are hereby forever and finally terminated . . .” If you can’t get beyond the legal language, listen to how Janie explains it.
“These words can be used to describe God’s adoption of me into His family. When I was adopted by my earthly parents, my old identity was terminated. Legally speaking, anyway, I became a new and different person. I became Mary Jane Fox. When I was adopted by my Heavenly Father I also left behind my old self and was reborn with a new identity, a clean slate, a fresh start.”
I rejoiced with Janie and her husband when they celebrated the birth of their first child. At one point Janie said, “She is so fragile and vulnerable! She stumbles and falls and whines and often makes such a mess of things. But that’s the way we are with God. Every day I stumble and fall and mess things up, but my Father is there to pick me up. He comforts me when I’m down. I complain and get into trouble. Yet, He gently corrects me and loves me in a way that overshadows even the best of earthly affections.”
Earthly, adoptive love, is unspeakably special. Yet such sacrifice and passion, for all its beauty, for all its wonder, pales before the brilliant light of God’s love for us, one-time spiritual orphans. “Behold! Behold! What manner of love the Father has for us, that we should be called the children of God. And that’s exactly what we are!” (1 John 3:1-2).
6. What are some of the parallels that you see between earthly and spiritual adoption?
The apostle John goes to great lengths to insist that entrance into God’s family is on a different plane from entrance into one’s earthly family (see John 1:10-13). One does not become a child of God by the same process one becomes a child of a physical parent. In other words, spiritual life is not genetically transmitted.
My earthly father was a Christian. So, too, is my mother. But that isn’t why I am a Christian. Your father and mother may not be Christians. But that has no ultimate impact on whether or not you are.
The DNA of one’s parents has nothing to do with becoming a child of God. Your heritage, ancestry, family tree, no matter how glorious and impressive, have nothing to do with your entrance into heaven. The fact that you have descended from noble blood or are the product of peasants is irrelevant. I’m proud of the name “Storms.” But when I stand before God He says, “Who?”
I rejoice in the fact that I’ve been justified and forgiven and granted eternal life. But to know and experience God as my Father, Abba, Daddy, is greater still. When you are justified by faith in Christ, you stand before God as Judge and hear him declare: “Not guilty! Righteous through faith in Jesus!” Praise God!
But in adoption God the Judge steps down from behind His legal bench, removes His stately robes, stoops down and takes you into His arms of love and says softly: “My son, my daughter, my child!”
I relish the experience of every divine blessing. I thank God daily that I am a member of the body of Christ and a citizen of the kingdom. But nothing can quite compare with knowing that when I was homeless, helpless, and hopeless, God rescued me from the gutter of sin and made me His child. Nothing can compete with the thrill of being adopted as a full and coequal heir with Christ Jesus (Romans 8:17).
Finally, we must never forget that we are God’s adopted children, not his “foster” children. The latter relationship is at best a temporary one. The former is eternal.
7. How should the doctrine of spiritual adoption affect our daily living?
Well, how about intensified joy, passionate obedience, extravagant affection, unashamed worship, glad-hearted self-sacrifice, compassion for the hurting? Will that do?