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But none of the OT instances have a direct bearing on the NT usage of the term. Paul is the only writer to use it, and with him it is a metaphor derived from Hellenistic usage and Roman law. The legal situation of a son in early Roman times was little better than that of a slave, though in practice its rigor would vary with the disposition of the father. A son was the property of his father, who was entitled to the son’s earnings. The father could transfer ownership of him by adoption or by a true sale and could, under certain circumstances, even put him to death. An adopted son was considered like a son born in the family. He could no longer inherit from his natural father. He was no longer liable for old debts (a loophole eventually closed). So far as his former family was concerned, he was dead. Modifications of the rigor of sonship were at intervals introduced into Roman law, and a more liberal Hellenistic view was doubtless in the mind of Paul.

In Gal.4.1-Gal.4.3 Paul states accurately the Roman law of sonship. In Gal.4.4 he says that God sent his Son to be born into the human condition under law, and in Gal.4.5 he gives the purpose of God in so doing: “To redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons.” We were not merely children who needed to grow up; we had become slaves of sin and as such needed to be redeemed, bought out of our bondage, that we might enter the new family Christ brought into being by his death and resurrection. Adoption expresses both the redemption and the new relation of trust and love, for “because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, ‘Abba, Father’” (Gal.4.6). The adoption brought us from slavery to sonship and heirship (Gal.4.7).

The same thought appears in Rom.8.15. Rom.8.1-Rom.8.14 demonstrate that the adoption is more than a matter of position or status; when God adopted us, he put his Spirit within us, and we became subject to his control. This involves chastisement (Heb.12.5-Heb.12.11) as well as inheritance (Rom.8.16-Rom.8.18).

In Rom.9.4 Paul begins with enumeration of the privileges of Israelites with “the adoption.” Although God said, “Israel is my firstborn son” (Exod.4.22); and “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son” (Hos.11.1); and Moses expressed the relationship in this way, “You are the children of the Lord your God” (Deut.14.1); yet Israel’s sonship was not the natural relationship by creation, but a peculiar one by a covenant of promise, a spiritual relationship by faith, under the sovereign grace of God, as Paul goes on to explain in Rom.9.1-Rom.9.33-Rom.11.1-Rom.11.36. Thus a clear distinction is drawn between the “offspring” of God by creation (Acts.17.28) and the children of God by adoption into the obedience of faith.

With utmost compression of language Paul expresses, in Eph.1.4-Eph.1.5, God’s action that resulted in his adoption of us and enumerates its effects in Eph.1.6-Eph.1.12. This action began with God’s election: “For he chose us in him before the creation of the world,” using predestination as the mode (“he predestined us”); Christ is the agent (by Jesus Christ); and he himself is the adopting parent (to himself). God’s sovereign act is stressed by the concluding phrase of Eph.1.5: “in accordance with his pleasure and will.” That adoption is not a mere matter of position is made plain in the statement of the purpose of election: “he chose us...to be holy and blameless in his sight” (Eph.1.4).

Adoption is a serious matter under any system of law. As a figure of speech expressing spiritual truth it emphasizes the sovereign and gracious character of the act of God in our salvation, our solemn obligation as adopted sons of our adopting Parent, the newness of the family relationship established, a climate of intimate trust and love, and the immensity of an inheritance that eternity alone can reveal to us.

Bibliography: D.J. Theron, “Adoption in the Paul Corpus,” EQ 28 (1956): 1ff.; F. Lyall, “Roman Law in the Writings of Paul—Adoption,” JBL 88 (1969): 458-66; G. Braumann NIDNTT (1975), 1:280-91.——ER

ADOPTION (υἱοθεσία, G5625, placing as a son). Based on a Gr. term of the same meaning. The act of adoption is the conclusion of any action by which any person, usually a son, is brought into a new family relationship where he now has new privileges and responsibilities as a member of the family, and at the same time loses all previous rights and is divested of all the previous duties of his former family relationship. Depending on the simplicity or complexity of the society in which provision is made for adoption, the legal process is more or less complex. The process has been discovered in practically every culture and has been adapted in a wide variety of ways in practically every contemporary society.

Ancient background.

Relevant to Biblical usage are the practices primarily of Greece and Rome. Adoption was sometimes extended to slaves as in the case of Moses in Egypt (Exod 2:10), but was extended in Greece and Rome primarily to citizens. In Gr. practice the adoptive father, because of lack of natural offspring and desiring to perpetuate his family, or because of deep affection for one whom he had come to know in other relationships, or perhaps for religious reasons, could in his lifetime or by his will extend to a son of another family the privileges of his own family in perpetuity. There was a condition, however, that the person adopted accept the legal obligations and religious duties of the new father. In Rom. practice the relationship between the father and son was more severe and more binding because of their understanding of paternal authority (patria postestas). The emphasis was on the father’s power, and the son’s relationship was almost that of a slave. Thus in adoption the person adopted was transferred from his natural father’s power to the power and control of the adoptive father. In understanding this transfer, one should think of it more in terms of a “sale” akin in some sense to a redemptive act or, more exactly, a ransom.

Hebrew background.

Pauline usage.

Parallel concepts.

In the classical theological treatment of the Order of Salvation (Ordo Salutis) various classical terms arise—union with Christ, regeneration, conversion, repentance, faith, justification, sanctification, perseverance, glorification. An understanding of adoption is clarified by comparing the term with some of these other terms. Union with Christ is the inclusive and covering concept, and there is in adoption this idea of oneness in the family of God; those who are adopted are “joint heirs with Jesus Christ.” In regeneration it is assumed that this is the secret operation of the Holy Spirit paralleling the more popular figure, “new birth,” which defines especially the origin and initiation of the Christian life, the establishment of a new life principle. Adoption, however, is insistent not only that there is a new quality of life, but also that this quality of life carries with it a conscious experience of the new relationship. Even if one should hold to baptismal regeneration, adoption must still move beyond this event to the emphasis on personal assurance. Some authors treat adoption as a variation or subheading of justification by faith. Justification is a forensic term not having to do with the righteous acts of a saved man but with the fact that God has declared a man to be righteous and treats him as such; and there is no question that this takes place through the finished work of Christ. Men are declared righteous in the presence of God not because they live righteously but because of Christ’s righteousness. Adoption emphasizes more exactly the experience of the father-son relationship as against the judge-prisoner relationship. It is the embracing and restoration of the prodigal son. It is not so much the analogy of the judge setting the prisoner free as it is a father restoring his son—the robe, the ring, the feast, the celebration (cf. Luke 15:22ff.). As over against sanctification, which is a valid concept suggesting the process by which a believer is made more holy, one must emphasize again that the experience of adoption continues to move along with the activity of sanctification at every level of sanctity. The emphasis in adoption is always an ethical one and although it has been initiated and is constantly sustained through God’s grace, it throws light constantly upon response in the conscious experience of the believer. Glorification will be fulfillment and completion of that which is already being experienced by the believer.

The universal dimension.

Two passages (Rom 8:18ff.; Eph 1:5) are not, of course, “universalist” in any sense of the word but lead one to a wider appreciation of what is involved in adoption. “He destined us in love to be his sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will.” The lamb was slain from the foundation of the world, and Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. God is Father according to His nature and the essence of His love and grace is externally His expression of His love toward His creatures. Potentially, then, from all eternity the Father has been destining man to adoption, and reflections of this expression of this nature are already seen in His relationship to Israel (cf. Rom 9:3; Exod 4:22; Deut 14:1; 32:6; Jer 31:9; Hos 11:1). God by His own nature could not be something less than Father, but only when the cross had answered His demands of holiness was it made possible for the Father to receive men as sons. The Spirit testifies to this sonship. Thus, the Triune God is in man’s adoption—the Father according to His nature, the Son according to His redemptive act, the Holy Spirit in His assuring presence. Paul boldly affirms that the whole creation is awaiting “the adoption of the sons of God.” Even nature’s faults will be redeemed and creation itself will be set free from that same bondage and futility which came upon all God’s creation because of the sin of man. The adoption of sons is a necessary step toward the new heaven and the new earth. See Children of God.


A. H. Strong, “Justification,” Systematic Theology (1907), 857, passim, 793-896; ISBE (1939), 58-60; W. H. Russell, JBL, LXXI (1952), 233, 234; HERE, I (1962), 105-115; IDB, I (1962), 48, 49; Grimm-Thayer, Greek Lexicon; Lightfoot, Galatians; Sanday, Romans; IB, q.v. relevant Scripture passages.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

I. THE GENERAL LEGAL IDEA 1. In the Old Testament 2. Greek 3. Roman

II. PAUL’s DOCTRINE 1. In Galatians as Liberty 2. In Romans as Deliverance from Debt

III. THE CHRISTIAN EXPERIENCE 1. In Relation to Justification 2. In Relation to Sanctification 3. In Relation to Regeneration

IV. AS GOD’s ACT 1. Divine Fatherhood 2. Its Cosmic Range This term appears first in New Testament, and only in the epistles of Paul (Ga 4:5; Ro 8:15,23; 9:4; Eph 1:5) who may have coined it out of a familiar Greek phrase of identical meaning. It indicated generally the legal process by which a man might bring into his family, and endow with the status and privileges of a son, one who was not by nature his son or of his kindred.

I. The General Legal Idea. The custom prevailed among Greeks, Romans and other ancient peoples, but it does not appear in Jewish law.

1. In the Old Testament:

Three cases of adoption are mentioned: of Moses (Ex 2:10), Genubath (1Ki 11:20) and Esther (Es 2:7,15), but it is remarkable that they all occur outside of Palestine--in Egypt and Persia, where the practice of adoption prevailed. Likewise the idea appears in the New Testament only in the epistles of Paul, which were addressed to churches outside Palestine. The motive and initiative of adoption always lay with the adoptive father, who thus supplied his lack of natural offspring and satisfied the claims of affection and religion, and the desire to exercise paternal authority or to perpetuate his family. The process and conditions of adoption varied with different peoples. Among oriental nations it was extended to slaves (as Moses) who thereby gained their freedom, but in Greece and Rome it was, with rare exceptions, limited to citizens.

2. Greek:

In Greece a man might during his lifetime, or by will, to take effect after his death, adopt any male citizen into the privileges of his son, but with the invariable condition that the adopted son accepted the legal obligations and religious duties of a real son.

3. Roman:

In Rome the unique nature of paternal authority (patria potestas), by which a son was held in his father’s power, almost as a slave was owned by his master, gave a peculiar character to the process of adoption. For the adoption of a person free from paternal authority (sui juris), the process and effect were practically the same in Rome as in Greece (adrogatio). In a more specific sense, adoption proper (adoptio) was the process by which a person was transferred from his natural father’s power into that of his adoptive father, and it consisted in a fictitious sale of the son, and his surrender by the natural to the adoptive father.

II. Paul’s Doctrine. As a Roman citizen the apostle would naturally know of the Roman custom, but in the cosmopolitan city of Tarsus, and again on his travels, he would become equally familiar with the corresponding customs of other nations. He employed the idea metaphorically much in the manner of Christ’s parables, and, as in their case, there is danger of pressing the analogy too far in its details. It is not clear that he had any specific form of adoption in mind when illustrating his teaching by the general idea. Under this figure he teaches that God, by the manifestation of His grace in Christ, brings men into the relation of sons to Himself, and communicates to them the experience of sonship.

1. In Galatians as Liberty:

In Galatians, Paul emphasizes especially the liberty enjoyed by those who live by faith, in contrast to the bondage under which men are held, who guide their lives by legal ceremonies and ordinances, as the Galatians were prone to do (Ga 5:1). The contrast between law and faith is first set forth on the field of history, as a contrast between both the pre-Christian and the Christian economies (Ga 3:23,24), although in another passage he carries the idea of adoption back into the covenant relation of God with Israel (Ro 9:4). But here the historical antithesis is reproduced in the contrast between men who now choose to live under law and those who live by faith. Three figures seem to commingle in the description of man’s condition under legal bondage--that of a slave, that of a minor under guardians appointed by his father’s will, and that of a Roman son under the patria potestas (Ga 4:1-3). The process of liberation is first of all one of redemption or buying out (Greek exagorasei) (Ga 4:5). This term in itself applies equally well to the slave who is redeemed from bondage, and the Roman son whose adoptive father buys him out of the authority of his natural father. But in the latter case the condition of the son is not materially altered by the process: he only exchanges one paternal authority for another. If Paul for a moment thought of the process in terms of ordinary Roman adoption, the resulting condition of the son he conceives in terms of the more free and gracious Greek or Jewish family life. Or he may have thought of the rarer case of adoption from conditions of slavery into the status of sonship. The redemption is only a precondition of adoption, which follows upon faith, and is accompanied by the sending of "the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, Abba, Father," and then all bondage is done away (Ga 4:5-7).

2. In Romans as Deliverance from Debt:

In Ro 8:12-17 the idea of obligation or debt is coupled with that of liberty. Man is thought of as at one time under the authority and power of the flesh (Ro 8:5), but when the Spirit of Christ comes to dwell in him, he is no longer a debtor to the flesh but to the Spirit (Ro 8:12,13), and debt or obligation to the Spirit is itself liberty. As in Galatians, man thus passes from a state of bondage into a state of sonship which is also a state of liberty. "For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these (and these only) are sons of God" (Ro 8:14). The spirit of adoption or sonship stands in diametrical opposition to the spirit of bondage (Ro 8:15). And the Spirit to which we are debtors and by which we are led, at once awakens and confirms the experience of sonship within us (Ro 8:16). In both places, Paul conveys under this figure, the idea of man as passing from a state of alienation from God and of bondage under law and sin, into that relation with God of mutual confidence and love, of unity of thought and will, which should characterize the ideal family, and in which all restraint, compulsion and fear have passed away.

III. The Christian Experience. As a fact of Christian experience, the adoption is the recognition and affirmation by man of his sonship toward God. It follows upon faith in Christ, by which man becomes so united with Christ that his filial spirit enters into him, and takes possession of his consciousness, so that he knows and greets God as Christ does (compare Mr 14:36).

1. In Relation to Justification: It is an aspect of the same experience that Paul describes elsewhere, under another legal metaphor, as justification by faith. According to the latter, God declares the sinner righteous and treats him as such, admits into to the experience of forgiveness, reconciliation and peace (Ro 5:1). In all this the relation of father and son is undoubtedly involved, but in adoption it is emphatically expressed. It is not only that the prodigal son is welcomed home, glad to confess that he is not worthy to be called a son, and willing to be made as one of the hired servants, but he is embraced and restored to be a son as before. The point of each metaphor is, that justification is the act of a merciful Judge setting the prisoner free, but adoption is the act of a generous father, taking a son to his bosom and endowing him with liberty, favor and a heritage.

2. In Relation to Sanctification:

Besides, justification is the beginning of a process which needs for its completion a progressive course of sanctification by the aid of the Holy Spirit, but adoption is coextensive with sanctification. The sons of God are those led by the Spirit of God (Ro 8:14); and the same spirit of God gives the experience of sonship. Sanctification describes the process of general cleansing and growth as an abstract process, but adoption includes it as a concrete relation to God, as loyalty, obedience, and fellowship with an ever-loving Father.

3. In Relation to Regeneration:

Some have identified adoption with regeneration, and therefore many Fathers and Roman Catholic theologians have identified it with baptismal regeneration, thereby excluding the essential fact of conscious sonship. The new birth and adoption are certainly aspects of the same totality of experience, but they belong to different systems of thought, and to identify them is to invite confusion. The new birth defines especially the origin and moral quality of the Christian experience as an abstract fact, but adoption expresses a concrete relation of man to God. Nor does Paul here raise the question of man’s natural and original condition. It is pressing the analogy too far to infer from this doctrine of adoption that man is by nature not God’s son. It would contradict Paul’s teaching elsewhere (e.g. Ac 17:28), and he should not be convicted of inconsistency on the application of a metaphor. He conceives man outside Christ as morally an alien and a stranger from God, and the change wrought by faith in Christ makes him morally a son and conscious of his sonship; but naturally he is always a potential son because God is always a real father.

IV. As God’s Act. Adoption as God’s act is an eternal process of His gracious love, for He "fore-ordained us unto adoption as sons through Jesus Christ unto himself, according to the good pleasure of his will" (Eph 1:5).

1. Divine Fatherhood:

2. Its Cosmic Range:

But this experience also is incomplete, and looks forward to a fuller adoption in the response, not only of man’s spirit, but of the whole creation, including man’s body, to the Fatherhood of God (Ro 8:23). Every filial spirit now groans, because it finds itself imprisoned in a body subjected to vanity, but it awaits a redemption of the body, perhaps in the resurrection, or in some final consummation, when the whole material creation shall be transformed into a fitting environment for the sons of God, the creation itself delivered from the bondage of corruption into the liberty of the glory of the children of God (Ro 8:21). Then will adoption be complete, when man’s whole personality shall be in harmony with the spirit of sonship, and the whole universe favorable to its perseverance in a state of blessedness.

See Children of God.


Lightfoot, Galatians; Sanday, Romans; Lidgett, Fatherhood of God; Ritschl, Justification and Reconciliation.