Act of leaving one's natural family and entering into the privileges and responsibilities of another. In the Bible, adoption is one of several family-related terms used to describe the process of salvation and its subsequent benefits. God is a father who graciously adopts believers in Christ into his spiritual family and grants them all the privileges of heirship. Salvation is much more than forgiveness of sins and deliverance from condemnation; it is also a position of great blessing. Believers are children of God.
Old Testament Legal adoption was not prescribed in Jewish law or practiced by the Israelites. In fact, the term "adoption" does not occur in the Old Testament. While there are several possible allusions to adoption, such as Moses (Exod 2:10), Genubath (1 Ki 11:20), and Esther (Es 2:7), the incidents recorded take place in foreign societies (Egyptian and Persian) and there is no evidence that legal adoptions were enacted.
The adoption metaphor was not lost to Israel, however. God declares that he is the Father of the nation Israel, whom he loves as his child (Isa 1:2; Hosea 11:1). He tells Pharaoh, "Israel is my firstborn son" (Exod 4:22). More specifically, he says to David (and the Messiah), "You are my son; today I have become your Father" (Psalm 2:7); and of David's descendant, "I will be his father, and he will be my son" (2 Sa 7:14). Although not precisely adoption passages, the instances of declared sonship in the Old Testament provide a theological foundation for Israel's designation as the children of God.
New Testament The New Testament cultural environment was much different from that of the Old since elaborate laws and ceremonies for adoption were part of both Greek and Roman society. To people with this background, the adoption metaphor in the New Testament was particularly meaningful.
The Greek word for adoption (huiothesia [υἱοθεσία]) means to "place as a son" and is used only by Paul in the New Testament. Each of the five occurrences in his letters is to readers of a decidedly Roman background. In one instance Paul refers to the Old Testament idea of Israel's special position as the children of God"Theirs is the adoption as sons" (Ro 9:4). The remaining four references describe how New Testament believers become children of God through his gracious choice. The full scope of God's work of salvation—past, present, and future—is seen in adoption.
The believer's adoption as a child of God was determined by God from eternity: God "predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ" (Eph 1:5). This adoption is not the result of any merit on the part of the believer, but solely the outworking of God's love and grace (Eph 1:5,7).
The present reality of the believer's adoption into the family of God is release from the slavery of sin and the law and a new position as a free heir of God. Entering into salvation brings the rights and privileges of free sonship: "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'" (Ro 8:15). Paul tells the Galatians that Christians were redeemed from the law so that they might receive adoption as sons. As a result the Holy Spirit comes into the believer's heart crying, "Abba, Father" (Gal 4:5). The intimacy of a relationship with God the Father in contrast to the ownership of slavery is a remarkable feature of salvation.
Like many aspects of salvation, there is an eschatological component of adoption. Believers "wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies" (Ro 8:23). The full revelation of the believer's adoption is freedom from the corruption present in the world. Being a member of God's family includes the ultimate privilege of being like him (1 Jo 3:2) and being conformed to the glorious body of Christ (Php 3:21). This is part of the promised inheritance for all God's children (Ro 8:16-17).
William E. Brown
See also Christians, Names of
Bibliography. G. Braumann, NIDNTT, 1:287-90; A. H. Leitch, ZPEB, 1:63-65; F. Lyall, Slaves, Citizens, Sons: Legal Metaphors in the Epistles.