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Larger Catechism 74: “What Is Adoption?” Romans 8:17

Two sermons were preached in connection with this Larger Catechism question and answer on October 4 and October 11,1992. The following text combines the transcription of a recorded audio from the October 4th message together with Dr. William Young’s hand written sermon notes from both messages. 


Justification has two parts. First, there is the pardon of sins.  And second, there is acceptance, as being entitled to the reward of eternal life.  In the covenant of works made with the human race in Adam, life was promised as a reward for perfect obedience.  We know that we have broken that covenant in Adam, but our Lord Jesus Christ has fulfilled that requirement of perfect obedience to the moral law of God.  In justification the Lord’s people have received the promise of that reward, not because they have merited anything, but only because of the merits of the perfect righteousness of Christ that is imputed unto to them.

Now this second part of justification, namely acceptance, implying a title to the reward of eternal life, may very easily be viewed as the same as adoption.  For in adoption, the child of God is given a right to have a place in the heavenly inheritance.  Some able theologians have adopted this point of view, but I rather think that the Scripture maintains a distinction between justification and adoption.  It is not the case that adoption is simply a part of justification.

For one thing, in justification we think of God as the judge.  He is the righteous judge who pronounces the legal sentence of “Not Guilty” upon the ungodly to whom the righteousness of Christ is reckoned.  But in adoption, God is seen as a merciful Father. You might say these are two aspects of one and the same thing so far as the Lord’s marvelous dealing is concerned.  Those whom he justifies, he also adopts as his children.  One does see at first that there is a distinction between a judge and a father, though the same person may be both a judge and a father, but still these are two different dispositions in which that same person is regarded. God does not act as a father to the unforgiven sinner.  The unforgiven sinner is under God’s wrath and curse and the justification of the ungodly provides the foundation for God as a father to receive the believer as a child.

The nature of adoption has been stated in various aspects in the language of the 74th question and answer of our Larger Catechism. It asks; What is adoption?  And answers; Adoption is an act of the free grace of God, in and for his only son Jesus Christ, whereby all those that are justified are received into the number of his children, have his name put upon them, the Spirit of his Son given to them, are under his fatherly care and dispensations, admitted to all the liberties and privileges of the sons of God, made heirs of all the promises, and fellow-heirs with Christ in glory.

This precious doctrine is taught in the 4th chapter of Galatians, which we read earlier, and it is also stated in our text in Romans 8:17.  In Romans 8:14 we have the words,  “For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God.  For we have not received the spirit of bondage into fear; but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father. The Spirit itself bears witness with our spirit that we are the children of God:”….and then our text at verse 17, “And if children, then heirs, heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ, if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together”.

Adoption is set forth here as the operation of the Holy Spirit, who also testifies to his work: to the effectual work, we might say. Some have insisted that in the very strictest sense of the term adoption is the work of the first person of the Trinity.  Indeed thinking of God as a Father, it is very natural to see the first person of the Godhead specifically to be the one who is the agent in adoption.  But we must never separate the work of the persons of the Trinity with respect to creatures in such a way as to suppose that one divine person acts against or apart from the others.  In any case, one may certainly say that a consequence of the work of the Spirit of God in the souls of those he justifies is the adoption of those same persons as the children of God.

Now we may consider this subject following the elements in our Larger Catechism as well as in the teaching of the Holy Scripture.

First; Adoption, as an act of free grace.

Second; Adoption, in and for Christ.

Third; Adoption, as granting to believers the privileges of sonship.

Adoption is stated to be an act of God’s free grace both in the Larger and Shorter Catechisms.  I remind you that like justification, adoption is an act.  It is distinguished from effectual calling and sanctification and other works of God, whereas adoption, like justification, is an act.  It is an act which is performed immediately, instantaneously, once and for all by God, as over against a work which occurs over a certain period of time.  In the case of sanctification we sometimes speak of it as being progressive in character.  The nature of adoption as being a work is that it produces what can sometimes be called a relative change, that is a change of relation.  The relation of a person before adoption is that of being a child of wrath while the adopted person has been made a child of God. Now that is a change in one’s relationship to God, as distinct from what is sometimes called a “real change” since this real change takes place in the new birth.  Those who were dead in trespasses and sins are made to be spiritually alive.  A change in one’s internal character which is begun in regeneration and which continues in the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit throughout the believers lifetime.  As distinct from such works, justification and adoption are to be thought of simply as acts of God.  These acts, of course, are not separated in time from the works which God is pleased to perform.

Those who are adopted by God as his children are also born again and are also regenerated by the work of the Holy Spirit.  But these are two different things; even though they both take place within the same person and cannot be separated in fact from one another.  Adoption and justification are connected with one another and adoption and regeneration are certainly connected with one another in John 1:12-13. Verse 12 speaks of adoption and says that God was pleased to receive as sons as many as believed on the name of Christ, that is adoption. But then verse 13 goes on to speak of the new birth when it says that these are those not born of the flesh, nor born of blood, nor of the will of man, but they were born of God.

Now adoption is not only an act, but it is an act of God’s free grace, and it is the design of God’s eternal election. The connection between adoption and election or the predestination of the elect is certainly stated in Ephesians 1:4-5, “According as he hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love: having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself according to the good pleasure of his will”.  We may also think of the words of 1 John 3:1, where John breaks out with that oration, the marvel of the love of God, “Behold, what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us that we should be called the children of God”.  It is the eternal love of God that is the source of the act of adoption.  We have no claim by nature to such an unspeakable privilege.  But rather by nature we deserve nothing other than eternal banishment from the comfortable presence of the Lord. The marvel is that such that deserve banishment are received by God as his children.  This idea is essential to adoption.

Now we know that Arminians and others try to get around this by saying that God elected those that he foreknew would believe in the name of the son of God.  But that is not the teaching of the epistle to the Ephesians.  It does not say in Ephesians 1:4, “According as he hath chosen us before the foundation of the world, because he foreknew we would be holy and without blame before him”, but what it says is, “as he has chosen us that we might be holy and without blame before him.  And in this is included the acts of faith and of repentance on the part of those whom God has chosen to adopt as his children.  All merit on the part of man is excluded by the fact that adoption like justification is involved in the eternal decree of God.

I’ll not enter into the controversy that different representatives of the reformed faith have engaged in as to whether adoption and justification are to be thought of as imminent acts of God in his eternal counsel of election and therefore are eternal acts of God or whether these are represented as taking place in time.  I think that the Scriptures may be quoted as setting forth both of these aspects of the acts of God in justification and in adoption.  Adoption like justification may be thought of as an imminent act of God, in which case, it is part of predestinating grace flowing from God’s free love and eternal election.  Moreover, while justification supposes a fallen creature to be declared righteous, adoption need not consider those adopted as fallen, but even as creatures they had no claim to the state and privileges of sonship to which the sovereign had decreed them.  But when the actually existing ungodly sinner is viewed as the one freely justified and adopted, we must say that God decreed thus to justify and adopt before the foundation of the world, and he executes that decree at the appropriate time for each one to be translated from death to life.

Now in the second place, adoption is “in and for” God’s only Son, Jesus Christ.  It’s worth noting in our Larger Catechism answer that we have these two prepositions “in” and “for” and the proof text makes it quite clear that the preposition “for” means “for the sake of”.  On the one hand, those who are adopted are adopted in Christ, and they are adopted because of the work of the Lord Jesus Christ.  Now that preposition “in” indicates the great mystery of union with Christ, as we find it in the fourth of Ephesians in the words, “According as he has chosen us in him before the foundation of the world”.  One might take the preposition “by” in verse five as synonymous here with “in”, “Having predestinated us to the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself according to the good pleasure of his will”.  But as you go on with this section of the first chapter of Ephesians, union with Christ in that preposition “in” is emphasized over and over again. You have it at verse six, “To the praise of the glory of his grace, wherein he hath made us accepted in the beloved”.  And then again in verse seven, “In whom we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of his grace”.  And again in verse nine, “Having made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure which he hath purposed in himself”.   And finally, in verse eleven where the inheritance is spoken of, you have a very specific reference to adoption, “In whom also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestinated according to the purpose of him who worketh all things after the counsel of his will”.  See the emphasis that is being put in these verses upon the union of the elect believer with the Savior in the matter of adoption.  It is indeed a mysterious relationship that is being spoken of and there’s a great mystery in the doctrine that the elect are found in him who is the only Son of God.  There are many sons of God, but Christ is spoken of as the only Son of God, or as I think it may be profitably translated in various passages as in our authorized version, “the only begotten Son of God”.  The elect are adopted sons of God, but Christ is from eternity the begotten Son of God and there is no other but he who has that prerogative.

Now the preposition “for”, as I intimated, indicates the ground of adoption, and it is in the work of redemption, as we were reading in the fourth chapter of Galatians verses five and six, “To redeem them who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons.  And because ye are sons, God hath sent forth the Spirit of his Son into your hearts, crying, Abba, Father.”  The work of redemption by Christ has as its end the adoption of sons being received by believers.   And as adoption is the end of redemption, so redemption is the ground or the basis of adoption even as redemption is the basis, the ground, indeed the entire ground of justification.

Now the relationship between the adopted sons of God and the only begotten Son of God involves much which is mysterious and we should indeed beware of undue speculation with respect to this matter.  But I think it can certainly be said that it was fitting that the eternal Son of God should be the mediator by whose redemptive work elect sinners should be adopted.  We might observe in this connection that in adoption there is not simply the restoration of the relationship with God that has been lost by the fall.  There is certainly that in justification, that man had original righteousness as created by God, that he has lost that righteousness completely, and the only righteousness by which he is justified is not a righteousness of his own, but the righteousness of Christ imputed to him.

That is indeed a wonderful thing, but here is something even more wonderful.  Something that goes beyond what was lost by the fall in Adam is given in redemption by Christ.  It is precisely because the one who has delivered us from the effects of the fall of Adam, the one who has done that is the eternal Son of God.  And so, the redeemed stand in a certain relationship to him that Adam never stood in and that Adam wouldn’t have stood in even if he had continued in the state of integrity.  This may be taken in the fact that it is “in” Christ and “for” Christ, who is himself the only begotten Son of God, that those who are justified are also adopted.

And I believe that in our text, and also in other passages where the people of God are represented as joint-heirs with Christ, that those who are sons are heirs, but they are not only heirs of God, but joint-heirs with Christ.  And so, in the expression of admiration in first John, chapter 3, the apostle goes on in verse 2 to speak of this connection of the believer with his Savior, “Beloved, now we are the sons of God and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is”, and likewise in the Book of Revelation in the third chapter and at the twenty first verse we have this precious promise, “To him that overcometh, will I grant to sit with me in my throne, even as I also overcame and am set down with my Father in his throne”.

In meditating upon this sublime mystery there is one thing which we should never forget and that is that there is a difference, an infinite difference indeed, between the sonship of the Lord Jesus Christ as the eternal Son of God even in his human nature, and the sonship that by adoption believers do have “in” Christ and “for” Christ.  There was a great debate back in the nineteenth century between Professor R.S. Candlish of the Free Church of Scotland and Professor T.J. Crawford of the Established Church with respect to the sonship of adoption and the subject of the Fatherhood of God.  I think there was perhaps some truth and also some error on both sides on this debate, but I believe that Professor Candlish rightly speaks of “the persuasion that God’s adopted ones have fellowship with their Redeemer in the blessedness and dignity resulting from his sonship, insofar as these may be communicated to created beings”.  (The Fatherhood of God, page 139)  I think that we can say at least this much with respect to the matter.

Now thirdly, we turn to the various privileges that adoption brings with it.  One might think first of all of adoption on a human level when we think of a man on earth adopting someone as a child.  The one who is adopted has a variety of privileges, the privileges of sonship.  He is in so many respects put in the same position as one who by nature is a son.  And as this is the case on a human level, it is also in the case with respect to adoption by God.  There are rights and privileges that are conferred upon the adopted son by the act of adoption.

In the first place, all who are justified are received into the number of the children of God.  Again we refer to John 1:12, “But as many as received him”, that is, as many as received Christ, “to them gave he power,” or the right, “to become the sons of God”.   As we are justified by faith, I think it may also be said we are adopted by faith.  But we are not said to be adopted by faith, as it worketh by love, but as in justification so also in adoption, it is by faith alone.  In connection with justification we pointed out that while the faith by which one is justified is indeed a faith that works by love, yet it is not because it is a faith that works by love that it serves as an instrument in justification. And I believe that a similar thing might be observed in connection with adoption, notwithstanding perhaps some unhappy statements made by professor Candlish in this controversy, that it is simply faith in Christ, not faith considered, as working by love, that is the instrument or the means by which a sinner is adopted.  That there is such a relationship between faith and adoption is indicated not only in John 1:12, but also in Galatians 3:26, “For ye are all children of God by faith in Christ Jesus”.

The apostle goes on in a later passage in Galatians to speak about faith that works by love, but we don’t want to make anything else other than faith as being the basis of justification or as being the means that is, the instrument of justification, or as being the means of adoption.  The many remarks by those who are so concerned to propound what they call “Lordship Theology”, I believe in many cases, fall into the error of obscuring the fact that justification is not at all by love or by any other virtue that God infuses into those whom he regenerates and whom he justifies and adopts, but it is faith alone which regards nothing else but the office of Christ as our high priest that is the instrument of justification.  The fact that it is by faith that adoption is received indicates that there is an important difference which we must not obscure when we might have our thoughts raised up to the area of eternal supralapsarian adoption.  Nonetheless, let us never forget that the Scripture does speak of adoption, not sonship, being received by faith. That believers are received into the number of the children of God surely implies that they were not children of God before they believed.

Now another point about this in the controversy between Professors Crawford and Candlish is that I do think Professor Candlish was definitely more in the right than Crawford when talking about the universal Fatherhood of God.  Of course, both men agreed that the modernist point of view being propounded by theologians Morris and Robertson in the Church of England was wrong.  There is no question about that.  But, does the Scripture teach that all men are in some sense or other the children of God?  Well, one might find two or three verses that would give some support for this mode of speaking for example in the genealogy of Christ.  Adam is said to be a son of God, just as the descendants of Adam are said to be sons of their ancestors in that genealogy.  But while you might find one or two passages that speak of the sonship of human beings in virtue of creation in the image of God, you don’t find very much emphasis on this in the word of God.  But when the sonship of human beings to God is spoken of in the Old Testament, it is again and again with regard to God’s choice of Israel as a particular people, and therefore we have texts like, “out of Egypt have I called my son”, and other similar passages where we have a similar truth taught.

In the New Testament where adoption is spoken of it is always a matter of sonship as the special privilege of believers and not the idea that all men are being spoken of as being the sons of God.  We know that when an abuse was made of the Old Testament representation of sonship by the Pharisees, our Savior said very plainly to those who claimed because they were Abraham’s seed they therefore were the children of God, he said very plainly to them, “You are of your father the devil”.   They were not children of God in any true spiritual sense, they were rather the children of the evil one, and they did the works of the evil one.  And so also, the Ephesians were reminded that by nature they were children of wrath even as others, and its only by the wonderful grace of God that they were brought out of that state of being children of wrath and into the blessed state of those who are adopted and who are therefore set forth as being the children of God.

Continuing on in the Larger Catechism answer further privileges of sons include “being received into the number of his children”.  Previously, we learned that adoption is received by faith alone.  And so, those who obey the instruction, “come ye out and be separate”, do not obtain adoption as a reward, but manifest their adoption and are recognized as sons and daughters by their heavenly Father.  Their obedience is the fruit and manifestation of their faith, as is also their overcoming the world.  “Ye are of God, little children, and have overcome them: because greater is he that is in you, than he that is in the world.” (1 John 4:4).   The victory that overcomes the world is the result of the new birth.

The contrast between a servant and a Son should be noted at this point.  In John 8:35 we read, “And the servant abideth not in the house forever: but the Son abideth ever”.  The Pharisees, as all unregenerate men, are servants of sin.  To be a servant of God is sharply opposed to such a wretched state.  But to be a son of God is a most sublime state.  The penitent prodigal is willing to be as one of the hired servants.  But the gracious Father welcomes him as one that was lost and now is found.  “Wherefore thou art no more a servant, but a son; and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ.” (Gal 4:7).

Adoption further confers a “new name” upon the believer.  When a child is adopted he receives the name of the one that adopts him.  Believers are marked with the name of God.  “…And I said, thou shalt call me “My Father”. (Jer 3:19b)  “And will be a Father unto you, and ye shall be my sons and daughters, saith the Lord Almighty.” (2 Cor 6:18)  And at Revelation 3:12, “…and I will write upon him the name of my God.”  And again at Revelation 2:17, “He that hath an ear, let him hear with the Spirit sayeth unto the churches; To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the hidden manna, and will give him a white stone, and in the stone a new name written, which no man knoweth saving he that receiveth it.”

In adoption the “Spirit of the Son of God” is given to believers.  Because they are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of his Son into their hearts.  Because they are predestinated to the adoption of sons, their regeneration by the Holy Spirit follows.  Because they are received as sons in adoption, the spirit produces that assurance by reason of which they cry, “Abba, Father”.  Not all who are adopted have this assurance granted them at the time, but Ephesians 1:13b seems to speak of the sealing work of the Holy Spirit as a promise of this most comforting work of assurance by the Holy Spirit in the soul.

In adoption believers are also under God’s “fatherly care and dispensations”.  They are “pitied”, “protected”, “provided for”, and “chastened” by him as by a Father.  There are many texts which speak to this truth.  “Like as a father pitieth his children, so the Lord pitieth them that fear him.” (Psalm 103:13).  “In the fear of the Lord is strong confidence: and his children shall have a place of refuge.” (Prov 14:26)

In adoption believers have a “liberty” of access to the Father but this holy boldness is not to be confused with irreverent presumption.  “By whom also we have access by faith into this grace wherein we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God.” (Rom 5:2)  “In whom we have boldness and access with confidence by the faith of him.” (Eph 3:12)

In adoption believers are made “heirs to all the promises and fellow heirs with Christ in glory”.  “Are they not all ministering spirits, sent forth to minister for them who shall be heirs of salvation.” (Heb 1:14)  “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, which according to his abundant mercy hath begotten us again unto a lively hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance incorruptible, and undefiled, and that fadeth not away, reserved in heaven for you.” (1 Pet 1:3-4)

By way of application first, the doctrine of adoption challenges the believer to self-examination.  The great question for any person is, “Am I a child of God”?  His children have great privileges; others, as children of wrath, or of the devil, are in a wretched state.  All of First John, particularly, gives marks of the children of God, especially in their genuine love to the brethren.  “We know that we have passed from death unto life, because we love the brethren.  He that loveth not his brother abideth in death.” (1 John 3:14)

And second, the doctrine of adoption challenges the believer by way of exhortation.  Privileges and duties belong together.  Those who enjoy the privileges of sonship have also the duties of children toward their parents.  On the natural level, the 5th Commandment is binding; on the Spiritual, the adopted sons of God owe honor to their heavenly Father, and are to seek his glory in all things.  In particular, they are to recognize that afflictions are not vindictive, but are expressions of the love of the Father to his wayward children.  Suffering for the sake of the Gospel are evidences of union with Christ in his sufferings, and carry with them the promise of Romans 8:17, “And if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together.

May the Lord grant his blessing upon his word.

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