Adoption: The Greatest Christian Doctrine

I was reading through Michael Horton’s book Ordinary, when I was stopped cold by the following words: “We cannot please God as a judge, but we can please Him as our father.” Of course I had known this in my head, but it was not existentially real to me. This book has very little to do specifically with the doctrine of adoption, but for some reason where my heart was at that point, that sentence just hit me. While reading this or maybe a bit later, I remembered the chapter “Sons of God” from J. I. Packer’s book Knowing God. I had remembered Packer mentioning that adoption was the highest privilege of the gospel. He writes:

“What is a Christian? The question can be answered in many ways, but the richest answer I know is that a Christian is one who has God as Father…Our understanding of Christianity cannot be better than our grasp of adoption…If you want to judge how well a person understands Christianity, find out how much he makes of the thought of being God’s child, and having God as his father. If this is not the thought that prompts and controls his worship and prayers, and his whole outlook on life, it means he does not understand Christianity very well at all. For everything that Christ taught, everything that makes the New Testament new, and better than the Old, everything that is distinctly Christian as opposed to merely Jewish is summed up in the knowledge of the Fatherhood of God. ‘Father’ is the Christian name for God.”

When I read that about two years ago I did not quite understand why adoption is the greatest part of the gospel. It did not make sense to me. Now I get it. I am afraid as Reformed Christians, we have overreacted against the “relationship not a religion” talk that was popular several years back and emphasized God’s glory in a way that is disconnected from the reality of human existence. God is clearly concerned for His own glory, but this is never cold and detached from His love for His children. I have often had the impression after reading or hearing about God’s glory that God is a cosmic selfie or is sitting in heaven flexing. That is not Christianity. It better represents the Muslim view of god than the Christian view. I believe that perhaps even more than grace, adoption is the doctrine that separates Christianity from every other religion. In his book about relating to other faiths, Ajith Fernando writes:

“The emphasis in Islam on the transcendence of God is taken well beyond the Christian understanding to yield a different understanding of God…The main difference between the Christian and Muslim idea of God…is that whereas the former focusses on relationships, the later focusses on the otherness of God.”

Ida Glaser writes that the relationship between God and man in Islam is “more like between potentate and subject than that between father and Son, since man is made primarily for worship rather than relationship.”

Now I want to clarify that we were made to worship, but worshiping is inexplicably tied to relationship. This is clearly stated in the Westminster Confession of Faith, when it declares that the purpose of man is to “glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” We glorify Him through worship while enjoying Him through relationship. I saw once someone try to separate these as two different purposes of man, but I do not see that as possible. He said that purpose of glorifying supersedes our purpose of enjoying. If we emphasize one we will get a false picture of God. If glory is separate from enjoyment we will either be left with the Muslim view of God as non-relational or a view where God is not at all transcendent. The transcendent and holy God is the same as the loving and relational God. These characteristics must be held together to have a proper view of God. All of God’s attributes rest on each other and are held together in paradox.

The incarnation and the cross obviously shatters this idea, but I have even found ways to warp this in a way to see God as not actually caring about humanity. While the cross obviously displays God’s glory and holiness and wrath, the cross is for me. The cross connects God’s glory and our good and links them together. Somehow I saw it as God trying to make me feel even guiltier than I already do for how sinful I am. “Look at what I had to do. You suck. Go feel bad about yourself.” Of course we must see that it was our sin that made the cross necessary, but the cross is not about my sin as much as it is about God’s grace and love for me. John Stott writes in my favorite book, The Cross of Christ, “How could anyone imagine that Christianity is about sin rather than forgiveness of sin? How could anyone look at the cross and see only the shame of what we did to Christ rather than the glory of what Christ did for us.”

We can forget the doctrine of adoption by focusing on the doctrine of justification separated from the doctrine of adoption. We know at the cross that God justifies us, or pays for our sin, but God does not stop here. Justification is not an end in itself. God justifies us in order that He may adopt us. He blots out our sin in a judicial sense so He may restore our relationship in a familial sense. I struggle with feeling and having affection for God and I know realize that this is likely largely due to my emphasis on justification at the expense of adoption. Justification is important, as there is no adoption without it, but justification does not stir up love for God in the same way as adoption. J. I. Packer writes:

“to be right with God the judge is a great thing, but to be loved and cared for by God the Father is a greater…We do not feel the wonder of the passage of death into life, which takes place in the new birth, til we see it as a transition, not simply out of condemnation into acceptance, but out of bondage and destitution into the ‘safety, certainty, and enjoyment’ of the family of God.”

Dick Keyes writes:

“The fact that salvation is often expressed in legal terms in no way means that it is limited to legal categories. Personal acceptance is more than forgiveness, but includes it. For example, I can forgive you for something you have done to me but I still might not like to spend time with you, I might not want you along on my vacation. Christian salvation goes beyond legal pardon. It is the work of a loving Father who adopts us into his family. He loves us and accepts us as we are… He is not ashamed to have us numbered in his family, even with all of our sin and shame.”

Are you on food stamps? Are you overweight? Are you not that physically attractive? Do you not have a great job? Do you not have many friends? Are you not as smart as you feel you should be? Do you struggle with depression? Are you from West Virginia? Are you struggling in one particular area or another? Is there anything you are ashamed of? God is not ashamed for you to be in His family. Now I am not saying that these are not serious sources of shame and are difficult to deal with, but God is not ashamed to call you child.

Do you struggle with pride? Do you struggle with lust? Do you struggle with jealousy? Do you struggle with rage? Do you struggle with an addiction? God is not ashamed to call you His child. He knew what He was getting Himself into. These sins do grieve God, but God wants you where you are in your struggle. In one sermon jam, Matt Chandler says:

“Man or woman of God in Christ but struggling, God does not regret saving you. He doesn’t regret it!  You have not surprised Him. You cannot surprise Him. God is not watching where you are, watching where you’ve struggled this week, watching where you stumble and fall, and regretting the decision to pay the price for you in full…For those of you in Christ, you do not disgust Him.”

In a similar way, we can also forget the doctrine of adoption when we see ourselves only as slaves of Christ. The slave metaphor is certainly used (Rom 1: 1, Rom 6:18, 1 Cor 7:22), but seen outside of the other ways Christ speaks of us, the slave metaphor will distort our view of our relationship with God. Jesus calls the disciples friends not servants (John 15: 15). Paul and John use the description of Sons frequently. (Gal 3:26, Eph 1:5, Phil 2:15, 1 John 3:1). Seeing ourselves as slaves without seeing ourselves as sons will certainly give a false picture of God and how God sees us. Masters do not have affection for and delight in their slaves and servants as a Father has affection for and delight in his children. Servants and slaves can be replaced, children cannot. If you are a Christian, God wants you, not just anyone will do. You are not replaceable to God. God is never going to say “I don’t need you anymore. You have done all that I needed from you, now go on your way.”

And adoption changes everything from the way we see obedience to the way we pray. Packer writes that we must see every aspect of our Christian life in terms of it.

  1. Prayer. We see in the Lord’s Prayer, the prayer that Jesus teaches us to use, that we address God as Father. Packer writes that this is how we should address God in most of our prayers. The entire rest of the prayer rests upon our addressing God as father. Tim Keller in his book Prayer writes “that unless we are profoundly certain that God is our Father we will never be able to say ‘thy will be done.’” Approaching God as Father gives us the trust that God will give us what we need, hence our daily bread. We end with “for thine is the Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory forever” assuring us that God not only has interest in answering our prayers as a Father, but also the power as the God of the universe. Because God is Father, He “is always accessible to His children and is never too preoccupied to listen to what they have to say…We need not hesitate to imitate the sublime ‘cheek’ of the child who is not afraid to ask his parents for anything, because he knows he can count completely on their love.” And when our prayers are not answered we are able to not despair and fear God is not listening because the Father will give His children what is best and in His wisdom has decided what we have prayed for is not best for us.
  2. Sin. Seeing God as Father radically changes how a Christian views sin. Sin not only violates the law of a distant judge, but grieves the Father that has adopted us. Thomas Goodwin writes to the Christian that “your very sins move Him more to pity than anger.” Now before this sounds as if I am making sin out to be less than it is, this actually makes sin even worse than the understanding of sin without adoption. I was not able to see my sin as it was, spitting in God’s face or giving God the middle finger, until I saw this. Ida Glasser writes “In Christianity…sin is often described in relationship terms: grieving the Holy Spirit, spurning the Son, being at enmity with the Heavenly Father.”
  3. Obedience and Repentance. Obedience is no longer a way to pay back a judge who has let us off the hook but a way to please our Heavenly Father who delights in us. God’s law is not a mere set of rules and regulations, but it fits God’s character and is designed for our God and our flourishing. Repentance, while still painful, does not lead us to despair when acknowledging God as Father. We do not fear punishment and desire holiness not simply for escape of punishment but because we see that sin hurts God and ourselves. It mars our communion (not union), with God. And we cannot outsin God’s love for us as children. J. I. Packer writes “Christians may act the Prodigal, but God will not cease to act the Prodigal’s Father.”
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