Adopted as sons-purposefully, personally, delightfully, and graciously
In first century Roman culture, “adoption to sonship” was a legal word describing the adoption of a male Roman slave for the purposes of extending a family lineage.1 A scholar named Michael Peppard writes extensively on this. Peppard states that adoption to sons was a significant means for “imperial succession, of transmitting power from father to son” for those who did not have natural sons.2 Adoption to sons was “a privilege of the elite” to extend family bloodlines.3
Maybe you can picture it.
Imagine for a moment that there is a wealthy and significant Roman father. But, to the detriment and peril of his value, his honour, and his name-he is without a son or an heir to his estate. There is no one suitable to continue the family-line or to pass on the inheritance. So, for his own sake and the sake of his dynasty, this Roman father legally selects and adopts an adult male slave. But, to maintain the honour in the family, the Father will only select a slave who has proven his worth, his value, and his significance. The Father will only adopt a slave who is fit to continue the family lineage. So, when he finds a worthy slave, he purchases him and takes him home to be his son.4
You see, “adoption to sonship” was about the good of the father, the preservation of the family, the worthiness of the potential male son, the knowledgeable selection by the father, it was about the good of the dynasty.5 Adoption to sons may have guaranteed a higher status for the adopted slave, but it didn’t necessarily guarantee any love, or warmth, or affection between father and son.6 In short, “adoption to sonship” wasn’t really an act of ‘charity’.
But here in Ephesians, and the rest of the New Testament, the Apostle Paul does something astonishing-he turns “adoption to sonship” on its head. He redefines this Roman word according to the glorious grace found in Jesus Christ.
Throughout Ephesians, Paul sees adoption to sonship as the new and privileged relationship that believers have with their God. Whether you’re male or female, slave or free, Jew or Gentile-Paul stresses that adoption to sons is about our shift in status and relationship to God. Through the gracious work of the Father, Son, and Spirit-we go from being “sons of disobedience” and “children of wrath” (Ephesians 2:2-3) to being adopted sons of God. We who were once “strangers and aliens” are now “members of the household of God” (Ephesians 2:19). You see, for the Apostle Paul, adoption to sonship describes the miraculous shift of our being ‘not family’ to ‘family’, ‘out of the household’ to ‘in the household’, ‘nameless’ to ‘named’, and from ‘enemies’ to ‘sons’.
Over the centuries, adoption to sons has been described by some as “the highest blessing of the gospel”7, “the great and fountain privilege of salvation”8, and the “apex of grace and privilege”9. It’s a spiritual reality of immense encouragement. And that’s what I love about these few words in Ephesians 1:5-6-they’re deeply refreshing.
So, this morning/evening, I just want to do that. Through Ephesians 1:5-6, I want to encourage you and refresh you in this reality. I want to encourage you, as Paul does to the church in Ephesus, of the riches of our adoption in God. I want to encourage you that this glorious grace is worth all our joy, delight, and praise.
Here’s encouragement number one.
The first thing to be encouraged by is that we have been adopted purposefully. Just with the first word of verse 5, the Apostle Paul tells us that our adoption has been set in motion by God the Father. Paul writes:
Paul reminds the Ephesians that their adoption to sons is purposed by the Father. Before the creation of the world, from eternity past, the Father chose us and decided to adopt us as sons.
It’s a reminder to us that our adoption is not the Father’s afterthought. This isn’t a random decision or a knee-jerk reaction. Nor does our adoption “proceed from dissatisfaction in God”.10 God the Father does not pursue a family because He is incomplete or longs for something which He lacks.11 Nor is our adoption dependent on our circumstances, our virtue, or upon any human effort or will.
Our adoption begins and ends with God. The Father’s pursuit for sons, out of sons of disobedience, was and is his forever intension.
Here’s encouragement number two.
The second thing to be encouraged by is that we have been adopted personally. Paul reminds the Ephesians that their adoption is not only purposed ‘from God’, but is also ‘for God’. In verse 5 we hear:
5 He predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ for himself…
Now, for some unknown reason, the NIV translation leaves out the two Greek words: “for himself” or even “to himself”.12 And by doing so, it doesn’t fully capture the personal nature of our adoption.
The Apostle Paul is reminding us that we are adopted “for God” and to be “God’s own” sons.13 This language of “adopted for himself” has the idea of ‘inheritance’ and ‘possession’ (which we see further down in Ephesians 1:14). The point is that we are to be God the Father’s, and God the Father is to be ours.
You see, God’s redemptive purposes are deeply personal. The purpose of your redemption is not only merely legal (to be right with God the Judge), but also to be deeply personal (to be children of God the Father). J.I. Packer famously wrote about the personal nature of our salvation, how the highest privilege of salvation is adoption. 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”.14
Brothers and sisters, this is what God the Father has purposed for us. He has purposed an adoption which is personal. That there would be no longer any remoteness, alienation, or coldness between sinners and their God. But that there would be closeness, belonging, and warmth. God the Father has chosen us so that He might be your heavenly Father and you might be his child, his very own son.
Here’s encouragement number three.
The third thing to be encouraged by is that we are adopted delightfully. Paul reminds the Ephesians that their adoption is according to the Father’s pleasure and will. Paul writes:
5 He predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ for himself, in accordance with his pleasure and will…
This is a reminder that the Father has taken great delight in choosing to bring us into his household.15 God’s adoption plans are according to his good pleasure, his delight, his wishes. In his book, From Orphans to Heirs, Stibbe comments:
“It pleased [the Father] to enfold us in the eternal family of faith. It brought him joy and thrilled his heart. Even though this adoption would not be cost-free, God did not undertake this task by gritting his teeth and clenching his fists. No, it was his pleasure as well as his will”.16
I mean, how astonishing!? The Father’s driving motive in adopting us is his eternal good pleasure.17
Here’s encouragement number four.
The fourth and final thing to be encouraged by is that we are adopted graciously. If that’s not already been clear, then the Paul makes it even clearer at the end of verse 6. He writes:
5 He predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will-6 to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves.
Here, Paul reminds the Ephesians of how adoption to sonship has come to them, and to us as well.18 He says that this tremendous reality has come by grace in the person of the Son.
In using the phrase “which he has freely given us”, the Apostle Paul is saying that our adoption is an unmerited and favourable gift from God the Father. Adoption to sons is something which can only be received when God kindly gives it to you. It is not earned. It is not bargained for. It is not purchasable. Adoption comes to us as a blessing, as a gift, as grace.
Then, by using the phrase “in the one He loves”, Paul says that the grace of adoption comes to us in the Father’s much-loved Son, Jesus Christ. Now, the word “in” here can be used in two ways. (1) It can be used ‘instrumentally’19: That God has given his favour to us through the instrument and means of the Son. That is-the Son’s taking on flesh, his living, his dying, his rising, his outpouring of the Spirit, and his ascending are the means to our adoption. (2) But the word “in” can also be ‘locative’: That God has given his favour to those who are in the realm or location of Christ. That is-through our spiritual union with Christ, we receive adoption.
Now, if that didn’t make sense to you, that’s okay. The point is that our adoption comes to us in and through the beloved Son, Jesus Christ. To quote one person, we are “sons in the Son”.20
So, what are we to do with such encouragements? How are we to respond to the riches of our adoption in Christ? What are we to do with such wonderful realities?
Well, here in Ephesians 1, the Apostle Paul leaves us with only one real response: praise. Paul writes:
5 He predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will-6 to the praise of his glorious grace…
Later in his letter, the Apostle Paul will call the Ephesians to be holy sons. To be those who follow their Father as “dearly loved children” (Ephesians 5:1). But, for now, Paul reminds the Ephesians that adopted sons are to be sons of praise. The first and foremost response of the Father’s children is to be a joyful exultation concerning this glorious grace. God’s sons and daughters are to constantly bless their Father for having blessed them so richly in the Son.21 Paul’s reminding us that our adoption is to lead us into greater thankfulness, greater joy, and greater delight for that grace.
In his chapter on adoption, J. I. Packer says that our adoption to sonship should be the “controlling thought” of our lives at every point. Every day we should remind ourselves that (1) “I am a child of God” (2) “God is my Father”, and (3) … which is my own personal addition… we should “Praise God for numbers 1 and 2”.22 “I am a child of God” “God is my Father” “Thank you God” “I am a child of God” “God is my Father” “Thank you God”. We should say it over and over-“first thing in the morning, last thing at night, as you wait for the bus, anytime your mind is free”.23 Adopted sons are to be sons of praise.
Brothers and sisters, these are but some of the riches of divine adoption. What the Apostle Paul writes about here, far exceeds the Roman practices of adoption. In fact, our adoption as sons far exceeds any earthly adoption.
In the Netflix series drama, The Queen’s Gambit, the child chess prodigy Beth Harmon finds herself orphaned at the age of eight. After witnessing the horror of her mother’s death in a car-crash, Beth spends multiple years in a Christian orphanage school before being adopted by the Wheatley family. In a really compelling way, the drama showcases the complexity of adoption from the child’s point of view.
What we discover is that Beth’s father begrudgingly adopts her. Whilst he is all smiles at the Orphanage, he is cold and distant when they arrive home. Beth discovers that her father is actually not interested at all, but this whole process has occurred to satisfy the desires of his wife, Beth’s adoptive mother.
As the drama unfolds, we also find that Beth’s adoptive mother is not much better. On the one hand, it is clear that Beth loves her adoptive mother, but on the other, she does not relate to her at all. There are glimmers of genuine love from her adoptive mother as well, but there are also clear indicators of narcissism and exploitation of Beth‘s ability to play chess at the highest level. Her adoptive mother capitalizes on Beth‘s abilities and uses them to jet set around the world for tournaments, to stay in fancy hotels, to drink fancy alcohol, and to have affairs with mysterious men.24
One parent begrudgingly adopts. The other parent uses ‘adoption’ as a pawn for their own gratification. The Queen’s Gambit reveals the complexity of earthly adoption-whilst there can be beauty, there can also be disappointment for both the adopted and the adoptee.
But, brothers and sisters, our divine adoption “never disappoints”.25 In divine adoption, we see only beauty. Children of wrath are chosen to be children of God. Strangers and aliens are welcomed into the heavenly family. Sons of disobedience are destined to be sons in the Son. In God-Father, Son, and Spirit, there is an adoption which does not end in disappointment, but in praise for his glorious grace.
For we who are adopted to sonship enjoy the freedoms and privileges of being God’s very own children. The Father has put his name on us. He gives us the Spirit of adoption. He gives us full access to his throne of grace. He enables us to cry, Abba, Father. He pities us, protects us, provides for us, and disciplines us in love. He never casts us off. He keeps us for a new creation, an eternity of divine family.26 Brothers and sisters:
“See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!“ (1 John 3:1)
And that is what we are… And that is what you are… Sons in the Son.
1 Lincoln, Ephesians, 25.
2 Peppard, The Son of God in the Roman World, 50.
4 Lincoln, Ephesians, 25.
5 Garner, Sons in the Son, Chapter 7.
6 Macaskill, Living in union with Christ, 100.
7 Packer, Knowing God, 237.
8 Owen, Of Communion,
9 Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied, 134.
10 Garner, Sons in the Son, xxii.
11 Garner, Sons in the Son, xxii.
12 Contrast the ESV: “He predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ”
13 Lincoln, Ephesians, 9.
14 Packer, Knowing God, 233.
15 Burke, Adopted into God’s family, 78.
16 Stibbe, From Orphans to Heirs, 53.
17 Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries, Paragraph 88928.
18 Lincoln, Ephesians, 27.
19 Campbell, Paul and Union with Christ, 191.
20 Garner, Sons in the Son, Chapter 4.
21 Lincoln, Ephesians, 44.
22 Packer, Knowing God, 263.
23 Packer, Knowing God, 263.
25 Garner, Sons in the Son, Chapter 4.
26 Adapted from The Westminster Confession of Faith, 12.1.