We recently marked several months of being home with our son who was adopted from the tiny south African country of Lesotho. He is full of life and has a huge personality. He laughs uncontrollably sometimes at things around our house, like when we told him our dog was being a “pill” and the way his dad calls his sisters “chick-a-dee” and “sweet pea.” Watching him figure out how things work and seeing him do things that are very much African (you should see him eat an orange) makes our hearts smile. After having lived and worked as missionaries in Africa, we love having a little African son in our house.
While he has brought much joy and energy to our house, our short time as adoptive parents has brought on a number of other emotional responses—many of which we were unprepared for. Adoption has become a popular topic in Evangelical circles in recent years, and praise God for that. While there are many implications in Scripture that we take seriously, orphan care is an explicit expectation for the Christian, and it’s often been ignored by the church. Unfortunately, however, with the rise of popularity has come a parallel rise in romanticism regarding adoption. Like marriage, often portrayed in media as the meeting of two perfectly suited individuals who spend the rest of their days in wedded bliss, adoption can take on mythical proportions among some Christians, and if they are not careful, they can enter or support it without fully taking stock of how difficult it can be.
In the opening pages of A Place for You, the noted Swiss psychologist Paul Tournier tells of a young man he once counseled. He grew up in a religious home, but it was unhappy. Eventually there was a divorce. This produced unfortunate psychological symptoms in the young man’s life. He developed an acute sense of failure, first in not reconciling his parents, then in his studies, then in an inability to settle down and achieve in any area of life. At last he came to see Tournier. They talked, and on one occasion, as if summing up his thought, the young man explained, “Basically, I’m always looking for a place—for somewhere to be.” The need for a place is virtually universal. On the human level the principle is easy to discern. “The child who has been able to grow up harmoniously in a healthy home finds a welcome everywhere. In infancy all he needs is a stick placed across two chairs to make himself a house, in which he feels quite at home. Later on, wherever he goes, he will be able to make any place his own, without any effort on his part. For him it will not be a matter of seeking, but of choosing.” On the other hand, “when the family is such that the child cannot fit himself into it properly, he looks everywhere for some other place, leading a wandering existence, incapable of settling down anywhere. His tragedy is that he carries about within himself this fundamental incapacity for any real attachment.” On the spiritual level, the problem is detected in the alienation from God we feel as a result of the Fall and of our own deliberate sins. Saint Augustine once wrote, “Thou hast formed us for thyself….” That is our true place. But he added in frank recognition of our dilemma and sin, “And our hearts are restless till they find rest in Thee.”
God has dealt with this great problem of alienation through adoption, taking a person from one family (or no family) and placing him or her in a new family — the family of God. Sometimes adoption has been thought of merely as one aspect of justification or as only another way of stating what happens in regeneration. But adoption is nevertheless much more than either of these other acts of grace. “Justification means our acceptance with God as righteous and the bestowal of the title to everlasting life. Regeneration is the renewing of our hearts after the image of God. But these blessings in themselves, however precious they are, do not indicate what is conferred by the act of adoption. By adoption the redeemed become sons and daughters of the Lord God Almighty; they are introduced into and given the privileges of God’s family.”
One area in which the Westminster Standards are somewhat unique from other Reformed documents is their inclusion of the doctrine of Adoption. Adoption stands as its own chapter in the Confession (Ch. 12). By giving it a full chapter the WCF emphasizes what is routinely an under-appreciated doctrine in other Reformed works.
I remember being struck by the beauty of this doctrine the very first time I read through the Confession of Faith. That God would take an orphan and put his name upon the orphan, give him access to the throne of grace, love him as his own child, and make him an heir of heaven astounded me. Who would do that? The demonstration of grace in this doctrine is captivating and breathtaking. It made me want learn more about the theological doctrine of adoption. And Thomas Watson’s chapter on adoption in his book A Body of Divinity has been extremely helpful.
Before Watson begins to define what Adoption is, he makes a few more preliminary remarks. He notes that adoption is not based on birth. It does not matter the country in which one was born. It does not matter what sex one is born. Both male and female are made sons and daughters. Watson notes that though some civil rights were denied women by nature of their sex, “of spiritual privileges, females are as capable as males.”1 Finally, this highlights that adoption is purely of God’s grace. It is “according to his good pleasure” (Eph 1:5). None have a right to this gift. All are strangers and aliens. The orphan has no right to demand adoption.
(This was my contribution to the Servants of Grace series on Ephesians).
Ephesians 1:3-6, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love, he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved.”
I remember as a child the ordeal that was waiting to be chosen for the kickball team. Since I was pretty good at this particular playground activity, I was typically one of the first few chosen for a team. With that said, there were always those not particularly athletic who because of their lack of skill, were chosen last to participate.
Why mention such a memory? It reminds me of a certain reality when reading a passage such as Ephesians 1:3-6. In this pericope, the Apostle Paul speaks of God the Father through His Son, choosing and adopting us into His family in accordance with His divine will. Notice one thing that is absent from this passage in relation to my trip down memory lane? It is the important fact that while it was my ability to kick the playground ball that granted me access and belonging to a team during recess, there is no such notion involved with being adopted by God into His family. Let’s explore this concept a bit further.
Paul begins by praising God for a particular blessing. What God has given His people is beyond comprehension. The very idea the God of the universe, the Creator of all things would even consider adopting us into His family is an amazing act of grace. What did I do to deserve such a gift? Nothing. Being chosen is counted by Paul as a wondrous blessing bestowed on undeserving wretched sinners.
Theologians call this the doctrine of Election. It is the belief that God before the foundation of the world chose us to be His through the blood of Jesus shed on the cross. Being chosen to be the people of God is not a Pauline only notion. Conversely, it has its roots in the Old Testament. Peter O’Brien saliently notes, “Her (Israel’s) election was due solely to God’s gracious decision; it had nothing to do with Israel’s choice or righteous behavior. It was because the Lord loved her and kept the oath he had sworn to her forefathers that he chose her for himself.” 
Being chosen by God to Himself has connected with it an action on the part of the one being chosen. Paul declares the very substance of the spiritual blessings he discusses “include election to holiness, a statement as God’s sons and daughters, redemption, and forgiveness, the gift of the Spirit, and the hope of glory.”  We are chosen by a holy God. The only proper response to this wonderful blessing is to be holy and blameless.
Trevor Burke reminds us, “Just as in the ancient world all sons, including those who had been adopted, were expected to behave in a manner that would not discredit their father or besmirch the family name, so it is the responsibility for spiritually adopted sons belonging to the divine household to live scrupulously and blamelessly by bringing glory to their holy, heavenly Father.” 
To be in a relationship with God has at its core the necessity to be holy and blameless, to be children who bring glory and honor to their Father in heaven. When we are obedient children of God, following His precepts provided in Scripture, we bring glory and honor to God’s holy name. We also declare to the world that we are in love with our heavenly Father.
As obedient children, we must desire to live by the rules of our Father has outlined to us in His Word. Scripture repeatedly declares that if we love God, we will keep His commands, His “House Rules”. If we say we love the Father, as His children we will be obedient to that which He has declared are the boundaries by which we are to live our lives. We will do so because we truly understand the Father “blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places”.
As noted by theologian G. C. Berkouwer, “when the church of Christ understands her election, not as a fatum or a dominium absolutum, but as a sovereign, gracious, undeserved election, then she also understands her service to the Lord in the world, a service which is indissolubly connected with her election.” 
A true biblical doctrine of election is centered on the necessity of living in service to the One who elected us. Out of thankfulness to God who before the foundation of the world has unconditionally chosen His elect to fulfill His divine purpose, the body of Christ must be a light to the world, proclaiming the day of redemption is nigh.
If we boil Ephesians 1:3-6 to its basic fundamental message, Paul is reminding us that God chose us as His children through His Son for a purpose. That purpose is to have a relationship with us. This is really what adoption and election are all about. God chose us. He did not just choose us because He had nothing better to do with His time. Before the foundation of the world He chose us to be in a relationship with Him, to be His children, to bear His name, and to declare this glorious gift to a hurting world.
 Peter O’Brien, The Letter to the Ephesians (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 1999), 99.
 F. F. Bruce, New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 1984), 253.
 Trevor Burke, Adopted into God’s Family: Exploring a Pauline Metaphor (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2006), 43.
 G. H. Berkouwer, Divine Election (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 1979), 327.
When God adopts men and women into his family he insures that not only may they have the rights and privileges of his sons and daughters but also the nature or disposition consonant with such a status. This he does by regeneration — he renews them after his image in knowledge, righteousness, and holiness. God never has in his family those who are alien to its atmosphere and spirit and station. Regeneration is the prerequisite of adoption. It is the same Holy Spirit who regenerates who is also sent into the hearts of the adopted, crying ‘Abba Father’. But adoption itself is not simply regeneration, nor is it the Spirit of adoption — the one is prerequisite, the other is consequent.
Adoption, as the term clearly implies, is an act of transfer from an alien family into the family of God himself. This is surely the apex of grace and privilege. We would not dare to conceive of such grace far less to claim it apart from God’s own revelation and assurance. It staggers imagination because of its amazing condescension and love. The Spirit alone could be the seal of it in our hearts.
Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him. But God hath revealed them unto us by his Spirit: for the Spirit searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God (1 Cor. 2:9, 10).
It is only as there is the conjunction of the witness of revelation and the inward witness of the Spirit in our hearts that we are able to scale this pinnacle of faith and say with filial confidence and love, ‘Abba Father’.
The great truth of God’s fatherhood and of the sonship which God bestows upon men is one that belongs to the application of redemption. It is true in respect of all men no more than are effectual calling, regeneration, and justification. God becomes the Father of his own people by the act of adoption. It is the marvel of such grace that constrained the Apostle John to exclaim, ‘Behold what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us that we should be called children of God’ (1 John 3:1). And to assure his readers of this privilege as a present possession and not simply a hope for the future he adds immediately, ‘and we are.’ To indicate the cleavage which this status institutes among men he continues, ‘On this account the world does not know us, because it did not know him.’ Lest there should be any doubt regarding the reality of the sonship bestowed he insists, ‘Beloved, now are we the children of God’ (verse 2). John had pondered and learned well the words of the Lord himself when he said, ‘He that loveth me shall be loved of my Father…If a man love me he will keep my words: and my Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him’ (John 14:21, 23). And now in writing his first epistle his heart overflows with wonderment at this donation of the Father’s love, ‘Behold what manner of love the Father hath bestowed on us.’ It is specifically the Father’s act of grace. John could not get over it and he never will. Eternity will not exhaust its marvel.
The first problem we have with being adopted into God’s family is that we are born into another family, and we are not up for adoption. As a matter of fact, our father is very much opposed to our adoption and does everything he possibly can to keep us where we were born and see to it that nobody takes us from him.
You might think it strange, especially if this is a change for the better, as it is, that our father would not be more than willing for this transaction to take place and would do everything he could to facilitate it instead of being adamantly opposed to it. But it happens that the family into which we are born has a father who is very determined that we should not leave him under any circumstances and, most of all, that we should not better our condition by actually being adopted into the family of God. Who is our father? I remind you that our father is the devil. For Jesus makes it plain that those who do not believe in him and do not come to him, do so because the devil rather than God is their father (John 8:43, 44). If some of you are shocked to know that you are children of the devil and members of his household and that he has a very formidable grip on you and will by no means let you go if he can possibly prevent it, it is just as well that you should know the worst from the start.
But it is worse than that, for you are not even being held against your will. Jesus says, not only that your father is the devil, but that you want to do his desires which, being translated, means that you are chips off the old satanic block. So in spite of the horror and indignation you feel when you are told your true parentage, you really, inwardly, like it. You don’t like some of the things that go with it, but being chips off the old block you really are little devils yourselves.
The Devil’s Family
If you think I am exaggerating this, I assure you that it is impossible to exaggerate the depravity with which we come into this world. It is impossible to exaggerate the way in which we resemble our hellish father who so completely dominates us that we actually come to like it. Some may say at this point, “Well, yes, I could see how something like that might happen in terms of our sensuality, especially in an age like this. We are indeed rather devilish in that area.” We fancy that there is another aspect to our being, our spiritual nature, and hope that we are not devilish in it. But we are not only devilish in that area; this is the only area in which we really can be devilish.
Martin Luther, whose tormented conscience and anguished thinking launched the Protestant Reformation, once remarked, “If the doctrine of justification is lost, the whole of Christian doctrine is lost.” It is hardly surprising, then, that there is voluminous Protestant literature on justification.
The doctrine of adoption, by contrast, has been largely neglected. Yet the two are inseparably linked.
Grace Beyond and Above
Which is not to say that they are identical. Adoption is a grace beyond and above justification. In justification, God acquits sinners of all the charges against them. Indeed, he goes further still and declares that in Christ their righteousness meets the highest possible standards. They are as righteous as Christ himself (2 Corinthians 5:21). There is not a stain on their characters.
At this point, in normal human systems of justice, the accused is then simply free to go, and both he and the judge hope they will never see each other again. But the divine judge not only acquits. He invites the sinner home — and not just for an evening. He adopts us as his own forever, tells us we are to call him “Father,” and pronounces us lawful heirs to all he is and to all that he has.
Paul is the only New Testament writer who uses the term adoption, but he is not the only one who speaks of believers being God’s children. John also highlights it, particularly in 1 John 3:1. “See,” he exclaims, “what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are.” Yet while they speak of the same subject, the two apostles use different language, and to get anything like the full doctrine we need to look carefully at each.
Change in Status
The word adoption, like the word justification, refers not to a change in our disposition and character, but to a change on our status. It speaks of a revolution in our relationship with God. As unbelieving sinners, we were utterly alienated from him: total outsiders, as far as his family was concerned. Now we belong, and by using the term adoption, Paul is using formal legal language to remind us that our membership of our new family is absolutely secure. It can never be undone.
There is a parallel to all this in the story of Moses. The abandoned Hebrew baby, born as a slave under sentence of death, is taken into the palace by a royal princess, and formally adopted as her son. It is just so with believers in relation to God. He is committed to us. He has given us his name. He has made us his heirs, and solemnly pledged that as our heavenly Father, he will provide for us with the lavishness that befits his means as possessor of all the riches of glory (Philippians 4:19).
He has said, in effect, “From now on, you have nothing to worry about (Matthew 6:26). I will care for you (1 Peter 5:7), and if you do ever find yourself overtaken by anxiety, come and talk about it to me at once (Philippians 4:6–7). Always remember that I am your home, and that I will never disown you; and should you ever go astray, I will always take you back (Luke 15:20). My love will never let you go.”
This is my recent contribution to Theology for Life. You can read the rest of the issue by clicking here.
“For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship (adoption). And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father.” (Romans 8:15)
Two years ago, my wife and I adopted our daughter. I can only imagine what it must be like to be a foster child awaiting that forever family to come along, a group of people you have longed for, and a place to have a new start on life, leaving the past behind and the troubles you endured behind as well. While I watched the excitement build on my daughter’s face, as we began to find out the final adoption paperwork was in the works, it was hard to understand the entirety of how she felt other than the obvious sense of relief and finality. Knowing where she has come from, there was a great sense of relief and calm that came over her as she realized she was now in her forever home with people who love and care for her.
Deciding to adopt was not an easy process. My wife and I lost track of the number of people who tried to convince us to pursue another approach. “Adopted kids come from such rough backgrounds and thus will be nothing but trouble” was the typical mantra that was sent our direction more often than not. Despite the push to choose an alternate direction, my wife and continued to pursue what we felt strongly God was leading us to do, namely to reach out to a child in need and to welcome that kiddo into our family as our own.
Anyone who has gone through the lengthy adoption process can attest it is not for the impatient nor faint of heart. Understandably, there is much rigor and a mountain of paperwork to complete on the part of the potential adoptive family. Adoption agencies as well as the state and federal government want to ensure the child is being placed with a family that is suitable for that child and in an environment that can properly address the particular needs of the child. For instance, some children might have educational development delays or physical handicaps that take the special care of a family who is able to meet those issues. Our daughter had a few educational hiccups in her early childhood due to the neglect of her biological parents. Due to that issue, we had to demonstrate our ability to address those needs and to ensure academic growth. We also had to ensure that counseling services were in place to continue moving our daughter forward emotionally from the trauma she experienced in her early childhood. All this took time, money, and sticking with what God was leading us to do.
Such things might serve to scare many people away from adopting a child. There is the inherent fear of not being able to care for a child with special needs or helping a child work through emotional setbacks. Many feel they are not a child psychologist or believe they could not financially afford such a journey. Quite frankly, there are certainly some who should not go on this journey of adoption. It is definitely not for everyone. With that said, if God is leading you to adopt, let me share a four points to consider.
Four Important Points about Adoption
First, seek out a quality adoption agency. Your adoption agency point of contact will be your lifeline throughout this process. There are a number of options to choose from. We utilized the services of Lutheran Child and Family Services. If they have a branch in your area, we highly recommend them. It is often helpful to ask those in your church or circle of friends who have adopted children, as to what adoption agency or service they used. Word of mouth and personal experience are helpful barometers.
Second, prepare yourself for a lengthy journey. We adopted a child from another state. One would have thought we were trying to adopt a child from another country given all the additional paperwork and red tape. There are many adoption options such as overseas, within your state, inter-state, and family just to name a few. Each option carries with it varying costs, timelines, and requirements. It will behoove you to first decide which path to take and when you proceed down that path. Part of the length will come from the inherent excitement that builds, especially when you have been selected for a child and you begin visitation. The final month until placement seems like an eternity. Remain patient, knowing that glorious day when that child joins your family will soon arrive. Anxiety will not speed the process up. Trust me…we tried.
Third, the honeymoon will be over rather quickly. Remember when you first got married how everything was sweet and happy go lucky? At least until you forgot to put down the toilet seat. The same thing goes for when the child you waited for so long finally joins your home. The honeymoon may seem like it will last forever, but be forewarned – it will not. These are children with often horrible pasts, kids coming from heartbreaking situations. Those issues will continue to rear their ugly heads. Your adoption agency and the training you receive before your child joins your family will help a great deal; however, you are never fully prepared for what will likely happen. You will need to demonstrate a great deal of patience, firm yet loving parenting skills, and a high dose of time spent in prayer and connecting with people who have been there and done that. Surround yourself with a group of people who can mentor you and take advantage of post-placement services your adoption agency can either provide or connect you with. Furthermore, by all means spend much time in prayer. God will get you through the difficult times and believe me, there will be many.
Fourth, never forget God reached out and adopted us into His family. As noted in 1 Peter 2:9, as adopted sons, we are a “chosen people, the King’s cohanim, a holy nation, a people for God to possess! Why? In order for you to declare the praises of the One who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” What a glorious thing to grasp! We are part of the family of God. God is our Father.
As a father, I am still contemplating what that means, what my role is, and how to be the best father I can to my daughter. As an imperfect human, I know I will make my share of mistakes which likely will far outweigh my victories. Part of maturing in the role of a father is recognizing those failures and potential pitfalls and leaning on my heavenly Father to help me raise my daughter in the fear and admonition of the Lord. God our heavenly Father has no imperfections or failures. He is the perfect model of what a father should look like and our example as earthly fathers of what to be like with our children. When those hard times come as an adoptive parent, lean on your heavenly Father.
A Few Final Thoughts…
If you are at all feeling led to adopt, I highly encourage you to speak to an adoption agency or at least to talk with people in your church or whom you know that have adopted. This is not something to embark upon without much prayer and research. If you are being led by God to adopt, by all means do so. There are many children languishing in foster care and in orphanages in our country and around the world. We are called by God to reach out to these children in need. If you are not being called by God to adopt, you can definitely play a part in someone else’s journey. Individuals or churches can help out financially given the exorbitant costs often associated with adoptions, especially of children overseas. Take up collections of clothes, diapers, toys and anything else to help future adoptive parents. By all means if nothing else, pray for those going on this journey.
Adopting our daughter was one of the best decisions we ever made. There have been many rough patches along the way, but through those times we have grown closer to our daughter and we are seeing her grow up to be a wonderful teenage girl, full of love for God and others.
It still had that smell, like a mixture of new carpet and old lady.
Maria and I looked at each other as we stood in this familiar foyer. It was the first place we’d ever seen each other—standing right here, as I ran in from the rain and she was folding up a drenched umbrella. I’d walked in this door thousands of times. My parents carried me in these doors a few weeks after my birth. I’d walked through them every Sunday morning of my childhood, with a Bible and an offering envelope in hand. Every summer I marched through these doors—carrying a flag or a Bible for the round of Vacation Bible School pledges, the closest things we had to a liturgy or a calendar of the Christian year. I looked at the window, right next to the big glass doors. That was the one the preacher’s son had smashed with a rock, and we’d all scattered, knowing he was going to get it. This was my home church. It’d been a long time since we’d walked into this foyer, and now we had two little hands gripping our fingers.
Our boys had, I’m sure, no idea how big a deal it was for us to have them here with us. To them, it was just another church somewhere. But to me, it was everything.
For most churches, adoption isn’t a priority, and this isn’t because the church members are anti-adoption. It’s because adoption seems strange to some of them, and irrelevant to others. It becomes a focus only when a church member personally faces infertility, or knows of particular children without parents. Until then, for most of us, adoption rarely crosses our minds.
That’s why the first step to an adoption-friendly church must be the pulpit. That seems obvious, but it’s less obvious than it seems. By saying that pastors should preach on adoption, I am not speaking primarily of “raising awareness” about adoption, in the same way a high school principal can “raise awareness” in a speech about a fundraising drive for the new football stadium. Preaching isn’t simply a conveyance of information. The act of preaching then carries with it, if it is biblically faithful gospel preaching, the authority of Jesus himself. That’s the difference between the act of preaching and the act of lecture-delivery—the difference between “Thus saith the Lord” and “It seems to me.”
The preacher, moreover, should preach on adoption with specificity. The pastor doesn’t know exactly how an adoption priority works itself out in each individual life or family, but he can further the cause by provoking questions. He can ask, for instance, in a message on poverty or the sanctity of human life, whether God might be calling some in the congregation that day to adopt, whether God is calling someone to give money to fund an adoption. He can call on his people to pray for how God would have them to serve the fatherless, followed by information on how they can carry out whatever commitment God lays on their hearts with contact information about groups within the church able to help.
Pastors and church leaders can also create a priority for adoption by highlighting adoptions within the church. This isn’t a way to “commend” the adopting parents, but rather to make adoption seem less “strange” to the rest of the congregation. In almost any given church service, there are those who would start to think about whether they should adopt if they just see someone who has done it. When people see and know children who’ve been adopted, suddenly the reality isn’t abstract to them. When they hear the word “orphan,” they stop thinking of a sad face in a movie and start thinking of “Caleb” or “Chloe” who sits in the pew in front of them.
Some churches have a time of “baby dedication” or “parent and child dedication” in which they pray for new arrivals within the congregation. Some congregations are of such a massive size, that this kind of once-a-year celebration is all that’s practical. For other churches, though, there could be a time at the end of the service whenever a baby is born or a child adopted by a family within the church. This could take as little as three or four minutes with recognition and a prayer of thanksgiving. In larger churches, this could even be done via video. The point would be to counter the culture’s growing utilitarian view of children, to welcome children as blessings from God, and to encourage families to consider adopting orphans into their homes.