The Shocking Splendor of Sonship, Part 1
May 26, 2021
Today’s guest post is by Josh Maurer, pastoral resident at College Church in Wheaton and adjunct professor at Wheaton College, where he is also completing a PhD in New Testament. Part 2 will follow on May 29, 2021.
“In Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith” (Gal 3:26, ESV).
Christian, when was the last time you reflected on the riveting reality that you are a son of God? C. S. Lewis once said that becoming sons of God is “the point in Christianity which gives us the greatest shock” (Mere Christianity, 158). After all, giving substance and meaning to such a high and noble status is Jesus himself, the Son of God. And we all know, whether we admit it out loud or not, we are not naturally ‘son of God’ material. Yet, Paul says, by faith, in union with Christ, we are—shocking! But not only is it shocking; it is also sublime. According to J. I. Packer, being a son of God is “the highest privilege the gospel offers” (Knowing God, 230). We’re tempted to reply, “Really? What about justification, reconciliation, sanctification, glorification, etc.?” How can such a claim about the exceeding splendor of sonship stand in comparison?
In this two-part series, I want to explore with you both the shock of sonship and its splendor. To do so, we are going to home in on the doctrine of adoption. My prayer is that in so doing we will be increasingly conformed to the image of Christ, the Son of God, the very telos of our sonship. In this first article, I will briefly survey the scriptural texts that speak of our adoption as sons in order to provide its basic biblical and redemptive-historical shape. Then, in the second article, I will lay out in more detail why I think Lewis and Packer are right to emphasize how shocking and how sublime our sonship in Christ really is.
The Redemptive-Historical Shape of Adoption
The Apostle Paul is the only writer in the New Testament to use the metaphor of adoption to describe believers’ relationship to God, and that in only five places (Rom 8:15, 23; 9:4; Gal 4:5; Eph 1:5). But, as with so many other things, quantity alone is not a reliable measure of importance. E.g., the Mackinac bridge—the fifth longest suspension bridge in the world, connecting the upper and lower peninsulas of Michigan—has only two main towers holding up the suspension portion of the bridge, which totals a little over a mile and a half. No one reasons that because there are only two main towers they must not be very important. On the contrary, they are extremely important because they are foundational. Similarly, adoption has an importance far greater than its mere five occurrences might suggest.
The most foundational thing to notice about biblical adoption, which solidifies its theological importance, is its redemptive-historical shape. Adoption was planned before the foundation of the world (Eph 1:5), foreshadowed truly in God’s covenantal relationship with Israel (Rom 9:4), decisively accomplished through Christ for all in him (Rom 8:15; Gal 4:5), and it will finally be consummated when Jesus returns (Rom 8:23). In other words, the entire scope and storyline of redemption, or salvation, has a filial hue.
In the majestic, doxological opening of Ephesians, Paul revels in the fact that the adoption of believers to be sons of God was in the eternal divine counsel before creation: “he [God] predestined us into adoption as sons through Jesus Christ for himself, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of the glory of his grace, which he granted us in the Beloved” (Eph 1:5–6, my translation). Adoption is here the goal of predestination, and we learn from verse 4 that the “pre” in predestination means “before the foundation of the world.” Therefore, adoption was not an afterthought of creation, but integral to the very design and purpose of redemptive history from the very beginning.
What was planned in eternity past then begins to be fulfilled in history with God’s covenantal relationship with Israel, for Paul says, reflecting on the situation of his unbelieving Jewish kinsmen at the time, “They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises” (Rom 9:4, ESV). Israel was, and Paul would argue still is in some sense (see the full argument of Rom 9–11), God’s son (Exod 4:22; cf. Jer 3:19). And the point of identifying Israel’s sonship more precisely as adoption, which the Old Testament does not explicitly do, is to make clear that it was by sovereign grace and not natural right. For there is only one “firstborn” or “natural” Son—Jesus (Rom 8:29).
Furthermore, as we saw above in Eph 1:5, adoption must be “through Jesus Christ” and “in the Beloved.” Therefore, Israel’s adoption could not have been that fullness of sonship of which Paul speaks. In fact, according to Paul, one of the main purposes of Jesus’ coming was to secure the very adoption that was predestined (before creation) and prefigured (with Israel): “When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Gal 4:4–5, ESV). The closest connection exists between Jesus as God’s Son and believers as God’s sons. You can see that by noting the ultimate purpose clause of verse 5 in relation to verse 4. Here is a summary paraphrase: the Father sent his Son into the world in order to acquire more sons. Therefore, adoptive sonship is integrally related to the Sonship of Jesus. How this connection is established is, of course, by the work of the Spirit uniting us to Jesus through faith. Paul clarifies, “For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba, Father’” (Rom 8:15, ESV). The redeeming work of Christ, which secures our sonship, and the applying work of the Spirit, which actualizes it in individual lives, belong to the period of redemptive history we call the “overlap of the ages,” the “already/not yet,” or the “last days”—basically, the time between Jesus’ first and second coming, the time in which we now still live.
But though our adoption is secured and truly realized in the present age, Paul teaches that it will not finally be consummated until Jesus returns and the dead are raised: “And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Rom 8:23, ESV). The fullness of our adoptive sonship, i.e., physical resurrection, is something for which we and all of creation are still waiting, longing, and hoping. Come, Lord Jesus!
To sum up: from before the foundation of the world to the consummation of redemptive history, adoptive sonship stands as a central concept of divine grace, turning “sons of disobedience” and “children of wrath” into “sons/children of God” (Eph 2:2–3; Rom 8:14–17, ESV). The scope of biblical adoption is truly breathtaking. Now, you might be thinking, “Thanks for the little theology lesson (that is all well and good), but how is this practical for my daily life?” If that is you (and if not) I invite you to keep reading…
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