by J. Todd Billings
In 2010, my wife Rachel and I traveled to Ethiopia to adopt a lovely little girl. We know the country of Ethiopia relatively well—as we both taught in Ethiopia for five months in 2009, and I had spent nine months in Ethiopia earlier in my teaching career. We know that Ethiopia is a wonderful place—a place with beautiful landscapes, welcoming people, and very strong coffee. But we also know that it is a country with over four million orphans, according to estimates.1
Scripture is clear that we should care for the orphans in the world. “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress” (James 1:27a). Indeed, Christians should display a special concern and commitment to those in need. But lest pity be our only feeling toward orphans, we should consider that on a different level, we are all orphans in ourselves—the God of the Bible has no “natural” children, or “begotten” children, apart from Jesus the Son. The rest of us need to be adopted. Although there are important differences between the biblical metaphor of adoption and adoption practices today (which I note below), we should not underestimate the extraordinary power of this biblical metaphor: for all of God’s people are adopted—both in Israel and in the church (Romans 9:4; Ephesians 1:5). Thus, it is good news when Jesus tells us in John’s Gospel that “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you” (John 14:18). Through the Spirit, we can be united to Jesus Christ, becoming daughters and sons of God through our union with the one perfect Son of God.
But what exactly is this adoption that we receive?
Paul initiates us into this world of adoption in Romans 8. Although by our flesh, or our old self, we are slaves to “the law of sin,” the “Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free” (8:2). What does this freedom look like? Freedom to be adopted children of the Triune God. We have been given the Spirit of God, and by the Spirit “Christ is in you.” And “all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ” (8:14–17). In this way, Paul speaks about the drama of adoption into which we are brought. We are no longer slaves, we are children—children with an intimate relationship with God. In fact, we don’t even pray by ourselves, but the Spirit prays in us words of intimacy—”Abba, Father”—as those who are in Christ, as “joint heirs with Christ” (8:15, 17).
This image of adoption is a central image for Paul in speaking about this life of salvation in Christ and the new identity that we enter into in Christ. On the one hand, the Spirit assures Christians that they already belong to God—as ones united to Jesus Christ, they can cry out to God as Father. Yet, as Paul indicates later in the same chapter, this adoption is also a future reality for which “the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God” (8:19). For “not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies” (8:23). We are adopted children of God, able to pray to the Father by the Spirit. Yet even this is a foretaste of the consummation of adoption for which the creation groans and waits.
Maybe this just sounds like pious God-talk. What, really, is so significant about adoption? To get a sense of how radical the message of adoption is, I will adapt a parable from Danish philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard.2
Imagine a day laborer living in a great kingdom. The day laborer “never dreamed . . . that the emperor knew he existed, who then would consider himself indescribably favored just to be permitted to see the emperor once, something he would relate to his children and grandchildren as the most important event in his life.” But suppose the emperor did something unexpected: “If the emperor sent for him and told him that he wanted him for his son-in-law: what then? Quite humanly, the day laborer would be more or less puzzled, self-conscious, and embarrassed by it; he would (and this is the humanness of it) humanly find it very strange and bizarre . . . that the emperor wanted to make a fool of him, make him the laughingstock of the whole city.”3
In this parable, the day laborer working in the countryside recognizes the high and exalted place of the emperor. An occasional encounter with the emperor would be delightful—allowing him to keep his own comfortable life, to keep his friends, to keep his identity, yet to have it embellished by the honor of the emperor. “A little favor—that would make sense to the laborer.” But what if the emperor wants to make him his own son? The prospect of “adoption,” in this sense, is an offense—it is too much closeness, the sort of closeness that requires giving up one’s own identity. Yes, it is a high and exalted place to be the child of the emperor. But it is too high and exalted—wouldn’t he be a laughingstock? Wouldn’t he lose all that is precious to him in ascending to be the emperor’s son? In the words of Kierkegaard, the day laborer says, “Such a thing is too high for me, I cannot grasp it; to be perfectly blunt, to me it is a piece of folly.”4 It would be wonderful if the emperor would send him some money, perhaps a letter to cherish as a relic. But the emperor is asking for much more—the emperor is asking to be more than an accessory to his identity. The emperor wants his full identity, his entire life—he wants him to be exalted, to be his child.
And so it is with God, the King. Adoption by the King is such a radical notion that we resist it—we would rather have the occasional brush of God’s presence, or a relic of his solidarity with us, so that God can be an appendage of our identity. But God wants more than that. God wants our lives. God wants us to bear his name. By bringing us into the new reality of the Spirit, we can call out to God, “Abba, Father,” as adopted children united to Christ. Yet there are few things more countercultural than this process of adoption, of losing your life for the sake of Jesus Christ only to find it in communion with the Triune God.
Although Kierkegaard was not directly commenting on Paul’s metaphor of adoption, his parable provides a number of points of illumination. First, Kierkegaard doesn’t use the term adoption, but his parable—about an adult who is called to receive a new identity and inheritance—is similar to Paul’s metaphor. Paul only used the metaphor of adoption when he was addressing Christians who were living under Roman law and thus were familiar with Roman adoption practices.5 In this ancient Roman context, adoption was generally not about babies, nor was it about childless couples finding a way to have children. The adoptees were, in fact, usually adults. Thus adoption was first of all a legal arrangement by which to provide an heir who would receive an inheritance and enter into a new household with all of its privileges and responsibilities.6 (Kierkegaard’s day laborer feared both the privileges and the responsibilities of being a child of the emperor!) The precise sense in which the term adoption (huiothesia in Paul’s usage) is legal or forensic is in its reference to the transfer from one family into another. In the ancient world, this legal arrangement gave the adopted son all the rights of a natural son, who was affectionately received as part of the new family.7
In light of this ancient background, biblical scholars have made the case for Paul using huiothesia as a metaphor for salvation that has both commonalities with and differences from this ancient usage.8 Yet the metaphor is an extremely powerful one to take into a theological context. For Paul, God has no inherent need to make heirs, but freely chooses to adopt sinners into his family—an act that means, on the most basic level, being transferred “from an alien family (cf. Eph. 2:2, lit. ‘sons of disobedience’) into the family of God.”9
While Paul’s metaphor of adoption begins as a legal act, it does not end there. It ends with membership in the household of God (Ephesians 2:19; Galatians 6:10) and a calling to live into the reality of this new identity. God’s legal act of adopting children into his family results also in an eschatologically conditioned identity. When we are given an identity in Christ, we are called to live into it. For example, the doxological opening of Ephesians 1 says that God “destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ” (1:5). As the blessings of being in Christ are unfolded in the following verses, Paul returns to the language of adoption and inheritance, that “in Christ we have also obtained an inheritance having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory” (1:11–12, emphasis added). We are called to reflect the behavior of our new identity: as those who have been conferred a new adopted identity in Christ and who therefore seek to live into this glorious inheritance from God.
Yet one can’t become an adopted child of God by trying really hard to be one—by exercising spiritual disciplines, by giving to the poor, or by loving one’s neighbor. Instead, these acts are fruit of God’s act of adopting us, the result of God bringing us into a strange new world: as believers, God has united us to Christ and has given us his Spirit, which empowers us to serve the Father in cheerful gratitude. We belong to the household of God. Ephesians 2:10–22 explores the astonishing implications of God establishing this household in Christ, of creating a “new humanity.” Gentiles were once “strangers to the covenants of promise”; however, “now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.” For Christ “is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it” (2:13–16). This is a household in which hostile groups are made one in Christ, by the Spirit. We are adopted children who share in this “one new humanity” in Christ. Truly, we have been adopted into this family and are called to live as children of God, united in family fellowship with those whose skin color and culture are different from our own. God created this new humanity; we did not. But we have been graciously incorporated into it. We are already adopted children of God, even though—as sinners—we act like we belong to ourselves. God’s people, the church, do not yet reflect the full glory of their adopted identity.
Our adoption by God—as an “already” but “not yet” reality—is good news. But it is also an offense. Because to live into our identity as children of the King, we need to daily admit our need for adoption. In our old selves, in our quest for autonomy, we assume that we have no need for a new identity in Christ as adopted children. In our old selves, we assume that blood is thicker than the water of baptism, that we could only belong to a family defined by biological bonds. To admit our need for a new adopted identity means that we daily admit our need for redemption—our need to enter into the “new humanity” in Christ where there is neither Jew nor Greek. In Christ we receive a new identity as children of the King of kings, so that we may leave behind our own self-centered kingdoms. We have been adopted, and we are being adopted. Together with a culturally diverse family of believers spanning the globe, we are awaiting the consummation of our adoption. As adopted sons and daughters of the Most High, we unite together with brothers and sisters in God’s household to receive the Word of our living King, Jesus Christ, by the Spirit’s power. For through the Holy Spirit, we are nourished by Christ, and yet made hungry for more tastes of God’s reign.
1 A 2006 UNICEF report put the estimate at 4.6 million, and many estimates since that time are even higher. See Indrias Getachew, “Ethiopia: Steady Increase in Street Children Orphaned by AIDS,”www.unicef.org/infobycountry/ethiopia_30783.html.
2 In the context of The Sickness unto Death, Kierkegaard uses this parable to demonstrate that the opposite of sin is faith; hence, the day laborer must have the courage of faith to accept the emperor’s offer.
3 Søren Kierkegaard, The Sickness unto Death, trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980), 84.
4 Kierkegaard, Sickness, 84.
5 See Trevor J. Burke, Adopted into God’s Family: Exploring a Pauline Metaphor, New Studies in Biblical Theology (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2006), 60–63.
6 Burke, Adopted, 66.
7 Burke, Adopted, 69, 71.
8 For an overview of the literature on this point, see Burke, Adopted, 46–71.
9 See Burke, Adopted, 27.