I highly recommend Trevor Burke’s book, Adopted into God’s Family: Exploring a Pauline Metaphor. It is scholarly and yet also pastoral. It is technical but readable. He interacts with a good deal of literature and provides an excellent bibliography. And, most importantly, he presents deeply emotive, soul-exploding, Gospel truth!
To provide just a brief glimpse into his book, here are some excerpts from chapter one.
Burke’s thesis is,
“…if adoption is important and distinct enough from other soteriological terms in the thinking and theology of Paul, then it is worthy of greater consideration. Rather than adoption beings regarded as on the periphery of Paul’s theological agenda, it should occupy a more vital role in our theological reflection and understanding,” (p. 28).
In the NT, the term, huiothesia (adoption as sons), is always used metaphorically by Paul. Further, this metaphor is found only in Paul’s letters (e.g., Rom. 8:15, 23; 9:4; Gal. 4:5; Eph. 1:5).
Writing of the importance of adoption Burke writes, “Adoption graphically and intimately describes the family character of Pauline Christianity, and is a basic description for Paul of what it means to be a Christian,” (p. 22). Burke includes a footnote quoting from G.N. Stanton’s chapter in the Cambridge Companion to St. Paul, entitled, “Paul’s Gospel,” where Stanton writes, “Paul’s gospel is the good news of God’s once for all disclosure of Jesus Christ as his Son, sent for our salvation so that we might receive the adoption as God’s children (Gal. 4:4-5),” (Footnote 4, p. 22).
To the detriment and impoverishment of the church’s understanding of adoption, Burke reveals how the doctrine of adoption has been an often “misinterpreted metaphor.” Theological misunderstandings of adoption have included:
1. Mistaking adoption as the positive side of justification.
Confusion over this point has been evidenced at times during the 16th and 17th centuries when Reformed theologians (e.g., Francis Turretin) sought to place adoption within the plan of salvation (i.e., the ordo salutis). Other notable Reformed theologians such as R.L. Dabney (19th century), A. Kuyper (19th-20th century), L. Berkhof (20th century), Anthony Hoekema (20th century) also repeated the mistakes of earlier Reformed theologians by viewing adoption as a subsection of justification (pp. 23-24).
Not all Reformed theologians, however, possessed a misconception of adoption. John Murray, for example, rightly regarded adoption as distinct but also related to justification and regeneration in the plan of salvation (p. 24).
The problem with conflating adoption with justification is that it allots a secondary role to adoption, which has “resulted in the theological integrity of adoption being compromised and the expression being relegated to a secondary position,” (p. 24). Thus, the doctrine of adoption has been “treated as a minor aspect of the way of salvation, with adoption becoming the Cinderella of Pauline theology,” (p. 24).
Burke is right to point out the significance and importance of justification, the primary blessing of salvation upon which all other saving benefits, including adoption, depend (p. 24). But, he is also correct in distinguishing justification and adoption.
Whereas justification declares a sinner righteous at the bar of God’s judgment bench, adoption introduces the justified sinner into the family of God (p. 25). Burke writes, “To be declared righteous at the bar of God is one thing; it is, however, quite another to be adopted into God’s family and able to call him ‘Abba, Father’ (Gal. 4:6; Rom. 8:15)…God does not only justify people and then leave them destitute with nowhere to go- he adopts them into the warmth and security of his household,” (pp. 25-26). Consequently, adoption, Burke notes [in agreement with J.I. Packer and John Murray], is “the highest privilege that the gospel offers; higher even than justification,” (p. 26).
While rightly noting the legal nature of adoption, Burke also points out that a legal perspective alone “truncates [crops/lessens] our understanding of the expression and isolates it from its full theological scope. This scope is wide-ranging and includes other branches of theology, including eschatology, Christology, pneumatology and ethics/morality, all of which impinge directly upon Paul’s adoption term,” (pp. 28-29).
2. Confusing adoption with regeneration
In response to R. Peterson’s popular treatment of adoption (Adopted by God: From Wayward Sinners to Cherished Children), Burke properly notes that regeneration is not equivalent to adoption and is not located in passages such as John 1:12-13 and 1 John 3:1-3 (p. 26).
In fact, the Pauline idea of adoption is not even found in the Johannine literature. In John’s writings, Burke notes, “…regeneration…delineates the imagery of natural birth, which the author uses to emphasize the fact that Christian sonship is not our native condition: a person needs to become a son of God by spiritual rebirth,” (p. 27).
In distinction to regeneration, Burke argues that adoption is “a forensic term and denotes a legal act or transfer from an alien family (cf. Eph. 2:2, lit. ‘sons of disobedience’) into the family of God. Not birth but adoption is Paul’s analogy for the manner in which childhood begins in the believer,” (p. 27).
Paul and John then use two different metaphors for describing how a sinner becomes a member of God’s family. Thus, one must distinguish between “sonship by adoption from sonship by regeneration,” (p. 27).
Burke concludes his opening chapter by briefly reviewing how scholars have been too narrowly focused on the issue of background in their studies concerning adoption. Though the debate regarding the background of this term is important, Burke points out that “other vital and fascinating aspects of adoption remain largely untapped and overlooked (e.g., the relationship between adoption and the Spirit, Rom. 8:15). What is required, and is still largely unexplored, is a full-orbed approach to this metaphor…” (p. 30).
Hopefully, this has peaked your interest and caused you to begin to consider, perhaps for the first time, the unspeakable privilege of being called an adopted son of God. Adoption, as Burke, points out is an intensely relational concept, which focuses upon a relationship with God who is our Father. That God our Father desires to enter into a relationship with estranged, disobedient children (cf. Eph. 2:2) is the essence of the Gospel (p. 196). In speaking of our alienation from God, Burke fittingly quotes Alister McGrath,
Adoption is about being wanted. It is about belonging. These are deeply emotive themes, which resonate with the cares and concerns of many in our increasingly fractured society. To be adopted is to be invited into a loving and caring environment. It is about being welcomed, wanted and invited. Adoption celebrates the privilege of invitation, in which the outsider is welcomed into the fold of faith and love, (p. 197).
“…He predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will…” (Eph. 1:5; ESV).