What We Believe

Beloved Sons in Whom He is Well-Pleased

David B. Garner

Those given the eyes of saving faith find boundless reasons to celebrate the gospel. Clear vision of the Savior evokes songs of praise. That the Righteous Judge of the universe forgives sinners, that Almighty God makes peace with his enemies, and that the dead in sin become alive in Christ—these gospel truths blow away all human notions of grace, mercy, authority and power. Gospel grace confounds even as it transforms.

Unfathomable as they are, these rich treasures do not deplete the gospel. Redemptive grace moves from the cosmic courtroom to the welcoming presence of the Almighty, from the heavenly tribunal to the household of God. To the redeemed, God is not only a forgiving Judge; he is the loving heavenly Father. The Covenant of Grace is a covenant of sonship, so that the sons of Abraham by faith are the sons of God (Gal. 3:25–29). Filial language saturates the biblical exposition of gospel grace because redeemed sinners are the children of the loving Father. “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are” (1 John 3:1a).

For the Apostle Paul, this familial essence of the gospel is best expressed by the term adoption. The theological weight and scope of this term are striking—enough for J. I. Packer to gloat, “Adoption through propitiation… . I do not expect ever to meet a richer or more pregnant summary of the gospel than that.”[1] Not all share Packer’s appreciation for this filial grace. The blessing of adoption belongs to all the redeemed; its teaching, however, has a checkered past. In comparison with other redemptive themes, adoption has seen disparate attention.

Adoption and (as?) Justification

The Westminster Confession (chapter 12) presents its earliest confessional expression. In its confessional wake, the Puritans eloquently capitalized on adoption’s pastoral treasures.[2] These Westminsterian and Puritan strands owe their debt to Calvin, whose own articulation of the gospel has been rightly dubbed, “the gospel of adoption”[3] because “the adoption of believers is the heart of John Calvin’s understanding of salvation.”[4] And though Calvin’s theology largely set the course for the Reformed, his permeating appreciation for the gospel’s familial lifeblood failed to carry the day.

Several have postulated reasons for adoption’s perpetual shelving.[5] Here I simply note that key influencers’ praiseworthy allegiance to justification triggered a teetering toward a forensic monopoly, and in countering Roman Catholic error, has inadvertently overshadowed the familial cast of the gospel. As essential as the Reformation’s meticulous articulation of justification was, polemics won the day and the familial faded behind the forensic.

One key catalyst to adoption’s diminution will suffice to illustrate. Embracing the bold affirmation of biblical soteriology as expressed afresh in the Reformation, Francis Turretin commendably makes much of justification. Countering the medieval conflation of justification with sanctification and standing on the shoulders of his Reformation forerunners, he vigorously expounded justification by faith alone. Debts cancelled and forgiven, the redeemed are declared righteous in the Righteous One: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 3:23–24). Justification is forensic, declared righteousness, and as such must be protected from any semi-Pelagian intrusion.

When he turns to adoption, we encounter sharp disappointment. Turretin squeezes adoption into a forensic straightjacket. Adoption, to Turretin, is “the other part of justification.[6] He insists, “Adoption is included in justification itself as a part which, with the remission of sins, constitutes the whole of this benefit.”[7] Discernibly contrary to Calvin and ostensibly departing from the Westminster Confession of Faith, Turretin stuffed adoption into justification, and led hordes of others to do the same.[8] In this concept fusion, the distinct meaning of adoption falls to the theological sidelines, if not off the field altogether.

If adoption is justification, adoption’s distinctively celebrated splendor lacks any “justification.” Among other problems, it becomes impossible to entertain Puritan celebration of adoption’s personal and pastoral value. After all, a not-guilty verdict of an Almighty Judge does not make the criminal a son. Adoption is no more justification than justification is sanctification, and history attests to the theological distress associated with this latter confusion. Though less frequently discerned, the conflation of adoption and justification correspondingly distorts.

The Biblical Profile: Adoption[9]

“Adoption” (Greek, huiothesia) appears only five times (Eph. 1:5, Gal. 4:5, Rom. 8:15, 8:23, and 9:4), yet it carries considerable clout in Paul’s theology. Its infrequency is incongruous with its import. A terse survey of these passages and of adoption’s role in each belies any doubt.

With eyes illumined to the heavenly realms, in Ephesians 1 Paul falls to his knees, overwhelmed by the revelation of divine grace. He writes what he receives and prays what he writes, while the heavenly backdrop to redemption pilots his apostolic pen. By way of covenant (pactum salutis) the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit determined to secure a redeemed family from among fallen sinners: “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” (Eph. 1:4–6).

Behind the sweetness of its application and antecedent to its accomplishment, adoption springs from the counsel of God. Enraptured by his heavenly vision, Paul ponders this pre-temporal starting point of redemption: the paternal love of God for his elect. No abstraction, this love takes an explicitly familial form even as it does a redemptive one:

God has chosen us and has predestined us to adoption ‘to himself’ (eis auton). This ties in with love as the basis for his predestinating act and reinforces the idea that he views his people as his own glorious inheritance (Eph. 1:18). The final purpose of election then is relational,[10]

so that God is Father of his redeemed family.

On the stage of history, the elect enter the family of God when they receive the Spirit of adoption (Rom. 8:15). But this Spirit’s outpouring depends upon the incarnate and covenantal obedience of the Son of God, whose attainment at his resurrection delivers covenant promise. And as expressed in the opening verses of Ephesians 1, theologically antecedent to the Son’s essential work is the loving purpose of the Triune God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In other words, adoption began in heaven before it came to earth. Put in Southern idiom, God’s love for his sons and daughters is older than dirt.

Out of his loving purpose, God sent his own Son to earth to secure his family. Clearly expressed in this Ephesian doxology, the Son’s role takes center stage in Galatians 4:4–5, “But 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.” In keeping with its pre-dirt primacy, Paul gives adoption far-reaching redemptive contours. Building on his Abrahamic and Mosaic covenant argumentation in Galatians 3, he explains in Galatians 4 the gritty and gracious logic of the incarnation. God became man—the Son of God became the Son of Mary, so that he might make the sons of fallen Adam the sons of God. Adoption entails all that the gospel delivers. The gospel in this Son is adoption.

As in Ephesians and Galatians, in Romans 8–9 Paul situates adoption in cosmic, covenantal categories. Romans 8 encompasses creation to redemption to consummation, and puts the resurrection and revelation of these adopted sons at the heart of God’s entire program (Rom. 8:22–23):

For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. 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.

Israel’s corporate adoption (Exod. 4:22–23) serves as the Old Covenant type to its New Covenant counterpart. This typological adoption (Rom. 9:4) facilitates Paul’s organic filial paradigm, in which adoption attains eschatological realization in the person and work of Jesus Christ (Rom. 9:5). Israel’s true Son Christ Jesus came to secure for the elect the typified and promised final adoption. Anticipated by Old Covenant adoption, the outpouring of the Spirit of adoption (Rom. 8:15) affirms Jesus’s redemptively efficacious, eschatological victory as Son.

United to this Son of God by faith then, the sons of God receive Christ as resurrected Son, who pours out his Spirit of adoption upon them.

For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. (Rom. 8:15–17)

The sons’ Spirit-wrought cry to the Father depends upon Christ’s eschatological triumph—both for the now in suffering and for the not yet of glory.

Already the sons of God by faith, final filial transformation awaits the resurrection of the body: “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). Adoption, as with all saving grace, is already but not yet. Already in possession of the Spirit of the resurrected Son of God—the Spirit of adoption, the sons of God will realize their adoption in full at their own filial transformation, resurrection. Full conformity to the image of the resurrected Son of God (Rom. 8:29) marks the final attainment of adoptive grace.[11]

Adoption thus draws upon Trinitarian counsel, is revealed in Old Covenant typological form, and serves as a comprehensive expression for the gospel in its realized and unrealized forms. With such expansive theological pedigree, all of its expressions expectedly center upon Christ as Son, as adoption is “in and for [God’s] only Son Jesus Christ” (WCF 12). In keeping with the intra-Trinitarian covenant, Christ delivers the redemptive blessings as the Son of God, so that the familial purposes of God for his people attain fully and finally:

As indeed he says in Hosea, “Those who were not my people I will call ‘my people,’ and her who was not beloved I will call ‘beloved.’ ” “And in the very place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ there they will be called ‘sons of the living God.’ ” (Romans 9:25–26)

Adoption of Christ: The Beloved Son

A survey of Old Testament history confirms that no son of Adam (or of Abraham!) ever qualified to redeem Israel. Generations of sons came and went, with no son comprehensively excellent, each of them stained by covenant disobedience, and each of them therefore wholly disqualified to represent and secure the holy family of God. This multi-generational filial disappointment produced an intensifying eschatological restlessness. How long, O Lord, before you redeem your people? Another feature of Old Testament revelation surfaces clearly over these generations: redemption required divine intervention—provision of a prophet, priest, and king, a Son like no other. Only God could deliver his people from the stranglehold of sin. Only God could meet his own covenant demands.

Anselm argued in Cur Deus Homo that atonement for sin required both man and God: man ought to make the needed satisfaction as the debtor, but only God could make the needed satisfaction; thus, it was necessary “for a God-Man to make it.”[12] Yet the hypostatic union, while necessary, was not sufficient. Redemption required incarnation and filial obedience unto death. Accordingly, as sent by the Father, the eternal Son took on flesh and took to obedience. Enfleshed as the son of Mary and entrenched in his covenant calling, Jesus came to do the will of his heavenly Father (Heb. 10:7). Forever the Son of God, born of woman and having learned obedience under the law (Luke 2:52; Heb. 5:8), he became Son in a new way. By flawless filial faithfulness to the end, he became that Beloved One in whom the Father was well pleased (Eph. 1:6; cf. Matt. 3:17; 17:5).

In fact, according to Romans 1:4, Jesus “was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead.” Though Paul never uses the term adoption (huiothesia) directly concerning Jesus Christ, this declaration concerning Christ’s transforming and vindicating resurrection should be understood no other way. The Almighty Father in heaven looks upon the perfect covenant performance of his perfected Son (Phil. 2:5_–11; cf. Heb. 2:10; 5:9), and upon his resurrection from the dead, declares him the excellent Son. Having delivered the eschatological promises in full, this Son par excellence is now Son in a new and redemptively effectual way:

Verse 4 [of Romans 1] teaches that at the resurrection Christ began a new and unprecedented phase of divine sonship. The eternal Son of God, who was born, lived, and died katà sárka [“according to the flesh”], has been raised katà pneûma [“according to the Spirit”] and so has become what he was not before: the Son of God in power.[13]

This new resurrection sonship attainment, as Richard Gaffin and others have argued, is Christ’s own adoption.

After Jesus’s baptismal affirmation, the Father’s statement out of the cloud at the Mount of Transfiguration anticipates, even certifies, this forthcoming resurrection declaration. As Luke offers his account prior to the travelogue (Luke 9:51–19:27), during which time Jesus takes his final steps towards Jerusalem to complete his filial/messianic mission, the consummative and cosmic concerns come positively into focus. The Son of God has neared the finish line of his covenantal responsibilities, and this mountaintop attestation by the Father combined with the foretaste of radiant glory, profiles the eschatological and redemptive import of his imminent death and resurrection. In this final phase of his “indestructible life” (Heb. 7:16), the heights of heaven will meet the bowels of earth, and the kingdom of the justifying and sanctifying Son will gain its fixed redemptive footing.[14]

Drawing the Law and Prophets to their eschatological fruition by the telling presence of great Moses and great Elijah, with palpable proleptic force the Father affirmed the Son and called hearers to “listen to him!” (Luke 9:35b). What the Father affirmed on the mountain informs what Paul means by Christ’s adoption/resurrection in Romans 1:4. Transformed in his resurrection, Jesus becomes Son of God in power by the Holy Spirit, and in this cosmic and eschatologically consummate way, enters filial glory for the sake of redeeming the elect (Rom. 8:18–30).[15] Necessary for this Son of Mary was his own matured and excellent sonship, whereby he could properly become the Son of God in power. Eternally Beloved, he indeed became the covenantally excellent Beloved Son. At that hinge moment in history in which Christ raised from the dead, the Father selected his only begotten Son as his adopted Son.

Some might find the adoption of Jesus odd, even distressing. How can it be that the Son of God is adopted? Yet the question itself betrays a misunderstanding of the covenantal context of Christ’s work. Surely he was the eternal and incarnate Son, but by virtue of his filial obedience and filial suffering he qualifies to become the covenant Son, the adopted One, the great filial Mediator. The affirmation of Christ’s adoption is no denial of his hypostatic union and no return to some Arian-friendly heresy (i.e., adoptionism) which claims Christ became Son first at his baptism or his resurrection. On the contrary, it was because he was eternal and incarnate Son that he became the adopted Son who successfully accomplished the covenantal demands. His sonly success in temptation (Heb. 5:7–10) and decisive sonly acceptance as marked by his resurrection (Rom. 1:4) produce the indispensable redemptive purposes. So essential are these filial attainments that without the adoption of the Redeemer, there is no adoption of the redeemed.

Adoption in Christ: The Beloved Sons

The pleasure of the Father in his Son then lies squarely in the Son’s personal obedience for its redemptive, adoptive efficacy. The redemptive power associated with the Son as life-giving Spirit (1 Cor. 15:45) graciously yet mightily overwhelms. For the elect, Adam’s fallen sonship gives way to the Last Adam’s resurrected sonship. For the redeemed, those united to the risen and appointed Son, filial grace becomes their full possession. The power of Christ’s resurrection life bestows the full bounty of his new filial status upon those united to him by faith. The Father is pleased, his predestined family is secured, and by the resurrected Son’s adoptive glory, the gracious familial purpose of the Father prevails (Eph. 1:3–10). In the qualified Son, the in Christ familial dynasty is established forever, and in his sons the Father’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven. The redeemed sons are resurrected sons in the resurrected Son; they are adopted sons in the adopted Son.

Moreover, because of the necessary tie between Christology and soteriology, to deny Christ’s adoption necessarily proscribes the believer’s adoption. The soteriological rides on the Christological—where Christ has not gone, neither can the one united to him go. Instead the filial attainment at the resurrection means something for believers precisely because it meant something personally, cosmically, eschatologically, and redemptively for Christ Jesus. There is therefore no stray blessing occasioned by saving grace, no conferral of redemptive blessing not attained by the Personal Source of redemption himself. The vital and intimate union between the sons and the Son remains unyieldingly robust: “Nothing can be more personal than the intimate relation which the Christ (particularly the Risen Christ) sustains to the believer.”[16] Believers are adopted only in and through Jesus Christ.

To be sure, the apostle affirms inviolable distinctions between the sons and the Son: Christ is Firstborn, Firstfruits, the one Mediator between God and man, and Last Adam; but the sons united to him enjoy full participation in all that he has attained as the eschatological Son. The driving union-with-Christ paradigm of his soteriology celebrates the stunning privileges of a gracious, Spirit-wrought concatenation of the redeemed with the Redeemer, of the sons with the Son.

So what then is the scope of this adoption for believers? In his book on the Holy Spirit, Sinclair Ferguson remarks, “In Christ the forensic and the transformative are one (Rom. 6:7). More, justification, sanctification, and glorification are one; declaratory, transformatory and consummatory coalesce in this resurrection.”[17] The manner in which the apostle Paul aligns resurrection and adoption requires that we affirm this coalescence with Christ’s newly attained sonship as well. In other words, at this cosmic moment in the history of redemption, Jesus secures all the redemptive benefits as resurrected Son. In his covenantal attainment as adopted/resurrected Son, the forensic and transformative are one. Christ’s adoption marks his comprehensive covenantal and filial success and marks the point at which he becomes life-giving Spirit. By the grace of Christ Jesus, the life-giving Spirit of adoption, “believers are … put in the same position as Christ, who is the firstborn among many brothers (Rom. 8:29).”[18] He pours out the Spirit of adoption precisely because he is the adopted Son. He gives to the elect by grace what he has achieved by right.

Adoption then functions as no synonym for an aspect of union like justification, but offers rather a complex metaphor entailing his divinely declared and transformed identity at his resurrection. Truly, “justification, sanctification and glorification are one” in his resurrected sonship; the “declaratory, transformatory and consummatory coalesce” in his adoption. Coordinately and derivatively, these facts are as true of the sons as they are of their Elder Brother. Affirming the forensic in justification and the renewal in regeneration and sanctification for the believer, A. A. Hodge asserts, “Adoption includes both. As set forth in Scripture, it embraces in one complex view the newly-regenerated creature in the new relations into which he is introduced by justification.”[19] Though he neither expands nor expounds, Hodge here resonates with Calvin, who resonates with the apostle Paul. As adopted Son, Christ distributes himself and his benefits to all the elect, making them sons in full possession of all that he is and has.

Adoption thus provides the covenantal and filial context for Christ’s once-for-all redemptive work as the Beloved Son of God. The efficacy of his filial attainment draws those united to him into the full blessing of filial grace—in its forensic and transformative dimensions. As adopted sons in Christ, we become the beloved sons in whom the Father is well pleased.

Soli Patri Gloria. Soli Filio Gloria. Soli Spiritui Gloria.


[1] J. I. Packer, Knowing God, 20th anniversary ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1993), 214.

[2] See Joel R. Beeke, Heirs with Christ: The Puritans on Adoption (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage, 2008).

[3] Brian A. Gerrish, Grace and Gratitude: The Eucharistic Theology of John Calvin (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1993), 89.

[4] Howard Griffith, “‘The First Title of the Spirit’: Adoption in Calvin’s Soteriology,” Evangelical Quarterly 73 (2001): 135.

[5] See, e.g., Tim J. R. Trumper, When History Teaches Us Nothing: The Recent Reformed Sonship Debate in Context (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2008), 1–32.

[6] Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, ed. James T. Dennison Jr., trans. George Musgrave Giger (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1994), 2:666. There is no question that adoption entails a forensic element. But its biblical use and theological function extend beyond the forensic domain.

[7] Ibid., 2:668.

[8] See, e.g., Michael S. Horton, The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 645.

[9] For a much fuller probing of the filial grace of adoption in its biblical and systematic expression, see David B. Garner, Sons-in-the-Son: The Theology of Adoption (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, forthcoming [October 2016]).

[10] Clinton E. Arnold, Ephesians, Zondervan Evangelical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), 10:82–83.

[11] Adoption possesses forensic and renovative characteristics. How this is so without confusing or conflating justification and sanctification receives full attention in Garner, Sons-in-the-Son.

[12] Anselm, Cur Deus Homo, in A Scholastic Miscellany: Anselm to Ockham, Library of Christian Classics 10, ed. and trans. Eugene R. Fairweather (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1956), 151.

[13] Richard B. Gaffin Jr., Resurrection and Redemption: A Study in Paul’s Soteriology, 2nd ed. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1987), 111.

[14] This paragraph is a slight rewording of a section from chapter 7 in Garner, Sons-in-the-Son.

[15] Robert A. Peterson, Adopted by God: From Wayward Sinners to Cherished Children (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2001), 59–63, distinguishes four historical declarations of Jesus’s adoption: (1) his baptism (Matt. 3:17), (2) his transfiguration (Matt. 17:1–13), (3) his resurrection (Acts 13:27–30), and (4) his ascension (Heb. 1:3–5).

[16] Geerhardus Vos, The Pauline Eschatology (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1930), 166.

[17] Sinclair Ferguson, The Holy Spirit (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1996), 250.

[18] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008), 4:227. Though Bavinck argues differently concerning the sonship of Christ and the adoption of believers, this statement from him functions better when understanding the shared adoption of the redeemed sons in the Redeemer Son.

[19] Archibald Alexander Hodge, The Confession of Faith (repr.; Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1998), 192.

David B. Garner, a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America, is associate professor of Systematic Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Ordained Servant Online, March 2016.

Publication Information

Contact the Editor: Gregory Edward Reynolds

Editorial address: Dr. Gregory Edward Reynolds,
827 Chestnut St.
Manchester, NH 03104-2522
Telephone: 603-668-3069

Electronic mail: reynolds.1@opc.org

Submissions, Style Guide, and Citations


Editorial Policies

Copyright information

Ordained Servant: March 2016

Adoption: The Forgotten Blessing

Also in this issue

Suggested Reading on Adoption

Some Pluralisms Are More Inclusive than Others: A Review Article

Abraham Kuyper, Conservatism, and Church and State by Mark J. Larson

Got Religion? by Naomi Schaefer Riley

A True Hymn

Download PDFDownload MobiDownload ePubArchive


+1 215 830 0900

Contact Form

Find a Church