Our Sonship in Union with the Son of God
Adoption in Christ – the Sons in the Son

John Calvin, in his last will and testament, asserts, “I have no other defence or refuge for salvation than His gratuitous adoption, on which my salvation depends.”[1] Surely there are many ways that Calvin could have expressed his deathbed gospel convictions. With summary reflection and filial warmth, he chooses to affirm that his salvation depends on God’s gratuitous adoption.

The gospel, acquired for him in the atoning “merits of [Christ’s] death and passion,”[2] propelled Calvin toward confident expectation of his imminent welcome before his heavenly Father: “I trust to no other security for my salvation than this, and this only, viz. that as God is the Father of mercy, He will show Himself a Father to me, who acknowledge myself to be a miserable sinner.”[3]

The Son of God’s merciful work overwhelmed Calvin’s desperate plight and enabled him to “stand at the judgment-seat.”[4] For Calvin, the entire scope of the gospel derived its splendor and hope from adoptive grace bestowed on him in Christ Jesus, which granted him unfettered fellowship with the merciful Father. Adoptive grace took such primacy for Calvin because it did so for the apostle Paul.

Pauline theological and hermeneutical logic operates with a dynamic convergence of Christology, pneumatology, and soteriology: the historico-theological character of scriptural revelation (historia salutis) structures the application of redemptive grace (ordo salutis); the biblico-theological – that is, Christ-centered – thrust of Scripture wholly serves gospel appropriation. Such biblico-theoogical orientation unveils the filio-Christology, the filio-pneumatology, and the filio-soteriology at work in divine grace. These mutually interpreting theological categories vividly profile adoption and its integrative role in the application of redemption. Biblical grace is filial grace.

Relying on the Pauline treatment of adoption as traversed in the previous pages and tapping in to Calvin’s permeating treatment of this filial grace, we find that placing adoption properly within the ordo salutis has required re-recalibration. This re-placement has involved precise tuning of the ordo salutis to the historia salutis, where Paul’s sons-in-the-Son paradigm flourishes exclusively in and through the last Adam, the firstborn, the firstfruits of the Spirit, the adopted Son of God.

By the outpouring of Christ’s Spirit of adoption, the sons possess the Son because, by his efficacious work, the Son possesses the sons. The Son of God does not dispense selected benefits to the redeemed sequentially or atomistically, as if he could divide himself and his work in bits; he gives himself – adopted and resurrected – to them once for all. Correspondingly, the filial grace of adoption envelopes the redeemed precisely because this adopted Son – vindicated, consecrated, and glorified – embraces them in his unrelenting grace.

When Christ is given in redemption, he comes to the sons instantaneously, completely, and permanently. Spirit-wrought faith tethers the sons to the Son irreversibly. The golden chain of salvation then comes to the redeemed not as consecutive links, but at once as a gloriously completed crown of divine filial grace. The Father crowns the redeemed sons with adoption because he has crowned his own redeeming, resurrected Son with adoption.

Though the theological inclination to preserve the uniqueness of Christ is commendable, the Melanchthonian-styled insistence that adoption differentiates the redeemed from the Redeemer misses the very point of this filial grace.[5] In fact, adoption is not intended to distinguish us from the exalted Son of God, but to express the nature of our privileged solidarity with him.

Preserving Christ’s eternal, ontological sonship does not proscribe filial-covenantal progress in the Son of God, nor does it drive a filial wedge between the redeemed sons and the redeeming Son. To the contrary, grounded in Trinitarian ontology and covenantal decree (pactum salutis), redemptive grace depends on divine condescension in the incarnate Son and his concomitant filial development (humiliation) for securing covenant promises at his resurrection (exaltation). Believers are adopted sons of God precisely because Jesus Christ, the one Mediator between God and man, was first adopted himself. He is the firstborn among many brothers, the firstborn from the dead (1 Cor. 15:23; Col. 1:18; cf. Rev. 1:5a).

Moreover, Pauline theology repudiates any theological gymnastics that divorce Christology and soteriology or that illegitimately rend the blessings enjoyed by the sons of God from the realities procured by the Son of God. Paul unwaveringly weds redemptive benefits to the historical work, progress, and personal attainment of the Son of God par excellence.

Not unlike other features of biblical salvation, adoption is not granted to the redeemed without its first being secured by the Redeemer. Such an assertion does not threaten orthodox Christology, but affirms and safeguards it, even as it preserves the vital theological interface between the Son of God, the Spirit of adoption, and the redeemed sons.

Much more can and should be said on other Pauline themes that adoption expansively informs, such as the imago Dei (“image of God”), eschatological glory, the kingdom of God and the reigning of the sons with the Son, sacramental theology (covenant baptism and the Lord’s Table), ecclesiology (the rich filial implications of union for familial communion), and gospel ethics.[6] My goal here has been more focused and modest, but it is also more foundational.

With a conscious dedication to a biblically grounded mutuality of biblical and systematic theology, this study addresses huiothesia, exploring its paradigmatic function in Paul and following his filial/redemptive contemplations on the basis of the filial/redemptive acts of God in the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Therefore, considering the vast theological notions embraced by huiothesia, I have sought to define the soteriological conclusions to which the apostle Paul guides us in his Christ-centered and eschatologically ripe conception of redemptive grace.

To summarize, the believer’s redemptive benefits drawn on the actual biography of Jesus Christ. The Spirit applies exactly what Jesus Christ accomplished, earned, and attained. Failure to preserve the vital connection between Christ’s experience and the believers’ redemptive benefits in him elicits theological abstraction, diluting Christ’s work and fictionalizing redemption applied.

Accordingly, there is justification for the sons only because of the Son’s own vindication. There is sanctification of the sons only because of the Son’s own victory over the stranglehold of sin. There is glorification of the sons only because of the Son’s own resurrection. Appreciating these features of redemptive grace in their sweet and proper coalescence, we see that there is adoption of the sons only because of the Son of God’s own adoption.

The redeemed are sons – justified and sanctified, because we are, by the life-giving Spirit of adoption, gloriously and permanently adopted sons in the Son.

Soli Patri Gloria. Soli Filio Gloria. Soli Spiritui Gloria

This material was adapted from the conclusion to Sons in the Son: The Riches and Reach of Adoption in Christ (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing, 2016). It is republished here with permission for its insight into the GRN’s fundamental commitment to fervent piety founded on biblical truth.

[1] Recorded in Philip Schaff, Modern Christianity: The Swiss Reformation, History of the Christian Church 8 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1910), 829.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Philipp Melanchthon, Commentary on Romans, trans. Fred Kramer (St. Louis: Concordia, 1992), 174-75.

[6] Todd Billings offers some very insightful and pastorally useful theological expositions about adoption, prayer, and sacraments. J. Todd Billings, Calvin, Participation, and the Gift: The Activity of Believers in Union with Christ (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 105-43.