Sons in the Son of God
Exulting in Our Spiritual Adoption

Familiarity. Preachers and psychologists warn us about it, spouses fall prey to its tantalizing trap, and children get blindly sucked into its vortex of ingratitude. So sweet and so welcome, familiarity easily plummets into presumption. Aesop put it this way, “Familiarity breeds contempt.” His time-tested saying is no mere fable: despite its known risks, we persist in presuming upon our nearest and dearest.

Self-love leads the charge. We covet whatever benefits we glean from our family; how quickly a mother’s meals, dad’s wheels, Internet access, and hot-spot vacations morph into expectations, nay, even demands. We fight like pigs over the last bit of slop in the trough. Even those benefits that elude us consume us. Our lives squeal with narcissism. What we have and what we want imprison us, and leave us numb to our benefactors.

A Self-Absorbed Theology?

Biblical riches can tempt us to cascade into similar self-absorption. Even the devout are not immune. As faithful children of God, we read our Bibles, listen to solid sermons, and seek eagerly to obey God and His Word. We lead mission trips, teach Sunday school, and even dutifully tell others about our faith and our church. Yet all too easily we pitch our tents in self-centeredness.

Let me explain. Many versions of the gospel promote a spiritual slot machine with a guaranteed jackpot—pull the handle and you will swim in the sweetest of blessings. Slot-machine theology comprises more than obvious freak shows—health and wealth shysters, smooth-talking healers or prayer-cloth dealers. The formulas for gratification in these paradigms are clear enough. But even those of us who consciously celebrate biblical justification and sanctification can rip these truths from their personal and familial contexts.

We exalt justification by faith and forget the Son of God who justifies us! We tout the forgiveness of our sin and give hardly a glance to our Elder Brother who forgives. Sanctification, oddly enough, can also lead us down the same Son-eclipsing pathway. A focus on personal piety—with the risks of legalism on the one hand, and easy believism on the other—can turn into a vapid preoccupation, if my theology is orphaned: “all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God” (Rom. 8:14, emphasis mine). Holiness is not an accounting formula; it is the dynamic gift of the Spirit to the sons of God in and through the Son of God.

Our Identity as Sons in the Son

Whether by rending the gospel from its covenantal shape by cramming it into individualistic terms (“Jesus and I”) or by turning the gospel into a trophy case of what we get—when our focus lies on the benefits of salvation rather than the Benefactor himself, we lose touch with the family fiber of salvation. We forget whose we are and who we are. We presume upon our Father and His exalted Son. Such presumption obscures our identity: sons of God in the Son of God by the divine grace of adoption.

Theological familiarity breeds contempt.

In this 500th year of the Reformation, we would do well to recall our Elder Brother who “gave himself” for us (Titus 2:14), in whom we receive adoption (Gal. 4:1–7). Our Reformed Genevan forefather understood how important this is. Calvin’s doctrine of salvation has been rightly described as “the gospel of adoption.”[1] A half of a millennium later, J. I. Packer urged us to embrace sonship as seminal for all gospel privilege.[2] I think Paul would give these two brothers a holy fist bump.

Adoption, at his pen, situates all of redemption in family terms. Though Paul uses “adoption” (huiothesia) only five times, even a quick survey of how he employs the term exposes adoption’s colossal footprint. Dominating his mind is the unfolding of redemptive history, and sonship looms largely in his creation–to-consummation construction (see Rom. 8:18–30). But why does Paul choose “adoption” instead of some other family concept?

First-century Roman adoption actually offers low hanging fruit for gospel analogies, which magnificently serve redemptive-historical purposes. If in his assessment of their character and maturity, a Roman emperor found his biological offspring unworthy to carry on the kingly line, he would seek another of “sound body and mind”[3] to do so. In other words, when an emperor found his biological sons unqualified to be his successor, he adopted one instead. Hadrian helps us here: “… through natural process, a man is often given a deformed and incompetent son, but through a process of judgment, one of sound body and mind is certain to be chosen.”[4] First-century Stoic philosopher Seneca quips, “Adoption is the remedy for chance.”[5] The emperor’s choice for the adopted son required a proven track record. The son was not adopted to become excellent; he was adopted because he had already proven himself so.

The Christ-Centeredness of Adoption

In view of contemporary adoption customs, adult adoption sounds strange to our ears. But what is even more puzzling, perhaps, is the notion of an excellent son chosen for adoption. How does this principle comport with the gospel message—that we are sinful, corrupt, and anything but excellent?

Once again we rediscover the Christ-centeredness of Paul’s thought.[6] We are adopted in Christ, the resurrected and adopted Son of God. Clarification is surely in order. Historic orthodoxy rightly affirms Jesus as the Son of God from eternity. Christ’s eternal sonship renders the divine backdrop for any human derivative. But His eternal sonship on its own did not accomplish redemption. This eternal Son, from the moment of his conception in Mary, became the Son of God incarnate. Yet again, his becoming man does not (in itself) secure salvation. Human genetics were essential, but not sufficient. Christ had to grow, learn, and attain full maturity as the obedient Son of the covenant. His heavenly Father watched with sovereign delight on the faithfulness of the Son of Man.

Christ’s excellence secures our gospel standing. In order to become the archēgos (“founder”) of salvation, Jesus had to “share in flesh and blood” (Heb. 2:14; cf. Rom. 8:3). He had to be made “perfect through suffering” (Heb. 2:10b; cf. 5:7–10; Rom. 1:3–4) to become the selected Son (Heb. 7:28b; cf. Rom. 1:4). Do not miss the glorious point here: The Father’s affirmation at Christ’s resurrection (Rom. 1:4) sounds the bell of his full pleasure in the Son, affirming the surpassing efficacy of his mediatorial life, death, and new life. Raised from the dead, he becomes King of kings and Lord of lords, the Son of God in regal and soteric power. Covenant purposes and kingdom inauguration converge in this Son-King, whose attained excellence elicits the divine acknowledgment. The Father’s declaration marks the completion of redemption accomplished, a completion attained by the faithful and rightfully chosen Heir—the transformed, adopted Son.[7]

Christ’s resurrection thus marked His adoption. And in this historical attainment of Christ Jesus, our adoption is secured. In him alone, we become the excellent sons of God.

The Distinctions Between the Son and the Sons

Of course, the critical distinctions that exist between the One who accomplishes and the ones to whom the benefits apply should not be overlooked. Christ is intrinsically holy; His justification depends on His actual holiness. What is for Christ a matter of analysis is for those united to Him a matter of synthesis. Christ attains victory over sin and death’s grip according to His untarnished excellence and attained resurrection power. His sanctification/consecration prevails because He personally and permanently conquered sin and death. The holy, resurrected power of Jesus, as covenant Head of His people, extends to those united to Him. Believers are infused with holy power by grace because He by right possesses and distributes it. Christ attains glorified status as resurrected Son in power; His filial privilege depended on His filial excellence. To those sons united to Him, this filial excellence comes by divine grace. In it all, genuine soteric solidarity of the sons in the Son stands inviolably by virtue of the covenant of grace.[8]

The term huiothesia exposes the exhaustively familial character of the gospel; it is a sons-in-the-Son matter. No fictional declaration, justification comes to us by the historic justification of the resurrected/adopted Son of God. Nor does sanctification float in a theological wonderland. Sanctification comes truly to us by the Son of God, who blasts forth from the tomb as life-giving Spirit (1 Cor. 15:45) and equips those united to Him with full armor to wage war with sin.

Loved from before the world began, we were predestined unto adoption (Eph. 1:4) and for conformity into the image of the Son of God par excellence—the Firstborn among brothers (Rom. 8:29–30). Carrying out this eternal plan, “God sent forth his Son. . . that we might receive adoption as sons” (Gal. 4:4–5). Having now the “Spirit of adoption” poured out upon us (Rom 8:15–17), we are the royal, privileged, empowered sons of God. Forgiven and maturing, we will one day become glorified sons (Rom. 8:23)—just like our Elder Brother.

Our salvation never departs this filial and familial orbit. So as we contemplate this grace of adoption, our souls should sing of the glorious grace of our Elder Brother. Salvation is in him—the eternal, incarnate, resurrected and adopted Son of God.

This familial splendor breeds eternal contentment.


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

[2] “Adoption through propitiation . . . [:] I do not expect ever to meet a richer or more pregnant summary of the gospel than that,” J. I. Packer, Knowing God, 20th-anniversary ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 214.

[3] Recorded in Michael Peppard, The Son of God in the Roman World: Divine Sonship in Its Social and Political Context (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 73.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Recorded in ibid, 82.

[6] What follows in the following paragraphs is drawn and adapted from David B. Garner, Sons in the Son: The Riches and Reach of Adoption in Christ (Phillipsburg, NJ: 2016), pp. 207, 216–17.

[7]Garner, Sons in the Son, 207.

[8] Garner, Sons in the Son, 282.