Adoption [N] [T] [E] [S]

Act of leaving one's natural family and entering into the privileges and responsibilities of another. In the Bible, adoption is one of several family-related terms used to describe the process of salvation and its subsequent benefits. God is a father who graciously adopts believers in Christ into his spiritual family and grants them all the privileges of heirship. Salvation is much more than forgiveness of sins and deliverance from condemnation; it is also a position of great blessing. Believers are children of God.

Old Testament Legal adoption was not prescribed in Jewish law or practiced by the Israelites. In fact, the term "adoption" does not occur in the Old Testament. While there are several possible allusions to adoption, such as Moses ( Exod 2:10 ), Genubath ( 1 Ki 11:20 ), and Esther ( Es 2:7 ), the incidents recorded take place in foreign societies (Egyptian and Persian) and there is no evidence that legal adoptions were enacted.

The adoption metaphor was not lost to Israel, however. God declares that he is the Father of the nation Israel, whom he loves as his child ( Isa 1:2 ; Hosea 11:1 ). He tells Pharaoh, "Israel is my firstborn son" ( Exod 4:22 ). More specifically, he says to David (and the Messiah), "You are my son; today I have become your Father" ( Psalm 2:7 ); and of David's descendant, "I will be his father, and he will be my son" ( 2 Sa 7:14 ). Although not precisely adoption passages, the instances of declared sonship in the Old Testament provide a theological foundation for Israel's designation as the children of God.

New Testament The New Testament cultural environment was much different from that of the Old since elaborate laws and ceremonies for adoption were part of both Greek and Roman society. To people with this background, the adoption metaphor in the New Testament was particularly meaningful.

The Greek word for adoption (huiothesia [uiJoqesiva]) means to "place as a son" and is used only by Paul in the New Testament. Each of the five occurrences in his letters is to readers of a decidedly Roman background. In one instance Paul refers to the Old Testament idea of Israel's special position as the children of God — "Theirs is the adoption as sons" ( Ro 9:4 ). The remaining four references describe how New Testament believers become children of God through his gracious choice. The full scope of God's work of salvation past, present, and future is seen in adoption.

The believer's adoption as a child of God was determined by God from eternity: God "predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ" ( Eph 1:5 ). This adoption is not the result of any merit on the part of the believer, but solely the outworking of God's love and grace ( Ephesians 1:5 Ephesians 1:7 ).

The present reality of the believer's adoption into the family of God is release from the slavery of sin and the law and a new position as a free heir of God. Entering into salvation brings the rights and privileges of free sonship: "For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, 'Abba, Father'" ( Ro 8:15 ). Paul tells the Galatians that Christians were redeemed from the law so that they might receive adoption as sons. As a result the Holy Spirit comes into the believer's heart crying, "Abba, Father" ( Gal 4:5 ). The intimacy of a relationship with God the Father in contrast to the ownership of slavery is a remarkable feature of salvation.

Like many aspects of salvation, there is an eschatological component of adoption. Believers "wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies" ( Ro 8:23 ). The full revelation of the believer's adoption is freedom from the corruption present in the world. Being a member of God's family includes the ultimate privilege of being like him ( 1 Jo 3:2 ) and being conformed to the glorious body of Christ ( Php 3:21 ). This is part of the promised inheritance for all God's children ( Ro 8:16-17 ).

William E. Brown

See also Christians, Names of

Bibliography. G. Braumann, NIDNTT, 1:287-90; A. H. Leitch, ZPEB, 1:63-65; F. Lyall, Slaves, Citizens, Sons: Legal Metaphors in the Epistles.

Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. Edited by Walter A. Elwell
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
Baker Book House Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan USA.
All rights reserved. Used by permission.

For usage information, please read the Baker Book House Copyright Statement.

[N] indicates this entry was also found in Nave's Topical Bible
[T] indicates this entry was also found in Torrey's Topical Textbook
[E] indicates this entry was also found in Easton's Bible Dictionary
[S] indicates this entry was also found in Smith's Bible Dictionary

Bibliography Information

Elwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Adoption'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology". . 1997.

Adoption [N] [T] [B] [S]

the giving to any one the name and place and privileges of a son who is not a son by birth.

  • Natural. Thus Pharaoh's daughter adopted Moses ( Exodus 2:10 ), and Mordecai Esther ( Esther 2:7 ).

  • National. God adopted Israel ( Exodus 4:22 ; Deuteronomy 7:6 ; Hosea 11:1 ; Romans 9:4 ).

  • Spiritual. An act of God's grace by which he brings men into the number of his redeemed family, and makes them partakers of all the blessings he has provided for them. Adoption represents the new relations into which the believer is introduced by justification, and the privileges connected therewith, viz., an interest in God's peculiar love ( John 17:23 ; Romans 5:5-8 ), a spiritual nature ( 2 Peter 1:4 ; John 1:13 ), the possession of a spirit becoming children of God ( 1 Peter 1:14 ; 2 John 4 ; Romans 8:15-21 ; Galatians 5:1 ; Hebrews 2:15 ), present protection, consolation, supplies ( Luke 12:27-32 ; John 14:18 ; 1 Corinthians 3:21-23 ; 2 co 1:4 ), fatherly chastisements ( Hebrews 12:5-11 ), and a future glorious inheritance ( Romans 8:17 Romans 8:23 ; James 2:5 ; Philippians 3:21 ).

    These dictionary topics are from
    M.G. Easton M.A., D.D., Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Third Edition,
    published by Thomas Nelson, 1897. Public Domain, copy freely.

    [N] indicates this entry was also found in Nave's Topical Bible
    [T] indicates this entry was also found in Torrey's Topical Textbook
    [B] indicates this entry was also found in Baker's Evangelical Dictionary
    [S] indicates this entry was also found in Smith's Bible Dictionary

    Bibliography Information

    Easton, Matthew George. "Entry for Adoption". "Easton's Bible Dictionary". .

  • Adoption, [N] [T] [B] [E]

    an expression used by St. Paul in reference to the present and prospective privileges of Christians. ( Romans 8:15 Romans 8:23 ; Galatians 4:5 ; Ephesians 1:5 ) He probably alludes to the Roman custom by which a person not having children of his own might adopt as his son one born of other parents. The relationship was to all intents and purposes the same as existed between a natural father and son. The term is used figuratively to show the close relationship to God of the Christian. ( Galatians 4:4 Galatians 4:5 ; Romans 8:14-17 ) He is received into Gods family from the world, and becomes a child and heir of God.

    [N] indicates this entry was also found in Nave's Topical Bible
    [T] indicates this entry was also found in Torrey's Topical Textbook
    [B] indicates this entry was also found in Baker's Evangelical Dictionary
    [E] indicates this entry was also found in Easton's Bible Dictionary

    Bibliography Information

    Smith, William, Dr. "Entry for 'Adoption,'". "Smith's Bible Dictionary". . 1901.


    a-dop'-shun (huiothesia, "placing as a son"): - _I. THE GENERAL LEGAL IDEA_

    1. In the Old Testament 2. Greek 3. Roman


    1. In Galatians as Liberty 2. In Romans as Deliverance from Debt


    1. In Relation to Justification 2. In Relation to Sanctification 3. In Relation to Regeneration

    _IV. AS GOD'S ACT_

    1. Divine Fatherhood 2. Its Cosmic Range + This term appears first in New Testament, and only in the epistles of Paul (Galatians 4:5; Romans 8:15,23; 9:4; Ephesians 1:5) who may have coined it out of a familiar Greek phrase of identical meaning. It indicated generally the legal process by which a man might bring into his family, and endow with the status and privileges of a son, one who was not by nature his son or of his kindred.

    _I. The General Legal Idea._

    The custom prevailed among Greeks, Romans and other ancient peoples, but it does not appear in Jewish law.

    1. In the Old Testament:

    Three cases of adoption are mentioned:

    of Moses (Exodus 2:10), Genubath (1 Kings 11:20) and Esther (Esther 2:7,15), but it is remarkable that they all occur outside of Palestine--in Egypt and Persia, where the practice of adoption prevailed. Likewise the idea appears in the New Testament only in the epistles of Paul, which were addressed to churches outside Palestine. The motive and initiative of adoption always lay with the adoptive father, who thus supplied his lack of natural offspring and satisfied the claims of affection and religion, and the desire to exercise paternal authority or to perpetuate his family. The process and conditions of adoption varied with different peoples. Among oriental nations it was extended to slaves (as Moses) who thereby gained their freedom, but in Greece and Rome it was, with rare exceptions, limited to citizens.

    2. Greek:

    In Greece a man might during his lifetime, or by will, to take effect after his death, adopt any male citizen into the privileges of his son, but with the invariable condition that the adopted son accepted the legal obligations and religious duties of a real son.

    3. Roman:

    In Rome the unique nature of paternal authority (patria potestas), by which a son was held in his father's power, almost as a slave was owned by his master, gave a peculiar character to the process of adoption. For the adoption of a person free from paternal authority (sui juris), the process and effect were practically the same in Rome as in Greece (adrogatio). In a more specific sense, adoption proper (adoptio) was the process by which a person was transferred from his natural father's power into that of his adoptive father, and it consisted in a fictitious sale of the son, and his surrender by the natural to the adoptive father.

    _II. Paul's Doctrine._

    As a Roman citizen the apostle would naturally know of the Roman custom, but in the cosmopolitan city of Tarsus, and again on his travels, he would become equally familiar with the corresponding customs of other nations. He employed the idea metaphorically much in the manner of Christ's parables, and, as in their case, there is danger of pressing the analogy too far in its details. It is not clear that he had any specific form of adoption in mind when illustrating his teaching by the general idea. Under this figure he teaches that God, by the manifestation of His grace in Christ, brings men into the relation of sons to Himself, and communicates to them the experience of sonship.

    1. In Galatians as Liberty:

    In Galatians, Paul emphasizes especially the liberty enjoyed by those who live by faith, in contrast to the bondage under which men are held, who guide their lives by legal ceremonies and ordinances, as the Galatians were prone to do (Galatians 5:1). The contrast between law and faith is first set forth on the field of history, as a contrast between both the pre-Christian and the Christian economies (Galatians 3:23,24), although in another passage he carries the idea of adoption back into the covenant relation of God with Israel (Romans 9:4). But here the historical antithesis is reproduced in the contrast between men who now choose to live under law and those who live by faith. Three figures seem to commingle in the description of man's condition under legal bondage--that of a slave, that of a minor under guardians appointed by his father's will, and that of a Roman son under the patria potestas (Galatians 4:1-3). The process of liberation is first of all one of redemption or buying out (Greek exagorasei) (Galatians 4:5). This term in itself applies equally well to the slave who is redeemed from bondage, and the Roman son whose adoptive father buys him out of the authority of his natural father. But in the latter case the condition of the son is not materially altered by the process:

    he only exchanges one paternal authority for another. If Paul for a moment thought of the process in terms of ordinary Roman adoption, the resulting condition of the son he conceives in terms of the more free and gracious Greek or Jewish family life. Or he may have thought of the rarer case of adoption from conditions of slavery into the status of sonship. The redemption is only a precondition of adoption, which follows upon faith, and is accompanied by the sending of "the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, Abba, Father," and then all bondage is done away (Galatians 4:5-7).

    2. In Romans as Deliverance from Debt:

    In Romans 8:12-17 the idea of obligation or debt is coupled with that of liberty. Man is thought of as at one time under the authority and power of the flesh (Romans 8:5), but when the Spirit of Christ comes to dwell in him, he is no longer a debtor to the flesh but to the Spirit (Romans 8:12,13), and debt or obligation to the Spirit is itself liberty. As in Galatians, man thus passes from a state of bondage into a state of sonship which is also a state of liberty. "For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these (and these only) are sons of God" (Romans 8:14). The spirit of adoption or sonship stands in diametrical opposition to the spirit of bondage (Romans 8:15). And the Spirit to which we are debtors and by which we are led, at once awakens and confirms the experience of sonship within us (Romans 8:16). In both places, Paul conveys under this figure, the idea of man as passing from a state of alienation from God and of bondage under law and sin, into that relation with God of mutual confidence and love, of unity of thought and will, which should characterize the ideal family, and in which all restraint, compulsion and fear have passed away.

    _III. The Christian Experience._

    As a fact of Christian experience, the adoption is the recognition and affirmation by man of his sonship toward God. It follows upon faith in Christ, by which man becomes so united with Christ that his filial spirit enters into him, and takes possession of his consciousness, so that he knows and greets God as Christ does (compare Mark 14:36).

    1. In Relation to Justification:

    It is an aspect of the same experience that Paul describes elsewhere, under another legal metaphor, as justification by faith. According to the latter, God declares the sinner righteous and treats him as such, admits into to the experience of forgiveness, reconciliation and peace (Romans 5:1). In all this the relation of father and son is undoubtedly involved, but in adoption it is emphatically expressed. It is not only that the prodigal son is welcomed home, glad to confess that he is not worthy to be called a son, and willing to be made as one of the hired servants, but he is embraced and restored to be a son as before. The point of each metaphor is, that justification is the act of a merciful Judge setting the prisoner free, but adoption is the act of a generous father, taking a son to his bosom and endowing him with liberty, favor and a heritage.

    2. In Relation to Sanctification:

    Besides, justification is the beginning of a process which needs for its completion a progressive course of sanctification by the aid of the Holy Spirit, but adoption is coextensive with sanctification. The sons of God are those led by the Spirit of God (Romans 8:14); and the same spirit of God gives the experience of sonship. Sanctification describes the process of general cleansing and growth as an abstract process, but adoption includes it as a concrete relation to God, as loyalty, obedience, and fellowship with an ever-loving Father.

    3. In Relation to Regeneration:

    Some have identified adoption with regeneration, and therefore many Fathers and Roman Catholic theologians have identified it with baptismal regeneration, thereby excluding the essential fact of conscious sonship. The new birth and adoption are certainly aspects of the same totality of experience, but they belong to different systems of thought, and to identify them is to invite confusion. The new birth defines especially the origin and moral quality of the Christian experience as an abstract fact, but adoption expresses a concrete relation of man to God. Nor does Paul here raise the question of man's natural and original condition. It is pressing the analogy too far to infer from this doctrine of adoption that man is by nature not God's son. It would contradict Paul's teaching elsewhere (e.g. Acts 17:28), and he should not be convicted of inconsistency on the application of a metaphor. He conceives man outside Christ as morally an alien and a stranger from God, and the change wrought by faith in Christ makes him morally a son and conscious of his sonship; but naturally he is always a potential son because God is always a real father.

    _IV. As God's Act._

    Adoption as God's act is an eternal process of His gracious love, for He "fore-ordained us unto adoption as sons through Jesus Christ unto himself, according to the good pleasure of his will" (Ephesians 1:5).

    1. Divine Fatherhood:

    The motive and impulse of Fatherhood which result in adoption were eternally real and active in God. In some sense He had bestowed the adoption upon Israel (Romans 9:4). "Israel is my son, my first-born" (Exodus 4:22; compare Deuteronomy 14:1; 32:6; Jeremiah 31:9; Hosea 11:1). God could not reveal Himself at all without revealing something of His Fatherhood, but the whole revelation was as yet partial and prophetic. When "God sent forth his Son" to redeem them that were under the law," it became possible for men to receive the adoption; for to those who are willing to receive it, He sent the Spirit of the eternal Son to testify in their hearts that they are sons of God, and to give them confidence and utterance to enable them to call God their Father (Galatians 4:5,6; Romans 8:15).

    2. Its Cosmic Range:

    But this experience also is incomplete, and looks forward to a fuller adoption in the response, not only of man's spirit, but of the whole creation, including man's body, to the Fatherhood of God (Romans 8:23). Every filial spirit now groans, because it finds itself imprisoned in a body subjected to vanity, but it awaits a redemption of the body, perhaps in the resurrection, or in some final consummation, when the whole material creation shall be transformed into a fitting environment for the sons of God, the creation itself delivered from the bondage of corruption into the liberty of the glory of the children of God (Romans 8:21). Then will adoption be complete, when man's whole personality shall be in harmony with the spirit of sonship, and the whole universe favorable to its perseverance in a state of blessedness.



    Lightfoot, Galatians; Sanday, Romans; Lidgett, Fatherhood of God; Ritschl, Justification and Reconciliation.

    T. Rees

    Copyright Statement
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    Bibliography Information
    Orr, James, M.A., D.D. General Editor. "Entry for 'ADOPTION'". "International Standard Bible Encyclopedia". 1915.  

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