“For you did not receive the spirit of bondage again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption by whom we cry out, ‘Abba, Father!’”
Read Part 1 here.
Writing to Gentile believers who, through faith in Jesus, had been “grafted into” the rich spiritual inheritance of the Israelite nation (Romans 11:17), Paul groped for a Gentile-friendly image to give his message a distinctly “Gentile” punch. The image he landed on was the Roman institution of adoption.
The Mosaic Law didn’t have anything to say about adoption. Roman Law did. According to Roman tradition, a nobleman or aristocrat had the right to confer his titles, his property, and his entire legacy upon anyone he chose – non-relatives included – by way of adoption. In Lew Wallace’s novel Ben-Hur, the tribune Arrius makes the Jewish galley-slave, Judah Ben-Hur, a member of his family by speaking the following words: “Good friends, this is my son and heir, who, as he is to take my property, shall be known to you by my name. I pray you all to love him as you love me.” In the same way, the Emperor Nerva decided a dispute over the succession to the imperial throne simply by mounting the steps of the Capitol and proclaiming aloud, “I adopt Marcus Ulpius Nerva Trajanus.” “Thus,” observes the Roman historian Dio Cassius, “Trajan became Caesar and later emperor” (Roman History, lxvii).
Ben-Hur’s life and fortunes were forever changed when Arrius took him as his son. Nerva foiled and frustrated the aspirations of a whole crowd of imperial rivals and pretenders when he named Trajan as his heir. How was this possible? It’s simple. Under the Roman system, adoption implied complete identification between a father and his adoptive son. The new relationship was understood to be permanent, total, irreversible, and incontestable.
This is the word-picture Paul had in view when he told the Roman Christians – “heathens” formerly excluded from Israel’s spiritual heritage – that in Christ they had received the “Spirit of adoption” (Romans 8:15). This is what he meant when, in his letter to the Galatian church, he wrote, “When the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son … that we might receive the adoption as sons” (Galatians 4:4, 5). This is the message he was trying to communicate when he encouraged the Ephesians with the thought that God had “predestined us to adoption as sons by Jesus Christ to Himself” (Ephesians 1:5). As they read his words, these Gentile believers – men and women born, raised, and nurtured in the context of Roman culture – experienced a kind of epiphany. Suddenly they realized that they too were part of the Chosen People – joint-heirs with Jesus, members of God’s family, and sons of the Everlasting Father.
But that’s not the end of the story. For when he chose to use the image of adoption in this way, Paul did more than simply welcome strangers and aliens into the family of the Covenant. It’s arguable that in doing so he also baptized and sanctified the institution itself. He Christianized the Roman custom of adoption. In effect, he turned it into a kind of sacrament – a living symbol and expression of redeeming grace.
“What a beautiful picture our earthly adoption paints of this even more significant truth of God.”
For more on this theme, watch John Piper’s video, “Adoption is Greater Than the Universe”: