The Doctrine of Adoption by Martyn Lloyd Jones
All the passages below are taken from Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ book “God the Holy Spirit.” The sermon was preached at Westminister Chapel, London, from 1952 to 1955 and first published in 1997 and this edition in 2002.
In the last lecture we saw how that great doctrine which was the great battle cry of the Reformation—justification by faith—is still, in many senses, the most vital and important doctrine for us to grasp and to understand. We now come to a consideration of some of the things to which justification leads, and among them is the biblical doctrine of adoption.
Now we must not stay with this, but I do beg of you again to consider the order of these doctrines, and to notice that the doctrine of adoption comes at this particular point. Here again we have a most glorious subject which is most encouraging and comforting to the believer. And yet, once more, for some inexplicable reason, it is a doctrine about which we very rarely hear. How often have you heard addresses or sermons on it? Why is it that, even as evangelical people, we neglect, and indeed seem to be unaware of, some of these most comforting and encouraging doctrines which are to be found in the Scriptures?
So, then, let us approach this doctrine by first of all considering the Scriptures in which the term is mentioned. Turn first to Romans 9:4, where we read these words: `Who are Israelites; to whom pertaineth the adoption, and the glory, and the convenants, and the giving of the law, and the service of God, and the promises.’ The Apostle is there referring to his kinsmen according to the flesh—the Jews, the Israelites—and I will show you later why I put that particular quotation before the next which comes from Romans 8:15: `For ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear,’ says the Apostle, `but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father.’ In verse 23 of that same chapter Paul uses the term again, when he is talking about this day that is to come. He says that `the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now. And not only they, but ourselves also, which have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body.’ Then the next time we find the term is in Galatians 4:4-5. Paul is talking about how `when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law’—for this reason—`to redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons.’ And there is another reference to it in Ephesians 1:5: `Having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of his will.’
There, then, are our Scriptures, and it is our business now to discover what exactly they mean and what this term `adoption’ represents. So, as we come to a definition, we had best perhaps, first of all, look at it from the standpoint of the etymology—the root meaning of the word—and it is this: the placing of a son. But in ancient languages it also came to mean something which it still means with us, namely, the transfer from one family to another and the placing of the one who has been so transferred as a son or daughter in the new, the second family.
Now if that is the primary, fundamental meaning of the term, that, at once, brings us to a consideration of the meaning of the term `son’ and especially the meaning of the term as used in Scripture. As you go through the Bible you will find that `son’ is used in the following ways: in the singular it invariably refers to the Lord Jesus Christ and to Him alone. He is the Son. Sometimes He is even referred to without the indefinite article as Son. He stands alone, in that sense, as the Son of God.
The term is also used in the plural of angels, and one gathers from the way in which it is so used and from the context that this is because the angels are God’s favoured creatures, and because, in the matter of intelligence and in certain other respects, they are like God Himself. The term is applied to angels in that way in Job chapters 1 and 6.
Then, in the third place, there is a very interesting use of this term `sons’ in Psalm 82:6 where it is applied to human magistrates: `I have said, Ye are gods; and all of you are children of the most High.’ That is a very important statement because you will recall that in John 10:34 our Lord Himself quoted it when certain people objected to the fact that He was claiming to be the Son of God. Clearly it means that magistrates are sons of God in the sense that authority has been delegated to them from God and that, therefore, in the exercise of their magisterial functions, they are doing something that God Himself does.
The fourth use of this term refers to men and women as subjects of divine adoption; and here we must divide it up into general and special adoption. In the statement in Romans 9:4 Paul is referring to the nation of Israel. He says in verses 2-4: `I have great heaviness and continual sorrow in my heart’ for `I could wish that myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh: Who are Israelites; to whom pertaineth the adoption . . .’ In a sense, that is a reference to Exodus 4:22 where God addresses the nation of Israel and tells them that He is adopting them as His son. Adoption is a term, therefore, that can be used in general of the nation of Israel. They were God’s particular people. That is why, in speaking through Amos, God said to them, `You only have I known of all the families [the nations] of the earth.’ Of course, He knew about all the other nations but He had a special interest in Israel. As a nation, they were the son of God. But the special use of this term is spiritual, and that is our primary concern—God adopting certain people to become His sons in a spiritual manner.
Now there are two points which I must take up here. I do so not because they are essential to a positive exposition, but because they are so frequently raised as arguments. They cause such confusion, that it becomes essential that we should consider them. There are those, for instance, who say that Scripture teaches us that all men and women are the children of God. Such people believe in what they call the universal fatherhood of God and the universal brotherhood of all men and they claim that the Scriptures which support their contention are the following: first of all, a statement in Acts 17:24-29, where the apostle Paul, speaking in Athens, uses the phrase, `For we are also his offspring.’ Now that is a very important statement. Paul is telling the Athenians about this God whom they ignorantly worship—they called him `the unknown god’—and this is what he says:
God that made the world and all things therein, seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands; neither is worshipped with men’s hands, as though he needed any thing, seeing he giveth to all life, and breath, and all things; and hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation; that they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after him, and find him, though he be not far from every one of us: For in him we live, and move, and have our being; as certain also of your own poets have said, For we are also his offspring. Forasmuch then as we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Godhead is like unto gold, or silver …
The second Scripture which these people quote is Hebrews 12:9 where the writer is exhorting us to be obedient and not to grumble at the chastisement of God. He says that we have all subjected ourselves to our earthly parents, and then he argues, `Shall we not much rather be in subjection unto the Father of spirits [which means the father of all spirits] and live?’ And again, in James 1:17, we find a reference to God as `the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow or turning.’ So what do we say to this contention that God is the Father of all men and that all men and women are therefore the children of God?
Our first answer is that these very scriptures clearly refer to the relationship of God to all people in creation and in providence only. They are very similar to 1 Timothy 4:10 where we are told that God is `the Saviour of all men, specially of those that believe.’ It is the same kind of distinction. God is the creator of all humanity. In that sense He is the Father of the spirits of all people, but it has nothing to do with redemption and with the special relationship of God to men and women in terms of adopting them as children.
That is a distinction which you find everywhere in Scripture. We have already seen that in the Old Testament God regards Israel as His son in a special way. It is because of this that He says, `You only have I known of all the families of the earth’ (Amos 3:2). But you get this distinction especially in the New Testament. For instance, in John 1:12 we read, `But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name.’ Obviously, therefore, the people who are given this power or right or authority to become sons of God are in an entirely different category from others who do not believe. These are those who believe in his name, and the adoption only happens to them, not to the others.
Take also Romans 8:15: `For ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father.’ Who is Paul writing to? Only to Christians, only to believers. He is not writing a general letter to the world, but a special letter to those who believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, who are in Christ, and who have the Spirit of Christ.
Our Lord put it like this to the unbelieving Jews who had said that they were all children of God: `If God were your Father,’ He said, ‘ye would love me’ (John 8:42). But then He was more specific and said, ‘Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do’ (v. 44). Surely that one verse alone is more than enough to demonstrate the case that not all men and women are the children of God in this special sense. Our Lord Himself draws that sharp distinction. And the apostle Paul in the epistle to the Ephesians says that we were all `by nature the children of wrath, even as others’ (Ephesian 2:3). And it is only those who have been quickened with Christ who have become the children of God.
I could adduce many other Scriptures which show exactly the same thing, but those are enough. Indeed, any one of them is enough. There is a sharp distinction between the children of God and the children of this world. `The whole world,’ says John in the first epistle, `lieth in wickedness’ but, `we are of God’ (1 John 5:19). It is a distinction that is found everywhere, so we must reject this notion of the universal fatherhood of God and the universal brotherhood of man.
The second point is the whole question of the relationship of our sonship to our Lord’s Sonship. This, again, is very important. In becoming the children of God we do not become identical with the Lord Jesus Christ. He is the God-man, very God of very God and perfect man, perfect God, perfect man. We are not made gods. When we become children of God we do not become God in the sense that our Lord was. Our Lord Himself was very careful to emphasise that distinction. Take, for instance, what He said in giving His disciples the model prayer. He said, `After this manner therefore pray ye’ (Matthew 6:9). He did not include Himself. That is how you and I are to pray, and we say, `Our Father’. He is not included with us, He did not pray that particular prayer.
But after His resurrection, our Lord made a still more specific statement. He said to one of the women, `Go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God’ (John 20:17). Why did He divide it up in that way? The reason is, obviously, that He was anxious to preserve this distinction. He did not say, `I ascend unto our God and unto our Father.’ No, He is the only begotten, He Is the Son of God by generation; we are sons of God by adoption. And that is a most essential distinction.
This enables us to go a step further in our exact definition of what is meant by the adoption. We can describe it, therefore, as that judicial act of God by which He confers or bestows upon us the status or the standing of children. That is its real meaning. And I am anxious to stress the fact that it is a distinct and a special movement, or division, of the work of the Holy Spirit in the application of redemption. It must be differentiated from all the other acts and yet we must not separate it. It is a distinct step but it is not an entirely separate step, as I have been emphasising. There is a sense in which these things, as it were, happen all together—regeneration and faith and justification, and so on. The same applies to this great act of adoption, and yet, for the sake of clear thinking, we must differentiate in our minds between these things. Adoption is not the same as justification; it is not even a part of justification, but is quite separate. In justification, you remember, we found that God declares us to be righteous; it is a declaratory, a forensic act. He declares that our sins are forgiven and that He accepts the righteousness of Christ which He has put upon us. So justification is not adoption. In the same way, we must be clear that adoption and regeneration are not synonymous. In regeneration we are given the new nature; we become partakers of the divine nature. We become new creations, new creatures. But that is not adoption.
In a sense, adoption is a combination of justification and regeneration. It is the new creature in a new relationship to God—as a child of God.Adoption is more than justification, it is more than regeneration, but it includes them both. Here is the man or woman with the new nature, declared to be just and free from the law and its condemnation, and to be positively righteous. Yes, but, in addition to all that, now declared to be a child of God. In a sense, again, it is a judicial act and another proclamation. But it proclaims something new, something different. By adoption, then, we become the children of God and are introduced into and given the privileges that belong to members of God’s family.
Now once more, unfortunately, I must turn aside and say something negative, which I shall put in the form of a question. Does this adoption apply to all Christians or only to some? Is there a distinction between being children of God and sons of God? I have to deal with this subject because there are two groups which teach that all Christians are children of God but that only some are sons of God. What is their attempt at a justification for that statement? Their main evidence, they say, is Matthew 5:9: `Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called sons of God.’ Now they get that in the Revised Version. In the Authorised [King James] Version the translation is `children of God’. Now, they say, our Lord was preaching there to those who were believers and were therefore children of God—shown by the fact that He taught them to say, `Our Father’. Yes, but it is only the people who act as peacemakers who become sons of God. That is the argument.
Then they say that in verse 45 of that same Sermon on the Mount, our Lord exhorted us not only to love those who love us but also to love our enemies: `I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; that ye may be sons of your Father which is in heaven.’ Again, that is the Revised Version, while the Authorised Version reads, `That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven.’ We do not dispute that they are quite right in translating it as `sons’, but they say that while all Christians are children, it is only those who love their enemies who become sons.
Then their next piece of evidence is in Luke 20:36 where our Lord is dealing with a question about the resurrection. The problem put to Him was about what would happen to a woman who had married a whole series of brothers. In the Revised Version the passage ends by saying that in the resurrection they are as the sons of God: `being sons of the resurrection’. Now that, say the proponents of this view, only applies to certain people. Furthermore, they try to argue that in Galatians 3 and 4, where Paul reminds the Galatians that whereas they were children under the law, they are now, as the result of the work of Christ and the giving of the Spirit, sons of God (see, for example, Galations 4:6-7). There again, they say, we find that same distinction. The Old Testament saints were only children of God; the New Testament saints, some of them who realise this, can become sons of God. And on the basis of this argument they say that not only is it true that not all Christians are sons of God, but it is only those who behave in this particular way who do become sons of God.
In other words, they say that by grace we are all children, but that becoming sons is not a matter of grace, but of application—making an effort, loving your enemies, being peacemakers and so on—and that if we only do these things we will then become sons of God. This is not of grace but of effort and of activity on the part of the believer. And they even go so far as to say that Christians who are merely children will not take part in the first resurrection but only the sons, and that it is only the sons who will spend their eternity in the immediate presence of the Lord—the children will not have that privilege. Children will be in the new heavens and the new earth, but they will not be in our Lord’s immediate presence.
You may be astonished to hear that there is such a teaching, but there is, and it is put forward by Christian people. But it is just another instance of the way in which, if we become over interested in words and in mechanics, we can end by wresting the Scriptures from their true meaning, and doing them grave injustice, because, surely, this is an utterly artificial and, indeed, false distinction. I can demonstrate that from the very eighth chapter of Romans, which they are also so fond of quoting. I suggest to you that the very use of the terms in verses 15, 16 and 17 falsifies their entire argument: `For ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father. The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are sons of God’—that is the Revised Version. Then it goes on—`and if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ.’ Surely it is obvious that the Apostle is there using the two terms interchangeably.
But take again Paul’s words in Galatians 3:26: `For in Christ Jesus,’ he says, `we are all sons of God through faith.’ That is the Revised Version. Who are the we? All Christians. And in Galatians 4:4-7, he is again speaking, not of some special Christians, but of all Christians, even of these Galatian Christians who are going into error in certain respects. They are `the sons of God,’ Paul says; not only some of them, all of them. And in the same way in Ephesians 1, he is referring again to all believers, all Christians. All who are saved and redeemed by the blood of Christ are redeemed unto the adoption of children.
And perhaps the most significant thing of all is that the word that is rightly translated `sons’—and not `children’, because there are two different words in the Greek—that word is never applied to believers in any of the writings of the apostle John. In his Gospel and in his epistles the apostle John always refers to believers as children. He never uses the precise term `sons’, but obviously the whole time he is describing us in the position of sons and of those who have been adopted into sonship. Now it is quite inconceivable that the apostle John would have done that if there is this vital distinction between sons and children. According to that argument, the apostle John had never realised that Christians are sons of God, he simply regarded them as children of God and, therefore, in his teaching he was depriving them of this special position which they claim the apostle Paul teaches with respect to them. So I conclude that taking the writings of Paul himself, this is an utterly artificial, false and meaningless distinction which is pernicious in its implications and teaching. And when you look at it from the standpoint of the whole of Scripture, and especially the writings of John, it is seen to be completely and entirely untenable.
So let me come to something more important and more interesting. What are the proofs that any one of us can have that we have been adopted? Well, you can find the scriptural proof. `For ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus’ (Galatians 3:26). Also in 1 Peter 1:3-6 you find it again: we have been begotten again `unto a lively hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance incorruptible, and undefiled, and that fadeth not away, reserved in heaven for you’—for us who believe in Him. We are the inheritance, that is the children. It is for all of us who believe in Christ.
Then the second way of assurance is that we are given `the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father’ (Romans 8:15); `we receive the adoption of sons’ (Galations 4:5). You can be assured of the fact that you have received the adoption because you know that the Holy Spirit is dwelling within you. We saw the evidence for that earlier, so you can work it out. Especially we have His testimony with our spirits that we are the children of God. If we have that testimony of the Spirit with our spirit, it is an absolute proof that we have received the adoption.
And then last of all I would put the fact that we are led by the Spirit. That is Paul’s argument: `For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God’ (Romans 8:14). Paul does not say `As many as are actively acting as peacemakers or who are loving their enemies . . .’ No! `As many as are led by the Spirit of God’; those who subject themselves to His leading and who rejoice in being led by Him, they are the sons of God.
There, then, are the proofs. Now, finally, let us consider the results of our adoption. First, if we have the Spirit of adoption, we have lost `the spirit of bondage again to fear’ (Romans 8:15). Positively, in the second place, we have been given a spirit of liberty. In other words, we are no longer afraid of the law and its condemnation; we are no longer afraid of death; we are enjoying something of the glorious liberty of the children of God. Again, thirdly, I would remind you that we receive this spirit of adoption through the indwelling Spirit.
But then, in addition, there are these results: because we have been adopted into God’s family, we are entitled to bear His name. We can say that we are the children of God. We are members of the household of God. We belong to God’s family. God’s name is upon us. He has said, `I will be your God, and ye shall be my people’ (Leviticus 26:12). We are His people. You remember that Peter applies to Christians what God had said to the nation of Israel of old (1 Peter 2:9-10).
What else? Well, the fifth benefit is that we enjoy the present protection and consolation which God alone can give, and the provision that He makes for His children. `Even the very hairs of your head are all numbered’ (Luke 12:7); nothing can happen to us apart from Him. Think of those gracious and glorious promises which are given to the children and which we prove to be true in experience: protection, consolations and the perfect provision for our every need. He has said, `I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee’ (Hebrew 13:5)—come what may.
The next benefit, at first, is not so pleasurable—fatherly chastisements. That is the whole argument of the first half of Hebrews 12: `For whom the Lord loveth, he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth’ (v. 6). The argument is that if we are not receiving chastisement, then, we are not sons, but bastards. If we are children of God, He will chastise us for our good: `Now no chastisement for the present seemeth to be joyous, but grievous: nevertheless afterwards it yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness unto them which are exercised thereby’ (v. 11). So that this is a very definite result of our adoption. If we are children of God, He is determined to bring us to glory and if we will not listen to His leading and teaching, He will chastise us because He loves us and because we are His sons. Because He has set His love and affection upon us, He is going to bring us through. So He chastises His children, but not those who are not children.
The next is this: heirship. `And if children, then heirs, heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ’ (Romans 8:17). What a wonderful argument! It is because we have been adopted into the family of God and are declared to be children, that we are the heirs of God and joint-heirs with Christ. The inheritance is certain.
The last point is the certainty and the security of it all. Yes, says Peter, you have been called to this `inheritance incorruptible, and undefiled, and that fadeth not away, reserved in heaven for you’ (1 Peter 1:4), and therefore secure. Paul has said the same thing in Romans 8:38-39: `I am persuaded, that neither death nor life … shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.’ If God has adopted you into His family, if you are a child of God, your destiny is secure, it is certain.
Things future, nor things that are now,
Nor all things below nor above,
Can make Him His purpose forego,
Or sever my soul from His love.
It is a guarantee. If God has taken me into the family I am not only a child, I am an heir, and nothing, and no one can ever rob me of the inheritance.
As I said at the beginning, this is a most consoling, comforting and encouraging doctrine. Is it not a tragedy that it is neglected, that men and women stop at forgiveness, or even at sanctification, and fail to realise that this is the thing that ever reminds us, directly, of our relationship to God and of the wonderful inheritance, the indescribable glory for which we are destined? We are saved unto this adoption of children. Not merely forgiven; not merely declared righteous; not merely with this new nature. Above, beyond, in addition to that we are declared to be the children of God—sons of God, heirs of God, joint-heirs with the only begotten Son of God. (182-192)