Article of the Month





Salvation - Adoption by God
by Dr. Paul M. Elliott


1 - What Does It Mean to Be Adopted by God?

This precious doctrine is often neglected in contemporary preaching. In a three-part series we shall examine three related questions: How are believers adopted by God? What does adoption mean for the believer’s present life? What does adoption mean for the life to come? We’ll also examine some current false teachings about adoption.

A Key Passage

One of the key passages that presents this wonderful doctrine is Galatians 3:26-4:7 -

For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ [this speaks of Spirit baptism, not water baptism] have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.

Now I say that the heir, as long as he is a child, does not differ at all from a slave, though he is master of all, but is under guardians and stewards until the time appointed by the father. Even so we, when we were children, were in bondage under the elements of the world. But when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption as sons.

And because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into your hearts, crying out, “Abba, Father!” Therefore you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ.

Believers Are Legally Adopted

So how is it that we are adopted by God? How has it come about, and what does it involve?

Adoption is a legal act of God on our behalf, in the same way as justification. Justification is legal language in Scripture. We stand before the judgment bar of God as hopeless sinners, condemned to death, with nothing to offer for our own redemption. But Christ comes and stands before His Father at the judgment bar, and offers His perfect righteousness - His full atonement for our sins and His perfect keeping of God’s law - as our substitute. And so God the Father declares us not guilty. Not because we paid the penalty. Not because we have a righteousness of our own. Only because of the perfect and complete work of His Son Jesus Christ on our behalf. And so, legally, we stand before God clothed in the righteousness of Christ.

In the same way, adoption is legal language in Scripture. We see this in the passage we just read in Galatians. Notice chapter four, verses four and five: “But when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption as sons.”

Believers Are Adopted Sons

Note that we are adopted as sons. And we need to be very careful here to say what Scripture actually says, and to understand why it says it. Today many people want us to use so-called gender-neutral versions of the Bible that remove all the masculine and feminine references. That may be politically correct in some circles, but it is not Biblically correct. We must completely reject that kind of thinking.

And here in this passage we have one of the strongest arguments. The wording here is clearly masculine. The word is huiothesia. It means, literally, “to be placed as a son.” And in Galatians 4:4 the word is translated “the adoption of sons.” The word is clearly masculine. Not merely adoption as children, not as sons and daughters, but adoption as sons. Yes, God created us male and female. But as it concerns our redemption, we who are in Christ, men and women and boys and girls alike, are adopted by God as sons - in that sense, as Paul says, “there is neither male nor female.”

Why is that important? We need to remember that Paul is writing to people who were under the rule of the Roman Empire. They were subject to Roman law. Although we do see forms of adoption practiced in the Old Testament, there was no mention of precisely this kind of adoption in the Mosaic law. The picture that Paul by the Holy Spirit is using here in Galatians is definitely the Roman law of adoption of sons, because that is what the people who received this letter would have understood.

And adoption as a son in Roman law was something very specific. Adoption as a son in Roman law meant that you had the right to the name and the citizenship of the person who adopted you, and the right to inherit his property. The adopted son had the same rights and privileges as a naturally born son. These were rights that were not granted to an adopted daughter. And the law also granted the one who adopted that son the full rights and responsibilities of a father, full authority over the adopted son, and full responsibility to care for him. So it worked both ways.

Believers Are Adopted Through the Only Begotten Son

And how is it that God has brought this kind of adoption about for us as believers? Well, again, our passage tells us, beginning at verse four: “But when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into your hearts, crying out, `Abba, Father!’ Therefore you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ.”

And we read the same thing in Romans chapter three, verses 23 to 25: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith.”

So we are justified by the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, and we are also adopted by the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. The one transaction, redeeming us, buying us out of the slave market of sin - that is the picture here - that one transaction between God the Son and God the Father has wrought both legal acts on our behalf: justification and adoption. Not only have we been declared not guilty by God the Judge, but God the Judge has adopted us as His own sons!

The Condemning Judge Is Now Our Loving Father

What a turnabout! We were on our way to Hell. We were without God, without hope in the world. Lost, spiritually dead. Totally unable to save ourselves. Filthy with sin. Guilty through and through. Condemned to eternal death. The righteous Judge has pronounced the sentence against us according to His perfect Law, and all that waited was for us to be cast into Hell.

But then - God’s only begotten Son comes, and in one great transaction He not only causes the Judge who condemns us to declare us not guilty, but He also causes the Judge who had condemned us to adopt us as His own sons! What indescribable grace! What infinite mercy! The Apostle John marvels at it in his first epistle: “Behold what manner of love the Father has bestowed on us, that we should be called the sons of God!” Unbelievable. We could not believe it were possibly true, if God’s Word did not tell us that it is so.

“Behold, what manner of love” John says. Behold! Comprehend the meaning of it! Understand what has been done for you! Rejoice in it! Glory in it! Rest in it! Live in it! God your condemning Judge is now God your loving Father!

The Believer’s Adoption Is Eternally Secure

And this adoption as sons of God is secure. John 1:12 tells us, “As many as received Him, to them he gave the right, the authority, to become the children of God, even to those who believe on His name.” We have the right to be called the sons of God, because that is in fact what we are, and no one can take it from us. God says, “I, even I, am the LORD, and besides Me there is no Savior.and there is no one who can deliver out of My hand.” No one can take you out of the hand of God. And that verse in Isaiah continues, “I work, and who will reverse it?” “I work,” God says, “and who will reverse it?” No one will.

A False Teaching About Adoption

There is a false teaching in some circles today about the doctrine of adoption. It says that we are saved by being united with Christ through water baptism. And it says that we get the benefits of salvation through that union. It says that Jesus was justified, so we are justified. Jesus was sanctified, so we are sanctified. Jesus was adopted, so we are adopted. And, this false doctrine goes on to say that we can lose all of that if we don’t stay saved by keeping the law.

This is wrong on so many levels. First of all, we are not saved by water baptism, but by faith in the person and work of Christ. And Scripture never says that Jesus was justified, so therefore we are justified; or that Jesus was adopted by the Father, so therefore we are adopted. Jesus is the God the Son. He is sinless. Always was. But this false doctrine takes Jesus off His throne as God the Son and makes Him nothing more than the first Christian. Jesus is God. He didn’t need to be justified or sanctified. And He didn’t need to be adopted. Scripture makes it clear that Jesus is the only begotten Son of God. We are the ones who are adopted sons of God according to Scripture.

And we can’t lose our adoption. The way these false teachers have it, it’s as though God is saying, “If you don’t behave yourself, I’ll tear up the adoption papers and put you out into the street. You’ll no longer be my son.” But that’s not what Scripture says. Scripture says that what God has done will never be reversed, and not only that, by the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit He will cause us to walk in a way that is worthy of the name, “son of God.”

2 - New Privileges, New Relationships, New Responsibilities

What does adoption mean for the saints during this present life?

A New Relationship with God the Father

First, we have a new relationship with God the Father. Because of what Christ has done, God the condemning Judge is now God our loving Father. He is not only “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” as Scripture tells us in several places, but He is the God and Father of us all, Paul tells us in Ephesians chapter four, because we are in Christ. When Jesus met Mary Magdalene after His resurrection He said to her in John chapter 20, “Do not cling to Me, for I have not yet ascended to My Father; but go to My brethren and say to them, `I am ascending to My Father and your Father, and to My God and your God.’”

Scripture tells us that because of our adoption, God our Father is now approachable. Through the intercession of the risen Christ, seated at His right hand, we have access to the Father. When Jesus taught His disciples how to pray, He taught them to pray, “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name.” And so the writer to the Hebrews tells us, “Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” God our Father wants us to come to Him. He wants us to fellowship with Him. He wants to care for us. He hears and answers prayer.

He is also, as we read in Hebrews chapter 12, a Father who corrects us when we need it. And he does that with far more wisdom and patience and infinite love than any earthly father ever could. And Hebrews tells us that the fact that God does correct us is proof that we are truly His adopted sons.

And He is also the Father that Jesus described to us in the parable of the prodigal son. When the son who had strayed from the father’s house repented and came back, and said, “Father treat me as one of your servants, I’m no long worthy to be called your son,” the father rejoiced that his son had repented and returned. The prodigal son never stopped being a son. But because he was truly a son, even though he had strayed, he returned to the father’s house.

A New Relationship with God the Son

Secondly, because of adoption we have a new relationship with God the Son. Not only is He our Savior, the One who paid for our justification, but He is now also our Brother. We see this in Hebrews chapter two, beginning with verse 10, where we read of the Lord Jesus:

For it was fitting for Him, for whom are all things and by whom are all things, in bringing many sons to glory, to make the captain of their salvation perfect (that is, complete) through sufferings. For both He who sanctifies and those who are being sanctified are all of one, for which reason He is not ashamed to call them brethren, saying: “I will declare Your name to My brethren; In the midst of the assembly I will sing praise to You.” And again:”I will put My trust in Him.” And again: “Here am I and the children whom God has given Me.”

One day in glory the Lord Jesus Christ will present us to His Father, saying, “Father, here are the brothers You have given Me, safe at home, safe at last, safe before your throne, safe for all eternity. And I haven’t lost even one that you gave me. All of my adopted brothers are here.”

A New Relationship with God the Holy Spirit

Thirdly, adoption means a new relationship with God the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit indwells every believer. He comes and brings us to spiritual life by the work of calling us and regenerating us, and He takes up residence within us.

We read in Romans 8 that this has something very specific to do with our adoption. Scripture calls God the Holy Spirit “the Spirit of adoption.” Actually in Romans 8 it reads, “the Spirit of the adoption.” And in Ephesians one Paul writes, “Having believed, you were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession, to the praise of His glory.” What Paul is saying is that as adopted sons of God we have the promise of an inheritance, and God the Holy Spirit taking up residence in our hearts when we are converted is the guarantee that God, without fail, will give us that inheritance when we reach heaven.

Also, the Holy Spirit within us bears witness with us that we are the sons of God. In Romans 8 beginning at verse 14 we read, “For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God. 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.” The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs - heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.”

It is by the Spirit of adoption that we cry out, “Abba, Father.” We can speak to God the Father through the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Holy Spirit on the most intimate and personal terms. We can tell Him all that is on our hearts, as a trusting child comes to an earthly father to tell him everything - the things that give us joy, the things that worry us, the things that hurt us, the things that we are thankful for, the things we need, our deepest thoughts, our deepest desires, the sins we wrestle with - we can bring them all to our loving Father, and know that He will hear us with a heart of love and kindness.

New Relationships with Other People - Both Saved and Unsaved

And fourthly, adoption involves a new relationship with other people. There are two aspects to this. First, those who, like us, are adopted sons of God are our brothers in Christ. Not just the ones next to you but the ones in the next town and the next state and the next country and all around the world, and even the ones that have gone on before us to glory and are at this moment in the presence of the Lord.

And as brethren with all believers we have a new name. We have His name. In Ephesians chapter three Paul tells us that the entire family of God -- those who are already in heaven from the fall onward, those now on earth, those yet to come -- all have the name of Christ. That is our family name. We are Christians. And only those who are truly believers in the Lord Jesus Christ and Him alone for their salvation, have the right to be called Christians.

This also means that we have a new relationship with unbelievers. They are no longer our brothers. They are still in Adam. They are still dead in their sins. We are no longer part of that family. We are no longer of the world. We have a different family name, the name of Christ. We have a different set of family interests, centering not in the glory of man but in the glory of God. And God calls us to live as is fitting for our new family name and our new family interests. If any man is in Christ, he is a new creation. We are to be witnesses to the world. If we are truly new creatures in Christ, we will walk the walk. God the Holy Spirit will see to it. He will work that work of sanctification in us.

3 - New Citizenship, New Bodies, A Secure Inheritance

We come now to our last question: What does adoption promise the believer in the life to come? To answer that question it is important for us to understand one other element in the kind of legal adoption that the Apostle Paul speaks of in Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians.

That final important element has three aspects: inheritance rights, citizenship rights and responsibilities, and the restoration of the marred image of God.

A Rich Inheritance

Under the Roman law that Paul is using as his metaphor, the adopted son was given the right to the Father’s property. He was given an inheritance. The father’s property was his by right of adoption. And that is true for us. We have an inheritance. Our inheritance is our Father’s property - all the riches that are in Christ Jesus. The spiritual riches of life in Him now, and the riches of the new heavens and new earth in the life to come. And the Holy Spirit, Ephesians chapter one tells us, is the guarantee or the down-payment of that inheritance.

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love, having predestined us to adoption as sons by Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, by which He made us accepted in the Beloved.

In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace which He made to abound toward us in all wisdom and prudence, having made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure which He purposed in Himself, that in the dispensation of the fullness of the times He might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth - in Him.

In Him also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestined according to the purpose of Him who works all things according to the counsel of His will, that we who first trusted in Christ should be to the praise of His glory. In Him you also trusted, after you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation; in whom also, having believed, you were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession, to the praise of His glory. (Ephesians 1:3-14)

And so the adopted sons of God are continually

giving thanks to the Father who has qualified us to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in the light. He has delivered us from the power of darkness and conveyed us into the kingdom of the Son of His love, in whom we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins. (Colossians 1:12-14)

A New Citizenship

Adoption in Paul’s inspired metaphor also meant that the adopted son held the same citizenship as the father. And we are told that our citizenship is in heaven. That is something else that has changed about us. We not only have a new name and a new family relationship, we also have a new citizenship. We are no longer citizens of the world that is going to perish. We are aliens here. We are citizens of the new world to come. We have the rights of heavenly citizenship, and the responsibility to live like citizens of our Father’s kingdom while in this world which is now alien to us.

For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to His glorious body, according to the working by which He is able even to subdue all things to Himself. Therefore, my beloved and longed-for brethren, my joy and crown, so stand fast in the Lord, beloved. (Philippians 3:20-4:1)

Beloved, I beg you as sojourners and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul, having your conduct honorable among the Gentiles [that is, among the unsaved], that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may, by your good works which they observe, glorify God in the day of visitation [that is, when God brings any of them to faith in Christ because of your witness] (1 Peter 2:11-12).

To Be Like Christ

Scripture tells us one more thing that will be ours because we are adopted sons of God. In 1st John 3:1 we read these glorious words:

Behold what manner of love the Father has bestowed on us, that we should be called children of God! Therefore the world does not know us, because it did not know Him. Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. And everyone who has this hope in Him purifies himself, just as He is pure.

We shall be like Him! The image of God marred at the fall of our first parents shall be restored, and even more! We shall be like the Lord Jesus Christ! We shall behold Him face to face, and we shall be like Him, glorified forever. Sons of God forever. Home in the Father’s house forever. Living forevermore in a new universe where we are not subject to either the power or the presence of sin and death. Perfect, glorified bodies in His likeness. Partaking with Him in the untold glories of the new heavens and new earth forever and ever. How will this come about? Paul tells us:

Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; nor does corruption inherit incorruption. Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed - in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. So when this corruptible has put on incorruption, and this mortal has put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory.”

“O Death, where is your sting? O Hades, where is your victory?” The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor is not in vain in the Lord. (1 Corinthians 15:50-58)

Because These Things Are True...

The Apostle John tells us that “everyone who has this hope in Him purifies himself, just as He is pure” (1st John 3:3). Because we are adopted sons of God, we need to live like it. Not that this saves us, not that this keeps us saved. But we need to understand what is ours. We need to rejoice in it. We need to live in it.

Because these things are true, we need to be purifying ourselves from the things of this world and of this sinful flesh, and turning our hearts more and more toward our loving Heavenly Father and our great Savior the Lord Jesus Christ, living life in this world by the power of the Holy Spirit. Doing all things through Christ, our elder Brother, who strengthens us. May the Lord give us His grace and His power to live in that hope, purifying ourselves, by the power of the Holy Spirit, until the day we see Him face to face, and we shall be like our Savior forevermore. “Therefore, having these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God” (2 Corinthians 7:1).


Dr. Paul M. Elliott Dr. Paul M. Elliott is a founder and president of TeachingTheWord Ministries, and the regular speaker on The Scripture-Driven Church broadcast.

Raised in a Christian home, Dr. Elliott came to personal saving faith in Christ at an early age in the 1960s. He was a manager and consultant in the business world before God called him to the ministry. A frequent conference, seminar, and pulpit speaker, he holds a doctorate in Biblical exegesis, and has written four full-length books and hundreds of articles and booklets. Dr. Elliott and his wife live in Westminster, Maryland and their home church is in nearby Hanover, Pennsylvania.

Founded in 1998, TeachingTheWord is committed to the task of evangelizing the world and edifying the saints, which is Christ's Great Commission. TeachingTheWord seeks to support individual believers and the local church by carefully communicating Biblical truth, and addressing issues confronting individual Christians, families, and churches.

TeachingTheWord's ministry is based on the proposition that Christ's church must be the Scripture-driven church; God's inspired, inerrant Word must be our sole authority, and our infallible critic, in every area of life and ministry.


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