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In The Father’s House: Huiothesia

Painting by Karen Whistler (inspired by 1 John 3:1)

Has anyone ever made a casual comment that sent you spiraling into deep thought? This happened to me last October when a friend of mine offhandedly mentioned that I was “just like my father”. I thought the comment was somewhat humorous at first, because my dad and I are not strikingly similar in terms of physical appearance, but I realized that when it comes to our personality and mannerisms, we are very alike. We share the same sense of humor and similar interests in history and film, not to mention the fact that we are both very extroverted and outgoing. Still, I thought to myself, Is it not crazy that people who know my father can tell that I am his daughter just by how I act? Then an idea began to form in my mind (I call this my spiritual light bulb): If I am a daughter of God through Christ, can people tell that I am his daughter by how I act? Do I carry myself like a daughter of the King?

As I am often prone to do, I began to study what it means to be a child of God and how I am called to be like my heavenly father. Two and a half months of sporadic research later, I want to share what I have learned with you.

In Romans 8, Paul writes that those who are in Christ are sons of God, adopted into his family:

For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. 15 The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba,Father.” 16 The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. 17 Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.

Romans 8:14-17

Whenever I had read this passage in the past, I had always assumed that the adoption Paul was talking about was much like our modern concept of adoption today- A child, having either been given up by their parents or separated from their parents by death, is given a new permanent home in a another family. However, the adoption that Paul is talking about here is nothing like our modern American process; It is much deeper.

In this passage (and in four other passages in scripture – Rom. 8:23, Rom. 9:4, Gal. 4:5, and Eph. 1:5) Paul uses the Greek word υἱοθεσία [huiothesia] to describe spiritual adoption. Literally meaning “to place as a son”, this word refers to the contemporary Roman** practice of adoption that his readers would have immediately recognized.

In Roman society, senators, nobles, and other members of the wealthy elite class, would sometimes find themselves without an heir for various reasons, and it was common practice in this case to adopt an eligible young man to take the position of a son. Reasons for adoption could include the desire for an heir, continuance of the family name and status, or the desire to have a family member who would care for his aging parents. Unlike modern adoptions, the adoptee was rarely a child and seldom an orphan. The adoptee would usually be an adult male (there were technically no legal stipulations for age, as long as there adoptee was younger than the adopter; sometimes the adoptee would already be married and have a family) and come from a slightly lower class family friend of the adopter. This makes sense, as adopting an adult would take away the unpredictability of taking in a stray child, giving the adopter time to study the young man’s life choices and personality to judge whether the adoptee was fit to become part of the family. In many cases, the choice of who to adopt was based on merit, aptitude, and the candidate’s potential for gathering family honor.

Within this framework, the Roman’s had two types of adoption:

  1. Adoptio- The Adoptee is under the care and authority of another before the adoption
  2. Adrogatio- The adoptee was independent prior to the adoption.

If the young man was already part of a family or had some other authority over him before the adoption, the father who wished to adopt him had to symbolically purchase him from his previous guardian, and legally, in the presence of witnesses, take the man as his own.

“But weren’t there any restrictions to this adoption process?” you may be asking. Well yes, there was. A man could legally adopt anyone (young or old, male or female), but there was one condition- the adoptee had to be a Roman citizen. If the candidate for adoption was a foreigner, forget it! But strangely, even slaves, who were not Roman citizens, could be adopted. How? Adopting a slave was a more complicated process, but one which Fathers would sometimes go through. To adopt a slave, the adopter first had to purchase the man, and then set him free, after which he would be given citizenship as a freedman. Then the adoption process could proceed normally.

The comparison Paul makes here would have been clear to his readers: Just as a Roman man would adopt a son to become his heir and represent him, God has spiritually adopted us as his children to do the same. Yet Paul makes clear that our adoption as sons was no ordinary adoption.

First of all, God did not need a son, because he already had one. For a Roman, the idea of adoption would only be entertained if the Father was not able to have a son and their were no other female children to marry an uncle or cousin and carry on the family name. However, the Lord had absolutely no need of an heir. Within himself, in the person of Jesus Christ, God already had a son who was the epitome of perfection. Why would he wish to adopt us?

Even if God had needed a son, humanity was not a prime candidate. We were slaves to sin, the lowest of the low. Galatians 4:3 says that we “were in bondage under elements of the world” and Romans 7:23 confirms that we were brought “into captivity to the law of sin which is in [our] members”. You can practically hear the Roman readers gasping. Surely the God of the heavens would choose a noble, righteous man to be his son. Surely he would not be so desperate as to purchase slaves of sin and adopt them.

Not only we we slaves, but we were completely and totally unrighteous. There was nothing in us that would merit favor. Romans 3:23 says that “all have sinned and fallen short of the Glory of God.” While Romans would choose their future son’s carefully based on merit and personality, there was no reason for God to choose us. Why on earth would the God of the universe want to take on the responsibility of being the father of a people he knew were rebellious and sinful?

Here is where Paul rejoices in sharing the incredible news with his Roman listners: God is not like humans; his ways are not their ways, and his thoughts are not their thoughts. He does not follow human customs or traditions. While God’s spiritual adoption of believers may be the same as Roman practices in procedure, it is vastly different in its manner, for it is rooted in grace, not in works or necessity.

Listen to what Paul proclaims in Romans 8:2-4

because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.

Romans 8:2-4

And listen again to his words in Galatians:

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.

Galatians 4:3-7

God symbolically and literally purchased us, just as a Roman would purchase a slave, by the shed blood of Jesus on the cross. This was the highest price he could have paid, and he was willing to pay it so that we could be freed and given the privileged of being adopted into son-ship with Christ. Here is the amazing thing: By the grace of God we are not adopted based on our merit, but based on the merit of Jesus.

But why? Why would God go through all of this for us? Paul’s Roman readers were probably wondering the same thing, so Paul concludes Romans 8 with this statement:

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?……No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Romans 8:36, 38-39

Why did God adopt a bunch of messy, wildly rebellious slaves as his Children? The answer is the same one that rings throughout scripture, from Genesis 1 to the end of Revelation: Love.

So here is the question: Do we as Christians recognize the depth of the gift of our adoption and live as people who are radically loved by God and treasured as sons?

Join me next week as we delve into the what it looks like to live as a son or daughter of God, in light of our adoption.

**Footnote: For a discussion of Why Paul chooses to use Roman customs here rather than Jewish customs, and to explore how the concepts of messianic succession and kinsman redeemers are related to adoption, see the bonus blog post in this series (which will come out in a few weeks)


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