Adoption: Belonging to God's Family

John Gerstner

The first problem we have with being adopted into God's family is that we are born into another family, and we are not up for adoption. As a matter of fact, our father is very much opposed to our adoption and does everything he possibly can to keep us where we were born and see to it that nobody takes us from him.

You might think it strange, especially if this is a change for the better, as it is, that our father would not be more than willing for this transaction to take place and would do everything he could to facilitate it instead of being adamantly opposed to it. But it happens that the family into which we are born has a father who is very determined that we should not leave him under any circumstances and, most of all, that we should not better our condition by actually being adopted into the family of God. Who is our father? I remind you that our father is the devil. For Jesus makes it plain that those who do not believe in him and do not come to him, do so because the devil rather than God is their father (John 8:43, 44). If some of you are shocked to know that you are children of the devil and members of his household and that he has a very formidable grip on you and will by no means let you go if he can possibly prevent it, it is just as well that you should know the worst from the start.

But it is worse than that, for you are not even being held against your will. Jesus says, not only that your father is the devil, but that you want to do his desires which, being translated, means that you are chips off the old satanic block. So in spite of the horror and indignation you feel when you are told your true parentage, you really, inwardly, like it. You don't like some of the things that go with it, but being chips off the old block you really are little devils yourselves.

The Devil's Family

If you think I am exaggerating this, I assure you that it is impossible to exaggerate the depravity with which we come into this world. It is impossible to exaggerate the way in which we resemble our hellish father who so completely dominates us that we actually come to like it. Some may say at this point, "Well, yes, I could see how something like that might happen in terms of our sensuality, especially in an age like this. We are indeed rather devilish in that area." We fancy that there is another aspect to our being, our spiritual nature, and hope that we are not devilish in it. But we are not only devilish in that area; this is the only area in which we really can be devilish.

Note the biblical expression "a carnal mind." It calls our attention to the fact that there is a fleshly or a carnal mind, and it indicates that since the flesh is just an instrument, it is actually because of the mind that this rather innocent body of ours gets into the trouble it does. Our mind is so wicked that it puts our innocent body to evil use all the time.

This is where David Hume may excel John Calvin, for he could describe depravity better even than the great Genevan. As a matter of fact, the difference between Hume and John Calvin was merely that Hume did not recognize that there were any people who did not have a carnal mind. He wrote of the basic characteristic of human nature that it serves the flesh and that all its intellectuality is merely a process of rationalization by which it tries to justify its carnality. He would have taken the Bible's proposition about a carnal mind sitting down, thinking it obvious and almost redundant. He was like so many modern novelists of whom it has been said, "They write as if they had never met a good man or a virtuous woman." (The novelists probably think David Hume was quite right in saying that we are all motivated fundamentally by a carnal drive. The only use we have for our mind is to justify our carnality.)

That is a magnificent description of fallen man. The only trouble with it is that Hume was apparently totally unaware of redeemed and regenerated men. Nevertheless, as a description of fallen man, Calvin cannot touch him. For Hume's is a far more fundamental and devastating critique than anything in the Institutes.

Suppose for a moment that we get interested in this subject. Our curiosity is stimulated and we are even brought to a point of conviction. We consider leaving our devilish father and actually accepting the invitation of the heavenly Father to join his family. What chances do we have of actually implementing such an unlikely (and, indeed, according to the Calvinistic philosophy, such an impossible) happening? Even if we have a desire like that (which no mere fallen son of Adam ever does have), we would not be able to do anything about it because Satan is much too powerful for us. He is the strong man who has us bound. So even if we should try to get out, which we do not do, we could not possibly escape.

The Bible says that the devil brought a whole host of angels into ruin and now keeps them under his domination. He was a mighty figure in his unfallen state, and he is also powerful in his fallen state if he can control a host of demons. If he can control them, if they cannot operate except under his dominion, you can be perfectly sure that mere men and women cannot escape his prowess. The Bible uses the expression "the devil and his angels." It does not speak about the devil and his people. Nevertheless, the devil has his fallen sons of Adam, and they are under even mightier control than his devils.

One time Whitefield, the great eighteenth-century Calvinistic Billy Graham, was preaching and used an expression about prostitutes, calling them "the devil's castaways." When he was being entertained by his sponsor, Lady Huntington, later on, he was rather sharply rebuked for his indelicate expression about these poor women. According to the narrative, even while he was being rebuked for that language a knock was heard on the door and two women of the streets, who had actually been converted by that awesome expression, appeared. Whitefield meant that these poor persons who sell their bodies are so despicably depraved that even the devil does not have any use for them and casts them away. And somehow the shock of that expression reached these women who through it were brought to conversion.

It is an interesting thing that this heresy of George Whitefield was used for the conversion of two precious souls. What is the heresy? The heresy is the idea that the devil has any castaways. It is an interesting metaphor, and it indeed arrests attention. It suggests why George Whitefield was such a powerful pulpiteer. But it is heresy just the same, for there is no such thing as a devil's castaway. The devil does not cast them away. He holds them all. And the only thing you ever have is the devil's "snatch-away" by someone who is more powerful than he.


Who Comes Running?

I think I hear somebody saying, "I remember the time when I heard the Word and came running. Even the devil couldn't hold me back. What do you mean by saying that we don't have the will to leave the devil? I stand to a point of order and testify that I remember the day when Christ called and I left the devil. So when you say that I love to do Satan's bidding, that I'm absolutely bound, that I can't possibly escape, I testify otherwise. I appeal to my experience." If you get really a head of steam on this particular point, you may even be carried away to say, "I don't care what your Bible says, Gerstner; I know what happened."

Let us go over that for a moment. You know full well that if the Bible tells you an alleged experience of yours does not occur, you did not have that experience. If you think you have an experience that the Bible says you never could have and we have to make a choice as to who is right, you or God, you know where any sensible decision is going to be rendered. You do not even know the meaning of an experience unless this book tells you. We judge truth by the Word of God. So if anyone says he has come to God at the invitation of Jesus Christ, what he must realize is that when he came running he had already been delivered from being a son of the devil. He was no longer the fallen son of Adam that he had been a moment before but was already a new creature in Christ Jesus. That is the person we are talking about even though he might not have realized at first who it was who came running.

The New Testament passage which is perhaps as much of a classic text on this theme as anything else is John 1:11,12; "He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God." Unfortunately, many people stop at that point and thus give the impression that it is the one who comes to Christ who has a right to be adopted as a child of God. But the rest of the sentence says, ". . . children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband's will, but born of God." When you come to Christ it is not Christ who exercises the faith. You are the one who exercises it. You are the one who comes. But when you come running and are given a title to be called a child of God, it is because you have been born first of all of the Spirit of God.

If you come to be called a child of God, it is because you have first been drawn. In the immortal words of Augustine: "I called upon thee O Lord, and I realized that thou hast already called upon me." You came because he had first of all come. You were taught of him before you ever came to him.


An Adoption to Come

Romans 8:23 brings out another important aspect: "We wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies." John 1:12 clearly says, just as Ephesians 1:5 also says, that we were predestined to adoption as children through the love of Christ. That adoption is a part of the whole scheme of salvation. It is an eternal matter from the divine aspect. But you have an interesting reference to it in Romans 8:23 as something yet anticipated, something that we do not presently possess. We wait for an adoption referred to as the redemption of our body, and the implication is clearly that this is part of the completed act of divine adoption into God's family.

This leads me to note something about theological language. We have the basic data of divine revelation scattered through the sixty-six books of the canon; God designs that we theologians should put the various strands of truth into one systematic whole. But in the process of doing that we sometimes become more exact than Scripture. For example, adoption is an act. For the Christian it is an act which has already taken place. The classic text, "As many as believed on him, to them he gave the authority to be called the children of God," indicates the time in which one is taken out of the family of Satan and actually brought into the family of Jesus Christ. Still, to be faithful to all biblical language, we must add that our adoption is not quite complete.

It is most interesting that our waiting for adoption should be in reference to the redemption of our bodies. This is relevant to the present day, for the fundamental strain we have in evangelical circles about faith healing would be cured if we would pay attention to this passage. What does it teach? It teaches that although our bodies, souls, sanctification and glorification have been purchased, not all has been given to us yet. So to argue that because God heals our diseases and has purchased our total redemption, therefore, we should be absolutely healthy (and if for some reason we are not, there is a real question whether we believe in Jesus Christ as the redeemer of our total person) is an error. The Scripture itself says, "We wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies." It would be wise for us not to set the clock forward, not to push, not to tell God that he has to give us all the benefits of the purchased redemption of Jesus Christ now, but to wait for them with eager expectation.

I remember hearing J. I. Packer in London one time. He was talking about the way God gives the gift of adoption, and he told how he was on his way home to Bristol with a box of candy for his children. That box of candy was going to be theirs entirely. He had no right even to a piece of it. But when he got home and gave it to his children he was not going to let them eat it all at once. They were going to get it over a period of time, piece by piece. I am suggesting that this is the way God gives to us. We have redemption full and free, soul and body. The guilt has been taken away completely. But the redemption of our bodies is something for which we wait.


Liberal Theology

This leads me to think of Adolph von Harnack, one of the greatest church historians of all time, and of his doctrine of universal adoption, perhaps the underlying principle of all liberal theology. The reason I mention Harnack is because he wrote a book at the turn of the century entitled The Essence of Christianity, in which he said the great message, the essence, of Christianity was "the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man." According to Harnack, God is the father of all men without qualification, and all men, therefore, because they are the children of a common father, are brothers and sisters of each other. To this day that is the essential slogan of liberal Christianity: "We have all been adopted into the family of God. We are all children of God."

John Murray in one of his finest essays in the second volume of his writings, The Collected Writings of John Murray, has a precise dissertation on adoption which I recommend. He points out rightly that there is not a single verse in the New Testament that alludes to men in general as being in the family of God.

That is the reason I think it is such a wicked thing--let me get myself into real trouble here and say it is a wicked thing--to try to get everybody in our schools to pray, "Our Father, who art in heaven." Unless they believe in Jesus Christ, which is no prerequisite to attending an American public school, they have absolutely no right to say, "Our Father, who art in heaven." If they want to say, "Our father, who art in hell," they would be justified in that. But this notion, which has no substance to it--that God is the father of all men and that he looks upon us happily as his children--is a diabolical thing. It is the devil at his trickiest, cleverest activity. Why? Because on the one hand, God must be infinitely furious that we, who are born bastards, presume to call ourselves the children of God. (The devil must be jumping up and down with delight that we could say something that was so thoroughly displeasing to God.) And, on the other hand, by deluding us the devil has bound us to himself even more thoroughly. I do not know that the devil ever got a better one off than that, infinitely insulting God and at the same time infinitely deluding men who thereby are perfectly satisfied with their present, fatally fallen condition.

There is nothing in Scripture to indicate that we can ever be children of God, save by faith in Jesus Christ. But through faith we are taken into God's family and are given the privilege of calling God, not only "our Father in heaven," wonderful and intimate as that is, but even "Daddy," ("Abba, father"). Imagine that! We are enabled to stand before the presence of the living God, before whom, if we ever thought for a moment of being judged on the basis of what we are, we would be like Adam and Eve fleeing into the bushes, covering ourselves, hoping to hide ourselves, praying that the rocks would fall upon us. But instead, we now come running, crying, "Daddy!" If it were not for the blood of Christ, this would be incredible. But when you think of what Christ did, it is not at all incredible. And it is therefore without presumption but with humble and yet bold faith that we say, "Our Father, who art in heaven."

When it comes to adoption into the family of God by Christ, I think it important to note that this is significantly different from the way we adopt children into a family in this world. In this world we adopt children who are up for adoption, and we take them into our family as they are. They may be little hellions; they may be model children. But whatever they may be, we take them as they are. We hope, if they are not like we wish they were, that we will be able to shape them to our family style. God takes no such risks. He does not take us as we are. He makes us over again so that we really are in his image. You will remember in that great golden chain of Romans 8:29, 30, that we are made conformable to his image, which is really only another way of talking about adoption. We are actually made like him before we are recognized as his real children.

I remember reading of a British soldier who had volunteered for the first world war, became a lieutenant and was serving in France. One of his men was badly wounded. So the lieutenant crawled away from the trench to reach this man and then staggered back with him to safety. Just as he reached the parapet a bullet struck the lieutenant, and he died instantly. When the family at home heard of his death they were utterly broken. But a few months later, after their grief had been assuaged, they began a correspondence with the man who had been rescued, thinking that if their son gave his life for this man, the least they could do was invite him into their home. The man was convalescing at the time. But soon he came to that home, and when the family opened the door that eventful night they saw a man who was vulgar, rude, drunken and profane. This was the man for whom their son died. Fortunately, the story had a Hollywood ending. For the man was adopted and under the influence of that family actually became like his friend, the son, who had died for him.

That is different from the way God does it. Christ changes us first of all. It is true that when we come into God's family, which is the church, we also become more and more like him who died for us. But the difference is that God first changes our heart and thereby begins to remake us into the image of Christ.


The Status of Baptized Children

One question in this matter of adoption is the status of the children of believers, especially baptized children. What is the standing of a baptized infant of the faithful in a paedo-Baptistic church? He is grafted into Christ in a certain sense. The child is made a non-communicant member of the church. But is he fully an adopted member? Is that the way God proceeds with infants? Does he adopt them, not by virtue of a second birth, but by virtue of their first birth?

John Cotton seemed to have this idea, and a good many other Reformed theologians have also seemed to believe that if you are born of at least one Christian parent, you are yourself in Christ Jesus. If any of you are in a paedo-Baptistic church and know the formulae connected with infant baptism, you know that the language is usually very strong in suggesting (even if it does not explicitly state) that the baptized child is indeed Christ's child. What about that? Is that the way it happens? Do our offspring have the right to be called the children of God because they were born of us who were given that right when we exercised our personal faith?

There is a division in the ranks on this point, and it is a point worth careful consideration. The England and New England Puritan Calvinists thought of baptized children of the covenant, to use Edwards' words, as "little vipers." On the other hand, there is no mistaking the fact that the general tendency from Calvin right on through the classic orthodox tradition of the continent and the Scottish-American theologians like Hodge and Warfield was to think of those little children, baptized infants of the family of God, as little saints, not sinners. They never quite say that, but the tendency is there. In the one tradition, children of covenant people are born little sinners, and until there is clear evidence that they have been converted they should be considered little sinners. Whereas, in the other tradition, these children are considered to be little saints unless there is clear evidence to the contrary.

My sympathy, in spite of the fact that I am an heir of the Scottish-American-Princeton, Presbyterian tradition, is with the Puritans at this point. I consider them to have been righter than my own tradition. So I give this challenge. You who have been born again and who have children, do everything in your power to see that those to whom you have given the first birth also experience the second birth, rather than to assume that they have all been born again.

I close with reference to a familiar episode. We have all heard the story of Monica, the mother of Augustine. She was a godly woman who had given birth to this little viper who was practicing his viperish ways long into his early youth, and she was very apprehensive. She went in tears to her pastor, and he gave the immortal reply: "The son of such tears cannot be lost." This was a classic instance of another false statement that was nevertheless actually verified by what happened. That is, Augustine was wonderfully converted and became what many regard as the greatest Reformed theologian of all time.

To us it looks as though that pastor uttered a falsehood, that "the son of such tears cannot be lost." But we note that what he said was actually verified by the eventual belief of this particular son. We cannot say to every godly parent who has ever wept over a straying son or daughter that he or she can be comforted because God guarantees the conversion of that child. But we can say that it is surely an evidence of divine concern for the offspring of parents if those godly parents weep for their straying children. Indeed, we might go so far as to say that if that kind of prayerful concern is persistently pursued, there is not only a possibility but perhaps even a probability that the child will be saved.

So I say to you parents: With respect to your children, if you do have them baptized, if you do rear them in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, if you do pray constantly and work for their salvation, there is real hope. You may know of yourselves that, if from your heart you really do love God and sincerely call him Father, there is evidence that you are a child of God and that with some probability your children will also be.


An article from Tenth, An Evangelical Quarterly, July, 1980 (Official papers of the 1980 Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology)

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