I’m doing a series on everyone being a child of God. I recommend reading part A for the context and the first response (based on the Parable of the Prodigal Son) to the common objection:
Doesn’t the NT talk about adoption, about Christians becoming children of God? Does that mean non-Christians aren’t God’s children?
I think the response in part A is reinforced by the approach George MacDonald takes in his Abba, Father! sermon, which is based on Galatians 4.
What I am saying is that as long as an heir is underage [a child], he is no different from a slave, although he owns the whole estate. The heir is subject to guardians and trustees until the time set by his father.
Galatians 4:1-2, NIV
The prodigal son didn’t have the status/place of son while he was disowning his father, similarly a child doesn’t have the place of a son/daughter (at least in terms of responsibilities, inheritance, and freedoms) while they are underage.
|Subject to guardians 1||Adulthood|
|Place/position of a child||Place/position of a son/daughter = “adoption” 2|
However, when they come-of-age, they receive the place of a son/daughter. In many (most?) cultures throughout history, becoming an adult is celebrated as a significant milestone, be it an 18th/21st, an indigenous initiation ceremony, or a Bar Mitzvah.
But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons.
Galatians 4:4-5, NIV84
God sent him to set the people free who were under the law. God sent him so that we would receive our rights as sons of God.
Galatians 4:5, WE
The Greek word translated “adoption”
I recently discovered something intriguing about huiothesia, the Greek word translated “adoption” in the NT:
The first half is huios, the common noun for an adult son. The latter half is thesia, a placement, an installation, a setting of a person or a thing in its place. So the whole word means not so much adoption as the placing of a son.
I think it’s good to be cautious when it comes to discussing how words are translated. So I did some further research and found others who agree. For example:
As I see it, “child” teknon refers to a member of the family with our a necessary implication regarding age—whether a young child or an adult. A son is always a child [member of the family], but a child is not always a son. A child (teknon) by virtue of being a member of the family is an heir [albeit not yet actualised]. By virtue of being a son (huios) he is considered to be of legal age.
The word for “adoption,” … is a compound word made up of huios, “a son,” and tithemi, “a placing,” which means to place someone in the family who is already in the family, in order to recognize them as an adult son.
The word “Huiothesia” means “Son Placement,” and indicates the time when a male child reached what was considered to be the age of maturity… At this time, the father of the young man would place his hand on the head of his son and openly proclaim, “This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased! I bestow upon him now all of my riches and power and authority (through power of attorney) so that he might act on my behalf in all of my affairs.”
The etymology of the word suggests that it literally means “standing as a son,” … that the word refers to one who IS a son coming into a certain standing AS a son, but in NO case, simply BECOMING a son, equivalent to what we mean by being born, or adopted. In EVERY case, we think it is not “sonship,” per se, that is being considered, but the standing or position to which the sonship entitles one.
As you can see, translating huiothesia as “adoption” isn’t crazy, just too simplistic, especially given we understandably assume it’s identical to our modern definition. Rickard makes a similar point, although I think he overreaches a little, as I came across others who said Roman “son placement” could either be of a biological or non-biological child.
“Adoption” means one thing today but back in Roman times, when the N.T. was written, it meant something else. Adoption today means placing someone outside of the blood line legally into a family. A child who is not a natural child of the family, someone else’s child, is placed into the family. That is not what adoption meant in the Bible.
Everyone is irreversibly an immeasurably valuable and irreplaceable child of God but needs to be placed/announced as sons and daughters—”adoption”—to delight in fully living as a son or daughter.
1. In Galatians 3:24 Paul uses this as an illustration of how we were when under the law.
2. Galatians 3:26 tells us our coming-of-age is through faith, “for you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus” (HCSB).