J.I. Packer famously said in his book Knowing God, “If you want to judge how well a person understands Christianity, find out how much he makes of the thought of being God’s child, and having God as his Father.” The significance of the doctrine of adoption cannot be understated. In fact, the Bible teaches that our spiritual adoption is the height of all our privileges of being in Christ by faith. Our adoption tells us not just that we are loved by God, but what kind of love with which we are loved by him (1 John 3:1). This love is not generic kindness or niceties; it is the love of a heavenly Father richly lavished on his children whom he delights in.
Yet for many of us the experience of adoption is one that remains impractical and ineffectual in our day-to-day lives. We understand the doctrine rightly, yet our relationship with God still feels cold and distant. When we sin, we are prone to an anxious temperament and feelings of shame and condemnation. When we go through seasons of little prayer, we convince ourselves that God probably wouldn’t want to hear our prayers anymore. We are crushed by failure, regularly doubt our own significance, question whether or not anyone could actually love us, and push others away out of fear of exposing our true selves.
Such behavior is common to all of us. While we may still believe that God once did a work in our lives to save us, it is now up to us to remain in his good graces and convince him to keep on loving us. This is very similar to the problem the Christians in Galatians faced in the Apostle Paul’s letter. Having begun their life in Christ by faith, they were now seeking to perfect themselves and remain in God’s favor through their own effort (Galatians 3:3). As a result, they too had a very cold and distant understanding of what it meant to be in Christ.
In the climax of his letter to the Galatians, the Apostle Paul digs deep into the doctrine of salvation to reveal the precious crown jewel of the Christian’s spiritual adoption (Galatians 3:26-4:7). Through a careful study of Paul’s description of adoption, we can discern at least three practical ways for us to deepen our own experience of adoption and God’s fatherly love and care.
1. Put on Christ
Paul uses several different images to convey the fullness of our adoption. One image comes from this idea of putting on Christ (Galatians 3:27). We are meant to think of putting on Christ as would put on clothing. This image tells us at least two things.
First, this is a statement about our identity. In many parts of the world today, clothing is a key piece of our identity. Clothing is often masculine or feminine. Some items of clothing are well-known in particular cultures around the world, such as the cheongsam in China or a thawb in various parts of the middle east. Clothing can also say something about our favorite bands, sports teams, or other social groups we belong to.
By putting on Christ, we have a new identity which supersedes all others. Our other identities of class, gender, or culture are not erased; however, they are rightly ordered under this new identity in Christ. As Tish Harrison Warren says:
As Christians, we wake each morning as those who are baptized. We are united with Christ and the approval of the Father is spoken over us. We are marked from our first waking moment by an identity that is given to us by grace: an identity that is deeper and more real than any other identity we will don that day.
Second, this is a statement about how closely we ought to imitate Christ. We are to think and act as if we are with him; as if he is before us, beside us, over us, with us, and in us. We are to take Jesus into every area of our life and give ourselves over to his purposes so that we might become like him.
Jesus speaks to our new identity and obedience when he describes the work of the Holy Spirit. When we receive the Holy Spirit, we will no longer be orphans but will receive the new identity of God’s family (John 14:18). As adopted children, we show our love for Christ when we obey him and keep his words (John 14:15, 23). The Holy Spirit is our helper who helps us remember and keep all that Christ has taught us.
But in order to put on Christ, we must do the hard and joyful work of knowing the person and work of Christ. We must study his life, his virtues, his words, his actions. We must ask the Spirit to illuminate the life of Christ and make it real for us in our own life.
The best way to do this is by studying Christ and pursuing fellowship with Him in community. When we try to seek after Christ in isolation, we will be prone to make Christ in our own image, softening the demands he makes on our lives which would be most challenging. However, when we pursue Christ in close fellowship with others who want to know Him and be like Him, we will collectively grow up into Christ and become like him together (Ephesians 4:15-16).
2. Cry Out to God
Another way Paul conveys the significance of our spiritual adoption is by telling us we have permission to cry out to God as “Abba! Father!” (Galatians 4:6). Commentators tell us that this an endearing term of respect that a child would utter, much like the word papa in modern English. We have new access to God with permission to cry out to him much like a small child would. Tim Keller has famously described this access like a small child crying in the middle of the night for a glass of water. Our Abba loves to hear from us, no matter how small the request.
The love of the Father for his children is steadfast and endures forever (Psalm 136). It does not change based on his mood or our obedience. The Puritan John Owen said it this way:
God’s love is like the sun, always the same in its light, though a cloud may sometimes hide it. Our love is like the moon. Sometimes it is full. Sometimes it is only a thin crescent.
This is a difficult reality to accept for those who have cold or abusive relationships with earthly fathers. But even the best of earthly parents are a shadow of the Fatherly love of God. From John Owen again:
The love of the Father is the same for all whom he has chosen to love. Whom God loves he loves to the end, and he loves them all alike. On whom he sets his love, it is set for ever. God’s love does not grow to eternity or lessen in time. God’s love is an eternal love that had no beginning and that shall have no end. It is a love that cannot be increased by anything we do and that cannot be lessened by anything in us.
But like the practice of putting on Christ, crying out to God is one that we too must put into practice in order to experience the fatherly love of God. If we resist crying out to God by convincing ourselves that we are failures, that our sin is too great, or that God does not delight in hearing from us – then our deepest fears and suspicions will confirm themselves. However, when we run to God in prayer, when our every instinct says to hide, we will then meet the tender, gracious arms of a Father who loves to bless, restore, and forgive (Luke 15:20).
3. Live in Unity with Other Christians
Those who have put on Christ and have been adopted by God are also made to be one in Christ. This is a present and active reality. The Bible does not teach that if we all try really hard, we will find peace with one another. Nor does it tell us that unity will be achieved only when Christ returns. Scripture repeatedly affirms that our peace and unity has already been achieved and is a reality for us now (John 17:20-23, Galatians 3:27-29, Ephesians 2:11-22, 4:1-6, etc.).
The implications of this final point are profound. Our unity with one another has already been accomplished. It is not something we need to strive for or create. It is a reality to which we must be conformed. When we are living in dissension and discord with other Christians, it is because we are not living in light of the new reality which Christ has won for us.
This does not mean there are no longer distinctions of any kind inside the church. Many people today will try to tell us that if we even mention cultural, racial, social, ethnic, or gender distinctions and divisions then we are abandoning the gospel. But that is not Paul’s point here. When Paul listed cultural, class, and gender distinctions (Galatians 3:28), his point was not that our differences have been flattened or destroyed. Elsewhere there are clear distinctions in roles for men and women in the home and the church (Ephesians and Colossians 3). Living in unity amidst major cultural differences is a major theme of books like 1 Corinthians.
The emphasis here is that our new identity and common unity is more important than anything which might have formerly divided Christians in the church. The barriers which separate people in the world have come down in Christ. The responsibility of Christians is not to destroy or dismiss cultural differences, but to live in unity amidst our differences and thus become a shining witness to the rest of the world (John 13:31-35).
But in order to really understand the unity which has been accomplished for us, we must share our lives with others who are very different from us. We will have a very small perspective on our unity in the family of God if we live in isolation or spend more of our time with other Christians who are just like us.
Many Christians today are quick to criticize the lack of unity they see in churches today. At the same time, they are just as quick to run from a church as soon as they discover something they don’t like about the church. Such Christians have a very shallow understanding of spiritual adoption and the unity which has been given to us by Christ.
But those who are willing to commit themselves to a local church through membership, even amidst differences and disagreements, will find their experience of adoption and God’s Fatherly love grow. He is making for Himself a new family. The more we give of ourselves to that new family, the better we will know the love the Father has for his children.