Born to Give Us Adoption as Sons

Posted by R. Fowler White

4 But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, 5 to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. (Gal 4:4-5)

Reflecting as he does on the wonders of the eternal Son’s birth in Gal 4:4-5, the Apostle Paul tells us extraordinary things about Him, giving us answers to the question that William C. Dix posed in his carol, “What Child is This.” In previous posts on Gal 4:4-5, we’ve seen how Paul focuses on the providential timing, three circumstances, and the purpose of Christ’s birth. Yet there is one more aspect of His birth that the Apostle would have us contemplate. As Paul puts it, God sent out His Son so that we might receive adoption as sons. What are we to make of this last phrase? Here we learn the final—yes, predestined—outcome (Eph 1:5) of the Son’s coming. We need again to deepen our understanding of the Apostle’s words.

Turning directly to Paul’s term adoption, its ancient significance was not ordinarily parallel to adoption as we know it today. We usually think of adoption as a parent-child relationship formed confidentially between persons (usually adults and orphaned or abandoned children) who are not biologically related. In the context of Gal 3:23–4:7, however, adoption was a public act in which a male heir was received from his boyhood standing as a minor into his manhood standing as full-fledged son. Elaborating on that background in Gal 4:1-2, Paul reflects on the supervision to which a male heir was subject while he was an under-age boy. Until the heir qualified as a full-fledged adult son, he did not receive the inheritance promised to a son any more than a slave did. In the meantime, however, the heir had it better than a slave. After all, he was under the temporary yoke and care of guardians and managers who would direct and bind him to meet the qualifications set by his father for full sonship. Submitting himself to their yoke and care, that sonship would come to the heir in due course.

Paul’s readers would recognize those Greco-Roman customs to which the term adoption referred, but they would also notice that he applies that term to the redemptive history of Abraham’s descendants. The Apostle rehearses the scenario for old-covenant Israel under the law as their guardian-manager (paidagōgos, Gal 3:24; epitropos and oikonomos, Gal 4:3). In His covenantal dealings with them, the Lord had promised the adoption to them and in particular to their king (Rom 9:4; Exod 4:22; Jer 31:9; Hos 11:1; 2 Sam 7:14-16; Ps 2:7; 89:26-27). Through His law, He showed the nation and their king how they would move from a standing as under-age boys into a standing as full-fledged adult sons. To meet the qualifications for that sonship, the Lord directed and bound them by the character and conduct that pleased and displeased Him and by the alternative consequences that followed each: life, prosperity, and victory, on the one side; death, adversity, and defeat, on the other. The message was clear: the only descendant of Abraham to whom the inheritance of irrevocable life, prosperity, and victory was promised would be the man who satisfied the law’s demands. That man would be the true Israel and the true David, hence the full-fledged adult Son. Of course, the history of Israel and their kings bore witness that until such a man arrived, God’s law disqualified everyone else, and the consequence was that all others came under the law’s curse and forfeited full-fledged sonship and the inheritance that went with it (Gal 3:10-11). And this cursed standing applied to Gentiles too. As we said in our previous post, whether God’s law reaches Jews in special revelation (Rom 2:17–3:1) or Gentiles in natural revelation (Rom 2:12-16), it judges us all to be under sin (Rom 2:6-11; 3:9-18; Gal 2:16). Therefore, apart from adoption, we all, Jews and Gentiles alike, are sons of disobedience (Eph 2:2) and by nature children of wrath (Eph 2:3). Even if we’re God’s offspring by creation (Acts 17:24-29), we’re all children disqualified and disinherited by God for our sin, and we all must find the true Israel, the true David, the true Son who satisfies the law’s demands.

While with the eyes of faith Israel could find that Son in the old-covenant promises, prophecies, ordinances, and types (“shadows”), the Apostle would have us know that, in the fullness of time, God’s own eternal Son was born as that man. That incarnate Son became the only descendant of Abraham, born under the law, to move from under-age boyhood into full-fledged Sonship. That incarnate Son had qualified to be publicly declared the Son of God with power by the resurrection from the dead, according to the Spirit of holiness (Rom 1:4, NASB95; see also Acts 13:33; Phil 2:6-11; Heb 1:5; 5:5, 8-9). As such, that incarnate Son had qualified both to redeem the disqualified and disinherited and to be the surety for the adoption of all who would be co-heirs with Him.

What Child, then, is this in the manger? He is the eternal Son incarnate qualified to give us the adoption as sons. In and for Him, we, who by our sin were disqualified and disinherited by God in His justice, are now by His free grace through faith received into the number of His children, have His name put upon us, and have the Spirit of His Son given to us! We are provided for under His fatherly care, are welcomed to all the liberties and privileges of the sons of God, and are made heirs of all the promises and fellow heirs with Christ in glory![i] Let us then celebrate!

[i] See Westminster Larger Catechism Q. 74. For more on the doctrine of adoption, see John Murray, “Adoption,” in Collected Writings of John Murray, Volume two: Select Lectures in Systematic Theology (Banner of Truth, 1977), 223-34; and David B. Garner, Sons in the Son: The Riches and Reach of Adoption in Christ (Presbyterian & Reformed, 2016). N.B. For those who may wonder, “the gender-specific sons speaks without an iota of prejudice against the ‘daughters’” (see David Garner, “Saved as Sons in the Son”).