Earlier this month, I took my infant daughter to court and won.
The legal complaint? That she wasn’t yet a Duncan. Our baby girl was still a Miller*, so my wife and I sued her to strip her of that identity and change it to ours.
In less dramatic terms, her adoption was finalized earlier this month after we successfully persuaded a judge that she should lose her original identity as a Miller. The case was listed on the docket as James Duncan vs. Baby Girl Miller. Seeing the versus on the court documents, while initially shocking, got me thinking about the way that the Apostle Paul uses adoption to describe our salvation. I had never considered the adversarial side of adoption until my baby girl became my legal opponent. The human adoption process remains a good analogy of God’s spiritual adoption and of the Gospel itself, reflecting God’s providence, election, our fallenness, baptism and ultimate regeneration.
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. (Ephesians 1:3-6)
Here’s a bit of what I’ve been learning and thinking about.
Election and Calling
We learned that our daughter was on her way about five months before she was born, before we even knew her gender. We committed to adopt her, and followed that commitment up with financial help for her birth mother throughout the remainder of the pregnancy.
- Before our daughter had done anything good or bad, we decided to love her.
- Before she knew us, we knew her and chose her.
- Before she knew us, we provided for her and took steps to keep her safe and healthy.
- There’s nothing our daughter could have done to make us decide to adopt her, or to not adopt her.
We were fortunate to be present when our daughter was born, and we left the hospital with her to welcome her into our home. Even though she wasn’t officially ours at that point, we knew that she probably would be, so we treated her as if she were family, looking forward to the day when she would really be – legally be – our daughter.
If you understand the purpose of baptism as a means of uniting us to Christ, we baptized our daughter into our family when we brought her home. Anticipating that one day she would be our legal daughter, we wanted to begin giving her the benefits of being our child as soon as possible. We introduced her to our friends as our daughter, and they responded to her with the same kind of love and protection as if she were a real child of ours.
Practitioners of infant baptism believe that God tends to save and bless families, so we anticipate and pray that a baby of Christian parents will one day be saved. In the meantime, we confer God’s sacrament as a means of grace to infants of Christian parents to welcome them into the church and offer them the spiritual nourishment and protection that befits a child under God’s care.
Baptism doesn’t save infants any more than bringing our new baby home actually made her our daughter, but it does indicate that a baptized child is set apart for the special blessings that come from being in God’s family. Baptism confers the benefits of salvation before the reality of salvation, just as custody of our baby conferred the benefits of family before the reality of family.
After baptism, we pray for the next, most crucial step.
Justification and Regeneration
The purpose of our court date was to legally change our daughter’s parents. A judge would decree that her former, biological parents had no further claim on her, and that my wife and I were her full, legal parents, as if she had been born to us.
Continuing the spiritual analogy, our court date was the day of her justification. Although she had already been elected, the justice system had to take the steps to put an end to her original nature as a Miller and change her name and identity to ours. After our case, her birth certificate has been replaced by a new one that shows us as her parents, even though she has been subject to our care and providence for her entire life.
Titus 3:4-7 is especially on point.
But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.
The word regeneration contains two ideas. One is to repeat or renew. The other part comes from the root genesis, which is also related to genea, as in genealogy. The word genesis literally means a written list of one’s ancestors, or a book of one’s lineage. So to be regenerated is to get a new list of ancestors. In court that day, our daughter was washed with regeneration, justified as a Duncan, and become our heir.
When the Holy Spirit regenerates us, we receive the same blessing of being separated from our former nature and legally join a new family, becoming a joint heir with God’s begotten Son. Pretty amazing.
In the Roman culture that Paul wrote from, the most public form of adoption was in imperial families, when emperors would adopt adult sons so that they could pass their power and wealth to someone they had elected (especially if their natural-born sons were disappointments). Paul’s readers would have understood adoption as means of grafting people into places of high power and wealth. The idea that God adopts us as his own, and makes us a joint heir with Christ, would have seemed perfectly reasonable.
One more interesting thing: There were two forms of adoption in Rome. The most common, termed adoptio, occurred when two fathers agreed to place a dependent (even an adult, who remained under the total control of his father until his father’s death) under the care of the adoptive family. The second kind, called arrogatio, involved an independent man, not under the control of a father, voluntarily placing himself into the adoptive care of another. The adoptee in arrogatio took the initiative.
I’m sure the application has already occurred to you, but if salvation is our responsibility, arrogatio would have been a much better term for Paul to use. Thankfully, he didn’t. He used adoptio. (Actually, the Greek is huiothesia, which translates to Latin as adoptio.) God takes the initiative because we can’t.
Five months before her birth, our daughter was elected. Upon her birth, she was baptized into our family. And four months after her birth, she was justified.
Now we have the next 18 years to work on sanctification.
*To protect the identity of her birth mother, not her real name.
Update: This song by Third Day expresses the spiritual truth of adoption well.