Are God’s children born again or adopted?

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My ESV Bible open to Ephesians

Believers are members of one family. Paul says, So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God (Eph 2:19).

Quickly, Paul’s metaphors becomes intimate. In case the thought of being citizens of the same country doesn’t convey genuine unity, he describes the church as a family. Specifically, we are the family of God living in his household. Of course, the sense of belonging is much stronger within a family than a nation.

Hebrews 2 says:

For it was fitting that Jesus, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering. For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one source. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brothers. (Hebrews 2:10-11)

Perhaps my favorite passage along these lines is found in Romans 8. Paul says:

For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, Abba! Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. (Romans 8:14-17)

Paul’s use of the word adoption—the word is huiothesia in the original Greek—is interesting. More times than not, the Bible speaks of our entry into God’s family as a birth. For instance, John 3: Unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God (Jn 3:3). First Peter 3: You have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God (1Pe 1:23).

But a total of five times in the New Testament, Paul and only Paul uses the word huiothesia (adoption). Romans 8:15: You have received the Spirit of adoption as sons. Romans 8:23: We wait eagerly for adoption as sons. Romans 9:4: They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption. Galatians 4:5: God sent forth his Son so that we might receive adoption as sons (Gal 4:4, 5). Then, Ephesians 1:5: God predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ.

Believe or not, I’ve known people to be troubled by the Bible’s mixed metaphors in this area. Are we born into God’s family or adopted? Generally, those who are bothered by these seemingly contradictory analogies prefer to think of us as being born, not adopted. They think that birth implies a stronger relationship.

The fact is, it’s both. Do you remember my golden rule for Bible study? If the Bible says it, then we should believe it.

You may be surprised to learn that adoption implied a stronger relationship than birth in the ancient Roman world. The Romans thought of the birth of a child as getting what you get whether you like it or not. According to Roman law, you could disown your natural child. After all, it’s not your fault that he came out as he did.

Adoption, on the other hand, was your choice. You could have no justification for disowning a child whom you willingly chose, knowing what you were getting. In William Ramsey’s commentary on Galatians, he says:

The Roman-Syrian Law-Book … lays down the principle that a man can never put away an adopted son, and that he cannot put away a real son without good ground. It is remarkable that the adopted son should have a stronger position than the son by birth, yet it was so.

Of course, the opposite was true in Jewish culture. Ramsey writes, Among the Jews, adoption had no importance, and hardly any existence. The perpetuity of the family, when a man died childless, was secured in another way. … Only sons by blood were esteemed in the Hebrew view.”

These metaphors do not contradict each other. Rather, the authors of the Bible use them to convey the fullness of our relationship to God. We are born in that we enter into a new life within the family of God. We are adopted in that God legally, positionally claims us as his children. John actually brings these metaphors together when he says:

To all who did receive Christ, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. (John 1:12-13)

We are born, yet we are also subjects of a legal process if you will.

The point is, we are God’s children in every way possible and nothing can ever change that. There is no chance of God ever disowning us. Jesus said, All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out” (Jn 6:37). Paul says, We are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ (Ro 8:17-17).