Adoption to Sonship

In the baptismal prayer in which the priest blesses the baptismal water, there is a line that baptism will bestow upon the candidate the loosing of bonds, the remission of sins, the illumination of the soul and “the gift of adoption to sonship”.  The phrase “adoption of sonship” is a reference to the words of St. Paul, who used the word to describe our salvation in Christ in Ephesians 1:5.  There he sums up our salvation by saying that God “predestined us to adoption to sonship [Greek υίοθεσία/ uiothesia] through Jesus Christ to Himself”.  Given that this adoption to sonship serves to encapsulate and summarize our entire salvation, we must pay it closer attention and to what it all means.

First of all, the concept of sonship must be placed within the over-arching New Testament worldview of man’s situation, for this differs dramatically from our modern secular worldview.

In the secular worldview, Man is master of his own destiny, the crown prince of the cosmos, the culmination of long evolution.  It is not simply that Man lives at the top of the food chain; it is that Man is sovereign over all that he surveys, and will eventually overcome and conquer all the problems and limitations he currently faces.

We see this mythology most clearly expressed in the old 1960’s television series Star Trek.  Although now human existence is marred by racial unrest, war, disease, poverty, and crime, Man the Conqueror will eventually triumph over all these things.  In the future mankind will eliminate racism, so that the Enterprise crew will consist of black, white, Asian, Scots, American, Russian—and even Vulcan.  Man will eliminate problems of disease, poverty, crime, and war, and all will live in harmony, health, and prosperity, reaching out in power to boldly go where no man had gone before.  Man will do this through Reason and Science, mounting up ever higher, overcoming every limitation.  Cue the Star Trek music and the shot of the Enterprise whizzing on past the camera.

The New Testament (confirmed by history and by our daily news reports) paints a very different picture.  The New Testament locates Man as part of a creation inhabited not only by visible things like rocks, plants, flowers, and animals, but also by invisible things like angels, archangels, cherubim, and seraphim.  It further asserts that the sovereignty over the world which God intended for us has been wrecked by our sin, our idolatrous rejection of God in favour of substitutes which cannot save, and that this betrayal has allowed Satan to usurp man’s intended role as lord of this world.  That is why St. Paul described Satan as “the god of this age” (2 Corinthians 4:4), and why St. John declared that “the whole world lies in the power of the Evil One” (1 John 5:19).  It is also why Christ described the message that Paul was to preach to the Gentiles as one that would bring them “from darkness to light, and from the dominion of Satan to God” (Acts 26:18).

In other words, in the New Testament vision of the world, Man remains in darkness and in chains, lying helplessly in the grip of Satan.  We see now why St. Paul once described one being expelled from the Church, that sole island of safety, sanctity, and sanity, as being “delivered to Satan” (1 Corinthians 5:5).

We can also see why St. John wrote that to those who received Christ God gave “the authority [Greek ἐξουσία/ exousia] to become children of God”.  Why “authority”?  Because prior to Christ all men languished in bondage under Satan’s authority, but now, by His incarnation, cross, and resurrection, Christ has broken the power of Satan, so that men have the authority to leave Satan’s dominion, and become God’s children.  Our adoption to sonship thus involves transferring from darkness to light, from bondage to freedom, from Satan to God.

Secondly, sonship refers to our status, not to our origin.  In terms of our origin, all men are children of God in the sense that God is Creator of all men, whether they love and submit to Him or not.  But in the Scriptures the term “sonship” and the notion of being a child of God usually refers to our status and our state, not to our origin.  Being God’s sons means that God recognizes us as His own, and that He will therefore receive us into His Kingdom.  It means that God will protect us and provide for us as father protects and provides for his own sons, and will not leave us at the mercy of our sins or of the Evil One.

It also means that if we are God sons, then we are also God’s heirs—“heirs of God, and co-heirs with Christ”, as St. Paul says (Romans 8:17).  This last phrase does not mean that Christ inherits a piece of the age to come, and each one of us also inherit a piece, so that the glory of the age to come is portioned to Christ and His people.  Rather it means that as God’s Son, Christ inherits everything, and that as His Body each one of us also inherits everything along with Him.  We are joint-heirs with Christ, each one of His people receiving everything in the age to come because we are one with Christ.

This is the astonishing promise St. Paul held out to his quarrelling Corinthian converts.  They were squabbling over personalities, some aligning themselves with Paul, others with Apollos, other with Cephas.  Paul pointed out the folly of dividing up the apostles like this, and he insisted that all the apostles belonged to all of them.  Everything belonged to them—Paul, Apollos, Cephas.  And more than that, the whole world belonged to them, as did life, death, things present, and things to come.  All belonged them, just as they belonged to Christ and Christ belonged to God (1 Corinthians 3:21-23).  So, he wrote to the Corinthians, why seize upon this or that personality if everything in the world would one day be theirs?

Knowing that being sons of God also means being co-heirs with Christ lifts a tremendous burden from us.  We need no longer fret or fear when we are deprived of health, joy, family, or longevity in this life.  We will receive it all in the next, inheriting the entire world and all that will be in it.  As Christ’s meek, we really will inherit the earth.

Finally, being sons of God means that we must imitate our heavenly Father.  Just as a son of the devil imitates devil (compare Christ’s words to His would-be murderers in John 8:44, “You are of your father the devil, and you want to do the desires of your father.  He was a murderer from the beginning”), so the sons of God imitate God and do His desires.

The Lord told us this in His Sermon on the Mount. He said, “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, in order that you may become sons of your Father who is in heaven, for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. You will be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect”.  The Lukan version of this last bit is more specific:  it says, “Be compassionate just as your Father is compassionate” (Luke 6:36). God in His kindness blesses all men, regardless of whether or not they are righteous and grateful.  As His sons, we must strive to do the same.

How we behave reflects who are true father is.  If we fulfil the desires of the devil rather than God, then the devil is our true father, regardless of what we claim.  The true sons of God reveal a family resemblance in how they live.

The baptismal gift of sonship is thus an act of liberation from the darkness of Satan, a promise of inheriting the earth, and a challenge to us to live in righteousness and kindness.  Paraphrasing an early song of the Jesus People movement, “they will know we are sons of God by our love”.

 

4 comments:

  1. Dear Father Lawrence.
    Thank you for your explanation of “Adoption to Sonship”. I found your comparison with Star Trek helpful. Would you be so kind as to explain how the Greek Orthodox see Sonship in the terms of male /female. St Paul in Galatians 3:28 says that “Now there is no longer male nor female, slave or free, for we are all one in Christ.”

    1. Happy to explain Galatians 3:28, a favourite text among some. St. Paul uses the image of sonship to explain our status as having a close relationship to God, regardless of our gender, a status that includes being an heir. It is for this latter reason that the term “son” is used, rather than “sons and daughters” or “children”.

  2. Father,
    In order for a son to inherit, the father must first die, does this mean that God the Father will one day die?
    This seems impossible, as the Trinity is One and inseparable, so why this talk about inheritance?

    This is perhaps a legalistic way of looking at inheritance, the way it works in the world.
    Still, it is something one can ponder on, a conundrum.

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