1 John 3:1, 2
To my surprise, I have been involved for the last few months in the start-up of a non-profit organization called Clement Arts. Our mission for Clement Arts is to celebrate the gospel through arts and orphan care, providing fund-raising support to adoptive families in the process. (You can read more about that here.) I am surprised by this work because, as is often the case with God, it is so much better than what I originally intended. Over the last year, the idea for a simple album of songs has turned into a way to demonstrate the gospel to our community by highlighting and supporting those who are called by God to transform orphans into sons and daughters.
As God led us to Clement Arts, I continued to discover and rediscover the ways in which adoption is a picture of the gospel. Christians have long understood marriage to be more than the lifelong commitment between one man and one woman. That commitment is a beautiful thing, but there is a deeper reality at work. The deepest reality of marriage is that it is a picture of the relationship between Christ and the Church, a relationship that will exceedingly outlast even the most enduring marriage. In the same way, we can view adoption from a horizontal angle: Adoption is a way for a husband and wife to have a child; adoption is a way for an orphaned child to be given a loving family. This itself is a beautiful angle from which to view adoption, and that idea alone is worthy of support. But what happens when we approach adoption from a vertical angle? When viewed vertically, adoption becomes a picture of another deep reality: our salvation into the very family of God.
As with marriage, seeing this gospel picture of adoption more clearly will require us to abandon some unexamined cultural concepts for a more Biblical understanding. For starters, we have to shed the notion of our American religious culture that every person is a child of God simply by virtue of being created. While this sounds nice, and while Christians affirm that every person has intrinsic worth for being created in the image of God, the Bible simply does not teach that all people everywhere are God's children. Being created by God means that we are His creatures, not His children. If creation is the criteria for being a child of God, then we are no more God's children than the goldfish in the pet store or the ants in your backyard.
We cannot base our being children of God on our being created as humans in general, but we also cannot base it on anything intrinsic to us as specific individuals. Addressing his brothers and sisters in the Lord, the apostle John says that "now we are the children of God" (italics mine). The implication of the word now is that there was a time when even the children of God were not the children God. These sons and daughters were not naturally-born members of God's family. There was no shared quality or innate characteristic that had somehow automatically qualified them to be a child of God. Something happened to these people that brought them into God's family from the outside and made them sons and daughters of God. What happened?
In the book of Romans, the apostle Paul tells the Roman Christians that they have received the "Spirit of adoption" (Romans 8:15). He is talking about receiving the Holy Spirit of God, but here Paul refers to the Holy Spirit as the "Spirit of adoption." What Paul is saying is that the way to understand how God saves a person and brings them into His family is to look at adoption. Here is an orphan, a child with no mother or father to love them, protect them, care for them. They have no voice, no rights, no one looking out for their best interest. They are left to fend for themselves with no resources and no guidance. Here is a mother and a father who, although they are under no obligation to do so, choose to make this child their own. They choose to love, protect, shelter, and care for this child who, because of love and grace, is an orphan no longer. The child is now a son or daughter with a voice, with rights, with a family. A completely new life is laid open before them. This is what it looks like to become a child of God.
There have always been those who, rather than admit to being an orphan in need of God's grace, have insisted on proving or earning a status as God's child through their own efforts. Jesus had strong words for the religious leaders of His day who worked hard to sustain the crushing burden and false hope of trying to earn a spot in God's family. He called them children of their father, the devil (John 8:44). He said that when they converted someone to their self-righteous system, they made the convert twice the "child of hell" they were (Matthew 23:15). The people whom Jesus called "children of hell" were not outrageous sinners, as might be expected. They were the "good" people who could never see themselves as orphans unable to earn God's love, who could never accept the fact that they were not "good enough" to make it on their own. They failed to realize that, as orphans, God would not choose them because they were good, but because He is good.
If adoption, rather than creation or merit, is the way people become children of God, how does this adoption take place? The good news is that everything needed to secure our adoption as children of God has been already accomplished. Jesus was crucified to absorb the penalty of our sins, the same sins that killed our parents, Adam and Eve, leaving us orphaned from the Fall. Jesus was buried to put to death our old impoverished and destitute way of living, and He rose again to give us a new and joyous life with God and God's people. By putting our trust in what Jesus has accomplished, God justifies us, or pronounces us innocent before Him. But God doesn't stop there. He doesn't just forgive our sins and send us on our way. He calls us to Himself and invites us to call Him "Father". He adopts us, once outsiders and aliens, into His family as sons and daughters.