Redemptive History, Adoption and Thinking in Categories

While most people want an immediate, simple, one-dimensional answer to every theological question, God expects us to give ourselves to a diligent, prayerful and careful study of Scripture. In an attempt to show why thinking in categories is essential to a right understanding of Scripture, I want to give some consideration to the biblical-theological and systematic understanding of the biblical doctrine of adoption. I wish to disabuse anyone, first and foremost, of the concern they might have that I am saying the Gospel is not simple. The great Apostle Paul explained the simplicity of the Gospel when he wrote, “Brethren I declare to you the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received and in which you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast that word which I preached to you unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures (1 Cor. 15:1-3)” And in another place he writes, “Oh, that you would bear with me in a little folly and indeed you do bear with me. For I am jealous for you with godly jealousy. For I have betrothed you to one husband, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ. But I fear, lest somehow, as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, so your minds may be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ. For if he who comes preaches another Jesus whom we have not preached, or if you receive a different spirit which you have not received, or a different gospel which you have not accepted you may well put up with it (2 Cor. 11:1-4).” While these things must be constantly affirmed and defended, Peter explained that, in Paul’s letters, there were “some things hard to understand, which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures.”

Recently I was reading through the chapter on “Adoption” in the Collected Writings of John Murray (vol. 2). Murray begins his study by setting out the different references to sonship found in the Bible. Approaching it from a Biblical-theological, along with the systematic, perspective Murray explained that there are at least four different types of sonship found in Scripture. The first is the “intertrinitarian” sonship. This belongs exclusively, eternally, and by nature to the Son of God. No one else participates in this exact sonship–not even the Holy Spirit. Only the second person of the Godhead can be called the “son of God” in this way. Murray writes, “This uniqueness is expressed in the monogenes title as applied to Christ and in such expressions as the Father’s own Son (Rom. 8:3, 32).”

The second kind of sonship that Murray notes is a creative sonship. This is an important category and one that we would do well to consider very carefully. At least since the Reformation, there has been a debate over the way in which we are supposed to view Adam prior to the fall. Was Adam a son, or was he simply a servant. (This is the reason for Robert Candlish’s controvesial work The Fatherhood of God). Sinclair Ferguson outlines the history of this debate in “The Reformed Doctrine of Adoption,” in the Nigel M. de S. Cameron and Sinclair Ferguson edited Pulpit and People: Essays in honor of William Still on his 75th Birthday. Murray also deals with the biblical texts that support a reading in favor of Adamic sonship. The major passage is Luke 3:38. Whether this was true of Adam by viritue of creation as the Imago Dei or by virtue of redemption in Christ is not clear. Murray does conclude, however, that if it is true of Adam prior to the fall “the emphasis seems to be upon the fact that Adam owed his origin to God as no other man did. Adam was not geenrated by a human father.” To this statement Murray adds, “Adam might have been a son of God by creation, but not in his fallen state. We might conclude that Adam as created was a son of God without conceeding thaqt all men since the fall are sons of God. We must distinguish between Adam’s sonship and the sonship of adoption. The later entails a security that Adam did not possess.”

The third kind of sonship that Murray mentioned is the one that is based upon a “Theocratic Fatherhood.” This is an essential distinction, or category, to make. Murray sets this adoption (as does Calvin in his commentary on Romans 9:1-6) in the sphere of redemptive history. Many people today speak of Israel’s adoption as if it were no different from the adoption of New Testament believers. Murray explains that this “Theocratic Fatherhood,” “refers to God’s adoption of Israel as His chosen people. It is the prototype of redemptive adoption as the Old Testament counterpart.” It is at this point that two things need to be noted. The fact that Israel’s adoption was national and prototypical does not mkean that the remnant of believing Israelites were not given the “redemptive adoption” that Murray speaks about in contrast. Beleiving Israelites were living the New Covenant realities under the tutilage of the Old Covenant economy. The second thing that needs to be affirmed is that there was a permanence to the “redemptive adoption” in contrast to the “theocratic adoption of Israel.” This is the most foundational point of the discussion.

The fourth and final type of sonship mentioned in the Bible, according to Murray, is “redemptive adoption” or the “Adoptive Fatherhood” of God. Attempting to prove the difference between the national adoption of Israel under the Old Covenant and the “redemtpive adoption” taught so clearly in the pages of of the New Testament, Murray appeals to Galatians 3:23-4:6:

The difference is in line with the difference in general between the Old Testament and the New; the Old is preparatory, the New is consummatory. The Old is prepadeutic (i.e. like a school teacher preparing a child for adulthood), the New is graduatory. The children of God in the Old Testament were like children under age. The grace of the New Testament appears in this, that by redemption accomplished and by faith in Him [Christ], all without exception are introduced into the full blessing of sonship without the necessity of undergoing a period of tutelary preparation corresponding to the tutelary discipline of the Old Testament. That is to say, New Testament believers, from among the Gentiles, do not have to undergo in the realm of their individual development a preliminary period in the broad sphere of progressive revelation and realization.

All this is a beautiful example of the importance of thinking in categories. The result of what Murray is insisting on is that New Covenant believers can have the full assurance of eternal inheritance and safety in the Father’s house. This adoption, because it is not preparatory, can never be taken away. The demands have been met by the Son of God so that as Calvin reminds us, “The Son of God became the Son of Man so that the sons of men may become the sons of God.” Adam was “the son of God,” Israel was “God’s son,” because Jesus is the Son of God. In every way that Adam and Israel failed to fulfill the demands of sonship covenantally, Jesus, the eternal Son of God, entered in to the world to fulfill them. “As many a receive Him, to them He gave the right to be called sons of God.” In union with Him was have an everlasting sonship. For these, and so many more reasons we must learn to think categorically as we have our thinking shaped by the word of God. May God give us grace to do so in this most important area of our lives.

Recommended Resources:

The Eschatology of Adoption (Christ the Center Interview with Dave Garner)

Trevor J. Burke Adopted into God’s Family (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsty Press, 2006)

Sinclair B. Ferguson, “The Reformed Doctrine of Sonship,” in Pulpit and People: Essays in Honor of William Still , ed. by Nigel M. de S. Cameron and Sinclair B. Ferguson (REdinburgh, Rutherford House, 1986) pp. 81-88

Sinclair B. Ferguson, Children of the Living God (Colorado Springs, Co: Navpress, 1987)

John Murray, “Adoption”, in The Collected Writings of John Murray, (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1977) vol. 2, pp. 223-234.

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