November 21, 2017


David Burggraff

“For ye have not received the spirit of bondage . . . but ye have received the Spirit of adoption” (Romans 8:15).

In Romans 8:14–17 Paul is introducing us to one of the great but sometimes neglected metaphors for the Christian’s relationship to God. Here he describes the Christian as adopted into the family of God. In regeneration God gives us new spiritual life within. In justification God gives us right legal standing before him. But in adoption God makes us members of his family. Therefore, the Biblical teaching on adoption focuses much more on the personal relationships that salvation gives us with God and with his people. Paul could hardly have chosen a better term than “adoption” to characterize the peace and security believers have. The doctrine is exclusively Pauline, and he used the term five times (Rom. 8:15, 23; 9:4; Gal. 4:5; Eph. 1:5).

Most cultures had some practice akin to adoption. Moses, a slave, was adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter in Egypt. The Nuzi tablets reveal a custom whereby a childless couple could adopt a son who would serve them in life and be their heir in death. Hebrew laws did not include one which concerned adoption, and the Greek word for adoption does not occur in the Septuagint. This was probably due to the law of Levirate marriage, which provided a way for a family to have heirs to inherit the family property.

Adoption was a common aspect of Greco-Roman life, and this is the background of the New Testament concept. Childless couples would often adopt a son who then became their heir. Even if the adopted son had living biological parents, they had no more claim over him after the adoption had taken place. Often parents were willing to let their sons be adopted by another family if it meant a better lot in life.

It is only when we understand how serious and complicated Roman adoption was that we understand the depth of meaning in Romans 8:14–17. William Barclay[1] (The Letter to the Romans in The Daily Study Bible, pp. 109–112) offers historical insight into this Roman practice. Roman adoption was rendered serious by the patria potestas, the father’s absolute power over his family, including even the power of life and death. A Roman son, no matter how old he was, was still under the absolute control and possession of his father.

In adoption a person had to pass from one patria potestas to another, out of the possession and control of one father into the equally absolute possession and control of another. This involved two steps. The first was known as mancipatio, a symbolic sale. Three times the symbolism of a sale was carried out. Twice the father symbolically sold his son, and twice he bought him back; the third time he would not buy him back, showing that the patria potestas was broken. After the sale was the ceremony called the vindicatio, whereby the adopting father went to the Roman magistrates and presented a legal case for the transference of the adoptee to his patria potestas. The adoption was now completed.

The ramifications of adoption are most significant for the picture Paul is presenting in Romans 8:15.

(1) The adopted person lost all rights in his old family and gained all the rights of a fully legitimate son in his new family (cf. Eph. 2:3); he got a new father.

(2) It followed that he became heir to his new father’s estate. Even if other sons were born afterwards, who were real blood relations, it did not affect his rights; he was co-heir with them.

(3) The old life of the adopted person was completely wiped out; he was regarded as a new person entering a new life. Adoption meant the cancellation of any legal debts and freedom from all former relationships. For the Christian this has particular significance to the Law (cf. Gal. 4:5).

(4) In the eyes of the law the adopted person was literally and absolutely the son of the new father.

But in Romans 8:16–17 Paul uses still another picture from Roman adoption. The adoption ceremony was carried out in the presence of seven witnesses. Suppose that the adopting father died and there arose some dispute about the right of the adopted son to the inheritance. One or more of the seven witnesses could step forward and bear witness that the adoption was genuine. Thus the right of the adopted person was guaranteed and he entered into his inheritance. In 8:16, Paul is saying that it is the Holy Spirit Himself who is the witness to our adoption into the family of God.

Paul, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, used the picture of adoption into the family of God. Once we were “children of wrath” (Eph. 2:3) and “children of disobedience” (Eph. 2:2; 5:6); but God, in His mercy, has brought us into absolute possession of Himself. The old life has no more rights over us; God now has absolute right. The past is canceled, the debts of the past are wiped away, and we have begun a new life. In addition, we are heirs of all the riches of God (8:17a) and joint-heirs with Jesus Christ (8:17b).

At the time of original publication, Dr. David L. Burggraff was the Dean of the Seminary and Professor of Theology at Calvary Baptist Theological Seminary in Lansdale, Pennsylvania.

(Originally published in FrontLine • July/August 2001. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)

  1. Barclay’s theology is suspect, but his insight into Greek words and the manners and customs of ancient times can be helpful. []

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