For most of my working life as a preacher, evangelist and apologist I have managed to ignore the doctrine of adoption. I dodged it when I preached through Romans for Christian Union house parties. I have taught through Ephesians and Galatians and skimmed over it. I have led numerous Bible Studies, and nobody has spotted my omission. It is hardly mentioned in worship songs, evangelistic books or service leaders either.
But recently I have been challenged that if we never mention the doctrine of adoption we are depriving the church of a vital and central part of the gospel.
Most preachers I know are very good at explaining these aspects of the good news of the gospel:
Justification – you have been declared righteous by a Holy God
Forgiveness – you have nothing to fear from the coming judgment of God
Redemption – you have been set free from slavery to sin
Rescue – you have been saved from the terrible consequences of sin
And so we introduce God as judge, as forgiver, as liberator, as savior but where is the basis for the reason and confidence to know God as Father? By neglecting the doctrine of adoption we give our listeners a forensic, legal and positional connection with God but we rob them of the privilege of knowing Him as our loving heavenly father.
To be faithful to scripture we need to teach the whole counsel of God. To be effective in evangelism we need to present the gospel in all of its richness. To grow in spiritual maturity we need to understand and practice our true identity in Christ and that has to include our privileged position to be the adopted people of God.
In his book Knowing God, reformed scholar JI Packer argues that adoption "is the highest privilege that the gospel offers: higher even than justification" because adoption provides "the richer relationship with God". Packer uses his usual eloquence to contend that: "To be put right with God the Judge is a great thing, but to be loved and cared for by God the Father is a greater thing." For someone who has contended long and hard for the gospel and is outspoken about his views on penal substitution, hell and the authority of scripture these words are not to be taken lightly.
In order to help redress this deficit a special theological conference exploring the theme of "Justification, Adoption and the Hospitality of God" took place yesterday at St Mellitus in London. We believe that the missional, pastoral and evangelistic implications of the doctrine of adoption are so important for the church that we are making all of the talks from the day available online. Those that participated in the day included: Rt Reverend Paul Butler the Bishop of Durham, Professor John Milbank, Professor Stanley Hauerwas, Dr Jane Williams, Dr Steve Holmes, Dr Ruth Valerio and Dr Graham Tomlin. The aim behind this unprecedented gathering of theologians to explore the implications of the doctrine of adoption is to inject a vision for adoption into the Church's preaching, pastoral care, missionary aspiration and everyday practice.
You can download the talks from the event here.