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Adoption in Christ: Sonship in Galatians

By Christian Temple

Now I say, as long as the heir is a child, he does not differ at all from a slave although he is owner of everything, but he is under guardians and managers until the date set by the father. So also we, while we were children, were held in bondage under the elemental things of the world. But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, so that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons. Because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” Therefore you are no longer a slave, but a son; and if a son, then an heir through God. (Galatians 4:1-7)1


The letter written to the Galatians by the Apostle Paul has been called the Magna Charta of Christian Liberty. In it, Paul gives the impression of a master lawyer who skillfully and patiently dismantles the entire legal case of the opposition. He is a theological surgeon, who cuts away at all the dead tissue of legalism, a cancerous sore on true biblical Christianity, to leave only the life-giving, soul-saving truth of salvation by grace alone through faith alone. Paul ably and purposefully defends his own apostleship from judaizing naysayers, defends the doctrine of justification by faith alone, and warns against the faith-crippling reversion to Judaism for those who were “Called by the grace of Christ” (1:6).

The Galatian believers had been received into the church apart from the rite of Jewish circumcision, and without any obligation to keep the Jewish Law. But due to the influential Jewish party within the church, it was soon being taught that Gentile believers had to be circumcised to partake of faith in Jesus Christ, and that they had to adhere to the Law of Moses as well. Paul was indignant when he heard of these things, which taught that faith in Christ alone was insufficient for salvation, to the point where he proclaimed a double anathema on those who would teach a faith plus works doctrine (1:8,9).

With barely a civil introduction, Paul begins to deal with this movement toward apostasy in the Galatian church, and he is astonished that they have turned away so soon to a “different gospel [heteros, not of the same kind], which is really not another [allos, of the same kind]”, (1:6,7).

Paul masterfully builds his case against this heretical teaching throughout chapters 1 and 2 by demonstrating his God-given apostolic authority, culminating in his face-to-face confrontation with Simon Peter (2:11-14). He then proceeds to explain justification by faith by citing Abraham and his faith-relationship to God prior to the institution of the Jewish Law. Throughout chapters 1-3 Paul constructs an impenetrable argument for justification by faith, and the Christian liberty which results from it. The apex of this argument occurs in 3:23 – 4:7, as Paul reveals the basis for this liberty from the Law: the actual adoption by God of believers into His family by grace through faith in Christ Jesus.

Through spiritual adoption, believers are made to be sons of God, heirs with Abraham, and partakers of the promises of the covenant God made with the patriarch. And since believers are adopted, they are no longer slaves but sons, and if sons, then heirs of God through Christ (Gal 4:7). As sons of God, believers enjoy full claim to the inheritance of the kingdom of God, and can “stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage” (Gal 5:1; NKJV). But in order to truly understand this new relationship between God and believers, we must first comprehend the biblical understanding of Sonship.

What is Sonship

The idea of sons or sonship is a concept running deep throughout all of Scripture. Cain is the first recorded son in the Bible, and the word son (Heb. ben) is first used in Genesis 4:17. We are told in the New Testament that Adam is the first son (Gk. uios) of God (Luke 3:38). Other important sons in Scripture are Ishmael, Abraham and Hagar’s son (Gen 16:15); Isaac, Abraham and Sarah’s son (Gen 21:1–3; Rom 9:7–9; Heb 11:17–18); Jacob, Isaac and Rebekah’s son (Gen 25:26); Joseph, Jacob and Rachel’s favored son (Gen 30:22–24; 37:3–4); David, Jesse’s son (Ruth 4:17); Solomon, David’s son (2 Sam 12:24; Eccl 1:1) and Jesus Christ, Mary’s son (Mt 1:21). In addition to natural sonship, the Scriptures also speak of Israel as being God’s covenant son or sons. In Exodus 4:22-23 we are told:

“Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the Lord, “Israel is My son, My firstborn. “So I said to you, ‘Let My son go that he may serve Me’; but you have refused to let him go. Behold, I will kill your son, your firstborn.” ’ ”

Here God identifies the nation of Israel as his son, his firstborn. They are his chosen people through whom he will accomplish his redemptive plan. If Pharaoh would not release Israel, Pharaoh would suffer the loss of his own son, as a just punishment.

The spiritual sonship of which Paul is concerned in Gal 3:23 – 4:7 first comes to light in the Old Testament in Genesis 3:15: “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; He shall bruise you on the head, and you shall bruise him on the heel.” Here we have the earliest promise of the gospel; the Redeemer who will come from the line of Adam, though not be born by any man, as he will be the Seed of the woman (zera, a sowing, seed, offspring). This promise was further exemplified in the covenant God made with Abraham:

Then behold, the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “This man will not be your heir; but one who will come forth from your own body, he shall be your heir.” And He took him outside and said, “Now look toward the heavens, and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” And He said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” Then he believed in the Lord; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness. (Gen 15:4-6)

Although God considered Israel as the natural children of the covenant in one sense as his “sons” (Deut 14:1-2) it was never his intention to create an ethnic lineage of sons, but rather a spiritual lineage of sons by adoption into Christ Jesus. Only believers are true members of God’s people and are called true sons of the living God (Hosea 1:10; Mal 3:17), as well as sons of light (Luke 16:8; John 12:36; 1 Thess 5:5); sons of God (Luke 20:36; Rom 8:14; 2 Cor 6:18; Gal 3:26; 4:4–7; Heb 2:10); and sons of the resurrection (Lu 20:36). The idea of spiritual adoption is presented clearly in the New Testament, as John tells us in John 1:12:

But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.

Here John is quite clear that being a child of God is not by natural descent (not of blood, nor of the will, nor of the flesh) but rather by receiving Christ by grace through faith (nor of the will of man, but of God). Later, Paul himself will tell us in Romans 8:14,15 that all who are being led by the Spirit of God are sons of God, and believers have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but rather have received a spirit of adoption as sons. And in Galatians Paul says:

So that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons. Because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” (Gal 4:5,6).

Israel always had waited (and is still waiting) for the promise to Abraham to be fulfilled via blood lineage, but that was not God’s purpose. The children of God are so named by their belief in the Messiah, Jesus Christ. Paul makes this very clear in Romans 9:

But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel; nor are they all children because they are Abraham’s descendants, but: “through Isaac your descendants will be named.” That is, it is not the children of the flesh who are children of God, but the children of the promise are regarded as descendants. (9:6-8)

In Galatians it is quite clear that the path to Spiritual Sonship begins with the seed of Abraham (3:16) and that the inheritance is not based on Law, but upon promise (3:18). The Law was never given in order to create sons of God by strict adherence to it, but rather to be a tutor to lead the sons of Israel to faith in Christ. Only those who are of faith are considered sons of God, and are adopted into the Israel of God made up of all believers, Jew and Gentile (3:26; 6:16; Eph 3:6).

The Barrier to Sonship

In contrast to believers as sons of God, non-believers are called sons of disobedience (Eph 2:2; 5:6) who live in the lusts of the flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and are by nature children of wrath (Eph 2:3). They are even called sons of the devil (John 8:44). The barrier to a Father-son relationship with God is gripped tightly in the depraved nature of man. This is true even for the heirs of Abraham – those chosen by God for salvation through election to be his adopted children (Eph 1:4,5). Elect believers are as assuredly as depraved and sons of hell on the road to eternal punishment as are the reprobate before they come to faith in Christ. Before hearing and accepting the gospel of Christ, the elect are equally slaves to sin and are in bondage to the elemental things of this world. As Galatians 3:22,23 states:

But the Scripture has shut up everyone under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. But before faith came, we were kept in custody under the Law, being shut up to the faith which was later to be revealed.

All people are naturally (in the flesh) shut up (sugkleio) and condemned under the Law, even if they do not know it, and indeed the unregenerate cannot know that salvation is needed. But by God’s great mercy and grace faith is “given to those who believe” in the fullness of time.

Before one is adopted into the kingdom of God, one is a slave to those which by nature are no gods (Gal 4:8). A person is always a slave: either to Christ through faith or to the sin nature via the elemental things of this world. The natural state of man is spiritual ignorance, and he cannot even understand the spiritual things of God (1 Cor 2:14). As Judges 2:10 tells us, “All that generation also were gathered to their fathers; and there arose another generation after them who did not know the Lord, nor yet the work which He had done for Israel.” Belief is not an inherited quality; every generation which follows believers are by nature unregenerate. The total depravity of man is stated in Eccl 7:20, “Indeed, there is not a righteous man on earth who continually does good and who never sins.” Psalm 141:1-3 explains:

The fool has said in his heart, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, they have committed abominable deeds; There is no one who does good. The Lord has looked down from heaven upon the sons of men to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God. They have all turned aside, together they have become corrupt; There is no one who does good, not even one.

Scripture is quite clear that man is a fruitless sinner, and by nature he is self-centered and self-willed. He is unable to seek after God and his desire is always to justify himself, and to achieve works righteousness. Man desires to live by law, and will always seek a law-based system of works-embroiled virtue. But God tells us that there is nothing anyone can do to make himself right with God. Although man is always a law-breaker and appears to despise laws, he strives to be a slave to them, either to ones he creates for himself or to another man’s system. And in doing so he becomes further enslaved to his own appetites (Rom 16:18); to false gods (Gal 4:8) to fear of death (Heb 2:15) and to corruption (2 Peter 2:19).

For the Jew, the barrier to sonship with God was always trusting in ethnic lineage and adherence to the Law. But the Jews misunderstood the purpose of the Law, that it was to be a tutor to lead to faith in Christ (Gal 3:24) and not to be a means unto itself for law keeping as a method of justification. They failed to realize that Abraham was justified before the Law had come (Gal 3:6). They also failed to understand that the Law was insufficient for achieving righteousness and that it could never impart eternal life (Gal 3:21). The only release from this enslavement to works-righteousness and worldly sin is in the freedom for which Christ sets men free (Gal 5:1). Likewise, for the Gentile, the barrier to sonship was his own enslavement to sin and his ignorance of his condition and need of a Redeemer.

The Door to Sonship

The Door of Sonship to God clearly articulated in Galatians is spiritual adoption through faith in Jesus Christ. As Paul wrote in Gal 4:4,5:

But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, so that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons.

As Bruce states:

The divine act of adoption corresponds … to the adoptive procedure envisaged in v 2. What is emphasized here is the nodal point of salvation-history, marked by the coming of Christ … [it] constitutes the divinely ordained epoch for the people of God to enter into their inheritance as mature and responsible sons and daughters.2

The initiative of adoption always begins with the prospective parent, and God was the first to act in order to call his elect to himself, in order to adopt them as his sons and heirs. Gal 3:26-29 says:

For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise.

J. I. Packer’s chapter titled Sons of God in his classic book Knowing God is one of the best expositions of the blessings of adoption into Christ. Concerning this passage, Packer states:

Sonship to God is not, therefore, a universal status into which everyone enters by natural birth, but a supernatural gift which one receives through Jesus Christ … the gift of sonship to God becomes ours not through being born, but through being born again.3

In addition, he affirms:

The revelation to the believer that God is his Father is in a sense the climax of the Bible, just as it was in the final step in the revelatory process which the Bible records. In Old Testament times, as we have seen, God gave his people a covenant name by which to speak of him and call upon him: the name was Yahweh (“Jehovah,” “the Lord”). By this name, God announced himself as the “great I AM” – the One who is completely and consistently himself. He is: and it is because he is what he is that everything else is as it is.4

So it is evident that the door to Sonship can only be opened by God, who is the sovereign Lord of all, and by his initiative, he sent forth his only Son, to be born under the Law and to die under the Law, so that the chosen of God may be freely adopted into the kingdom as justified sons of God. Spiritual adoption is received, not acquired, as the apostle John tells us in John 1:12.

By the power of God, his children are enabled to receive him, and are given the right to become children and heirs by believing in his name and thereby being justified. This new birth does not come by blood inheritance, nor the desire of the flesh and human nature, nor by man’s own will to be a son, but rather by the will and plan of God. Through adoption God promises, “And I will be a father to you, and you shall be sons and daughters to Me, Says the Lord Almighty,” (2 Cor 6:18).

According to Packer, adoption is the highest privilege offered by God, even higher than justification.5 This is not a denial that “justification is the primary blessing because it meets our primary spiritual need”6, but rather is to say that justification is not the highest blessing. Adoption is higher because of the richer relationship with God that it involves.7 Justification is forensic and does not of itself imply any intimate or deep relationship with God the Judge. In theory, you can have the reality of justification without any close fellowship with God.8

Contrasted to this is adoption, which is a family idea, conceived in terms of love and viewing God as Father9. Through adoption God draws us into his family, and establishes us as desired children, and we are recipients of his intimate love and generosity. As Packer states:

Closeness, affection and generosity are at the heart of the relationship. To be right with God the Judge is a great thing, but to be loved and cared for by God the Father is greater.10

The Benefits of Sonship

So it is clear that the benefits of adoption into Christ are many, and basic to these benefits is the fact of a new relationship with God the Father through adoption. All believers are now declared sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus (Gal 3:26), for all are baptized with Christ and all have clothed themselves with Christ (3:27). As a protective father wraps his arms around his precious child in a violent storm, so does Christ wrap his children with himself in eternal protection of them. As Gal 2:20 declares:

“I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me.

The believer in a very real sense no longer lives, not to self, but Christ lives through him, sanctifying him and bringing him closer to the image of the Son of God. The desire and need of the person to live by the flesh is now replaced with a need and desire to live by the power of the Holy Spirit through faith in Christ. As it is stated by Paul later in his letter to the Romans:

What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase? May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it? Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin; for he who has died is freed from sin. (Rom 6:1-7).

So adoption into the family of God requires a growing resemblance to the Divine Patriarch of the family as well as our brother, Jesus Christ. We as believers are to be conformed to the image of Christ as we grow in grace and spiritual maturity. We have graciously been granted newness of life, and our old self has been put to death on the cross. Although our sinful nature remains, our duty is to live by, through, and for Jesus Christ, as inherited sons of God. Inheritance does not only bestow benefits on the heir but also responsibility of the riches willed to him.

As sons of God, believers are now incredibly able to petition God, not as God the Judge (which he assuredly remains) but rather as “Abba! Father!” (Gal 4:6), calling on him as the loving Daddy in a new, adoptive relationship. Gal 4:7 tells us, “Therefore you are no longer a slave, but a son; and if a son, then an heir through God.” The slavery to law and sin has passed, and all the benefits of sonship have been bestowed on the believer. As Packer states, the new relationship between believer and God the Father mirrors the relationship between the Father and the Son, and implies four things11:

Fatherhood implies authority. The Father commands and disposes; the initiative which he calls his son to exercise is the initiative of resolute obedience to the Father’s will. Second, fatherhood implies affection. “The Father loves the Son”. Third, fatherhood implies fellowship. Fourth, fatherhood implies honor. God wills to exalt his Son. All this extends to God’s adopted children. In, through and under Jesus Christ their Lord, they are ruled, loved companied with and honored by their heavenly Father.

Through spiritual adoption, the believer has passed from death to life, from darkness to light. In this new relationship, obedience secures the benefits of adoption (Matt 12:50), and barriers between sinner and God are broken down as strangers and aliens are changed into fellow citizens with the saints, as well as incorporation into God’s household (Eph 2:19). Christ is no longer ashamed to call us brothers (Heb 2:11) and we are now called brethren of his. The apostle Paul expounded on these truths further in the letter to the Romans:

For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God. For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him.

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the anxious longing of the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God. (8:14-21).

By the universe-shattering event of the incarnation of God in Christ Jesus, and his atoning sacrifice of love for his lost sheep, the relationship between former slaves to sin and God has been eternally changed. The book of Galatians develops this monumental change of relationship and exhorts believers to live the new life they have been granted as imitators of Christ, and not to “turn back again to the weak and worthless elemental things, to which you desire to be enslaved all over again”, (Gal 4:9). Instead the sons of God are urged and encouraged by Paul that:

It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery. For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. But may it never be that I would boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. (Gal 5:1;13; 6:14).

The sons and heirs of God are called and demanded to act and live as what they now are: adopted children of God.


1) All Scriptures taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE (R), (C) Copyright The Lockman Foundation 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 Used by permission.
2) Bruce, F.F. The Epistle to the Galatians, The New International Greek Testament Commentary. Paternoster Press. 1982. Grand Rapids. p. 194.
3) Packer, J.I. Knowing God. 1973 by J.I. Packer. InterVarsity Press. Downers Grove, IL. pp. 200-201.
4) Packer. p. 202.
5) Packer. p. 206.
6) Ibid.
7) Packer. p. 207.
8) Ibid.
9) Ibid.
10) Ibid.
11) Packer p. 205.


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The above article was posted on this Web site in August 31, 2001.

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