Columns, Features, Pastorate, Theology

Our Father in Heaven

Coming off the heals of Reformation Day I’ve been thinking about all the wonderful posts I saw on social media heralding the essential doctrine of justification as it relates to the gospel. Many a commentator quoted the phrase most often attributed to the great Reformer Martin Luther: “Justification is the article by which the church stands or falls.” Whether Luther said it exactly this way is not the issue; the essence of the idea is certainly in his writings and Protestants are right to affirm it.

But there is another aspect of the gospel that we would do well to herald in our day as well: adoption. To do so takes nothing away from the glory of justification, but the doctrine of adoption helps us see and experience the love of God in greater depth and has tremendous implications for pastoral ministry.


God’s merciful adoption of a people for himself is a theme that many theologians in church history have helpfully traced throughout the Scriptures. I remember well when, in my early twenties, J.I. Packer helped bring this doctrine alive for me in chapter 19 of his classic work Knowing God. Later, in my thirties, Sinclair Ferguson taught me much about adoption through his book-length treatment of the subject entitled Children of the Living God. And, more recently, I’ve benefited from Trevor Burke’s fine work of biblical theology Adopted into God’s Family. Add to these titles several fine systematic theologies and commentaries on the subject and the glories of adoption are richly accessible in our day. These books have opened for me the biblical teaching on adoption and, perhaps more than any doctrine, helped me relate to God as Father.

Consider a biblical text like Ephesians 1:4-6,

In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved.

It is the love of God that moves him to predestine us for adoption. To be sure, there is no son or daughter of God who is not first declared righteous before him. But justification, as essential as it is, is not all there is to the gospel. We are acquitted by the Judge so that we can be loved by the Father.

Given our adoption the Apostle goes on in Ephesians 1:11 to talk of our inheritance, “In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will.” And part of the purpose of God in salvation is to give us all the blessings of being full family members in God’s household. Knowing this is why Paul chastens the Corinthians for lusting after worldly treasures and acclaim. They had evidently forgotten (or some needed to learn for the first time) about their inheritance in the gospel and what it included, namely, everything:

So let no one boast in men. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s (1 Corinthians 3:21-23).

This beautiful truth is also seen in Romans 8:15-17,

For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.

Notice we are not told to cry, “Merciful Judge!” — although that would be true and right to cry. Our justification ushers us into a relationship with God that allows us to cry “Abba! Father!” Indeed, we are not merely acquitted sinners, but children of God and, therefore, fellow heirs with Christ the One who is not ashamed to call us brothers (Cf., Hebrews 2:10-12).

A powerful illustration of this gospel reality is seen in Luke 15. It is there that Jesus helps his followers see how they are to relate to God in salvation. You’ll recall the benevolent father who embraces his wayward son upon coming home. This repentant rebel would not be a hired hand, but a full member of the family: ring on his finger, sandals on his feet, and robe on his back symbolizing this fact. And there would be a great celebration recognizing the magnitude of the moment — a son had come home and with his homecoming, family status restored. This parable, of course, is intended to move us to see that salvation is “to the praise of his glorious grace” (Ephesians 1:6).


What are the implications of the doctrine of adoption for pastoral ministry? At least this: It forces us to examine our ministries and consider how we relate to our people. Do we see our churches as a collection of merely acquitted sinners or the glorious local congregation of the children of God? Do we consider our church members as merely “not guilty” or as co-heirs with Christ? Do we relate to our people as a judge or a shepherd? Understanding the doctrine of adoption will make all the difference in our pastoral ministries as we seek to reflect the fatherhood of God in our leading (Cf., 1 Peter 5:1-4).

So let us herald the truth that “Justification is the article by which the church stands or falls.” But let us not stop there. May we move from justification to what our right standing before God grants us: adoption as sons to the praise of his glorious grace.

Filed under: Columns, Features, Pastorate, Theology
Michael Pohlman

Michael Pohlman (PhD, Southern Seminary) is professor of Preaching and Pastoral Ministry and chair of the Department of Ministry and Proclamation at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is founder and executive director of Some Pastors and Teachers.