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Adoption (!)
By Charles H. Welch

See Also Adoption

This word ‘adoption’ is the translation of the Greek huiothesia, a word composed of huios ‘a son’ and thesis ‘to place, or constitute’. (See CHILDREN vs. SONS p. 142). The word is used only by Paul in the New Testament and occurs five times as follows:

Rom. 8:15. Ye have received the spirit of adoption.
Rom. 8:23. Waiting for the adoption.
Rom. 9:4. To whom pertaineth the adoption.
Gal. 4:5. That we might receive the adoption of sons.
Eph. 1:5. Unto the adoption of children.

To appreciate the full significance of the apostle’s figures in Galatians 3 and 4 they must be viewed in the light of the law of adoption - and more particularly, the Greek law of adoption. At the same time it must be remembered that Paul also uses the term in Romans, so that we must also bear in mind the Roman law on the subject. There is no equivalent ‘law of adoption’ in England. In Roman law, adoption was a very serious undertaking.

‘The adopted son became a member of the family, just as if he had been born of the blood of the adopter; and he was invested with all the privileges of a filius familias. As a matter of fact it was by this means that the succession amongst the Caesars was continued. It never descended from father to son. What with poison, divorce, luxury and profligacy, the surviving members of a family were few, the descent suffered constant interruption, and whole families disappeared ... In no case amongst the Caesars did the throne pass from father to son ... Augustus was the great nephew of Julius Caesar, and was adopted from the Octavian into the Julian gens. Tiberius was no relation at all to his predecessor: he was merely the son of Augustus’s wife, Livia, by Tiberius Claudius Nero. Here we have the introduction of another family - the Claudii ... Nero was the great nephew of his predecessor Claudius, who had adopted him in the year A.D. 50’ (Septimus Buss).

Adoption was of two kinds: adoption proper, and adrogation.

Adoption proper.
It must be remembered that the father in Roman law had absolute control over his family, possessing the same rights over his children as over his slaves. By this patria potestas the son was deprived of the right to own property, and the father could inflict any punishment he thought fit, even to the extent of the death penalty. He could also sell his son into bondage. According to the law of the XII Tables, however, a father forfeited his potestas if he sold his son three times. For this reason, in the case of adoption, a legal ceremony took place in which the father went through the process of selling his son three times, and the son passed over completely to the potestas of the adopter. In later times the cumbersome ceremony was substituted by a simple declaration before the Praetor or Governor.

When the person to be adopted was his own master, he was adopted by the form called adrogation (from the word for ‘ask’, since in this case the adopter, the adopted, and the people were ‘asked’, rogatur). The law demanded that the adopter should be at least eighteen years older than the adopted:

‘Adoption imitates nature, and it seems unnatural that a son should be older than his father’ (Justinian).
‘Adoption was called in law a capitas diminutio, which so far annihilated the pre-existing personality who underwent it, that during many centuries it operated as an extinction of debts’ (W. E. Ball).

The effect of adoption was fourfold:

The adopted person was transferred from one gens to another.

The adopted person acquired a new name: for he assumed the name of his adopter, and modified his own by the termination ianus. Thus when Caius Octavius of the Octavian gens was adopted by Julius Caesar, he became Caius Julius Caesar Octavianus.


While the adopted person suffered many ‘losses’, these were more than counterbalanced by his ‘gains’, for he received a new capacity to inherit. In the case of the adopter dying intestate, the adopted son acquired the right of succession.
Paul alludes to the patria potestas, the absolute power of the father in the family, in the fourth Chapter of Galatians where he speaks of ‘the child differing nothing from a slave’ and goes on to say ‘Thou art no longer a slave, but a son’ (Gal. 4:7). Paul also alludes to tutelage in Galatians 3 and 4, where we have such phrases as ‘kept in ward’, ‘tutor to bring us to Christ’, ‘under guardians and stewards’, and ‘children held in bondage’ (Gal. 3:23 to 4:3).

So far as the ceremony was concerned, the difference between the transferring of a son into slavery, and his becoming a member of the family was very slight. In the one case the adopter said: ‘I claim this man as my slave’; in the other, ‘I claim this man as my son’. The form was almost the same; it was the spirit that differed. If the adopter died and the adopted son claimed the inheritance, the latter had to testify to the fact that he was the adopted heir. Furthermore -

‘the law requires corroborative evidence. One of the seven witnesses is called. "I was present", he says, "at the ceremony. It was I who held the scales and struck them with the ingot of brass. It was an adoption. I heard the words of the vindication, and I say this person was claimed by the deceased, not as a slave, but as a son"‘ (W. E. Ball).

Bearing all these facts in mind, can we not feel something of the thrill with which the Roman Christian would read the words of Romans:

‘Ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but ye have received the spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father. The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God: and if children, then heirs’ (Rom. 8:15-17).

It is not so much the Holy Spirit addressing Himself here to the human spirit in confirmation, but rather the joint witness of the Holy Spirit and the spirit of the believer to the same blessed fact.

Closely associated with the law of adoption was that of the Roman will. The Praetorian will was put into writing, and fastened with the seals of seven witnesses (cf. Rev. 5 and 6). There is probably a reference to this type of will in Ephesians:

‘In Whom also after that ye believed, ye were sealed with that Holy Spirit of promise, which is the earnest of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession, unto the praise of His glory’ (Eph. 1:13,14).

W. E. Ball translates the latter part of the passage: ‘Until the ransoming accomplished by the act of taking possession (of the inheritance)’:

‘When a slave was appointed heir, although expressly emancipated by the will which gave him the inheritance, his freedom commenced not upon the making of the will, nor even immediately upon the death of the testator, but from the moment when he took certain legal steps, which were described as "entering upon the inheritance". This is "the ransoming accomplished by act of taking possession". In the last words of the passage - "to the praise of His glory", there is an allusion to a well-known Roman custom. The emancipated slaves who attended the funeral of their emancipator were the praise of his glory. Testamentary emancipation was so fashionable a form of posthumous ostentation, the desire to be followed to the grave by a crowd of freedmen wearing the "cap of liberty" was so strong, that very shortly before the time when St. Paul wrote, the legislature had expressly limited the number of slaves that an owner might manumit by will’.

No modern writer has greater first hand knowledge of this term than Sir William Ramsay, and in order to acquaint ourselves with its usage in Galatia, we will first of all quote from Sir William’s A Historical Commentary on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians.

‘The idea that they who follow the principle of faith are sons of Abraham, whatever family they belong to by nature, would certainly be understood by the Galatians as referring to the legal process called adoption, huiothesia.
‘Adoption was a kind of embryo will; the adopted son became the owner of the property, and the property could pass to a person that was naturally outside the family only through his being adopted. The adoption was a sort of will-making; and this ancient form of will was irrevocable and public. The terms "son" and "heir" are interchangeable.
‘An illustration from the ordinary fact of society, as it existed in the Galatian cities, is here stated: "I speak after the manner of men". The will (diatheke) of a human being is irrevocable when once duly executed. But, if Paul is speaking about a will, how can he say, after it is once made, it is irrevocable?’
‘Such irrevocability was a characteristic feature of Greek law, according to which an heir outside the family must be adopted into the family; and the adoption was the will-making. The testator, after adopting his heir, could not subsequently take away from him his share of the inheritance or impose new conditions on his succession. The Roman-Syrian Law Book will illustrate this passage of the Epistle. It actually lays down the principle that a man can never put away an adopted son, and that he cannot put away a real son without good ground. It is remarkable that the adopted son should have a stronger position than the son by birth; yet it is so. The expression in Galatians 3, verse 15, "When it hath been confirmed" must also be observed. Every will had to be passed through the Record Office of the city. It was not regarded in the Greek law as a purely private document. It must be deposited in the Record Office’.

Here it will be seen that one may be ‘adopted’, or made the heir, without being at the same time a true child, but in the case of the Scriptural usage of adoption there is no idea that the believer is only an ‘adopted’ child for the testimony of the Word is explicit on the point, making it clear that adoption is something added:

‘The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God’ (Rom. 8:16).

The argument of Galatians 4:1-7 proceeds upon the supposition that there is a difference between a ‘child’ (Gal. 4:1,2), and one who has received the ‘adoption’ (Gal. 4:5). ‘If a son, then an heir of God through Christ’ (Gal. 4:7). That ‘adoption’ is related to ‘inheritance’ we can see by examining the first chapter of Ephesians. There we find the word ‘predestinate’ used twice, once in verse 5, where it is ‘unto adoption’, and again in verse 11, where it refers to ‘inheritance’. Let us now observe the way in which this important word is used in connection with three different companies of the redeemed.

In Romans 9 the apostle enumerates the distinctive and exclusive privileges of Israel ‘according to the flesh’, ‘who are Israelites; to whom pertaineth the adoption’ (9:4). The structure of the passage relates ‘adoption’ with ‘promises’ and the whole is important enough to claim our attention before passing on. Accordingly we set out the structure.

A According to the flesh, brethren.

   B Who are Israelites.

      C To whom pertaineth the ADOPTION.

          D And the glory.

              E And the covenants.

              E And the giving of the law.

          D And the service of God.

      C And the PROMISES.

   B Whose are the fathers.

A As concerning the flesh, Christ came.

No one with any understanding can interpret the words ‘Israel’ and ‘according to the flesh’ as of the Church, or of that company where there is ‘neither Jew nor Greek’ (Gal. 3:28). When Israel were about to be brought out of Egypt, God called the nation His ‘firstborn’ saying, ‘Israel is My son, even My firstborn’ (Exod. 4:22).
Attached to this position is a citizenship, the city being Jerusalem, which is destined to be the centre of the earth when the Kingdom is set up (Isa. 2:3; Zech. 14:16,17). It is obvious that if one nation is to be granted pre-eminence, the others must be subservient, and one of the accompaniments of the privilege of adoption, which we find true of each sphere, is the grant of pre-eminence over other companies in the same sphere.

‘The nation and kingdom that will not serve thee shall perish; yea, those nations shall be utterly wasted’ (Isa. 60:12).
‘Strangers shall stand and feed your flocks, and the sons of the alien shall be your plowmen and your vinedressers. But ye shall be named the Priests of the LORD: men shall call you the Ministers of our God’ (Isa. 61:5,6).

We shall find that the following features are inseparable from adoption as used in the Scriptures.

The appointing of the heir.
The dignity of the first-born.
The close association of citizenship.
Some special pre-eminence over other companies in the same sphere.

In marked contrast with Romans 9, where ‘the adoption’ is the exclusive prerogative of ‘Israel according to the flesh’, we have ‘the adoption’ of Galatians 4, which pertains to the seed of Abraham who are not considered ‘after the flesh’ (23), who are associated with ‘Jerusalem which is above’ (26), and which is composed of both Jew and Greek made one in Christ, and consequently heirs according to the promise. Yet further, those to whom pertaineth the adoption according to the teaching of Ephesians, have no relationship with Israel at all, they have no connection with the promises made unto the fathers, they were aliens and strangers, without hope, and without God. These were chosen before the foundation of the world, and in Christ are raised and seated far above all principality and power. Consequently the logical result of admitting the contextual teaching of Paul’s epistles regarding ‘adoption’ is to admit three distinct spheres of blessing.

A man can only have three first-born sons, if he has had three families. This application to the teaching concerning adoption will be found to be an irrefutable proof of the existence of ‘three spheres of blessing’, (see THREE SPHERES).