The Trinity’s Love and Adoption
by Dr. Robert Peterson
I will not soon forget the response of the students in my systematic theology class in the spring of 2003. The students had prayed since the first day of class for fellow student Jason and his wife, Sally, who wanted badly to adopt a child from Colombia, South America. We were moved when Jason, through tears, shared that the arrangement had apparently fallen through. What a different mood prevailed one month later when Jason announced that he would soon pick up their new son! Spontaneous applause and expressions of joy erupted from the class. I have never encountered anything like it in my 27 years of teaching. That term we experienced the heartaches and joys of the family of God. It gave all of us a human example of God’s great love for us in adopting us to be His sons and daughters. The Gospel of John hints at the difficulty that we sinners have in believing that God really loves us: “So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us…” (1 John 4:16 ESV). We have to come to believe that God loves us. One of the dearest ways that God convinces us of his love is by telling us about our adoption. Each person of the Trinity loves us redemptively.
The Father’s Love and Choice
God the Father showers his love upon us: “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God” (1 John 3:1 ESV). To be called God’s child is to be adopted by him. John is emphatic—God loved us with this kind of love, the kind that makes us his children. Jason is an imperfect picture of God’s fatherly compassion.
The Father also communicates his love for us in another way. Ephesians 1:4–6 tells us, “In love he predestined us for adoption through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace” (ESV). The Bible does not tell us everything we might want to know about predestination, but it does tell us all we need to know. God—moved by nothing he saw in us but because of “the purpose of his will” and “his glorious grace”—chose us to be his own. “In love he predestined us for adoption.” His choosing us to be his sons and daughters is proof that he loves us dearly.
In a limited way, Jason and Sally mirror God. They chose to adopt. They were not obligated to ask for an orphaned, foreign child. But they did so because they wanted someone to love. “We loved Pedro before we knew him,” Jason recalls. “That is an object lesson to us of God’s amazing love for us and choosing of us before we knew him.” Spectacular as it sounds, God the Father—the Maker of heaven and earth—out of his free compassion chose us to belong to him and to the other members of his family. As a result we do not have to strive to be accepted by our heavenly Father. This is good news, for we are a race of strivers.
Consider the pattern of striving, succeeding, failing, falling, and discouragement seen in the mother who beats herself up at night for having yelled in frustration at her young, demanding children. She longs to do better, to be different, to know she is accepted. Or the son who wearies himself to excel in everything in hopes of hearing from his earthly father, “I am proud of you,” when all he has ever heard is “Why can’t you do better?” As those adopted by God our Father, we can bask in his love and enjoy our sonship/daughtership because he has already accepted us in his beloved Son, our Savior.
The Son Loves Us and Gives Himself for Us
Not only does God the Father love us like that, but so does God the Son. In fact, the Father sent the Son so that we might become his children: “God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Gal. 4:4–5 ESV). The apostle Paul goes on in the next verse to speak of the Father sending “the Spirit of his Son into our hearts.” The whole Trinity is involved in our adoption.
Jesus was “born of woman,” the Virgin Mary, and so he became a genuine human being like us. He also was “born under law,” obligated to obey the Ten Commandments, which he did flawlessly his whole life. The result of this divine person taking to himself genuine and sinless humanity was His ability to redeem us “that we might receive adoption as sons.”
But how did Christ redeem us “who were under the law,” that is, duty-bound to obey it (Gal. 4:5)? Paul answers this question in the previous chapter of Galatians. There he tells that we all had broken the law and were under its curse: “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them” (Gal. 3:10 ESV). The curse of the law is its threat of punishment to all who break it. That curse hung over our heads until “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us…” (Gal. 3:13 ESV). This is one of the clearest expressions of Christ’s substitutionary death in all of Scripture. Christ, the spotless Son of God, delivered us from the law’s curse “by becoming a curse for us.” Paul means that on the cross Jesus took the law’s penalty—its punishment—in our place. Why did he do such a thing? The answer is at once simple and profound: He loved us and gave himself for us (Gal. 2:20).
I especially want young pastors to hear this truth and be encouraged. Pastors bear the weight of struggles, sorrow, and sin of the people under their care—and so it should be. Sadly, though, pastors sometimes become the targets of deep anger and frustration. It is important to acknowledge the pain of such wounds, but it is also important to not forget: You will never be accursed despite these trials and difficulties. Christ took the condemnation for you and for them. He did this uniquely, once, and for all believers—forever.
The Spirit Loves Us, Opens Our Hearts, and Assures Us
Adoption demonstrates the Trinity’s love for us. The Father loves and chooses us, the Son loves and redeems us, and the Spirit loves us too. The Spirit opens our hearts to God’s love and applies the redemption planned by the Father and accomplished by the Son in two ways. First, he is “the Spirit of adoption…by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ ” (Rom. 8:15 ESV). “Abba” is an Aramaic word for “father,” denoting respect and tenderness. It is not baby talk (“Da-da”) as some have claimed, but it is a word of affection used by a loving child. A student once told me that she still calls her father “daddy.” It was a name she had learned to call her father while she was young.
Though in her thirties with children of her own, she still called her father, “Daddy.” The Holy Spirit of adoption is the One “by whom we cry” out to God as “Abba! Father!” The Spirit enables us to call God “Daddy” or “Father” in truth. This shows the Spirit’s love for us; without His working in our hearts we never would have uttered such a cry.
Second, the Spirit assures us of God’s love. Romans 8:16 tells us, “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God…” (ESV). Deep within our hearts the Spirit whispers, “I love you,” on the Father’s behalf. The Spirit convinces us within our hearts that God is our Father and we are his children. Some of us need to meditate deeply on these truths so they will seep into our inmost being and change the way we think about God and ourselves. This should be a comfort to the 50 percent of children who are currently fatherless.
How many more currently suffer or have suffered under temperamental, neglectful, or abusive fathers? God knows, and he hears the cry of the fatherless and the despised. So much is he concerned with such matters that the Spirit of God does not cease to petition on our behalf. It is he who cries for us when we do not even know how to, saying, “Abba, Father” (Rom. 8:26).
Dr. Peterson serves as professor of systematic theology at Covenant Theological Seminary. He has pastored several churches, and his experience as a minister of the gospel is reflected in the practical emphases in his systematic theology classes. He is known for his daily lunches with students. Dr. Peterson has published several books, including Adopted by God: From Wayward sinners to Cherished Children (P&R, 2001) and, most recently, Life Everlasting: The Unfolding Story of Heaven (P&R, 2012), co-authored with Dan C. Barber. This article originally appeared in the Fall 2007 issue of Covenant magazine.