Adoption is About Transformation

billingsJ.I. Packer has aptly summarized the Gospel as “Adoption by grace.” In my favorite little intro to the Reformed tradition,  J. Todd Billings explains that God’s adoption of us in Christ, is not only a metaphor about our initial justification, but plays into the way we think of our sanctification:

While the metaphor of adoption begins as a legal act, it does not end there: it ends with membership in the household of God (Gal. 6:10; Eph. 2:19), with a calling to act into the reality of this new identity. God’s legal act of adopting into the family of God results in a new identity, in an eschatologically conditioned way. Thus, when we are given an identity in Christ, we are called to live into it. For example, the doxological opening of Ephesians 1 says that God “destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ” (v. 5). As the blessings of being in Christ are unfolded in the following verses, Paul returns to the language of adoption and inheritance—that “in Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory” (1:11–12, emphasis added). This new identity of one belonging to a new family in Christ is sealed by the Spirit in the verses that follow: “In him you also . . . were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory” (1:13–14). The adopted identity in Christ, sealed by the Spirit, leads to living “for the praise of his glory” (1:12), but also provides the ground for numerous ethical exhortations in Ephesians: the call to unity (4:13); to prayer (6:18); to speaking and living the truth in Christ (4:15, 21, 25; 6:14); to living in “love” rather than in anger, malice, and bitterness (4:21–5:1). All of these exhortations are to reflect the behavior of those who have been conferred a new adopted identity in Christ and who seek to live into this inheritance received as children of God in Christ.

In contrast to some theologians who have associated adoption only with justification, Paul’s overall usage of the adoption metaphor describes both the legal dimension of being transferred into God’s family and the transformative dimension of growing in God’s family. By associating adoption only with justification, theologians have sometimes tended to emphasize the legal at the expense of the transformative side of adoption. Trevor Burke has criticized certain Reformed scholastic thinkers, in particular, for making adoption a subset or benefit of justification without recognizing its distinct meaning. While Burke makes a good point, I suspect some of the reason for the confusion comes from the following: Theologians have often spoken about the act of becoming adopted as a forensic act, which is a valid point (as Burke agrees). But the forensic sense of becoming adopted does not exhaust the meaning of Paul’s metaphor, because the result of that act is that one is adopted to be a son or daughter of God, placed in the security of God’s family, and given a new identity to live into in an eschatologically conditioned way. Some theologians have thus been too quick to assume that the meaning of “adoption” is exhausted by the act of becoming adopted. Significantly for this chapter, however, this is not a mistake that John Calvin makes. Calvin uses the image of adoption as a way to describe the double grace of justification and sanctification received in union with Christ. Calvin understood that as an image for salvation, the act of becoming adopted is a legal, forensic action, but it has another dimension as well: as an image for the way Christians are to act as children of the Father who promises “to nourish us throughout the course of our life.” Indeed, the Spirit gives new life, displayed in love of God and neighbor, which “shows that the Spirit of adoption has been given to us (cf. Romans 8:15).”

–J. Todd Billings (2011-11-01). Union with Christ: Reframing Theology and Ministry for the Church (Kindle Locations 457-486). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Unsurprisingly, J.I. Packer has quite a bit to say about the way adoption transforms our identity. Towards the end of his chapter on the subject in his classic Knowing God, Packer summarizes some of the glories of adoption and gives us some questions to ask ourselves in light of this brilliant reality:

Do I, as a Christian, understand myself? Do I know my own real identity? My own real destiny? I am a child of God. God is my Father; heaven is my home; every day is one day nearer. My Savior is my brother; every Christian is my brother too. Say it over and over to yourself first thing in the morning, last thing at night, as you wait for the bus, any time when your mind is free, and ask that you may be enabled to live as one who knows it is all utterly and completely true. For this is the Christian’s secret of—a happy Life?—yes, certainly, but we have something both higher and profounder to say. This is the Christian’s secret of a Christian life, and of a God-honoring life, and these are the aspects of the situation that really matter. May this secret become fully yours, and fully mine. To help us realize more adequately who and what, as children of God, we are and are called to be, here are some questions by which we do well to examine ourselves again and again.

Do I understand my adoption? Do I value it? Do I daily remind myself of my privilege as a child of God?

Have I sought full assurance of my adoption? Do I daily dwell on the love of God to me?

Do I treat God as my Father in heaven, loving, honoring and obeying him, seeking and welcoming his fellowship, and trying in everything to please him, as a human parent would want his child to do?

Do I think of Jesus Christ, my Savior and my Lord, as my brother too, bearing to me not only a divine authority but also a divine-human sympathy? Do I think daily how close he is to me, how completely he understands me, and how much, as my kinsman-redeemer, he cares for me?

Have I learned to hate the things that displease my Father? Am I sensitive to the evil things to which he is sensitive? Do I make a point of avoiding them, lest I grieve him?

Do I look forward daily to that great family occasion when the children of God will finally gather in heaven before the throne of God, their Father, and of the Lamb, their brother and their Lord? Have I felt the thrill of this hope?

Do I love my Christian brothers and sisters with whom I live day by day, in a way that I shall not be ashamed of when in heaven I think back over it? Am I proud of my Father, and of his family, to which by his grace I belong? Does the family likeness appear in me? If not, why not?

God humble us; God instruct us; God make us his own true children.

Knowing God, pp. 258-260

Soli Deo Gloria

Top Five Reformedish Books of 2013

AD: I use Grammarly to check plagiarism because what if I go on the Janet Mefferd Show? 

Once again it is time for my annual “Top Five Reformedish Books” of the year. This is actually a horrible post to write. I read a lot of good books this year. Many of them deserve to be on Top Five book lists somewhere. For me, though, these particular five distinguished themselves. Now, unlike some other lists, I am not simply choosing from books published in 2013, but rather from ones that I’ve read in 2013. I am still catching up on 20 centuries of thought, you know. Well, without further ado, here they are:

death by livingDeath By Living: Life Was Meant to Be Spent by N.D. Wilson – I’ve already reviewed this over at the Gospel Coalition where I said:

For return readers looking for quick comparison between Notes and Death, I’d say that if the last one changed the way I thought, this one might change the way I live. Notes invites you to embrace God as the sovereign, beyond-imagining author of this ridiculously unexpected universe. Death challenges you to live as a character, or rather, as a sub-writer of enfleshed, breathing words. Big ones. Interesting ones. Once again, you’ll find yourself in a well-shaken cocktail of poetic memoir, philosophy, theology, sharp wit, polemical fisticuffs, hilarity, and exhortation in the form of a paean to the grace of a life well-lived in the shadow of eternity. For the newcomer, you may want to strap in first.

walking with GodWalking With God Through Pain and Suffering by Timothy Keller – I’ve read a number of books on the subject, especially in my undergrad in philosophy, and I have to say, it is going to be the new classic on the subject. Unlike other works on the subject, it is not only pastoral, or only philosophical, or only theological, but approaches the issue of suffering from all of these angles and more. Keller brings sociology, literature, theology, philosophy, and, of course, the Scriptures, to bear on the seemingly intractable burden of suffering and evil. I’ll go out on a limb and say this is his best book yet. Given that you and everyone you know will encounter pain and suffering in this world, everybody should go out and pick up this book.

people and placePeople and Place: A Covenant Ecclesiology by Michael Horton – This is the fourth volume of Horton’s dogmatics examining traditional doctrinal loci from the standpoint of a retooled covenant theology. Building on the work of Farrow, Volf, and others, Horton offers an instructive treatment of the origin of the Church, the sacraments, the classic marks of the Church, and her mission in the world. Of course, eschatology figures prominently in the discussion, and there is an excellent discussion of Scripture and tradition towards the front-end. As always, Horton is in constant conversation with Roman Catholic ecclesiologies, Barth, Radical Orthodoxy, Stanley Grenz, and general Evangelicals setting up a clear, irenic, and charitable contrast. While some discussions are a bit thick for the non-specialist, I highly recommend it to anybody interested in the ecclesiological discussions of the day, especially if you’re looking for a Reformed account that can play alongside the big boys like Ratzinger (RC) and Ziziouslas (EO).

athanasius leithartAthanasius by Peter Leithart – I decided to get down to business and read Athanasius’ Four Discourses Against the Arians this year, so I picked up Leithart’s volume as a bit of a guide. As usual, I was not disappointed. Paying close attention to Athanasius’ metaphysical categories and scriptural exegesis, Leithart cleanly and clearly expounds the good bishops’ beautiful Trinitarian and Christological theology, bringing it into living conversation with theologians at work today. Not only is Leithart an able interpreter of Athanasius’ polemical and pastoral theology, he sets the discussion in lively account of his theo-political controversies. For anybody interested in Athanasius, or the conversation around the ‘theological interpretation’ of scripture, it’s a great place to take the plunge.

paul and the faithfulness of GodPaul and the Faithfulness of God by N.T. Wright – I’ve waited for this book for a few years now. While I’m only through the first volume (weighing in at 570 pages), I can safely say this is the Paul book of the decade. It will be impossible to write about Paul from now on without engaging Wright’s arguments in this sprawling masterpiece. Beyond that, what can I say? It is the most grossly comprehensive thing I’ve ever seen on the subject. It’s Wright at the height of his powers: asking the big questions, giving even bigger answers; setting Paul in his 1st Century context against various backgrounds (2nd Temple Judaism, Roman, Greek); engaging New Perspectives and Old Perspectives; telling stories and arguing for stories; close exegesis and sweeping overviews from 20,000 feet; actantial analyses for days. No, you don’t agree with everything he says, but that isn’t why you read Wright, now is it?

Honorable Mentions:

Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity by Charles Taylor

The Word of God for the People of God by J. Todd Billings

Union with Christ by Robert Letham

Soli Deo Gloria

Top 5 Reformedish Books of 2012

Everybody else is doing one so I figure I will too. I must note that my “Top 5” of 2012 were not all published in 2012—I may just have happened to read them this last year. Also, they appear in no particular order:

  1. A Shot of Faith to the Head: Be a Confident Believer in an Age of Cranky Atheists by Mitch Stokes – I’ve already reviewed this book here. Read it if you want the run-down.
  2. union with christUnion with Christ: Reframing Theology and Ministry for the Church by J. Todd Billings – Union with Christ is an essential theme and doctrine in Christianity, particularly within the Reformed tradition. In conversation with Augustine, Calvin, Bavinck, Barth, and others, Billings does some serious, but readable theological work, expounding the deep implications for theology and ministry of our union with Christ. For under 200 pages Billings’ scope is wide, covering everything from salvation to theological epistemology, the doctrine of God, Christology, the Lord’s Supper, social justice, and paradigms for mission. It also functions as an excellent, irenic introduction Calvin and the Reformed tradition as a whole. I cannot recommend this book highly enough.
  3. Meaning of MarriageThe Meaning of Marriage by Timothy and Kathy Keller – What can I say? It’s a Tim Keller book on marriage. That means it’s going to be well-researched, relevant, biblical, practical, theological, very readable, and, of course, gospel-centered. I’ve recommended this book to just about everybody: college students, engaged couples, newly-weds, oldly-weds, pastors, and marital experts. The great thing is that what you learn in this book won’t just teach you about marriage, it will teach you about all of your relationships, and most of all, the way the good news of Jesus Christ really does change everything.
  4. Lord and servantLord and Servant: A Covenant Christology by Michael Scott Horton – While this book was probably one of the most fun for me to read this year, it was also one of the nerdiest. Lord and Servant is the second in Horton’s quadrilogy of dogmatics and maybe the most important. In this series, he sets out to explore various classic theological topics letting the biblical notion of covenant–with its all-important Creator/creature distinction—and the eschatological story-line of the Bible shape the discussion. Much like the others, he’s working with some very high level theological and exegetical tools, interspersing and engaging with contemporary philosophical theology (Radical Orthodoxy), biblical studies (N.T. Wright), and patristics (Irenaeus) with insights from Calvin and the post-Reformation dogmatic tradition. As the subtitle indicates the end-goal of the work is Christology, but Horton does so much more in this volume with significant sections on: the doctrine of God, anthropology, Christology proper, and the contemporary atonement discussion. Horton has some of the finest discussions I’ve seen on the contemporary doctrine of God debates, as well as a thoroughly Reformed proposal for understanding the atonement in its fullness that beautifully incorporates insights from other traditions, as well as from its critics. In fact, the atonement discussion is worth the price of the book alone. Although this is admittedly not easy reading, for anybody with a taste for serious theology, it is a must.
  5. New Testament Biblical TheologyNew Testament Biblical Theology: The Unfolding the Old Testament in the New by G.K. Beale – It was almost a tie for me between this volume and Beale’s earlier one The Temple and the Church’s Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God. At a whopping 967 pages of text, excluding indexes, it is hard to convey the truly colossal accomplishment of Beale’s magnum opus. Beale doesn’t set out to write your typical New Testament Theology with summaries of the Pauline corpus, or the Gospels, with a minor constructive chapter at the end. Instead, Beale gives us a truly Biblical theology focusing on the major redemptive-historical storyline of scripture, showing the way the promises in the OT of a New Creation Kingdom are inaugurated and fulfilled through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Not only does he trace the fulfillment of the OT storyline in the NT, but he does so in light of Second Temple Jewish background material, and with an eye towards contemporary theological discussions. On top of it all, this stuff preaches!! Pastors, seminarians, biblical scholars, and students would do well to purchase this and work their way slowly through it, page by page. There is a wealth of biblical riches here.
  • Honorable Mention: Christianity and Liberalism by J. Gresham Machen – Written at the height of the Fundamentalist/Modernist controversy, Machen aims to set out a clear choice between classic Christianity, the faith essentially shared for 2,000 years across Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox lines, and that of the Modern theological liberalism that was prevailing in his day. I finally hunkered down to read it these last couple of weeks and have been stunned at the relevance this work still has nearly 90 years after it was written. Get this book, if only for the fact that you can download it for free.

So if you’re looking for something to read in the 2013 year, you may want to start with one of these. All of them will faithfully point you to Christ and help you love God with all of your heart, soul, strength, and mind.

Soli Deo Gloria

P.S. There are a couple that probably should be on here, but this thing was taking too long so they’ll make next year’s: Tim Keller’s Center Church and Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion.