This past Sunday, I preached on Romans 8:14-17a, which is one of the great passages in Scripture on the believer’s spiritual adoption. It says, “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.”
This passage is rich in theological truth, but it becomes even more incredibly rich to us when we understand what Paul’s Roman readers would have understood when they heard those words. I am convinced that an understanding of the historical setting into which Scripture was written will greatly aid in our understanding of what the author was communicating to his readers, and this passage is a perfect illustration of that. Specifically in regard to this passage, understanding the Roman adoption process sheds tremendous light on these few precious verses. I know that many of those who heard my sermon on Sunday expressed to me that learning the procedures and consequences of an adoption in ancient Rome brought them fresh understanding regarding this biblical expression of our relationship to God.
In the first century when Paul was writing this, adopted children were, in many cases, more honored than natural children. In virtually all cases, it was seen as an act of honor to be adopted, because that child—who was born into a world filled with illegitimate children and orphaned children—that child could say, “I was chosen by someone. I wasn’t just born into a family where what you get is what you get…I was chosen.”
So being adopted was a noble thing. An adopted son was deliberately chosen by the adopting father to perpetuate that father’s name and to inherit that father’s estate. And when a father in the Roman world didn’t have a son, he would go find the noblest available son and adopt him and give him all the rights and privileges of a natural born son.
The adopted son was in no way inferior. In fact, he may have been chosen because he was deemed to be superior to the natural born son. There were many Roman fathers who had sons who, in their eyes, didn’t measure up to their qualifications to inherit their estate, so they went out and found one that did. So an adopted son may have received more affection from his father than a naturally born son and he may well have represented his father’s moral standards more perfectly than that man’s natural sons.
And that’s the whole point of biblical adoption, which is that we become children of God by sovereign divine choice. We are the preferred choice of God. On the basis of free and voluntary election, God has chosen us to be adopted as His sons. We will never be condemned because God has chosen us to be His children forever by His free grace and His uninfluenced sovereignty. He will never disinherit us. We have been lifted to this place of honor and He will fulfill in us His good purposes.
Let me explain some more about adoption in the Roman world. The process of adoption was far more serious and more difficult due to the Roman law known as Patria Potestas, a Latin phrase meaning “the father’s power.” And under Roman law, the father had absolute power over his family, including the power of life and death. When a child was born, if the father did not want the child, he would abandon the infant outside, to be exposed to the weather, which, depending on the time of the year, may kill the child within a few hours. In fact, the early church took to heart the biblical instruction about caring for orphans in their distress (James 1:27) and began to take in the abandoned babies from around the city—a large number of which were girls because every Roman father wanted a son to whom he would pass on his inheritance.
But please don’t think that all Roman fathers were so callous and heartless. Most female babies were raised in their own homes by their natural parents, but among those babies who were abandoned, virtually all of them were females or were deformed in some way. So Roman fathers had the absolute power of disposal and control within their family, and there was absolutely no recourse that could be taken against him.
Also, in regard to his father, a Roman son never came to age. No matter how old he was, he was still under Patria Potestas, as were the daughters also. No matter how old they were, they were still under the absolute control of the father.
This made adoption into a family a very difficult and very serious matter unless the person was an illegitimate child or an orphan, because Roman law provided that a man could adopt the son of another man only if the natural father agreed to allow that to occur. And because the father maintained his Patria Potestas over his son for life, he could give up his son for adoption at any age—even well into adulthood.
For example, if a wealthy man saw a boy or young man that, for whatever reason, he wanted to adopt as his own son, and that son belonged to another father (usually a poor man), he had to go through a very formidable operation to get that person to pass out from under the Patria Potestas of the natural father into the Patria Potestas of the adoptive father.
There were two steps. The first one was called Emancipatus, from which we get our English word “emancipation.” It is a compound word consisting of the Latin prefix ex- meaning “out of” and the Latin word mancipium meaning “ownership” or “slavery.” In other words, “out of ownership” or “out of slavery.” And Emancipatus was carried out as a symbolic sale of sorts. If the natural father would agree to let his son be adopted by another man, there was a ceremony in which there was a symbolic sale of the son to the other man. They used scales and coins in the process, and they went through the ceremony three times. Twice the father symbolically sold the son and twice he bought him back, and then the third time he didn’t buy him back and the natural father’s Patria Potestas over that son was broken.
After the sale there was ceremony called Vindacatus, which is a Latin word meaning “to lay claim to.” The adopting father went to the Roman magistrate and presented a case for the actual legal transference of the person to be adopted into his own Patria Potestas. And when all of this was complete, the adoption was official.
Now there were four main consequences to a Roman adoption:
1. The adopted person lost all rights in his own family and gained all rights in his new family. He gained all the rights of a fully legitimate son in his new family.
2. He became full heir to his new father’s estate even if there were other natural sons. If there were no other sons at the time of his adoption, but other natural sons were born afterward into the family, it did not affect his right as the primary son. He could not be disinherited; his rights were inalienable.
3. According to Roman law, the old life of the adopted person was completely wiped out. If he had any debts, they were cancelled. If he had any record of crime it was abolished. They wiped out all the records as if that person had never existed; as if he had never been born. And the adopted person was regarded as a new person entering a new life with no past.
4. In the eyes of Roman law, the adopted person was literally and absolutely the son of his new father in every sense.
Now, when we think of our adoption into God’s family in those terms, it’s a marvelously wonderful thing. We have lost all the rights and all the claims of our past and we’ve gained all the rights and privileges of our new family. We have become heir to our Father’s estate. Our past life is obliterated, blotted out, and wiped away and we are literally, absolutely, and permanently the sons of God.
Throughout the New Testament we see this imagery over and over again that when a person becomes a Christian, he enters into the family of God. He did nothing to earn it, he did nothing to deserve it, he did nothing to choose it. God the Father, in His amazing love and mercy, has taken the initiative to reach out to him and to draw him into His family and wipe out his past and give him a new life.
I think the reason that the New Testament uses this imagery of adoption as an illustration of what has happened to us in salvation is because adoption was such a remarkably lofty thing. To say that you have been born into the family of God is very special, but to say that out of all the people in the world, God Himself chose you, wiped away the record of all of your sin, and gave you full status as a son and joint heir with His Son Jesus Christ, and you will be permanently and forever in that status…that is special beyond our ability to express it. Praise God for His unsearchable riches in Christ Jesus!