Preaching on Adoption into God’s Family
Application to adopting and fostering children must be handled with clarity and care.
I grew up in a family with two adopted sisters, one from the India, the other from South Korea. Now my wife and I have three adopted children of our own, choosing to adopt through the foster care system.
This experience, first as a brother and now as a father, has taught me much about myself and even more about God. It has clarified biblical truths and promises in a way that no amount of exegesis could ever do. The reason is simple: The Christian life cannot be understood without understanding adoption.
J.I. Packer, in his monumental book, Knowing God, said it best when he taught that adoption “is the highest privilege that the gospel offers: higher even than justification.” It is one thing for God the Father to forgive sinners. It is entirely another to adopt them into his family. Yet, that is what the Bible teaches. We are not merely forgiven. We are graciously invited into God’s family as his children, coheirs with the Lord Jesus Christ.
This fact is not to be kept secret. Adoption in Christ must be proclaimed from the pulpit. And speaking practically, we ought to encourage Christians to consider adoption.
Today, adoption and foster care are being set before God’s people in a manner that I have not seen before. Many Christians back up their commitment to life and social justice by inviting the orphan into their families and homes. Churches around the country are actively supporting area foster care agencies with tangible expressions of support—organizing childcare for foster parent date nights, providing clothing kits for new child placements, and painting/cleaning agency facilities. No doubt, a major reason for this upsurge in involvement is due to the increased exposure being given to adoption and foster care from the pulpit. National Adoption Day, observed on November 18 of this year, will create another opportunity to bring attention to this vital ministry.
But we must keep first things first. And we must be very careful.
Guidelines for preaching on adoption
The priority in preaching must be the gospel, each and every time that the pulpit is filled. Fortunately, preaching the gospel and encouraging adoption are not mutually exclusive. In what follows, I would like to provide some guidelines for preaching on adoption and calling people, in application, to consider how they might care for the orphan.
Keep first things first, and the first thing is the gospel.
While not everyone is called to adopt or do foster care, every Christian is called to understand their adoption in Christ. It can be deeply tempting to want to skip the heavy lifting of believers’ adoption in Christ and move straight to calling people to do something, particularly if that something will bring applause from the world. And let’s face it: No one will criticize you for doing something selfless that the world recognizes needs to be done. Churches that encourage foster care and adoption may earn the world’s approval, but that should never be a motivation for the preacher.
Paul, the only biblical writer to use the term “adoption,” emphasizes the Christian’s adoption in Christ as fundamental to the gospel. Romans 8:12-17 teaches the Spirit’s role in bringing the security and boldness that comes with family identification as a child of God. Romans 8:18-30 teaches Christians to endure faithfully because the consummation of their salvation, embodied in redemption and adoption, has not yet occurred. Until then, the Triune God is at work to transform the believer into Christlikeness, that Christ “might be the firstborn among many brothers.” Both Ephesians 1:3-10 (“in love he predestined us for adoption through Jesus Christ”) and Galatians 4:1-7 (“God sent forth his Son . . . so that we might receive adoption as sons”) present adoption as the culminating goal of the gospel.
Preach the gospel of adoption from the whole Bible.
If adoption is essential to the gospel, then the theme of adoption will find its proper context in the entire biblical storyline. I am often asked to preach on adoption at local churches. Though I always have a primary text (usually Gal. 4), my goal is to preach a biblical theology of adoption. I employ a redemptive-historical approach, following the story of the Bible through creation, fall, redemption, and consummation. A biblical-theological approach allows me to speak of our alienation from God due to sin, God’s gracious redemptive plan, the Fatherhood of God, and his adoption of Israel (Ex. 4:22-23; Deut. 32:9-10; Ezek. 16:3), the true Sonship of Christ and his work for us, the necessity of faith in Christ for adoption, and the benefits of being a child of God. A biblical-theological approach will also explain how, prior to coming to Christ, we are all fatherless, orphans in a hard world. Such knowledge should bring awe and thankfulness to the forgiven and adopted sinner. It will also make the invitation of the gospel to unbelievers more powerful and compelling.
Emphasize the loving and merciful character of God.
Throughout the Scriptures, God’s kindness is proclaimed in his manifest care for the disempowered and disaffected. We could rightly say that God has a special place in his heart for orphans and his concern for them epitomizes his mercy (Deut. 10:18-19; Hos. 14:3; Ps. 68:5). Therefore, it should come as no surprise that the gospel intersects adoption so beautifully. Christ, in the upper room discourse, promised his disciples that he would not leave them as orphans (John 14:18). In fact, after his resurrection, one of the first things to come out of Jesus’ mouth was the declaration that his disciples were now his “brothers” and that his God and Father was also their God and Father (John 20:17; cf. Heb. 2:11).
Emphasize the benefits of the believer’s adoption in Christ.
Our adoption as children of God is not just the greatest benefit of the gospel, but it also is to control all of our behavior as men and women reconciled to God through Christ. Jesus taught us that we are to model our behavior after our Father who is in heaven (Matt. 5:44-48), seeking always to glorify our Father (Matt. 5:16) and please our Father (Matt. 6:1). Prayer is to be understood as speaking with our loving Father (Matt. 6:9). We are to see trials as evidence of our kind Father’s discipline in our lives (Heb. 12:5-10). Perhaps more than anything else, adoption demonstrates that we are wanted in the household of God.
Transition to application.
Only after emphasizing the loving nature of God and the benefits of adoption to the believer would I turn to application. Encouragement to consider adoption or foster care can be applications of a sermon that is gospel-centered. After all, concern for the orphan and widow are written into the Mosaic Law as befitting God’s people and representative of the compassionate heart of God. It is interesting that in Job’s final appeal, desperate to demonstrate his blamelessness, he offered as evidence his care and feeding of the fatherless (Job 31:16-19). James is straightforward: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (James 1:27). Calling people to consider adoption and foster care are legitimate and important applications of the biblical doctrine of adoption. But it must be done with caution and care.
Do not guilt people into adoption.
I would never tell people that they ought to adopt or provide foster care; I would ask them to prayerfully consider it. Here’s why: Adoption and foster care are difficult and it isn’t for everybody. It is one application of the gospel, one step of faithfulness that some are called to take. To adopt a child is to invite a stranger into your home and give him or her your name, committing to raise that child as your own because that child will be your own. It is a 24-7, 365-day reality. No amount of respite care or kudos will alter that reality. Too many churches with well-meaning preachers use the power of the pulpit to lay a guilt-trip on people, encouraging them to do in obedience to their sermon what the Lord may not be asking their people to do.
Do not romanticize adoption.
Jesus Christ was not a bait-and-switch teacher. He wanted people to count the cost, to go into discipleship with their eyes open. He did not promise our best life now, nor did he romanticize following him. The stakes were and are too high. The same is true of adoption. It can be a temptation in sermons to romanticize adoption, to minimize the difficulties and struggles, and to promise an experience that follows a script better suited for a Hallmark Channel movie than anything resembling reality. The result is a growing number of people who move into foster care and adoption too quickly and when the experience is more difficult than they imagined, they begin to doubt the leading and care of the Lord. Unfortunately, I have also heard of too many failed adoptions by Christian families where children are “returned.” (If adoption gives us a picture of the gospel, then failed or “interrupted” adoptions are the opposite.)
Make clear the proper motivation for adoption and foster care.
Children are not a solution to a life that is lacking. It takes a lifetime of sacrificial commitment to parent any child faithfully, a daily dying to self. The proper motivations are others-centered, a desire to serve, and the glory of God in Christ. The person who adopts will come to understand how unlike God they are, not how Christ-like they are. If you, through your preaching, create expectations that are otherwise, you will have failed your congregation and potentially brought harm to children who are already hurting from abandonment.
Be careful with illustrations about adoption.
The emphasis in any sermon on adoption should be the loving character of God. With my own children (both adopted and biological), I am driven to my knees in contemplation of my own sinfulness and God’s goodness; I am rightly not impressed with my own compassion or generosity. Far too often I have heard illustrations or testimonies that end up drawing attention to the virtues of the people who adopt rather than focusing on the kindness of God and his sufficient grace for whatever he calls his people to do. If we, as pastors, have not adopted children or done foster care, talk to someone who has and run your application points by them. And please do not use adoptive parents as types of Christ or God the Father. Jesus Christ is the only Savior we require. There is no need to give people (who are already battling the flesh) a messiah-complex.
Encourage the families who have adopted or are doing foster care.
Many children who are adopted or are in foster care are victims of abuse and all come with the trauma of abandonment. Raising kids broken by abuse and neglect only exacerbates the challenges of parenting. As pastors, we can provide adoptive and foster parents with the proper understanding of the long view. The Christian life, though joyful, is also about dying to self and following Christ. Parents need to know that their labor in the Lord is not in vain, especially when their adopted/foster kids are not responding to their love the way they would have liked or imagined. Encourage them to parent for the Lord’s glory and his applause. Help them remember the path of Christ, who glorified his Father by going to the Cross. Rehearse with them the providential promises of God’s care and control. Give them a picture of God’s final reward when the day-to-day frustrations of parenting have limited their vision to seeing only the next struggle.
Encourage the church to support the adoptive/fostering families.
Through our preaching, we can prepare our congregation to encourage adoptive and fostering families. Such help needs to be both spiritual and tangible. Prayer is a must. Words of encouragement are vital. Baby-sitting will be much appreciated. Even the offer to get together for coffee to listen can be life-giving. Parenting adopted or foster kids can be isolating, particularly if there are behavior problems. Adoptive and foster parents need to know that they are not alone. Just like adoptive parents need to be encouraged to take the long view, so the congregation needs to be mindful that their encouragement must be for the long term, not just in the first few months after the child placement.
All who follow Christ are adopted by God
Christians are commanded to spur one another on to love and good deeds (Heb. 10:25). Christians who adopt are living out the faith that they profess, but adoption and serving as foster parents is not the only way to live out that faith. So absolutely take advantage of National Adoption Day to draw attention to the need for adoptive and foster parents. But do so faithfully, as a potential application to a gospel that declares all who follow Christ to be adopted by God.
Todd Miles is a Professor of Theology at Western Seminary and an elder at Hinson Baptist Church. He is the author of Superheroes Can’t Save You: Epic Examples of Historic Heresies (B&H Academic, 2018).