Adoption or divine adoption more precisely, is a hallmark Pauline idea, which is found implicitly in the rest of scripture, existing against the backdrop of God’s covenantal promises to the biblical patriarchs and in turn to Israel. In simple terms, divine adoption refers to the passage from a state of estrangement to restored communion with the Triune God and the community of believers. Adoption (huiothesia) is a compound of the Greek words for “son or descendant” and “to place or appoint,” giving us the idea of adoption or sonship. Occurring just 5 times in the New Testament, huiothesia delineates what God provides to His children. In the context of the Old Testament, adoption was intimately tethered to the gifts and promises of God to His people. Romans 9:4 illustrates this well; “They are Israelites, to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the Law, the worship, and the promises” (NRSV). There is strong language of inheritance at play here. There is also an implicit familial tenor to this passage. Paul elaborates on this by saying that the inheritance of these promises comes now from adoption and life in Jesus Christ (Eph 1:5), something that comes from faith and obedience, rather than ancestry and heritage.
In John’s Gospel, adoption is described as a “right” (exousia) that God endows to those who believe (John 1:12, NASB). The word used here actually correlates most directly to a power, an authority and a moral authority upon which to act. Adoption is now the jurisdiction of the one who believes, the sphere of influence upon which God grasps the believer and the believer grasps God. Twice in the eighth chapter of Romans, Paul describes the repercussions of divine adoption for the believers. The first passage outlines the present results of adoption into God’s familial embrace, while the second explicates the eternal treasures awaiting us:
“For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons and daughters by which we cry out, “Abba! Father!” (NASB, Romans 8:15).
“Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies.” (NIV, Romans 8:23).
Adoption represents the entry into a state of new privilege and rebirth. Furthermore, adoption presumes a freedom from bondage and the power of Satan (the Accuser or Adversary). J.M. Scott has noted that Paul’s conception of adoption mirrors the Roman ritual of adoptio. In ancient Latin ceremonies of the Mediterranean world, an adopted minor was “emancipated from the authority of his natural father and placed under the new authority of his adoptive father.”
There is a longing within us. A groaning and a yearning for union with the divine. The void that we feel in this life is an indication that there is something absent, something that the Spirit and our conscience is notifying us of. Augustine and C.S. Lewis have diagnosed this sense of deficiency as, ‘humanity’s innate desire for the infinite.’ It is this desire, unfulfilled and incomprehensible, that directs us, like a compass towards the open arms of Jesus Christ, the one who leads us into an adoptive relationship with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Divine adoption is the cure for existential absence and angst.
Theologian and scholar Hans Hübner has argued that adoption (huiothesia) expresses much of what biblical freedom (or eleutheria) gets at. The two share practical applications. To step into the adoptive graces of God is to step into the freedom (eleutheria) that life in Christ entails. Adoption means freedom. But biblical freedom is not a license to live without moral obligation. In short, freedom in Christ is freedom to do what is right. Ironically, biblical freedom works in tandem with moral obligation (Ephesians 2:10). In Christ, we become a new creation, ordained to take on the new and to discard the old. Therefore, the prerequisite to adoption is faith (see February’s Theological Trails for more on what faith means). Faith unites us with the person and nature of Christ, who adopts us into new life, the community of saints and the church. This in turn catalyzes the process of turning the old into the new (kainos).
In the schema of salvation, our adoption also places us into the larger family of sisters and brothers in Christ and we choose to recognize and embrace these new family members as part of our adopted, spiritual family. This larger family is called the Church (ekklesia) in the New Testament. The Church is more than just a place you go or a program you attend, it is a covenant family with Jesus at the head. And while our adoptive relationship with God the Father is not as tangible or as visible as our human relationships, our familial relationship with the Church family can become as real (and ultimately more eternally real), than our visible, concrete, flesh and blood family.
At Damascus Way, all our staff are followers of Christ, adopted children of God, and available to residents as part of a potential new Christian family. Our hope is that this family, this brotherhood can help heal real wounds and nurture growth in our men. Ultimately, our desire is for these relationships to continue on well after residents have graduated from the program. To the degree that residents are also followers of Christ, we hope to see brotherly relationships form between our men. Relationships that heal and nurture godly growth.
In more precise theological terminology, adoption has a formal place in the order of salvation. Generally, adoption is understood to follow faith, repentance and justification. So in a sense adoption is not purely unconditional. It is predicated on a response to Christ, an acknowledgement of sin and the embrace of justification (both passive and active). In the parsing out of these ideas then, adoption is the full entrance into the mysteries and callings of life in Christ. On one hand, adoption endows us with rights, privileges and authority, such as belonging, community, communion with God and shelter under God’s protection and the inheritance of His promises for us (redemption, reconciliation etc). Conversely, adoption places responsibilities upon us. It requires something of us. So while the invitation to be adopted as sons and daughters of the living God is extended to all, there is a necessary part that we play in choosing to respond to the invitation, which continues on into sanctification and ultimately glorification. In Matthew’s Gospel, the Parable of the Wedding Banquet provides a metaphor for the free gift of salvation. Individuals of any status are invited to attend the wedding, but those who do not come appropriately prepared are thrown out. Numerous parables in Scripture underscore this idea. This challenges us to ask how the seemingly abstract state of divine adoption becomes concretized in the faith walk of a blooming believer. It also invites us to consider adoption in the ministry context of Damascus Way.
Damascus Way upholds a Gospel-centered vision for transformation. This is foundational to our ministry philosophy and is explicated in the four components of our logo (the Roof, the Road, the Eagle and the Name). If we wanted to get creative, one could draw analogies between the order of salvation and our logo. One might find parallels between faith, justification, adoption and sanctification and the Roof (shelter/adoption), the Road (coming to faith) or the Eagle (sanctification/glorification). Again, these are just analogies. But in a very real way, Damascus Way can actually become an adoptive family to many individuals. And some men in our program experience their own Pauline road to freedom while living here and hopefully their own “Damascus Way” encounter with Jesus.
The Roof represents shelter, security, stability and belonging. Some men only live at one of our campuses for a few weeks or months, while others stay for a year or more. The point here is that the place you live becomes the place you call home and ultimately it presents an opportunity to build a community that you may one day call family. Positive socialization plays a key role in uplifting an individual’s spirits and enhancing their interpersonal connections. Finding community is crucial to someone’s mental health, spiritual wellbeing and maturation.
For the more than 600,000 people who exit the system every year, coming home to family and community is the first important step into a new life. Currently this process does not work well for anyone, so we need to find a way for every person coming home to have a safe place to live and a good job that provides a livable wage.
We cannot speak about adoption, theologically and symbolically, without touching on fatherhood and this is because the term for adoption (huiothesia) can also be translated as sonship. This is pertinent because many, if not the majority, of the men we serve are fathers. Research from the University of Minnesota shows that 69% of incarcerated individuals in Minnesota are a parent. On average, incarcerated fathers had at least 2 kids. A daily average of nearly 10,000 Minnesotan children have a parent in the prison system.
The absence of an incarcerated father establishes a void that is not easily mended. Even in those instances in which a father is able to return to his community and is reunited with family members, the time spent away from loved ones leaves a familial and parental bond that has been all but severed. Approximately 9 out of 10 parents in prison are fathers and roughly 2 million children are dealing with the absence of a parental figure due to incarceration. Further research demonstrates a concerning thread of influence between parental imprisonment and the increased likelihood of criminal offense among the children of incarcerated parents. While fathers comprise the vast majority of parents in the American correctional system, the number of incarcerated mothers is also rapidly increasing. The repatriation of these lost years is in some ways impossible, but the restoration of a relationship is not. Still, there are ways to regain some of the lost opportunities between fathers and their children. When I think about this, I’m reminded of the words in Joel 2:25, where the prophet puts forth a description of the Day of the Lord and the promise of God to His people; “I will restore to you the years that the swarming locust has eaten” (ESV).
When we speak about the importance of fatherhood at Damascus Way, it is not just an abstract ideal, but something that we have witnessed personally in the stories of two recent graduates. One individual from our Golden Valley site comes to mind, who after successfully completing his time here, decided to move into an apartment program with several other Damascus Way graduates in order to put himself in an environment of accountability, stability and solidarity. He chose this in order to create the best possible future for his relationship with his girlfriend and his son, knowing that moving elsewhere was just not the right decision at this stage in his journey. The first graduate from our new Shakopee House also comes to mind. This individual, who’d missed out on most of his 10 year-old son’s life, shared with us about how he has cherished the time that he has been able to spend with his son at the Shakopee House. As he was working towards the completion of his stay at our Shakopee site, the father was able to have his son over to the house to play basketball, to watch baseball and to work in the new woodshop in the garage. Even after moving on to his own apartment upon completing his time with Damascus Way last month, this father and son still choose to stop by the Shakopee House to spend time together. The environment has become a place of bonding and stability, a space to create new memories. An opportunity to make up for lost time together.
These stories represent the spirit of adoption in action or perhaps more specifically, the results of adoption. These men have been given a “new” (kainos) opportunity. One could even call it a right or a privilege. There is an echo of the legal ritual of adoptio in that these men have been placed under a new authority, both physically (at Damascus Way) and spiritually (if they choose to enter into new life in Christ). Every month, the Damascus Way family welcomes new participants into our program and takes these men under our care and stewardship. Every day, we pray that each person takes the opportunity to receive the spirit of adoption that is knocking patiently upon the door of their heart.
-Josiah Callaghan (Executive Assistant)
Augustine of Hippo. Confessions.
Hübner, Hans. Law in Paul’s Thought. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1984.
Scott, J.M. “Adoption, Sonship.” In the Dictionary of Paul and His Letters: A Compendium of Contemporary Biblical Scholarship edited by Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin and Daniel G. Reid. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993.
Shlafer, R. & J.B. Saunders. “Parents in Minnesota Jails and Their Minor Children.” Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota (2017).