Born again believers are joint-heirs by adoption, which is the subject of the previous verses (Ro. 8:15-17). “Adoption” is the Greek huiothesia, from huios (son) and tithemi (to place). It is used four times in reference to the believer’s adoption (Ro. 8:15, 23; Gal. 4:5; Eph. 1:5). The practice of adoption in the Roman Empire illustrates spiritual adoption in some key ways. A wealthy Roman citizen could adopt a young man who would become an heir of the man’s position and property. Many of the emperors adopted sons who became emperors upon their deaths. Julius Caesar adopted Gaius Octavius, a grandnephew, who became the emperor Gaius Julius Caesar, also called Augustus Caesar. He was the emperor when Jesus was born (Lu. 2:1). Other emperors who were adopted sons were Scipio Africanus the Younger, Tiberius, Germanicus, Gaius Caligula, Nero, Pliny the Younger, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, Marcus Aurelius, Lucius Verus, and Constantius I.
Consider six aspects of Roman adoption that illustrate spiritual adoption:
(1) A slave could be adopted by a two-step process. First he had to be freed and made a citizen, then he could be adopted. Publius Helvius Pertinax, the son of a slave, became emperor. His birth name was Alba Pompeia. Likewise, the believer was a slave to sin and the devil, but he has been freed and made a citizen of heaven and adopted by God.
(2) The old life of the adoptee was completely erased. The past life was gone. All debts were cancelled. This is exactly what happens to the believer. “Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new” (2 Co. 5;17).
(3) The adopted son’s family name was changed to that of the new father (e.g., Gaius Octavius became Gaius Julius Caesar). “And they shall see his face; and his name shall be in their foreheads” (Re. 22:4).
(4) The adopted son became an heir to the new father’s estate. Even if natural sons were born afterwards, his status as an heir could not be changed. Likewise, the believer is an heir to God and a joint-heir with Christ.
(5) The adopted son was placed under the new father’s authority. He was not independent. A father under Roman law had patria potestas (“power of a father”) which means he had absolute authority over his family. His sons, regardless of their age, remained under patria potestas. All family property, including that earned by the children, was under the father’s authority. The father’s authority only ended with his death. Likewise, the believer is under the Father’s authority and has no independent life.
(6) The adopted son assumed the responsibilities of the new family. Its business became his business. Likewise, the believer is to take up the business of God in this present world, which is the business of the Great Commission. It is the business of planting and harvesting and building churches (1 Co. 3:6-12).
On the other hand, in the following two ways Roman adoption was in contrast to spiritual adoption: (1) Roman adoptions were not for the purpose of compassion. Needy orphans were not adopted. “Overall, the culture of the Romans had little compassion for the needs of children, and their laws reflected this attitude. This uncompassionate view toward children was born out in the grim truth that babies were often aborted or exposed in first century times by Greco-Roman families. This happened especially when families were unable to support more children. These children usually ended up either dying or being taken to be raised as slaves in other households. ... Rather than give their child to be raised by another family, they would be aborted or exposed to die” (Baina King, “Adoption in New Testament Times,” Liberty University, 2005). In contrast, God’s adoption is an act of love for needy sinners. (2) Adoptees could be unadopted by the process of emancipation and thus lose all of their rights. In contrast, God will never un-adopt one of his adopted children. The adoption is eternal. The inheritance is reserved in heaven (1 Pe. 1:3-4).
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