We had a ministry student on his six- week placement this summer. It was a great time of talking about ministry, learning from each other and having the privilege of passing something on to the next generation of preachers. One stand out comment from our conversations was the admission that he had never heard a sermon preached on the subject of adoption.
I shouldn’t have been so shocked. We think about adoption/sonship/ entering God’s family the way we think about domestic plumbing. We know it’s important, but it doesn’t shape our thinking.
But it should.
Sonship (a broader term than adoption including such things as the new birth), is a doctrine which has all the aspects necessary to communicate the whole gospel. As Sinclair Ferguson has pointed out it is covenantal, Christocentric and redemptive historical. It is covenantal in that God’s work in creation, redemption and renewal is framed by commitments between Father and Son. It is Christocentric in that our experience of sonship is modelled on the eternal love the Father has for the Son. It is redemptive historical in that the unfolding story of redemption is played out in terms of an ideal sonship (creation), estrangement (Fall) the story of the seeking Father (redemption) and renewal (the return home).
These three distinctives demonstrate that Sonship is not some sideshow that can be alluded to now and again. Rather it has a comprehensiveness which makes it capable of explaining the gospel without distortion. It is an organising principle for the architecture of Biblical theology.
There are other lenses by which we view God’s plan of salvation. Covenant, kingdom, creation etc. can all lay claim to be the floor plan to the house of redemption. In truth – like four gospels- we need the unifying vision provided using all the perspectives. But Sonship is not only a neglected perspective in need of recovery. It is the richest and, in many ways, the most culturally persuasive of the metaphors at our disposal.
Professor John Murray saw that. He famously described adoption as “the apex of redemptive privilege”. Sinclair Ferguson has long championed sonship and JI Packer has in his chapter on Sonship in “Knowing God”, one of the most sublime pieces of writing on the subject. However, it falls to us lesser mortals charged with the tasks of preaching and evangelism to put the theme of Sonship to work in communicating the Good News.
Think of the way we tell the gospel. Typically, it is framed in kingly terms. We are created under God’s rule but we usurp that rule and sit on the throne of our lives etc. Or in legal terms (think of the sinner at the bar of God’s justice finding in the judge an unexpected ally.) But few of the people we are addressing in modern Scotland relate to kings and thrones terribly well and the legal picture of God the judge threatens to obscure the loving, familial side to God’s character. With Sonship, it is different. To speak of God as Father is to speak of one who both rules and loves. To speak of salvation in terms of the need for a restored family relationship is to resonate with a deep longing within all of us. In a society where family break-down is endemic, we speak so as to hit the mark when we select the arrow of Sonship from the Biblical quiver.
Sonship is also the medicine we need for many of the spiritual ills from which we suffer in the church. Keller, Ferguson and others have shown us how the parable of the two sons points to two different ways of avoiding God as father- legalism and antinomianism. Some of us in the church struggle with the idea of a God who loves and accepts us and we live our lives struggling to earn what can only be received as a gift. Others of us, sadly, believe the lie that God is no good father and snatch at the good life on our own terms. The great antidote to both errors is a heartfelt experience of the love of the Father.
I’ve put a 12-week discipleship course together using Sonship as the lens through which to view everything from evangelism to the sacraments. If you’d like to trial it, I’d be glad to send it on (with the understanding that you feed me back your response) I would also love to hear of your stories- how you struggled with an earthly parent perhaps or how rediscovering the truth that God is your Father and Jesus your elder brother has impacted you. If you would be willing to share these to firstname.lastname@example.org I would be most grateful.