My response was funny too. It was a knee-jerk thing — accidental, really — but I dropped some theology on the boy. “You’re right,” I said, “I’m not your father by nature. I’m you’re father by grace.”
Come again? It was out of my mouth before I really understood what I had said. The words came from something I had been reading, but as I reflected on them I realized how appropriate they were.
God explains our place in his family with the image of adoption. Note these lines from the letters of Paul:
“God sent forth His Son . . . to redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption as sons” (Gal 4.4-5).
“[H]e predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ” (Eph 1.5).
“[Y]ou received the Spirit of adoption by whom we cry out, ‘Abba, Father'” (Rom 8.15).
These verses might strike some as unremarkable, especially if you’ve been in the church your whole life, but think about what’s at play here: Jesus became like us so we could become like him and therefore call God “Father.”
Irenaeus of Lyons put it this way in book three of Against Heresies:
[I]t was for this end that the Word of God was made man, and He who was the Son of God became the Son of man, [so] that man, having been taken into the Word, and receiving the adoption, might become the son of God. For by no other means could we have attained to incorruptibility and immortality, unless we had been united to incorruptibility and immortality.
We are now part of God’s family, but our inclusion is not the same as if we were God’s natural sons. Theologically speaking, we participate in God’s divinity not by nature, but by grace. I’m not divine by myself, but Jesus became human so that I could become so. By God’s grace I can partake of the divine nature (2 Pet 1.4).
Just stay on that for a moment. It’s astounding. If we are in Christ, we are really, literally, actually sons and daughters of God.
Scripture says that the very concept of fatherhood derives meaning from the fatherhood of God. Couldn’t you then say that adoption works the same way?
Adoption is not merely a metaphor for the Gospel, something we attach to the Good News because of our experience grafting families together. Rather, human adoption derives its meaning from divine adoption.
Adoption is more than a legal designation. It’s a transformative reality wherein we are fundamentally changed through our participation. Because of the work of the Holy Spirit we call God Abba, Father, Daddy — and it’s true. That’s what adoption does.
Moses and his brother Jonah are not my natural sons. But they are my sons nonetheless. I’m sure it’s going to take Moses some time to figure this out for himself, but I was admittedly relieved when he later said in that same singsongy voice, “I love you, Daddy.”
Maybe he gets it after all. I suppose the bigger question for us is whether we really get it.