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Interview with R. Scott Clark (Part One)

by Dan Cruver Published Jul 14, 2008

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This is part one of a two-part interview I did with Dr. R. Scott Clark this past November. Dr. Clark is Associate Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary (Jackson), and Concordia University (Irvine). Dr. Clark is also presently Associate Pastor of the Oceanside United Reformed Church, where he preaches and teaches regularly.

Dr. Clark’s blog.

1. What do you cherish most about the doctrine of adoption?

There are three things that should be mentioned. First it is the God by whom we have been adopted that makes adoption significant. The God who adopted us is the God who made all that is (Gen 1:1-3; John 1:1-3) and who, by the power of his will and grace, redeemed his people out of sin and bondage (Exod 20:2).

Second, we should remember that spiritual adoption is a significant truth embraced and confessed by the Reformed churches. It is expressed either implicitly or explicitly in our Reformed confessions and it underlies much of what is confessed by the Reformed churches even if the language of adoption is not used explicitly.

For example, the Heidelberg Catechism (1563) uses the truth that we are “also the children of God” as the basis for a question about Christ’s sonship. Though Christ “alone is the eternal, natural Son of God” we are “children of God by adoption, through grace, for his sake” (Q. 33). The Belgic Confession, (1561), speaks the same way (Art. 34). This doctrine is significant enough to the Reformed Churches that it merited an entire, albeit brief, chapter in the Westminster Confession of Faith (1647) where we confess that those who are justified by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone (WCF ch. 11) are to rest in the fact that we are also “partakers of the grace of adoption.” As a consequence of this free gift we, who are not God’s children by nature, are treated as if we are natural children, as it were. We have the “liberties” that belong to God’s children, we have his name, we have his Spirit, and we have free access to the Father. We are “pitied, protected, provided for, and chastened by him as a Father, yet never cast off, but sealed to the day of redemption.” In Christ it is as if we have done all that Christ did for us and, on that basis, we are heirs of all his promises.

Finally, the doctrine of adoption is a biblical doctrine. The Apostle Paul teaches explicitly that those who have true faith (and by that faith) are united to Christ (Gal 2:20; WCF ch. 12). By virtue of that union we have “received the Spirit of adoption as sons.” Therefore, we have the privilege of intimate, personal communion with the Creator and Redeemer God. The Spirit of God testifies to us that we, who believe, are God’s children (Rom 8:15-17). Paul teaches that we have been redeemed by grace alone, through faith alone “so that we might receive adoption as sons.” (Gal 4:5). Indeed, we who believe have been “predestined…for adoption through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will….” (Eph 1:5).

2. Do you believe that the doctrine of adoption has received its due attention within the history of the church?

Probably not, but I worry a little, in reaction to that neglect, that, in our time, we tend to overemphasize the relational aspects of the faith. We live in a time when “legal” ideas and categories are not in favor whereas “relational” categories are very much in vogue. There is a strong tendency in our culture and in our churches to set the one against the other. The problem is that the turn to relational categories (over against the legal) defies reality and Scripture. There is no good reason to set one against the other.

Those who are adopted are those who have been justified. God’s declaration of our righteousness in Christ is the legal basis for our adoption. Think of how husbands and wives relate. This is a most intimate or personal relationship that is based on a prior legalrelationship. The words “husband” and “wife” imply a binding, legal relationship between persons that can only be broken by the gravest of sins and by legal action. That fact doesn’t make the marriage less relational, personal, and intimate.

The same is true with adoption. It is an eminently legal and personal, relational act. In adoption, someone chooses to incorporate someone else who, by nature, is not part of one’s family, into one’s family. Because adoption is a legal act, it has standing, it has permanence, and it has a firm basis. Because it is a personal act, it is not a mere “transaction.” By definition, a personal act entails a person coming to know and entering into deeper relations with another person. Adoption is a wonderful metaphor for God’s gracious relations toward us and more than a metaphor, it is a fact of the Christian faith.

3. Do you see a difference between the apostle John’s model of entrance into God’s family and Paul’s?

Each Biblical writer has his own favorite ways of speaking. Nevertheless, there is a strong affinity with John 1:12 where John uses the same sort of language as Paul. John’s “sphere of discourse,” as Prof. Murray used to say, is strikingly similar to Paul’s in Romans 8 and Ephesians 2. We see the same ways of speaking about our being Christ’s children in 1 John 3:1-2.

4. Paul’s references to adoption (Eph. 1:4-5; Rom. 9:4; Gal. 4:4-5; Rom. 8:15-16; 8:22-23) seem to serve as markers along the path of redemptive history. Would it be a fruitful exercise to view redemptive history (i.e. creation, fall, redemption, consummation) through the lens of the doctrine of adoption?

Yes, certainly. Scripture certainly uses this sort of language about Israel’s temporary adoption as the national people of God. Think of Deuteronomy 7:6-11. The covenant Lord, Yahweh, has adopted, as his peculiar people, Israel. He redeemed them out of Egypt and has delivered them into the Promised Land. There is one caveat about this analogy. The Lord entered into a special, temporary relationship with national Israel as the visible, institutional people of God. Not every one of those who were in that national people, who were part of this outward adoption, enjoyed all the benefits of that adoption. Paul makes this distinction quite clear in Romans 2:28 and Romans 9:6. Not all Israel is Israel. There is an “inward” Israel, united to Christ by grace alone, through faith alone and an “outward” Israel, who are members of the national covenant, who nevertheless, did not receive all the benefits of Christ because they were “were not united by faith with those who listened” (Heb 4:2).


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