Interview (Part 1) with David B. Garner, author of SONS IN THE SON: THE RICHES AND REACH OF ADOPTION IN CHRIST

Published on January 24, 2017 by Joshua R Monroe

P&R, 2017 | 400 pages

 

If adoption is, as J.I. Packer says, “the highest privilege that the gospel offers,” then why don’t we hear more about it?

Hi, I’m Fred Zaspel, executive editor here a Books At a Glance, and today we’ll be talking about this marvelous doctrine with David Garner. Dr. Garner is Professor of Systematic Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary here in Philadelphia, and the author of the new book, Sons in the Son: The Riches and Reach of Adoption in Christ.

Welcome, David – congratulations on your new book, and thanks for talking to us about it today.

Garner:
Well, thank you, Fred. It’s a delight to be with you and I’m excited to discuss the contents of this book with you.

 

Zaspel:
First, what is the doctrine of adoption? And what is it that makes adoption “the highest privilege the gospel offers”?

Garner:
Well, you know, I think I’ll start in answering that question to that book that you referenced earlier from J. I. Packer. His book “Knowing God” that I believe came out in 1973 is the first edition.  And Packer, as he reflects on that volume he actually thought no one would ever read this book. He thought it would was going to be just one of those that ends up on a shelf somewhere and no one ever reads. As you and I well know, it became one of the most popular books in the history of the evangelical church, and what a rich, rich treasure it is. There is a chapter in that volume in which I  believe the quote that you gave at the beginning of our discussion here comes from, and Packer just really exposes for us the riches of the doctrine of adoption, though he does so in fairly terse fashion. I would say, even in that regard, he is drawing largely upon the Puritans and their appreciation for the pastoral and practical implications of the rich treasure to be the sons of god and what are the implications of that? And I would suggest that perhaps with very little exception, it was that period in Puritan theology in which adoption just enjoyed a brief period of treatment, that those pastoral dimensions really were profiled, though in the history of the church, not so much otherwise.

So, why is doctrine of adoption so precious? Well, I would suggest to you it is much more so than most of us realize, though we have this sort of sense in our hearts about that privilege but we don’t really know what it means and why it’s so important. I would suggest that that was what was one of the significant triggers for me in actually exploring this further and seeing what the Scripture has to say about it. So, I guess in summary fashion, in answer to your question, the doctrine of adoption, I would argue, is the most precious of what we reflect upon in terms of our union with Christ. And I hope in our discussion further today we can discuss more how that is so and why that is so.

 

Zaspel:
Talk to us about the significance of your title – Sons in the Son.

Garner:
Yes. Well, it is, I think, demonstrable in Paul’s theology and in a different language, though also in Johannine theology of that central notion of our solidarity with Jesus Christ, our union, a spirit-wrought union that is ours in the gospel. One of the most important principles of that, is the fact, I believe, that we must affirm that we have nothing from Christ that was not first in Christ. In other words, we don’t possess anything in the gospel that he himself did not attain personally in his own life, death, and resurrection for us. You are, no doubt, familiar with during the Reformation one of the accusations that was laid at the feet of the reformers by the Roman Catholic Church was an accusation of forensic fiction, if you will, that this notion of justification by faith was really a fiction because it wasn’t true. It was a statement about us that wasn’t true. Well, at the very core of that, is a misunderstanding of what even justification is; it’s not a false declaration, it’s a true declaration concerning Christ that, by virtue of our union with him, we, then, enjoy. And so, I think there was a misunderstanding by the Roman Catholic Church, and perhaps by others, in terms of that declaration of justification.

Well, similarly, I would want to note that the only reason why we are the sons of God in the sense in which I think adoption puts forth for us, is precisely because what Jesus accomplished for us and what he attained for us, that he became, as Paul will argue in Romans 1, that he becomes, in his resurrection, Son of God in power. So, one of the questions, I suppose, that rises for us as it relates to a faithful understanding of the biblical gospel, is the question, “What does the gospel give us?” Well, I think, more importantly than that question, is not what does the gospel give us, but who does God give us in the gospel? And he gives us his very own resurrected Son. And so, part of the reason for the title is that that privilege of adoption is ours by virtue of our union with Jesus Christ, the resurrected, appointed, and I will argue, adopted Son. We’ll say, I’m sure, more about that, what I do and don’t mean by that, what I think Paul does and does not mean by that. But it’s simply to say that the gospel really is the sweet, spirit-wrought union with the resurrected Son of God and so that we are sons in the beloved Son in whom the father is well pleased.

 

Zaspel:
Let’s chase that just a bit further. We are sons because we are united with Christ, the Son par excellence. But in regard to Christ’s sonship, just what is in view? Christ as the eternal Son? Or are there other factors more immediately in view?

Garner:
Yes, for sure. Let me just make abundantly clear my commitment to historic Nicene orthodoxy and Chalcedonian orthodoxy as we understand the person of Christ Jesus. He is the eternal Son of God. And as we see in Philippians 2, the notion of his humiliation, that that humiliation, of course, begins in his becoming incarnate. So he is the eternal Son, but he is the eternal Son who becomes the incarnate Son of God. But we need to recognize it is not his status as eternal Son that saves us. If we would argue that, we would actually deny the necessity of what he did in the incarnation. But I think it’s equally important for us to realize that the sonship of Christ in its multifaceted dimensions is not only an eternal sonship, and not just a static incarnate sonship, but actually that there was progress as Son, maturity as Son, that is essential to our understanding of his efficacy as the redeeming Son.

So what I have in view here is not some sort of confusion in union by which we become divine by being melded to Christ by Spirit-wrought union. Quite the contrary. What I have in view here is that we are united to the Godman but with a focus that our sonship is something that is viewed, I think biblically, both in Old and New Testaments, as something that is realized by virtue of the progress that this incarnate Son made, by virtue of the obedience that he maintained as he obeyed the will of his father.

So, if I could just trace this out a little bit more fully. I think even in the Gospels we see progress of Christ in his function as the son of the covenant whereby at the various stages of his life he attains favor with God and man as Luke puts it in Luke 2:52, that there was progress in his sonship. So much so, that not only at his baptism, but at the Mount of Transfiguration, the voice of the father declares this is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased. And that is a reflection upon his covenantal obedience. So when I speak about our union with Christ and our being sons in the Son, I believe that the Scriptures would point us to that filial progress and that filial attainment that actually reaches its consummation for Jesus in his resurrection. And it is that Christ, that resurrected Christ, to whom we are united by faith.

 

Zaspel:
Why is the Holy Spirit referred to as “the Spirit of adoption”? How is that significant?

Garner:
This has become one of my most favorite texts of the New Testament – that whole section in Romans. In fact I read it again this morning at home. I just find the language of the Apostle Paul in Romans 8 so rich and glorious.

The fact of the matter in Romans, it is interesting that in the first seven chapters of the book of Romans, Paul mentions the word pneuma or spirit, only five times. When we get to Romans 8, he uses the word pneuma, spirit, 21 times. And there’s a pretty significant shift in his thought as he is making his case through Romans 6 – 8 and then into chapter 9 – 11. Well, as we think about the way in which the Old Testament speaks about the outpouring of the Spirit, we cannot miss the eschatology that is embedded in the promise of the outpouring of the Spirit. What is interesting here for Paul in his treatment of the Spirit here is that he ties it directly to the language of our sonship. He ties the ministry of the Spirit, the eschatological ministry of the Spirit, with a realized and attained status as sons that whereby those of us who, by faith, are united to Christ, we receive the Spirit of adoption. That is, we receive the Spirit of the Christ who is resurrected and appointed and adopted at his resurrection; and the Spirit whom we receive is the one who aligns us, who connects us, who, by the bond, to use Calvin’s language, of that Spirit we actually are identified in Christ as sons of God. So that language, the ‘Spirit of adoption,’ demonstrates that in Paul’s thought that there is a direct connection between the eschatological outpouring of the Spirit in the new covenant age and our filial identity. And, so much so, that he will use the language of the Spirit of adoption and connect it directly with the two ages of redemptive history. That we are now, by virtue of the outpoured Spirit of Christ, living in the age of the Spirit and, as such, we are walking as those who possess the resurrected Son. So there’s an efficacy of the Spirit of adoption within us that enables us to walk by faith and walk in obedience because of the obedience of the excellent Son who has gone before us as Redeemer.

 

Zaspel:
Why the relative neglect of this doctrine? Why don’t we heard more about it?

Garner:
That’s an interesting question. There’s been, in the last 20 to 25 years, a lot more written on adoption, and I don’t think any of the books, including mine, neglect the question that you’ve just raised here – why, if this is so important, why has it not been profiled more? In some measure, I don’t have an ultimate answer to that question. I have some suggestions that I will make here.

It does seem to me if we at least focus on the Reformation, that the early years of the Reformation, with their focus upon that formal concern about biblical authority, was connected as well with a faithful biblical doctrine of salvation. And the pressing issue of the day, of course, within the Protestants over against Rome was the conflation of justification and sanctification and a blurring of those, so much so that justification was not viewed as the reformers understood it as an act of God on our behalf but a work of God in us. Of course, Calvin, very, very clearly distinguished in his duplex gratia, his double graces, the legal over against the transformative. In other ways in the earlier years of the Reformation, even with Luther, there was this strong emphasis upon justification. And I would argue – historically, that was necessary. But it’s later on the work of the early first generation reformers and then even into Calvin’s work itself that we begin to see the profile of sonship. As the people of God studied God’s Word more I think there was an appreciation for sonship, for adoption, that enjoyed a season of attention. And then in unprecedented fashion we have in the Westminster Confession of Faith and in a few confessions in its wake, a particular emphasis on adoption from its pastoral perspective. Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter 12 is unprecedented in church history in terms of profiling adoption as a distinct locus, or a distinct topic in systematic theological articulation. It’s a wonderful chapter, but it does not, again, even in the subsequent years, enjoy the kind of focus and attention, and perhaps the reason for that is that the battles for justification as exclusively forensic, they still proceed into this day with the errors of the new perspectives on Paul and federal vision and other related source of topics that are conflating justification and sanctification. And there’s this sense in which we all know that we are sons of God, but not the rigorous depth and concern for the implications of that that I think we need to think more robustly in order for us to appreciate its value theologically and practically to us.

So I know that’s not a great answer to your question. I don’t know all the reasons why it’s been neglected and it may just simply be because other issues have drawn the attention of the church more immediately.

 

Zaspel:
Tell us about the background to this book, your work on the subject, and how you came to this interest in the first place.

Garner:
Well, it goes back to the late 1990s. I was a PhD student and I was actually taking a course with Dr. Sinclair Ferguson; and, as part of that course, I was responsible for probing a theme and writing a paper on a theme from the Westminster Confession of Faith. And I was just doing some research, reading a number of articles, and I literally stumbled upon an article by Douglas Kelly that described the doctrine of adoption as forgotten in the life of the church. It intrigued me and the more that I began to study and read, the more compelled I was by the doctrine and disturbed I was by its overt neglect. It was that work in the 1990s that led me to do a dissertation, more from the biblical theological perspective of tracing how adoption was used in Paul’s thought and how that relates to both Old and new Testaments left some of those questions unanswered but asked in my dissertation. So I completed that in 2002. We ended up on the mission field and I was hoping that someone would pick up the topic and develop it further. I ended up coming back to Westminster about 10 years ago and those questions still had not been addressed. So that caused me, about five years ago, to pick up this topic again and to explore it more fully and what we have now, that I completed this last summer, is this particular book that seeks to address, not only the biblical theological, but the systematic theological, as well as the pastoral theological concerns.

 

Zaspel:
Who is your intended audience?

Garner:
Primarily, Fred, this is oriented to pastors and educated lay folks who do have some rubric and theological background for understanding systematic theology and its relationship to biblical theology. It is, at points, more intricate than others in terms of its argumentation, so it’s not for the light of heart, yet, at the same time, I would encourage people who have any interest in the doctrines of grace, those that are interested in biblical and systematic theology and how they interface and perhaps more pressingly, to understand the rich treasures as – again, as you described J.I. Packer putting it – the highest privilege that the gospel offers as adoption; as Murray puts it, the apex of grace and privilege. This is a book that seeks to expose how that is so and why that is so and I would encourage anyone who has interest in the subject to pursue this book.

 

Zaspel:
I think it’s now the book on the subject. This is a wonderful subject, and our plan is to talk to Dr. Garner again next time so we can explore some of the questions further. Meanwhile, you’ll want to get a copy of the book and read for yourself.  The title is Sons in the Son: The Riches and Reach of Adoption in Christ, by David Garner. It’s a great read and a wonderful subject.

David, thanks for talking to us, and I look forward to next time!

Garner:
Thank you very much.

Buy the books

Sons in the Son: The Riches and Reach of Adoption in Christ

P&R, 2017 | 400 pages