It is painful to consider how many books we will leave unread when we die. As a result, books need to be engaged at different levels for the sake of reading wisely. Some should be skimmed lightly to ascertain the basic argument but are not worth poring over. For others we will want to read a chapter or two that intersects with particular interests of ours. Some should be read all the way through, though quickly. And others, finally, should be carefully absorbed, sentence by sentence. For Themelios readers—students, pastors, teachers, and other church leaders—David Garner’s book on adoption is in this last category.
Garner teaches theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. The book reflects that context; its primary interlocutors are writers such as John Calvin, Herman Ridderbos, Geerhardus Vos, John Murray, and Richard Gaffin. Moreover, he distinguishes his views at times from those of Michael Horton and a way of framing the relationship between justification and union with Christ that has come to be associated with Westminster Seminary California (though the significant shared convictions between the two institutions should not be minimized). This makes the discussion feel at times a bit parochial (e.g. pp. 226n24, 258n11), but readers from any wing of evangelicalism will be deeply enriched through the book. And it should also be noted that Garner commendably interacts with a wide range of relevant monographs and even unpublished dissertations intersecting his thesis.
The book’s focus is the doctrine of adoption. The title, which cannot be improved upon, captures the thesis crisply: Sons in the Son. Believers are adopted sons who are in vital union with Jesus Christ the Son of God. A few opening chapters set the stage by addressing introductory matters and providing brief historical review of past treatment of adoption. The book then falls basically into two halves. The first half addresses the five Pauline instances of υἱοθεσία exegetically (Rom 8:15, 23; 9:4; Gal 4:5; Eph 1:5), and the second half synthesizes this exegetical spadework in terms of biblical and systematic theology.
The burden of the book is to lift believer’s eyes to see the macro-soteriological significance of adoption. Garner argues that adoption is a comprehensive, not a partial, gospel reality. Adoption should not be viewed as one link in the ordo salutis chain, but rather as permeating the entire ordo. This is because union with Christ, the umbrella concept for understanding Christian salvation, is union with the Son who was himself adopted in his resurrection (Rom 1:4). Adoption is as broad as union, Garner argues. This does not mean adoption and union are synonymous, but rather that adoption uniquely shows forth the full panoply of benefits granted in union with Christ. Thus neither justification nor progressive sanctification should be seen as a comprehensive soteriological reality in the same way as adoption; rather, both are distinct benefits of union with Christ. Adoption is more comprehensive than justification or sanctification because to be united with Christ is itself a filial reality through and through; salvation is sonship. “Biblical grace is filial grace” (p. 312). (For a quick overview of ten summarizing theses of the book the reader can consult pp. 298–300.)
My assessment of the book will fall into three broad categories: strengths, weaknesses, and further questions. Of these three categories, the strengths are the most numerous and most significant, so we will focus there.
As for strengths, the book’s content is very good; one might even call it magnificent. Many readers will experience what I did: a wonderful correcting of an appreciative but impoverished view of adoption and its place in understanding the Christian gospel. Several subpoints could be mentioned here. First, Garner demonstrates the christological significance of adoption—in other words, he helps us connect the dots between the soteriological category of adoption and the person of Christ himself. Garner draws mainly on Romans 1:4 to argue convincingly that Christ was himself adopted, arguing for this in a way that does no injury to the eternal ontological status of Christ as Son of God.
Second, Garner connects adoption not only to Christology but also to redemptive history. With an eye toward Murray, Garner explains how the doctrine of adoption applied is entirely bound up with and dependent on the doctrine of adoption accomplished. Reinforcing a conviction that others in the Westminster tradition such as Gaffin have underscored, Garner reminds us that the ordo salutis is reliant upon the historia salutis. Adam was the first son of God. He fell. God then drew Israel to himself as his son (Exod 4:22–23). Israel too failed. Eventually God sent his own Son to succeed where Adam and Israel failed. The point of all this is that Garner shows clearly that our adoption as God’s children is not just one more way to speak about salvation in systematic theological terms but is the culmination of the entire history of redemption and gathers up all that is true of us when the Spirit unites us to Christ.
Third, Garner rightly emphasizes the eschatological significance of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is not only for guidance and comfort personally but also the supreme sign of the dawning of the final days eschatologically. Garner recognizes this and accordingly helps us to see why Paul himself so closely associates the Spirit and adoption: what the Spirit does in this new age is unite us to Christ as fellow sons with him. All other functions of the Spirit flow from this umbrella role of ushering sinners into adoptive sonship as the promise of the final age. Inaugurated eschatology, the Spirit, and adoption are three mutually interdependent realities.
Fourth, Garner admirably weds the utter and marvelous gratuity of the gospel with the new moral life to which believers are summoned (see esp. p. 274). This is an especially salutary strength in light of recent debates around how the gospel fuels progressive sanctification. Garner does not “split the difference” or have a 50/50 balance in treating these two themes, but rather presses hard in both directions. To be adopted by God is a matter of utter gratuity. But to be adopted also necessitates (and enables) living in accord with one’s new identity and the new power of the Spirit. Garner, following Paul’s lead, lifts up both truths.
Fifth, in a day of scholarly hyperspecialization and especially an exaggerated distinction between the disciplines of exegesis and theology, Garner’s holistic approach is refreshing. He engages the text, yet is unafraid to synthesize. Many scholars are good at one or the other. This book does both. He has one foot in biblical studies and the other in theological studies.
Many more strengths could be mentioned but I have a word limit on this review. In moving to any weaknesses we remind ourselves of the impertinence of critiquing an author who has spent far more time pondering his subject than we readers have. So I tread cautiously and mention just one area. The writing itself is at times an obstacle. There is redundancy, for example, both in concepts (several of the main themes are repeated over and over) and in individual words (such as “tethered”). And individual sentences are at times difficult to process (e.g., “Though the complaints about sexism might well be gagged purely by calling into question contemporary bias, Paul’s gender-indeterminate solidaric theological framework muzzles any perceived male chauvinism on its own” [p. 53]). But I remain cautious in critiquing the writing style since it is a subjective matter and may reflect personal preference as much as actual quality of writing.
I conclude with a list of some further questions that arose as I read. Garner must of course set limits on what he is seeking to do, and he himself mentions in the closing pages some areas of further study with respect to adoption (pp. 313–14). Other matters did however arise that could have been more substantially addressed in this book. First, what is the significance of the transfiguration (in which God declares Jesus to be his “beloved Son”) for Garner’s explication of the doctrine of adoption? Second, how does adoption relate to the new birth (regeneration)—since adoption and birth are the two ways children come into families and both are used by the NT to describe salvation? Third, why mention the New Perspective on Paul and the Federal Vision yet define the former and not the latter, especially given how much more provincial the latter is (pp. 223–30)? Fourth, how can we determine whether or not υἱοθεσία was originally in the text of Romans 8:23 without any discussion of the actual manuscript evidence (pp. 134–38)? Fifth, if adoption is as central for Paul as Garner argues (e.g. p. 34), is it also this central for the NT as a whole? In other words, since Garner focuses only on five texts that are all in Paul, how programmatic for the whole NT is Garner’s thesis?
But any weaknesses of writing and any remaining questions are easily outdistanced by the great blessing this book will be to its readers. An unhurried absorption of this book will, for many readers, elevate the doctrine of adoption to a place it could not have had without this substantive, thoughtful, inter-disciplinary, worship-evoking treatment. Reduced to its core, what does it mean to be a Christian? Who are we? David Garner compellingly answers: We are sons in the Son.