At the heart of John Calvin’s theology and undergirding his development of the ordo salutis is the doctrine of adoption. Many scholars note that Calvin does not treat adoption as a separate locus in his systematic theology and magnum opus, The Institutes of the Christian Religion. This is due in part to the fact that Calvin weaves the doctrine throughout the tapestry of God’s marvelous work in the salvation of sinners. The doctrine of adoption is not peripheral, but rather central to Calvin’s theology as noted by Sinclair Ferguson writes, (The Reformed Doctrine of Sonship, in Pulpit and People, Essays in Honor of William Still) “students of Calvin’s theology have too rarely recognized how important the concept of sonship was to his understanding of the Christian life.”
The fountainhead of adoption and its privileges in John Calvin’s thought is found in God the Father. Specifically the privileges that the adopted child of God receives are the comfort of the Father’s providence and the assurance received through the Father’s electing grace.
One of those privileges is that Adoption assures the believer of God’s Fatherly electing grace. The electing grace of the Father almost becomes synonymous in Calvin’s writings with the doctrine of adoption. He does not clearly delineate between these two concepts but rather merges them to show how adoption becomes a confirmation of election. Howard Griffith in his article clearly proves that election and adoption are closely tied in Calvin’s thought when he states:
It is quite clear that Calvin’s intention was to use the biblical teaching on election as Scripture does: in the service of assurance for believers. Election was dangerous and only a snare when considered abstractly. But if for the sake of the analysis of Calvin’s own thinking, we think of it first, it is fascinating to notice that Calvin repeatedly refers to election as God’s adoption of the believer. This is not just the slip of a pen: Calvin repeats it often.
Adoption can be conceived of as the rearview mirror if you will, confirming the electing grace of the Father in the life of the believer. The close relationship of election and adoption serves to assure the believer that he is indeed a child of God.
In his Sermons on Election and Reprobation, Calvin closely links election and adoption when he says, “So, when our Lord engraveth his fear in our hearts by his holy spirit, and such an obedience towards him, as his Children ought to perform unto him, this is as if he should set upon us the seal of his election, and as if he should truly testify that he hath adopted us and that he is a Father unto us.” Throughout the Institutes he makes several references to the close relation between election and adoption where free election by the grace of God becomes the ground of the believer’s adoption. He states, “We were adopted in Christ into the eternal inheritance because in ourselves we were not capable of such great excellence.” Furthermore, man cannot renovate himself to receive the adoption of sons, nor is adoption because of any foreseen merit on God’s part, because “God’s special election towers and rules over all, alone ratifying his adoption.”
This assurance of election is further buttressed in his Sermons on Ephesians where he says, “When he [Paul] says that God has predestinated us by adoption, it is to show that if we be God’s children it is not through nature but through his pure grace…For we have no such status by birth or inheritance, neither does it come of flesh and blood.” The assurance this affords the believer is that it is by the grace of God in Jesus Christ that they are adopted into the family of God and thus “they whom he calls to salvation ought not to seek the cause of it anywhere else than in this gratuitous adoption.” Calvin continues speaking of the assurance that election and adoption affords the believer:
Whosoever then believes is thereby assured that God has worked in him, and faith, as it were, the duplicate copy that God gives us of the original of our adoption…It follows then that if we have faith, we are also adopted. For why does God gives us faith? Even because he elected us before the creation of the world. This therefore is an infallible order, that insofar as the faithful receive God’s grace and embrace his mercy, holding Jesus Christ as their Head, to obtain salvation in this way, they know assuredly that God has adopted them.
Far from declaring God’s election to be cold, calculating and deterministic, Calvin ties election and adoption closely together showing the comfort and warmth that can be derived from doing so. Election becomes the ground of adoption, and thus offers assurance to the child of God that he really is one of God’s children. The root of adoption is not found in the believer, but in God the Father, through Jesus Christ.