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May 24, 2009

God surpasses expectations Our adoption as God’s children is the deepest meaning of salvation

By Scott Hahn


Trained as a Pharisee, young Saul of Tarsus knew well the expectations of his people. Saul studied in Jerusalem under Rabbi Gamaliel the Great, the most renowned scholar of his time. A normal part of Saul’s education would be to ponder deeply the books of the prophets.

So Saul knew the promises God had made to his chosen people, and he knew that God would be faithful. Thus, like many Jews of the first century, Saul waited with longing for the promised Messiah, God’s anointed deliverer. The Messiah would deliver Israel from its bondage and oppression. The Messiah would bring salvation from God.

Saul worked zealously to hasten the day of fulfillment — the day of salvation and deliverance.

Day already here

Then Saul learned that the day had already arrived. The Messiah was Jesus. And deliverance had come in a way no one had expected.

In fact, several lifetimes of study could not have prepared Saul — or anyone else — for the astonishing fulfillment of God’s plan. Though the prophets had evoked images of a suffering Messiah, the national tradition had dwelt instead upon the more abundant images of a conquering king, a military victor, who would expel the pagan rulers by the power of God and re-establish the order of divine law throughout the promised land. Such is the imagery we find in the Dead Sea Scrolls and other documents from the first century.

God had indeed fulfilled the expectations of Saul — and of Israel — but he did it in his own way, which was certainly not their way. God fulfilled every expectation and then surpassed them immeasurably.

Saul expected the Messiah to be a king who would restore the house of David. God sent his own eternal Son, incarnate as a Son of David.

Saul expected deliverance to bring peace, prosperity and freedom to obey the law of Moses. But God’s idea of salvation was far greater: he would deliver his people from sin; and, even more than that, he would deliver them from death; and, greatest of all, he would deliver them to share his own life. Salvation was not merely from something; it was for something. God delivered his people from sin so they might become his sons and daughters.

Saul of Tarsus became St. Paul the apostle, and we should not be surprised to learn that he spent much of his time pondering and preaching about God’s greatest surprises.

Inadequate language

When Paul spoke of deliverance, it was almost as if human language was inadequate to express what Jesus Christ had accomplished. He exhausted one metaphor after another. He used the terminology of the courtroom, saying that we have been justified — that is, acquitted — in a court of law (see Rom 5:16-17). He drew analogies from the marketplace to make the point that we have been “redeemed”: “You were bought at a great price” (1 Cor 7:23; see also 2 Titus 2:13-14). He drew military analogies, portraying us as the object of a divine rescue mission (2 Tim 4:18). Paul said we were “set free” from “slavery” (Gal 5:1).

But all the metaphors seem to lead to one that is his favorite: Our adoption as children of God. It would have been a grand thing if God had just delivered Israel from oppression. It would have been greater still if he had forgiven all the sins of a fallen world. But God did so much more in Jesus Christ. He brought about “redemption” for the sake of “adoption” (Rom 8:23) — “to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Gal 4:5).

Our adoption as God’s children is the deepest meaning of salvation. It encompasses redemption, justification and all the others. “But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of deeds done by us in righteousness, but in virtue of his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit, which he poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that we might be justified by his grace and become heirs in hope of eternal life” (Titus 3:4-7).

Covenant bond

Some non-Catholic interpreters would have us stop short of this reality. They put the focus instead on justification — and they interpret “justice” by the standards of the modern courtroom. But in doing so they are ignoring the cultural and religious context of St. Paul’s many metaphors.

Supremely important for him (as for all first-century Jews) was the idea of covenant. It was the covenant with God that constituted Israel as God’s chosen people. Covenant created a family bond; and with Jesus’ “new covenant” (1 Cor 11:25) that family bond was made immeasurably stronger. Salvation has made us like Jesus — children of God in the eternal Son of God (see Gal 3:26) — “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pt 1:4). Fidelity to the covenant is what Paul intends when he uses terms like justice and justification.

St. Paul knew that God was not content to be merely our judge. He wished to be our Father (see Eph 1:5). And that is the very essence of salvation in Christ.

“It is the children of God who are led by the Spirit of God. You have not received a spirit that makes you fear returning to your former slavery; you have received the spirit of adopted sons that cries out Abba, Father! For it is the Spirit himself who gives testimony along with our spirit that we are children of God. And if children, also heirs: Together with Christ, God is our inheritance” (Rom 8:14-17).

Hahn is founder and president of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology (