The Latin phrase patria potestas means “the power of the father” and in the culture of first century Rome, to come under patria potestas was to be completely under a father’s control. This ensured, at the most basic level, protection, provision, and inheritance for a child. Unfortunately, not everyone had a father, and most certainly, not everyone had a good one. Likewise, not everyone had a child. An affluent adult who desired an heir might consider adoption. The most likely candidate to be adopted was an adolescent slave with whom there was already an established relationship, but any well-to-do Roman citizen could choose to adopt anyone, even another adult.
The adoption process under Roman law included three steps, all carried out in a public forum. The adopter was asked if he would accept the adoptee as his legal heir. The adoptee was asked if he agreed to be adopted. Finally, the people, acting as witnesses, were asked if they would approve the adoption. Upon completion of the process, the adopted person started a completely new life and came into patria potestas, “the power of the father,” and gained all the rights and privileges of a fully legitimate member of the family. And the entire world of the adoptee came under the power of the father. With a new identity and new name, any debts owed were paid in full by the father and if anything was owed to the adoptee, the father would collect on their behalf. For the adoptee, the provision and protection of the father was theirs, and they would inherit a sizeable estate upon the father’s death. And best of all, a legal adoption was absolutely irrevocable. There was no set of circumstances where it could be “undone.”
No wonder the New Testament writers loved to apply this metaphor to our new lives in Christ. All the nuances of first century Roman adoption neatly translate into our relationship with our adopted Father and His family. The massive sin debt we owe is taken on by the father and paid in full. Anything owed to us, He will collect, and any harm ever done to us, He will repay. His provision for our needs is graciously guaranteed, and as full members of His family, our adoption can never be revoked. Never.
As if all of this wasn’t enough, our adoption into God’s family, just as in Roman times, gives us the “full rights of sons and daughters.” This means we have an inheritance waiting for us and we are joint-heirs with Jesus. Imagine that! Once a lowly no-name with a sin debt I couldn’t possibly pay, I am now a daughter of the King with the cattle on a thousand hills. He will never abandon me. He will never betray me. My whole life is in His gracious hand. I am His forever.
While the Romans had their reasons for adopting a lowly slave and making him an heir, the fact remains that our Father extends patria potestas to us because ultimately He is love and everything He does is drawn from that deep well. And there is no better place to be than in the power of this Father.
And we get to call Him Daddy.