Children of God
Introduction: Meaning of Terms
I. OLD TESTAMENT TEACHING
1. Mythological Survivals
2. Created Sonship
3. Israel's Collective Covenant Sonship
4. Individual and Personal Relation
5. Universalizing the Idea
II. NEW TESTAMENT TEACHING
1. Physical and Limited Sonship Disappears
2. As Religious Experience, or Psychological Fact
(1) Filial Consciousness of Jesus
(2) Communicated to Men
3. As Moral Condition, or Ethical Fact
4. As State of Being, or Ontological Fact
(1) Essence of Christ's Sonship
(2) Men's Sonship
5. As Relation to God, or Theological Fact
(1) Eternal Generation
(2) The Work of Grace
Introduction: Meaning of Terms:
Children (Sons and Daughters) of God (bene and benoth 'elohim, literally "sons and daughters of God"; tekna theou, and huioi theou): so the King James Version; but the Revised Version (British and American) translates the latter Greek phrase more accurately "sons of God." Tekna contains the idea of origin or descent, but also that of personal relation, and is often used metaphorically of "that intimate and reciprocal relationship formed between men by the bonds of love, friendship, trust, just as between parents and children" (Grimm-Thayer). Huioi, too, conveys the ideas of origin, and of personal relation, but the latter in the fuller form in which it appears in mature age. "The difference between huios and teknon appears to be that whereas teknon denotes the natural relationship of child to parent, huios implies in addition to this the recognized status and legal privileges reserved for sons" (Sanday and Headlam, on Ro 8:14). This difference obtains, however, only in a very general sense.
The above phrases denote the relation in which men are conceived to stand to God, either as deriving their being from Him and depending upon Him, or as standing in that personal relation of intimate trust and love toward Him which constitutes the psychological fact of sonship. The exact significance of the expression depends upon the conception of God, and particularly of His Fatherhood, to which it corresponds. It therefore attains to its full significance only in the New Testament, and its meaning in the Old Testament differs considerably, even though it marks stages of development up to the New Testament idea.
I. Old Testament Teaching.
The most primitive form of the idea appears in Ge 6:1-4, where the sons of God by marrying the fair daughters of men become the fathers of the giants.
1. Mythological Survivals:
These were a subordinate order of Divine beings or demi-gods, and the title here may mean no more, although it was probably a survival of an earlier idea of the actual descent of these gods from a higher God. The idea of a heavenly court where the sons of God come to present themselves before Yahweh is found in quite late literature (Job 1:6; 2:1; 38:7; Ps 29:1; 89:6). In all these cases the phrase implies a certain kinship with God and dependence upon Him on the part of the Divine society around Him. But there is no evidence to show whether the idea of descent of gods from God survived to any extent, nor is there any indication of a very close personal relationship. Satan is unsympathetic, if not hostile. In one obviously polytheistic reference, the term implies a similarity of appearance (Da 3:25). In a secondary sense the titles "gods," and "sons of the Most High" are given to magistrates, as exercising God's authority (Ps 82:6).
2. Created Sonship:
The idea of creation has taken the place of that of procreation in the Old Testament, but without losing the sense of sonship. "Saith Yahweh, the Holy One of Israel, and his Maker: Ask me .... concerning my sons, and concerning the work of my hands" (Isa 45:11). Israel acknowledges the absolute sovereignty of God as her Father and Maker (Isa 64:8). Israel's Maker is also her Husband, and by inference the Father of her children (Isa 54:5). Since all Israel has one Father, and one God created her, the tribes owe brotherly conduct to one another (Mal 2:10). Yahweh upbraids His sons and daughters whom He as their Father bought, made and established. "He forsook God who made him, and lightly esteemed the Rock of his salvation. .... Of the Rock that begat thee thou art unmindful, and hast forgotten God that gave thee birth" (De 32:6,15,18 ff). These passages reveal the transition from the idea of original creation to that of making and establishing Israel as a nation. All things might be described as children of God if creation alone brought it to pass, but Israel stands in a unique relation to God.
3. Israel's Collective Covenant Sonship:
The covenant relation of God with Israel as a nation is the chief form in which man's sonship and God's fatherhood appear in the Old Testament. "Israel is my son, my firstborn" (Ex 4:22); "When Israel was a child, then I loved him, and called my son out of Egypt" (Ho 11:1). And to be children of God involves the obligation to be a holy people (De 14:1-2). But Israel has proved unworthy of her status: "I .... have brought up children, and they have rebelled against me" (Isa 1:2,4; 30:1,9). Yet He will have pity upon them: "for I am a father to Israel, and Ephraim is my firstborn" (Jer 31:9,20). Israel's unworthiness does not abolish the relation on God's side; she can therefore return to Him again and submit to His will (Isa 63:16; 64:8); and His pity exceeds a mother's love (Isa 49:15). The filial relation of Israel to God is summed up and symbolized in a special way in the Davidic king: "I will be his father, and he shall be my son" (2Sa 7:14 = 1Ch 17:13; compare 1Ch 22:10; 28:6; Ps 2:7).
4. Individual and Personal Relation:
God's fatherhood to collective Israel necessarily tends to develop into a personal relation of father and son between Him and individual members of the nation. The children of Israel, whatever their number, shall be called "the sons of the living God" (Ho 1:10). Yahweh's marriage relation with Israel as a nation made individual Israelites His children (Ho 2:19-20; Jer 3:14,22; compare Isa 50:1; Eze 16:20-21; 23:37), and God's ownership of His children, the individual members of the nation, is asserted (compare Ps 127:3). Chastisement and pity alike God deals forth as Father to His children (De 1:31; 8:5; Ps 103:13), and these are intimate personal relations which can only obtain between individuals.
5. Universalizing the Idea:
In another direction the idea of God as the father of Israel tends to be modified by the inclusion of the Gentiles. The word "first-born" (in Ex 4:22 and Jer 31:9,20) may be only an emphatic form of expressing sonship, or it may already suggest the possibility of the adoption of the Gentiles. If that idea is not present in words, it is an easy and legitimate inference from several passages, that Gentiles would be admitted some day into this among the rest of Israel's privileges (Isa 19:25; 65:1; Zec 14:16).
II. New Testament Teaching.
1. Physical and Limited Sonship Disappears:
As the doctrine of Divine fatherhood attains its full spiritual and moral significance in the New Testament, so does the experience and idea of sonship. All traces of physical descent have disappeared. Paul's quotation from a heathen poet: "For we are also his offspring" (Ac 17:28), whatever its original significance, is introduced by the apostle for the purpose of enforcing the idea of the spiritual kinship of God and men. The phrase "Son of God" applied to Christ by the Roman centurion (Mt 27:54; Mr 15:39) may or may not, in his mind, have involved the idea of physical descent, but its utterance was the effect of an impression of similarity to the gods, produced by the exhibition of power attending His death. The idea of creation is assumed in the New Testament, but generally it is not prominent in the idea of sonship. The virgin birth of Jesus, however, may be understood as implying either the creative activity of the Holy Spirit, or the communication of a preexistent Divine being to form a new human personality, but the latter idea also would involve creative activity in the physical realm (compare Lu 3:38: "Adam (son) of God"). The limitations of the Old Testament conception of sonship as national and collective disappear altogether in the New Testament; God is father of all men, and of every man. In potentiality at least every man and all men are sons of God. The essence of sonship consists in a personal experience and moral likeness which places man in the most intimate union and communion with God.
2. As Religious Experience, or Psychological Fact:
(1) Filial Conciousness of Jesus.
Divine sonship was first realized and made manifest in the consciousness of Jesus (Mt 11:27). For Him it meant unbroken personal knowledge of God and communion with Him, and the sense of His love for Him and of His satisfaction and delight in Him (Mt 3:17; 17:5; Mr 1:11; 9:7; Lu 3:22; 9:35). Whether the "voice out of the heavens saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased" was objective or not, its message always dwelt in the filial consciousness of Jesus. The Father's love was to Him a source of knowledge and power (Joh 5:20), the reward of His self-sacrifice (Joh 10:17) and the inspiration of His love for men (Joh 15:9).
Sonship meant for Him His Messianic mission (Mt 16:16-17). It involved His dependence on the Father and His obedience to Him (Joh 5:19,30; 8:29), and a resulting confidence in His mission (Joh 5:36; 10:36-37). It filled Him with a sense of dignity, power and glory which the Father gave Him, and would yet give in larger measure (Mt 26:63,14; 16:27; Joh 17:5).
(2) Communicated to Men.
Jesus communicated His own experience of God to men (Joh 14:9) that they also might know the Father's love and dwell in it (Joh 17:26). Through Him and through Him alone can they become children of God in fact and in experience (Joh 1:12; 14:6; Mt 11:27). It is therefore a distinctively Christian experience and always involves a relation of faith in Christ and moral harmony with Him. It differs from His experience in one essential fact, at least in most men. It involves an inner change, a change of feeling and motive, of ideal and attitude, that may be compared to a new birth (Joh 3:3). Man must turn and return from disobedience and alienation through repentance to childlike submission (Lu 15:18-20). It is not the submission of slaves, but the submission of sons, in which they have liberty and confidence before God (Ga 4:6), and a heritage from Him for their possession (Ga 4:6-7; Ro 8:17). It is the liberty of self-realization. As sons they recognize their kinship with God, and share his mind and purpose, so that His commands become their pleasure: "For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments: and his commandments are not grievous" (1Jo 5:3). They have boldness and access to God (Eph 2:18; 3:12). With this free union of love with God there comes a sense of power, of independence of circumstances, of mastery over the world, and of the possession of all things necessary which become the heirs of God (Mt 6:26,32; 7:11). "For whatsoever is begotten of God overcometh the world" (1Jo 5:4). They learn that the whole course and destiny of creation is for the "revealing of the sons of God" (Ro 8:19,21).
3. As Moral Condition, or Ethical Fact:
Christ's sonship involved His moral harmony with the Father: "I have kept my Father's commandments, and abide in his love" (Joh 15:10; 8:53). He accomplished the work which the Father gave Him to do (Joh 17:4; 5:19), "becoming obedient even unto death, yea, the death of the cross" (Php 2:8). And sonship makes the same demand upon men. The peacemakers and those who forgive like God are His children (Mt 5:9,45; Lu 6:35). "For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these (and these only) are sons of God" (Ro 8:14). God will be Father to the holy (2Co 6:18). The test and mark of the children of God is that they do righteousness and love the brethren (1Jo 3:10). They are blameless and harmless, without blemish, in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation (Php 2:15). Therefore their ideal of life is to be "imitators of God" and to walk in love even as Christ did (Eph 5:1). Sonship grows to its consummation as the life grows in the likeness of Christ, and the final destiny of all sons is to be ever like Him (1Jo 3:2).
4. As State of Being, or Ontological Fact:
Sonship is properly and primarily a relation, but it may so dominate and transform the whole of a man's life, thought and conduct as to become his essential being, the most comprehensive category under which all that he is may be summed up.
(1) Essence of Christ's Sonship.
It is so that the New Testament comprehends the person of Christ. Everything that He did, He did as God's son, so that He is the Son, always and ever Son. In the beginning, in the bosom of the Father, He is the ONLY BEGOTTEN (which see) Son (Joh 1:1,18). He is born a Son of God (Lu 1:35). He begins life in the things of His Father (Lu 2:49). His whole life is that of the beloved Son (Mt 3:17; 17:5). As Son of God He dies (Mt 26:63; Lu 22:70; Mt 27:40,43; compare Joh 5:18). In His resurrection He was declared to be the Son of God with power (Ro 1:4); as Jesus the Son of God He is our great high priest in heaven (Heb 4:14), and in the glory of His father He will come to judge in the last day (Mt 16:27).
(2) Men's Sonship.
Unlike Him, men's moral sonship is neither eternal nor universal. Are they therefore sons in any sense always and everywhere? All children are heirs of the kingdom of God and objects of the Father's care (Lu 18:16; Mt 18:10). But men may turn away from the Father and become unworthy to be called His sons (Lu 15:13,19). They may become children of the devil (1Jo 3:10; Joh 8:44), and children of wrath (Eph 2:3). Then they lose the actuality, but not the potentiality, of sonship. They have not the experience or character of sons, but they are still moral and rational beings made in the image of God, open to the appeal and influence of His love, and able to "rise and go to their Father." They are objects of God's love (Joh 15:13; Ro 5:8) and of His gracious search and seeking (Lu 15:4; Joh 11:52). But they are actual sons only when they are led by the Spirit of God (Ro 8:14); and even so their sonship will only be consummated in the resurrection (Ro 8:23; Lu 20:36).
5. As Relation to God, or Theological Fact:
In the relation of father and son, fatherhood is original and creative. That does not necessarily mean priority in time.
(1) Eternal Generation.
Origen's doctrine of the eternal generation of Christ, by which is meant that God and Christ always stood in the relation of Father and Son to one another, is a just interpretation of the New Testament idea that the Son "was in the beginning with God" (pros ton Theon). But Jesus was conscious of His dependence upon the Father and that His sonship was derived from Him (Joh 5:19,36). Still more manifest is it that men derive their sonship from God. He made them for Himself, and whatever in human nature qualifies men to become sons of God is the free gift of God. But men in their sin and disobedience could not come to a knowledge of the Father, had He not "sent forth his Son .... that we might receive the adoption of sons" (Ga 4:4-5): "Behold what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called children of God" (1Jo 3:1); "God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son" (which see) who gave men "the right to become children of God, even to them that believe on his name" (Joh 3:16; 1:12). It is not the children of the flesh but the children of the promise who are children of God (Ro 9:4). The mere act of birth does not constitute men into children of God, but His covenant of free grace must be added. God being essentially Father made men and the universe, sent His Son and His Spirit, "for the revealing of the sons of God." But they can only know the Father, and realize their sonship when they respond to His manifestation of fatherly love, by faith in God and obedience to Him.
(2) The Work of Grace.
The question whether sonship is natural and universal or conditional upon grace working through faith, does not admit of a categorical answer. The alternatives are not strict antitheses. God does all things as Father. To endow man with rational and moral nature capable of his becoming a son was an act of love and grace, but its whole purpose can be communicated only in response to faith in Christ. But a natural sonship which is not actual is meaningless. A man's moral condition and his attitude toward God are the most essential elements of his nature, for a man's nature is just the sum total of his thoughts, acts and states. If these are hostile or indifferent to God, there is nothing left that can have the reality or bear the name of son. For if the word son be used of mere creaturehood and potentiality, that is to give it a meaning entirely different from New Testament usage. All men by nature are potential sons, because God has made them for sonship and does all things to win them into their heritage. Men may be sons of God in a very imperfect and elementary manner. The sharp transitions of Pauline and Johannine theology are rather abstract distinctions for thought than actual descriptions of spiritual processes. But Paul and John also contemplate a growth in sonship, "till we all attain unto the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a full-grown man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ" (Eph 4:13).
See SONS OF GOD.