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Children of God

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

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Children of God, Sons of God
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CHILDREN OF GOD.—The teaching of Jesus Christ about the children of God cannot be understood apart from His teaching about the Fatherhood of God: indeed, it is from the latter standpoint that it must be approached. In such an approach the main positions seem to be as follows:—

(1) Jesus asserts absolutely the fatherly nature of God. His use of the name ‘Father’ implies that the fatherly nature is eternal in God. God does not become Father; He is ‘the Father.’ All knowledge of God is deficient which does not ‘know the Father’ (Matthew 11:27, John 14:6-11). This fatherly nature of God necessarily manifests itself in all God’s dealings. He cannot be other than Father, and ‘he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sendeth rain on the just and the unjust’ (Matthew 5:45).

(2) This eternal Fatherhood in God is complemented by an eternal Sonship in God. Jesus used habitually the name ‘My Father.’ It implied a special relationship between the Father and Himself, which is summed up by John, ‘The only begotten Son which is in the bosom of the Father’ (John 1:18).

(3) The fatherly heart of God does not rest satisfied in the eternal Sonship in God. He desires the response of filial love from all who are capable of giving it (cf. esp. Luke 15:1-32, John 4:23). Jesus assumed that the filial attitude is expected from all men. This is implied in His method of teaching. The Divine Fatherhood is woven into its texture. Therefore the picture of God the Father is offered to everybody, with its necessary appeal to the hearer to enjoy the filial relationship. Since the outlook of the gospel is universal, the sonship may be universal. Even ‘publicans and sinners’ may enjoy the filial feeling.

(4) But Jesus taught plainly that this filial attitude is not general amongst men. He told the Jews that they were of their father the devil (John 8:44), and distinguished ‘the good seed, the sons of the kingdom,’ from ‘the tares, the sons of the evil one’ (Matthew 13:38); cf. also Matthew 23:13-33.

(5) Certain conditions are laid down as essential to the enjoyment of the filial relationship to God. These conditions are usually described by Jesus in terms of character. The children of God are ‘peacemakers,’ are those who love their enemies, and who do the will of the Father (cf. Matthew 5:9; Matthew 5:44; Matthew 12:50): they ‘do good and lend, never despairing,’ and are ‘merciful’ (Luke 6:35-36). But in the discourses in John’s Gospel, Jesus Himself is offered as a touchstone for the filial relationship (cf. John 8:42-47). In this connexion the demand for the new birth must be noticed. Jesus connected entrance into that Kingdom which He came to found, with being ‘born anew’ (John 3:3); He demanded that His disciples should be converted and become as little children if they would enter the Kingdom (Matthew 18:3 ||). It may fairly be said that in the mind of Jesus there is an intimate connexion between these two modes of teaching. The moral character befitting the children of God is secured by the new birth ‘of water and of the Spirit’ (John 3:5).

From these propositions we can gather the teaching of Jesus about the children of God. The relationship is apprehended by Jesus ethically, not physically. To identify Divine sonship with human birth brings the relationship down to the physical sphere. Jesus kept it in the religious sphere. The Fatherhood of God is an ethical attitude eternally present in the Godhead; man’s Divine sonship is his ethical response to this Divine Fatherhood. God is ever waiting to welcome men as sons, and to give them the position of sons at home (Luke 15). But their assumption of this filial position depends upon their adoption of the filial attitude, ‘I will arise and go to my father.’ As Wendt says, ‘God does not become the Father, but is the heavenly Father, even of those who become His sons.… Man is a true son of God … from the fact of his comporting himself as a son of God’ (Teaching of Jesus, i. p. 193).

This religious attitude which betokens Divine sonship, includes four elements, (a) Children of God love their heavenly Father. Love is the golden bond in all home relationships. Jesus declares it to be the sovereign law in the true relationship between man and God. For He taught that the greatest commandment is to love the Lord our God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength (Matthew 22:37, Luke 10:27). When claiming to have come forth from God, He said to the Jews: ‘If God were your father ye would love me,’ where love of Himself is identified with love of the Father whom He revealed.

(b) Children of God obey their heavenly Father. This is implied in all Jesus’ exhortations to men to do the will of God. It is clearly stated in these sentences: ‘Whosoever shall do the will of my Father which is in heaven, the same is my brother, and sister, and mother’ (Matthew 12:50); ‘Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven’ (Matthew 7:21); cf. also Matthew 21:31; Matthew 24:45 ||.

(c) Children of God trust their heavenly Father. This mark of Divine sonship is emphasized in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus exhorts His disciples not to be as the Gentiles, but to rely upon their heavenly Father’s knowledge of their needs and His desire to help them. Anxiety must be banished from the hearts of God’s children, who are fed and clothed by their Father (Matthew 6:25-34, Luke 6:22-34).

(d) Children of God try to be like their heavenly Father. They are to be perfect, even as their heavenly Father is perfect (Matthew 5:48). This must not be interpreted, as it often is, ‘Be as perfect as your Father.’ Its exhortation is to take the fatherly character of God as the standard of perfection. ‘Be ye perfect, even as He is perfect.’ The Father loves all men: let His children do likewise. By thus taking the fatherly character of God as the standard, His children will fulfil the second great law, ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself’ (Matthew 22:39). The natural man adopts other ideals of perfection; but the children of God try to be like their Father.

Jesus gave immortal expression to the desires characteristic of the children of God, in ‘the Lord’s Prayer.’ That prayer is put into the lips of those who can say ‘Our Father which art in heaven.’ It includes all the marks of God’s children that have been found elsewhere in the teaching of Jesus. The hallowing of the Father’s name implies the sanctification of His children after His likeness. The prayer ‘Thy will be done’ lifts us to the loftiest level of obedience. Only those who trust God can pray ‘Give us our daily bread,’ and can limit their desires for material good to such humble bounds. The prayer breathes throughout the spirit of love: that spirit is the warp into which the weft of the petition is woven.

The blessings enjoyed by the children of God are all the good that Jesus Christ came on earth to offer to men. This good is summed up in the phrase ‘the kingdom of God’ or ‘the kingdom of heaven.’ All the children of God are members of that Kingdom; cf. Matthew 13:38; Matthew 18:3-10. The Kingdom is God’s proffered blessing: ‘It is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom’ (Luke 12:32). The Kingdom includes the blessings of forgiveness (Matthew 6:14 ||); of guardian care (Matthew 6:33); of the Holy Spirit (Luke 11:13); of eternal life (John 5:21-26; John 17:3); and finally, the enjoyment of the Father’s house (Matthew 25:34, John 14:2-3).

This identification of the blessings enjoyed by the children of God with the good of the Kingdom, leads naturally to the statement that the ethical attitude characteristic of the children of God can be secured by faith in Jesus Christ. He not only spoke of Himself as the Son of God; He also declared that His revelation of Sonship made son-ship possible to men. Considerable importance attaches to the solemn words in Matthew 11:27 ‘All things have been delivered unto me of my Father: and no one knoweth the Son, save the Father; neither doth any know the Father, save the Son and he to whomsoever the Son willeth to reveal him.’ They declare that the knowledge of the Father must be experimental. Only one who has lived as a son can know the Father. Men do not know God primarily as Father. They think of Him as King, as Judge, as Law-Giver; and because they are sinners they cannot know Him purely as Father. The shadow of the broken Law falls across God’s face, making it appear the face of a judge, and falls upon the attitude of men, chilling it into that of servants. But ‘the Son’ knows God as Father. He has no fear of Him as Judge; He claims to be Himself the King in the kingdom of God (Matthew 25:40); He is conscious that He has never broken God’s law. Therefore He can know God as the Father; and He is able to reveal God to men as Father. Jesus does this by ransoming captive spirits from the bondage of sin and death (Matthew 20:28), by persuading them to trust the fatherly love of God, and by strengthening them to break away from the self-life in favour of the life of surrender (Matthew 16:24-27 ||).

The close connexion between this great word and the gracious invitation which follows it (Matthew 11:28-30), must not be overlooked. That invitation shows the universality of Christ’s outlook. The Son is willing to reveal the Father to all. But the connexion explains the personal note in the invitation. Jesus does not say ‘Go to the Father’; He says ‘Come unto me, and I will give you rest.’ This is because He is the revealer of the Father; and the rest He offers is rest in the Fatherhood of God. The chapter describes the discouragements that darkened the noon of His ministry. He found rest to His own soul in the Father: ‘I thank thee, O Father … Even so, Father’ (Matthew 11:25-26). This rest He desires to give to others. The only way in which men can come to the Father is by coming to Himself.

Two things are implied. One is that the Fatherhood of God is made accessible to men in Jesus Christ. He is the appointed trysting-place where men are sure to meet their heavenly Father. He was lifted up as an ensign (Isaiah 11:10; Isaiah 11:12): when the nations see Him they know where to seek God. The children of God are scattered on the dark mountains of ignorance. Jesus is the trysting-place where they are gathered at the feet of their heavenly Father (John 11:52). If men come to Him, the see the Father. The other fact is that Jesus gives men knowledge of the Father by teaching them to live as God’s children must live. They must be meek and lowly in heart (cf. Matthew 5:3-5); He can make them so. They must also learn obedience to the Fathers will. He offers to teach them this, saying with marvellous condescension, ‘Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me.’ He is wearing the yoke of obedience to the Father, and He finds it ‘easy.’ A yoke is made for two. Jesus invites each man desiring to be a son of God to put his shoulder under the other end of His own yoke. Then he will walk in step with the great Elder Brother. Thus learning from Jesus, he will become a worthy child of God.

This great word has special significance because it forms a link between the Synoptic teaching and the teaching of Jesus in John’s Gospel. There the enjoyment of filial privileges is made to depend upon man’s relation to the Son (see especially John 5:19-47; John 6:28-40; John 8:19; John 8:23-56). The words declaratory of the love of God in sending the Son to save men are variously assigned to Jesus and to the Evangelist. But even if they are the Evangelist’s reflexion upon the words of Jesus, they do no more than sum up the teaching of the Lord in the chapters quoted above.

In particular, it may be noted that Jesus claimed kinship with the Father because ‘I do always the things that are pleasing to him’ (John 8:29). This is in harmony with His reference to men who do the Father’s will, as His ‘brethren’ (Matthew 12:50). Men who accept His revelation of God and duty become His brethren; all these ‘brethren’ are related to God as His children. They comport themselves in a befitting manner, which is essentially different from the self-centred conduct of unregenerate men. This filial demeanour is gained by faith in Jesus as the Saviour. He offers Himself to men as the Redeemer, through whom they can break away from sin and adopt the filial attitude toward God (Matthew 23:8, John 10:15; John 10:25-29).

This conception of the teaching of Jesus on this subject is expressed by the Evangelist John in the striking sentence, ‘As many as received him, to them gave he the right to become children of God, even to them that believe on his name: which were born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God’ (John 1:12-13). Here men are described as becoming children of God by believing on the name of Jesus. They attain the dignity by a new birth that is from above. Their natural birth does not make them children of God. Before they stand in this relationship they must receive a Divine energy. This energy is brought to them by the Word made flesh, who offers Himself to the world. Moreover, this reception of Christ is a continuous exercise of faith (τοῖς πιστεύουσιν), implying an attitude Godward that is maintained from day to day.

If an illustration may be permitted, it would seem that Jesus represents men as like Robinson Crusoe’s first canoe. It was designed to float in the water and was capable of doing so: but it could not get into the sea. So it lay on the shore like a log. Man is designed for fellowship with God, and is capable of living in filial relationship with Him. But before he can realize this destiny, he must be carried away from his native selfishness and be launched on the sea of Divine love. Jesus Christ is the mighty deliverer who can lift men out of death in sin and bring them to the Father. When men believe on Him, this purpose is fulfilled. They realize their destiny and become children of God. Then they spread their sails to the wind of heaven, and have ‘life that is life indeed.’

The scope of this article does not include the general teaching of the Epistles on this topic. But a brief reference must be made to that teaching in so far as it involves a distinct reference to Jesus Christ. In general it may be said that the teaching of the Epistles reproduces all the main features of the teaching of Jesus. The children of God are possessors of a new life that has come to them by faith in Jesus Christ: Romans 8:1-14, Galatians 2:20, 1 John 2:23; 1 John 5:13. This new life manifests itself in a new moral state befitting God’s children and due to the power of Christ: Galatians 5:16-26, Ephesians 2:1-10, Colossians 3:5-10. In this connexion it may be noted that Christians are called ‘children of light,’ who before becoming Christians were ‘children of disobedience,’ suffering ‘the wrath of God’ (Ephesians 2:2; Ephesians 5:6, Colossians 3:6). Thus Christ is the Saviour through whom the children of God are reborn and morally renewed.

In particular, three descriptions of God’s children are connected with aspects of Christ’s work. (α) As Redeemer, He secures man’s adoption into the family of God (Romans 8:14-16, Galatians 3:23 to Galatians 4:6). This ‘adoption’ has been interpreted, in connexion with the antithesis between sonship and servitude, to denote the emancipation of sons enslaved by sin. This is the shade of meaning prominent in Galatians. In Romans the idea of adoption of those not previously sons is emphasized. In both eases, however, the adoption is due to the redeeming work of Jesus Christ, ministered to men by the Holy Spirit. The word ‘adoption’ is not used in Hebrews. But the idea is found there in the figure of the Author of salvation leading many sons to glory (Hebrews 2:10). (β) As High Priest, Jesus secures access to the Father for all who come unto God by Him (Ephesians 2:18, Hebrews 7:24-25). This priesthood is exercised by Him as our ‘Brother,’ and was granted to Him in view of His experience of our temptations (Hebrews 2:17; Hebrews 4:15). (γ) As King, Jesus Christ bestows a rich inheritance upon all His brethren. The children of God are ‘joint-heirs with Christ’ (Romans 8:17).

In regard to this whole question, it should be remembered that in all probability our human speech cannot describe adequately relations that reach into the eternal, and concern God. The figure of ‘children’ is an analogy rather than an exact parallel. Therefore we should be misunderstanding the teaching of Jesus if we pressed the analogy too far and sought to discover the exact counterpart of each element of the human relation in that which we bear to God. Also it is important to recall that Jesus was not concerned with abstract relations. His purpose was practical and religious, and He used terms just so far as they served that purpose. His terminology was consistent; it may not seem conclusive on all points that suggest themselves to abstract reasoning.

Literature.—Articles in Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible on ‘God, Children of,’ ‘Jesus Christ,’ ‘Romans,’ and ‘Regeneration’; Commentaries on the NT, especially those of Sanday-Headlam, Westcott, and Lightfoot; Fairbairn, Christ in Modern Theology; Watson, The Mind of the Master; Bruce, Kingdom of God, and St. Paul’s Conception of Christianity; Wendt, Teaching of Jesus; Beyschlag, NT Theology; Coe, Religion of a Mature Mind, 187–216, Education in Religion and Morals, 65 ff., 373 ff.; Dalman, Words of Jesus; Stevens, Christian Doct. of Salvation, and Theol. of NT.

J. Edward Roberts.

Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Children of God'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​hdn/​c/children-of-god.html. 1906-1918.
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