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Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Children of God, Sons of God

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Amongst the many ways current in antiquity of expressing the relationship existing between God and man (Creator, King, Lord, Husband, Father), two were derived from human relationships of the family life-God is the Husband or Bridegroom of His people, or He is their Father. With the former we are not now concerned. The latter plays a large part in the teaching of the NT. It will be convenient to examine this teaching under four heads: (1) the doctrine of St. Paul, (2) that of the Johannine writings, (3) that of 1 Peter, (4) that of the remaining books.

1. St. Paul.-It is natural that we should find in this writer, who was the champion and protagonist of the movement for the extension of Christianity to the Gentiles, the most unrestricted expression in the NT of the sonship of mankind as related to God. In Acts 17:28 he bases an argument upon the phrase of the poet Cleanthes ‘for we are his offspring.’ If Ephesians 3:15 ‘the Father from whom every family in heaven and earth is named’ should more rightly be translated ‘of whom all fatherhood in heaven and earth is named,’* [Note: See J. Armitage Robinson, Ephesians, 1903, p. 83 f.] we have here the thought that Fatherhood is an element in the very being of God, and that all other forms of paternity are derived from Him. The words of Ephesians 4:6 ‘one God and Father of all’ will then be naturally interpreted of this universal Fatherhood of God, It is, however, natural enough that in a Christian writer this conception of the universal Fatherhood of God should find little emphasis, and that it should be of infrequent occurrence, for the conception of sonship was wanted to express a closer and more vital relationship than that between God and unredeemed humanity. St. Paul, therefore, generally uses it to denote the relationship between God and the disciples of Christ, whether Jews or Gentiles. Writing in the stress of the Jewish controversy, he finds it necessary to vindicate the claims of the Gentile Christians to the name ‘children or sons of God.’ Gentile Christians are ‘children of promise’ (Galatians 4:28). It is they who as ‘children of promise’ are Abraham’s seed (Romans 9:8). And this sonship had been foretold by Hosea (Romans 9:25). To express the process by which the Christian becomes a son of God, St. Paul takes from current Greek and Roman terminology the metaphor of ‘adoption’:† [Note: See W. M. Ramsay, Historical Commentary on the Galatians, p. 337 ff.] so in Romans 8:15 ‘ye received the spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father’; so again in Galatians 4:4-6 ‘God sent forth his Son … that we might receive the adoption of sons … and because ye are sons, God sent forth the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, Abba, Father.’ The metaphor occurs twice besides in connexion with the genesis of the idea of adoption in the mind of God, and with its complete realization in the future. In Ephesians 1:5 St. Paul speaks of God as ‘having foreordained us unto adoption as sons through Jesus Christ unto himself.’ In Romans 8:23 he speaks of Christians who have the first-fruits of the Spirit, who therefore have already received in some measure the spirit of adoption, as ‘waiting for our adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body.’ He seems to mean that only at the resurrection, when the body rises incorruptible, will the process of adoption be really completed, and made manifest. Adoption to sonship, then, according to St. Paul, presupposes the revelation of the Son of God: ‘God sent forth his Son that we might receive the adoption of sons’ (Galatians 4:6). It was effected by the imparting to the disciple of the Spirit of the incarnate Son, or, in other words, of the Spirit of God. ‘God sent forth the Spirit of his Son into our hearts’ (Galatians 4:5); ‘As many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God’ (Romans 8:14). This involves real likeness to the Son of God: ‘He foreordained them to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the first-born amongst many brethren’ (Romans 8:29). Cf. such passages as 2 Corinthians 3:16 ‘we all … are being changed into the same image.’ At the unveiling or apocalypse of Christ there will also be an unveiling, or manifestation, of the sons of God (Romans 8:19), in which in some sense the whole created universe will share (Romans 8:21). Lastly, adoption involves fellowship with the Son of God (1 Corinthians 1:9) and joint participation with Him in present suffering, and in future glory (Romans 8:16 f.).

2. Johannine writings.-In this literature the terms ‘the Father,’ ‘the Son’ are most characteristically used to express the relationship between God and the Word of God incarnate in Jesus Christ. Whether God is spoken of as the Father of all men is doubtful. The same question arises here as in the Synoptic Gospels. There Christ speaks repeatedly to His disciples of God as ‘your Father’: in Mt. commonly, e.g. Matthew 5:16; Matthew 5:45; Matthew 5:48; in Mk., twice, Mark 11:25-26; in Lk., thrice,Luke 6:36; Luke 12:30; Luke 12:32. They are to address Him in prayer as ‘our Father’ (Matthew 6:9) or ‘Father’ (Luke 11:2). They are so to imitate Him that they may be His sons (Matthew 5:45, Luke 6:35).

In the Fourth Gospel we find for ‘your Father’ the simple ‘the Father.’ Of course we may read into these phrases the idea of the universal Fatherhood of God; and the general tenour of Christ’s teaching, interpreted in the light of history, makes it certain that He meant to imply this. But we must remember that He was speaking to Jews, who had long been accustomed to think of God’s Fatherhood as a term specially applicable to the pious Jew, or to the Jewish nation. His hearers would not, therefore, necessarily have read a universalistic sense into His words, and He nowhere explicitly speaks of God as Father of all men outside His own disciples (members of the Jewish nation). The nearest approximation to this would be His use of ‘the Father’ in speaking to the Samaritan woman (John 4:21; John 4:23). For the term ‘Father’ as applied to God in the OT and in the later Jewish pre-Christian literature, where it is generally used to denote the relationship between God and the individual pious Jew, see W. Bousset, Rel. des Jud., Berlin, 1903, p. 355ff.; G. Dalman, The Words of Jesus, Eng. translation , Edinburgh, 1902, p. 184ff. The phrase, ‘the children of God who were scattered abroad’ (John 11:52), probably refers to the members of the Gentile churches of the writer’s own period. These became ‘children of God’ when they became Christians. In connexion with sonship as used of the relation between God and the disciple of Christ the most characteristic feature of the Johannine writings is the use of the metaphor of re-birth. In John 1:12 f. it is said that those who receive the incarnate Word, or who believe on His name, are given authority to become children of God. (It is just possible that we have here an allusion to the Pauline conception of son-ship by adoption.) Then follows a description of the process by which this position of ‘children’ was reached. They were begotten, not along the lines of physical birth, but ‘of God.’ There is a very interesting variant reading (Western) which makes these words descriptive not of the spiritual birth of the Christian disciple, but of the birth in a supernatural manner (‘not of a husband’) of the Word, who thus became flesh. And even if that be not the original reading, it would seem that the writer in choosing terms in which to describe the spiritual birth of the disciple has selected terms which presuppose acquaintance with the tradition of the birth from a virgin. The disciple, like the Lord Himself, was born, not by physical generation, nor of fleshly passion, nor at the impulse of a human husband, but of God. In John 3:3 the necessity of thus being born from above, or anew, is once more emphasized. In John 3:5 the birth is described as a begetting of the Spirit which takes place at baptism (‘of water,’ unless these words are an early gloss). In the First Epistle the idea recurs. The communication of the Divine life from God in this spiritual birth is connected, as in St. Paul, with ‘faith.’ ‘Every one who believes that Jesus is the Christ is begotten of God,’ 1 John 5:1 (cf. Galatians 3:26 ‘sons through faith’). But ‘love,’ and ‘doing righteousness’ are also the external signs of spiritual birth (cf. John 4:7 ‘Every one that loveth is born of God,’ and 1 John 2:29 ‘Every one that doeth righteousness is begotten of Him’). And just as in St. Paul adoption to sonship involved an increasing conformity to the likeness of the Son of God, so in St. John the birth from God involves the idea of freedom from sin. ‘Every one that is begotten of God does not commit sin’ (1 John 3:9; cf. 1 John 5:18). It carries with it also the certainty of victory over ‘the world,’ ‘Whatsoever is begotten of God overcometh the world’ (1 John 5:4). Just as it is characteristic of St. Paul, with his metaphor of adoption, to speak of Christians as ‘sons,’ so it naturally follows from St. John’s preference for the idea of re-birth to speak of them as ‘children.’ And lastly, just as St. Paul seems to look forward to the resurrection as the moment when adoption to sonship shall be consummated, so St. John looks forward to the manifestation of Christ as the moment when likeness to Him, which is involved in sonship, will be perfected (cf. 1 John 3:2 ‘Beloved, now are we the children of God, and it is not yet made manifest what we shall be. But we know that if he [or it] shall be manifested we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is’).

3. 1 Peter.-Here, too, we find the conception that Christians have passed through a process of re-birth. The word used is not the simple ‘to beget,’ as in John 3:3; John 3:5, but a compound ‘to beget again,’ which is found also in ‘Western’ authorities of John 3:5. Thus when St. Peter speaks of God who ‘begat us again,’ he describes the life of Christians as a new life into which they had entered, and at the same time emphasizes this life as having originated by a Divine act of God. In 1:23 he speaks of Christians as ‘being begotten again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, through the word of God.’ The seed here seems to describe the Divine nature (cf. 1 John 3:9), and the ‘word’ apparently means the message of the Gospel of the incarnate ‘Word.’ It is in harmony with this conception of the re-birth of Christians that St. Peter speaks of them as invoking ‘a Father’ (John 1:17).

4. The idea of sonship finds little expression in the remaining books of the NT. In Hebrews 12:5; Hebrews 12:7-8 affliction is regarded as a proof that God deals with the sufferers as with sons. This is merely metaphorical. More to our point is Hebrews 2:10 f. ‘It became him, through whom are all things, and all things through him, in bringing many sons to glory, to make the leader of their salvation perfect through sufferings. For he that sanctifieth and they that are sanctified are all of one.’ Some would see in the ‘sons’ a reference to the universal Fatherhood of God, but more probably it is Christians who are meant, who have become ‘sons’ by uniting themselves with the one Son. Consequently He and they are all sons of one common Father. The use of ‘sons’ is in this case parallel to that of ‘children’ in John 11:52. The conception of sonship does not occur in James , 2 or 3 John, 2 Peter, or in Jude, for the phrase ‘God the Father’ in 2 Peter 1:17, 2 John 1:3, and Judges 1:1 seems to have reference rather to the relationship between God and Christ than to that between God and men. In the Apocalypse it occurs only in Revelation 21:7, where it is to be the privilege of those who inherit the new Jerusalem that they will be sons of God.

If we now try to summarize the teaching of the Apostolic Age as expressed in the writings of the NT on the conception of sonship of God, the following appear to be the main lines of thought: (1) There is a recognition of the universal Fatherhood of God, to be seen in the teaching of Christ when once it was detached from a literal Jewish interpretation (cf. especially the Parable of the Prodigal Son, and the use of the term ‘the Father’ in the conversation with the woman of Samaria). It appears, too, in St. Paul’s words to the non-Christian Athenians. Whether the inference that God is the Father of all men, from Ephesians 3:15, is a necessary one may be more doubtful. The correlative to this thought of the Fatherhood of God should logically be that of the universal sonship of men. But this receives very scanty expression in the NT (cf. again the Parable of the Prodigal Son, Acts 17:28, and perhaps Hebrews 2:10). (2) In a unique sense Jesus Christ is the Son of God. (3) The Christian disciple by virtue of his union with Christ becomes a son, or child, of God. In the language of St. Paul he is adopted to be a son. In the language of St. John and St. Peter he is born or begotten again. The condition of such sonship is faith. It is characterized by guidance by the Spirit, and it manifests itself in love and in righteousness. Consisting in the gift of new life from God (incorruptible seed, or the Spirit), it implies growth, i.e. a progressive assimilation to Christ Himself. The consummation of this process will be a final adoption at the resurrection (St. Paul), or likeness to Christ at His manifestation (St. John).

Literature.-For Sonship of God by new birth, in antiquity, see A. Dieterich, Eine Mithrasliturgie, Leipzig, 1903, p. 157ff.; for Adoption, see W. M. Ramsay, Hist. Com. on Galatians, London, 1899, p. 337ff. and article ‘Adoption’ in Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics . For Sonship at God in the NT, see the Theologies or the NT, e.g. G. B. Stevens, Edinburgh, 1899, pp. 69ff., 591f. For Sonship in St. John, see B. F. Westcott, Epistles of St. John, London, 1883, p. 120f.; O. Pfleiderer, Primitive Christianity, Eng. translation , i. [1906] 365ff., iv. [1911] 277ff.

W. C. Allen.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Children of God, Sons of God'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. 1906-1918.

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