1 John 3:1 “How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!”
We are going to spend three sessions hearing about what the Bible teaches that all believers in Jesus Christ are adopted as children into the family of God. I have decided to set out on this journey because firstly this is biblical teaching, and of course, that is indispensable for any gospel enterprise. Its great end should be that we know the blessed Bible better. Then, secondly, sonship is Trinitarian teaching, and that is somewhat neglected teaching today but the Trinity lies at the very heart of biblical Christianity, and, thirdly, we are anxious to study it because it is personal and experiential teaching – sonship is not something theoretical and doctrinal. God has not only delivered us from the condemnation of sin but he has brought us into a living relation with himself our heavenly Father. We are given the right to be called the children of God, and indeed “that is what we are.” It is the human affections that need this teaching via our minds. Sonship is not spoken about as often as it merits, but the Bible’s revelation that God becomes the Father of his people is one more incredible display of how rich is the grace of God.
I want to begin with a panorama of the various textures of sonship that are found in the Bible, pointing out first of all this, that . . .
1. THERE IS JESUS CHRIST, GOD’S ETERNAL SON.
In an utterly unique sense he is God’s Son, his only begotten Son. Jesus spoke to his disciples after his resurrection and he made a distinction between their relation to God their Father and his. He did not say, “I’m now returning to our Father.” He said, “I am returning to my Father and your Father; to my God and your God” (Jn. 20:18). You appreciate the difference between our sonship and his, how Jesus’ sonship is an eternal sonship. He has always been God’s Son just as the Father has always been the Father. That is how God is. That is a necessity of God’s own nature; he can only exist in the form of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. The Son and the Spirit and the Father are equally divine. When any of us fathers have a child we have someone who is as human as we are. We don’t beget a son who is 90% human or 98%. New fathers don’t stand around in the maternity ward looking through the window at the cribs where their sons are sleeping and there test one another as to how human their sons are. They don’t brag, “Mine has been registered as 98% human,” while another father caps him by bragging, “Mine is 99% human.” No. Every baby is 100% human. Every son possesses his father’s exact and entire nature. So it is when God begets a Son he is not 90% divine, or even 99%; he is 100% divine, he is as divine as his Father. The Son of God is infinite, eternal and unchangeable in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth. All that his Father is he also is. He possesses every quality of God the Father, to create, to sustain all things, to redeem, to judge. Especially he has the attribute of self-existence. We men depend on food and water and oxygen and gravity and light and warmth in order to to survive. They are our life-support system, but God depends on nothing whatsoever. He is eternally self-sufficient. The Father is self-sufficient; the Son is self-sufficient; the Spirit is self-sufficient. None of the persons of the godhead has ever been in need. For example none of them has felt loneliness. They live in the glory of their divine self-sufficiency.
Then alongside this fact of the eternal Son being as equally divine as the eternal Father is another great emphasis in the Bible, that is, on the unique affection that binds God the Father to God the Son. He is God’s beloved Son. On more than one occasion God the Father speaks aloud so that men and women hear this tribute he pays to his Son as to the depth of his affection, “This is my beloved son . . . Son I really love you, and I am pleased with everything that you’ve done. I want all the men and women in the world to know how much I love you.” You bear in mind that God is love. God never became love. He always has loved and always had an object for his love in the glory and depth of his own being. There is Jesus the Son of his love, and in Jesus he never saw anything that cooled his love, that diminished the fervour of his affection for his Son, nothing to irritate, nothing to complain about, nothing for which to say sorry. Quite the reverse, however he looked at his Son, all he knew about him, even the thoughts of Christ’s mind filled him with more and more love. He loved him eternally; he loved him measurelessly; he loved him comprehensively; he loved him infinitely, and yet he loved him more and more. There was no grace or pity or mercy in his love for Christ. His Son was worthy of all the love that was focused upon him. He was as lovable as his Father; he was an exact transcript of his Father’s own glory and beauty.
Consider those marvelous words with which John begins his gospel, that “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God . . .” They were with one another like the most loving husband and wife are with one another. There is that mutual outgoingness between the God the Father and God the Son, the face of the one towards the face of the other in adoring love, the heart of each beating in love for the other; the hand of each one of them (of course anthropomorphically) extended out to grasp the hand of the other like lovers delighting in the touch of one another. So before we speak of God’s love for the world, or God’s love for his children we begin with the eternal and necessary reality of God the Father’s love for God the Son, the beauty and graces of Christ evoking the love of God
Then, right through every phase of our Lord’s ministry, as Jesus moves successively from Bethlehem through all the phases of his ministry, through all the phases of his humiliation and degradation into the abyss of Golgotha – at every stage in that great journey – that incredible, unrepeatable, awesome descent into the dereliction – he is always the Father’s Beloved; and even in that moment, when God forsakes him and withholds from him his own answering voice, and withholds from him any consciousness of divine recognition while he hangs on the cross, even then and there, at that moment, he is the Father’s beloved Son.
What we are talking about is the most elementary and monumental basis for our faith; the eternal love of God the Father for his only begotten Son. He was totally satisfied being ‘with’ his Son. He was eternally satisfied in being ‘with’ his Son. He was divinely satisfied in being ‘with’ his Son. That is the very heart of who God is. In other words we can never say that God was bursting to find some object on which to focus his love. It was not that he was frustrated, full of love, but having nothing and no one to love and so having to create the world and make mankind and elect a church. There never was a time when God did not have an object for his love. There was always his unique, and utterly attractive, and enthralling, and adorable Son. I believe that from eternity God has been captivated by Christ. There are some earthly fathers who had thought that they would never have children but then in middle age their wives became pregnant and gave birth to a baby boy, and these men often cradle their own sons in their arms and gaze at the wonder of their child, and the glory of the one whom God had given to them and their wives. God has been eternally enthralled with his Son who was without beginning or end of days.
My professor John Murray married late in life, and
he came to Aberystwyth after the birth of his first-born child and it was about the same time as one of our children had been born, and so on the Saturday evening when I was out of the house my wife and John Murray talked babies. They talked of the tiny hands and how they would grip your finger. “It’s a miracle,” one of them said, “Yes, but not in the technical sense of the word,” said the professor.
So there is the Father’s love for his own adorable and utterly lovely Son, and that is the primal sonship, the eternal Sonship of the Lord Jesus Christ.
2. THERE IS THE UNIVERSAL SONSHIP OF MANKIND.
In other words everybody is a child of God; now I am conscious that that is a loaded, and in some respects, a suspect concept, and I want to take it in a guarded and careful way. Here is the teaching of the Bible, that God made man in his image and likeness. You did not come about by chance or luck. You do not owe your identity as a human being to millions and millions of years of the process of the survival of the fittest, beginning many ages ago as a single cell creature in primeval slime and changing and adapting until you and Leonardo da Vinci and Beethoven and Einstein and Jesus came along. No, men and women have been designed and formed by God, and in that sense God alone is the Father of every single one of us. Listen to your Father! Obey your Father! Come back to your Father!
Here are some of the Bible’s explicit affirmations concerning this truth, one from the Old Testament and one from the New. We are asked by the prophet Malachi, “Have we not all one Father? Did not one God create us?” (Mal. 2:10). He is rebuking them for the way they show partiality in law courts towards the wealthy and powerful but punishing the innocent who are poor or ignorant men. God speaks through Malachi in the previous verse and says to them, “You have not followed my ways but have shown partiality in matters of the law” (Malachi 2:9), but all these men upon whom you are standing in judgment are sons of God, and they should all be treated as such. Every one is on the same level; none less human; none less in the image of God; just a few cosmetic differences between one man and another. So show no partiality or discrimination. Didn’t one God create us all?
Then in the New Testament we read of Paul preaching in Athens. It was a sophisticated and literate community but full of idols and temples, people following hundreds, if not thousands of different deities. Paul told them, “God made the world and everything in it . . . some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring,’ . . . from one man he made every nation of men . . .” (Acts 17:24, 28, 26). Each one of you is the offspring of God; you are God’s children. You are not a little higher than the animals but made a little lower than the angels. How can you live as you do in such deliberate darkness and carnality, more like animals than angels? How can you so quickly give in to your desires and lusts and hostilities as you do, obeying the law of the jungle more than the law of God? Your conscience tells you that this is wrong; it bears witness with me that you are not living as you should.
Aren’t you in debt to your God? Hasn’t he cared for you through your life? Hasn’t he given you every good gift – the best gifts that you’ve ever had? Long life, health, a sound mind, material prosperity, daily bread, loving parents, a spouse, children, grandchildren? Have you not most or even all of those gifts? It is God your Creator and Father who has given you these things. You have long ignored him, but he still blesses you so kindly. He has sent the sun to shine on you, and the rain to fall on you when you’d been acting unjustly and selfishly, just as much as when you were caring so lovingly for that sick family member. God never gave up on you. You have been unconscious of your dependence on God, that you have lived and moved and had your being in him. Your breath has been in his hands; every beat of your heart; every particle of electric activity in your brain has been sustained by him. How wonderfully faithful he has been to you. This year I took the funeral service of a woman well over a hundred years of age. I have known her for 45 years, and we would love to have been sure at any time but particularly in these last years that she appreciated God’s grace, and the finished work of Jesus Christ, and that that was her sole confidence at the end. I cannot say with certainty that it was, and yet how merciful God had been to her materially and in health and with the kindnesses she received for 105 years. How great was God’s faithfulness to her; how wonderful his provision to her. She was just one person out of 6,000 million people in the world, many of whom like her are the beneficiaries of the goodness of God their Creator Father, and yet might never cast themselves on his mercy in Jesus Christ. There is no human being but is indebted to the Lord for the provision he has in God daily loading him with his benefits.
I say, God has made us, and God cares for us, but let me also say this, that even in our indifference and coldness to God and our determination to crow the sinners’ anthem, “I did it my way” and will have it played at the crematorium at our own funeral service, yet all of you retain the vestiges of the image of the God who made you. Even you who have no profession of faith in God whatsoever, even you I say show by your life your likeness to God your Father. I will not qualify for a moment the Bible’s teaching on original sin. I refuse to modify or mitigate all the great emphases in Scripture on total depravity, but there are explicit Biblical references that show us in the plainest possible manner that every single person in his fallenness retains vestigially the image of God. The great tyrants like Mao and Pol Pot and Stalin and Hitler lived and died in the image of God. The mass murderers and serial killers, the torturers and suicide bombers – every one of those merciless fiends bore God’s image and likeness. I am referring to their family love, their kindness to animals, their interest in the creation, their sense of beauty, their skills and handiwork, their intelligence and their flashes of common sense – all these things reflect that though they were evil men and atheists they’d failed to eradicate the divine image of the God who had made them. They were not as bad as they could be nor as bad as they would become. All men and women are made in God’s image and likeness.
Let me give you some teaching from the Bible that clearly affirms this fact. Firstly, again from the Old Testament and then from the New Testament. There are the words of God to Noah “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man” (Genesis 9:6). Why is it a terrible thing to murder a person but not to kill a rat or a bluebottle? Killing a man or woman is destroying someone made in the image and likeness of God. It is a unique sin against God. Secondly, there is an even more pointed and searching reference still in the epistle of James. The apostle is speaking of the gravity of the sin of the defamation of a man’s character, for example, to accuse him of sexual sin resulting in his being suspended for a year or two from his work while a weary investigation goes on, or whispering about him that you know shameful things that he has done, dropping hints that he is a man of lust. James is dealing with this all too familiar sin of slander and libel, and he says, “You are saying things like that about someone who bears the image of God.” Think of how men said of Jesus, the perfect image of God, that he was a drunk, or that he was full of the devil. They were men who were Jews, the inheritors of the covenants and promises of God and yet they c
rucified the Messiah when he came. So James says to his mainly Jewish Christian readers, “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness” (James 3:9).
You understand my point? No matter how low a man can fall, and people can fall appalingly low, men and women never cease to bear in a basic and unassailed way the image of God. No matter the degradation, the depravity, the godlessness, the immorality, the bestiality and man’s repudiation of all that is noble and decent, yet, in the depths of his degradation he is still different from the beasts that perish. He retains his rationality; he retains his conscience; he retains his terrible sense of the eternal power and godhead of God. There is no man so depraved and debauched that his conscience does not periodically summon him before the divine tribunal. That is an important factor that equips us in our evangelism and encourages us to be bold. We have the voice of their consciences on our side, even when they are disagreeing with us and rejecting all we say of the love of God and the mercy of Jesus Christ. We know that there is an inner witness saying to them, “What that Christian is saying to us is true.”
So there is the unique Sonship of Jesus Christ, and there is the universal sonship of every single man and woman.
3. THERE IS THE ADOPTIVE SONSHIP OF BELIEVERS.
Now the teaching on adoption is pervasively present in the entire Bible. There are not only many references to the word ‘adoption’ but there are other references to the household of faith, the family of God, to the fact that Christians no longer being aliens and strangers or slaves but being sons of God. The Bible tells us this;
i] Our adoption as Christians was planned by God the Father before the foundation of the world. In Ephesians 1 and verses 4 & 5 the apostle says, “In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will.” He decreed that we should be adopted as his very children.
ii] Again, our adoption as Christians was accomplished by Jesus Christ the Son. It was not by our lives and merit. In Galatians 4 and verses 4 and 5 Paul says, “But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons.” Without Christ’s redemption we could never become sons of God. Only redeemed sinners are adopted sinners.
iii] Again, our adoption is applied to us by God the Holy Spirit. In Romans 8 and in verses 15 and 16 we read, “For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father.’ The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.”
iv] Our adoption will be revealed and consummated in the coming great day. In Romans 8 and in verse 19 the apostle writes, “The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed.”
So our sonship was planned by God the Father, accomplished by God the Son, applied by God the Spirit and will be revealed in the great day to come. Then how do we become the children of God? The apostle John writes to Christians and he stands in solidarity with them crying out in wonder at what God had done for them all: “How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!” (I Jn. 3:1).
I think it is most helpful to think of this change from alienation to becoming sons in terms of the word ‘receive.’ You receive God into your life, and God receives you into his family. That is the only way the divine act of adoption takes place. There has to be this twofold receiving. Both parties in this great change receive the other. When I was about ten years of age my parents thought about adopting a teenager from an orphanage in Merthyr, and this boy actually visited our house in John Street and looked around, but in order for the process of adoption to commence both he had to be agreeable, and my parents had to be agreeable, and in this case neither were. Neither my parents nor the boy would receive the other as parent or as son, and so he never returned. Now that is how it is in the Bible.
You have this ‘receiving’ on our part clearly set out in the opening of John’s gospel where the evangelist writes, “to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God,” (Jn 1:12). You remember in the parable of the prodigal son the boy had demanded his legal right to take all his inheritance and leave home, leave his father, his brother and the farm and head off with his money to a distant city. There he sought to forget everything about his father and his love, and his teaching, and all the privileges that he’d enjoyed in that home. He wanted to expunge all of that from his mind. He buried himself in parties and fun, spending all he had until there was no more cash to spend. Then he discovered that all his companions were fair weather friends and no one helped him in his poverty. He was reduced to tending unclean pigs and starving with hunger even tempted to eating pig swill.
Then what happened? We are told that once again he received his father into his thoughts. He was the last person the boy had thought of while he had money, and friends, and wine, and women, and music. That man – that righteous, loving, sin-hating, great and godly man, the greatest man he had ever known – he hadn’t wanted to think of him at all. He had banished him from his mind; he had gone as far from him as he could go, but when he came to his senses he thought of reality. He emerged from the shadowlands of partying and drinking and promiscuity and loud music, and he came into the light of truth. Listen to what he said to himself; “How many of my father’s hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father . . .” (Lk. 15:17&18). What had he done? He had received his father back into his mind and thinking again. An intellectual revolution had taken place. He had lived without his father for a long time but now the great change is taking place in him and the first sign of it is that he is receiving thoughts of his father into his mind again.
So he receives his father into his mind, and the next step is to receive his father into his life. “I will arise and go to the place where I know my father is to be found,” and off to his home he returns with all his fears, and uncertainties, and rehearsed speeches. He is in dread of being rejected; he is asking himself what kind of welcome he’s going to get, and he’s got some words ready to defuse the situation. He doesn’t realise that once he’s received his father back into his life his father will certainly receive him into his heart. While he was still a long way off his father saw him; he had often looked down the country lane as far as his eyes could see. Would one day his lost son reappear? Would he see that familiar figure on his way home? And one day he sees a dot on the horizon and he watches and prays as the slowly moving figure gets bigger. His eyes are glued on the person until he knows without a doubt that it is his boy! He is so bedraggled, and wretched. He is skinny, under-nourished and weak. Maybe he was dirty and his clothes were stinking; maybe shame and fear were written all over his face, but he was coming home and his father was full of compassion. He flung wide the door, and hurried across the farmyard, and opened the gate and ran along the lane to meet him; old legs of an old man running faster and faster, panting for breath. Take care old man. Don’t fall! Take your time. “H
ow can I” he says, “For this my son was dead, and is alive again and was lost and is found,” and he runs, afraid his boy will change his mind at the last minute and turn back overwhelmed with shame. He catches him in his arms and wraps them around him and kisses him. He’ll never let him go again. He has ached for this day of homecoming. He cuts short the boy’s rehearsed speech.
The boy comes home to a father’s embrace, and immediately to all the signs of sonship. All the paraphernalia and insignia are conferred upon him. The father calls for the best robe fit for a son, and the ring of sonship and the sandals of sonship – not the boots of a servant. The fatted calf must be taken from its stall and slaughtered and a great feast must be prepared. Tell the men to bring their flutes and drums and ten-stringed instruments. No more work today for anyone. It is a holiday on the farm. He didn’t say to the boy, “What have you been doing with my money? How did you get into such a mess? What a shape you are in!” He didn’t say, “Don’t you know what shame, what disgrace you’ve brought upon us. Don’t you know the anxiety you caused your mother? Don’t you know how we’ve been feeling all these silent months never hearing a word from you, not knowing whether you were alive or dead?” There is none of that in the narrative, nothing at all. It’s a party. It’s a celebration, and everything is forgotten in the joy of that restoration. Once the boy received his father into his thinking again and determined to go home then his father received him.
That is the way of divine adoption. To as many as received Jesus Christ into their lives then to those he freely gave the right to be called the sons of God, and he deals so lavishly with them. He freely pardons the way we have offended and grieved him. He doesn’t mention sins – though sin was etched all over this man’s face in the most evident way, but the father ignores it. He doesn’t throw our past at us. He forgives all our sin, all our past sin, our present sin, our future sin, our enormous sins, and our little sins. In that moment we become whiter than snow. In that moment we pass from condemnation to justification. We are no longer aliens but sons and heirs. I am sure that this boy would have said, “But what about my past? Don’t you want to discuss my past? Don’t you want to interrogate me, and ask what I’ve been doing?” We often think like that. We cannot believe that God simply overlooks our past, and forgives it, but that is the way it is. He casts our past and all its sin into the depths of the sea.
Then we are made the sons of God. At that moment; at the very beginning of our new life with our Father, then all the riches of the Father are now ours, pardon, healing, cleansing, restoration, justification, adoption, the gift of the Holy Spirit. What is this parable saying to us about sonship? Somewhere in this boy’s past it had been implanted indelibly that whenever things went wrong he could call home, and when they went badly wrong, he could always come back; he must always come home. He had not been taught, “If you disgrace this family then never come back.” He had not been conditioned to this view, “If you let us down . . . if you bring shame on our name, then don’t bother to return.” He’d been told, “However low you go, however deep the abyss or appalling the degradation you must always feel you have a father how loves you and an open door into his presence. Here you can return.”
What is true for coming back to God is true for our children coming back to us their parents. We came back to God and he forgave us everything, and so our children must know that if we face the ultimate in tragedy, ours or theirs, they can still come home;
if they become drunkards they can still come home;
if they marry the wrong people they can still come home;
if they become drug addicts they can still come home;
if they get Aids they can still come home;
if they get pregnant they can still come home;
if they have an abortion they can still come home;
if they end up in prison they can still come home.
They must have that assurance. It is one of the most momentous elements in the divine pedagogy that God accepts sinners and makes them his children when they turn away from their sin and come home, and that that is reflected in our own parenthood.
I am saying that divine adoption springs into operation when you come home. So come home . . . come home . . . come home . . . come home . . . come home . . . come home . . .
8th August 2010 GEOFF THOMAS