Are only Christians children of God or is everyone??—Part B

I’m doing a series on everyone being a child of God. I recommend reading part A for the context and the first response (based on the Parable of the Prodigal Son) to the common objection:

Doesn’t the NT talk about adoption, about Christians becoming children of God? Does that mean non-Christians aren’t God’s children?

I think the response in part A is reinforced by the approach George MacDonald takes in his Abba, Father! sermon, which is based on Galatians 4.

What I am saying is that as long as an heir is underage [a child], he is no different from a slave, although he owns the whole estate. The heir is subject to guardians and trustees until the time set by his father.

Galatians 4:1-2, NIV

The prodigal son didn’t have the status/place of son while he was disowning his father, similarly a child doesn’t have the place of a son/daughter (at least in terms of responsibilities, inheritance, and freedoms) while they are underage.

Underage Come-of-age
Subject to guardians 1 Adulthood
Place/position of a child Place/position of a son/daughter = “adoption” 2

However, when they come-of-age, they receive the place of a son/daughter. In many (most?) cultures throughout history, becoming an adult is celebrated as a significant milestone, be it an 18th/21st, an indigenous initiation ceremony, or a Bar Mitzvah.

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.

Galatians 4:4-5, NIV84

God sent him to set the people free who were under the law. God sent him so that we would receive our rights as sons of God.

Galatians 4:5, WE

The Greek word translated “adoption”

I recently discovered something intriguing about huiothesia, the Greek word translated “adoption” in the NT:

The first half is huios, the common noun for an adult son. The latter half is thesia, a placement, an installation, a setting of a person or a thing in its place. So the whole word means not so much adoption as the placing of a son.

Barnhouse, God’s Heirs: Romans 8:1–39

I think it’s good to be cautious when it comes to discussing how words are translated. So I did some further research and found others who agree. For example:

As I see it, “child” teknon refers to a member of the family with our a necessary implication regarding age—whether a young child or an adult. A son is always a child [member of the family], but a child is not always a son. A child (teknon) by virtue of being a member of the family is an heir [albeit not yet actualised]. By virtue of being a son (huios) he is considered to be of legal age.

The Randall House Bible Commentary, page 217

And:

The word for “adoption,” … is a compound word made up of huios, “a son,” and tithemi, “a placing,” which means to place someone in the family who is already in the family, in order to recognize them as an adult son.

James H. Rickard Bible Ministries

And:

The word “Huiothesia” means “Son Placement,” and indicates the time when a male child reached what was considered to be the age of maturity… At this time, the father of the young man would place his hand on the head of his son and openly proclaim, “This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased! I bestow upon him now all of my riches and power and authority (through power of attorney) so that he might act on my behalf in all of my affairs.”

David Weber, The Adoption of Sons

And:

The etymology of the word suggests that it literally means “standing as a son,” … that the word refers to one who IS a son coming into a certain standing AS a son, but in NO case, simply BECOMING a son, equivalent to what we mean by being born, or adopted. In EVERY case, we think it is not “sonship,” per se, that is being considered, but the standing or position to which the sonship entitles one.

T. Pierce Brown, Born or Adopted

As you can see, translating huiothesia as “adoption” isn’t crazy, just too simplistic, especially given we understandably assume it’s identical to our modern definition. Rickard makes a similar point, although I think he overreaches a little, as I came across others who said Roman “son placement” could either be of a biological or non-biological child.

“Adoption” means one thing today but back in Roman times, when the N.T. was written, it meant something else. Adoption today means placing someone outside of the blood line legally into a family. A child who is not a natural child of the family, someone else’s child, is placed into the family. That is not what adoption meant in the Bible.

James H. Rickard Bible Ministries

Summary

Everyone is irreversibly an immeasurably valuable and irreplaceable child of God but needs to be placed/announced as sons and daughters—”adoption”—to delight in fully living as a son or daughter.

Bar Mitzah
Bar Mitzvah

1. In Galatians 3:24 Paul uses this as an illustration of how we were when under the law.
2. Galatians 3:26 tells us our coming-of-age is through faith, “for you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus” (HCSB).

Are only Christians children of God or is everyone??—Part A

I’m doing a series on everyone being a child of God. My first post contains most of the biblical reasons for believing everyone is a child of God. My second post highlights some significant implications. My third post looked at what happens when our Father in Heaven is disowned. Now I’ll look at a common objection:

Doesn’t the NT talk about adoption, about Christians becoming children of God? Does that mean non-Christians aren’t God’s children?

I used to respond by saying that everyone is a child of God but only in some very limited sense—perhaps that everyone has an earthly/old nature but only Christians have a spiritual/new nature. While Paul does use the old vs new language, I was uncomfortable as I didn’t think the response did justice to the passages in my first post. So I was excited to discover two alternatives for addressing the conundrum. The first one I found in Spencer Boersma’s discussion of the Parable of the Prodigal Son, and I’ll explain and build on it here.

I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.”

Luke 15:18-19 (cf v21), ESV

While the son knows his father is still his father, and addresses him as such, he rightly sees that he hasn’t acted as a son should—that he doesn’t deserve to be called a son, nor treated as one. From his perspective, he feels he has forfeited his place in the family and can now only hope to be a hired servant. So when the father exuberantly welcomed him back into the family, the son understandably felt that he was being adopted.

To apply this to our question, everyone has walked away from God and hasn’t acted as children of God should—we haven’t been living in a healthy relationship with Him. However, given it’s impossible to lose our biological connection to our parents and siblings, I think it’s logical to believe it’s impossible to lose our supernatural connection to our Father and Brother. Therefore, each and every person remains a child of God.

But, like the prodigal son, we can only truly enjoy the benefits of being in His family when we come to our senses; when we realise our need for Him; when we return home. Our “adoption” is our home coming—when we act as His children (with the Spirit’s help), and can therefore be acknowledged and treated as such.

Lost Found
Dead Alive
Distant land Home
Anonymous stranger Heralded/introduced as the father’s son
No privileges/position Privileges/position of a son = “adoption” 1
Focused on self Focused on the father
Rebellious Obedient

In part B, I’ll look at related approach, which I think really reinforces the one above.

The Return Of The Prodigal Son by Harold Copping
The Return Of The Prodigal Son by Harold Copping

1. or huiothesia (see part B).

What if We Disown Our Father in Heaven?

I’m doing a series on everyone being a child of God:

  1. Why Everyone is a Child of God
  2. Implications of Everyone Being a Child of God
  3. What if We Disown Our Father in Heaven?
  4. Doesn’t the NT also talk about becoming children of God??

My first post contains most of the biblical reasons for believing everyone is a child of God, and to show that this can’t be dismissed as liberalism, I also cited some conservative theologians who seem to hold this view. My second post unpacks some of the significant implications of this view. In this post and the following, I’ll look at common objections.

What if We Disown Our Father in Heaven?

Indeed, I think this could be stated even stronger—everyone has turned away from God at times:

We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way…

Isaiah 53:6a, NIV

For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard.

Romans 3:23, NLT

Thankfully our Father is patient and not fickle. We see this throughout the Bible.

When Israel Disobeyed

Even when the Israelites disobeyed, they continued to be God’s children. For example:

Is this how you repay the Lord, you foolish and senseless people? Isn’t He your Father and Creator? Didn’t He make you and sustain you?

Deuteronomy 32:6, HCSB

And again, despite Israel’s disobedience, and the severe consequences thereof, Isaiah says:

But you are our Father, though Abraham does not know us or Israel acknowledge us; you, Lord, are our Father, our Redeemer from of old is your name.

Isaiah 63:16, NIV

Yet no one calls on your name or pleads with you for mercy. Therefore, you have turned away from us and turned us over to our sins. And yet, O Lord, you are our Father. We are the clay, and you are the potter. We all are formed by your hand.

Isaiah 64:7-8, NLT

Any parent is faced with a difficult decision when a son/daughter disowns them and runs away: do they give them space or do they pursue them? The problem is even greater if the son/daughter gets involved in something nasty, say drug dealing or terrorism. A parent can’t support or fund these things, nor can they simply pretend they aren’t happening as it risks the well being of both the son/daughter, their siblings, and others. The child is still their beloved child but it puts great pressure on the relationship and complicates interactions. We see this conundrum for our Father in Jeremiah:

How gladly would I treat you like my children and give you a pleasant land, the most beautiful inheritance of any nation. I thought you would call me ‘Father’ and not turn away from following me.

Jeremiah 3:19, NIV

They will come with weeping; they will pray as I bring them back. I will lead them beside streams of water on a level path where they will not stumble, because I am Israel’s father, and Ephraim is my firstborn son.

Jeremiah 31:9, NIV

We see God’s parental care again in Hosea:

When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son… It was I who taught Ephraim to walk, taking them by the arms; but they did not realize it was I who healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness, with ties of love. To them I was like one who lifts a little child to the cheek, and I bent down to feed them…. How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, Israel?… My heart is changed within me; all my compassion is aroused. I will not carry out my fierce anger, nor will I devastate Ephraim again. For I am God, and not a man—the Holy One among you. I will not come against their cities.

Hosea 11:1, 3-4, 8-9, NIV

Boersma astutely notes that in Hosea we also see that even God’s holiness doesn’t stop Him from being a father among His sinful children.

Here in Hosea, the tender mercy of God is the true display of his holiness… God is holy because God is merciful in ways completely separate from our notions of divinity.

Spencer Boersma, All People are God’s Children

This seems a good segue to the NT, where Jesus embraced His sick and sinful siblings. Not only that, but we find parables directly engaging our topic!

Jesus’ “Lost & Found” Parables

In the first two parables (Luke 15:4-7 & 15:8-10), the person (representing God) actively seeks and finds that which is lost (the sheep and the coin), whereas in the third parable (Luke 15:11-32), that which is lost, realises they are lost, and finds their way home. Further linking all three parables is that there is forgiveness and great celebration when the lost repents.

I think Jesus is showing that when we walk away from God, God will give us the space for our delusions to be shattered—which is inevitable as all idols are unsatisfactory. Additionally, He helps us come to our senses and seeks us until we are found. Either way, the lost doesn’t cease to have significance because it is lost—the sheep stays a sheep, the coin stays a coin, and the son stays a son. Indeed according to these parables the lost becomes the focus.

For the Son of Man [Jesus] came to seek and to save the lost.

Luke 19:10, NIV

The Good Shepherd
The Good Shepherd

Implications of Everyone Being a Child of God

This is the second post in my series on everyone being a child of God:

  1. Why Everyone is a Child of God
  2. Implications of Everyone Being a Child of God
  3. What if We Disown Our Father in Heaven?
  4. Doesn’t the NT also talk about becoming children of God??

My first post contains most of the biblical reasons I think everyone is a child of God. I also cited some prominent, conservative evangelicals who also appear to hold this position―primarily to show that it can’t be dismissed as a liberal interpretation! Anyway, in this post, I’ll explain some of the significant implications of this view.

Commonality

Family implies at least commonality, connection, and shared attributes. However, often it’s even more than that―across cultures and history―it’s often included loyalty, intimate relationships, lifelong friendships, and mutual dependability. I realise we aren’t perfect and neither are our families, but this highlights further qualities that we want our families to have―compassion, empathy, and forgiveness. Even if you have a terrible fight with a sibling and don’t talk for years, it’s impossible to de-sibling them―you never cease being related.

Now consider how this should apply to our universal family:

  • Dehumanising or killing our brother should be abhorrent.
  • Seeing our sister being prostituted or trafficked should spur us into action.
  • Treating our brother as a slave shouldn’t even be contemplated.
  • Lusting after our sister should be icky.
  • Befriending our brother should be considered time well spent.
  • Showing kindness to our sister should be a joy.

I could go on and on… basically when treating others we should ask ourselves, “Would I do that to my little sister or brother?”

As I pass people walking through town, in my head I often say, “Hello brother! Hello sister!” (perhaps I’d be brave enough to say it out loud if I wasn’t an introvert). I honestly find it challenges the way I look at people. For example, I feel more compassion for rough/tough looking people. I feel less judgmental of people in suits (contrary to my rural upbringing bias). It generally makes me feel more friendly, even towards people I’ve never met. I can’t write anyone off as I can’t de-sibling them.

Everyone is a child of God
“The Communion of Saints” by Ira Thomas (CatholicWorldArt.com)

Impartiality

While you might naturally get along with some siblings more easily than others, I think most people see the wisdom of not showing favouritism between them. That we should aim to love and care for all of them equally. When this gets applied to everyone, it should decrease sexism, racism, classism, xenophobia, etc. and, conversely, improve justice. A king should be treated as equally valuable as a beggar. On this theme of justice, Boersma points out that:

[The OT ethic of “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” (Ex. 21:24)] assumes the equal value of all human beings. Ideally, to steal from a foreigner warrants the same punishment as if the same amount was stolen from the king since the two are of equal value… The ethical treatment of humans as in the image of God appear in passages like after the flood account:

“Whoever sheds human blood, by humans shall their blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made mankind” (Gen. 9:6).

Because all people are in this image, all people are God’s children, and thus, all people deserve dignity such that no one can be, at the very least, murdered due to their lack of value to another and the murder [sic] get away with it. The notion that all people are God’s children, in his image, forms the moral bottom line of the Old Testament ethic.

Spencer Boersma, All People are God’s Children

The concept of the universal family subverts and undermines systems based inequality. It’s no surprise that:

Gregory, in what is considered “the most scathing critique of slaveholding in all of antiquity,” attacked the institution as incompatible with humanity’s creation in the image of God [the previous post explains why I see image here synonymous with universal family].

Dustin Bruce, The First Abolitionist: Gregory of Nyssa on Slavery

Undoubtedly influenced by Macrina, his older sister:

Gregory writes of the time in which “Macrina persuaded her mother to give up her customary mode of living … and the services of her maids [servants] … and to put herself on a level with the many by entering into a common life with her maids, making them her sisters and equals rather that her slaves and underlings.”

Eric Denby, The First Abolitionist? Gregory of Nyssa on Ancient Roman Slavery

In the last post of this series I’ll explain why I think the NT further encourages this trajectory, especially for the slightly “older” children of God―Christians―although we often don’t act our “age”!

Reminding Everyone That They Are God’s Children

Paul unpacks implications of everyone being a child of God in his famous sermon in Athens:

God has done all this [creating and sustaining everyone], so that we will look for him and reach out and find him. He isn’t far from any of us, and he gives us the power to live, to move, and to be who we are. “We are his children,” just as some of your poets have said.

Since we are God’s children, we must not think that he is like an idol made out of gold or silver or stone. He isn’t like anything that humans have thought up and made. In the past, God forgave all this because people did not know what they were doing. But now he says that everyone everywhere must turn to him.

Acts 17:27-30, CEV

As Boersma puts it:

Paul is saying, “You are God’s children, don’t debase yourselves worshiping idols. You were meant for more!”

Spencer Boersma, All People are God’s Children

Why Everyone is a Child of God

I often ponder just how much more of a jerk I would be if I didn't happen to believe that all men and women, regardless of their capacity or usefulness, are inestimably precious children of the Creator―John Dickson
John Dickson’s post

I particularly like his point that “all men and women … are inestimably precious children of the Creator”. It is something I’ve been pondering for ages so I thought I’d explore the idea in four posts (drawing a lot from Spencer Boersma’s article):

  1. Why Everyone is a Child of God
  2. Implications of Everyone Being a Child of God
  3. What if We Disown Our Father in Heaven?
  4. Doesn’t the NT also talk about becoming children of God??

I’ll start by looking at where I think the Bible implies everyone is a child of God.

The “image of God” means the child of God

The first place we find God described as a parent is:

Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness … So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.

Genesis 1:26-27, NIV

The same image and likeness language is used to describe the relationship between Adam and his son:

When Adam had lived 130 years, he had a son in his own likeness, in his own image; and he named him Seth.

Genesis 5:3, NIV

Boersma explains that it’s “an ancient way of saying “These are my children”” and we still have a sense of that in the common, “Wow, your baby looks just like you”, compliment. We also find this connection in the NT:

The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.

Colossians 1:15, NIV

His Son is the radiance of his glory, the very image of his substance

Hebrews 1:3, WEB

With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be.

James 3:9-10, NIV

Everyone is a child of Adam and thus a child of God

Another place we find God described as a parent is at the end of the genealogy in Luke:

the son of Enos, the son of Seth, the son of Adam, the son of God.

Luke 3:38, WEB

As all humanity comes from Adam, we all inherit his curses (Rom 5:12-21) and blessings―including being a child of God.

God is the Father of everything

I think it’s worth considering Ephesians 4:6:

One God and Father of pás, who is over pás, and through pás, and in pás.

The question is, what is the scope of the Greek pás here? pás is usually translated “all” but when the context is people, it’s appropriate to translate it “everyone” or “all people”; or when the context is creation, it can be “all things”, “everything”, or “everywhere”.

Given verses 4-8 have many people related words―God, Father, body, Spirit, hope, Lord, faith, baptism, “each one of us”, prisoners, and people―it’s possible that pás could be translated “all-people/everyone”, and indeed some translations translate it that way (e.g. CEV, GNT, and ERV).

However, given almost every English translation translates pás as “all-things/everything” in verse 10, it seems most likely that is the scope of verse 6 too (e.g. EXB, ICB, NIRV, NCV, and GW). I think linking parenthood and creator isn’t unique to Ephesians. For example, God’s challenge to Job:

Does the rain have a father? Who fathers the drops of dew? From whose womb comes the ice? Who gives birth to the frost from the heavens

Job 38:28-9, NIV

And in other OT passages the concepts appear overlapping:

Is this the way you repay the Lord, you foolish and unwise people?
Is he not your Father, your Creator, who made you and formed you?

Deuteronomy 32:6, NIV

Do we not all have one father? Has not one God created us? Why do we deal treacherously each against his brother so as to profane the covenant of our fathers?

Malachi 2:10, NASB

God is the head of all families

While parental headship isn’t as significant in our culture, hopefully we can still see how this supports God’s universal parenthood:

For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name.

Ephesians 3:14-15, NIV

Even non-believers are God’s children

In part 4 I will look at the question of why the NT seems to talk about people becoming children of God when they believe but for now I’ll just point out that Paul associates God being Creator, with God being a parent of even non-believers (his audience):

and he [God] gives us the power to live, to move, and to be who we are. “We are his children,” just as some of your poets have said. Since we are God’s children

Acts 17:28-29, CEV

Conclusion

I find it encouraging that Christians across the spectrum, including conservative evangelicals, are acknowledging this life changing (for reasons I’ll explore in my next post) teaching.

In recent years a number of scholars have taken the view that “the image and likeness of God” is the language of family relationship. For example, Graeme Goldsworthy argues that “image and likeness are terms of sonship.” John Dickson writes that “the image of God means that men and women stand in a filial relationship to God; they are his offspring, as it were. They bear the family resemblance.” And Greg Beale holds that “Adam was conceived of as a ‘son of God,’” appealing to Genesis 5:1-3.

… “In the garden, Adam is portrayed by Calvin as the loving son, surrounded with signs of the ‘paternal goodness’ (Institutes I. 14.2) of God. … Adam has no fear at the sight of God, whom he is able to identify as Father.”

Brian Rosner, Image of God as Son of God