The misquotes and mistranslations of the Bible we’ve studied in this year’s “Say what?” series have led us in some interesting and unexpected directions. We’ve considered ancient fables, revised hymn lyrics, and Brethren history alongside scripture. I would be surprised, though, if anyone has gotten upset by these discussions.
This article could change that.
The phrase “children of God” is often used as a general description of all people. I typically hear it in statements like, “We should help them. After all, we’re all children of God.” But is this correct? Is everyone a child of God?
The biblical answer here is simple: no. Not everyone is a “child of God” as the Bible uses the term. The phrase “children (or sons) of God” is part of a large and rich group of New Testament terms that describe people who have come to faith in Jesus Christ. It is synonymous with some other familiar terms, like saying someone is “saved” or “redeemed.”
This answer, though, can be difficult to hear. I suspect it’s because saying someone is not a child of God feels like we are denying their fundamental worth. The issue, however, simply turns out to be a case where modern usage is different from biblical usage. What did New Testament authors intend with the phrase “children of God”?
Becoming children of God
Imagine what it might have been like to have the privilege of writing one of the Gospels or epistles in the New Testament. What language would you use to describe what you had experienced?
Both John and Paul liked the term “children/sons of God.” It is a phrase that describes our faith not by what we do but by what we have become. Just as children share both a nature, relationship, and certain rights that come from being born to human parents, John and Paul want people to understand that becoming a child of God means we receive a nature, relationship, and an inheritance from God. That inheritance is eternal life and all its benefits—a life that begins now and continues for eternity.
This phrase is one that would have been familiar to those who heard it, because other religious traditions of that day understood faith in familial terms as well. People who grew up in Greco-Roman culture would have known Zeus as “father” of all persons. Others might have known of religious groups that designated certain special people as “children of God.” Those who came to Christianity from the Jewish tradition were told that they were no longer slaves (to sin and the law) but now had the privileges of children through the work of the Holy Spirit.
Imagine how this language would be received by a person who had no biological family to count on. Jesus told his disciples that faith in him might create divisions in their family. For such people, finding sisters and brothers who were also children of God would be a significant gain.
Putting our faith into words
“Children of God” is not the only phrase used to describe new life in Christ. The New Testament authors found a wide range of language to describe the spiritual transformation that was happening all around them. As with the phrase “children of God,” they borrowed words people already understood, and applied them to life in Christ.
In his book Doctrine, theologian James McClendon gives an excellent overview of how salvation language emerged. He notes that writers borrowed words from Jewish law and religious tradition ( justify, sanctify), medicine (heal), rescue (save), familial relationships (adopt, wed, children of God, friend), and various life processes and activities (born, reborn, follow, take up your cross).
If the phrase “children of God” sounds a bit uncomfortable, it might be because Brethren have tended to prefer words like “following Jesus” and “carrying our cross” to describe our discipleship. Being a faith tradition that experienced persecution in its early years, Brethren have long understood that following Jesus could mean walking away from both family and community in some very measurable, very costly ways. Alexander Mack talked about this in his hymn “Count Well the Cost”:
“Count well the cost,” Christ Jesus says, “when you lay the foundation.”
Are you resolved, though all seem lost, to risk your reputation,
your self, your wealth, for Christ the Lord as you now give your solemn word?
(Hymnal: A Worship Book, 437)
Everything this hymn mentions losing were things the early Brethren actually lost. These personal experiences of suffering for Jesus continue to shape our thinking to this day. Brethren are interested in a faith that has practical expression in our lives and an impact on the suffering of others. We’ve long understood that our walk should match our talk.
Reclaiming “children of God”
So what will we do with the phrase “children of God”? The Advent season provides an excellent opportunity to ponder this. If your congregation is like mine, there will be extra opportunities to express our faith by doing something for others: helping a family in need, Christmas caroling to shutins, contributing to the Church of the Brethren Advent Offering. These are very legitimate, very Brethren ways of practicing our faith.
But might we also ponder how we can claim the metaphor “child of God” in our own lives? A different hymn might help us here. Maybe sometime this month you’ll sing the hymn “O Little Town of Bethlehem” with your congregation. If you do, pay special attention to verse 3:
How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given!
So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of the heav’ns.
No ear may hear his coming, but in this world of sin,
where meek souls will receive him still the dear Christ enters in.
(Hymnal: A Worship Book, 191)
Notice that this hymn doesn’t give us anything to do. All of the action is on God’s side of the relationship. God has imparted the blessings of the heavens to you and me; the babe in the manger whom we worship has entered our hearts through faith. This is a gift: you are a child of God. You didn’t earn it; you can’t do anything but receive it. How does it feel?
Think about that this Christmas season and rejoice that you are a child of God.
For further reading
Doctrine: Systematic Theology, Vol. 2, by James McClendon (Abingdon Press). McClendon’s work is a deep look at core theological doctrines from an Anabaptist perspective.
Tim Harvey is pastor of Oak Grove Church of the Brethren in Roanoke, Va. He was moderator of the 2012 Annual Conference.