Q & R: Are all people God’s children or only Christians? Brad Jersak
Previously, I responded to the question, “Is Christ in ALL people or only in Christians?” In that post, I talked about Scriptures that say, “As ALL were in Adam, so now ALL are in Jesus Christ,” by virtue of the Incarnation. Christ in ALL because he united himself to ALL humanity.
But I also identified at least four types of New Testament texts that narrow Christ’s “IN-ness” to those who reciprocate the covenant relationship. Those who identify with Christ by faith, relate to him intimately, focus on him through prayer and worship, etc. are “in Christ” and Christ is “in them” in a particular way. In those cases, “IN” is spatial metaphor for their relationship with triune Love and their experience of that Love. It doesn’t at all negate how the Father loves ALL or what Christ accomplished for ALL. It’s just two types of passages–differing uses of the spacial metaphor.
This week, I will respond to the question, “Are all people God’s children or only Christians?” This is a parallel question in that again, we have a metaphor used in two distinct ways.
HOW ARE ALL GOD’S CHILDREN?
Being ‘children’ is a layered metaphor in Scripture. Some Scriptures say ALL people are God’s children:
For example, in Luke’s version of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, he begins with our Lord, then works his way back: “son of… son of… son of…” all the way to “the son of Adam, the son of God” (Luke 3:38). We are ALL God’s children by virtue of creation. As Creator, God is our Father and we are ALL his children.
So says Paul to the pagan philosophers in Athens,
[God] made from one stock every race of humans to live on the whole face of the earth, allotting them their properly ordained times and the boundaries for their dwellings. The aim was that they would search for God, and perhaps reach out for him and find him. Indeed, he is actually not far from each one of us, 2for in him we live and move and exist; as also some of your own poets have put it, “For we are his offspring.”Acts 17:26-28
And again to the Ephesians, Paul says,
“For this reason I bow my knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, from whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named…”Ephesians 3:14-15
Likewise, from Christ’s point of view, even “the prodigal son” never ceased to be his father’s child. When he left home, his father never disowned him. The Father’s forgiveness followed him out the door. Even when he was OUT of the house (a metaphor for self-alienation), he was certainly never OUT of the family. Nor was his older brother, even though he symbolized the Pharisees who rejected Christ and were critical of his inclusion of ‘sinners’ at table fellowship. The father pleads with this elder son, reminding him of his sonship. The problem was that both brothers forgot their sonship. The best the younger man hoped for was returning as a servant. He was in for a happy surprise. The older son continued to regard his father as an unjust tyrant whose estate he slaves in.
HOW ARE SOME GOD’S CHILDREN AND OTHERS NOT?
But we also have passages where there are two groups of people: those who are God’s children and those who are not.
John 1:12 says that those who “receive” Christ have “the right to become children of God.” You can see why traditionally, this verse became a favorite proof-text to say only Christians are God’s children. If you receive him, you’re a child. If you don’t, you’re not. Seems clear. But as we’ll see, this more exclusive sense of being Abba’s children is not actually about confession of faith or saying the sinner’s prayer … and then claiming our faith made us God’s children. Rather, God’s children in the narrow sense are those who resemble their Father by imitation.
CHILDREN BY IMITATION
In the Sermon on the Mount, Christ refers to “children of God” in this narrow sense. To BE or to BECOME God’s child literally means to ACT like Abba.We resemble God when our DNA as Abba’s children is actualized. See here:
But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”Matthew 5:44-45
In other words, “children of Abba” are those who act like Abba in their indiscriminate and inclusive grace. This more exclusive use of “children” is not about Christian confession, but about imitation.
And it’s not the false imitation of the white-washed Pharisees who mimicked good works. Rather, it’s the imitation generated in the heart transformed by Grace. In short, Christ’s call to imitate Abba is to “Be what you are.” It is to make the truth of your being (children of God) the way of your being (imitation of Abba).
So too, in the Beatitudes, it is not the Christians but the peacemakers who “will be called the children of God” (Matt. 5:9). That’s because peacemakers are reproducing Abba’s work of reconciliation “on earth as it is in heaven.”
Is Christ denying that everyone is a child of God? No. Is Christ denying that Christians are children of God? No. That’s just not how he’s using “sons” in these verses. He’s saying something about how children are recognized as they imitate their parents.
This is surely also John’s sense in his first epistle:
This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are: Anyone who does not do what is right is not God’s child, nor is anyone who does not love their brother and sister.1 John 3:10
“Children of the devil”? That sounds so harsh! But fear not: it’s not a theological statement about the truth of our BEING. Like our Lord, John the Elder is strictly referring to imitation as a mark of recognition. Those who love as God loves are recognizable as God’s children. Those who are given to hate are not kicked OUT of the family. But they sure don’t look like the heavenly Father. They are acting as if they are the devil’s children. It’s a little like when my mother used to ask, “Bradley Mark, what’s got into you?” or when Jesus scolded Peter, “Get behind me, Satan!”
This idea of “children by imitation” is especially strong in Jesus’ confrontation in John 8. Watch how he starts by acknowledging his audience as “children of Abraham” but eventually accuses his opponents of being “children of the devil”:
“I know that you are Abraham’s descendants, but you seek to kill Me, because My word has no place in you. I speak what I have seen with My Father, and you do what you have seen with your father.”John 8:17-44
They answered and said to Him, “Abraham is our father.”
Jesus said to them, “If you were Abraham’s children, you would do the works of Abraham. But now you seek to kill Me, a Man who has told you the truth which I heard from God. Abraham did not do this. 4You do the deeds of your father.”
Then they said to Him, “We were not born of fornication; we have one Father—God.”
Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love Me, for I proceeded forth and came from God; nor have I come of Myself, but He sent Me. Why do you not understand My speech? Because you are not able to listen to My word. You are of your father the devil, and the desires of your father you want to do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own resources, for he is a liar and the father of it.”
When Jesus rebukes the Pharisees as “children of the devil,” he’s not literally saying they are the spawn of Satan. He is chastising them for imitating the enemy in their lies and in their plot to kill him.
As with the spatial metaphors of “IN/OUT,” so we see the Bible speaking of God’s children in two distinct ways:
- ALL are Abba’s children because he created us ALL in his image. Even in our rebellion, Abba never disowns us or kicks us out of the family. His forgiveness follows us out the door and his mercy pursues us all the days of our lives. Whether we’re wasting our lives on hedonism like the younger son or continuing in religious slavery like the older son, we are still ALL God’s beloved children.
- At the same time, SOME are recognized as Abba’s children because they imitate their Abba in their love of Jesus Christ (“receiving him”), in their grace and generosity to all, and in their peacemaking and imitation of Abba’s character in their lives. This imitation is of course the work of transforming Grace and actualized as we willingly surrender our lives to Abba’s Love and follow his one unique Son on the Jesus Way.
- Let us all therefore live as children of Abba, imitating our Father and his Son by seeing and treating ALL human beings as Abba’s dearly beloved children.