Childship to God


1 Jno. 2:28-3:3, especially 3:1:—"Behold what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called children of God: and such we are."

The conception of the divine birth as the root of the Christian life is a specially Johannean one. Not that the other New Testament writers do not also teach all that is expressed by the term "regeneration." But that they teach it prevailingly under other figures, such as those of a repristination, a new creation, and the like. The Johannean expressions, "to be born again," "begotten of God," do not occur at all, for example, in Paul, whose use in a single passage of a similar term only serves to bring out the contrast. There is a corresponding difference in the use by Paul and John of the conception of childship or sonship to God. In accordance with his juridical point of view, Paul speaks of sonship as conferred by adoption, and thinks of our acquisition of the rights and the inheritance of sons. In accordance with his essential point of view, John speaks of childship as conveyed through birth and thinks of growing up into the likeness of God. Accordingly Paul prefers the term "sons." We are adults received by God's grace into the number of His sons. And

John prefers the term "children" or even "little children." We are born into the family of God as the infants of His household.

This difference in the use of the conception of childship is not a difference of doctrine; it is only a difference in the illustrative use of the conception of childship in the setting forth of doctrine. It will not do to say on its ground that John teaches that our sonship to God is due to regeneration and Paul that it is due to justification. It will not be accurate even to say that John emphasizes regeneration and Paul justification. What is true is that Paul has adopted the conception of sonship to illustrate the title to life and holiness which we obtain through justification, and John to illustrate the communication of a new principle of holy life to us in regeneration. Paul uses it of an objective fact, John of a subjective one. Paul, to point us to what becomes ours through the work of Christ without us; John, to what is made ours by the working of Christ within us. It would lead to confusion to treat the several passages in John and Paul as if they were teaching us the same sonship to God. It would lead to even greater confusion to suppose that because they illustrate different portions of the doctrine of salvation by the same figure, they teach a different doctrine of salvation,—one by the Christ without us, the other by the Christ within us.

Perhaps no passage could be pitched upon which would more richly and completely than that before us outline to us John's presentation of his doctrine of childship to God, begun in regeneration and growing up in ever-increasing sanctification to its goal of likeness to God. It may repay us to run over the points of doctrine that emerge in the course of these five verses.

First then we are to observe that the childship of God of which John teaches us—as truly as the sonship to God of which Paul teaches us—is not a natural but a graciously conferred relation. Neither in John's sense nor in Paul's sense, nor in the sense of any New Testament writer, can we speak of a universal Fatherhood of God. The idea of the All-Father is rather a heathen than a Christian notion; that is to say it is a conception belonging to the sphere of natural religion, voicing the yearning of the human heart to find in its Creator and Ruler something more than a Master or a Sovereign Lord. It contains no more Biblical truth than arises from the fact that according to the Bible we are like God in so far as by our first creation we were made in His image; He is in this sense the Father of our spirits. For from the Biblical point of view, sonship presents primarily the idea of likeness. Therefore, the bad are the sons of Belial and the good are the sons of God; and the high name of the children of God is, from Genesis to Revelation, reserved for those whose likeness to Him extends beyond the mere natural fact that they have a spiritual nature similar to God's, to the moral fact that they have a spiritual character like God's.

Holiness of heart, not immateriality of essence, is the ground in the Scriptural view of Divine sonship. And as men are by nature not holy but wicked, they are naturally the sons of the Devil, the sons of wrath. Sons of God they can become only by an act of Divine mercy. The idea of the universal Fatherhood of God represents therefore, from the Biblical point of view, what God would fain have been when He made man in His own image, creating him in righteousness and true holiness; what God still fain would be; not what God is. He is in the Biblical sense, the Father only of those who are renewed unto holiness. So John puts it; so Paul puts it. Paul exhorts his readers to "do all things without murmurings and disputings, that they may be blameless and harmless, children of God, without blemish": and John in our present passage represents only those who do righteousness as the children of God.

To John then, as we say, as to Paul and to the whole New Testament, childship to God is not a natural but a graciously constituted relation. It is so in our passage, "Behold what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called the children of God." It is a matter of bestowment; it is a gift. And it is an undeserved and unmerited gift. John cries out in wonder and surprised gratitude at the love— not only the greatness, but the high quality of the love—which God bestowed on us, with the intent of having us called children of God: "Behold, what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us to the end that we should be called children of God." And then his feelings overcome him as he contemplates this great, this indescribable, kind of love, and he adds, not as part of the statement but as an unrestrainable comment on the statement, "and such we are." The words themselves point out the ineffable mercy and love of God in making us—such as we—children of God. But these two words of comment of the responding heart of the beloved disciple pierce even deeper into our souls. As he declares the Father's love in making us His children, he cannot help jubilating over the blessed fact. "It is true," he cries, "it is true!" "And we are." Assuredly, to him this is no natural relation. We are the children of God only by the ineffable love of God, constituting us sons. It is not a thing we have by nature but of grace; it is not a thing to which we are born as men, but to which we are born again as Christians; it is not a thing to which all are born, but only those who are born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.

It is as clear as day, then, that this childship to God, of which John teaches us, is not a product of our own endeavours; it is a gift, a free favour, from God; and it has its root in the ineffable and indescribable and sovereign love of God. "Behold what manner of love the Father has bestowed upon us that we should be called the sons of God." We have not earned it; the Father has given it; not paid it to us as our just due for effort made, labour performed, righteousness practised; but given it to us out of His free and inexplicable love; not out of His justice but out of His incomprehensible love. It is a sovereign gift. So the New Testament everywhere and under all its figures represents it; so John always represents it. And it is therefore that he sings paeans to God's love on account of it. "Behold!" "What manner of love is this!" "To seek us out and make us the sons of God!" Language could not convey more clearly, more powerfully, the conception of the absolute sovereignty of the gift of childship to God. Elsewhere it is conveyed more didactically, more analytically; here it is conveyed emotionally. Elsewhere we are told that it came not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God; here we have the answering thrill of gratitude of the human heart at this unexpected, undeserved gift. Elsewhere the sovereignty is asserted, explained; here it is acknowledged, honoured. Elsewhere it is claimed, here it is yielded, admired, glorified.

But the passage gives us not merely the origin and source of our childship to God in His love— free, and freely giving us this great benefit; it points out to us the evidence of its reality. Though we cannot purchase it by our righteousness, it is freely bestowed, it yet evidences itself through righteousness. It is not by righteousness that we obtain it; but only the righteous have it. As it is sonship to the righteous God that is conferred; as sonship implies likeness; it follows that the test of such a sonship having been conferred is the presence of the likeness, the presence of the righteousness. Accordingly we read: "If ye know that He is righteous, ye know that every one also that doeth righteousness is born of Him." This is the test. None but the righteous are sons of God. The Apostle does not say, None but the righteous can become the sons of God. Then it would not be true that the sonship is a free gift of ineffable, sovereign love. But he does say that none but the righteous are the sons of God.

This is, indeed, essential to his point of view, that sonship hangs on an inward fact. Paul, too, teaches the same doctrine even though he is looking upon sonship as a juridical fact. For God leaves none of those whom He constitutes His sons by adoption without the Spirit of sonship in their hearts, crying Abba, Father; and only those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. But much more will John, who is thinking of regeneration rather than justification, under the figure of sonship, teach the same. Only he who doeth righteousness can really be begotten of the Righteous One. That we do righteousness becomes thus the test and evidence of our sonship. Begetting is the implanting of a seed of life, and it is the very nature of life to live, that is, to manifest its essential nature in outward activities. But the seed implanted in this begetting is the seed of holy living; how can it be said to be there if it is not manifested in holy living? It is of the very nature of the thing that only those who do righteousness can have been begotten by the Righteous God unto newness of life.

But is not John then blending regeneration with sanctification? If none is born of God— regenerated—unless he doeth righteousness, is not this to say that by the mystical act of being begotten of God—regeneration—a man must be made holy, and unless he has been made holy, he is not born of God? Yes, and no. For John, while insisting that no one is born of God who does not do righteousness, does not represent him as having already in his new birth attained his goal. An infant is not a full-grown man. Nor is he who is born of God already perfected in likeness to God. John, too, represents this as a growth. He asserts that only those who do righteousness are the children of God; but he claims to be himself—he claims that his readers are—already children of God. "And such we are." "Are"— already. "Beloved, now we are children of God." Does he claim perfected righteousness for himself or them? "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us." Yet throughout our passage, and beyond, he insists with iterated emphasis that the mark of the child of God is that he does righteousness, and that he who does sin is of the devil. There is no contradiction here. John, too, knows the root and the tree; the flower and the fruit. He, no more than Paul, claims to be already perfect. Even the infant is like his father; and whoever is born of God does righteousness like the Righteous Father, though he does it like an infant, with many a false step, with many a fall. He must, like other infants, grow up and learn to walk in the new path. And so John in our passage does not look upon the new birth as all; he expects a growth and promises it. "Beloved, we"^are already children of God"—his readers, after that formulated test of doing righteousness, needed assurance of it; "we are already children of God." "And it is not yet made manifest what we shall be"—not yet made manifest! The completed righteousness is not yet present—"we know that if He shall be manifested, we shall be like Him for we shall see Him as He is." Ah, here is the goal on which John sets his eyes! We have not yet the perfected likeness to our Righteous Father, merely because we are born of God; we must grow up to be altogether like Him. It is a process; a growth; only when the infant becomes a man, is the likeness complete.

And, therefore, the Apostle has an exhortation for us as well as an instruction. We have received in our new birth the germ of our new life of righteousness; but we have not received in it that whole new life in perfection. God never intended to carry us to the skies on flowery beds of ease. The righteousness that we are to do does not consist in that; it does not rest unless and until it is done, done in spite of temptation, in conquest of evil. And so John points our eyes to the completed fruit of our endeavours—true, developed likeness to God—as the goal of effort, and adds his exhortation. Are we born of God? Is the germ within us? What a glory! But what a glory there is stretching yet beyond! Developed likeness to God! "And every one having this hope within him, purifieth himself even as He is pure." Here is John's prescription for the life of the sons of God. Let us take it to heart and live by it.

Perhaps, then, we may sum up by saying that in this pregnant passage John gives us:

(1) The root of childship to God in God's ineffable love.

(2) The creation of children of God through God's sovereign power.

(3) The evidence of childship to God in the doing of righteousness.

(4) The hope of the children of God, developed likeness to God.

(5) The duty of the children of God, to purify themselves as God is pure.

(6) The end of the children of God—the as yet unmanifested glory of perfect assimilation to their Father's character.


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