How many times have you been confronted with this statement? Whether it comes from a non-Christian or a Christian, it is equally awkward: the former makes you wonder where to begin and the latter … well, just makes you wonder. And whomever the person is, there is no immediate, concise answer to give really, because of course the answer hinges on what one means by ‘child of God’.
I was struck by this problematic statement again the other night watching Disney’s “the Hunchback of Notre Dame” [yes, with my kids], specifically during the song where the gypsy, Esmerelda, claims sanctuary in the church to avoid her captors, and then wanders around singing the ballad ,”God help the outcasts.” [on a separate note: if you ever want to hear both a flagrant attack on the church and a championing of the gay agenda, listen to this song in its’ entirety] The closing line of her song, then, rings out, “I thought we all were children of God. God help the outcasts: children of God.”
Now, putting sentiment aside for a moment, there is an implicit assumption in most people’s minds (particularly in secular, non-Christian settings) when they refer to all people on the earth as “children of God”: that all of humanity is loved and has both God’s blessing and approval. Like the picture above, Jesus [if He ever even existed and is actually God’s Son] dances around with rainbows and clouds and flowers, and smiles on all humanity; giving His “thumbs up” when we do the right thing, and “tsk-ing” us when we don’t. In Christian nomenclature, we might define this idea as universalism perhaps or, at best, inclusivism: that a holy, righteous God – though He may not like our constant sinning and rebellion – is pretty much ‘cool’ with us in the end.
It is not my aim here to disprove universalism however, but rather, to suggest how we might respond to such a statement from whomever might state it. Because – once we’ve defined how the terminology is being understood – the answer to the question is both a qualified ‘yes, we absolutely are’, as well as an emphatic (and also qualified) ‘no, we are not!’
Briefly then, (so this doesn’t become a ‘Themelios’ length blog post) we see in the creation account of Genesis chapter one and two that God did, in fact, create mankind in His own image. And so just as Adam had God as his Father, so we all have Adam as our father. Thus, it is good and right to say that, as a human race, we are all the “children” of God, created with inherent dignity and purpose as a result of our carrying the Imago Dei. But that, truly, is where the train comes to a stop.
Conversely, when a Christian speaks about being a “child of God”, what they mean (or, God help us, they should mean) is something very different, but, of course with the first part [Imago Dei] being assumed.
Firstly, we must state that the Scripture’s present, post-Fall view of mankind [outside of a saving relationship with Christ] is one of enmity and separation from God – certainly not Fatherhood. Romans 5:12 states that Adam’s sin in the garden imputed sin/death/separation from God, to all of mankind as our federal head. In Ephesians 2:3 Paul states that “like the rest of mankind” we are [outside of Christ] “children of [God’s] wrath.” So it already should be clear from these texts alone that we can’t gleefully jump from being created in God’s image to a present, happy union with God as His “kids”. The Bible has no such category for people outside union with Christ.
Now, once we’ve leveled the playing field to where it actually lies, we can begin to talk about the glorious doctrine of adoption, and to see how it is this that causes us to become true ‘children of God.’ J.I. Packer has famously said that the best definition of a Christian is “one who has God as their Father.” In 1 John 3:1 we read, “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called the children of God; and so we are.” In Romans 8:16,17 it says, “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are the children of God, and if children, then heirs – heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ.” From here, we begin to get a clear picture of how the Scriptures speak about being a ‘child of God’, and also see how starkly that picture contrasts with the secular, non-Christian understanding. I could go on for pages, but one thing to see particularly here from the 1 John passage is how becoming a child of God is an act of love “given to us” from God the Father. It is not something we pick up and put on, nor earn, nor is it something we have intrinsically by nature of being created by God. It is the gift of God the Father, through the work of the Son, by the power of the Holy Spirit – nothing more, nor less, than this.
Immediately, one ought to hear Paul’s admonition when speaking of such things [especially for those of us in the Reformed camp] when he says to the Corinthian church, “What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it? 1 Cor. 4:7 Rather than pride or bravado of any kind, these truths should produce in us a profound humility as well as a desire to see many more know the joy of having God as their Father.
So, the next time you hear someone make the statement/claim that we are all ‘God’s children’, don’t jump down their throat screaming, ‘NO WE”RE NOT bro!’, but also, maybe don’t just smile and let it pass either. It could become a glorious opportunity to share the gospel with someone to just humbly and graciously ask,
“What do you mean by that?“
“And because of Him you are in Christ Jesus … so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.” 1 Cor.1:30,31