If you want to judge how well a person understands Christianity,” wrote J. I. Packer in his famous book Knowing God, “find out how much he makes of the thought of being God’s child, and having God as his Father. If this is not the thought that prompts and controls his worship and prayers and his whole outlook on life, it means that he does not understand Christianity very well at all.
A Christian is one who has been adopted by God — brought into the family of God, all by the Son of God. And this changes everything.
To better understand just how precious it is to be a “son of God,” we need to pay attention to our Bibles, especially as we see the theme of sonship unfold. I called up Don Carson to explain. On occasional Fridays I call him up as part of our relationship with our friends at The Gospel Coalition. Carson is the co-founder and president of The Gospel Coalition, and editor of the *NIV Zondervan Study Bible, which is the study Bible version of what we’re doing in these occasional longform podcasts.*
Here’s how Dr. Carson explained to me the theme of sonship.
Even a cursory reading of Scripture shows how the expression son of God can refer to many, many different people. In fact, it stretches beyond people. It can refer to angels in the opening chapters of Job (see Job 1:6). The term son of God can refer to Israel considered collectively. That shows up for the first time in Exodus 4:22–23. “Out of Egypt I called my son,” Hosea says, referring to the Exodus (Hosea 11:1), and already in Exodus 4:22–23 God says, “Israel is my firstborn son, and I say to you, ‘Let my son go that he may serve me.’” Then son can refer to individual Israelites, son of God. And in addition it can refer to the King, par excellence, starting as early as 2 Samuel 7:14, and the son of God is the Davidic king. And in addition in the New Testament it can refer to Christians (Romans 8:15), and, of course, supremely it can refer to Jesus (John 17:1). So, all of these expressions use son of God to refer to a variety of human beings and even angels.
So, what is meant by the expression? Clearly you cannot simply assume that every time you come across the expression son of God, it is referring to the second person of the godhead. It is important to back off a wee bit, I think, and remember that connotations of sonship, not just son of God, but of sonship were different in the ancient world and the kinds of associations that the expression calls to mind today. Today, if people watch various CSI programs on television, then not a few plots are bound up with who is really the father and who is really the son, and it is tested by DNA or some other contemporary technological marvel.
Yet, that is not the association of sonship. Sonship is not established by paternity in the Old Testament. The overwhelming majority of sons in the ancient world ended up doing vocationally what their fathers did and girls ended up doing vocationally what their mothers did. So, if your father is a baker, you end up with the overwhelming likelihood in becoming a baker. If your father is a farmer, you become a farmer. If your father is a candlestick maker, you become a candlestick maker. And, thus, sonship is bound up, in part, with family identity and vocation.
“In the Old Testament, sonship is bound up, in part, with family identity and vocation.”
That is why Jesus is often referred to as the son of a carpenter (Matthew 13:55) and that is because he is identified as belonging to the Joseph family. And in one remarkable passage in Mark 6:3 he is referred to as the carpenter. Apparently, Joseph has died and Jesus, for a period of time before he entered his public ministry, took over the family business. If your father is a farmer, you don’t go away to agricultural college and then come home and help the old man. There were no such things as agricultural colleges. The father showed you how to dig fence posts and how to irrigate and when to seed and how to go about the business of harvesting and how to read the soil and read the weather and so on. You, thus, received your family name, your identity, your vocation, your inheritance, and so on all bound up with what you do.
And out of this, then, comes a wide variety of metaphors in the Bible. Sons of Belial, Belial means something like worthless (see 1 Samuel 2:12). If somebody calls you a son of Belial, it is not really meant to be an insult to your father. It is saying that you yourself are acting so much like a worthless person that you must be thought of as belonging to the worthless family. And Jesus, likewise, says in the Beatitudes, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God (Matthew 5:9), literally — not children of God — sons of God, referring to both men and women, of course.
But the metaphor itself is powerful. What it is saying is that God is the supreme peacemaker and, insofar as we are making peace, we show ourselves to belong to God’s family. It is not talking about ontology. It is not talking about how you become a Christian. It is that if you act like God you are god-ish. And one of the ways of saying that is that you are a son of God. And that explains quite a lot of passages in the New Testament that we sometimes glance over and don’t integrate into our thinking.
“God is the supreme peacemaker and, insofar as we are making peace, we show ourselves to belong to God’s family.”
For example, in John 8:33, 39 the Jews in dispute with Jesus claim that they are really the sons of Abraham. And Jesus says: Oh, no, that can’t be. Abraham rejoiced to see my day. He saw it and was glad. And you can’t really be sons of Abraham at all (verses 39–40). And they upped the ante and said: Well, actually we are sons of God (verse 41). And he says: No, that can’t be because God knows me and I know him. You don’t recognize me. You can’t really be sons of God at all. Let me tell you who your daddy is. And he says: You are of your father the devil and the lusts of your father you will do (verses 42–47).
Now he is not suggesting in any way, shape, or form that they are sons of mysogenation, as if humans somehow copulated with women to produce them. It means they are acting so demonically that they belong to the demon family. They are sons of the devil himself. And, likewise, in Paul the question arises frequently: Who is the true son of Abraham? And the true son of Abraham is not the one who has Abraham’s genes, but the one who acts like Abraham. And Abraham acted with respect to God in faith. So, he becomes the father of the faithful, that is, those who are full of faith. The true son of Abraham is the one who has Abraham’s faith, not the one who has Abraham’s genes (see, for example, Romans 4:1–25).
And that sort of usage is simply endemic in Scripture. Sometimes the metaphors aren’t even preserved in English translation because they don’t make sense in English. But the “son of” metaphor is very common. And so within that framework then what does son of God mean? In a passage like 2 Samuel 7 and Psalm 2 where the Davidic king is said to be the son of God, the idea, of course, is that God is the supreme King so that, insofar as someone is acting like God in ruling, God rules as king. He is the monarch. He is not a constitutional monarch. He reigns. He rules, and he rules with justice, with integrity, with righteousness to preserve the covenant, with equity, and so forth. So insofar, then, as his under-king, his Davidic king is king, then he is to rule the way God rules: with equity, with justice, with integrity and speaking the truth and so forth. And if he does so, then he is like God. He is God’s son insofar as rulership is concerned.
So, as soon as a Davidite accedes to the throne, then God says, in effect, today I have begotten you. Today you are my son (Psalm 2:7). And again, it is not talking about new birth. It is not talking about ontology. This is said with respect to Solomon, for example (2 Samuel 7:14). And yet, so far as ruling is concerned, the Davidic king is to be seen to belong to the God family, to rule like God, to be god-ish in that particular respect, just as the person who makes peace is like God along another axis, the peace axis.
In other words, you cannot assume that son of God refers to the second person of the Trinity or something like that. Now, there are some passages that drive you in that direction. We will come to those in a few moments. What this means, then, is that in Old Testament expectation, sonship can refer to all of Israel, starting in Exodus 4 as we have seen and picked up in passages like Hosea 11. “Out of Egypt I called my son.” And then “Out of Egypt I called my son” in Hosea 11 is picked up in Matthew 2:15 and applied to Jesus. And so he too is called back out of Egypt. And it is part of Matthew’s way of indicating that in some sense Jesus recapitulates Israel. He is Israel’s true focus.
The same theme is picked up, for example, in the temptation narrative in Matthew 4 in the desert. Israel is supposed to learn that “man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD” (Deuteronomy 8:3). They really don’t learn it. They fall away. But Jesus learns it perfectly and reflects it perfectly and, thus, shows himself to be in one sense the true Israel (Matthew 4:4).
But he is also the true King. He is the true Davidic King. The very first verse of Matthew begins the origins of Jesus Christ, the son of Abraham, the son of David (Matthew 1:1). And then the genealogy proceeds with three fourteens, the central fourteen being the years of the Davidic dynasty in actual rule. So, he is repeatedly called “the Son of David.” And in some passages “Son of God” overlaps with “Son of David” quite remarkably. We will refer to some more passages of that order shortly.
In the Old Testament, likewise, in words that we sing every Christmas as we hum along to Handel’s Messiah, words drawn from Isaiah 9. Unto us a child is born. Unto us a Son is given. He shall reign on the throne of his father David (Isaiah 9:6–7). So, he is the Son that is declared Son in line with Psalm 2 and 2 Samuel 7 where God insists that the Davidic king, thus, is his son, insofar as he is acting like God as king, ruling with integrity, and the like. So, unto us that child is born, unto us a son is given. He will rule on the throne of his father David. Of the increase of his kingdom there will be no end.
But other things are said of him. He shall also be called “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6). Now, if that language is taken seriously, then he is more than an ordinary Davidite, a son of David. He is a son of David because he is king like all the other sons of David who are kings. But there is something more that is being promised to him and the expectations of what this Davidic Son of God would be like are ratcheted up.
Second Samuel 7 is roughly 1000 BC. Isaiah 9 is toward the end of the eighth century BC. And then, that language is picked up, likewise, in the New Testament. In the long passage in Hebrews 1:5–12, the sonship that is in view for Jesus is first and foremost the Davidic sonship as the particular passages that are quoted make clear. And so the way that Jesus is superior to the angels in much of Hebrews 1 is that he alone has the right to be the Davidic King who rules.
Now, there is another element that we are coming to that is stronger yet, but it really is important to see that Jesus is Son of God by virtue of the fact that he is the Davidic king. He is Son of God by virtue of the fact that he is the ultimate Israel. There is another element, too. Adam is called “the son of God” in the genealogy of Luke’s Gospel (Luke 3:38). We have the son of expressions: “ . . . who was the son of this, who was the son of that, who was the son of the other party” until we get to Adam, who was “the son of God.”
And so, it is not too surprising that human beings can be called sons of God in the generic sense without necessarily being Christians. We are sons of God in that we are supposed to be God’s image bearers. We are supposed to reflect him insofar as human beings can reflect him. And, again, the idea is not ontology. It is the reflection of the one whom we call our heavenly Father. And so Jesus is the ultimate Davidic king as the Son of God, as the Son of God is the ultimate Israel, as the Son of God is the ultimate human being, too. All of those expressions are applied to Jesus in a variety of ways.
“We are sons of God in that we are supposed to be God’s image bearers.”
But there is another strand that does not fit into any of these categories. In the Gospels it is most powerfully drawn in John 5:16–47. It is a wonderful passage. Jesus is defending his actions in the healing of the man who has been paralyzed for thirty-eight years: his actions on healing him on the Sabbath and his actions in telling the man to roll up his mat and take it home (verses 2–15). And he does not defend his actions by virtue of appeal to the intricacies of the law. He does not say, “Well, come on. The law does not really forbid miraculous healing. It is not as if I am a medical practitioner who is opening his place for office hours on the Sabbath in order to earn a little extra pocket money.” That is not what is going on. He doesn’t defend himself that way.
What he says, instead, is that whatever God has the right to do, he has got the right to do. My Father works till this day and I, too, am working (see John 5:17). And the interlockers perceive, therefore, that he is making himself an equal with God (verse 18). So, he is doubly wrong, doubly blasphemous: He is working on the Sabbath, and he is making God his equal. And what they mean by him making God his equal is that somehow he is presenting himself as a second God. There is God, and then there is Jesus claiming to be God. And that is blasphemous.
Jesus responds, then, by insisting that he does have the same prerogatives as God, but he presents his deity, his goodness, in ways that still preserve monotheism. So he says in John 5:19 that he does only what the Father gives him to do. He says only what the Father gives him to say. In that sense, he is not a competing God. He is not God #2. He is not a parallel God. He is one with God in what he says and does. He can do nothing by himself. There is even some kind of dependence.
“Jesus is one with God in what he says and does. He can do nothing by himself. There is even some kind of dependence.”
I know in this day and age people sometimes get themselves in a twist because they don’t like the word subordination. But, in fact, in John’s Gospel we discover again and again and again that Jesus does what the Father gives him to do. He says what the Father gives him to say. It is never the other way around. This relationship is not equivalent. It is one way only. And if you don’t like the word subordination, then choose another, but you have to have some word to show that it is not an entirely reciprocal relationship.
Having said that, that he says only what the Father gives him to say, he does only what the Father gives him to do, and he does all that the Father does, it becomes the really important thing. That is the direction to which he turns. That is, not only does he do only what the Father gives him to do, he does everything that the Father does (John 5:19). Now, that is astonishing, because when you and I use the expression son of God because we are peacemakers, we are sons of God only along the peacemaking axis. David (or one of his successors) is a “son of God” because he is a Davidic king — he is a son of God along that reigning axis.
But Jesus says that whatever the Father does the Son also does (John 5:19). So, has the Father made everything? So has the Son. We have discovered that already in the first verses of John’s Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made” (John 1:1–3). So, he is one with the Father in creation.
By the end of this chapter, he is one with the Father in judgment (John 5:22–31). Judgment. Final judgment belongs to God. But Jesus has it as well. In fact, Jesus’s judgment is perfect because he judges only as the Father gives him to judge. But the point is, I don’t have any ultimate judging right that God has. Jesus has it. And whatever the Father does, the Son also does. In other words, Jesus claims coextensive action with God.
So, although this is cached in terms of conduct, behavior, functionality, nevertheless, you can’t help but see there is an ontology behind it. If you have a being who really can do everything that God does, who really says everything that God says, then how is he distinguished from God? If you have an animal that looks like a horse and walks like a horse and has all the attributes of a horse, you have got a horse. And if you have a being who can say and do all that God says and does, and reflects him perfectly, and says only what he is given to say to someone, then how is he distinguished from God?
Then, when you discover in John 5:22–23 as well that the Father’s determination is that all should honor the Son even as they honor the Father, you perceive that this Son is not a son in some restricted way in the fashion of David or in some restricted way in the fashion of the peacemaker. He is to be honored as God is honored. And so, you have the beginnings of the doctrine of the Trinity being spelled out in front of your eyes in passages of that order.
And so, when we return to Hebrews 1:5–12 and discover, then, that Jesus is presented primarily as the Son of David and as one who has the right to rule he surpasses angels, because they don’t have the right to rule, nevertheless, you have to read these verses in light of 1:1–4, the prologue of Hebrews. And there we are told that in times past “God spoke to our fathers by the prophets” in various ways and various matters and so on, but in these last days “he has spoken to us” — well, the Greek has en huiou, his son — “by his Son.”
“Jesus is God’s perfect self-disclosure, the shining of the shining, the radiance of the glory.”
But the particular constructions suggests that the emphasis is on the quality of this revelation. One might paraphrase: In these last days, he has spoken unto us in the Son revelation. And then this Son revelation is described in spectacular ways. Jesus is the radiance of his Father’s glory (Hebrews 1:3). As someone has said: He is the shining of the shining. How do you distinguish those two? He radiates outwardly God. Or, he is the perfect stamp of God. He is the perfect reflection and stamped out so that he is goddish through and through. And so, he is identified as one with God with all of the authority to uphold all things by his powerful Word. Yet, at the same time, he is presented as the high priest who mediates God to us and us to God (Hebrews 4:14–15).
Sonship here is being used in a way that outstrips any near alignment with Davidic rule or with Israel or with ordinary human beings or with peacemaking or the like. He is God’s perfect self-disclosure, the shining of the shining, the radiance of the glory. He is the Son par excellence. This is the Son revelation. In the past, God spoke through words alone. Now, he speaks, as it were, though the Son. So, theologically this becomes somewhat equivalent to John’s prologue. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). That is, in the beginning God expressed himself, and this self-expression was with God. And the self-expression was God.
“In the beginning God expressed himself, and this self-expression was with God. And this self-expression was God.”
And so, you have now the beginnings of a notion of sonship that is picked up in many passages in the New Testament to generate what is ultimately called the doctrine of the Trinity with Father, Son, and Holy Spirit being three persons, but constituting one God. Nor is this sonship restricted to Jesus and the days of his flesh. John 3:17 reminds us that God sent his Son into the world. That is, it is not he sent someone into the world who, thus, became his Son by virtue of the fact that he became a human being and the Davidic king. He sent his Son into the world. This Father-Son relationship is traced back into eternity. The Father sends his Son into the world. And that is not just a Davidic figure. The Davidic sonship didn’t start, after all, until about 1,000 years before Christ. Thus, sonship can have all of the deep, rich set of associations that are traditionally tied to the deepest, most thoughtful, biblically mandated doctrine of the Trinity.
Likewise, it is important to think how we Christians are sons of God. In one sense, this is the result of the new birth, something working within us. That is another whole theme that needs separate development. But in the climactic revelation of the Bible, in Revelation 21–22, we are told that the overcomer, that is, the Christian who perseveres to the end — that is what is meant by overcoming — will be called God’s son (Revelation 21:7).
Now, in one sense, he has been called God’s son again and again and again, implicitly referring to his reliance under the old covenant. Certainly, in the New Testament, various sonship words are used. In John’s Gospel, one word is used for Jesus the Son of God and other words are used for human begins as sons of God, human begins who are not the human that Jesus is. In Paul, both Jesus and the Christians are called sons of God, the same word, but we are sons of God by adoption (Romans 8:15, 23). Some subtle distinction is made.
But the power of the metaphor itself, “son of God,” is seen in its greatest power applied to Christians in Revelation 21–22. “He will be my son,” God says (Revelation 21:7). And what is meant in the context is, He will be so much like me that there is no longer any possibility of sin or death or corruption or decay or rebellion in the Christian who is thus called “son of God” — whether men or women called sons of God — because they reflect God as perfectly as finite human begins made in the image of God can. There is no taint. There is no sign of death or decay. Their reflection of God is as perfect as it is possible for a finite human being to reflect the infinite God.
“Christians will reflect God as perfectly as finite human begins made in the image of God can.”
Thus, the notions of sonship, even though they begin with a certain kind of emphasis on functionality and repeating the behavior of the Father in question and so on, eventually get tied to the most profound theology and the most demanding ethics as we worship the true Son of God, in order that we may on the last day so be transformed by the gospel in glorification that we act perfectly as sons of God in a way that we measure up to only very imperfectly until Jesus returns.