Children of God

As obedient children, do not be conformed to the former lusts which were yours in your ignorance, but like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behavior; because it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.”

1 Peter 1:13-17

It is virtually second nature for Christians to refer to God as “Father,” undoubtedly due to the prevalence of similar references to God throughout the New Testament.  Jesus in particular consistently referred to God as “Father” – perhaps most famously in the opening of the “Lord’s Prayer” – and throughout His teaching revealed that God was not just His Father, but that God longs to be “Our Father” as well.  Hence it should come as no surprise that the title of “Father” is such an integral part of God’s tri-partite designation.

As common as the title of “Father” is in the New Testament, though, it only appears in a handful of Old Testament passages…and then primarily as a metaphor.  This is significant because the emphasis which Jesus places upon addressing God as “Father” indicates that something has changed: whereas before we could merely conceive of God as a “Father figure,” now we are told to call upon Him as “Our Father.”  It underscores the fact that on account of the finished work of Christ, our broken relationship with God has finally been restored:

Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making an appeal through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.
1 Corinthians 5:20-21

That being said, the key point about calling God “Father” is not merely that it’s possible thanks to Christ, but that it is in fact a prerequisite for entering into His Kingdom.  Why is that?  Because becoming a child of God is what it means to be “born again”:

Jesus answered and said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
John 3:3

Being “born of God” means that whereas there was once only innate resistance and hostility towards God, we have been given new hearts that are now capable of loving God and honoring Him as our Father.  It’s a spiritual transformation that alters our eternal destiny, for being God’s child not only means that we are members of His extended family, but that we have likewise become citizens of the Kingdom:

For through Christ both [Jews & Gentiles] have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household, having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone.
Ephesians 2:18-20

Indeed, the New Testament is clear that the only way to enter into God’s Kingdom and thereby escape His wrath is to become His child.  Not on the basis of our own merits, but by virtue of receiving the One whose worth is beyond measure:

But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name, who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of a man, but of God.
John 1:12-13

So while the necessity of becoming a child of God is clearly not in question, another question remains: what does it mean to be a child of God?  Put differently, while claiming to be a child of God is one thing, how do you know if you actually are one?

Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves! Or do you not recognize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you—unless indeed you fail the test?
2 Corinthians 13:5

Trust and Obey

There is a lot we can learn about what it means to be a “child of God” simply by applying what we already know about children in relationship to their earthly parents.  For one thing, just as children are completely dependent upon their parents to care for and protect them, we too are wholly dependent on God to provide for us.  Furthermore, whereas children’s wisdom and understanding is nowhere near that of their parents, that deficiency pales in comparison to the unbridgeable chasm that exists between our knowledge and the mind of our heavenly Father. 

In short, children are both vulnerable and innately trusting, which is probably why Jesus used them as exemplars of what it means to enter into the Kingdom of God:

At that time the disciples came to Jesus and said, “Who then is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” And He called a child to Himself and set him before them, and said, “Truly I say to you, unless you are converted and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Matthew 18:1-3

And they were bringing children to Him so that He might touch them; but the disciples rebuked them. But when Jesus saw this, He was indignant and said to them, “Permit the children to come to Me; do not hinder them; for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.  Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it at all.”
Mark 10:13-15

Perhaps the most important aspect of the parental relationship, though, is the child’s obligation to both recognize and submit to the rightful authority of their parents.  For just as children were expected to obey and honor their parents, when Jesus spoke about God as our heavenly Father it implied the same kind of honor and deference that is clearly due to our earthly parents per the Mosaic Law:

Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be prolonged in the land which the Lord your God gives you.
Exodus 20:12

He who strikes his father or his mother shall surely be put to death.
Exodus 21:15

He who curses his father or his mother shall surely be put to death.
Exodus 21:17

Every one of you shall reverence his mother and his father.
Leviticus 19:3

In fact, not only was wisdom understood to be obedience to your parents, but disobedience and rebellion against your parents was tantamount to evil and severely prohibited:

A wise son accepts his father’s discipline, But a scoffer does not listen to rebuke.
Proverbs 13:1

A foolish son is a grief to his father and bitterness to her who bore him.
Proverbs 17:25

If any man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey his father or his mother, and when they chastise him, he will not even listen to them, then his father and mother shall seize him, and bring him out to the elders of his city at the gateway of his hometown.  And they shall say to the elders of his city, ‘This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious; he does not obey us, he is thoughtless and given to drinking.’ Then all the men of his city shall stone him to death; so you shall eliminate the evil from your midst, and all Israel will hear about it and fear.
Deuteronomy 21:18-21

‘Cursed is he who dishonors his father or mother.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen.’
Deuteronomy 27:16

Thus in the same way that children are expected to obey their parents, as children of God our heavenly Father expects us to obey him.  To do otherwise is to dishonor and shame Him, just as the prodigal son did when he took his share of his father’s estate and left home.  And so earnestly seeking to do the desires of our heavenly Father – i.e. obedience – is perhaps the best indicator that we have indeed become one of His children:

“I speak the things which I have seen with My Father; therefore you also do the things which you heard from your father.”

They answered and said to Him, “Abraham is our father.”

Jesus said to them, “If you are Abraham’s children, do the deeds of Abraham. But as it is, you are seeking to kill Me, a man who has told you the truth, which I heard from God; this Abraham did not do. You are doing the deeds of your father.”

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 have come from God, for I have not even come on My own initiative, but He sent Me. Why do you not understand what I am saying? It is because you cannot hear My word. You are of your father the devil, and you want to do the desires of your father.”
John 8:38-44

By this the children of God and the children of the devil are obvious: anyone who does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor the one who does not love his brother.
1 John 3:10

Indeed, it is nearly impossible to overestimate the importance of obeying God when it comes to professing Him as our heavenly Father, because even if Jesus had exclusive claim to this “parental” relationship as God’s only begotten Son, our obedience would still be expected for the simple fact that God is also The Lord Almighty.  He expects all people – children or otherwise – to humbly obey Him, and any act of defiance or disobedience constitutes a futile challenge to His authority as well as His power.  Every creature is therefore obliged to obey Him as their rightful Sovereign and Master; consequently, it should come as no surprise that the theme of obedience features so prominently in the pages of Scripture:

Now then, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine.
Exodus 19:5

“Choose for yourselves today whom you will serve: whether the gods which your fathers served which were beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”

The people said to Joshua, “We will serve the Lord our God and we will obey His voice.”
Joshua 24:15,24

Samuel said, “Has the Lord as much delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed than the fat of rams.”
1 Samuel 15:22

And we are witnesses of these things; and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey Him.
Acts 5:32

So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.
Philippians 2:12-13

In short, there’s a simple reason we don’t call the Ten Commandments the “Ten Suggestions” – as the Lord, God gets to make the rules.  Period.  And since He is Lord above all other authorities and powers, God not only expects us to obey Him alone, but He is justifiably offended whenever we don’t: 

But it shall come about, if you do not obey the Lord your God, to observe to do all His commandments and His statutes with which I charge you today, that all these curses will come upon you and overtake you.
Deuteronomy 28:15

They have acted corruptly toward Him, they are not His children, because of their defect; But are a perverse and crooked generation. “Do you thus repay the Lord, O foolish and unwise people? Is not He your Father who has bought you? He has made you and established you.”
Deuteronomy 32:5-6

Indeed all Israel has transgressed Your law and turned aside, not obeying Your voice; so the curse has been poured out on us, along with the oath which is written in the law of Moses the servant of God, for we have sinned against Him.
Daniel 9:11

He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.
John 3:36

The Lord Jesus will be revealed from heaven with His mighty angels in flaming fire, dealing out retribution to those who do not know God and to those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. These will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power.
2 Thessalonians 1:7-9

Again, even though the Kingdom of God has not been fully realized upon the earth, that doesn’t mean that honoring and obeying God is somehow optional.  For as Paul reminds us, every knee will eventually bow, and each tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord…to the glory of God the Father.  In other words, choosing to defy God is ultimately pointless and self-destructive, because He reigns supreme regardless of whether or not we accept His authority.  And on that day when the King finally comes to establish His eternal Kingdom,  its citizens will joyfully proclaim this reality as they willingly bow before their Savior; the rest will acknowledge Him because they will be given no choice but to kneel before the Lord.  The former are God’s children who will inherit the Kingdom, while the latter are those whose defiance will condemn them for all eternity.

If You Love Me…

It should go without saying that as the Lord of Lords and King of Kings, God alone is worthy of our complete and utter loyalty.  He expects us to answer whenever He calls, and then to carry out His will without deviating to the left or to the right.  That’s what it means to serve a King, after all, but there’s supposed to be more to our deference than simply discharging a solemn duty to obey and honor our Lord.  For as our Father, God not only deserves our faithful obedience, but He desires our trust and devotion…just like that of a child.  As such, our obedience should not be merely offered out of obligation, but in response to the love and affection that we have for Him:

Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and whoever loves the Father loves the child born of Him. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and observe His commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments; and His commandments are not burdensome.
1 John 5:1-3

While this connection between obedience and love may come as a surprise to some, it shouldn’t.  We need look no further than the opening of the “Lord’s Prayer,” whereby our first concern is for our Father’s glory: that His name would be hallowed, that His Kingdom would come at last, and that His will would be done on the earth as it is in Heaven.  And since the Kingdom of God refers to the condition where God’s reign is willingly embraced by all, these three petitions are really just different ways of praying for the same thing.  So perhaps the reason that so many Christians find the link between love and obedience foreign to their thinking has more to do with the silence of our pulpits…rather than Scripture:

If you love Me, you will keep My commandments.
John 14:15

“He who has My commandments and keeps them is the one who loves Me; and he who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and will disclose Myself to him.”
John 14:21

If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love; just as I have kept My Father’s commandments and abide in His love.
John 15:10

By this we know that we have come to know Him, if we keep His commandments. The one who says, “I have come to know Him,” and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him; but whoever keeps His word, in him the love of God has truly been perfected. By this we know that we are in Him: the one who says he abides in Him ought himself to walk in the same manner as He walked.
1 John 2:3-6

“Why do you call Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?”
Luke 6:46

Interestingly, the passage from Luke highlights the fact that intimacy with Christ and obedience to Him go hand-in-hand.  We see this from the way in which Jesus repeats the title of “Lord,” which in Hebrew culture was a way of calling attention to the close, familiar relationship that existed with the other person.  It is an intimate form of address that is used by God at the burning bush…

When the Lord saw that he turned aside to look, God called to him from the midst of the bush and said, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.”
Exodus 3:4

…by Jesus in the Upper Room:

“Simon, Simon, behold, Satan has demanded permission to sift you like wheat; but I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.”
Luke 22:31

…and ominously at the final judgment, when many will claim to know Christ even though their disobedience proves otherwise:

Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.’
Matthew 7:21-23

So here’s the critical question: if we are saved by grace, through faith – which of course, we are – then why is there such an emphasis on our obedience?  Doesn’t that make salvation somehow contingent upon what we do…or don’t do?  For that matter, doesn’t the requirement to render our obedience to Christ effectively nullify the “free gift” of the Gospel itself?

Belief in Action

There is a commonly held misconception that underlies the apparent tension between faith and obedience, namely the notion that salvation is not about works.  On the surface, this assertion would appear to be irrefutable; after all, our confidence before God is not predicated upon anything that we have done, but in the knowledge that we are “justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” (Romans 3:24, NIV)  Salvation is an utterly gracious gift from God precisely because it cannot be earned:

For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.
Ephesians 2:8-9

These truths notwithstanding, our status as a child of God is nevertheless completely based upon works; moreover, that’s actually the “Bad News” that makes the “Good News” so glorious!  Because in the final analysis, we are given the choice to stand before God on the basis of our own works – the good, the bad, and the ugly – or those of Someone else.  The problem which is common to both “Jew” and “Greek,” of course, is that we have all fallen short of the mark.  Indeed, since perfection is the standard by which our works are measured, all it takes is one transgression to make us unacceptable to God…regardless of how much “good” we may have done.

Now we know that whatever the Law says, it speaks to those who are under the Law, so that every mouth may be closed and all the world may become accountable to God; because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin.

But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith.
Romans 3:19-25

Thus when Paul says that “by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight,” it’s not that there is no correlation between justification and works per se; rather, his point is that our works are inherently incapable of saving us since we all have disobedience on our accounts: we have all sinned and therefore fall short of the glory of God.  The one exception is Jesus Christ, and only by putting our hope for justification in what He has done – putting our faith in Christ – can we one day stand before God and receive the gracious pardon, the gift, that none of us deserve.  In other words, being saved by faith means trusting in the promise of God to forgive us on the basis of what Christ has done, rather than relying upon our own merits. 

Furthermore, it is faith in God’s promise to forgive us of our sins that has always been the basis of salvation, even under the Old Covenant.  Let me say that again: David was saved by faith.  So too was Noah, Daniel, Isaiah…  After all, doesn’t Scripture say that “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness”?  The difference is that whereas our faith has a name and looks backward to what Jesus Christ has accomplished, theirs looked forward to the One whom God had promised would one day defeat the Serpent. 

That being the case, the animal sacrifices which God required under the Old Covenant did not somehow earn His grace and His mercy; rather, they served as visible expressions of faith in the promises of God.  They were acts of obedience which pointed forward to Christ’s eventual sacrifice, even as they reflected an inner belief that God would have mercy upon the one who offered them:

The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. Otherwise, would they not have stopped being offered? For the worshipers would have been cleansed once for all, and would no longer have felt guilty for their sins. But those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins. It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.
Hebrews 10:1-4

In other words, the reason that God was pleased had nothing to do with the sacrifice itself – something even David understood:

You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
Psalm 51:16-17

So in light of all of this, where does our obedience come into play?  Not surprisingly, Paul answers that question as well:

For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.
Ephesians 2:8-10

Read that passage again so that you don’t miss what Paul is saying.  Quite simply, while our salvation is not “a result of works,” it is nonetheless what motivates us to “walk in good works” once we are in Christ…once we have become a child of God.  Our works, our striving to do God’s will, flow from the gratitude and love that we feel for our adoptive Father who has made it possible to be counted as His child through what Christ has done.  Look again at Paul’s letter to the Philippians, where he urges us not to try and earn our salvation, but rather to respond in obedience to God because of our standing in Christ:

So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.  Do all things without complaining or arguments; so that you will prove yourselves to be blameless and innocent, children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you appear as lights in the world.
Philippians 2:12-15

Sadly, Ephesians 2:10 is the dynamic that is missing throughout much of modern-day Christianity, in particular the American Church.  We are so caught up in being “saved by faith” that we fail to realize what that means in practical terms.  Once again, though, any confusion stems from our own inattention to the Word of God and a corresponding lack of clarity from our pulpits:

But someone may well say, “You have faith and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder.

But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar? You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected; and the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” and he was called the friend of God. You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.

In the same way, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.
James 2:18-26

Being a “child of God” thus has little to do with being “religious.”  It’s about submitting to God in all things, following wherever He leads, and doing whatever He asks.  It’s about a life of devoted service – not grudging compliance – and the sincerity of our faith is seen through our readiness to put others first, to forsake the familiar in favor of the unknown, and to leave behind the comfortable on the basis of God’s promise.  Hence “believing in God” is of no value unless that belief translates to a changed heart and life; moreover, being a “child of God” is about believing your heavenly Father and then acting on the strength of that belief.  For it is through our willingness to trust and obey that we put our faith into practice:

So Abram left, as the LORD had told him.
Genesis 12:4

They immediately left their nets and followed Him.
Mark 1:18 (NKJV)

But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ.
Philippians 3:7

In short, saving faith is belief in action, whereas belief without action clearly exhibits a lack of faith.  And this is why James refers to Abraham, who demonstrated the authenticity of his faith by doing whatever God asked of him: his obedience validated his spoken belief.  For as James reminded us, faith without works is just talk…and talking does not honor God:

These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is made up only of rules taught by men.
Isaiah 29:13

Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and truth.
1 John 3:18

Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children; and walk in love, just as Christ also loved you and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma.
Ephesians 5:1-2

Just to be clear, it’s not that our acts of obedience do anything to improve our standing with God; rather, our actions give testimony to the Spirit that is at work within our hearts.  That spirit is worldly and selfish by default, but for those who have been born again and are indwelt by the Holy Spirit, they will produce fruit that is in keeping with the Kingdom of God.  So while our works are incapable of earning us salvation, they are nevertheless the hallmark and evidence of our faith:

For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. But whoever does not have them is nearsighted and blind, forgetting that they have been cleansed from their past sins.

Therefore, my brothers and sisters, make every effort to confirm your calling and election. For if you do these things, you will never stumble, and you will receive a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
2 Peter 1:5-11

As God’s child, then, how can we discern what our Heavenly Father expects?  How do we know if our lives are pleasing to Him, or not?  The primary way that God communicates His will for us is through His written Word, which not only reveals our Father’s character but also shows us the way of righteousness versus that of evil.  It is the standard that gives us the principles by which we are supposed to live, but as the Pharisees recognized, sometimes principles can be difficult to apply in practice.  Thus His will for us is not always clear.

Fortunately, though, God has not left us without an Interpreter.  We have been given a Helper to assist us as we strive to please and honor our heavenly Father, which brings us to the next part of God’s tri-partite designation: The Holy Spirit.

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