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How do we Become "Children of God"?

How do we Become "Children of God"?

By The Venerable Christopher Brown, PhD.
December 19, 2016

"All God's Chillun' Got Rhythm"

One of the iconic comedy films from my childhood -- though it obviously predates my childhood -- was the Marx Brothers' "A Day at the Races," of 1937. Towards the end, the Marx brothers wander through the local African American shantytown when Harpo Marx hears a jazz group playing and is entranced. He begins to play a small flute, and attracts a group of black children. Before long he is leading a crowd of children, animals, musicians, local residents through the neighborhood. They end up in a barn or large shed, where a local woman (played by Ellington Band singer, Ivie Anderson) sings the old jazz standard, "All God's Chillun' Got Rhythm," joined by the crowd and local musicians.

The portrait of black people in the scene is patronizing at best. It reflects the racism of the time, especially when Groucho, Chico and Harper smear tar on their faces to blend in with the crowd. The film presents black people as childlike -- but also as vibrant and expressive. Their attraction to the enigmatic Harpo -- and his evident affinity with them -- is an expression of the innocence and creative primitivism of his character.

Despite racist overtones, the scene has an exuberant and celebratory quality, and the singing of "All God's Chillun' Got Rhythm" at its climax is a good-natured affirmation of all humanity that offsets the portrait of fools and swindlers that populate the rest of the film. The message is that all people -- perhaps even all creatures -- are God's children.

But are all people really God's children? Certainly, God made us all -- and he takes delight in his workmanship. But when the Bible speaks of "children of God," it means something quite specific that is not merely an all-embracing affirmation of humanity.

Beginning with Jesus

To grasp the New Testament notion of "children of God" we start with Jesus Christ. The opening verse of the Gospel of Mark proclaims, "The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God." This identification of Jesus as God's son takes on a narrative concreteness in the opening scene in which Jesus is baptized, and a voice from heaven declares, "You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased."

Properly speaking, there is one actual child of God -- Jesus, his beloved son, whom the Bible refers to as the "only begotten." (John 1:18, 3:16, 18, Hebrews 11:17). Through all four gospels, Jesus scandalously claims the Holy God of Israel as his father. He speaks to God with the intimate familiarity of a first century Jewish child calling on his father -- as "Abba, Father." (Mark 14).

The sonship of Jesus does not begin at his baptism, nor is it limited to the period of his historical incarnation. It is rooted in what theologians call the "pre-existence" of Christ. Jesus alludes to his preexistence in a confrontation with his opponents, when they chide him, "You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?" and he responds, "Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am." (John 8:57-58)

As the eternal Word who "became flesh and dwelt among us," his sonship is eternal. When Jesus speaks of his unique intimacy with the Father -- "No one has ever seen God; the only begotten Son, who is in the bosom the Father, he has made him known" (John 1:18 RSV) -- he alludes to an eternal embrace of Father and Son, in the bond of the Spirit.

The baptism of Jesus, in which the Spirit comes upon the Son, and Father claims him as his own, initiates Jesus' messianic vocation. Perhaps it was even a turning point within Jesus' own self-understanding. But it did not inaugurate a new state of affairs; it was merely an outward demonstration, within time and space, of the eternal Trinitarian relationship of Father, Son and Spirit.

The baptism that Jesus receives is the baptism that he bestows

John the Baptist speaks of the superiority of the one who is to come: "I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit." Neither John, nor the narrator, Mark, explains what it means to be "baptized with the Holy Spirit." In Acts 1:5, Jesus uses the phrase to speak of the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost. But Mark points to another aspect of Spirit baptism in the fact that Jesus' own baptism, with its conspicuous descent of the Spirit, immediately follows John's announcement. The point is clear: Jesus' baptism is the paradigm -- it is "example A" -- of "Baptism with the Spirit." This leads to a startling and axiomatic conclusion, THE BAPTISM THAT JESUS RECEIVES IS THE BAPTISM THAT JESUS BESTOWS.

Baptism is not merely a "washing away of sins" (Acts 22:15). The Apostle Paul says, "as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ" (Galatians 3:27). By baptism we are joined to Jesus so that we share in a key aspect of his identity. At baptism, we too receive the Spirit, and the Father claims us as his own. He says to each of us "you are my beloved son -- my beloved daughter," which for us is very much the inauguration of new state of affairs, since none of us were "in the beginning with God" as his eternal Word. Nevertheless, we are invited into the same quality of intimacy, and the same status, as God's eternal Son -- we become His children.

"Adoption as Sons"

In the ancient world there was a legal procedure by which a person born of one set of parents came to be the child of other parents -- adoption. Julius Caesar adopted his nephew, Octavian, who became the great emperor, Augustus. In my own parish, families have adopted children. These children do not share the same DNA as their adoptive parents, but they have the same legal status, and are cherished with same quality of intimacy and belonging as any other child.

In the same way we have been adopted into the same status and the same degree of intimacy with the Father that the Son has enjoyed through all eternity. The key Biblical passage is Galatians 4:4. "God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons." (RSV)

English editions of the New Testament typically capitalize "Son" as the one whom God has sent. In the reference to "adoption as sons," however, "sons" is not capitalized. This seems to imply that the sense in which we become sons by adoption has little to do with the sonship of Jesus. Paul's point is just the reverse. After all, Paul (or his scribe) wrote entirely in capital letters. (Lower case letters had yet to be invented.) The message is that God has sent his Son that he might gather in more sons -- those who share in the sonship of Jesus.

Paul reinforces this point when he says, "because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, 'Abba! Father!'" (Galatians 4:6) To say that the Spirit of Jesus is sent into our hearts means that we actually share in the inner reality of his relationship with the Father.

Begotten Not Made

Weekly we affirm in the Creed that Jesus was "begotten not made." In this respect, I often think of a well-established artist I once knew in New York named Paul Wesselmann. Paul made a name for himself in the "Pop Art" era of the 1960's for a series of over-sized tableaus made up of cast metal shapes and bright enamel covers called the "The Great American Nude." Paul poured himself into his work, which reflects something of who he was as a person. He was protective of his fruits of his creative work and was entangled in legal proceedings with a former partner over the ownership of his paintings. Paul had a deep connection to his art -- to that which he had "made."

Paul Wesselmann also had three children. They were intensely creative like their father. They displayed his physical features, and echoed his physical movements and vocal quirks. Just like Paul's art, his children reflected something of who he is. As with his art, Paul was deeply invested in his children. And yet Paul's relationship with his children -- whom he has "begotten" -- was infinitely more significant that his relationship with his art -- which he had "made."

The Son of God has been "begotten" from the Father, he is the "exact imprint of his nature" (Hebrews 1:3). By contrast, we have been "made." We are God's workmanship, we bear God's image, and God is deeply invested in us. It is no small thing to be God's workmanship, but to be "begotten" is something else entirely. But those who are baptized and adopted into Christ undergo a change in status from that which is "made" to that of the only begotten Son!

Born From Above

The Gospel of John also speaks about how we become Children of God, but there is not a word about adoption. Instead, John speaks of the new birth that is given to those who receive Jesus Christ. "To all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God." (John 1:12-13)

This verse relates to Jesus' admonition to Nicodemus in chapter 3, that "unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God." The Greek term for "born again" also means "born from above." It refers to the source of this new birth -- "not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God." Moreover, this is a birth "of water and the Spirit" -- takes place in baptism.

John uses the language of new birth to say what Paul says when he speaks of adoption -- that baptism makes us Children of God, and allows us to share in Jesus' intimacy with the Father. We are Children of God, not through birth, but rebirth; not in our creation, through our re-creation when we are incorporated into Christ. Apostle Paul says, "if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come" (2 Corinthians 5:17).

So no, each human being on the planet is not a "child of God" as the Bible understands it. We become children of God through Grace. Inherent in every human being, however, is the potential to become a child of God, and to share in the divine movement of love and intimacy at the heart of the Trinitarian relationship of Father, Son and Spirit. This is why Jesus has commissioned us to "go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation" (Mark 16:15).

The Rev. Dr. Christopher Brown is the rector of Trinity Church in Potsdam, NY in the diocese of Albany. He also Dean of the St. Lawrence Deanery, and Archdeacon and Canon Theologian of the Diocese of Albany.

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