Daytime TV loves the drama. Is this kid yours? They bring the man up on stage to confront the mother and accusations start flying. No, the kid isn’t mine! Yes, the kid is yours!
The apostle John writes, “See how much the Father loves us, we are called children of God!” (1 John 3:1).
The term “child of God” gets thrown around in religious circles and pop culture. Is it a general term for all people or only a few? Is there a test? What does it mean to be called children of God?
The exploration of these questions is life-changing for us, too.
What Does ‘Called Children of God’ Mean?
God is creating a new family of people, beginning with Jesus and then those that follow him.
There are three ways to become a part of a family. One is by marriage. Scripture uses this analogy to give a hint of the relationship between Christ and the Church, notably Paul’s writing in Ephesians speaking of the mystery of marriage and Christ and the Church (Ephesians 5:27).
We will focus on the other two, the methods by which we become children in a family. We are born or adopted.
I was born many years ago to Greg and Kathy Mooney in a coal mining town in West Virginia. Those are my biological parents. Besides signing a paper certificate, they didn’t have to do anything else to take me home. I carry a combination of their DNA and look like them. I inherited their name. Looking at certain pictures, my parents couldn’t deny me if they wanted to (they don’t).
The second way to be a child is to be adopted. This is a different process. It’s very legal. A family makes a conscious choice to bring an orphan of some type, a child without a family, into their own, usually at great cost, and it often takes a great deal of time.
My wife and I took a Korean child from overseas back with us one summer. The orphanage helped us with the price of our plane ticket for transporting this baby over the 14-hour flight to the adoptive parents in Chicago. Those parents met us at the airport, and we handed off the baby.
The couple wept in joy.
As children of God, amazingly, we are both born and adopted. It seems illogical, and yet this is the love of our Father. Why does the Bible describe it as both?
Who are the Children of God according to the Bible?
At this point, we must establish that not every person is a child of God. All human beings are created by God in his image and loved so much for Jesus to die for them. That is extravagant love.
But until we repent and follow Him, we are creations. Not children. The Gospel of John declares that we have the right to becomechildren of God, something we aren’t at first (John 1:12). Back 1 John 3, he describes God’s love in that we are now his children. At one point, we weren’t.
In Christ, however, we can be. In our corrupt, sinful state, we were spiritually dead (Ephesians 2:1), and eternal death awaited. Upon repentance, we are “translated” from death to life (Colossians 1:13).
We are born and adopted to become children of God.This is our single and revolutionary new identity.
Nicodemus, a teacher of the Jewish law, approaches Jesus in the middle of the night and begins a discussion, asking Jesus questions (John 3). Jesus cuts to the point. “You have to be born again.” To see the Kingdom, to enter the Kingdom, to have anything to do with God, you must be born all over again. It is a necessity.
The teacher of the law misunderstands. Badly. “How can I get back in my mother’s womb?”
This frustrates Jesus. “How can you be a teacher of Israel and not know these things?” What things? Well, the New Covenant is explained in Jeremiah 31:31-34 and Ezekiel 36:24-28, both times including the need for a completely new heart. The heart is the problem. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught that it’s not what people eat that makes them unclean. We’re already unclean on the inside and sin comes from there (Mark 7:18-23).
A better law won’t do it. More laws won’t fix it. The heart must be radically changed. We must be born again to live for God at all. Born of God. Born of the Spirit. Born from Heaven.
That’s not all Scripture says, though. Paul details how we are adopted (Ephesians 1:5). We once belonged to death, to the Devil (John 8:44-45). God broke that power over us through his death and ours.
Why was adoption such an important concept to Paul? First, no one is adopted by accident. I have three kids, and one was planned. Sort of. Two were not. Not accidents, but not planned. Not necessarily chosen. Blessings, but not by our choice.
No one adopts by accident. It takes choice, great cost, commitment, and intention. One family in our church adopted their grandson after their daughter died tragically. The legal battle took a year.
God chose us. Before we knew anything about him, before we had any inkling that he existed or that we needed him or that there was a problem, God chose us (Ephesians 1:4). He sent his Son for us. He loves us with intention, with planning, with purpose.
Second, in Paul’s day, a natural-born child could lose their inheritance. An adopted child could not. Adoption was a more secure legal position in a family than being born into it.
There are three ways to be a part of a family—marriage, born, adopted—and the Bible declares not one but all three over us! How secure is that? Pretty secure. Pretty loved.
Those are the tests. We can open that envelope and see the secret. We are his Bride. We are his sons and daughters by adoption and birth. All three are the testimony of the Trinity and the new family we are a part of.
What Are the Characteristics of Those Called Children of God?
Followers of Jesus were first called “Christians” in Antioch (Acts 11:20-21), most of them Gentiles by the way. Christian means “little Christ,” or “little anointed one,” and it was initially a way to make fun of these strange, new people that were once not a people. They acted so much like Jesus that the non-believers in the city called them “little Christs.”
The main characteristic of being a child of God, born and adopted, is that we begin to live as Christ on the Earth. Paul writes in Galatians that he lives but it is actually Christ living through him (Galatians 2:20).
We live as Christ by our new nature in the Spirit, but like an adopted kid, we must also learn the new family culture. We might call that discipleship.
As children, we are disciplined. God loves those he corrects and teaches (Hebrews 12:6). My kids hate being corrected. No one loves it. But God would have to hate us to leave us to our own devices and weaknesses since those lead to destruction. He is a good Father and the perfect teacher.
In all three ways of being in a family,we either take a name or are given one. As explained above, we take on the name of God even in the term “Christian.” We are also given a name when reborn. Many characters from the Old and New Testaments were given a new name by Father God when they began living by faith, from Abraham to Peter. He calls us by name, a name he has given us, and reflects that he is our Father. Often, we get a name unknown to us (Revelation 2:17).
If we are children,then we are heirs (Romans 8:17). Our dad is the King, the Master of the House, and Scripture makes no secret of the reality that we will inherit the Kingdom of God with the Son, as children of God. To be clear, that doesn’t mean we will simply “go to Heaven.” The Bible says we will reign with him (2 Timothy 2:12), rule over angels (1 Corinthians 6:3), and more. The Father’s discipleship of us in this life is for ministry in this life and ruling in the Kingdom in the next one. We’ll be busy hanging with Dad there.
Why Is This Such a Radical Concept?
What a complete love. God has left nothing out. His compassion, his mercy, and his abundance have all been poured over us to an unimaginable degree. It is a radical thing. So radical that a teacher of the law in Israel couldn’t wrap his head around it.
There is a part of us that was never created, a part that has never sinned and never will. The same Spirit that spoke “let there be light” and parted the Red Sea and raised Jesus from the dead (Romans 6:10-11), that same creative power lives within us through the indwelling Holy Spirit.
The term “father” in Scripture holds another connotation—source. God has literally changed our source, from death to life, from the Devil to God. There is nothing more radical than this. We are called New Creations. C.S. Lewis explained that we are the next stage of evolution, not physical but spiritual. We are no longer human. We are Christ in the flesh. God in you; God in me; God in a people.
Our source was changed to something not created. And if it wasn’t created, it can’t be uncreated. The bishops writing the Apostle’s Creed fought over this. A teaching had crept into the Church that Jesus was created, not begotten. Begotten won because if Jesus was created, then he’s not eternal. But if begotten, he is the Son and still carries the eternal nature. Santa Claus (St. Nicholas) reportedly punched another bishop in the face because of this.
The King and the Kingdom of God are eternal and made of a spiritual material. We must be born of that eternal, spiritual material and then resurrected with that material to be in the Kingdom and inherit it. We must be born of the Spirit.
And we must be transformed by the renewing of our mind to these truths (Romans 12:2).
If we mess up, and we probably will, we remember that we were also adopted, chosen out of love, as secure as we can imagine. He is faithful and just to forgive all when we confess (1 John 1:9). Christ is in us, but the Bible also declares we are in Christ at the right hand of the Father (Colossians 3:1). His commitment to his adopted children is absolute. He receives us back again to purpose and joy and peace.
Once we are in his family through the Spirit, he stands against every accuser and proclaims, “This is my child!”
We’re still learning how to live in the Heavenly family and thank God he’s a patient teacher.
Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/Rawpixel
Britt Mooney (with his amazing wife, Becca) has lived as a missionary in Korea, traveled for missions to several countries, and now lives in Suwanee GA as a church planter that works bi-vocationally with Phoenix Roasters, a missional coffee company. He has a podcast about the Kingdom of God called Kingdom Over Coffeeand is a published author withSay Yes: How God-Sized Dreams Take Flight.
This article is part of our larger resource library of popular Bible verse phrases and quotes. We want to provide easy to read articles that answer your questions about the meaning, origin, and history of specific verses within Scripture's context. It is our hope that these will help you better understand the meaning and purpose of God's Word in relation to your life today.
- Do Unto Others
- The Truth Will Set You Free
- Guard Your Heart
- Love One Another
- Blessed Are the Meek
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