Chapter 3 - The Honour of His Name - Who are sons of God?

Chapter 3 - The Honour of His Name

ARE we then to maintain, as the preceding chapters would suggest, that a Christian is one who believes in the Lord Jesus Christ? A most startling conclusion this, for it outrages "the spirit of the age"; and at a single stroke it puts outside the pale, not only the mass of those "who profess and call themselves Christians," but also a very large and daily increasing minority of the occupants of professedly Christian pulpits. For mark the words, "who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ": not "the historic Jesus," the Buddha of nineteen centuries ago, but our living Lord, who died for our sins, and now reigns in heaven, and is coming again in glory.
It is important, Professor Harnack writes in one of his best-known works, to "remind mankind that a man of the name of Jesus Christ once stood in their midst." But this is an anachronism. For the blind and stupid infidelity which refused belief in "the historic Jesus" belonged to a less enlightened age than ours. Today, the infidel appeals, quite as confidently as the Christian, to the lesson of that matchless life.
The Lord Jesus declared with great solemnity that all who believed in Him had everlasting life. When He spoke these words, standing as a man in the midst of men, He was not trying to convince His hearers that He was not a phantom or a "ghost"! His purpose was to teach that lie was the Son of God, the Messiah, "of whom Moses in the law, and the prophets, did write." Among those who participated in the awful crime of Calvary, there were some who, like Nicodemus, believed in Him as "a teacher come from God." But they crucified Him for blasphemy because, being a man, He claimed to be the Christ, the Son of God. And His disciples' acceptance of this claim betokened a God-given faith. Therefore it was that Peter's confession drew from Him the words, "flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but My Father which is in heaven." And this explains the statements of the Apostle John: "Whosoever believeth that Jesus is the Christ, is born of God." "Who is he that overcometh the world, but he that believeth that Jesus is the Son of God?"
But all this, I repeat, offends "the spirit of the age." To say that divine grace is needed to enable us to believe, is an insult to the dignity of human nature! And are we not all the Sons of God? Folly characterises every heresy. Poetic license warrants our describing ourselves as children of Adam, for we are his remote descendants. But, save in a purely figurative acceptation of the word, not even Adam was God's son. He was his creature. And the race has sprung, not from the Adam of Eden innocence, but from Adam the fallen outcast. What sense is there, then, in pretending that this constitutes us children of God?
But did not the Apostle tell the pagans of Athens that they were children of God? No, most certainly not. To wean them from their idolatry, he quoted the words of their own poets in hymns written in praise of Jupiter, "For we are his offspring" his genos. And the question is not what a biased mind can read into this, but what the speaker meant, and the hearers understood by it. Did any one of them imagine that he was Jupiter's child? And if the Apostle's object was to teach them that they were children of the God who made heaven and earth, would he have based the teaching on a pagan hymn to a heathen deity? His appeal to their own classic literature was in order to shame them into acknowledging that God had nothing in common with their lifeless idols, "graven by art and man's device." His argument would have been as valid had he pointed them to the lower creation. The God whose creatures have life must be a living God.
Each one of us is the child of the parent who begat him, and he cannot be the child of any one else. And the believer in the Lord Jesus Christ is a child of God because he has been begotten of God, "For as many as received Him, to them gave He the right to become children of God." Who were begotten of God, the verse which follows adds. The Christian is a twice-born being. He is born of the flesh as a child of his natural father, and he is born of the Spirit as a child of God. And Scripture is explicit and emphatic that these births are altogether distinct. As the Lord Himself declared, "That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit." "Ye are of your father the devil" were His awful words to the Jews who were compassing His death. And if any one pretends that even this is not conclusive, we may point him to the statement that "they who are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God." Could language more definitely veto the delusion that men are children of God by nature? The bearing of this upon the main subject of these pages will be apparent to the thoughtful. We begin by so lowering the relationship of "child of God" that it ceases to have any meaning. And then by taking "sons of God" as merely a synonym for "children of God," we are betrayed into accepting the "brotherhood of Jesus" cult. And thus we supply the infidel with a colourable pretext for dragging down the Lord of Glory to the level of our common humanity - a blasphemy that reaches its climax in the statement, - "Jesus was God, but so are we."
In infinite grace the Son of God is "not ashamed" to call us brethren. But the "us" is not the race of Adam, but "they who are sanctified" - and the response of every heart that grace has won is to call Him Lord. We have the same Father and the same God; but in the very words by which He teaches the nearness of the relationship, He forbids the inference which the unspiritual would draw from it. "Go" - He said -"to My brethren, and say unto them, I ascend (not "unto our Father and God," but) unto My Father and your Father, and My God and your God."
In English the word "son" means no more than "male child": and of course it is sometimes used in this sense in the New Testament; as for example when we read that James and John were sons of Zebedee. But in Scripture, as with orientals generally, it has a far deeper significance; as for example when the Lord surnamed James and John "the sons of thunder." So again Joses was renamed "a son of consolation," and the unconverted are called "sons of disobedience." In these and numberless other passages the word connotes character and nature, without any thought whatever of "begetting."
But our translators have ignored the distinction between "son" and "child," and in the various passages where these words occur a reference to the Greek, or even to our Revised Version, will prove both interesting and instructive. It will lead, for example, to the somewhat startling discovery that, in Scripture, Christians as such are never called sons of God. "To as many as received Him, to them He gave power to become children of God;" but "as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God." But, as every Christian knows, the Sonship of the Lord Jesus Christ is altogether unique, being essential and eternal. The rendering of John iii. 16 and kindred passages, in both our English Versions, suggests a double error. It implicitly denies the truth that every believer is begotten of God; and it implicitly asserts the error that the Sonship of Christ depends upon an act of "begetting." If that were so the Son must have had a beginning in time; and therefore, not being eternal, He could have no claim to Deity. This was the argument of Anus, and the logic of it is inexorable.
But while the Greek word here employed (monogenes) has its etymological counterpart in "only-begotten," that is not its meaning. In five of its nine occurrences in the New Testament it is used of Christ. In three it means an only child (Luke vii. 12; viii. 42; ix. 38). And in the ninth (Heb. xi. 17) it is used of Isaac. Isaac was not an only-begotten son, but he was his father's darling. And it is noteworthy that this word "darling" is used of Christ by our translators in Psalms xxii. 20 and xxxv. 17, where in the Greek Bible monogenes represents a Hebrew term of endearment. In six of the twelve occurrences of that word in the Hebrew Bible, the Greek Version reads "Beloved" - the very word by which the Lord Jesus was hailed from heaven at His baptism, and again on the Holy Mount. And in these passages, "only" is our translators' rendering of it.
It is a fact of vital moment that the word "begotten" is never used of the Lord save in relation to the Resurrection. Neither His title of Son of God, nor yet His title of Son of Man, depends upon the Virgin birth. Just as by "Son of Man" He claimed to be man in the highest and most absolute sense, so by "Son of God" He laid claim to Deity. This was the meaning given to it by those who heard His teaching. His disciples understood it thus, and they worshipped Him as Divine. And those who refused to believe in Him understood it thus, and they crucified Him as a blasphemer.
Note - The above paragraphs are based upon the chapter of The Lord from Heaven (Nisbet) in which this whole subject is discussed in its various aspects, and the Scriptures relating to it are cited and considered, including the passages in which the word "firstborn" is used of Christ.