Tuesday, November 6, 2012

God's Only Son? Thoughts on Heidelberg Catechism Lord's Day 13 from Kevin DeYoung

Having explained the words from the Apostles’ Creed, “I believe in Jesus Christ,” we now turn to an explanation of “His only Son, our Lord.” Question 33 raises a question many of us have never considered. How can Jesus be God’s only Son if we too are called sons (and daughters)? The answer lies in the distinction between natural children and adoption.
Because of Adam’s sin, we are by nature children of wrath and sons of disobedience (Eph. 2:2–3). We are not born children of God as if it were our right as human beings. Rather, we must be made children of God by adoption. In the fullness of time, “God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Gal. 4:4–5).

J. I. Packer, author of the classic Knowing God, once summarized the gospel in just three words: “adoption through propitiation.” Now, it strikes me as close to cheating when your simple summary uses two big Latinate words that beg for further explanation, but I have to hand it to Packer; his definition is elegantly profound. The short and sweet of the gospel is this: The wrath of God has been turned away from sinners because of the death of Christ so that we might be reconciled to God and brought into His family.

The Sonship of Jesus Christ, then, is different from ours in that we became children of God, whereas Jesus Christ has always been God’s Son. Jesus was not made the Son of God at His incarnation as if some new title or identity was conferred upon Him. The Son of God was the Son of the Father even before creation (Heb. 1:2). His Sonship is eternal. Ours is not. That’s the difference. By nature, we are not God’s children, whereas Christ is by nature the Son of God.

But with all this talk of Jesus as the Son of God, we must not presume that God is a Father to the Son just as a man is a father to his son. There is, to put it theologically, no temporal filiation (i.e., begetting a son in time) in the Trinity. All of our sons became sons at their birth (technically at conception, I suppose), before which they did not exist. But the Son of God never came into being. He is Gods eternally begotten Son. There never was a time when He was not. The Father did not give life to Him in the sense that He created the Son or brought the Son from nonbeing to being.

Rather, the Father shares His essence with the Son and the life He has in Himself (John 5:26). So for us, being called children of God means we have been given new life and graciously welcomed into the family of our heavenly Father. But for Jesus to be called God’s only Son means that He shares equally in divinity, glory, and honor with the Father. Sometimes liberal theologians have argued that Jesus believed He was the Son of God in the same way that we are God’s children, but this was plainly not the case. Even the Jews understood that when Jesus declared His radical unity with the Father as His only Son, He was daring to make Himself not just a spiritual child of God but equal to God Himself (John 5:18).

Perhaps we can understand Trinitarian orthodoxy by seeing what it is not. Mormons believe Jesus Christ is “Heavenly Father’s Only Begotten Son in the flesh,”15 which sounds like orthodox Christianity. But elsewhere they explain that Jesus “was born, as were all spirit children of the Father. God was His Father, as He is of all the rest.”16 Jesus was the firstborn spirit child of God and the recipient of the divine birthright. Jesus, in Mormon theology, is divine, but it is only a derivative divinity. He is not the natural Son of God, nor is His Sonship eternally and ontologically different than ours. Rather He inherited powers of Godhood and divinity from His Father, including immortality. As one Mormon theologian puts it, “He is God the Second, the Redeemer.”17 This is positively not what the Catechism, nor the ecumenical creeds, nor the Scriptures mean when they call Jesus Christ “God’s only Son.”

DeYoung, K. (2010). The good news we almost forgot: Rediscovering the gospel in a 16th century catechism. Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers.