John Newton, author of the beloved hymn Amazing Grace, was an only child who lost his mother when he was seven. At the age of eleven, he went to sea as a sailor and became involved in the inhuman African slave trade. He was soon hardened by his surroundings. He outdid his companions in immorality, vulgarity and blasphemy against God. When twenty-three, his ship was caught in a severe storm. When he thought his life was in danger, he cried out to God for mercy. He was marvelously saved. Not wanting to ever forget the grace of God who saved him from the depths of his sin, he penned the words to that beloved song. He later inscribed the words of Deuteronomy 15:15 above his mantel: “And you shall remember that you were a bondman in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God redeemed you.”
I often wonder if we truly realize our position in Christ as his children. The Bible says we are sons and daughters of God. Because of this, there are certain responsibilities we have. Just as there are certain responsibilities children have in their normal family, so there are in the spiritual family. Just as others can assess what kind of family we come from by our actions and behavior, so they should be able to tell something about our spiritual family as well. Just as good moral and ethical behavior can point others to good parents, so our spiritual actions should draw others to our heavenly father. It is indeed the highest privilege to be called sons and daughters of God, and at the same time it places the utmost of responsibility upon us.
In the ancient world, the division between childhood and adult was more definitive than in most societies today. There was usually a prescribed age when a boy would enter adulthood. A ceremony usually accompanied this period. It was the time when the boy would come of age and thereby take on the responsibilities and privileges of adulthood.
In the Jewish culture, a boy was under his father's control until the age of twelve. At the bar mitzvah ceremony, the father would pray; “Blessed be thou O God who hath taken from me the responsibility of this boy,” and the boy would pray; “O my God and God of my father, on this solemn and sacred day which marks my passage from boyhood to manhood, I humbly raise my eyes unto Thee and declare with sincerity and truth that henceforth I will keep Thy commandments and undertake to bear the responsibility of my actions toward Thee.”
In the culture of Greece, a boy was under the father's control until about age eighteen. Then a festival was held in which the boy was declared a type of cadet. He then undertook special responsibilities to his clan or city state for a period of two years. During this ceremony, his long hair was cut and offered to the god Apollo.
In the Roman culture, the boys would take their toys and offer them in sacrifice to the gods as a symbol of putting childhood behind them.
Paul compares the child to a slave. As long as the child was such, he lived in conditions not much different from the slave. He was an heir by legal right but not an heir in fact. He was under the authority of slaves established by his father. They acted as his guardians. They did this until he was grown. But at the date set by the father, the child's status changed dramatically. Now he was an heir in fact.
When we come to faith in Christ, we become sons and daughters of his with all the ensuing responsibilities. A part of this usually involves baptism and church membership. When we enter this covenant with him, we too take on certain responsibilities.
I. THE SOURCE OF OUR SONSHIP
The source of our sonship is the true Son himself, Jesus Christ. Just as the human father established the time when his son would come of age, so God set the time when he would send his Son. Paul says it was in the fullness of time. The work of Jesus provided the guarantee that believers would become joint heirs with him. Many lived before this time trusting by faith in God but never received the fullness of God's promise for Christ did not come. But in the fullness of time, God sent him.
The fullness of time refers to a period of completion in God's timetable. We can see how the world was made ready for his appearance. God gave the law to show people how utterly helpless they were to live up to God's standards. This accomplished its purpose. The time was right religiously for God to send Jesus. The Israelites had spent seventy years in Babylonian captivity. After hundreds of years of rebelling against God, this seemed to teach them a lesson. They put away their other gods and forsook idolatry. The time was right culturally. Alexander the Great's escapades spread the Greek language throughout the known world. This would give a common language to Christians as they spread the gospel message during the first centuries. There was also economic and political stability. The Romans provided this. They built a magnificent system of roads that would allow the early Christians to travel on.
In all of these ways, the time was right for God to send his Son. When he came, Jesus willingly submitted himself to the Father, just as the earthly son does his father. He was born of a woman. This alludes to his complete humanity. He was not some freak born in another way that could not identify with humans. Yet he was fully God at the same time. This is one of the great mysteries of the Christian faith. Had he not been fully God, he could not be the Savior of the world. He had to be fully God for his sacrifice to be able to atone for the sins of humanity. He also had to be fully human that he might identify with us.
He was born under the Law to redeem those under the law. He came to do for us what we could not do for ourselves. We could not ever hope to perfectly live up to God's standards, so we needed someone to do it in our behalf. Jesus did that. He satisfied the requirements of the Law through his perfect obedience to God's Law. Because of that, he has the ability to redeem all those who will place their faith and trust in him.
When we place our faith in him, he adopts us as sons and daughters. The word refers to a man giving the status of sonship to someone who is not his natural child. We are not naturally children of God but can become them through faith in him. Jesus is the source of our sonship.
II. THE CONFIRMATION
God confirms our relationship with him by sending his Spirit to reside in our life. Not only does he tell us we are his son, but he confirms it through his abiding Spirit. This is something a human father cannot do. A human father can give an adopted child all the things he might give his natural child with one exception: he cannot give him his nature. This is passed genetically. But God gives us a part of his nature when he gives us his Spirit. God's implanting a part of his nature in us confirms us as his children.
In writing to the Romans, Paul says; “For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God. For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, Abba! Father! The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.” (Romans 8:14)
Abba is a diminutive of the Aramaic word for father. It is a term of endearment used by young children. It can be translated “daddy” or “papa.” What this means is that the Spirit brings us into a very personal relationship with God. We can come to him with boldness and confidence knowing that he hears and is concerned about our every need.
III. THE CONSUMMATION
This comes in the promise of a joint inheritance. Because of our relationship with God, and because we become heirs of his, we are entitled and will inherit the estate of our heavenly Father. It is wonderful to know that everything that belongs to our heavenly Father also belongs to us. We own everything because of our relationship with him. There are no poor people in God's kingdom. They may be poor in this world's terms, but they are rich beyond measure spiritually speaking.
IV. THE OBLIGATION
While the gift of sonship is free, there are serious obligations that go with it. Great blessings are always accompanied by great responsibility. Paul reminds his readers that before they came to Christ their religion was one of works. They tried in their own strength to live up to God's requirements. It was a futile endeavor. From that state, Paul introduced them to the gospel message of grace, which they accepted. He now finds it bewildering that they are turning back to what never worked in the first place. He could not understand why they wanted enslavement again.
Our obligation as a child of God is to live as a child of God. We must be holy even as he is. Our words and actions must be commendable before him. We must let others see him in us. We must serve others in his name. God adopts us as sons and daughters but expects us to reflect that relationship in turn.
John Wesley was an ordained clergyman in the Church of England, an honor graduate of Oxford and very orthodox in his theology. He was very active in practical good works. He regularly visited prisons and workhouses. He gave food to slum children and orphans. He studied the Bible diligently. He generously gave of his offerings. He prayed, fasted and lived an exemplary life. He spent several years as a missionary to American Indians in the British colony of Georgia. Yet when he returned from England, he confessed in his journal; “I who went to America to convert others was never myself converted to God. I had even then the faith of a servant, though not that of a son.”
What a wonderful opportunity to be an adopted child of God. Through faith in him, we can enter his family with all the privileges that come with it. Let us never forget the responsibilities that are a part of this blessed position.