Great Texts of the Bible
The Love that Confers Sonship
Behold what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called children of God: and such we are.—1 John 3:1.
1. St. John writes this Epistle on the highest peak of the sunlit summits of God’s new revelation in Jesus Christ. The Epistle is full of brightness. Every sentence tingles, and pulses, and throbs with the joy of the daylight, and flashes back the glory in streaming brightness to heaven. “A new commandment write I unto you,” so the music flows on, “because the darkness is passing away, and the true light already shineth.” How John basks and revels in the sunlight! Light streams everywhere around him. “God is light.” “The light is shining.” “We walk in the light, even as he is in the light.” What has happened? The Dayspring has appeared from on high. The Sun of Righteousness has risen upon the world with healing in His beams. And then John sees the eternal light mirror itself on the clouded sky of this world in an arch of holy beauty, and his music grows soft and sweet as he sings, “God is love. Behold what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called children of God.”1 [Note: J. Thomas, Myrtle Street Pulpit, iii. 323.]
The Missionary Ziegenbalg tells us that in translating this text with the aid of a Hindu youth, the youth rendered it “that we should be allowed to kiss His feet.” When asked why he thus diverged from the text he said, “ ‘Children of God!’ that is too much—too high!” Such shrinking was excusable in heathen converts, to whom these truths came in a burst of light too dazzling for their weak eyes. It is not excusable in us. In us it involves nothing less than a denial of the faith which is the sole source of that holiness without which no man shall see the Lord.2 [Note: F. W. Farrar, Truths to Live By, 188.]
2. The Apostle uses the word “children,” not “sons” as in the Authorized Version. He would call attention, not as St. Paul, who uses “sons,” to the adoptive act, but to the antecedent, eternal, natural relation. God has freely given us His love, in order that our title may be children of God—and, in the true reading, he adds, “and such we are.” Children we now are, in recognized name, in real fact; what we shall be hereafter we know not; but that shall be manifested in due time; and when it is manifested, then, beloved, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. When we wake up after His likeness, we shall be satisfied with it. The image which we now bear shall become the perfect semblance. We shall be like clouds, cradled near the sun, dyed, bathed, transfused with its glowing beams; their lurid menace softened, their darkness palpitating with reflected splendour—their very substance transformed from gloom to whiteness, from whiteness to crimson, from crimson to gold, from gold to sunbeams—changed into the same image, from glory to glory.
Oh! how shall I, whose native sphere
Is dark, whose mind is dim,
Before the Ineffable appear,
And on my naked spirit bear
That uncreated beam?
There is a way for man to rise
To that sublime abode:
An offering and a sacrifice,
A Holy Spirit’s energies,
An Advocate with God.
These, these prepare us for the sight
Of Holiness above;
The sons of ignorance and night
May dwell in the Eternal Light!
Through the Eternal Love.1 [Note: Thomas Binney.]
The Wonder of the Father’s Love
1. God’s love is original and spontaneous. Love is that mysterious power by which we live in the lives of others, and are thus moved to benevolent and even self-sacrificing action on their behalf. Such love is, after all, one of the most universal things in humanity. But always natural human love is a flame that must be kindled and fed by some quality in its object. It finds its stimulus in physical instinct, in gratitude, in admiration, in mutual congeniality and liking. Always it is, in the first place, a passive emotion, determined and drawn forth by an external attraction. But the love of God is an ever-springing fountain. Its fires are self-kindled. It is love that shines forth in its purest splendour upon the unattractive, the unworthy, the repellent. Herein is love, in its purest essence and highest potency, not in our love to God, but in this, that God loved us. Hence follows the apparently paradoxical consequence, upon which the Epistle lays a unique emphasis, that our love to God is not even the most godlike manifestation of love in us. It is gratitude for His benefits, adoration of His perfections, our response to God’s love to us, but not its closest reproduction in kind. In this respect, indeed, God’s love to man and man’s love to God form the opposite poles, as it were, of the universe of love, the one self-created and owing nothing to its object, the other entirely dependent upon and owing everything to the infinite perfection of its object; the one the overarching sky, the other merely its reflection on the still surface of the lake. And it is, as the Epistle insists, not in our love to God, but in our Christian love to our fellow-men, that the Divine love is reproduced, with a relative perfection, in us.
In my old parish there was a little loch in the midst of the forest, and I was fond of visiting it. Its chief attraction for me was the multitude of wild birds which peopled its banks and islets; and once I observed a novelty. I had been accustomed to see there all manner of familiar water-fowl—coot, ducks, swans; but that evening I noticed others such as I had never seen before—birds of brilliant plumage, crimson, blue, and glossy green. And I recognized them as strangers from another clime than ours, from some far-off land where the air is warmer and the sun shines brighter and paints everything in gaudier hues. I said: “These are no natives: they are foreign birds”; and I learned by and by that they had been imported from Africa.
And this is precisely the thought in the Apostle’s mind. “That love,” he says, “the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord, is a love which never sprang from earth’s cold soil. It is from some far-off region; it is from Heaven itself. Behold what unearthly love the Father hath bestowed upon us!”1 [Note: D. Smith, Man’s Need of God, 139.]
2. In the Apostle’s eulogy of love we find his memories of Jesus crystallized. To St. John the love of God was something more than wonderful. He was now a hoary-headed saint. He had laid his head in his youth on Jesus’ bosom, and was beginning to realize the love of God in Christ even then. Even then, as he looked up into those human eyes, the reality of God’s love had flowed into his consciousness. But there was more to be known than he knew at the supper table. As he stood by the cross, it may be that in those moments, when faith triumphed, the love of God became still more a reality. As he gathered with that little chosen band round the Person of the risen Lord, and saw that Face radiant with resurrection glory, the love of God was already a stronger power within his being. As the mighty Spirit at Pentecost came down and shook the house, and filled their hearts, and as he himself, as one of the first missionaries, went forth to tell the glad tidings of great joy, the love of God had already begun to be a stronger power within him still. Now, his head is hoary, the winter of age has gathered round him, life is fast receding, the world is disappearing, and eternity is drawing near. But it would seem that in each fresh step of his human career he had attained a fresh revelation of this Divine object, and now, in his last days, he calls upon all the world to gaze upon it, as if it were the most attractive of all spectacles. “Behold,” he says, as though he would fain draw aside the curtain of unbelief, and reveal to man that which man most requires to know,—“Behold what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us.”
The phrase which the Apostle employs is remarkable—“love the Father hath given to us.” Not the love the Father hath felt, or manifested toward us, but the love He hath given to us. It reminds us of another remarkable passage in the Gospel of this same Apostle. “God so loved the world that he gave—He gave—his only begotten Son.” As John began writing this sentence, “Behold what manner of love,” it would seem that the love gathered shape and form before his mind, embodied itself in the form of the incarnate Son. It refused to remain an abstract conception, a mere principle. It took shape, it became the incarnate love,—God’s unspeakable gift to man. And so John finished his sentence thus, “the Father hath given to us.” And then there was another thought that would suggest the word “give.” There was another way in which the Divine love was embodied before the eye of John. John saw that love embodied in the distinction, the honour, the glory conferred on those that believe in Jesus Christ. He saw the Divine love in the love-gift, the glorious bounty of God towards those who believe in Jesus Christ. And so John declares that the believer’s title to power and honour is God’s love-gift, the gift of His free love. You cannot go behind that love for an explanation. It is the gift of God’s free elective love.1 [Note: J. Thomas, Myrtle Street Pulpit, iii. 328.]
3. The love of God finds its type and shadow in the love of parents for their children. There is no love that we understand so well as a parent’s love. It is the first love we know, and every day of our early years gave us fresh and sweet illustrations of it. There is no love so pure, so disinterested, so unselfish. The affections of friendship and wedded life are strong, tender, passionate, and fervent, but in them there is always a more or less selfish joy. We get as much as we give. The parent’s love for a little child looks for no return. It is unlimited, uncalculating grace. It is given freely before there can be the least thought or ability to reciprocate it. It is given to helplessness, feebleness, ignorance, incapacity. It is an immense delight in that which has nothing to commend itself. It is an unbounded joy in that which by ordinary reason should evoke only pity. It is a holy sentiment which sets at nought literal fact and common sense. There is no logic in it. It has no apparent cause. It is inexplicable. It is one of the great mysteries of life. We should not believe it possible if we had never seen it; yet it is everywhere, and it is everywhere a symbol of the Divine, a proof of the Divine. The love of the Almighty for us is wonderful. It is well-nigh incredible. But there it is! “Behold what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called children of God.”
I have a formidable book in my library which contains an elaborate treatise on Divine love. It is wonderfully clever. It soars through all the heights of metaphysics, and dives through all the deeps of mysticism; but though you are pursuing Divine love all the way you seem to lose it more and more in thick clouds of words, and at last give it up in despair. It is a wonderful relief then to come upon such words as these (you have not to wear the brain to tatters in comprehending them): “Behold what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called children of God.” God’s greatness we cannot grasp, God’s wisdom is unsearchable, but God’s love is something that any heart can hold and any mind picture. It is higher than the heavens and deeper than all seas, yet it is so homely and so human and so near that to realize it you have but to take some dear child of your own upon your knees, and express in tender kisses what you are to that child and what the child is to you.1 [Note: J. G. Greenhough, The Cross in Modern Life, 64.]
The Design of the Father’s Love
1. God bestows His love in order that He may call us children. The Scriptures seem to run on two lines in their teaching about the Divine Fatherhood. In the Epistles it is always the followers of Christ who are called sons of God—sons and daughters of the Almighty—they only. But in the wider language of the Master the Fatherhood of God is as universal as humanity; every man, woman, and child received from those sacred lips his title-deed to a Divine sonship; every human mouth was commissioned to say “Our Father.” The larger thought and the narrower thought are equally beautiful and equally true. We are all His children by right; there is something of His image in all. There are possibilities of large Divine growth in all, and there is a place for all in His almighty heart of love. But only they who know it and rejoice in it are children in actuality and possession. Only those to whom it is an inspiration, an incentive to obedience, a source of immeasurable hope, a furnace kindling love, are sons indeed. The rest are children in possibility, but outcasts in fact. They have a great inheritance, but they are ignorant of it or despise it. They walk through life as orphans, though a Father’s love is ever stooping at their feet. It is only as we believe it that the wealth and dignity of it become ours. “Behold what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called children of God.”
2. The purpose of the Father’s love is not only to call us children but to make us morally and spiritually true children, to bring us into right relations with Himself. We might have been told that He is our Father by creation, and that He hates nothing that He has made; that He is “the Father of our spirits” especially, and would place a merciful limit to His contendings with us, lest the spirit should fail before Him. But we require something more than this. We desire a Father to look to, and love, and trust; a Father to run to in danger, and take counsel with in doubt, to listen to us when no other friend will, and to help us when no other friend can. We cannot bear to think that God should be indifferent to us, as if we were “the seed of the stranger”; but would fain feel that He loves us, as being His own children by adoption and grace. And, in Christ Jesus, we may feel this. We were made children by Him who taught us to call God Father. “Ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus.” Our spiritual pedigree is traced easily. Faith makes us Christ’s; being Christ’s, we are made sons; being sons, we become heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ.
The words of the Apostle mean much more than that God is the Father of all men. Creation does not amount to parentage. All force and meaning would disappear from our text if we were to suppose that the power, the right, to become children of God, which is men’s as the result of believing in Christ’s name, was simply a re-statement of the doctrine of creation. We may use the fact that God has created us as the basis of our hope that men may become His children, but that does not identify creation with fatherhood. St. Paul said to the men of Athens, “In him we live, and move, and have our being; as certain also of your own poets have said, For we are also his offspring.” But these statements are immeasurably below the truth. Paul held, in common with John and Peter, that believers in Christ are the children of the heavenly Father.1 [Note: A. Mackennal, The Eternal Son of God, 36.]
There is a Fatherhood of God, what the theologians call His creative Fatherhood, which includes all the race. There is still a higher, His redemptive Fatherhood, which includes all who come back home to the Father through Jesus. Man became a prodigal. He left his Father. He still remains a son creatively, but has cut himself off from the Father by sin. When he returns he becomes a son in a new higher sense also, a redeemed son. The Holy Spirit puts the child spirit into his heart, and he instinctively calls God Father again.1 [Note: S. D. Gordon, Quiet Talks on Home Ideals, 146.]
I know of no satisfactory account of the Divine Fatherhood. Dr. Candlish wrote a book on the subject which I read thirty years ago or more; it did not satisfy me at the time, but I think there were some good things in it. I have often preached about it and have a theory; but I do not remember that there is anything to indicate my position in what I have published. The main points seem to me to be these:—
(1) Our ideal relation to God is that of sons; this comes from our creation in Christ.
(2) Sonship involves community of life—life derived from life. But the life of God has essentially an ethical quality; it is a holy life.
(3) Ethical quality cannot be simply given; it must be freely appropriated. We were created to be sons; but to be sons really and in fact we must freely receive and realize in character the holiness of God.
(4) There is a potency of sonship in every man, and ideally every man is a son; but it is only as a man becomes like God that he actually becomes a son. This, in the case of all who know Christ, is effected initially by receiving Christ; when He is freely accepted as the Root and Lord of life the principle of sonship is in us.
This approaches the Divine Fatherhood from the human side; but I think that it is in this way that we can best approach it.2 [Note: The Life of R. W. Dale, 654.]
Some time ago a woman died in an institution on Blackwell’s Island, who was found, afterwards, to have been a descendant of an English earl. Her birthright entitled her to a high position, but she had led a dissipated life and died a pauper’s death. With a name and a nature which unite us to God, shall we live like homeless waifs and die like paupers?3 [Note: J. I. Vance, Tendency, 213.]
3. In calling us children, God confers a new status, a high privilege, upon us. His desire is not merely to bring us into a true spiritual relation and condition, but to give us new rank, dignity and honour. It is the rank given by God to the children of the new kingdom, and this kingdom was inaugurated by the coming of Jesus Christ. From that there follow two or three important facts. The first is that the saints of the old dispensation did not obtain this honour, this rank did not belong to them under the old era. This is a new title, a new dignity. They were servants, not children. Our Saviour marked the transition when He said to His disciples: “Henceforth I call you not servants, but friends.” A closer relationship had begun. A new honour had been achieved. This is one of those things that the Old Testament saints did not receive, so that “they without us should not be made perfect.” The Scriptures also intimate that this rank, this status, is different from, and in some sense higher than, the status of the angels themselves. The relation of Jesus Christ to man is unique. “He laid hold not of angels, but of the seed of Abraham.” When He became manifested, He became manifested as the Son of man. And so man has entered into a unique relationship to Jesus Christ, and through Him to God, a relation closer, more intimate, higher, than the relations sustained to God and His Son even by the angelic hosts themselves. Now it necessarily follows from this that the unbeliever has neither part nor lot in such a title, such a distinction, such an honour as is here involved.
Corregio stood before a grand painting, enraptured; and as he gazed, grasping the sublime conception, amazed at the wondrous execution and colouring of the picture, he exclaimed, “Thank God! I, too, am a painter.” So, when a Christian looks steadily at what it is to be children of our Father, with sublime thrills of joy he can say, “Thank God! I, too, am a child of the Lord God Almighty.”1 [Note: G. C. Baldwin.]
4. Christ’s Sonship is the true type of ours. No doubt the only-begotten Son occupies a unique place. He is by nature what we become by grace. But on that account we can look up to Him, and see in Him our true ideal. Not once does He call any one father but God, while He hardly ever calls God by any other name. Nothing is more impressive than the filial consciousness of Christ. It sounds so natural on His lips. Even as a boy, the very first words of His that have come vibrating down to us through the ages have this filial ring in them: “How is it that ye sought me? wist ye not that I must be in my Father’s house?” Men noticed that He was eaten up with zeal for His Father’s house. It was His meat and drink to do His Father’s will. Every now and again we overhear an interchange of confidences and mutual understandings with His Father. Now it is a remark in a prayer, an aside: “I know that thou hearest me always”; or an “Even so, Father, for so it seemed good in thy sight.” Thus we might go on quoting word after word till the very cross is reached and He breathes His latest breath, “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.” What does it all say but this? The true filial spirit is one in which there is perfect understanding with God, from which all misgiving as to God’s will and purpose is banished. For Him misgiving never existed. For us it was there begotten of our own misjudgment of God through listening to the lies of the tempter. But it has disappeared when we become sons with the assurance of His forgiveness and good will guaranteed by the Cross of Christ. Now the attitude of the soul to God should be that of unfaltering trust, and constant anxiety to perceive and anticipate God’s will, gladly to accept it, and delightedly to fulfil it. It should be the reproduction of the example set in Jesus Christ, for, as Sabatier truly says, “Men are Christian exactly in proportion as the filial piety of Jesus is reproduced in them.”
All that we see in the Divine manhood of Jesus—such evident facts as the sense of the Father’s affection, the constancy of fellowship with Him, the knowledge of Him which comes in spontaneous movements of the heart, and shows itself in simple loyalty and unerring reading of His will—is the revelation of what is meant when we too are called children of God. We are very far from the realization of this; we are only little children, very imperfectly acquainted as yet either with Him or with the possibilities of our own sonship; children learning very slowly, and with much waywardness and indifference, what are our privileges and His claims. But we are children of God, as the cry, Abba, Father! bears witness. We make the child’s appeal to His tenderness; we feel the child’s shame when we wrong His confidence. In our penitence we say, “I will arise and go to my Father”; our submission is the utterance, “Father, thy will be done.” And our final hope is no other than conformity to the image of Christ: “It doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him.” Christ will be the first-born among many brethren.1 [Note: A. Mackennal, The Eternal Son of God, 36.]
For what good doth it to the Soul to know the Way to God, if it will not walk therein, but go on in a contrary Path? What good will it do the Soul to comfort itself with the Filiation of Christ, with His Passion and Death, and so flatter itself with the Hopes of getting the Patrimony thereby, if it will not enter into the Filial Birth, that it may be a true child, born out of the Spirit of Christ, out of His Suffering, Death, and Resurrection? Surely the Tickling and Flattering itself with Christ’s Merits without the true innate Childship, is Falsehood and a Lie, whosoever he be that teacheth it.1 [Note: Jacob Boehme.]
Knowing as I do what the revelation of God means to me, knowing what God’s Fatherhood and the presence of God’s Spirit is to my own life, my whole heart goes out with infinite pity towards those whose lives are unblessed by what is to me the very pole-star of my existence. I cannot bear to think of some stumbling blindfold through the pitfalls of life while my hand is clasped by a never-failing Guide; or of others who look forward to the end of their earthly life with dread and trembling while I see only the outspread arms of the everlasting Father and the welcome of a life-long Friend.2 [Note: Quintin Hogg, 310.]
The Recognition of the Father’s Love
1. “Such we are.” The Apostle was not afraid to say “I know that I am a child of God.” There are many very good people, whose tremulous, timorous lips have never ventured to say “I know.” They will say, “Well, I hope,” or sometimes, as if that were not uncertain enough, they will put in an adverb or two, and say “I humbly hope that I am.” It is a far robuster kind of Christianity, a far truer one, and a humbler one, too, that throws all considerations of our own character and merits, and all the rest of that rubbish, clean behind us, and when God says “My son!” says “My Father”; and when God calls us His children, leaps up and gladly answers, “And we are!”
Luther started from the necessity of a “comfortable assurance.” Unconscious justification was not enough; a man must know whether he was being saved. And this assurance grace brought him, when it awakened his heart to faith; for anyone could tell whether he had faith or not.3 [Note: Viscount St. Cyres, Pascal, 247.]
O heart! be thou patient!
Though here I am stationed
A season in durance,
The chain of the world I will cheerfully wear;
For, spanning my soul like a rainbow, I bear
With the yoke of my lowly
Condition, a holy
Assurance.1 [Note: J. T. Trowbridge.]
2. How are we to awaken to our sense of sonship? “As many as received him, to them gave he power (the right) to become children of God, even to them that believe on his name.” None of us know Christ until He reveals Himself to us in our association with Him; and as we commune with Him, and learn of Him, He becomes more and more to us. Accept Christ for what you feel He can be to you. Admit Him to your friendship; He will admit you to His.
That day, if I had dared, I should not have set foot inside the chapel. I was out of humour, and certainly not the least inclined to endure the tedium of a sermon. To my great surprise M. Jaquet did not preach one, but began to read us a little tract. It was a sermon, but of a new kind: Wheat or Chaff, by Ryle [afterwards the well-known Bishop of Liverpool].
The title in itself struck me. “Wheat or chaff”—what does that mean? And at every fresh heading this question re-echoed more and more solemnly. I wanted to stop my ears, to go to sleep, to think about something else. In vain! When the reading was over and the question had sounded out for the last time, “Wheat or chaff, which art thou?” it seemed to me that a vast silence fell and the whole world waited for my answer. It was an awful moment. And this moment, a veritable hell, seemed to last for ever. At last a hymn came to the rescue of my misery. “Good,” I said to myself, “that’s over at last.” But the arrow of the Lord had entered into my soul. Oh, how miserable I was! I ate nothing, could not sleep, and had no more mind to my studies. I was in despair. The more I struggled the more the darkness thickened. I sought light and comfort in the pages of God’s Word. I found none. I saw and heard nothing but the thunders of Sinai. “Your sins: how can God ever forgive them? Your repentance and tears! You do not feel the burden of your sins: you are not struck down like St. Paul or like the Philippian jailer. Hypocrisy, hypocrisy!” insinuated the voice which pursued me. I had come to the end of all strength and courage. I saw myself, I felt myself lost—yes, lost, without the slightest ray of hope. My difficulty was, I wished I knew what it could be to believe. At last I understood that it was to accept salvation on God’s conditions; that is to say, without any conditions whatever. I can truly say the scales fell from my eyes. And what scales! I could say, “Once I was blind, and now I see.”
Never shall I forget the day, nay, the moment, when this ray of light flashed into the night of my anguish. “Believe,” then, means to accept, and accept unreservedly. “As many as received him, to them gave he power—the right—to become the sons of God, even to as many as believed on his name.” It is plain, it is plain, it is positive. “O my God,” I cried, in the depth of my heart, “I believe.” … A peace, a joy unknown before, flooded my heart. I could have sung aloud with joy.1 [Note: Coillard of the Zambesi, 19.]
The Love that Confers Sonship
Aitken (W. H. M. H.), Mission Sermons, iii. 129.
Banks (L. A.), John and his Friends, 108.
Bourdillon (F.), Our Possessions, 34.
Cooper (T. J.), Love’s Unveiling, 144.
Drummond (R. J.), Faith’s Certainties, 149.
Eadie (J.), The Divine Love, 104.
Farrar (F. W.), Truths to Live By, 184.
Gordon (A. J.), The Twofold Life, 77.
Greenhough (J. G.), The Cross in Modern Life, 63.
Gregg (J.), Sermons Preached in Trinity Church, Dublin, ii. 267.
Haslam (W.), The Threefold Gift of God, 66.
Keble (J.), Sermons for the Christian Year: Christmas—Epiphany, 367.
Knight (J. J.), Sermons in Brief, 62.
Landels (W.), Until the Day Break, 79.
Mackennal (A.), The Eternal Son of God and the Human Sonship, 57.
Maclagan (P. J.), The Gospel View of Things, 57.
Matheson (G.), Thoughts for Life’s Journey, 192.
Newbolt (W. C. E.), The Gospel Message, 120.
Newman (J. H.), Parochial and Plain Sermons, iii. 172.
Oosterzee (J. J. van), The Year of Salvation, ii. 295.
Perren (C.), Revival Sermons, 282.
Scott (M.), Harmony of the Collects, Epistles, and Gospels, 55.
Smith (D.), Man’s Need of God, 135.
Temple (F.), Sermons in Rugby School Chapel, ii. 71.
Thomas (J.), Myrtle Street Pulpit, iii. 323.
West (R.), The Greatest Things in the World, 75.
Wordsworth (E.), Onward Steps, 40.
Christian World Pulpit, vi. 184 (Mahan); xxvi. 107 (Beecher).
Church of England Magazine, xvi. 153 (Hitchen); lxx. 312 (Stevenson).
Churchman’s Pulpit: Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, iv. 220 (Moore).