Fundamental to our understanding of God is that he is a loving Father to all people with a special and purposeful relationship with those that follow his Son, Jesus Christ. This is that heart of evangelistic faith: that God loves all people as his children, seeks to save all, and in Christ has died for all.
Yet, often the universal parenthood of God is dismissed as a liberal idea in, especially, Reformed-Baptist circles. As I have investigated this interpretation, I have found that it was largely due to the battles between liberal and conservative Baptists in North America. The argument is older than that, but here it took on a particular intensity. Social Gospel Baptists emphasized our common humanity to support a political ethic of rights and responsibilities. We see good examples of this in Walter Rauschenbusch’s classic, The Social Principles of Jesus. While their hearts were in the right place, like many progressives, their hearts exceeded what their exegesis could demonstrate. Moreover, while there are many beautiful elements of the Social Gospel, it too often over-emphasized the political dimensions of sin and salvation and undermined the personal. When they did demonstrate their doctrines with exegesis, they used strongly historical critical methods of interpretation, unafraid to point out inaccuracies in traditional views on certain passages, which offended the conservatives.
In response, the conservatives in turn offered polemics against liberalism, who conservatives worried dissolved the particularity of the church. J. Gresham Machen, for example, dismissed the doctrine of God’s universal fatherhood in his Christianity and Liberalism. However, while the Reformed-Baptists appealed to adoption texts in Paul and John, which does apply childhood relationship only to Christians, this essentially neglected a large sum of Biblical material that did speak of all people as God’s children, glossing the Bible with their own Calvinism. In doing so, the dangerous implication could be that God does not love all people, or if he does, it is certainly in an arbitrary, uneven, and preferential way, saving the elect while damning everyone else.
While Scripture, particularly John (John 8:42-44; 1 John 3: 7-10) and Paul (Rom. 8:14-21; Gal. 4:4-7; Eph. 1:3-6) use the notion of God as Father in a way that only speaks of Christians as God’s adopted children in a very specific way (they will receive the Holy Spirit, conformed to Christ, and will be gloried), this is simply not the only way the Bible, nor even Paul and John use these terms.
For example, Paul does not exclusively see sonship and adoption as pertaining to Christians. In fact in Romans we see adoption used to speak in terms of Israel, who has abandoned Christ, much to Paul’s lament. He writes,
For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people, those of my own race, the people of Israel. Theirs is the adoption to sonship; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises. Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of the Messiah, who is God over all, forever praised! Amen. (Romans 9:3-5)
Thus, God’s parenthood remains despite disobedience that would disqualify them from fellowship in the church.
Parenthood of Israel, Obedient as well as Disobedient
As we just saw with Paul, this is where the standard paradigm that only believers are God’s children gets more complex. Israel is understood to be God’s children. Israel is the elected “firstborn” of the family of God (Ex. 4:11). Yet, Israel is understood to be the children of God even in their disobedience. Thus we see this in Deuteronomy, Jeremiah, Isaiah and Hosea.
(a) Deuteronomy: the Deuteronomist pleads with the people to turn back to God and remember him. “Is this the way you repay the Lord, O foolish and unwise people? Is he not your Father, your Creator, who made you and formed you?” (Deut. 32:6). Here in Deuteronomy, God is speaking of the creation of the nation of Israel. Creation, election and Fatherhood are connected here in an overlapping metaphor.
(b) Isaiah: This is made particularly explicit in the later part of Isaiah that disobedient Israel is still God’s children:
Where are your zeal and your might? Your tenderness and compassion are withheld from us. But you are our Father, though Abraham does not know us or Israel acknowledge us; you, O Lord, are our Father, our Redeemer from of old is your name. Why, O Lord, do you make us wander from your ways and harden our hearts so we do not revere you? Return for the sake of your servants, the tribes that are your inheritance. (Isa. 63:15-17)
No one calls on your name or strives to lay hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us and made us waste away because of our sins. Yet, O Lord, you are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand. Do not be angry beyond measure, O Lord; do not remember our sins forever. (Isa. 64:7-9)
In John, those who rebel are understood as children of the devil (John 8:44; 1 John 3:10), but this is not the case here in Isaiah. There are different usages based on different theological and rhetorical purposes.
In John, the best interpretation, suggested by the context, is that Jesus is denouncing the character of the Pharisees: They are children of the devil because, like him, they are lying and seeking to murder (John 8:44). Calling someone the “child of the devil” was not to describe their eternal nature (thus making any call to repentance useless) but rather was a way of denouncing their actions (which the Pharisees were self-deceived into thinking were good). Thus, John writes, “This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are: Anyone who does not do what is right is not God’s child, nor is anyone who does not love their brother and sister” (1 John 3:10). This does not mean anyone who is unloving is actually demonic in nature (for that would mean all people before they repented are that, and that would make asking any unloving person to repent as useless). It describes one’s actions now, so that, hopefully, people will change and act more like the character of God the Father, who is loving and righteous.
What is most interesting about Isaiah 63, in contradistinction to John’s more conditional notion of fatherhood, is that Isaiah actually sees the fatherhood of God as so unconditional, despite disobedience, that it is a cause to question God. If God is sovereign, why did he not empower his children to obey? In fact, Isaiah 63 goes so far as to beg God to “return” (which is implicit repentance language) to his compassion. Isaiah 64 acknowledges that if God’s children are disobedient, God is in control and will reform their character like a potter over the clay.
(c) Jeremiah: One of Jeremiah’s usages seem similar to how John uses it. God displays his disdain for how Israel in this time, not unlike Jesus’ context, claimed God as Father but did not obey (Jer. 3:4). God longs to treat Israel as his children, but their disobedience prevents him, which deeply hurts God:
How gladly would I treat you like my children and give you a pleasant land, the most beautiful inheritance of any nation. I thought you would call me ‘Father’ and not turn away from following me (Jer. 3:19)
God wants to treat them with the full inheritance his child would have, but is prevented by their actions. However, there is more than one usage in Jeremiah. Similar to Isaiah, sonship seems unconditional despite disobedience and is the basis of hope of restoration later in Jeremiah:
They will come with weeping; they will pray as I bring them back. I will lead them beside streams of water on a level path where they will not stumble, because I am Israel’s father, and Ephraim is my firstborn son. (Jer. 31:9)
Disobedient Israel will be led back to restoration because God is their Father.
(d) Hosea: This prophet provides another moving example where God speaks of his nurturing care for Israel, which inevitably causes God’s heart to recoil in mercy despite Israel’s wrongdoing:
When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son…It was I who taught Ephraim to walk, taking them by the arms; but they did not realize it was I who healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness, with ties of love. To them I was like one who lifts a little child to the cheek, and I bent down to feed them…. How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, Israel?… My heart is changed within me; all my compassion is aroused. I will not carry out my fierce anger, nor will I devastate Ephraim again. For I am God, and not a man—the Holy One among you. I will not come against their cities. (Hosea 11:1, 3-4, 8-9)
The parental love of God here problematizes the standard account of holiness of God. God is portrayed as unable to look upon sin due to his purity or holiness (Hab. 1:13), yet, this image does not prevent, for instance, Christ from “becoming sin” for God’s salvific purposes (2 Cor. 5:21). Here in Hosea, the tender mercy of God is the true display of his holiness despite the sin of the people, who now expect wrath. God comes into their midst, despite their sin, because of his parental love. Wrath is eclipsed by mercy in God’s holiness for Hosea, which seems to be the more accurate depiction of God’s holiness in Christ’s atonement for our sins. God is holy because God is merciful in ways completely separate from our notions of divinity.
The parenthood of God is a cause for both chastisement and comfort for the prophets. Israel is God’s child. Israel should know better, yet the people have acted sinfully. God will punish them, yet because he is a father, he will also restore them.
Universal Parenthood in the Bible
So, while God’s people are understood as God’s children, whether the church or Israel, obedient or disobedient, even these are not the exclusive ways the Bible speaks about his subject. The Bible is not a systemized tractatus of statements. Rather it is a rich anthology that has layers and contours of meaning. The Bible offers different theological usages that are different and distinct but not contradictory. If we read only one contour, which is distinct onto itself, we miss the other ways the Bible speaks on a certain subject. The universal fatherhood of God, in these passages, forms the basis for the inherent dignity humans have as God’s children. So, we will see universal parenthood upheld through several contours: the imago Dei, the sonship of Adam, God’s fatherhood over all families, and God’s role as creator founded on his parental nature. All these contours will be reconciled by fitting them into Christ’ Parable of the Prodigal Son.
(a) Imago Dei: The first and foremost reference to this universal fatherhood is in Genesis chapter one. Many miss it. To be made in the “image and likeness of God” (Genesis 1:27) is an ancient way of saying “These are my children” as Adam uses that same language to talk about his son (i.e. Seth in Gen. 5:3). Much ink has been spilled and wasted trying to discern the nature of the imago Dei, when its meaning is displayed four chapters later. It is a very typical way of identifying parenthood. It is the same as a person today looking at your child and saying, “Wow, your baby looks just like you.” It is a statement of parental identification.
This notion of image as a parental-child relationship cannot be dismissed as it is appropriated by Paul to describe how Christ is the son of God: “The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation” (Col. 1:15). Jesus is the “Son” and “firstborn” as he is the “image” of the invisible God, the three imply eachother. Similarly Hebrews draws this close connection between sonship and image: “The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being” (Heb. 1:3). Only children are in the image of their parents.
(b) Adam as Son of God: Adam is God’s child and in Scripture the parental relationship extends to his offspring in the same way a patriarch is the father over those that would technically be grandchildren. All humans are from Adam and Adam is the “son of God” despite his fall (Luke 3:38 – this passage is a genealogy). All humans are in God’s family as all humans are children of Adam, the son of God. If the fall extends to all people so does this parental relationship.
This becomes vitally important as the Bible communicates that God is “our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:3-4). This is corroborated with the fact that Adam in his curse received also the promise, what some call the “proto-evangelion” (the first gospel), where God promises to crush the head of the serpent (the power and effects of Satan) with the seed of the woman (prophetically seen as Israel and Christ) (Gen. 3:15). The commands not to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil along with the curse and this promise are bound together as a kind of covenant, which Hosea 6:7 implies. Thus through Adam, all people have a covenant with God and, more importantly, the promise of restoration. If all people are fallen in Adam, all have the promise of hope in him too.
(c) God as Patriarch of all Families: Thus, Paul says that all families are a part of God’s. “I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name” (Eph. 3:14). All families exist like subsidiaries under the auspices of his parental authority much like how a patriarch is leader of a clan of families all related to each other. Thus, Paul in Acts 17:28-29, sees all the people he is talking to (who are pagans) as “God’s offspring.” We will treat this passage in the next section, but some have raised the objection to this passage as Paul is quoting a pagan poet as a polemic, dismissing the statement. This however does not dismiss the fact that Paul sees the statement by the poet as true. Paul goes further to posit our next point that God’s parental relationship is synonymous with his providential work as creator. Paul says in the same passage (thus implying connection), “For in him we live and move and have our being.”
(d) Creator as Parent: Now, Genesis’ imago Dei and Paul’s notion of God as patriarch both are a bit removed from our culture. We need not cite passages that difficult. In the Old Testament, God is a Father purely because God is the creator of everything. God speaks out of the whirlwind in Job and states that all creation is constituted through a parental relationship: “Who fathers the drops of dew? From whose womb comes the ice? Who gives birth to the frost from the heavens…?” (Job 38:28-9). The implication in all these questions in this chapter is that only God does. All creation is brought forth out of God’s parental love.
We have already noted the overlapping metaphor that in Deut. 32:6 where God as Father is also God as elector and creator. Israel saw creation as an ongoing act in redemption. For example, Isaiah 51 seems to speak of return from exile as an act similar to God splitting the sea in the Exodus for the faithful to walk over, but also, interestingly enough, as an event similar to God defeating Rahab and conquering the primordial choas of the sea as in creation. Return is exodus which is also creation. So also, God is a Father because God procreates or generates all creation as his offspring out of his love as creator.
(e) Prodigal Son as Paradigm: How do we understand this contour in line with the adoption contours in Paul and John? Again different contours need not be seen as contradictory. Jesus offers a good way of understanding universal childhood and adoption in his parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15). Here the son takes his inheritance, functionally disowning himself from his father, leaving his household and squanders it. He begins to suffer from the consequences of his decision and so he realized his stupidity. He returns back to the father, thinking at best he could be his servant. The father greets him with open arms, placing a ring (indicating position) on his finger. The father, in a sense, re-adopts him after the son disowned himself from his father. The father re-adopts him even though, from the father’s standpoint, the son was always still his son.
All humans are God’s children. All humans have rebelled against God, revoking their own rights as children. However, God still loves them as a parent. In salvation, God “adopts” them back into right relationship.
Universal Parenthood as Basis of Ethics and Evangelization
So, why is this point especially important? Here we see the ethical and evangelistic application as God’s Fatherhood over all creation and all people creates an important foundation for both right action and repentance from sin.
(a) Image of God as Basis for Ethics: Foundational to the entire ethic of the Old Testament is the fairness of lex talionis: “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” (Ex. 21:24). What you do to another is the measure justly done back. Now, the Bible eventually moves towards restitution and restorative justice, but the oldest parts use this. This principle assumes the equal value of all human beings. Ideally, to steal from a foreigner warrants the same punishment as if the same amount was stolen from the king since the two are of equal value and the same degree of harm was done. While we see redemptive movement that slowly realizes this ideal with increasingly better justice for slaves, women, foreigners, etc., this progressive movement is predicated on the basis of the image of God. The ethical treatment of humans as in the image of God appear in passages like after the flood account: “Whoever sheds human blood, by humans shall their blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made mankind” (Gen. 9:6). Because all people are in this image, all people are God’s children, and thus, all people deserve dignity such that no one can be, at the very least, murdered due to their lack of value to another and the murder get away with it. The notion that all people are God’s children, in his image, forms the moral bottom line of the Old Testament ethic.
(b) The Mission and Witness of the Firstborn: Adoption in Paul is not for the preferential treatment of the elect, but rather a call to be the “firstborn” or prototypes that all creation will benefit from. This has his roots in the call of Abraham and the nation Israel. Election takes paradigmatic meaning from Abraham’s call. Abraham is blessed so that “all the families of the world will be blessed through you” (Gen. 12:3). Election is not merely election to salvation. It is election of the work of bringing salvation to the rest of creation. Thus, election is not preferential as it entails the possibility of self-denial and crucifixion in order to see the enemies of God reconciled. The children of God exist like Christ, sacrificing themselves to save others.
Coming back to Abraham, Abraham’s descendants competed for the definitive blessing: Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Israel’s twelve sons, etc. While the blessing was a privilege, the blessing carried the duty of care for the rest of the family in the ancient culture. The firstborn, who regularly received the larger blessing, received it in order to be the protector and provider of the family. Now, import this metaphor into the understanding of Israel: Israel is the elected “firstborn” of the family of God (Ex. 4:11), which seems to indicate that God is using Israel as an instrument to guide and bless the rest of his family (i.e. the other nations). As the nations see how God blesses Israel due to their obedience to God’s redeemed way of life, the nations should naturally seek to come to Zion to learn the ways of the Lord (we see this theme constantly through Isaiah). Through Israel as firstborn, the nations should see the character of God as their Father.
Thus, Israel’s firstborn nature is synonymous with his priestly vocation. In the ancient world, the patriarch (usually the firstborn of the family) was also the priest in residence of the family, the spiritual leader of the household. God appointed Israel to be a “kingdom of priests” (Ex. 19:6). A priest represents others to God and God to others, mediating the relationship. In this way, God’s people were meant to mediate God’s love to the nations as if the nations were the full extend of God’s congregation. Thus, the temple was to be a “house of prayer for all nations” not just for Israel (Isa. 56:7). Israel was called to bring other nations into the worship of God.
It is an arrogant mentality of superiority where Jews tried to use their blessing to extort money from foreigners, assuming that God loves his chosen people more than the rest of the nations. Jesus zealously clears the temple over this (Matt. 21: 12-13). Thus, many have used doctrines of election, whether in Judaism or Christianity, to form a notion that God loves his people more and therefore they can feel entitled over and against those that are not God’s people. Jesus strongly denounces this.
It is this priestly dynamic that forms a crucial structure of the Old Testament witness. Israel’s witness was how God treated them, saving them from oppression, blessing them, offering them a redeemed way of life in the law, but also chastising them when they did wrong. This paradigm was the basis of witness to the other nations. As God has treated his firstborn, so Israel knows the character of God in order to proclaim hope to the nations. God will save because Israel knows God to be a savor. God does not judge without mercy, since Israel has seen the fire of his intense disciplinary wrath as a refiners fire (cf. Isaiah 48:9-11; Mal. 3:2; 1. Cor. 3:10). Thus, based on Israel’s witness, the nations are called to trust God, submitting to his authority, judgment, but also love and liberating power.
Today, similarly, the church proclaims salvation to sinners because, as sinners, the church has experienced unmerited grace. Because a believer testifies that God has treated them with saving love, so they proclaim and hope for this love for all other sinners.
This confidence and witness is rendered problematic in a narrowly predestinarian view. If God’s children are only the elect and not all humans, the Church cannot truthfully proclaim to anyone “God loves you and wants to save you.” If a person is not of the elect, that statement is simply not true. A more true statement would be hyper-Calvinistic: “If you are one of the elect, then God will save you. If not, you are unfortunately damned. All I know is God loves me, and possibly may love you.”
(c) The Scope of Restoration Through God’s Adopted: Thus, the Church through Christ is the fulfillment of this mission and calling to all people and all creation. Christ is the fulfillment of Israel and is the true firstborn (Rom. 8:29). We see here the notion of adoption in Romans coalesce with the other uses.
The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory… For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies (Romans 8:14-23)
A holistic cosmic redemption of all creation is connected to the redemption found in the glorification of the adopted children of God, the elect. Believers are the “firstfruits,” or to use a modern notion: believers are prototypes. Through the work in the children of God, all creation will be restored. Thus, 1 Cor. 15 offers a comprehensive process through these “firstfruits” for restoring all that has been lost:
Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power (1 Cor. 15:20-24)
While this strand has to be read coupled with the judgment strands that warn that to reject Christ and to refuse to follow him entails “eternal punishment” or “eternal separation” (Matt. 25:46; 2 Thes. 1:9), again, these contours need not be read as contradictory despite them sounding different. The end conclusion is this however: God is seeking to restore all creation and all people (his children) through Christ and his church (those children that have fully realized God is their Father).
(d) Basis for Evangelization: Thus, we see instances in the New Testament where all humans are regarded as God’s “offspring” and this forms the basis for a general call to repentance for everyone. Paul says to the Athenians,
As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’ Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. (Acts 17:28-30)
As we have said, while some have attempted to write this instance off as Paul merely quoting a pagan poet for his polemic, this quotation is the crux argument of Paul’s for Athenians to renounce their paganism. Paul is saying, “You are God’s children, don’t debase yourselves worshiping idols. You were meant for more!” If this is the case, the certainty that all people are God’s children forms the foundation of the prophetic call the church gives for all people to renounce idolatry, repent, and follow him. That all people are God’s children is the very foundation of the possibility of Gospel proclamation to people.
Therefore, all people are, from God’s loving standpoint, children of God, deserving dignity and hopefully will realize their place in God’s family, yet it is only Christians that have fully realized that God is their Father in a special way such that they have been adopted into the life of knowing and living God’s plan and character. This plan is a calling to act like Christ, giving up one’s life for others so that all may be blessed. The end result is that all creation will be restored through God’s elect.