But as many as received Him, to them gave He power
to become the children of God.
Saying that you’re a Christian probably won’t get you into hot water. Saying that you believe in certain essentials of Christianity will.
God told Ezekiel that Israel’s priests had a commission to “… teach My people the difference between the holy and the unholy, and cause them to discern between the unclean and the clean.” (Ezekiel 44:23)
That phrase – the difference – is a hot potato, especially these days. Because it indicates that we not only believe in the Good of the Bible, but we also believe in His distinctions, the ones He makes when He determines what is normal versus abnormal, holy versus unholy, saved versus unsaved.
That brings up the touchy subject of Sonship – are we, or are we not, all children of God?
Image Bearers versus Children by Rebirth
The phrase Image Bearer has become popular, and I like it. It applies to all people, Christian or not, all of whom are created by God and should be recognized as valuable; treated with respect.
Kim Riddlebarger writing some years back in the Westminster Seminary blog, put it well: “Because all men and women are divine image-bearers we are truly like God –albeit in creaturely form and measure.”
I’m good with that. A “divine image bearer” still needs redemption, having fallen short despite the image he or she bears. But to be created in God’s image is, among other things, to be of immeasurable value. So while I don’t usually care for word trends, this one I like.
What I don’t like is confusion between Image and Sonship, a distinction I think is fairly basic and very important. To be created in God’s image is not the same as being a literal child of God; likewise, to be a fellow image bearer (i.e. fellow human) differs from being a brother or sister in Christ. This isn’t minor nit-picking and, in fact, it has everything to do with the way we approach evangelism, body ministry, and world view.
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I say all this because more and more I’m reading, in Christian blogs or articles, phrases like “We’re all children of God”, or “Everyone is my spiritual brother or sister”, as if to say every human is essentially on the same spiritual page, going in the same eternal direction.
Those are sentiments I really wish were true, but they aren’t. If we’re not getting the vital difference between a fellow human and a brother or sister in Christ, then we’re blurring some critical lines which should never be anything but clear. So let’s reiterate the basics with a few simple points:
- Yes, we’re all created by God. (Genesis 5:2) No argument there. Tim Keller points out the connection between this assertion and our approach to human rights, especially the rights of the defenseless or the outcasts. What God forms and breathes life into is sacred.
- Yes, we’re all likewise created in His image, an image marred (there’s an understatement!) by the Fall (Genesis 3:16-17) but there, nonetheless. So while we can safely say that we’re all created by God, we’re clearly not all He created us to be.
- We also share common humanity, and as such, we’re brothers and sisters in the human family, descendants of Adam, born in sin (Psalm 51:5) and falling short of God’s perfection (Romans 3:23); objects of His love and the reason for Christ’s sacrifice. (John 3:16)
- But we’re not, in fact, all children of God. Created by God and Fathered by God aren’t the same. So Jesus insisted that to see the kingdom one has to be born naturally then spiritually (John 3:5) spiritual rebirth occurring only through faith in Him. (Romans 10:9, Acts 4:12) Thereby, though we enjoy common humanity with all people, we enjoy a spiritual sibling relationship exclusively with those who’ve been born physically, then born again spiritually. Only then can we say, with integrity and confidence, “Brother.” So writes Wayne Jackson of the Christian Courier: “Those who are not ‘children of God’ in this regenerative sense, are not children of God in the most crucial manner of all.”
The distinction is essential, especially in a time when words like “Christian”, “Evangelical” and “salvation” are so casually thrown around. If everyone is by nature a child of God, then evangelism makes no sense. If all are God’s children by birth, then all God’s children will inherit His kingdom, no conversion required.
So Greg Laurie, Franklin Graham, and thousands of other evangelists should find better uses for their time, because everyone’s already saved. For that matter, Peter’s sermon on Pentecost was needless; Paul’s evangelistic efforts were pointless.
But they’re not pointless, because, in fact, people are either dead or alive spiritually, and there’s no Curtain Number Three. So while I (hopefully) co-exist peacefully with non-Christians, I’m not in communion with them as I am with believers to whom I’m joined in the literal Body of Christ, a Body made of all saints but not all people, though all are surely invited to join it.
To approach life from a Biblical viewpoint, I need an ongoing awareness that people are either saved or unsaved; related to me by birth that’s human or divine. The difference is eternally critical.
So I’ll celebrate the use of “Image Bearer” in reference to fellow humans, while remembering that even those dead in sin retain an image of the God who lovingly made, and seeks to redeem, all of them. Hopefully, while my mind holds that thought, my heart will likewise yearn for image bearing non-believers to know what it is to be fathered by the God whose image they carry.
Today, more than ever, I’m also hoping we image bearing believers will view Sonship, and image bearing as well, with all the reverence and joyful gratitude both concepts deserve.