By David Feddes
“Daddy, when you were little, did you ever think about what you wanted to be when you grew up?” The little girl looked up at her father eagerly, waiting for his answer.
“Yes, I did,” he replied. “For a while I wanted to be a cowboy. Then I wanted to be a policeman. Then I thought it would be fun to play professional basketball.”
She grinned and said, “Did you want to be anything else?”
“Well, “ he answered, “When I got a little older, I thought I might like to work in politics. Then I did well in math and thought of becoming a mathematician or a computer programmer.”
The little girl kept smiling as her dad talked about his boyhood dreams and the various things he had thought of becoming. Finally, when he was finished, she asked, “Is there anything else you wanted to be?”
Her father hesitated for a moment and said, “Not that I can think of right now, honey.”
She looked straight at him and said, “Didn’t you ever want to be a dad?”
The father felt a bit foolish. Then he smiled and hugged the little girl and said, “Of course I wanted to be a dad. I love being a dad. I especially love being your dad.”
That was a revealing conversation. Ask a man what he does, and often the first thing he mentions is the job he’s paid to do. That’s important, but to a child, the greatest thing about her father is simply that he’s a dad–her dad!
Of all the things that can be said about a Christian, this may be the best: that a Christian is a person who knows God as his or her Father. As the Bible puts it, “How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!” (1 John 3:1).
Now, God is much more than a Father, of course. He’s the great Creator who made heaven and earth. He’s the mighty Ruler who directs all things by his power. He’s the just Judge who enforces divine law and punishes evildoers. But to those of us who are the Lord’s children, none of these things is uppermost on our mind as we think of God. To us the most important thing about God is that he’s our Father.
I think of my own children. They know I’m a professor and preacher, but what they care about most isn’t what I do in a class or pulpit, but how I relate to them at home as their father. They know I’m a minister, but they don’t call me “Pastor” or “Reverend Feddes”; they call me “Daddy.” No matter what else my children know about who I am and what I do, the thing that matters most to them is that I’m their dad!
Likewise, I know a number of things about who God is and what he does. I affirm his infinite greatness as Creator and Ruler and Judge, but the most important thing in my relationship to him is that he’s my Father. He’s adopted me as his child, and that’s how he wants me to relate to him.
Is God Your Father?
How about you? Is God your Father? Are you his child? I need to ask you this before going any further, because I don’t want you to make any false assumptions. You might think, “Of course I’m God’s child. Isn’t everybody? It doesn’t matter who you are or how you think or what religion you have–God is everybody’s Father, isn’t he?” No, he isn’t. God is not everybody’s Father.
The Bible tells of a time when Jesus was talking with some people. He told them that they were slaves to sin but that he could set them free. They protested that they were good people and descendants of Abraham and insisted, “The only Father we have is God himself.” Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me… You belong to your father, the devil… you do not belong to God” (John 8:31-47). So much for the idea that everybody is a child of God!
The Bible never teaches the universal fatherhood of God. It never says, “Like everybody else, we are by nature children of God.” But the Bible does say, “Like the rest, we were by nature children of wrath” (Ephesians 2:3). You’re not a child of God by nature, and neither am I. Jesus is the only the Son of God by nature. If you’re a child of God at all, it’s not by nature but by adoption. The only way you can be a child of God is if God gives you a new legal status through adoption in Jesus Christ and then helps you relate to God lovingly and obediently and intimately through the Spirit of Jesus living in you in you.
The Bible says, “You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus… If you belong to Christ, then you are … heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3:26,29). Scripture also says, “And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ… Those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God” (Romans 8:9,14). So don’t fool yourself by simply assuming that God is your Father. Base everything on adoption in Christ and on the Spirit of Christ living in you and leading you.
Having made that clear, I want to get back to talking about what an enormous privilege it is to be a Christian and a child of God. If you’re not yet a Christian, keep reading, and you’ll find out what you’re missing. And if you are a Christian, you’ll want to know your Father in heaven better and grow closer to him and appreciate more fully what being his child involves.
Don’t Settle for Less
Let’s not shortchange ourselves by settling for anything less. If you’re a Christian, you know God as the Creator who made you and the King who rules you and the Judge who pardons you. These are truths about God that every Christian ought to know. But do you know God as your Father who loves and treasures you? Do you adore and love and trust him the way a little child loves and trusts and adores his or her daddy?
Jesus came so that God the Judge could pardon our sins, but that’s not all. He came to make us part of God’s family. The Son of God became one of us that we might become sons of God. In Galatians 4:4-6, the Bible says, “God sent his Son, born of a woman … that we might receive the full rights [literally, the adoption] of sons. Because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, ‘Abba, Father’” (Galatians 4:6).
At the time of Jesus, the word “Abba” was the affectionate way a little Hebrew child would address her father, as our children might use the word “papa” or “daddy.” But up to the time of Jesus, people didn’t use the word “Abba” when they talked to God. Jesus was the first. As God’s only begotten Son, he found it natural to speak to his Father that way. And when he became our brother and made us children of God, Jesus taught Christians to address God as our Abba, our Father in heaven. I wouldn’t dare to call out so freely to God or to address him so intimately, but because of Jesus, I can address God as his little child. When I cry out to my Abba, says the Bible, it’s really the Spirit of God’s Son Jesus calling out from within me.
We saw earlier that none of us is a son of God by nature, but only by adoption. The Lord set his love on a great number of people who by nature were far from him and opposed to him, and he decided to adopt them as part of his family. Before the adoption could take place, however, he had to clear away some legal obstacles first. As a just Judge, God had to deal with the guilt of the sinners he planned to adopt. Somehow he had to cancel their lawful sentence of eternal punishment. So what did he do? He sent his Son Jesus to suffer under the law so that the people he had decided to adopt could get out from under the judgment of the law. By dying on the cross and suffering hell in our place, Jesus took care of the legal problem we have because of sin, and he cleared the way for the adoption to proceed.
At the same time that God got rid of the legal indictment against us, he drew up a new legal contract. He officially adopted as his children and heirs every one of those people whom he had chosen and for whom Christ died. This legal, official aspect of adoption isn’t just some abstract idea for Bible scholars to discuss. It’s enormously important and enormously comforting for ordinary Christians. Why? Because it guarantees that the Christian’s relationship to God is permanent and secure.
We’ve all heard horror stories of children who were torn from their adoptive parents because of some technicality or because the adoption wasn’t official or final. But that can’t happen when God adopts you. His adoption contract can’t be revoked. No new legality can interfere with it; no higher authority can overturn it; nothing can separate God and his children. If God adopts you, that adoption is legal and final and irreversible. You are his child forever.
The Lord wants each of his children to know the legal and official aspect of adoption in Christ. He wants us to know this, not so that we’ll be experts in divine legalities, but to make us secure and confident that God is our Father for keeps.
It’s like this: Suppose you’ve been a foster child, going from place to place, with no real family of your own and no place to call home. Then a loving family decides to adopt you. At that point, even after the adoption is finalized, won’t you still have a hard time feeling secure in your new family? No matter how much kindness and love is there, won’t there still be times when you feel insecure and wonder whether you’ll be abandoned? That’s a good time for your father to show you the adoption papers which prove you’ve got a new legal status that isn’t going to change.
So it is with God. The Lord knows that his adopted children are often insecure. That’s why he reminds me that his act of adoption is legal and official and final–to give me security and stability and certainty. He’s my Father and I’m his child and nothing can ever change that.
Adoption creates a legal status which guarantees the parent-child relationship and which also makes the child an heir of what belongs to the parent. In ancient times, the inheritance would often go to the oldest son or to whatever son was adopted to be the heir of the father’s estate. The Bible takes this practice of giving everything to a special son and says to Christians, “You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:26). It doesn’t matter what your nationality is. It doesn’t matter what your social position is. It doesn’t matter whether you’re male or female. Through faith in Jesus, you’ve got the status and the inheritance of the favored son. Just as adopted children have the same status and privileges as natural children, so the adopted children of God share in the position and privileges of the only begotten Son of God. God has decided to relate to us the way he relates to his Son Jesus.
And this includes much more than our legal status and our inheritance. Suppose a father and mother adopt a child. They finalize the adoption papers, and they write a new will that leaves everything to the child they’ve just adopted. Once they’re finished doing that, is that all there is? No, that’s the legal groundwork for the relationship, but it’s just the beginning, not the end. The legalities have to be in order, but the best part is when the parents bring their adopted child home and welcome him or her into their family and shower that child with love. So, too, once our legal status and inheritance as sons is established by the work of Jesus and announced by the Word of God and sealed on our hearts by the Holy Spirit, God welcomes us into his family and showers us with love.
A good father doesn’t just stand back with arms folded to see what his adopted children will do. He doesn’t just show them the adoption papers once in a while to prove he’s their father. No, he embraces his children. He tells them he loves them. He delights in them. He’s glad to be their father. And he shows it. So it is with God. As the Bible puts in one place, “The Lord your God is with you, he is mighty to save. He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing” (Zephaniah 3:17).
God loves and delights in his children, and he wants his children to have that warmth and love and joy in the way we relate to him. Again, this way of relating to God doesn’t come naturally to you or me. But once God adopts us through Jesus, the Spirit of Jesus makes our adoption a living reality, something we know in our heads and also sense in our hearts. “Because you are sons,” says the Bible, “God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out ‘Abba, Father.’”
When God adopts you, “Abba” is the natural way to talk to him. You know many other things that are true of him, you know many other titles that are rightfully his, but for you as his child, the most fitting way to address God is “Abba, Father.” If you start a prayer by saying “O thou almighty, all-wise King of the universe, surrounded by cherubim, adored by angels,” you might impress yourself and some people around you (and you’re also telling the truth about God). But that’s not the first thing God wants to hear from your lips. The first thing God wants to hear when his children come to him is “Abba, Father.”
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying we shouldn’t praise our Father in heaven. God loves to hear the compliments and praises of his children, just as we fathers love it when our children give us Father’s Day cards and tell us what great dads we are. No words are too much to adore the magnificent God who has adopted us. So by all means tell the Lord how great and holy and wonderful he is, but tell him this as an adoring child heaping praises on a wonderful father, not as a citizen offering formal congratulations to a public figure on his achievements.
Some people are too chummy with God. They have a fake familiarity with God. They have no idea how great he is. And that’s a serious problem. But the answer to this isn’t to be more distant and formal. It’s to be more humble and respectful.
If you’re a citizen and you meet a president or prime minister for the first time, it’s not appropriate to call him by his first name. You address him formally as “Mr. President” or “Mr. Prime Minister.” If you’re the child of the president, you don’t call him by his first name, either. But does that mean you call him “Mr. President”? No, it means you call him “Dad.”
So, then, it’s not a question whether Christians should feel deep respect for God. Of course we should. The question is, what sort of respect is it going to be? Is it the formal respect of a subordinate for a distant superior, or is it the warm respect of a child for a loving father? “Abba, Father”–that’s not fake familiarity. It’s a cry of deep affection and trust to a Father whose greatness we recognize and respect and adore.
Our adoption as God’s children affects the way we pray, and also the way we obey. A child who obeys a father has very different motives than an employee who obeys a boss. The reward of being a good employee is getting a raise, and the punishment of disobeying the boss’s orders is that you’ll get yourself fired. But a father doesn’t pay his children to obey, and he doesn’t fire them when they disobey. The relationship is based on love, not on performance. Once children knows their father’s love for them, they don’t worry about being rejected and disowned.
As God’s children, our motivation to obey him isn’t that we’re afraid he’ll kick us out of his family. In Romans 8:15 the Bible says, “For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father.’”
Why obey God, then, if our relationship to him doesn’t depend on our perfect obedience? Well, why do my children obey me? They don’t have to worry about me hating them or disowning them if they disobey me, but they still have reason to obey. For one thing, they don’t want to bring discipline on themselves, and for another, even if they know I love them no matter what, they still like to please me and hear my encouragement and see my smile of approval.
As a child of God, I have similar motivation to obey. God cares about my behavior and my character. He intends me to grow up to be like Jesus, and when I make bad choices, he will discipline me to put me back on track. The Bible says, “The Lord disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in” (Proverbs 3:12). That discipline can be painful, and I’d rather avoid it where I can help it.
But a still better reason to obey my heavenly Father and work for him is to bring him joy and pleasure. I don’t want to grieve the one who paid such a terrible price to adopt me into his family and whom I love and want so much to please. I don’t want to make my Abba frown; I want to make him smile. He loves me, and I want to show him how much I love him.
I want to serve God, not to earn his acceptance, but simply to bring him joy. I know that when I serve him, he doesn’t really need my services. He can do his work very well without me. But I want to serve him anyway. Maybe I’m like my two-year-old. She likes to “help” her daddy do things–and you know how much “help” two-year-olds can be! I could do these things better and faster without her, but I love it when she is so eager to do something for me. Likewise, my Abba in heaven can get along without me, but as I obey and serve him, I know that he delights in me as a Father delights in a dear son. And who knows? The longer I love and serve and obey him, the more useful I may actually become to him. Indeed, the day is coming when I will be exactly like Jesus, perfectly in tune with my Abba and pleasing to him in every way.
By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.