Biblical Theology and Identity
Identity matters. It matters in our culture, which is awash in identity politics and the unimpeachable claims that identity provides. And it matters among Christians. We call people to live up to and live out the reality of who they are in Christ: an alien and stranger, salt and light, a member of the body of Christ or bride of Christ, a temple of the Spirit, a new creation, and so on. We encourage one another to put on the new self.
Yet too often, the New Testament identity markers are more informed by our own background and cultural assumptions than by the storyline of the Bible. The story of the alien and stranger can become the story of the cultural fundamentalist justifying his disengagement. The story of the bride can easily become the story of self-centered sentimentalism in which, like American brides every Saturday, we are the point and center of it all.
THE STORY OF SONSHIP
But if we’re going to know how to use the Bible’s identity markers in our counseling and discipling, then we need to understand the larger biblical story of our identity as sons and daughters of God. This story is a powerful tool for combatting the narcissistic discipleship that passes for so much of Christianity in America.
From Adam and Eve’s creation after God’s likeness, to their responsibility to represent God as vice-regents over creation (Gen. 1:26-28), to their privilege of intimacy with God (Gen 3:8) and unique ability to reflect back to him his glory, to their obligation to obey (Gen. 2:15), the imago Dei is cast in the form of sonship. Right from the start, the pattern is laid down: like father, like son. As God ruled over Creation, so the son was to represent that rule.
Of course the first son, Adam, was disobedient to his Father. The image of God was not lost, but it now came with a cursed inheritance from our earthly father, a nature corrupted and marred by sin. From this point on, inclusion in God’s family was not by birth, but by adoption.
A New Beginning?
In Genesis 12, Abram, the son of an idolater, is adopted by God to become the father of a new nation. He’s given a new name: Abraham. He’s given the promise of a son, and what’s more, an inheritance for that son.
Again and again, that promise is called into question: by barrenness, by treachery, by famine, by death itself. When God calls to Abraham to sacrifice his son as a burnt offering (Gen. 22:2), it appears that the promise and story of the son is over, because the son is still the son of Adam who deserves to die.
But God is not finished. He rescues Abraham’s son, and Isaac’s son, and Jacob’s sons, until the son has become the whole nation of Israel.
In Exodus 4, God tells Moses to tell Pharaoh, “Let my son go, so he may worship me.” God then rescues his corporate son, Israel, from the serpent king and brings his son into his inheritance, the promised land, a second Garden of Eden.
God also raises up a king, a man after his own heart, named David, and promises that his son will rule over a kingdom that will never end. David’s son will be God’s son, and will represent both God and his people. He will rule in righteousness, and do the work the Father gives him, rescuing his people from their enemies.
But neither the corporate son nor the sons of David are faithful. They continue their rebellion. By the end of the Old Testament, David’s throne is vacant.
The Son Comes, and Makes us Sons
Then the true Son of God came. Jesus is the Divine Son incarnate, the true King, the Messiah who came to do the work his Father gave him (John 4:34, 5:19, 6:38). He declared that he represented God: that if you’d seen him, you’d seen the Father (John 14:9). Jesus is the true imago Dei, the second Adam, the true Israel. Finally, like Father, like Son.
Incredibly, the corporate son rejected him. Yet God raised the Son from the dead, and seated him on the throne of heaven itself, so that all the sons of disobedience who turn from their sins and are united to the true Son by faith are given the right to become children of God, adopted into God’s family.
Having been adopted, they are conformed to the image of the Son he loves. This process will not stop until the day we see him, and are finally like him. “How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called the children of God” (1 John 3:2). And when we are finally like him, we will reign with him, as sons and daughters of God (2 Tim. 2:2; Rev. 20:4, 6).
DISCIPLING AND COUNSELING THE STORY OF SONSHIP
How does this story of sonship impact the way we use this biblical identity in our discipling and counseling? I want to highlight four things.
1. The Father Loves the Sons Because the Father Loves the Son
First, the Father loves the sons because the Father loves the Son. God’s love for us as sons does not begin with us. It begins with his love of the Son Jesus Christ. Why? Because the Son always has been and always will be obedient to the Father (John 10:17). And it is that love that spills over into love for us, the sons who are united to Christ by faith.
We need to get this into our heads as disciplers and counselors. We can say “God loves you” all day long and it won’t make a dent, because people know deep down that God’s love is not deserved. But when I’m told that God loves Christ, and that I’ve been adopted in Christ by faith, I now have something to put my confidence in, something that isn’t contradicted by my knowledge of myself.
Christian, you are loved, not because you’re lovely or obedient, but because Christ is lovely and obedience, and you are in Christ. You have been adopted.
2. A Son Glorifies his Father by Representing Him before the World
Second, the role of a son is to bring glory to his Father by representing him before the world. Jesus made this point about his own life repeatedly. John 5:19: the Son “can only do what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does, the Son also does.” And all of this is to bring glory to the Father. As Jesus prayed, “I have brought you glory on earth by completing the work you gave me to do” (John 17:4).
But what is true of Christ is also true of the sons who are in Christ. Matthew 5:9: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.” Matthew 5:44: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven.” Ephesians 5:1: “Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children.” Heirs of God are to bear the Father’s name and to advance the Father’s reputation. That is a high calling and privilege.
3. The Privilege of the Son Is a Secure Inheritance
Third, the privilege of the Son is a secure inheritance. Jesus makes this point: “Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever” (John 8:35). Paul picks up the same idea: “Because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out Abba, Father. So you are no longer a slave, but a son; and since you are a son, God has made you also an heir” (Gal. 4:6). Far more than an emotional and psychological experience of love is promised in this verse, we are promised an inheritance and an enduring place in the family. That inheritance is certain and secure.
What is this inheritance? The main picture in the Old Testament is land. In the present age, we aren’t given a land, but the Spirit. And incredibly, the Spirit is just a down payment. Our full inheritance still awaits, for our full inheritance is the Triune God himself in a new creation that is perfectly designed for our flourishing and his glory.
4. The Goal of the Son Is Obedience
Fourth, the goal of the Son is obedience. That should have been Adam and Israel and David’s goal. But it was without doubt Jesus’ goal. He was obedient to the Father to the very end. It wasn’t a grudging obedience, wishing there was another way. It wasn’t a pitiful obedience, in the hope that perhaps the Father would love him if he obeyed. It wasn’t a prideful, “Hey, look at me!” obedience. It was a willing obedience—“I lay it down of my own accord” (John 10:18). It was a confident obedience—“because you loved me before the Creation of the world” (John 17:24). It was a humble obedience—Jesus is not ashamed to call us brothers (Heb. 2:11). And this obedience was his joy.
When we use the language of sonship in our discipleship and our counseling, if we merely convey the promise of intimacy and access, which Romans 8 teaches, then we are giving only part of the story. Sons are not merely the recipients of love, empty love cups that need to be filled. They are also those who actively love their Father. And as John tells us, “This is love for God: to obey his commands” (2 John 6)
I would go so far as to say that the dominant theme attached to sonship in the Old Testament and New isn’t intimacy, access, affection, or even security. It’s obedience.
It all comes together in Romans 8. God predestined us to be conformed to the likeness, the image, of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers (Rom. 8:29). And therefore, Paul says, “we have an obligation—but it is not to the sinful nature, to live according to it. For if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live, because those who are led by the spirit of God are sons of God” (Rom. 8:12-14) The goal of sons is obedience.
The next thing Paul says is that by the Spirit we cry, “Abba, Father” (Rom. 8:15). And so we come full circle. Intimacy and obedience go hand in hand in the story of the Son.
A NEW STORY
We live in a therapeutic age, an age of broken relationships and fractured families, where fathers are jerks, or buffoons, or task masters, or just plain absent. Sons raise themselves into manhood through images on the internet and TV. Frankly, daughters fare even worse. So it shouldn’t surprise us that in the biblical language of sons and daughters, we find a powerful antidote to a deadly poison.
But in fact, in our identity as sons and daughters of God we’ve been given something far more powerful than an antidote to the failings of our time. We’ve been given an identity that calls us beyond ourselves and our emotional needs to the story of the glory of God.
One day our hope will be rewarded; our work will come to an end. “The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed” (Rom. 8:21). And that expectation will not be disappointed. On that day, a new story will begin: the story of the glorious freedom of the sons and daughters of God.