Greg explains the difference between being offspring of God in the sense of being made in his image and being children of God as heirs in Christ.
Question: I was speaking to a gentleman who had held the belief that all humans have divine essence, like we were God. So, he had about five verses pulled from the Bible, and I’m not wondering about how to respond to him, because I definitely think I put a rock in his shoe, but one of the verses he had pulled up had just made me question what it actually meant, and it was Romans 8:16–17: “The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him.” What does it mean to be “fellow heirs with Christ”?
Greg: Well, this is kind of a deep concept in the sense of the long-term ramifications and all that’s involved, but in the kind of the straightforward sense, Jesus accomplishes for us what we were not able to accomplish for ourselves.
In Ephesians 2, it talks about us being, by nature, “children of wrath.” What we deserve is punishment. We did not live up to the standard or the ideal that God wanted us to live up to in order to be considered—if you want to use the broadest sense of the word—good children or good sons and daughters. Paul quotes from the epicurean philosophers in Acts 17: “As even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we also are His children.’” So, there is a certain sense that we are all children of God, but at the same time, there is a different sense that only Christians are children of God.
When Paul says “we are his offspring,” we are all children made by God and like God in some fashion. We are made, each of us, in the image of God. But being made in the image of God—and, in that sense, being his offspring—is not the same thing as saying that we are part of his intimate family. This is why John 1:12, speaking of Jesus, says, “As many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name.” In fact, the broader context is that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. God added humanity to himself and came to his own. His own were the Jews—the Jewish people that he had chosen for a particular task—but his own did not receive him. They did not accept who he claimed to be. They didn’t acknowledge his messianic office, if you will, but, by contrast, those who do—Jew or Gentile—to them he gave the right to become children of God. That, then, brings us into a whole new category, and this is why John would say in 1 John 3:1, “See how great a love the Father has bestowed on us, that we would be called children of God; and such we are.”
There’s a distinction there between these groups. There are humans made in the image of God that are, in some sense, the offspring of God. We are like him in some way, but that doesn’t mean we’re intimately involved with him in a familial way. That’s a result of coming into the family through Jesus. Now, why through Jesus? Because Jesus paid for our sins. He took our crime—the guilt and debt load of our crimes against God—on himself and paid for them on the cross. This is what the Reformers called the ”great exchange.” There’s an exchange that takes place, but it’s a two-way exchange. Yes, all of our guilt goes on him, but what are we exchanging it for? He gets our guilt. What do we get? We get his merit. We get his righteousness. Jesus, who was the incarnate Son of God—the Son of God in a very different way than any of us would ever be, Emmanuel, God with us—he is the one whose perfect obedience merited his inheritance, all of the things that befall Jesus in virtue of his obedient life. What Paul writes about—not just here, but in other places—is that what Jesus has accomplished, we get to benefit from. We come in under that. He gets our sin and the punishment for it, and we get his righteousness. That is the exchange. So, we become heirs in Christ. He brings us along.
It’s like if I was a rich kid, and you were a poor kid, and I said, “You’re coming with me.” I’m the guy who gets the inheritance. I’m including you. You are now a member of our family, and everything that is mine is now yours. You’re the heir in Greg. That is, you’re the heir because I’m the heir and I’m including you in with me. So, when Paul says we are heirs in Christ, it’s because we are receiving. We are included in all of the things that Jesus is receiving that he earned and we didn’t, and he is sharing it with us. That’s what it means to be heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ.
And then, of course, he adds the qualifier: “If indeed we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him.” Now, what he’s identifying there is that the fact of salvation entails suffering and difficulty and hardship, and genuine Christians are going to experience that, and this is why Paul says in another place, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution. Some greater, some less. But it comes with the territory. If you’re going to walk with God—if you’re going to be with Jesus and a follower of Jesus—then the world is going to hate us. Matthew 10 talks about that. So does 1 Peter 4:1: “Since Christ has suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same purpose.”
If what your friend is saying is that every human being is a child of God in the sense that Paul was talking about in Romans 8, he’s mistaken because children receive the good inheritance. Non-children are those who are children of wrath, children of the devil (as Jesus talks about with the Pharisees in John 8:44). In one sense, we’re all made in the image of God. We are, in a very, very general sense, children of God. But, when it comes to the relational element, some are children of the devil, following him, and others are children of God and heirs with Christ because they’re following Jesus. And when they follow Jesus, they’re going to run into trouble with others who are following Satan, essentially.
As you read through your New Testament, you’re going to see this principle come up more often. There are a lot of other verses that make the same point that there is an inheritance that we have in virtue of the fact that we are in union with Christ. “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ” (Ephesians 1:3). Notice that Christ is the vehicle. “He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will” (Ephesians 1:5). He lavished on us his grace in all wisdom and insight. He made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his kind intention. “Also we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will” (Ephesians 5:11). So, God planned in advance that believers are going to get the inheritance that Jesus earned for us. Jesus earned it. He is the proper heir. “And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise” (Galatians 3:29). There’s a promise regarding Abraham’s children—his descendants, his seed—and, by belonging to Christ, we enter into that promise that we inherit in virtue of Jesus.