The Eternal Sonship of Christ
Sincere Christians disagree concerning the issue of the eternal sonship of Christ. Some contend that Christ has always been the Son of God; therefore, He was God’s Son in eternity past. Others argue that Christ did not become the Son of God until His conception and birth or later. Therefore, He was not the Son of God until His incarnation. A careful look at the Scriptures can settle this important issue.
The Concept of Servanthood
Some who insist that Christ was not the Son of God in eternity past do so with the belief that the Bible conveys the following concept of sonship: A son is subservient to the authority of his father and, therefore, is not equal to his father. Thus they reason that if Christ had been the Son of God in eternity past, He would have been subservient, not equal, to the Father. But in eternity past, Christ was absolute deity exclusively. As such, He was equal, not subservient, to God the Father. Therefore, they reason, He could not have been the Son of God in eternity past; and to claim that He was dishonors the person of Christ and reflects negatively on His deity.
However, several things prompt the conclusion that the Bible does not convey such a concept of sonship. First, in Matthew 21:33–39 Christ taught a parable about a man who planted a vineyard, entrusted its care to a group of husbandmen, then traveled far away. When harvest time came, the owner sent some of his servants to the vineyard to receive the fruit. The husbandmen beat one of his servants, killed another, and stoned another. So the owner sent a larger number of his servants. The husbandmen abused them as well. Finally the owner sent his son to the vineyard. He reasoned that, contrary to the way the husbandmen had dealt with his servants, surely they would respect his son.
Through this parable, Christ drew a distinction between the son of the owner and the servants. He thereby indicated that the relationship of a son to his father was not one of subservience.
Second, in Hebrews 3:1–3 the writer declared that Christ “was counted worthy of more glory than Moses” (v. 3); and he contrasted Moses’ position of a servant with Christ’s position of a son in their relationship to God (vv. 5–6). Through this contrast, the writer indicated that the relationship of a son to his father was not that of a servant.
Third, in Galatians 4:7 the apostle Paul stated, ”Wherefore, thou art no more a servant, but a son.” Paul thereby signified that the position of a son was not that of a servant.
Fourth, Christ contrasted servant and son in the parable of the prodigal son (Lk. 15:11–32). When the prodigal son decided to return home, he determined to say to his father, “I…am no more worthy to be called thy son; make me as one of thy hired servants” (vv. 18–19). The father ordered his servants to wait on his son (vv. 22–24). These details of the parable reveal a distinction between a son and a servant.
These four items, then, indicate that the biblical view of sonship does not include the concept of subservience.
The Significance of “The Son of God”
In the Bible, the term son has a threefold significance. First, it signifies that a son is a separate person from his father. This fact is evident, for example, in God’s statement to Abraham: “Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, . . . and offer him there for a burnt offering” (Gen. 22:2). It is evident again from the prodigal son’s statement: “I will arise and go to my father” (Lk. 15:18). In relationship to Christ, the only way that God’s declaration,
“This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Mt. 3:17; 17:5), can make sense is if Jesus, as God’s Son, is a separate person from the Father.
Second, the biblical term son signifies that a son is the heir of his father. In Christ’s parable of the man who entrusted the care of his vineyard to husbandmen, when the husbandmen saw the owner’s son coming to the vineyard, “they said among themselves, This is the heir; come, let us kill him, and let us seize on his inheritance” (Mt. 21:38). In Galatians 4:7 the apostle Paul indicated that a son is an heir. In relationship to Christ, the writer of Hebrews stated that God has “in these last days spoken unto us by his Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things” (Heb. 1:1–2; cf. v. 4). In Psalm 2:7–8 God said to the Messiah, “Thou art my Son;…Ask of me, and I shall give thee the nations for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession.”
Third, in the Bible the term son signifies that a son has the same nature as his father. In both the Old Testament and post-biblical Judaism, the Hebrew words for son were “often used to denote the relationship which determines the nature of a man.”1 In light of this definition, Christ’s designation as the Son of God indicates that He has the same nature of deity as God the Father.
The Bible provides evidences for the conclusion that the designation “the Son of God” signifies the deity of Jesus Christ. First, the Bible indicates that the Jewish people understood that absolute deity was inherent in the designation. Because Jesus called God “My Father” (Jn. 5:17), His opponents “sought the more to kill him, because he not only had broken the sabbath, but said also that God was his Father, making himself equal with God” (Jn. 5:18). On another occasion when His enemies tried to kill Him, they said, “For a good work we stone thee not, but for blasphemy; and because that thou, being a man, makest thyself God” (Jn. 10:33). In response to this charge, Christ asked, “Say ye of him, whom the Father hath sanctified and sent into the world, Thou blasphemest; because I said, I am the Son of God?” (Jn. 10:36). This response indicates that it was Jesus’ claim to be the Son of God that caused His opponents to accuse Him of making Himself God.
Second, the book of Hebrews reveals that God the Father ascribed deity to Jesus Christ as the Son of God:
But unto the Son he saith, Thy throne, O God, is forever and ever; . . . therefore, God, even thy God, hath anointed thee with the oil of gladness above thy fellows (1:8–9).
In both statements, God the Father calls His Son “God.”
Third, the Bible refers to the incarnated Christ as both “the Son of God” and “the Son of man.” The purpose of these two designations is to emphasize the two natures of the incarnated Christ. One scholar has stated that Christ’s designation as the Son of man “denotes true humanity.”2
Since the designation “the Son of man” indicates Christ’s humanity, then the designation “the Son of God” must indicate His deity. Another scholar has written, “Unquestionably the title ‘Son of God’ affirms the full deity of Jesus, as the title ‘Son of man’ affirms his true humanity.”3
It is important to note that, when Christ became incarnated in human flesh, He took on Himself humanity, not deity (Jn. 1:14; Heb. 2:14–17). In light of this truth and the significance of the designations “the Son of man” and “the Son of God,” we must conclude that He became the Son of man, not the Son of God, when He became incarnated.
Fourth, the book of Hebrews declares that as the Son of God, Christ is “the express image of his [God’s] person” (1:3). The Greek word translated “express image” means “impress, reproduction, exact representation.”4 Judaism used this term to refer to “the likeness between parents and children.”5 The Greek word translated “person” means “substantial nature, essence, actual being, reality.”6 With these meanings in mind, one language scholar has concluded that Hebrews 1:2–3 presents the concept that “Christ as the Son of God is the impress of God’s nature.”7
Fifth, the biblical expression “the only begotten Son” indicates that the designation “the Son of God” signifies the divine nature of Christ. In contrast to believers who are born of God (Jn. 1:13; 1 Jn. 3:9; 4:7; 5:1, 4, 18) and are sons of God (Jn. 1:12; Rom. 8:14), Christ is “the only begotten Son” of God (Jn. 3:16, 18; 1 Jn. 4:9). He is the Son of God in away that believers are not. Being born of God and as sons of God, believers partake of the holiness aspect of God’s nature (2 Pet. 1:4) but do not partake of His other attributes. As the only begotten Son of God, Christ possesses the total nature of God. The apostle John used the expression the only begotten Son of God to emphasize “more strongly the distinction between Jesus and believers and the uniqueness of Jesus in His divine sonship.”8
These five biblical evidences reveal that the designation “the Son of God” signifies absolute deity. That significance prompts two conclusions. First, since Christ has always been deity, then He has always been the Son of God. He is the eternal Son of God. Second, in order to be consistent, the view that claims that Christ was not the Son of God before His incarnation should also claim that He was not deity before His incarnation. In light of that, we must reject the idea that He became the Son of God at some point in history.
Editor’s Note: For an in-depth treatment of this issue, see The Eternal Sonship of Christ by George W. Zeller and Renald E. Showers (Loizeaux Brothers.)