In thinking about the preaching of John the Baptist and of Jesus, I see that much that passes for evangelism today is nothing of the sort. John the Baptist proclaimed that people needed to repent because the kingdom of God was coming (Mark 1:4). When Jesus began to minister, he also proclaimed the need for repentance. “After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!”” (Mark 1:14-15). This call to repentance is often lacking in evangelism. The call to repentance and faith has been replaced by the proclamation, “God has a wonderful plan for your life.” The impact of such preaching is a church of Christians who are looking for the wonderful and exciting plan of God, which they expect will make their lives happy and fulfilling. There is no expectation of suffering or submission to the cross or a desire to be done with sin.
God’s plan for humanity
It is indeed true that God has a plan for humanity, but not what is popularly understood by this statement. What, then, is the plan of God for humanity? In essence I believe that it is human sonship. “”It will happen that in the very place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ they will be called ‘sons of the living God.’”” (Romans 9:26).
God desires human sons.
Eph 1:3 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. 4 For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love 5 he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will– 6 to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves. 7 In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace 8 that he lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding. 9 And he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, 10 to be put into effect when the times will have reached their fulfilment– to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ. 11 In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, 12 in order that we, who were the first to hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory.
Although it is often taught that we are sons and daughters of the heavenly king, the focus of this is often on the privileges which ensue from this relationship. The passage above makes it clear that there are many blessings which come with being sons of our heavenly Father. By his immeasurable grace, God has given us love, forgiveness, peace, joy and eternal life with him. It is not that the children of God are not supremely privileged, but rather that we must understand that sonship involves complete obedience to the will of the Father. The misunderstanding comes because we have disconnected our ideas about sonship from the person of Christ.
The sonship of Jesus Christ is both our model and the possibility of our own sonship.
Galatians 3:29 And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise. 4:1 Now I say, as long as the heir is a child, he does not differ at all from a slave although he is owner of everything, 2 but he is under guardians and managers until the date set by the father. 3 So also we, while we were children, were held in bondage under the elemental things of the world. 4 But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, 5 in order that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons. 6 And because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” 7 Therefore you are no longer a slave, but a son; and if a son, then an heir through God. (NAS)
Our human sonship is made possible because the Son of God became a man, born under the law. As a result we have received adoption as sons. Adoption is not like the adoption of an infant, as we are no longer children, but sons who have come of age. In order to live as sons of God we have been given the Spirit of His Son, the Spirit of adoption (Rom 8:15), who enables us to cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit testifies to our own spirits that we are sons of God. It is thus possible to live as sons of God because, through the indwelling Spirit, Christ lives in us. “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20).
Jesus the human son of God
Since our sonship is made possible through Christ, and Christ is the model for that sonship, we must ask what human sonship means for the person of Jesus Christ. For this we need to look at the statements which Jesus made in the Gospels about his own relationship to the Father. Fundamentally, the nature of human sonship which Jesus exemplifies is one of utter dependence on the Father. The Son does nothing independently of his Father. In the life of Jesus, this is evident in Jesus’ statements that he was sent by the Father (John 10:36). He does nothing of himself but only what he sees the Father doing (John 5:19). The words of Jesus are words which the Father has given to him to speak (John 8:28) and he speaks on that which his Father has commanded him to say (John 12:49). Not only are the words of Jesus from the Father, but everything he does is because it is the work the Father gave him to do (John 5:19, 36; 10:37).
All that Jesus the Son does he does for the glory of his Father. “Jesus replied, “If I glorify myself, my glory means nothing. My Father, whom you claim as your God, is the one who glorifies me” (John 8:54). Nothing which the Father asks is refused, because Jesus wants only to bring glory to his Father, no matter what the cost. “”Now my heart is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour. Father, glorify your name!” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and will glorify it again.”” (John 12:27-28). The Father is thus able to glorify the Son in his obedience.
The Son exercised an absolute trust in the wisdom of the Father. He is content in the fact that there are some things which the Father has not revealed to him. He does not, for example, know the day or time of his own return (Matt 24:36). This trust in the wisdom and will of the Father is demonstrated to be absolute in the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus surrendered to the upcoming ordeal of the cross.
Matthew 26:39 Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” 40 Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. “Could you men not keep watch with me for one hour?” he asked Peter. 41 “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the body is weak.” 42 He went away a second time and prayed, “My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.”
A little later on the disciples try to save Jesus from the soldiers who come to arrest him, but he demonstrates his complete trust in his Father by refusing to be rescued from the task which his Father has given him. “Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?” (Matthew 26:53). “Jesus commanded Peter, “Put your sword away! Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me?”” (John 18:11).
Because of these things, Jesus is given all authority over the world. “All things have been committed to me by my Father” (Matt 11:27a). “The Father loves the Son and has placed everything in his hands” (John 3:35). Life, death and judgement are given into the hands of the Son. “For just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, even so the Son gives life to whom he is pleased to give it. Moreover, the Father judges no one, but has entrusted all judgment to the Son, that all may honour the Son just as they honour the Father. He who does not honour the Son does not honour the Father, who sent him” (John 5:21-23). The honour which the Son is given by the Father is given because of the willing obedience of the Son (John 15:10).
Having been willing to obediently lay done his life according to the will of the Father, Jesus went to his death upon the cross. But the Father will not allow his Son to remain held down by death. “But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him” (Acts 2:24). Jesus “was declared the Son of God with power by the resurrection from the dead, according to the Spirit of holiness” (Rom 1:4). This is his vindication as the Son of God (1 Tim 3:16). Now the Jesus, the obedient Son is exalted above all and given the name above all names, because of his willing obedience unto death (Phil 2:6-11).
The nature of Christian sonship
“You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus,” (Galatians 3:26).
Since the person of Christ has shown us what it means to be a son of God as a human being, we can look to how Christians are to live as sons of God. While the status of son of God certainly is a privileged one (1 John 3:1), the privilege is not one to which we should cling.
Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death– even death on a cross! (Philippians 2:5-8).
If Jesus had this privilege of Sonship from eternity, and yet he did not hold on to privilege, but in obedience humbled himself in order to bring about the redemptive plan of his Father, then the human sons of God cannot rest in privilege and scorn obedience.
That it is God’s desire to have children who are like his divine Son is stated over and over in Scripture in various ways. Being sons of God involves being set apart as God’s holy and pure people, not walking according to the ways of the godless world. “As God has said: “I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people.” “Therefore come out from them and be separate, says the Lord. Touch no unclean thing, and I will receive you.” “I will be a Father to you, and you will be my sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty.” Since we have these promises, dear friends, let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God.” (2 Cor 6:16c-7:1)
Paul says something similar in Romans. Being sons of God involves being led by the Spirit of God instead of being led by the flesh. “So then, brethren, we are under obligation, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh– for if you are living according to the flesh, you must die; but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God” (Rom 8:12-14 NAS). This is of course made possible by the fact that Jesus Christ, the Son of God has overcome sin in his flesh for our sakes (Rom 8:3).
The sons of God are like God in the way in which they act. The words of Jesus tell us how the sons of God behave. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God” (Matt 5:9). “But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked” (Luke 6:35). Jesus does not take it for granted that being a son of God involves privilege. He knows that sons are those who show by their actions what their father is like.
The children of God are obedient in order to become pure and holy. Only in this way can they be light in the darkness. Only in this way will they understand the reward which awaits them. This is not done without grace, but rather grace enables this holiness for which we are destined.
12 Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed– not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence– continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose. 14 Do everything without complaining or arguing, 15 so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe 16 as you hold out the word of life– in order that I may boast on the day of Christ that I did not run or labour for nothing. 17 But even if I am being poured out like a drink offering on the sacrifice and service coming from your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you. 18 So you too should be glad and rejoice with me. (Philippians 2:12-18)
In order to be made into the likeness of God our Father we must be willing, like the Lord Jesus, to take the way of the cross, rather than the way of privilege. Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matt 16:24). This should not come as a surprise given that this is the way Jesus had to walk. “In bringing many sons to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the author of their salvation perfect through suffering. Both the one who makes men holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers” (Heb 2:10-11). The glorious Son of God, who was with the Father from the beginning, had to have his human nature perfected by suffering, and we are of the same family. Human sons of God cannot expect to become like their Father in heaven without taking the way of the cross.
Paul understood the goal of human sonship. “My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you,” (Galatians 4:19). The goal of discipleship is that Christ is formed in us. The goal is that we should become a people who are in every way like Jesus, who has shown us what it is to be the perfect human Son of God. “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers” (Romans 8:29). It is this conformity to Christ which is the essence of the wonderful plan which God has for humanity.
The result for Christian evangelism and discipleship
It is utterly true that God has a wonderful plan for people. However, telling people that God has wonderful plan for them is not in itself evangelism. The proclamation of the gospel is the proclamation of Jesus Christ. There is no reason to assume who people are not versed in the Bible will understand what God’s wonderful plan is for them. This needs to be spelled out, or the impression given will be a false one, and that false impression will stand against effective Christian discipleship.
If you are ignorant of the goal of the Christian life, then something will take the place of the goal of God. The only substitutes are self-substitutes, that is, self-appointed goals. These are effectively idolatrous goals, because any goal which is not God’s goal must have idolatry at its heart. As idol worship cannot be other than futile, discipleship which is based on false notions of what is the goal of the Christian life, will be dominated by futility. This futility will naturally stifle Christian growth.
If we look back to the beginning thoughts of this paper, we see that Jesus proclaimed, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is near.” Being sons of the living God involves repentance from going our own way, from having our own plans, from seeking our own goals. God’s kingdom has come in the person of Jesus Christ. Now is the time to become part of the kingdom of God. The sons of God are a part of that kingdom, and as subjects of the kingdom, they must seek the will of the King. This is God’s wonderful plan for humanity, that all of them would be under his lordship in the kingdom of God. Every other plan is one without a true goal. This is why humanity must become sons of God. All our self-important plans are empty. They appear to be wonderful, but this is a false promise.
When preaching and teaching give the impression that God has a wonderful plan, without giving shape to that plan, then listeners will be led astray into imagining their false and empty plans are what is intended. When Christ is not preached, then the message is empty of content, no matter how wonderful it sounds. When Christian life is not centred on Christ then discipleship cannot have a goal. Christians who life self-centred instead of Christ-centred lives must inevitably experience frustration and futility. Only Jesus Christ is the goal of life. Only Christian discipleship which has sonship through Christ as its goal can enable Christians to live lives which have a true telos (goal).
What must we strive for? Let us strive to be obedient, trusting, faithful sons of God. We can only do this through Jesus Christ. It is not possible to become true sons of God in the flesh, through human effort (see John 1:12-13). We are born of the Spirit, empowered by the Spirit, and taken to our goal by the Spirit, who applies the work of Christ to us and makes what Jesus did for us something which transforms our frail human flesh into spiritual sons of God.
The message must be to see Jesus as the beginning and the end of the Christian life. As sons of God, through Jesus the human son of God, we will reach the wonderful goal which God the Father has for our lives. Without this, we may have all the plans we like, but they will all end in futility, because there is no other telos than Jesus, the alpha and omega, the beginning and the end (telos). Let us repent of the ‘wonderful’ plans we have for our own lives and embrace the truly wonderful plan which our Father in heaven has for our lives.
 I have used sons rather than sons and daughters because human sonship is based on the sonship of Jesus Christ.