Being a ‘son of God’ means one has a new status and identity, which is characterized by certain necessary entailments or features. The first feature may be called filial intimacy, i.e. a new relationship with God, created and sustained by the Spirit, in which one intimately knows and responds to God as one’s Father. After reminding the Galatians of their true identity as adopted sons (Gal 4:5), and thus as heirs of the Abrahamic promise (Gal 3:29; 4:7), Paul turns to exhortation: ‘Now, however, that you have come to know [gnontes] God, or rather to be known [gnosthentes] by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and beggarly elemental spirits? How can you want to be enslaved to them again?’ (Gal 4:9). Knowing God (and being known by God) is the result of their adoption as sons and reception of the Spirit, described in quite personal and experiential language: ‘And because you are children [huioi: ‘sons’], God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!”’ (Gal 4:6). Therefore, to be a ‘son of God’ means one has a new and profound experiential intimacy with God that was non-existent before one believed (see also Rom 8:15–16; Rabens 2013: 224–228).
The second feature of being a ‘son of God’ is the high privilege that status brings with it, namely the expectation of and empowerment for holiness, or what may be termed filial obedience. Notice Paul’s flow of thought in Rom 8:13–15:
For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children [huioi: ‘sons’] of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption.
The ‘for’ (gar) at the beginning of verse 15 suggests that the experiential intimacy of that verse grounds the Spirit-empowered obedience of verses 13–14, which is necessary for attaining eschatological life. In other words, believers do not pursue holiness in order to become sons of God; they pursue holiness because they already are sons of God. And again, as with intimacy, the Spirit is crucial for holiness. This feature could also be analysed through the lens of imitation, which the author of Ephesians capitalizes on: ‘Therefore, be imitators [mimetai] of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us’ (Eph 5:1–2). With the privilege of being adopted as sons of God (Eph 1:5) comes the expectation of acting like the Son of God, of the son displaying a family resemblance to his father (see esp. Burke 2006: 143–148).
126.96.36.199 Suffering and glory
The third and fourth features – suffering and glory – of a ‘Son of God’ are really two sides of the same filial coin, together laying out a pattern of sonship. Just as the Son of God suffered the effects of sin in a fallen world, so the sons of God, in union with him, will suffer the same. And just as the Son was glorified, so the sons, in union with him, will likewise be glorified – filial suffering and filial glory. According to Paul, if we are God’s children/sons, then we are also ‘heirs – heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ – if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him’ (Rom 8:17). Suffering, then glory. The suffering Paul envisions in Romans 8 cannot be limited to persecution, though it certainly includes it. He calls it the ‘suffering of this present time’ (Rom 8:18) and goes on to list some specifics: ‘Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?’ (Rom 8:35). The suffering of the ‘sons of God’, then, relates to the general tribulations of living in a fallen creation that was, and still is, subjected to futility while waiting for the day of its freedom, when the children of God will be glorified (Rom 8:19–21).
The author of Hebrews also makes the connection between the Son of God and the sons of God explicit with respect to suffering and glory, saying, ‘It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children [huious] to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings’ (Heb 2:10). The path of sonship is one of suffering leading to glory (see esp. Gorman 2001: 304–348; Kusio 2019: 171–187).
Closely related to this notion of suffering, and perhaps even included within it, is the idea of discipline – the notion that some of the suffering experienced by God’s children is due to God’s fatherly discipline. The author of Hebrews is the most explicit on this point. Drawing from the wisdom of Prov 3:11–12 (LXX), and while addressing the readers as God’s sons, he says, ‘Endure trials for the sake of discipline. God is treating you as children [huiois]; for what child [huios] is there whom a parent [pater] does not discipline?’ (12:7). Such discipline, which always in the moment seems painful, is ultimately designed by God for the good of his children as a means to ‘sharing his holiness’ (12:10-11). Without discipline, there is no true sonship. With discipline, true sons ‘share his holiness’ and enjoy the ‘peaceful fruit of righteousness’ (12:10–11). In other words, through suffering, including discipline, sons are ‘brought to glory’ (Heb 2:10).
‘Glory’ (doxa) and ‘glorified’ are notoriously difficult concepts to define, with scholarship having yet to reach a consensus on their precise meaning. With respect to the ‘glorification’ of the children of God under consideration here, debate is still ongoing. Nevertheless, there are some things that are clear. First, ‘glorification’ involves bodily resurrection, i.e. sharing the glory of eternal, resurrection life. It is this aspect of ‘sonship’ to which Paul refers in Rom 8:23, when he says, ‘And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.’ This is none other than the future ‘glory of the children of God’, which Paul says is not worth comparing to the sufferings of the present time (Rom 8:18–21; see esp. Jewett 2007: 519). Second, and receiving more attention recently, the ‘glorification’ of the sons also entails sharing with Christ the Son in his rule over creation, which will mark a restoration of God’s original design for humanity (Rom 8:21; see also Rom 5:17; Gen 1:26–28; esp. Goranson Jacob 2018: 266). Third, because Paul puts being ‘glorified with him’ in parallel with ‘heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ’ (Rom 8:17), that phrase is also taken to mean receiving all that God has promised. The sons of God are his heirs (Gal 4:7) and thus stand to inherit everything. The inheritance certainly includes what was promised to Abraham, as ‘heir of the world’ (Rom 4:13), and to his offspring, but it goes beyond that to include eschatological life, even ‘all things: ‘He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?’ (Rom 8:32). The unique phrase, ‘heirs of God’ (Rom 8:17), signifies the fact that the greatest treasure belonging to the sons is not ultimately the innumerable gifts of God, but the Father/Giver himself, for he is their ‘exceeding joy’ (Ps 43:4; see Forman 2011: 58–101; Byrne 1979: 68–70, 101-103; Schreiner 2018: 421).