Jesus is the Son of God, But What Does that Mean?

D.L.D.

The New Testament affirms that Jesus is the Son of God (Jn 11:27, 20:31; Lk 4:41; Mk 15:39; Matt 14:33). When Scripture described Jesus as the Son of God, this did not mean that God the Father gave birth to or begat the Son. There was never a time when Jesus did not exist (Jn 1:1-4). As Cyril said, “on hearing of a Son, understand it not merely in an improper sense, but as a Son in truth, a Son by nature, without beginning; not as having come out of bondage into a higher state of adoption, but a Son eternally begotten by an inscrutable and incomprehensible generation.”[1]

Jesus is the Son of God eternally. The Logos’ “generation was made without time (achronōs); not in time, but from eternity.”[2] This eternal Sonship describes the relation of the Father and the Son, protects the oneness of God, and affirms the equality of the Son with the Father. Francis Turretin explained, “indicates a communication of essence on the part of the begetter to the begotten (by which the begotten becomes like the begetter and partakes of the same nature with him), so this wonderful generation is rightly expressed as a communication of essence from the Father (by which the Son possesses indivisibly the same essence with him and is made perfectly like him).”[3]

The eternal Sonship of Jesus was accepted by the majority of scholars until the modern era. As social Trinitarianism and theological personalism grew in popularity the ontology of God became less and less popular. Classical theism’s metaphysical doctrines, once heralded by Augustin, Aquinas, Calvin, and Bavinck, became unpopular for a more sophisticated age governed by post-enlightenment and humanistic reasoning. Liberal theologians, and otherwise conservative biblical scholars who have imbibed liberal theology, have rejected the traditional doctrines of God and of Christ also reject Jesus’ “Son of God” title as a description of the Logos’ eternal relation to the Father.  

This short study will investigate the title “Son of God” as it describes both Jesus’ representative work for his people and his eternal relation with the Father. Jesus functions as the Son of God on earth because he is eternally the Son of God. How this can be true is a mystery. Ambrose described the mysterious nature of the Sonship of the Logos saying, “For me, the knowledge of the mystery of His generation is more than I can attain to—the mind fails, the voice is dumb—ay, and not mine alone, but the angels’ also.”[4] Petrus van Mastricht said, “the ancients represented the secret of this generation by four adverbs, saying that it happened: (1) ἀκαταλήπτως, incomprehensibly; (2) ἀχρόνως, without vicissitude of time (Prov. 8:22–23; Mic. 5:2; Col. 1:17); furthermore, (3) ἀχωρίστως, inseparably (John 1:1; 14:10–11); and finally, (4) ἀπαθῶς, without any passion or change, either in the Father or in the Son.”[5] The indescribability of Jesus’ Sonship should not deter one from accepting its truthfulness. Creatures should not expect to understand the things of God.

More Than Biological

The phrase “son of ___” does not always describe a biological relationship. Sometimes the phrase “son of God” refers to those who are created by God. Angels, Adam, and the nation of Israel are described as the “sons of God.” All these are described as sons of God because they enjoy a special relationship with God as his creation and special agents. Cyril explained:

They, when God so said, received the sonship, which before they had not: but He was not begotten to be other than He was before; but was begotten from the beginning Son of the Father, being above all beginning and all ages, Son of the Father, in all things like to Him who begat Him, eternal of a Father eternal, Life of Life begotten, and Light of Light, and Truth of Truth, and Wisdom of the Wise, and King of King, and God of God, and Power of Power[6]

Instead of receiving sonship as a description because of God’s particular use as his creation, the Logos is the Son by nature. Jesus is described as the Son of God since he is the second Adam (1 Cor 15:45, Col 1:15), the representative of Israel, the true King, and, like the angels, he is God’s messenger.

Jesus is also God’s Son in another way. Often, the phrase “son of _____” refers to a quality or attribute shared between two or more persons.[7]  Galatians 4:4-5 says, “when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, so that we might receive the adoption as sons.” Likewise, Jesus is described as the Son who was sent in Hebrews 1:2. God sent the Son. Jesus did not become the Son when he was sent. Consider the consequences if Jesus became the Son at a time during his life. Since “sonship” refer to one individual who shares qualities with another, if Jesus became the Son at some point during his incarnate life, then some sort of adoptionistic Christology must also be held. Christ did not become God during his life. The Logos was eternally God. To say that Jesus began to share the divine nature presents a severe misunderstanding of Christology.

Jesus’ sonship describes his relation to the Father and his equality with the Father. This relationship is also expressed when Jesus is described as the “radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being” (Heb 1:3). Gregory of Nazianzus, in “Oration 29,” described the Sonship of the Logos and the Fatherhood of God, saying, “Father is not a name either of an essence or of an action, most clever sirs. But it is the name of the relation in which the Father stands to the Son, and the Son to the Father. For as with us these names make known a genuine and intimate relation, so, in the case before us too, they denote an identity of nature between Him That is begotten and Him That begets.”[8] Gregory understood the Father and Son relationship to describe the relation of equality and identity between the Father and the Logos.

This same relationship is communicated when Jesus is described as the Word. Athanasius, the ancient champion of Christological orthodoxy, joined the terms “Word,” “Son of God,” and “God of God” saying, “But if He be Word of the Father and true Son, and God from God, and ‘over all blessed forever,’ is it not becoming to obliterate and blot out those other phrases.”[9] Cyril explained this when he said, “But we know Christ to have been begotten not as a word pronounced, but as a Word substantially existing and living; not spoken by the lips, and dispersed, but begotten of the Father eternally and ineffably, in substance.”[10] The Second Person of the Trinity then is fully God because he is the Son of God. Petrus van Mastricht wrote, “For just as the Father, because he subsists from himself, is the first person, so also the Son, because he subsists from the Father and has his essence communicated to him from the Father, is the second.”[11]

Sonship in the Old Testament

The Sonship of Jesus is also prominent in the Old Testament. These OT descriptions are essential for understanding who Jesus is as the second member of the Trinity and how Jesus would relate to humanity. It is important to note how the OT Scriptures cited below describe what Jesus would do on earth and how the Father and Son relate to one another before the incarnation and before time itself.

 Hebrews 1 cited some OT passages to teach the deity of Christ. The preacher of Hebrews quoted Psalm 2:7, “You are my Son; today I have begotten you.” On Psalm 2:7, van Mastricht explained, “You are ‘my Son’: not through creation, as Adam (Luke 3:38) and the angels (Job 38:7), nor through adoption, which is common to all believers (John 1:12; 1 John 3:1), but by nature and generation. From this is evident, first the deity of the Son, and then the personal distinction between the Father and the Son.”[12] Furthermore, that pronouncement was made “today” or in the “day” of eternity. In his exposition of the passage, van Mastricht explained that the Psalmist “referred to ‘today’ insofar as eternity coexists present with all types of time (Ps. 90:4; cf. 2 Peter 3:8). For it is the procession of the Son which generation designates, a procession from eternity (Mic. 5:2; cf. Prov. 8:22; John 1:1).”[13]

Then the preacher of Hebrews cited 2 Samuel 7:14, which says, “I will be his Father, and he will be my Son.” Then the preacher said, “But about the Son, he says,” and quoted Psalm 45:6, “Your throne, O God, will last forever.” The book of Hebrews rests its argument of Jesus’ superiority and superior function on his eternal deity—his eternal sonship. Before the incarnation, the inspired preacher described the God whose “throne” would “last forever” as “the Son.” Jesus did not become the Son. His sonship was declared by God’s pronouncements and through the works performed by the Son.

Jesus’ Sonship Declared Not Began

            Those who deny that Jesus has eternally been the Son have several options to put forth as the time at which Jesus became the Son. The New Testament records several instances at which Jesus was declared to be the Son of God. However, this does not mean that Jesus became the Son of God at any of these events.

            It is understandable how someone may read the Text and believe that Jesus became the Son at one of these events. However, the fact that Jesus is declared to be the Son of God at each of the events removes the possibility that he became the Son of God at any of these events. Jesus is the Son of God eternally. In order for each of these events to be properly understood, Jesus must have eternally been the Son. Otherwise, the NT writers are confused as to when Jesus became the Son.

The Incarnation?

Jesus did not become the Son of God at the incarnation. Luke 1:35 teaches that the Christ “shall be called the Son of God.” This does not say that Jesus became the Son of God. Matthew 1:23 also teaches that Jesus would be called “Immanuel” because he is “God with us.” Jesus was divine before the incarnation in Mary’s womb. The Father sent his Son into the world (Jn 3:16). He did not become the Son once he had been sent. Jesus’ sonship cannot be understood. However, Christians must confess that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. To deny that Jesus is the Son of God is to deny Christ completely and to deny the Christian religion.

The Baptism?

Jesus did not become the Son of God when he was baptized. Jesus’s sonship was announced in Matthew 3:17 when the Father said, “this is my beloved Son.” However, this announcement does not teach that Jesus became the Son of God when he was baptized. Cyril argued that “For at the time of His Baptism addressing Him, and saying, This is My Son, He did not say, “This has now become My Son,” but, This is My Son; that He might make manifest, that even before the operation of Baptism He was a Son.”[14] The Father also made this declaration in Matthew 17:5 at the Transfiguration. Jesus’ sonship was announced there but did not begin there.

The Resurrection?

Jesus was also described as the Son of God at his resurrection. Acts 13:33 describes the resurrection as proof of Jesus’ Sonship, but this would not be when Jesus became the Son of God. Romans 1:4 also spoke of the resurrection as proof of Jesus’ Sonship, but this declaration would not be when Jesus became the Son.

The Ascension?

Jesus’ ascension was also an occasion for his sonship to be declared. Hebrews 1:4 says, that at the ascension, Jesus has “become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.” Jesus was superior to the angels before the incarnation, during the incarnation, and after the ascension as well.

Conclusion

            Since each of these events present affirmations of Jesus’ Sonship, we cannot say Jesus became the Son at any of these events. It is best to understand that Jesus is the eternal Son of God. The eternal Sonship of Jesus communicates the same concept as Jesus being the Logos or Word in John 1:1-4—the Second Member of the Trinity shares in the divine nature. Each of the events of Jesus’ incarnate life were performed by the eternal Son. Those who witnessed the incarnate Lord and those who read the Gospels can know that they have seen God because they have seen the Son of God—the one who shares the Father’s nature.

What Does Sonship Teach?

Jesus is the eternal Son of God. This designation teaches us that Jesus is truly divine and the representative of humanity. Jesus’ sonship teaches “The eternal, essential relationship sustained by the second person in the Trinity to the first.”[15] Jesus’ work on earth was done because he is the Son. As Herman Bavinck wrote, “He is the Son of God not because he is Messiah and king, but he is king because he is the Messiah, because he is the Son of the Father.”[16] Even Fossum, who rejects the historical view of classical theism, acknowledged that “At an early stage, Jesus was even conceived of as the preexistent Son who had been ‘sent’ by God into the world in order to bring salvation to humankind (Gal 4:4–5; Rom 8:3–4; cf. John 3:17; 1 John 4:9, 14).”[17]

Matthew 11:27

Matthew 11:27 is helpful to see the pre-incarnate Sonship of Jesus. There, in Jesus’ prayer to the Father, he said, “All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” The relationship between the Father and the Son were noted and described as the root of Jesus’ work on earth. Bavinck described this pre-incarnate sonship this way, “In Matthew 11:27, he states that all things needed for the realization of God’s gracious will (εὐδοκια) have been delivered to him and that only the Father knows the Son and only the Son knows the Father. This sonship is the source of his whole life, all his thinking, and acting.”[18] Jesus’ sonship is the reason why he was able to perform his perfect ministry as the Messiah. James Stalker noted, “There is a Johannine flavor in these words, and they reveal an intimacy of the Son with the Father, as well as a power over all things, which could not have been conferred by mere official appointment unless there had been in the background a natural position warranting the official standing.”[19]

Matthew 28:19-20

Perhaps it would also be helpful to examine Jesus’ self-designation as the Son in Matthew 28:19-20. In this “Great Commission” passage, Jesus commanded his disciples to baptize disciples “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” The Trinity is named, but all three persons of the Trinity were described as having the same “name.” The “name” is singular. How is that possible? Modalism must be rejected since the one God exists in three persons and not three different revelations/manifestations of himself.

The Triune God shares the same “name” because the Triune God shares the same divine essence. The one God of Scripture subsists in three persons. Jesus’ words here are important because here Jesus has affirmed both the distinction between each member of the Trinity based on eternal procession and because Jesus has affirmed all three persons of the Trinity share the same nature—the same name.

Immutability

God does not change. If the Father is the Father, he must eternally be the Father. If the Son is the Son, he must eternally be the Son. The immutability or changelessness of God, especially since the dilemma Moltmann presented, is rejected by many modern theologians. Still, the Scripture teaches that God does not change. Malachi 3:6 says, “For I the Lord do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed.” Numbers 23:19 teaches that God is “not a man that he should change his mind.” Psalm 102:26-27 says, “They will perish, but you will remain; they will all wear out like a garment. You will change them like a robe, and they will pass away, but you are the same, and your years have no end.”

Since there can be no change in God, there can be no change in the Trinitarian relations. If God is Father, then he is always Father. If the Son is Son, then he is always the Son. “For God was not previously without a Son, and afterwards in time became a Father; but hath the Son eternally, having begotten Him not as men beget men, but as Himself only knoweth, who begat Him before all ages Very God.”[20] This relationship is further described in descriptions of Jesus as the Word, the Son, the image of God, the radiance of his glory, and the image of God. Jesus is “the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow.” Cyril described the importance of immutability in God, which includes immutability in the Son, when he wrote, “For if that which He begat was imperfect, and acquired its perfection in time, thou art imputing infirmity to Him who hath begotten; if so be, the Father did not bestow from the beginning that which, as thou sayest, time bestowed afterwards.”[21]

<p class="has-drop-cap" value="<amp-fit-text layout="fixed-height" min-font-size="6" max-font-size="72" height="80">If it is argued that Jesus became the Son of God at some point, then that also means that the Father became the Father at some point in time. Since the Father is the Father and the Son is the Son, the Father-Son relationship must predate creation itself. The Bible teaches Jesus is “the Word,” the “radiance of God’s glory,” the “exact imprint of his character,” and is “sent” by the Father. These descriptions of the Logos must be eternal and real before creation. The Father could not have become something he was not. The Son, even in the incarnation, did not cease to be fully divine and immutable.<a href="#_ftn22">[22]</a>If it is argued that Jesus became the Son of God at some point, then that also means that the Father became the Father at some point in time. Since the Father is the Father and the Son is the Son, the Father-Son relationship must predate creation itself. The Bible teaches Jesus is “the Word,” the “radiance of God’s glory,” the “exact imprint of his character,” and is “sent” by the Father. These descriptions of the Logos must be eternal and real before creation. The Father could not have become something he was not. The Son, even in the incarnation, did not cease to be fully divine and immutable.[22]

Since Jesus is the Son of God, Christians can know God because they are able to see God in the person of Christ. Jesus did not become like the Father. Jesus was never similar to the Fahter. Jesus, as the Son, is eternally God just as the Father is. Sonship guards this equality shared between the Father and Son and the distinction between the Father and Son. “Thus the begotten Son (although distinct) still is never divided from him. He is not only of a like (homoiousios), but also of the same essence (homoousios).”[23]

This truth is revealed in the discussion between Philip and Jesus in John 14:8-10, “Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?” Jesus reminded Philip, and the readers of John’s Gospel, that they are able to see the Father because they are able to see the Father’s Son. As Athanasius said, “on Philip’s asking, ‘Shew us the Father,’ He said not, ‘Behold the creation,’ but, ‘He that hath seen Me, hath seen the Father.”[24] Elsewhere, Athanasius wrote, “If then the Word is not in such sense from God, as a son, genuine and natural, from a father, but only as creatures because they are framed, and as ‘all things are from God,’ then neither is He from the essence of the Father, nor is the Son again Son according to essence, but in consequence of virtue, as we who are called sons by grace. But if He only is from God, as a genuine Son, as He is, then the Son may reasonably be called from the essence of God[25]


[1] Cyril of Jerusalem, “The Catechetical Lectures of S. Cyril, Archbishop of Jerusalem,” in S. Cyril of Jerusalem, S. Gregory Nazianzen, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. R. W. Church and Edwin Hamilton Gifford, vol. 7, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1894), 64–65.

[2] Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, ed. James T. Dennison Jr., trans. George Musgrave Giger, vol. 1 (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1992–1997), 293.

[3] Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, ed. James T. Dennison Jr., trans. George Musgrave Giger, vol. 1 (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1992–1997), 292–293.

[4] Ambrose of Milan, “Exposition of the Christian Faith,” in St. Ambrose: Select Works and Letters, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. H. de Romestin, E. de Romestin, and H. T. F. Duckworth, vol. 10, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1896), 212.

[5] Petrus van Mastricht, Faith in the Triune God, ed. Joel R. Beeke, trans. Todd M. Rester and Michael T. Spangler, vol. 2, Theoretical-Practical Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2019), 547–548.

[6] Cyril of Jerusalem, “The Catechetical Lectures of S. Cyril, Archbishop of Jerusalem,” in S. Cyril of Jerusalem, S. Gregory Nazianzen, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. R. W. Church and Edwin Hamilton Gifford, vol. 7, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1894), 65.

[7] see D. A. Carson’s Jesus the Son of God

[8] Gregory Nazianzen, “Select Orations of Saint Gregory Nazianzen,” in S. Cyril of Jerusalem, S. Gregory Nazianzen, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. Charles Gordon Browne and James Edward Swallow, vol. 7, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1894), 307.

[9] Athanasius of Alexandria, “Four Discourses against the Arians,” 311.

[10] Cyril of Jerusalem, “The Catechetical Lectures of S. Cyril, Archbishop of Jerusalem,” 66.

[11] Petrus van Mastricht, Faith in the Triune God, 539.

[12] Petrus van Mastricht, Faith in the Triune God, 541–542.

[13] Petrus van Mastricht, Faith in the Triune God, 542.

[14] Cyril of Jerusalem, “The Catechetical Lectures of S. Cyril, Archbishop of Jerusalem,” 66.

[15] Alan Cairns, Dictionary of Theological Terms (Belfast; Greenville, SC: Ambassador Emerald International, 2002), 155.

[16] Herman Bavinck, John Bolt, and John Vriend, Reformed Dogmatics: Sin and Salvation in Christ, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006), 252.

[17] Jarl Fossum, “Son of God,” ed. David Noel Freedman, The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 135.

[18] Herman Bavinck, John Bolt, and John Vriend, Reformed Dogmatics: Sin and Salvation in Christ, vol. 3, 252.

[19] James Stalker, “Son of God, The,” ed. James Orr et al., The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (Chicago: The Howard-Severance Company, 1915), 2827.

[20] Cyril of Jerusalem, “The Catechetical Lectures of S. Cyril, Archbishop of Jerusalem,” 66.

[21] Cyril of Jerusalem, “The Catechetical Lectures of S. Cyril, Archbishop of Jerusalem,” 66.

[22] The humanity of Christ certainly underwent change (Lk 2:52). The nature of God is unchangeable since it is eternal, perfect, the fulness of life, and incapable of being less than what it eternally is.  

[23] Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, ed. James T. Dennison Jr., trans. George Musgrave Giger, vol. 1 (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1992–1997), 293.

[24] Athanasius said, “on Philip’s asking, ‘Shew us the Father,’ He said not, ‘Behold the creation,’ but, ‘He that hath seen Me, hath seen the Father.” Athanasius of Alexandria, “Four Discourses against the Arians,” in St. Athanasius: Select Works and Letters, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. John Henry Newman and Archibald T. Robertson, vol. 4, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1892), 313.

[25] Athanasius of Alexandria, “De Decretis or Defence of the Nicene Definition,” in St. Athanasius: Select Works and Letters, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. John Henry Newman and Archibald T. Robertson, vol. 4, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1892), 165.

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