Is there a difference between children of God and sons of God in the New Testament? Yes. Galatians lays a good foundation for the meaning of these two terms, and from those verses we can see echoes throughout the NT. These passages imply that God is not satisfied that we are “saved,” going to church, and being nice people. He is looking for mature believers who have specific qualities, and those qualities cannot be developed in our own strength, doing good deeds that we’ve thought up, or participating in religious routines, such as Jewish laws. It must begin with the training of the Spirit, and continue with Him.
God sees the end of the life and what character our choices and responsibilities are making of us. He wants His children to grow up into persons of responsibility so they could handle the heavier duties of ruling in the kingdom. No father will place his sons at the top of his business empire without carefully targeted training over the years, and it is so with God and His children as well.
Laying the Foundation
Galatians 3:3 “Are ye so foolish? having begun in the Spirit, are ye now made perfect by the flesh?”
Paul expected the Galatian church to go on to perfection (the Greek meaning, “to bring to an end”), but not by fleshly effort. Whatever the “end” God has in mind, it involves continuing in and trusting in the Spirit, not trusting the flesh or following religious laws. What the Spirit has begun, only the Spirit can continue, so there is no substitute for trusting the Spirit.
Gal 3:4 “Have ye suffered so many things in vain? if it be yet in vain.”
Paul expected them to suffer, and through doing so bring about expected results. We are to change and learn something through suffering. In some way, suffering will bring us to the place where God wants us to be. So going the way of the flesh – which usually means trying to avoid suffering, or complain to God because of it – will bring that training of suffering to an end. Whatever lessons we’ve learned through suffering can be jeopardized by no longer trusting in the Spirit but in our own deeds, especially our attempts to alleviate our suffering.
3:5 “He therefore that ministereth to you the Spirit, and worketh miracles among you, doeth he it by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith?”
The Holy Spirit was pleased to work among the Galatians when they acted on His promptings by faith. The rule is, if we act in faith, then the Spirit works. Ongoing faith keeps the door open for the Spirit to work. Paul reminds the Galatians that the Spirit did powerful things among them, including miracles, when they had not been following Jewish religious rules. It was all by trusting the Spirit.
They were throwing away that blessedness of God working among them in favor of following religious customs that could not help them in their relationship with God, nor give them righteousness, nor train them up, nor bless them with spiritual blessings and maturity.
There is always a danger among church-going Christians to take our religious rituals more seriously than we do daily faith in God. We think our lack of blessing (our anxieties, fears, and doubts instead of peace, assurance, and joy) is because we are not participating in our religious duties hard enough, and try harder. We’ve missed the boat in that case, as the Galatians did.
3:26 “For ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus.”
The church is composed of children of God; all who have faith in Christ Jesus are children of God. However, not all are heirs, we are told later. Heirs are those who are sons of God, those who are continuing to trust in the Spirit. As we see in Galatians, not all who are in the church will continue in faith. Some will turn aside and choose to trust in another or trust in their works.
(Keep in mind that the Bible does not define “church” as a place believers gather for worship. That is the popular-usage definition, meaning that it’s the definition used by the public. However, the biblical definition of church is “called-out ones,” in other words, the people, not the church building. The Bible is not concerned with whether you’ve signed up as a church member, but through the gospel, have you responded to God’s call to come out of sin, out of this world, to live for Jesus?)
In the past, when I read of warnings in the NT, I applied them to unbelievers and the blessings to believers. Paul doesn’t do that. He sees three types of people, not two. Rather than just unsaved and saved, he sees unsaved, carnal, and spiritual (you can see this usage in 1 Corinthians). The Galatians were saved, but in the carnal group. In other words, the flesh was lord over them, leading them; Jesus was not Lord.
3:29 “And if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.”
“If” implies a condition. There’s a chance that they will be children of God without also being Christ’s. If they are Christ’s, then they are heirs. In the OT, only firstborn sons (mature ones) become heirs, not children, not servants, and not daughters. So then, who are those who are Christ’s? We are given an important trait of those who are Christ’s by jumping ahead to chapter five.
Flesh and Spirit
Galatians 5:24 pinpoints the decisive quality of those who are Christ’s: “And they that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts.” If we have renounced the deceptive flesh that turns us away from trusting in the Spirit, then we belong to Christ. If we are still trusting in ourselves and our deeds, then we are still immature, still children who have yet to age into the fullness God intends for His children.
Do we seek first the kingdom of God, or the American Dream? When we pursue the kingdom of God, then we learn to give up to God all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength for Him to rule over as King. But when we pursue the American Dream, we give our heart, soul, mind and strength for self-gratification, to satisfy our “affections and lusts.” Is the leading of the Spirit more important, or are we filled with the cares and riches of this life? Do we delight in the Savior, or do the delights of this world move us more?
Romans 8:13-14 echoes this flesh/Spirit dualism strongly: if we live according to the flesh, we will die; but if we put the flesh to death by the Spirit, we will live. The “if” is a conditional; in this case it shows that a believer may go either way. (Side note: the word “predestination” occurs in this chapter later, so you need to take this conditional passage into account when formulating your definition of what predestination is.) And 8:14 is the clincher that God makes a difference between these two groups: “For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these (Greek is ‘these and these alone’) are the sons of God.” Conclusion: all Christians are children of God if they still follow the flesh and struggle with it; sons of God know how to work with God’s resources to triumph over it; to fall, but to rise again.
Romans 8:17 tells us that as children of God, we are heirs of God. But something more is necessary if we are to be joint-heirs with Christ: “if indeed we suffer with Him.” Another “if”! As children of God, we cannot be disowned by God (we can’t lose our salvation, for those who want to use that term). But to reign with Christ, one must “suffer” the hard things of taking responsibility (for instance, to listen to and respond to the promptings of the Spirit) and growing up. As Paul mentioned earlier to the Galatians, he was worried that their suffering may have been useless. Now we see that suffering with the end in view means suffering with Him that we may reign with Him.
Life proves this. What earthly father wants his children to act like children long into adulthood? What father wants his children to keep avoiding hard work? Rather, the child should be able to accept more responsibility and continue reliably (faithfully), though it involve hardship and suffering. So it is with the training of the disciple by the Spirit. He wants us to inherit the earth, but the position is only for those who have been trained to handle the responsibilities.
An earthly father wants to leave his inheritance to the care of a responsible child, and that’s what the Spirit’s training is all about. “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” This passage defines the character of those who are in the kingdom. The passage comes from the Sermon on the Mount, which is all about the kingdom of God, and describes the character of those who live in it. Is not the meek person responsive to and useful to the Holy Spirit? Does the meek not seek first the kingdom of God, which is the reign of Jesus and the Spirit over mind and body, first and foremost? This one who remains submissive even through hardship (and hard choices) is the one who is Christ’s.
Are you submissive to God’s will in hardship, or do you consistently take the easy way? Do you consistently make decisions that keep you in your comfort zone?
Becoming a Son and Heir
Galatians 4:1-2 “Now I say, That the heir, as long as he is a child, differeth nothing from a servant, though he be lord of all; But is under tutors and governors until the time appointed of the father.”
The father’s children are destined to be heirs, but only if they accept the training of the tutors established for that purpose. As children, they are no different than the cooks or gardeners in the household, in the sense that none of them are ruling over the wealth of the father. Are you a father or play a father’s role for children? Then give them responsibilities appropriate for their age and teach them to fulfill them well; show, not just speak. God is teaching us and evaluating our behavior.
4:3 “Even so we, when we were children, were in bondage under the elements of the world:”
We are still children if we are more compelled to think and act according to the world’s ways (“elements of the world”) than God’s ways. Don’t children get sidetracked by childish whims and fancies after being given a task to do? We can be sidetracked. Romans 12:2 tells us not to be conformed to the world, but be transformed by the renewing of the mind. The world has imprinted it’s elements upon our minds and souls. Now the Spirit informs our minds with the values, responsibilities, and tasks that befit a future joint-heir with Christ. Will we accept those values, or find it more interesting to participate in the things of the world that are hostile to God’s purity and holiness?
Through the warnings in the Bible we question why we would follow the flesh when it would lead to misery and loss. In either case, following the flesh or the Spirit, we will suffer. However, the cross will use the suffering to conform us into the image of Christ while the world, the flesh, and the devil will use suffering to destroy us. We will suffer no matter what – which end do we want when it’s over?
4:4-5 “But when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, To redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons.”
At the right time, Jesus died for our sins; He demonstrated how foul sin was by dying in our place. By His death we see the hopelessness of saving ourselves in our own strength. In other words, if we could be reformed by doing good deeds, then why would He bother to die?
“To redeem them that were under the law :” we have been so blind that we did not even see that sin in us was the problem. So we learned religious rituals and rules and thought we could civilize the flesh and tame it. But the flesh ended up using the external laws to deceive self and tyrannize others. “I do all these good religious deeds and you don’t, so I’m better than you are.” And in the end, it enslaved us and made it difficult to think outside the religious box in which we were trapped.
The Pharisees were so sure about themselves, for example. As a result, they could not believe Jesus. “But there must be something good about what I do.” Then why did Jesus see suffering and death on the cross as the only way to save? Why weren’t His words in a book enough? Answer: we must die His death. We must accept that when He died and was buried, our flesh, everything with the worldly elements, went into the grave with Him. We can now distance ourselves from those things and choose to follow Christ, even as He followed the Father in all things.
“that we might receive the adoption of sons.” Christ came to deliver us from obedience to religious forms to instead obey God as mature sons who carry out His will. In our culture, to say of our male child, “He is my child” is the same as saying “He is my son.” But the Word of God makes a distinction in the way the way children and sons are used. In our culture, we use “adoption” to mean being placed into a family, and so we equate the term with born again into God’s family, but that’s not how the Bible is using the term. It’s like God has seen that this person (male or female), has shown sufficient proof of faithfulness to carry out His will despite hardships of faith, and adopted that person into the ranks of the mature who will inherit all things with Christ. They are Christ’s in a way that the other children of God are not.
Two disciples were named Sons of Thunder. The name (https://www.blueletterbible.org/kjv/mar/3/17/s_960017) bore witness to the fact that the two disciples’ emotions shared in the tempestuousness of thunder. Similarly, “sons of Belial” (https://www.blueletterbible.org/search/search.cfm?Criteria=sons+of+Belial&t=KJV#s=s_primary_0_1) showed that the people of that name shared in the evil traits of the devil. In a similar way, “sons of God” are those mature ones who are displaying the traits of Jesus Christ; they are being conformed to His image, which only happens when one continues in faith. They are “Christian” in the true sense of the word – “like Christ.”
The Bible makes a difference between children and sons in the original text. The Greek words for “children of God” is “tekna Theou.” Tekna” is used for little children and offspring in general (see http://biblehub.com/greek/tekna_5043.htm). “Huion” (uiov) is used of a “mature” child, not a little one (see http://biblehub.com/greek/uion_5207.htm. Even when Jesus was in the womb, He was still referred to as a mature one!). So God distinguishes between children in general and mature children by His choice of words in the Bible.
4:6 “And because you are sons [huion], God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into your hearts, crying out, ‘Abba, Father!’”
Before, our attention was on doing the right things, being “good,” doing the religious duties expected of us, perhaps even taking up a cause. But now God is a real being, and we live for Him, not rules. We want to do good not to satisfy the rules, but to please Him who loved us. Before, it was, “What is the right thing to do?” Now that we understand issues from a kingdom point of view, it is, “What does the Father want me to do?”
4:7 “Wherefore thou art no more a servant, but a son; and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ.”
So not all Christians will inherit with God and Christ, as we saw earlier with the passage from Romans, and Galatians 4:7 confirms it. Before, we were serving the law, doing good to the best of our ability. Now we are serving as a son who has taken on the values of his father and acts according to them. This is the one God can put in charge in His kingdom: if a son, then an heir of God and co-heir with Christ.
Paul then brings up allegories of the law and of the promise to help us see the difference between following rules (children) and being free of them to serve God from the heart (sons). Children of God are still trying to follow rules as a way of life. But sons of God have internalized the values of those rules and can now voluntarily and willingly follow the will of God. The first is bondage; the second is freedom.
The Children will not be Heirs with the Sons
Galatians 4:22-23 “For it is written that Abraham had two sons: the one by a bondwoman, the other by a freewoman. But he who was of the bondwoman was born according to the flesh, and he of the freewoman through promise”
God promised Abraham that he would have a son. But when years passed and no child was forthcoming, his wife Sarah thought that perhaps God meant for Abraham to have a son, not through her, but through her bondwoman. He who was born from the bondwoman was a child of the flesh because Abraham followed his wife’s idea. But Isaac was a child of promise because Abraham continued trusting God for the child even though his wife was past child-bearing age.
With this illustration, Paul showed them that they were headed in the wrong direction by thinking that through their own efforts (the law) they could improve on the Spirit. God worked with Abraham through a promise with no needed effort from Abraham but steadfast faith. And he received a child from a dead womb!
Gal. 4:30, ‘Nevertheless what does the Scripture say? “Cast out the bondwoman and her son, for the son of the bondwoman shall not be heir with the son of the freewoman.”’
So one group will be heir and the other will be cast out, denied, this honor. The children of God have this choice every day: to live according to one’s own efforts (the flesh) or to rest in God’s promises (faith). Which one do you think is more mature? Which one will inherit with the Son?
Gal. 4:31 “So then, brethren, we are not children of the bondwoman but of the free.”
God has called us with a higher calling than to live according to our feelings, desires, or this world with its physical possessions. We who have responded to the gospel call need to remember where we are headed. God desires that His people have a steadfast faith in Him. I keep using the term “maturity” in this article, but really, sons are those who persistently walk by faith, no matter how old they are or how long they’ve been a Christian.
5:1 “Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage.”
The Jews have identified with the law for a long time as part of their national heritage. To think of life apart from it has been almost impossible. We have pursued all our goals by fleshly endeavor before we were Christians; to think of trusting God for His promises for something we can’t see or feel goes against our fleshly habits. Yet we believed the gospel message! God desires that that faith continue daily. This is the walk of sons, especially when they continue in faith despite hardships their faith choices lead them to.
God makes a difference among His children. God is looking for people who will grow up in faith, especially possessing the faith that allows the Spirit to work in their midst. This faith is more than “I believe the Bible is true.” Those who continue in obedient faith will be rewarded differently than those who do not. (Some may conclude that God is being partial here. However, that would be the wrong conclusion to draw, for the opportunity to continue in faith and be honored for it remains open to all His children. It is of faith, not works, so that this life is achievable by all those who believe.)
The Spirit trains us in this faith with the view of making us co-rulers with Christ in the coming kingdom. We learn that we cannot simultaneously live for this world and the one to come. First John tells us not to love this world or anything in the world, for its values are contrary to God, and they only strengthen the flesh and root our trust in ourselves. The Spirit’s teaching is to lead us away from fleshly practices to trust fully in God and discern His still, small voice.
If we can continue in that obedience to the end, then God will find men and women whom He can trust in places of governorship in His coming kingdom.