Tag Archives: Romans 8

Review: The Fatherhood of God

Robert S. Candlish was a key leader in the founding the Free Church of Scotland after separating from the Church of Scotland in May 1843. In 1862, he became the principal of the New College, Edinburgh. He is famed for his excellent work on Genesis, and his theological study on the atonement.

The Fatherhood of God (1865; 3rd ed., 1867) is a series of six lectures (the Cunningham Lectures) given in Edinburgh in 1864. Candlish argues that:

  • Believers become God’s children by identification with Christ in his sonship and “participation in the sonship of the uncreated” p.255.
  • The fatherhood of God is a free benefit for believers, and is distinctive from being created in the image of God (which applies to all humanity).
  • Our “adoption” in New Testament theology does not fully take place at regeneration or justification; rather, it is “a distinct and separate benefit” (p. 247).

Believers Are God’s Children

Though Jesus readily uses the word “Father” and even teaches his disciples to pray to “our Father,” Candlish argues that Jesus does not use the word to describe all humans’ relationship to God (p. 162–166). “I find no trace whatever, in all our Lord’s teaching, of anything like a universal fatherhood.” (p. 196)

Sonship is in Christ, who calls his disciples his brothers; he becomes “the firstborn among many brethren” (Rom. 8:29) not by the fact of creation, but by the act of the Father’s adoption of believers. “Brothers” is an in-group appellation across the early church, and not without reason.

In my own opinion, the only verse that plausibly suggests that all men are children of God is found in Paul’s speech at Mars Hill:

Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are indeed his offspring.’ Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone . . .

Acts 17:27b–29

Candlish points out that Paul is quoting a Greek poet, Aratus, not an inspired source. He is using a local writer as a rhetorical device. (I would add here that the use of γένος ‘offspring’, in the aggregate singular, is less personal than the usual word, υίοι ‘children’.) If Paul meant that all people were God’s children, he would be contradicting the words of John (1 John 3:10) and Jesus (Matt. 13:38; John 8:44), as well as his own words to Elymas the sorcerer, whom Paul himself called “son of the devil” (Acts 13:10)!

Adam is called a “son of God” in Luke 3:38, but this is used to speak of his immediate creation by God. It should not be equated with the New Testament doctrine of adoption/sonship. Candlish even points out (p. 56) that “the old and sound British divines” sometimes speak of a general fatherhood of God; but Candlish believes that these usages (along with Acts 17:27) should be taken as figurative usages referring to our status as God’s creatures and subjects.

Candlish extends this argument in the 129-page preliminary essay which was added to the third edition.

What Is Adoption in the New Testament?

“Adoption” (υἱοθεσία) is only mentioned by name in five New Testament verses, all of them in Paul’s epistles: Romans 8:15, 8:23, 9:4, Galatians 4:5, and Ephesians 1:5. For this reason, it seldom receives specific attention in Christian theology, from the Fathers forward.

That makes sonship not merely a relation of adoption, but in a real and important sense a natural relation also. . . . The regeneration is a real communication to us on his part of ‘his seed,’ of what makes our moral and spiritual nature the same in character as his; perfectly so at last, and imperfectly yet as far as it prevails, truly so, even now.

Robert S. Candlish, The Fatherhood of God, 3rd ed., p. 233

John 1:12–13 and 1 John 2:29–3:1 link adoption to regeneration (p. 229–233; 2 Peter 1:4). Adoption is intimately connected with regeneration (being “born again”) whereby “God’s seed abides” in us (1 John 3:9). At the same time, adoption should not be confounded with justification (p. 237). “Neither our regeneration nor our justification constitutes our sonship.” (p. 228)

For Candlish, sonship has two distinctive characteristics: liberty (p. 261) and permanence of position (p. 262–265; see John 8:35–36). Thus, Paul frequently opposes sonship to slavery.

A New Testament Revelation

In the third lecture, Candlish points out that God’s fatherhood and the sonship of believers are part of the New Covenant. The fatherhood of God in the Old Testament is exhibited as his relation toward Israel (Ex. 4:22; Deut. 14:1; Hos. 11:1; cf. Rom. 9:4), Israel’s king (2 Sam. 7:14; 1 Chron. 17:13, 28:6; Ps. 2:7, 89:26–27), and toward the Messiah (Dan. 3:25), but not toward all mankind or even all believers. At best, a fatherhood of God toward all believers only appears in the Old Testament as an analogy.

For the Lord reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights.

Prov. 3:12, ESV

Are Angels ‘God’s Children’?

One interpretation that I disagreed with was Candlish’s literal understanding of “sons of God” in reference to angels in the Hebrew Bible. This is found in Job 1:6, 2:1, and 38:7; Candlish takes the other three instances as referring to the righteous. For Candlish, angels are sons of God, and this has some bearing on our own sonship, and that of Christ; in my opinion, this is just a Hebrew idiom, mostly irrelevant to the discussion of the proper sonship of believers.

Is It ‘Adoption,’ a Process—or ‘Sonship,’ a Status?

While I greatly enjoyed the book, I felt that Candlish’s definition of sonship could have been clearer. First, it entails liberty and permanence of position. But there is more that may be stated from the text.

First, as Candlish implies in a few places, ‘adoption’ is both a status and the process of receiving that status in Paul’s epistles. It is a status in:

  • Romans 8:15: “… you have received the Spirit of adoption …”
  • Romans 9:4: “… to them belong the adoption …”

It is a process in:

  • Romans 8:23: “… we … groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.”
  • Galatians 4:5: “… to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption …”
  • Ephesians 1:5: “… he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ …”

In English, the word ‘adoption’ only denotes a process, and is therefore an inadequate translation. George MacDonald—who was influenced by F. D. Maurice, one of Candlish’s theological opponents—has argued in his Unspoken Sermons, that the Greek word Paul uses for “adoption” would be better translated “sonship”, which is equivalent to how Luther translated it. But this may fall into the opposite error, by meaning a state but not a process.

Second, Candlish does not adequately connect New Testament adoption to inheritance. Paul speaks frequently in the same breath of “sonship” and inheritance. He speaks of us coming into our full status and inheritance as God’s children (Eph. 1:11) and of us becoming heirs because we are sons (Gal. 4:7). Sonship, then, does not mean mere childhood. It is also an adult status of eligibility for inheritance; this much is obvious from New Testament usage, but is rarely elucidated.

Lastly, I felt that Candlish overemphasized the legal aspects of atonement and sonship. One cannot read passages like 1 John 3 without noticing that there is clear affectionate language! This brings me to another point, which bears on how we represent adoption in our preaching and teaching.

Western Child Adoption Falls Short

As an aside, I merely point out here the difficulties of comparing biblical adoption to modern, American adoption of children. If God’s seed (roughly, his DNA!) abides in us, this is a point of difference—one of several—between biblical adoption and Western child adoption. Western child adoption also does not convey any freedom as a counterpoint with slavery, but Paul frequently places the two side by side. Western child adoption may imply permanence, but it does not in any way imply inheritance. (On this see my own definition of adoption further down in this review.) In all these ways, New Testament adoption is pretty distant from an American adopting a child; it retains primarily the affectionate and caring aspects, but lacks other specific aspects.

Responses Contemporary with Candlish

As you might imagine, the statement that only believers are God’s children creates some contention. The first edition of this book occasioned a lengthy response from Thomas J. Crawford, who wrote his own book The Fatherhood of God: Considered in Its General and Special Aspectswith a Review of Recent Speculations (1866). Crawford defends the idea that all people are God’s children in one (general) sense, but believers are God’s children in another (special) sense. For Crawford, the sonship of believers is also distinct from Christ’s sonship. Sin is also essentially filial and personal for Crawford.

In the third edition of his book, Candlish included a 129-page rebuttal of Crawford’s arguments. Many readers will skip this; if you are interested in whether God’s fatherhood is universal or not, it will likely interest you.

Candlish writes that the watering down of the fatherhood of God has made it, for some preachers, into practically his only attribute—at the expense of any legal mode of speaking of God. This is never more true than today. God’s fatherhood and our placement as his children are precious theological truth, worthy of disentangling from American assumptions about adoption.

It is pleaded that God must be held to act in this or that particular way towards men, because he is their Father; or otherwise, that he cannot be imagined to adopt such or such a course, inasmuch as it would be inconsistent with his Fatherhood.

Robert S. Candlish, The Fatherhood of God, p. 9

In a chapter of The Mind of the Master (1896), which does not name Candlish, John Watson (pen name Ian Maclaren) wrote the following:

People with dogmatic ends to serve have striven to believe that Jesus reserved Father for His disciples; but an ingenuous person could hardly make the discovery in the Gospels. One searches in vain to find that Jesus bad an esoteric word for His intimates, and an exoteric for the people, saying Father to Jobn and Judge to the publicans. It had been amazing if Jesus were able to employ alternatively two views of God according to His audience, speaking now as an Old Testament Prophet, now as the Son of God. It is recorded in the Gospels, “Then spake Jesus to the multitude and His disciples, saying, . one is your Father, which is in heaven” (St. Matt. xxiii. 1, 9). This attempt to restrict the intention of Jesus is not of yesterday; it was the invention of the Pharisees. They detected the universal note in Jesus’ teaching; they resented His unguarded charity.

John Watson

Watson’s language is forceful and persuasive, and his criticisms are well founded. On Jesus’ address in Matthew 23, I would be curious how he relates its “woes” to its Fatherhood. Candlish is far too concerned with the legal mode of speaking of God, as if Scripture sets up legal metaphors as the superior mode of speaking of God. On the other hand, Watson makes familial metaphors the supreme way of speaking of God. Ironically, Watson’s chapter ends with a sort of postmillennial vision of all the earth coexisting under God’s benevolent fatherhood, which clearly shows the eschatological problem of any universal fatherhood. Much of Western culture—or, at least what I call “Hollywood theology”—has spoken of a universal fatherhood of God for many decades, and it has not tended toward Watson’s vision.

Wesleyans in the Wilderness: Assurance vs. “The Dark Night of the Soul”

The Beginnings of Wesleyan Assurance

“Can you be sure of your salvation?” Most evangelicals would answer with a resounding “yes,” but would have difficulty answering the follow-up question—“how?” We may agree on how salvation happens—Romans 10:9-10—but it is more difficult to agree on how assurance happens.

Calvinists tend to see justification as an objective fact, grounded in God’s timeless decrees, independent of our emotions, and for some, even independent of our continued guilt. Christians are taught to distrust their experiences. There is a virtue to this system in that it engenders self-forgetfulness. But it offers precious little compassion in moments of doubt or depression. Depression is only a misapprehension of divine decrees. “Who are you, O man?” Doubt is a rejection of the form of determinism called “the doctrines of grace”. We lack assurance only by lacking understanding.

Into such a theological winter came John Wesley with his “strangely warmed” heart, teaching personal, inward assurance of faith as a distinctive doctrine. Salvation was both fact and experience for Wesley from that moment at Aldersgate Chapel:

I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation, and an assurance was given me that He had taken my sin, even mine.
(Journal of John Wesley, dated May 24, 1738.)

Over against Calvin’s credal, decree-bound assurance, Wesley placed an experience of assurance. He grounded it doctrinally in Romans 8:16, among other verses. Like James Ussher, Wesley translated the verse this way:

The same Spirit beareth witness with our spirits, that we are the children of God.

This verse and the doctrine of experiential assurance was absolutely pivotal in early Methodist theology. In The Lives of Early Methodist Preachers, a compilation of 41 biographies of Wesley’s pioneer preachers, assurance plays a key role in salvation narratives. At least eight of them—Hanson, Hopper, Payne, Rodda, Valton, Walsh and Whatcoat—specifically refer to Romans 8:16 in their conversion narratives. But not all experienced assurance as a lifelong reality.

The Eroding Value of “Assurance”

The irony comes from the volatile mixture of Wesleyan holiness and Wesleyan assurance, both of which play a major role today not just in Methodist congregations—which include some 70 million members—but among the world’s 500 million Pentecostals and Charismatics, whose theology is essentially Wesleyan in character.

Wesley taught that total victory over sin is not only possible, but normal for Christians. This is easy to defend from Scripture, with bald statements like “everyone who sins is a slave to sin” (John 8:34); “anyone born of God refuses to practice sin, because God’s seed abides in him” (1 John 3:9; compare though, 1 John 1:8-10). But it is hard to defend from Christian experience.

The strong expectation of assurance and the strong expectation of continuance in Methodism lead us to a strong expectation of continuing assurance. Wesley’s preachers frequently recorded that this combination was stumbling block to them, leading them to rationalize their own salvation. Read the words of Thomas Payne, after his conversion:

. . . But I had a Calvinian library, which I often read. And hence I imbibed that miserable notion, that it was absolutely necessary every believer should come down from the mount [i.e., by sinning, or doubting]. Hence I was persuaded that I must lose my first love; that I must doubt of my justification, which those wretched casuists lay down as one great mark of sincerity. For want of knowing better, I listened to these, till I lost the witness of the Spirit.

“Losing the witness of the Spirit,” of course, is tantamount to losing salvation in Wesleyan language, which rejects perseverance of the saints. Some contemporary writers make a helpful distinction by teaching that we may lose the witness or filling of the Holy Spirit without losing the Holy Spirit.

Another early Methodist preacher, John Valton, has a similar narrative of gaining assurance at the moment of conversion, but losing assurance afterward.

I have been much tempted to doubt of the pardoning love of God which I received in London. Because it was not incontestably clear, I feared it was not really the case; and that my comforts were only the drawings of the Father.

Bruce Hindmarsh comments on John Valton:

A few weeks later he was able to believe again. Significantly, Valton thought he might have been in the “wilderness state described in Mr. Wesley’s sermon”, and acknowledged that not everyone passed through the wilderness to the promised land.  . . .

Valton believed that he had fallen into the desert experience or “dark night of the soul”, and according to Wesley, he might lose his salvation! He referred to a sermon in which John Wesley explained the historic Christian teaching of the “wilderness state” in some detail. The theological tension between the “wilderness state” and Wesleyan assurance is obvious.

The sermon referred to by Valton was one in which Wesley explained the reasons for the loss of love, joy, and peace that so many experienced after conversion. He identified the possible causes of this “wilderness state” as outright sin, simple ignorance, or overwhelming temptation, but stressed that God does not withdraw from us; it is always we who withdraw from him. For Wesley, one might well need to be “renewed by repentance” and “again washed by faith”. Indeed, one could be converted again and again.
(Hindmarsh, Evangelical Conversion Narrative, p. 247; he cites Wesley, Works (BE), ii. 217; see also Works vol. 6, Sermon 46, as published in 1872, here.)

Certainly, to a Calvinist, Wesley’s view of salvation can lead to needless introspection, and a shaky, human-dependent salvation. Anyone in a state of depression may be stumbled by the thought that they might have inadvertently lost their first faith.

One can see how practical pitfalls come up both from affirming and denying the perseverance of the saints—namely, too much assurance on one side, and not enough on the other.

“The Valley” in Arminian Preaching

George MacDonald, an untraditional Arminian, wrote scornfully of assurance in his “unspoken sermon” on “The Hardness of the Way”:

None can know how difficult it is to enter into the kingdom of heaven, but those who have tried—tried hard, and have not ceased to try. I care not to be told that one may pass at once into all possible sweetness of assurance; it is not assurance I desire, but the thing itself; not the certainty of eternal life, but eternal life. I care not what other preachers may say, while I know that in St. Paul the spirit and the flesh were in frequent strife.

MacDonald made room for doubt and difficulty in his own relational theology. Perhaps, in his view, Christian assurance is distinct from a full-proof certainty.

Oswald Chambers, an admiring reader of George MacDonald, wrote that we usually lose our high feelings by failing to act on what God has revealed to us.

Never allow a feeling which was stirred in you in the high hour to evaporate. Don’t put your mental feet on the mantelpiece and say, “What a marvellous state of mind to be in!” Act immediately, do something, if only because you would rather not do it. If in a prayer meeting God has shown you something to do, don’t say, “I’ll do it”—do it! Take yourself by the scruff of the neck and shake off your incarnate laziness. Laziness is always seen in cravings for the high hour; we talk about working up to a time on the mount. We have to learn to live in the grey day according to what we saw on the mount.
(My Utmost, April 16th entry)

In any case, Chambers concludes, we must live in low moments by what God revealed to us in better times. This was the topic of a famous sermon of his entitled “Can You Come Down?” The sermon deals with Jesus and the disciples’ transition from the Mount of Transfiguration to the valley where he deals with unclean spirits (Mark 9; Matthew 17). The theme was echoed in another famous sermon, Mountains and Valleys in the Ministry of Jesus by G. Campbell Morgan.

In a sermon about “processes”, Joseph Parker preached not only that we must sustain our obedience in the valleys, but that remembering the mountain will help us to do so.

We should lay up some memory of the Divine triumphs which have gladdened our lives, and fall back upon it for inspiration and courage in the dark and cloudy day. Go into your yesterdays to find God!

This was a perennial theme with Parker—we cannot always keep yesterday’s assurance, but we can resurrect it by memory. I believe D. L. Moody had a saying, that if God did no other miracle for him, he could live out his days content upon the memory of all that God had already done in his life. Memories help us make meaning out of our low moments.

“The Dark Night of the Soul”

The Dark Night of the Soul is the title of a poem and treatise by a 16th-century Catholic mystic, John of the Cross. The title of the book has been borrowed by many as another favorite term for what Wesley called the “wilderness state”, a state of depression or lack of spiritual awareness in the life of the Christian.

John of the Cross relies somewhat on The Cloud of Unknowing, an anonymous classic from two centuries earlier. ‘Unknowing’ meant ignorance, or unawareness, so the “cloud of unknowing” is a poetic term for whatever blocks the divine vision from view.

The Middle English of The Cloud of Unknowing is difficult, but it is an important work for those trying to understand the theological tradition of righteous unawareness of God. Below is an important passage (ch. 3).

Let not, therefore, but travail therein till thou feel list [desire]. For at the first time when thou dost it, thou findest but a darkness; and as it were a cloud of unknowing, thou knowest not what, saving that thou feelest in thy will a naked intent unto God. This darkness and this cloud is, howsoever thou dost, betwixt thee and thy God, and letteth thee that thou mayest neither see Him clearly by light of understanding in thy reason, nor feel Him in sweetness of love in thine affection. And therefore shape thee to bide in this darkness as long as thou mayest, evermore crying after Him that thou lovest.

For the anonymous author, this cloud of unknowing between us and God affects not only our feeling, but our reason. This leads us to think that God’s holy ones may be not only depressed, but even doubtful.

One can see why this tradition is not very popular among Protestants. The wilderneds state is frequently maintained as a pattern founded on human experience and tradition, not reason or revelation.

There are hints of the “dark night” in Scripture, though, aside from the impressions we receive from the narrative of Jesus descending the Mount of Transfiguration. Winkie Pratney, an Arminian writer, has written a book called The Thomas Factor which draws on a theological tradition of sanctified doubt. Pratney sees, in the story of Elijah in 1 Kings 19, a kind of dark night of the soul. In spite of his powerful and victorious confrontations with evil, Elijah speaks of suicide. He says he alone has remained faithful. But God leads him to rest. An angel ministers to him and feeds him, not once, but twice. God reminds him that he has “seven thousand in Israel . . . that have not bowed to Baal.”


There is a loss of assurance that may happen in the life of a Christian, but it is not permanent. As Romans says, the Holy Spirit testifies to us that we are God’s children; but from what we know of history and biography, it is neither a constant, continual, lifelong witness, nor is it an emotional or intellectual witness. Spirit speaks to spirit.

The dark night of the soul entails some confusion of both feeling and facts. It led Elijah and Jonah to feel suicidal; it has led others, like Frederick Buechner, to question our most deeply held traditions about death and immortality. But confusion of facts and confusion of feelings should not always lead to a confusion of faith. We do not have to know that the sky is blue, or feel that the earth is round; there are many facts in our lives that are always true, though removed from our awareness or transcending our small understanding. We know they are true by a steady iteration of experiential confirmations, and an interruption does not change what we already know to be true. We may lack certainty and yet maintain assurance.

In affirming these things, we should free believers to rest not on their own awareness or assurance of God’s atoning work in their lives—but on the fact itself.