The first article of the Apostles’ Creed affirms our faith in God the Father. God is not some impersonal or indifferent force. He is a personal God – God is a Father. But still, how should we understand the term Father? In order to answer that question we must turn to the Bible. This will provide us with the revealed truth about God and also principles for understanding fatherhood in the family. We can say at least three things.
God is the Creator of all life
Firstly, we call God Father because he’s the Father of creation. The Apostles’ Creed affirms God as “the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth,” an idea firmly rooted in the Bible. In the Old Testament, Israel recognised God as their Father and Creator. Thus Moses can confront Israel asking: “Is this how you repay the LORD, you foolish and senseless people? Isn’t he your Father and Creator? Didn’t he make you and sustain you?” (Deuteronomy 32:6). Similarly, the prophet Malachi asks, “Don’t all of us have one Father? Didn’t one God create us?” (Malachi 2:10). In Acts, Paul even quotes a pagan Greek poet to make a similar point: “For we are also his offspring” (Acts 17:28). God as Creator has close ties with the notion of fatherhood.
However, we need to be careful not to interpret God’s universal fatherhood in the wrong way. All people owe their existence to God, therefore in this limited sense God is the Father of all. But this does not mean all people are children of God. The Bible teaches that human beings are by nature totally depraved. Our default inclination is not towards God but towards sin. Developing this uncomfortable truth in Ephesians 2:1-3, Paul uses the striking phrase “we were by nature children under wrath” (Ephesians 2:3). So while it is true that God’s fatherhood extends to all people, as their Creator, it is equally true that all people need to be spiritually reborn before they can become part of the family of God (John 3:1-15). This brings us to the second sense in which we may call God: Father.
In his grace we are made sons and daughters
All people who trust in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Saviour are adopted into the family of God. They become sons and daughters of God the Father: “To all who did receive him, he gave them the right to be children of God, to those who believe in his name” (John 1:12). The apostle Paul explains how this adoption connects us to God as Father: “For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear. Instead, you received the Spirit of adoption, by whom we cry out, ‘Abba, Father!’” (Romans 8:15; see Galatians 4:6). It is because the Holy Spirit is present in our lives that we have both the right and the freedom to call God: our Father.
It is because the Holy Spirit is present in our lives that we have both the right and the freedom to call God: our Father.
The most well-known prayer in the Christian church is surely the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13; Luke 11:2-4). The ability to approach God as Father is a privilege, not a right. Just as adoption is not carried out by the child, becoming children of God is a movement of undeserved grace. Remarkably, we are not only called God’s children but are named as the siblings of Jesus Christ (Hebrews 2:11). Because of this Jesus could say to Mary Magdalene, “Go to my brothers and tell them that I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God” (John 20:17). We are coheirs with Christ (Romans 8:17). What does this mean? The glorious resurrection life that Christ is now enjoying in the presence of God the Father will ultimately be enjoyed by every one of his brothers and sisters.
The Son reveals the Triune God
We live in a world where there is increasing sensitivity regarding gender issues, especially the notions of masculinity and patriarchy. Some Christians feel uneasy with language about God as Father, which might be understood as saying God has a specific biological gender. These concerns are not exclusive to our age. In the early church various church leaders addressed this very issue. In the context of the Greco-Roman world, there were, of course, a vast number of male and female gods who were worshipped by non-believers. Often these gods had quite amusing and even scandalous stories attached to them. The early church wanted to clearly distinguish the doctrine of the Trinity from the shenanigans of these false gods.
One of the most important things the early church fathers pointed out is that the terms Father and Son should not be understood in a crude physical or biological sense. Rather, the terms Father and Son should be understood as relational terms. These terms point to the kind of relationship that exists between God the Father and God the Son. God the Father is the source of the divine life in the Trinity, while God the Son finds his origin in that source. Father and Son are so closely connected, the one cannot be considered apart from the other. In his treatise, Against Praxeas, Tertullian explained:
[F]ather makes son, and son makes father, and those who become what they are by relationship with one another cannot by any means so become by relationship with themselves . . . The rules God has made, he himself observes. A father must have a son so as to be a father, and a son must have a father so as to be a son.
This loving relationship between Father and Son serves as a model for what the relationship between parent and child should look like in our families.
In the New Testament, this family relationship between God the Father and God the Son is evident. In the Gospels, Jesus refers to God as “my Father” no less than forty times. When praying, Jesus addressed God as “Abba”. The word Abba is an Aramaic word that Jewish boys and girls, and even adults, used to address their father. It’s a respectful yet intimate word, rooted in the relationship of care and affection that existed between the father and child. Abba is more or less equivalent to our English word Dad. By calling God Abba, Jesus pointed us to the fact that God is a loving Father, a Father who’s gentle, understanding, and affectionate. Because the Son loves the Father, he does what the Father commands him to do (John 14:31). In the same way, the Father loves the Son, declaring, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased” (Matthew 3:17). This loving relationship between Father and Son serves as a model for what the relationship between parent and child should look like in our families. The ability to approach God as Father is a privilege, not a right.
Through faith we are both saved from God’s just wrath and adopted in his love. The work of the Holy Spirit moves us to cry, “Abba, Father.” God makes us children and co-heirs with his only Son, our Lord. Our glorious future is nothing less than his present glory. Until then we should allow his gracious and gentle fatherly care to shape our own relationships, particularly those of us who are fathers.