Bruce Ware | T. Rupert and Lucille Coleman Professor of Christian Theology
The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
When one considers biblical teaching on the Fatherhood of God, one finds two senses in which God is Father. First, as the one God, he is Father to his children, whether Israel or the Church. That is, as the God who created and redeemed his people, he relates to them as their Father, who cares, corrects, punishes, guides, and restores. Here, there is no specific Trinitarian distinction evident, per se, as the one God is acting, as one, toward his people as their Father. Second, when Trinitarian specificity has come more into play, Father is far more often reserved for the first Person of the Trinity who is the eternal Father of his eternal Son, who (Son) in the incarnation becomes none other than Jesus Christ of Nazareth. Here, while some references to “Father” refer more broadly to the one God who is Father of his children, more often than not, Father denotes specifically the Trinitarian person of the Father, who is Father precisely because he is eternal Father of his eternal Son, who likewise, through Christ, becomes also Father of those who are in Christ. Thus, as one considers both of these expressions, one might say that “God as Father of his people” and “God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” are equally expressive of the biblical revelation of the Fatherhood of God.
In what follows, I hope to accomplish three goals: first, to consider some of the biblical teaching related to who God is as Father, second, some of the biblical teaching that depicts the Father as the Father of the Son, and third, to relate both sets of biblical teachings to the question of what human fathers can learn from this about what it means to be a father. Of course, what is assumed in this, which is best to be brought out into the open, is that the Fatherhood of God (in both senses) is more basic than, and instructive for, human fathering. God (both as the one God as Father and the first Person of the Trinity as the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ) is the primal and perfect Father; we human fathers are those called fathers following the model of “the Father,” and hence we are made to bear resemblance to his fathering. If one wishes to dispute that the biblical revelation of the Fatherhood of God is meant to convey something about human fathering, I would ask for some evidence why this would NOT be the case. The burden would be on the objector, not on the supporter, of this connection. After all, this is not a matter of seeking to mimic in our humanity some incommunicable aspect of God’s being (e.g, trying to learn from God’s self-existence what it means for us to exist – which is fully fallacious), but it is more like learning from God’s holiness what it means for us to be holy—“Be holy as I am holy.” Since God is the primal and perfect Father, it seems clear, then, that in many ways we likewise should seek to be human fathers patterned after the ways God displays his role as heavenly Father—as an adaptation to the imperative, “Be holy as I am holy,” we can infer that the revelation of God’s Fatherhood presents us with a parallel, if implicit, imperative, “Be father as I am Father.” And furthermore, as we shall see, several biblical texts make a direct connection between God’s “fathering” to how this should be applied in human relations, including in the role of human fathering. It appears fully valid, then, to pursue this question: how is God Father, and what can we learn from this about human fathering?
First, God as Father
Consider some select passages where we see the one God spoken of as Father of his children:
Psalm 89:20–29 – 20 “I have found David My servant; With My holy oil I have anointed him, 21 With whom My hand will be established; My arm also will strengthen him. . . . 26 “He will cry to Me, ‘You are my Father, My God, and the rock of my salvation.’ 27 “I also shall make him My firstborn, The highest of the kings of the earth. 28 “My lovingkindness I will keep for him forever, And My covenant shall be confirmed to him. 29 “So I will establish his descendants forever And his throne as the days of heaven.”
Malachi 1:6 – 6 “‘A son honors his father, and a servant his master. Then if I am a father, where is My honor? And if I am a master, where is My respect?’ says the Lord of hosts to you, O priests who despise My name. . . .”
Matthew 5:43–48 – 43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 “If you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 “Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
1 Peter 1:14–17 – 14 As obedient children, do not be conformed to the former lusts which were yours in your ignorance, 15 but like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behavior; 16 because it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” 17 If you address as Father the One who impartially judges according to each one’s work, conduct yourselves in fear during the time of your stay on earth.
Hebrews 12:7–11 – 7 It is for discipline that you endure; God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline? 8 But if you are without discipline, of which all have become partakers, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. 9 Furthermore, we had earthly fathers to discipline us, and we respected them; shall we not much rather be subject to the Father of spirits, and live? 10 For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but He disciplines us for our good, so that we may share His holiness.
James 1:13–17 – 13 Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted by evil, and He Himself does not tempt anyone. 14 But each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust. 15 Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death. 16 Do not be deceived, my beloved brethren. 17 Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow.
In both Old and New Testaments, then, God’s role as Father of his children—whether Israel or new covenant believers—is displayed to instruct us in two respects. First, it tells us much about who God is in his own character. His honor and authority, his position over and above his children, his greatness and place of deserved respect and obedience, all are highlighted in his supreme role as Father of his children. As Father, he should be obeyed, followed, and his word should be obeyed. When his children fail to show him such deserved respect and allegiance, God is dishonored and this invites the possibility of God’s just discipline of his children. But there is more to the character of God as Father than his deserved place of honor and respect. As Father, he likewise is one who cares for his children with great love and concern. He’s the Giver, Provider, Protector, and Savior of his children. They can trust his hand never to bring them anything ultimately harmful but always seek to benefit their lives, in the end. In short, God as Father is both great and good. He is both our highest authority and perfect care-giver. We fear and tremble at his voice of highest authority, and we cherish the richness of his care, affection, and unfailing love for his children.
Second, we can infer from God’s Fatherhood of his children something of the pattern that should be evident in the parenting manner and substance of human fathers. Both respect and tenderness, both authority and loving affection, both exacting obedience and lavish kindness should mark those who father their children in a manner in which God fathers us. The balance is critical, and one must only consider for a moment the manner of God’s own fathering of us to see this is so. Although human fathers may err through imbalance of excessive heavy-handedness or indulgent permissiveness, God’s own pattern and manner stands as our corrective. As human fathers take their cue from God’s fathering, we learn the importance both of exercising authority over our children and exhibiting warmth and loving affection with our children. That both are required, and both are critical to be good fathers, is one of the most important implications of noticing just how God acts as Father to his children.
Second, God the Father
Consider some select passages where we see the first Person of the Trinity, God the Father, spoken of as the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ and then (amazingly) also as the Father of his children who are in Christ.
The Son is the eternal Son of the Father, but his “Sonship” is manifest in Scripture in three senses:
Eternal Son, e.g., John 3:16-17 – 16 For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world be saved through him.
Incarnate Son, e.g., Luke 1:35 – 35And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God.”
Exalted Son, e.g., Acts 13:32-33 – 32 And we bring you the good news that what God promised to the fathers, 33 this he has fulfilled to us their children by raising Jesus, as also it is written in the second Psalm, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you” [quoting Ps 2:7]
And so it clear from the revelation of the Son of the Father, as eternal Son, incarnate Son, and exalted Son, he always is Son to his Father and so accomplishes the work of his Father, carries out the will of his Father, and so fully submits to his Father’s authority over him. Although there are many texts supporting this claim (which I’ve argued for previously in various venues1), here is one text which offers summary evidence for the everlasting “Sonship” of the Son, and hence his place always as Agent of the Father’s will, that is always to do the will and carry out the work of the Father:
Hebrews 1:1-2 – 1 God [the Father], after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, 2 in these last days has spoken to us in His Son [incarnate Son], whom He appointed heir of all things [exalted Son], through whom also He made the world [eternal Son].
Notice from this text, the Father speaks through his Son in the Son’s incarnate proclamation, and the Father exalts the Son to his position over the nations as inheritor of all that is in creation, and the Father is the Creator of the world through the agency of his Son. So, indeed, in eternity past, in the incarnation, and in eternity future, the Father accomplishes his work in and through his Son, the Agent of the Father.
As Son of the Father, what characterizes the relationship of this Father and Son, and what in particular characterizes the Father? He gives him extremely important work to do, which work fulfills the will and design of the Father:
1 Corinthians 8:6 – yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom are all things and we exist for him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we exist through Him.
John 6:38 – For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me.
John 8:42b – I proceeded forth and have come from God, for I have not even come on My own initiative, but He sent Me.
John 8:28-29 – 28 So Jesus said, “When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am He, and I do nothing on My own initiative, but I speak these things as the Father taught Me. 29 And He who sent Me is with Me; He has not left Me alone, for I always do the things that are pleasing to Him.”
John 4:34 – My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me and to accomplish His work.
Hebrews 5:8-9 – 8 Although He was a Son, He learned obedience from the things which He suffered. 9 And having been made perfect, He became to all those who obey Him the source of eternal salvation.
Romans 8:31-32 – 31 What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who is against us? 32 He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things?
1 Corinthians 15:25-28 – 25 For He must reign until He has put all His enemies under His feet. 26 The last enemy that will be abolished is death. 27 For He has put all things in subjection under His feet. But when He says, ‘All things are put in subjection,’ it is evident that He is excepted who put all things in subjection to Him. 28 When all things are subjected to Him, then the Son Himself also will be subjected to the One who subjected all things to Him, so that God may be all in all.
Psalm 2:7-9 – 7 I will surely tell of the decree of the Lord: He said to Me, ‘You are My Son, Today I have begotten You. 8 ‘Ask of Me, and I will surely give the nations as Your inheritance, And the very ends of the earth as Your possession. 9You shall break them with a rod of iron, You shall shatter them like earthenware.’
God the Son, then, is both God and Son. As God, he is fully equal with God the Father, in that both Father and Son possess fully the identically same and eternal divine nature. As such, the equality between the Father and Son (and Spirit) could not be stronger—they are equal to each other with an equality of identity (i.e., each possesses the identically same divine nature). As Son, the Son is always the Son of the Father and is so eternally. As Son of the Father, he is under the authority of his Father and seeks in all he does to act as the Agent of the Father’s will, working and doing all that the Father has purposed and designed for his Son to accomplish. The eternal Son, God the Son, is both fully God and fully equal to the Father, while he is fully Son and eternally in a relationship of Agent of the Father, carrying out the work and implementing the will of the Father in full submission and obedience to all that the Father has planned. God and Son, i.e., fully God (in nature) and fully Son (in person)—this is who this second Person of the Trinity is.
While one might think that a relationship marked by such strict and unequivocal authority and submission would not, indeed could not, also be marked by love, the fact is that this relationship is loving to its very core. Indeed, not only does the Son express his absolute and unqualified allegiance to the Father in strict obedience to his every word and command, the Son does so out of a deep and abiding love for his Father. In short, the Son’s submission to the Father, and his love for the Father, are inseparable.
John 14:31 – I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father [italics added].
John 15:9-10 – As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love [italics added].
The mutual indwelling of the Trinitarian Persons with one another provides another lens to see something of the beauty of the Father-Son relationship. And what is especially amazing here is that this intimate mutual indwelling of the Father with his incarnate Son is one that is shared also with believers. Consider these passages:
First, note the union of the Father and Son in the life and work of the Son:
John 10:37–38 – 37 “If I do not do the works of My Father, do not believe Me; 38 but if I do them, though you do not believe Me, believe the works, so that you may know and understand that the Father is in Me, and I in the Father.”
John 14:10–11 – 10 “Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father is in Me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on My own initiative, but the Father abiding in Me does His works. 11 Believe Me that I am in the Father and the Father is in Me; otherwise believe because of the works themselves.”
Second, note the union of the believer with both Christ and the Father and with one another:
John 14:20–23 –20 “In that day you will know that I am in My Father, and you in Me, and I in you. 21 He who has My commandments and keeps them is the one who loves Me; and he who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and will disclose Myself to him.” 22 Judas (not Iscariot) said to Him, “Lord, what then has happened that You are going to disclose Yourself to us and not to the world?” 23 Jesus answered and said to him, “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our abode with him.”
John 17:20–26 – 20 “I do not ask on behalf of these alone, but for those also who believe in Me through their word; 21 that they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You sent Me. 22 The glory which You have given Me I have given to them, that they may be one, just as We are one; 23 I in them and You in Me, that they may be perfected in unity, so that the world may know that You sent Me, and loved them, even as You have loved Me. 24 Father, I desire that they also, whom You have given Me, be with Me where I am, so that they may see My glory which You have given Me, for You loved Me before the foundation of the world. 25 O righteous Father, although the world has not known You, yet I have known You; and these have known that You sent Me; 26 and I have made Your name known to them, and will make it known, so that the love with which You loved Me may be in them, and I in them.”
And in keeping with this last observation—that the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is also Father to us who are in Christ—notice also some other astonishing texts showing the relationship between the Father and his children who belong to Son:
Matthew 6:9–13 – 9 “Pray, then, in this way: ‘Our Father who is in heaven, Hallowed be Your name. 10 ‘Your kingdom come. Your will be done, On earth as it is in heaven. 11 ‘Give us this day our daily bread. 12 ‘And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. 13 ‘And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.’
2 Corinthians 1:1–4 – 1 Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, To the church of God which is at Corinth with all the saints who are throughout Achaia: 2 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, 4 who comforts us in all our affliction so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.
Third, The Relation Between the Fatherhood of God and Human Fathering
Consider the following suggested lines of implication and application. Although much more could be said for each item, it is hoped that these points will be seen to arise from a careful consideration of just how God has dealt with his people as their Father, and how the first Person of the Trinity has been and is the eternal Father of the eternal Son.
Respect and honor is owing to one who is father due to his position of authority, requiring children’s joyous obedience and respectful submission to their fathers (Matt 6:9-10; 1 Pet 1:14-17; Mal 1:6).
Care, provision, protection, comfort, kindness must be shown from one who is father (Matt 6:11-12; 2 Cor 1:1-4).
It must be clear that fathers should never seek their children’s harm but always and only seek what is for their good. Children need to know that their fathers are 100% for them (Heb 12:10; James 1:13-17).
Discipline must be administered – both formative (Heb 5:8-9) and corrective (Heb 12:7-11) – from responsible and loving fathers to their children.
Fathers should administer judgment fairly and impartially as God the Father does (1 Pet 1:14-17).
Loving intimacy and understanding comfort needs to be expressed with tenderness and care from fathers to their children (John 15:9-10; 17:23, 26; 2 Cor 1:1-4).
Here we see the use of fatherly authority to assign meaningful work to those under your charge. Let them share in the work and also be recipients of honor as a result (1 Cor 8:6; John 4:34; 6:38; 8:28-29).
Fathers, in their care for what is best for their children, should encourage sacrificial and others-focused service and love toward those who are difficult to serve and love, reflecting the Father’s love for all (Matt 5: 43-48).
Fathers should urge “brotherly” unity in which children share in a unity in the faith that mirrors the unity of the Father and the Son – applicable surely for families and for church as well as other communities of those of the faith (John 17:21-22).
A father’s ultimate goal with his children is for their spiritual transformation and holiness. All other matters pale in comparison to the supreme importance of this one alone (1 Pet 1:13-17; Heb 12:10).
How rich and instructive is the two-fold theme in Scripture of the Fatherhood of God. To see the one God as Father of his people is to marvel at the intimacy of the relationship he has designed to have with those whom he loves and brings into his family. And to see God the Father in relation to his eternal Son is to behold the wonder of authority and submission, of love and intimate fellowship, lived out in perfect harmony. As the primal, absolute and perfect Father, we pray that human fathers will pay closer notice to how fathering is done at its best. May we human fathers learn and grow to be more like that One who exhibits eternal Fatherhood and fathering, and may this bring glory to name of the One in whose likeness we long to be refashioned.
1 See, e.g., my article in JBMW, Fall 2008, “Equal in Essence, Distinct in Roles: Eternal Functional Authority and Submission among the Essentially Equal Divine Persons of the Godhead,” 43-58.
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