By Elysia McColley
One of the most important beliefs of the entire Christian faith is that Jesus is the Son of God. This belief is so central to Christian ethics, theology, and apologetics that all points of doctrine can disintegrate without it. When confronted with the idea that maybe Jesus was not the Son of God, Christians can become defensive and shut down any dialogue with the person that disagrees.
The issue at stake here isn’t that we want to defend our faith; 1 Peter 3:15 says, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” Rather, the issue is that we don’t usually give much consideration to what we mean by saying Jesus is the Son of God. The idea is so central to Christianity that we don’t often take the time to break it down and understand it.
One of the most contentious theological issues between Christians and Muslims is that of Jesus being the Son of God. Understanding what the Bible means in this doctrine and being able to communicate the idea can close the gap between Christians and Muslims immensely. There will still be points of disagreement, but their intensity can be drastically reduced by engaging in a conversation about this matter.
The Son of God and the Last Adam
“Son of God” is not a unique term. Historically, many religions have used the term to refer to emperors, kings, pharaohs, even angels; the New Testament describes followers of Jesus as sons and daughters of God! What sets Jesus apart is that in John 3:16, He describes Himself as God’s only begotten Son.
In the Nicene Creed (325AD), theologians accepted that the term “only begotten Son” means that Jesus is of the same essence as the Father, a concept called “homoousios.” Homoousios settled some pretty serious fourth-century theological debates, but twenty-first century culture might require an understanding that is more nuanced, so as to address issues that the early church fathers could not have foreseen.
In John 3, Jesus was speaking with Nicodemus, an expert in the law, about being born again. Nicodemus asked how he could re-enter his mother’s womb, and Jesus responded by saying that he must be born of the spirit. This context is where He claims to be God’s only begotten Son – born of the Spirit of God, the only person who can claim that unique position from birth rather than through re-birth.
Paul sheds some additional light on this issue in 1 Corinthians 15:45, where he refers to Jesus as the “Last Adam.” Jesus and Adam have several things in common; for one, neither of them had an earthly father. The Spirit of God breathed life into Adam, and the Spirit of God caused a virgin to become pregnant with Jesus. But Adam sinned and fell, whereas Jesus did not. Adam’s descendants must be born again, and for that reason, Jesus came as the Last Adam.
Romans 5:12 says, “Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned.” Jesus did not need to be reborn because, being conceived and born of the Spirit, He was God’s only begotten Son. As children of Adam, who are heirs to sin and death, we do need to be reborn. When we are reborn through the Spirit, as Jesus said in John 3:5-7, our spiritual lineage moves from the sinful line of Adam to the perfect line of Jesus.
Referring to Jesus as the Son of God does mean that He is of the same essence as the Father, as the Nicene fathers suggested; He was born of the Spirit rather than of a sexual union. Calling Him the Son of God also means that He succeeded where Adam failed, and we can become sons and daughters of God by being reborn into His lineage.
If someone ever challenges you with the idea that Jesus could not have been the Son of God, instead of trying to defend Jesus (Jesus does not need anyone to defend Him), try to engage the other person in a conversation. Talk about Adam’s sin and Jesus’ perfection, about being born of the Spirit and finding new life. You might be surprised at how deep and productive the conversation can become.