“If you are not disciplined (and everyone undergoes discipline), then you are illegitimate children and no true sons” (Hebrews 12:8, NIV). Generic Christianity believes that a simple, verbal confession of Christ saves you. A shrinking number of Christians insist a person must sincerely repent and be baptized to be saved. Apostolic believe that salvation requires repentance, water baptism in Jesus’ name, and the infilling of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38). Everyone believes something must happen to the thinking of any individual who wants to be saved. This “something” brings a person into a brand-new relationship with God. The most common word in the Scriptures used for this is “son,” or child (gender-neutral).
When a baby is born into the world, he or she is related to the parents. The DNA of the parents infuses every cell of the newborn. No one can dispute the fact that every person on the planet came from a specific set of parents. This cements the blood relationship. Spiritually, we must ask if this is the same in terms of our relationship to God. Yes. Our initial experience of faith resembles natural birth in a relational aspect. But is there anything necessary beyond the new birth to qualify us as children of God?
Jewish custom answers this question. Although born into a Jewish family, sonship was not fully established at birth. That’s why Paul wrote the Galatians and said, “Now I say that the heir, as long as he is the child, does not differ at all from a slave, though he is master of all, but is under guardians and stewards until the time appointed by the father. Even so we, when we were children were in bondage under the elements of the world. But when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption as sons” (Galatians 4:1-5).
The legitimately born child had the potential to ascend to a fully credentialed member of the family but was expected to go through training and maturation before being granted that position. The child’s status progressed from relational to positional. As a precursor to this idea, John said, “But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name: who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:12-13). Other scriptures expanding on spiritual adoption deal with the same concept (Romans 8:15, 24; 9:4; Ephesians 1:5).
To clarify, the new birth qualifies you to become a child of God. It represents the first level of regeneration, but if you want to move into legitimate, full-blown sonship, you must submit to discipline, chastening, rebuke, and even tribulation to be adopted into the family. Does this sound like heresy? I thought so, too until I began thinking about it. I reflected on the fact that multiplied millions of people claim Christianity as their faith, yet the vast majority have few, if any, earmarks of true Christianity. Why is that? Even in local congregations, a sizable number of attendees populate the rolls, but a much smaller percentage of them get involved in the church.
It appears that many people get their spiritual DNA but fail to progress to sonship. In the political realm, just because you sign a petition doesn’t mean you are ready to become an activist for the cause. If this assessment is not true, then why did the writer to the Hebrews bother with the discourse on discipline and chastening? What would be the benefit of such a passionate exposition on a totally unnecessary aspect of living for God? If I can have a relationship with Christ and forgo the stress and discomfort of tests and trials, why would I expose myself to those rigors?
New Testament writers expressed this sentiment so strongly that it could easily be interpreted as thematic. Over and over, believers are challenged to contend, fight, endure, improved, struggle, and advance in their devotion to God. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize” (I Corinthians 9:24-27, NIV).