God's children

Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband's will, but born of God. (Joh 1:12–3)

The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God's children. (Rom 8:16)

The Bible teaches that everyone who receives Jesus Christ and believes in his name (the Greek word means to believe in, to have faith in, to trust in) becomes a child of God. The New Testament often refers to believers as brothers and sisters because, spiritually, we are children of the same Father.

Dependency and humility

Jesus frequently used children to illustrate truths about the kingdom of God. Consider the following statements:

'Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.' (Mat 18:3)

'Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.' (Luk 18:17)

Every word Jesus spoke is important to us. Peter said, 'Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. (Joh 6:68).

Eph 2:8 tells us that we are saved by God's grace (his unmerited favour shown to sinners), through our faith. But, according to Jesus, if we want to enter the kingdom of heaven something more than faith is required: we need to change and become like little children. What did he mean by that? He was talking about dependency and humility.

A lot of what we see around us is the result of our effort and ingenuity—the cities we live in, the vehicles we travel in, the technology we use. We've taken what God has created, used our strength and intelligence, and produced them all. And yet, despite what we've achieved, we cannot save ourselves: to be saved we have to depend on him.

Children depend on their parents for everything: for food, clothing, protection and guidance. God wants us to depend on him for everything: not only for our salvation, but for every other need as well. Are you depending on God for everything, or is he only your Saviour and you are still trying to make your own way in life? That is not how he wants you to live.

When Israel passed through the wilderness on the way to the promised land—which was their physical inheritance (Exo 32:13), symbolizing our spiritual inheritance, which is eternal life (1Jo 2:25; Mat 19:29)—they depended on God for everything: their provision, protection and direction. That is what he wants us to do.

Salvation of infants

People were also bringing babies to Jesus for him to place his hands on them. When the disciples saw this, they rebuked them. But Jesus called the children to him and said, 'Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.' (Luk 18:15–6)

Those words of Jesus have led some to believe that every child that dies goes to heaven. That would be nice if it was true, but it isn't.

Whether a person receives eternal life does not depend on the age at which they die, but on whether they are elect (chosen by God for salvation). God chose to give eternal life to Jacob, but not to his brother Esau; and that choice was made before they were born or had done anything good or bad (Rom 9:10–3).

Some people believe that children go to heaven because they are innocent of sin; but they are not innocent of sin. Every human being is born a sinner: we inherit it from Adam. David said that he was sinful at birth, sinful from the time his mother conceived him (Psa 51:5).

If an infant dies and is elect, it will go to heaven; if it is not elect, it won't, and there is nothing we can do about it. God chose those he was going to save before he created the world (Eph 1:4–5). Be assured that he cannot do anything wrong; the Judge of all the earth will do what is right (Gen 18:25).

So if Jesus wasn't teaching the salvation of all infants, then what was he teaching? He said, '…the kingdom of God belongs to such as these,' meaning: 'to those who are like these'. The kingdom of God doesn't belong to every child, but to those who change and depend humbly on God for their salvation like a child.

That any should perish

'What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off. In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish.' (Mat 18:12–4).

The New Testament uses the terms 'children', 'little children' and 'little ones', not only to describe males and females below the age of puberty, but also believers in Jesus Christ of any age (1Jo 3:1). Jesus addressed his disciples as children (Mar 10:24).

So when Jesus said that it's not God's will that any of these little ones should perish, he meant that it's not God's will that anyone who believes in him should perish. What did he mean by 'perish'? The Greek word used is used in Joh 3:16: it means to be destroyed—the opposite of eternal life.

Can believers lose their salvation? Yes, they can. They can lose it by turning from the faith and going back to their sins (2Pe 2:20–2). Jesus said:

'If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung round their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to stumble! Such things must come, but woe to the person through whom they come!' (Mat 18:6–7)

The Greek word translated 'stumble' in these verses means to stumble and fall morally. It comes from a word meaning an obstacle, a stumbling block—that which causes people to trip and fall morally. The picture is of someone falling into sin as they walk along the narrow road that leads to life (Mat 7:14).

Satan is the tempter (Mat 4:3); he is the one who puts stumbling blocks in our path, and he often uses humans to do it (Mat 16:22–3). As there will be degrees of rewards in heaven so, I believe, there will be degrees of punishment in hell. One of the worst will be for those who enticed God's elect (those he had chosen to save) back into sin and to their destruction.

My brother's keeper

So what should be done if a child of God does leave the road that leads to life? Jesus said that if a man owns a hundred sheep and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine and go to look for that sheep?

In Gen 4:9 Cain asked God whether he was his brother's keeper. The Hebrew word means to keep, to watch, to observe, to guard. God didn't answer him, but Scripture shows that we are our brethren's keeper; their eternal destiny should be our concern. Jam 5:19–20 says:

My brothers and sisters, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring that person back, remember this: whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins.

The word 'death' in that verse refers to spiritual death. God wants us to know that if one of his children does stop following the truth they can be brought back. Their sins, even their many sins, can be forgiven and they can be saved from spiritual death.

Jesus has given pastors (Greek shepherds) to his church to watch over and guard his flock (Eph 4:11–2); elders perform the same function (1Pe 5:1–2). But it's the duty of every believer to watch over their brethren: we are our brother's keeper.

1Jo 5:16 says that if we see a brother or sister commit a sin that does not lead to death (blasphemy against the Spirit is the only sin that leads irreversibly to spiritual death – Mar 3:28–9), we should pray and God will give them life. Wayward brethren can be restored to life through our prayers.

Don't let go of the rope

Christians who become ensnared by sin are backslidden. The word means to revert to sin from a state of moral purity. The ability to recognize and resist sin comes from God; if we move away from God we lose that ability. Such people need our help; they are lost sheep; they need to be brought back into the fold.

Paul said that while he was in Damascus the governor had the city guarded in order to arrest him, but he was lowered in a basket from a window in the wall and slipped through their hands (2Co 11:32–3).

Paul was in a dangerous situation: he was trapped and the enemy was trying to kill him. He needed the help of others. His friends lowered him in a basket (presumably attached to a rope) through a window in the wall. If they'd let go of the rope before he reached the ground he could have fallen to his death.

When we pray for backsliders we are performing the same function, but instead of lowering them to safety, we are pulling them back to safety. Paul's friends were saving him from physical death; we are saving them from spiritual death.

We could be the only one praying for them. If we let go of the rope before they are safe again, they could perish. Eph 6:18 tells us to always keep on praying for all the Lord's people. That instruction is not just for pastors, but for every Christian. The strong should help the weak (1Th 5:14).

The Book of Life

Further proof that God wants none of those he has chosen to save to lose their salvation is found in his Law. In Deu 25:5–6, he said that if a man died without having a son, his brother should marry his widow and have children for him. The first son she bore would carry on the name of the dead brother so that his name would not be blotted out from Israel.

Names are important to God. Read through the Bible and see how many people are mentioned by name, both good and bad. Names identify us, but at the end of the age they will serve one supreme purpose: anyone whose name is not found written in the Book of Life will be thrown into the lake of fire (Rev 20:15).

Jesus told his disciples not to rejoice that the spirits submitted to them, but that their names were written in heaven (Luk 10:20). How were they written in heaven? They were written in the Lamb's Book of Life (Rev 13:8).

The name of every human being God has chosen to save was written in that book from the creation of the world (Rev 17:8) and he doesn't want a single name to be removed from it. Why? Because they are the names of his children, whom he loves, and with whom he wants to spend eternity.

The one who is victorious

The Book of Revelation is a letter Jesus sent to seven churches in Asia (Rev 1:10–1). Included in the letter was a message for each of the churches (Rev 2—3), and each message contained a promise for 'the one who is victorious'. Let's look at three of them:

Those promises concerned salvation. Were they for everyone in those churches? No, they were for those who would be victorious. What does 'being victorious' mean? The Greek word means to overcome, to conqueror, to triumph over. In the New Testament it's used in the context of our fight against evil and the evil one (Rom 12:21; 1Jo 2:14).

Were the messages relevant only to the Christians they were written to? No, they are relevant to every Christian in every age (2Ti 3:16–7). According to what Jesus taught in those messages, overcoming evil is a condition of salvation, and if we don't overcome it our names could be blotted out of the Book of Life.

After Israel had made the golden calf Moses said to the Lord, 'But now, please forgive their sin—but if not, then blot me out of the book you have written.' The Lord replied, 'Whoever has sinned against me I will blot out of my book (Exo 32:32–3).

Will occasional sins cause our names to be blotted out? No:

My dear children I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins… (1Jo 2:1–2)

It's deliberate, persistent sin that will cause that:

If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God. (Heb 10:26–7)

If we deliberately keep on sinning, having been set free from our slavery to sin (Gal 5:13), then no atoning sacrifice for sins is left, and we will not inherit the kingdom of God (Gal 5:19–21).

Lessons from the Old Testament

Returning to Deu 25: God said that if a man died without having a son, his brother should marry his widow and have a son for him. A man could have more than one wife under the Old Covenant so, presumably, he was to marry her even if he was already married.

Normally people marry because of mutual attraction, but in this case they were to marry, whether they liked each other or not, in an attempt to fulfil God's desire that the man's name should not be blotted out from Israel. The Old Testament accounts for three quarters of our Bible. Why is it there? It's there to teach us spiritual truths and principles.

The Jews were, and still are, God's chosen physical people on earth; we, who have been born of his Spirit, are his chosen spiritual people. God's dealings with his physical people in the Old Testament hold spiritual lessons for us (1Co 10:1–11).

God, not wanting any of the names of his chosen physical people to be blotted out of Israel, symbolized the truth that he doesn't want any of the names of his chosen spiritual people to be blotted out of the Book of Life; and it was his brother's duty to try to prevent that from happening.

The importance of this was demonstrated by Onan's sin. Onan refused to attempt to keep his brother's name in Israel. His refusal was wicked in God's sight, so he put him to death (Gen 38:6–10).

If he finds it

There was no guarantee that if a man married his brother's wife she would bear a son. In the same way, when we pray for backsliders there is no guarantee they'll return to the Lord. In Luke's account of the Parable of the Lost Sheep, Jesus said, '…when he finds it (Luk 15:5).' But in Matthew's account he said, '…if he finds it (Mat 18:13).' Both are true.

When we pray for backsliders we should pray with faith expecting them to come back to the Lord and, in most cases, I believe they will. But some won't. Why is that? Because God has given us free will and he will not take it from us.

Amazingly, after knowing the Lord, some people go back into the world because they prefer to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin than a relationship with God (Heb 11:24–5).

Loving the world

Paul wrote, '…Demas, because he loved this world, has deserted me… (2Ti 4:10)', and there is no evidence he came back. Demas is mentioned in two of Paul's earlier letters (Col 4:14; Phm 1:24), but not after 2 Timothy.

The apostle John wrote:

Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. (1Jo 2:15)

If we love the world—and by that is meant the way of life lived by fallen humanity (1Jo 2:16)—we don't love God. Loving God is the first and greatest commandment (Mat 22:37–8). To love God is to keep his commands (1Jo 5:3–4). If we keep his commands (do the will of God) we will live for ever (1Jo 2:17).

The battle

Christians are in a battle: the battle is with the temptations to sin that are in the world, our sinful nature and the devil. And, as in any battle, there can be casualties. Some Christians are lost in the battle. We must do our best to prevent that.

Do you know any backsliders: people who are born again but are no longer walking with the Lord? They are in a precarious position. Are you praying for them? Are you trying to get them back onto the Way? You should be: God wants them back.

Look at the parable of the lost son (Luk 15:11–32)—a man who left his father to enjoy the sins of the world. See how his father ran to greet him when he returned, throwing his arms around him and kissing him. Look at the rejoicing; look at the celebration. That is a picture of God welcoming one of his children who has come back to him (Luk 15:7).

Paul attributed all that he was and did to the grace of God (1Co 15:10). It was by God's grace that he had not returned to the world, as Demas had; and those of us who are not backslidden should say the same. However, we should do our best to restore our brethren who are in that state. That is the will of God.

Rescue those being led away to death; hold back those staggering towards slaughter. If you say, 'But we knew nothing about this,' does not he who weighs the heart perceive it? Does not he who guards your life know it? (Pro 24:11–2)

If we love our brethren, as we are commanded to (Joh 13:34–5), we will pray for them, and especially for those whose salvation is at risk.

Michael Graham
January 2014
Revised October 2023

Scripture quotations taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version (Anglicised edition) Copyright © 1979, 1984, 2011 by Biblica (formerly International Bible Society). Used by permission of Hodder & Stoughton Publishers, an Hachette UK company. All rights reserved.

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