Heidelberg 33: God’s Eternally And Only Begotten Son And His Adopted Sons (1)

One of the most basic doctrines of the New Testament is that Jesus is God the Son and the Son of God. In Matthew 4:3 we read when “the tempter came and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.'” In v. 6 he again challenged our Lord’s claim to be the Son of God: “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down….” The demons recognized Jesus as the Son of God: “What have you to do with us, O Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time?” (Matt 8:29). The disciples recognized his divinity: “And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God’” (Matt 14:33). He was convicted by the Jewish authorities for claiming to be the Son of God (Matt 26:65). He was mocked on the cross by one of the thieves for his claim (Matt 27:40–43; Luke 23:40–43). The Roman centurion recognized him as God’s Son: “Truly this was the Son of God!” (Matt 27:54).

Following Scripture, in Heidelberg Catechism 33 we confess:

33. Why is He called God’s “only begotten Son,” since we also are the children of God?

Because Christ alone is the eternal, natural Son of God; but we are children of God by adoption, through grace, for His sake.

As it distinguished between the Savior and the saved, the catechism distinguishes between two types of sonship: natural and adopted. Jesus Christ is God the Son incarnate. Believers are God’s sons by adoption. In the history of the church, however, we have struggled mightily to get this right. One of the earliest controversies we faced was the question of how to speak about God as one, in three persons. The other was the question of Christ’s two natures. In the question of Jesus’ sonship they converge. The great enemy to both the biblical, catholic, and Reformed doctrines of the Trinity and Christology is rationalism and closely related to that is biblicism. In this context “rationalism” refers to the subordination of Scripture and inferences from Scripture to human reason or to the human intellect. It is the denial of mystery and mystery is at the heart of the biblical and Christian doctrines of the Trinity and Christology. We have already discussed the doctrine of the Trinity under earlier questions but briefly Scripture teaches and we confess that God is one in three persons. These persons are not successive stages of revelation. These persons are co-equal and co-eternal and yet personally distinct and yet God is not one person nor is he three gods. No, he is one God in three persons. The persons are not mere modes as he looks like Father, or appears as Son or manifests himself as the Spirit. He actually is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Rationalists of various kinds in the 3rd and 4th centuries tried to minimize the mystery of the Trinity by reducing the persons to appearances or by making God’s essence plural. The church rightly rejected these attempts as heresies.

In the doctrine of God (Christology) the church faced similar challenges. Scripture teaches and we confess that Jesus is true man and true God. The natures are inseparable but distinct. We confess that God the Son always was (more on this below). There never was when the Son was not. He always was and he was always the Son and yet he was co-equal, co-eternal, consubstantial with the Father and the Spirit. He did not become the Son but he did become incarnate. He was not adopted. It is not as if the Father looked, as it were, at humans, after the birth of Jesus, and decided, “I will make that one my son.” Not at all. The blessed virgin Mary carried in her womb God the Son. That is why we say in the Definition of Chalcedon (451 AD) that she was Theotokos or God-bearer (θεοτοκος) and yet, in the mystery of the incarnation, the deity did not become less than it was nor did the humanity become more than it was. Christ has two, distinct, inseparable natures: True God and true man.

Next time: The mystery of and controversy over eternal generation.

Here are all the posts on the Heidelberg Catechism.

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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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7 comments

    • Peter,

      It is not to be confused with “being biblical.” See the chapter on this in Recovering the Reformed Confession. Biblicism is a movement, often associated with the Socinians in the 16th and 17th centuries but with roots going back to the Arians. It’s the attempt:

      1) To read Scripture as if no one has ever read it before. This approach has been lauded in both fundamentalist and Dispensational circles but has historically been disastrous.

      2) To resist drawing any inferences from Scripture and to resist correlating one passage or set of inferences with another.

      There are other features but these are two of the main features.

      Rhetorically it always positions itself as “just following Scripture” when, in fact, what it is doing is just following reason as it flattens out Scripture. The Arian biblicists were rationalists. The Socinian biblicists rejected the Trinity, the two natures of Christ, and the atonement among other things. They did so on the ground that they were “just following the bible” when, in fact, they were just following rationalism.

    • Peter and Dr Clark ,
      It is one thing to read Scripture as though no one has ever read it before. It is another thing to read it bearing in mind the possibility that your betters before you, whose approach you have imbibed, may have missed something, or even, in extreme cases, have got it wrong. The assumption that Luke’s account of the two thieves includes a modification of those of Matthew and Mark, rather than being a non-modifying addition to it, is a case in point. You make this assumption above, as did I and many others. But the fact is that initially BOTH of the thieves were mocking Christ in the same way as everybody else. Luke records a later stage in the proceedings, when one of the thieves says something new, “save thyself and us”, as though the true Messiah would automatically use His power to set them at liberty, criminals though they be, rather than merely “commute” their punishment to stoning (After all, they may not have left all their victims merely “half dead” – Luke 10:30). We cannot know this side of eternity whether the Holy Spirit used this as a catalyst in inspiring the other thief to say “Dost not thou fear God” or not, but, surely, isn’t it a possibility? Certainly he is not recorded as ever having said “and us”.

      Another instance is the assumption that Stephen in Acts 7:2-3 and Genesis 12:1 are talking about the same occasion, when the words “and thy father’s house” are not in Stephen’s account; which then led, in the best English versions (I don’t include the NIV in this classification, even though in this matter it follows them), but not in the Septuagint, to the use of the pluperfect in Genesis 12:1; which causes us to miss the delicious irony that the country which Terah had in mind when they left Ur, possibly for carnal reasons (in which case it might have been the decadently prosperous, but doomed part of the country, possibly already under the heel of Chedorlaomer or predecessor), was the very country not yet known to Abram but which God was going to show him! The second call, recorded in Genesis 12:1, would have been absolutely essential, as otherwise Abram could have concluded that Charan, where God’s providence had placed him, was the place God had meant in the first call, rather than the place they had had in mind when they left Ur.

  1. Recently at EOPC, Steve Baugh preached on John 1, and talked about how “adoption” didn’t mean “less than begotten” or “unnatural”; it meant “appointed as heir”, such that a father might “adopt” his begotten son as an affirmation that he is the heir. As such, us being “adopted” means we are co-heirs with Christ.

    • Rube,

      Well, it might mean that in regard to a royal coronation (in the ancient near eastern context) or in some other setting but in this context, adoption is rightly contrasted with nature. Christ is God the Son and the Son of God by nature. We, by contrast, become sons by adoption, by grace alone, through faith alone, by virtue of union with Christ.

      I’m entirely confident Steve wasn’t suggesting that Christ was adopted.

  2. Dr. Clark,
    Thank you for your response to Peter Herz’s question regarding the difference between Biblicism and Reformation Sola Scriptura. Excellent and helpful!

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