Addressing God as Father
It has always struck me that in the Psalms – the prayers of the Old Testament church – God is never addressed as ‘our Father’. That raises the question: why not? Did the believers under the old covenant not yet know the LORD as Father? If they did, why does the appellation ‘our Father’ not appear in their prayers?
These questions gain the more force because in his significant book about the salvation preached by Jesus in his proclamation of the kingdom, Herman Ridderbos includes a separate topic that he entitles ‘The Fatherhood of God’. In Answer 120, the Heidelberg Catechism says: ‘God has become our Father through Christ’. Does this mean that God only became Father of his children after Christ’s sacrifice and that we can only then address God as ‘our Father’, as Christ commands?
These are the questions we shall explore in this article.
The very first question is whether God is called ‘Father’ in the old covenant. When you read the Old Testament you discover that God was indeed known by Israel as their Father, although the texts that mention it are few. The Song of Moses says: ‘Is he not your Father, your Creator, who made you and formed you?’ (Deut 32:6). In Jeremiah 3:4 we hear the reproach: ‘Have you not just called to me: ‘My Father, my friend from my youth?’ And in Malachi 2:10 we come across a similar reproach: ‘Have we not all one Father? Did not one God create us?’ Jeremiah is allowed to announce a new future, ‘because’, as God declares, ‘I am Israel’s father’ (Jer 31:9). Moreover that Israel also called God their Father is apparent from Isa 63:16: ‘But you are our Father’, and 64:8: ‘Yet, O LORD, you are our Father’.
In a splendid essay, H.J. Schilder concludes that in all the texts where God is called Father, the relationship that is contemplated is not that between the LORD and a believer, but between him and his people. Nowhere in the Old Testament do we hear believers address God as ‘my’ or ‘our Father’. That is a remarkable observation. In all the personal prayers that we find in the Old Testament, God is addressed in many different ways, but never as ‘our Father’.
That God was known already in the old covenant as Father of his people is rooted in the unique relationship that exists between him and Israel. It is the relationship of the covenant that he has with Israel. Israel is ‘his son’ (Exod 4:23; Hos 11:1). The Israelites are his children (Deut 14:1). That is why Paul calls their ‘adoption as sons’ one of the privileges of the people of Israel (Rom 9:4).
Being children of God and being adopted as his sons are not the unique privileges of the New Testament believers, but were Israel’s portion by virtue of the covenant. The promise repeated in 2 Cor 6:18: ‘I will be a Father to you, and you will be my sons and daughters…’ already applied to God’s old people, Israel!
In connection with the idea of God as Father in the Old Testament, H.J. Schilder also points to the Davidic kingship. The relationship between the LORD and David’s royal house is also – very strikingly – characterized as a relationship between Father and son. Nathan’s prophecy about David’s own son (Solomon) is fundamental on this point: ‘I will be his father, and he will be my son’ (2 Sam 7:14). And compare this with Psalm 89:26, where it is said of David, ‘He will call out to me, “You are my Father, my God, the Rock my Savior”’. Schilder comments: ‘… that affectionate, warm relationship between Yahweh and king comprehends and already alludes to the warm, intimate relationship which the Lord will conclude with his chosen people. To put it in a New Testament way: in his “son” (the king), God adopts his people (as his “children”)’. What applied to David’s family, applied also to Israel, which, among other things, is clearly apparent from 2 Corinthians 6:18!
Thus, we may draw the conclusion that the Lord Jesus did not proclaim something entirely new when he spoke about God as Father and taught his disciples to address God as Father.
The New Covenant
Nevertheless, Ridderbos is not wrong when he regards God’s Fatherhood as belonging also to the salvation of the kingdom that Jesus preaches. There is indeed something in that preaching that is surprisingly new.
To understand that, we need to say something about the new covenant that took effect with Christ’s coming and that is based on the pouring out of his blood (cf. Luke 22:20). Although the Israelites were children of God and knew him as Father of his people, in the prophecy we hear the promise that Paul summarizes in 2 Corinthians 6:18: ‘I will be a Father to you, and you will be my sons and daughters…’
The apostle says that this promise is fulfilled because the congregation is now temple of the living God. At the same time this promise is also the point of departure in his call to sanctification. (Cf. 2 Cor 7:1: ‘Since we have these promises…’). This promise is the new reality, because Jesus is the mediator of ‘a new covenant’ (Heb 9:15) and it is superior to the old, because ‘it is founded on better promises’ (Heb 8:6).
The old covenant certainly contained promises, but the promises of the new covenant are ‘superior’ because they have been completely fulfilled by Christ’s sacrifice and have become a new reality. The prospect that Jeremiah portrayed, is now reality: ‘…“I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people…. For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”
In this context, Calvin speaks about a ‘comparison between something superior and something inferior’.
The new covenant differs from the old also in this that the salvation of which Jeremiah speaks, has now been obtained by Christ and is fully realized in the lives of God’s children by his Spirit.
The old covenant was deficient (Heb 8:7), not only because the sacrifices of animals could not really take away sin (Heb 9:9), but especially because it was characterized by Israel’s unfaithfulness. That covenant was altogether temporary and defective. The advantage of the new covenant is not that it contains promises that differ from those in the old covenant, but that what was promised has been obtained (cf. Heb 9:11-12) and may be enjoyed in greater abundance (cf. Heb 10:19).
For the new covenant is characterized by the glory that accompanies the Holy Spirit (2 Cor 3:8). He is ‘the Spirit of sonship’ (Rom 8:15), the Spirit who teaches us to live as God’s children (Rom 8:14). Because he lives and works in us, what was defective under the old covenant, can now burst through in abundance, namely, being a child of God, having an intimate relationship with the Father in heaven, and enjoying the riches of God’s covenant!
Riches in Christ
Against this background we must now listen to what our Saviour preaches. He came to save his people (Matt 1:21) and therefore he proclaims the salvation of the people of the Lord.
That applies also to God’s Fatherhood. That Fatherhood is not in the first place about a relationship between God and the individual believer, but about the relationship between the Lord and his people. Jesus uses the plural in most instances when he speaks of ‘your Father in heaven’ (cf. Matt. 6:26; 7:11; 18:14), although that does not exclude a very personal relationship, as is apparent from passages in which he is speaking of the personal godliness of his disciples (cf. Matt 6:6, 6, 18). The phrase, ‘your Father’ in the singular appears only sporadically. And so we must conclude that our sonship of God is mentioned in Jesus’ preaching almost always as referring to the relationship the Lord’s people has toward God.
What was announced in the prophecy was fulfilled in Christ’s coming (and is not a matter to be fulfilled in the distant future). This is very clear from the fact that Christ speaks to those who accept his word as children of the heavenly Father (Matt 5:45) and always calls God their Father (Matt 5:16, 45, 48).
That the prophecy was fulfilled finds its most profound explanation in the person of Jesus himself, in particular in his own relationship with the Father. There is a two-fold relationship with the Father, that of Jesus and that of his disciples and those two must remain distinct. The Saviour never speaks together with his disciples about ‘our’ Father, but always about ‘my’ Father and ‘your’ Father.
Jesus is the only-begotten Son of God; we are adopted as God’s children for his sake. Paul writes in Ephesians 1:5 that God predestined us to be adopted as his children through Jesus Christ. That adoption was made possible through his mediatorial work. God has blessed us in him, ‘the One he loves’ (Eph 1:6).
Not only are we God’s children for Jesus’ sake, but we also know the Father only through Jesus: ‘… no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him’ (Matt 11:27). Jesus is the way to the Father: ‘No one comes to the Father except through me’ (John 14:6). This knowledge of the Father involves an intimate, heartfelt relationship with the Father.
It is especially from the Gospel of John that we learn how we know the Father in and through Jesus, his Son. He who is at the Father’s side makes him known to us (John 1:18). The Greek verb has a communicative tenor: the Son ensures that the Father does not remain a stranger to us.
Jesus reveals who the Father is by his speaking and actions. The Invisible becomes visible to us through Jesus. That is why the Saviour could say: ‘Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father’ (John 14:9).
All of this is in the foreground when we address God as ‘our Father’. This form of address is possible only through Christ and in communion with him. What was a defective reality in the old covenant has been fulfilled in Christ. Now we may fully experience that we are God’s children also in the fact that we may address God with that very ‘intimate’ name, ‘Father’!
Through the Spirit
It is striking that Paul emphatically connects this calling on God with the Holy Spirit. By him we cry, ‘Abba, Father’ (Rom 8:15; cf. Gal 4:6). Distress does not teach us to pray, the Holy Spirit does. He is the Spirit ‘of grace and supplication’ (Zech 12:10). Prayer is praying ‘in the Spirit’ (Eph 6:18), a praying that is engendered and supported by the Spirit.
It is the Holy Spirit who helps us to live as a child of God, in the full riches of the new covenant. Not for nothing is he called ‘the Spirit of sonship’. It is striking that Paul calls prayer and, in particular, addressing God as Abba, Father, both in Romans 8:15 and Galatians 4:6, characteristic of our being God’s children. God’s children put off their old nature, walk in the Spirit, and thank and praise God. But before all else they pray to and address God as Father. The Heidelberg Catechism therefore rightly calls prayer ‘the most important part’ of our lives as regenerated people (Answ. 116).
The ‘glory’ that accompanies the Spirit in the new covenant (2 Cor 3:8) is apparent especially in our faithful prayer life and in the candid us of the Father name. What we, looking up from ourselves to a holy God, would not dare to do, the Spirit teaches us. He places the name of the Father on our lips and makes us exclaim in full confidence, ‘Abba, Father’.
It is striking that Paul uses two words in both Romans 8:15 and Galatians 4:6: ‘Abba, Father’. There has been much discussion about this double appellation. Some believe that ‘Abba’ was the word used by little children to address their father. More than one of my colleagues has argued that ‘Abba’ is the equivalent of our ‘Daddy’ and that this demonstrates how intimately we may associate with God in our prayer life.
However, J. van Bruggen has demolished this interpretation. The word ‘Abba’ does not add something to the name ‘Father’. In the Greek New Testament, ‘Abba’ is treated as the equivalent of the Greek Patèr (Father). The reason Paul uses the word ‘Abba’ is not to teach us how intimately we may associate with God in our prayer life. ‘We must look for Paul’s reason in the context. Both Romans 8 and Galatians 4 speak of the unity worked by the Spirit. Gentiles are now also heirs of God. They too are God’s children. That is why they, together with the believing Jews, address the same God as Father…. The Jews call him Abba and the Greeks Patèr, but both are now united to the same God and Father.’
In Romans 8 it is the Spirit who enables us to cry, ‘Abba, Father’. In Galatians 4 the apostle actually writes that it is the Spirit in our hearts who calls out, ‘Abba, Father’. This demonstrates again the inextricable unity between what the Spirit does and what we as believers do. Our calling upon the Father is worked and supported by the Spirit. In and with our prayers, the Spirit himself prays in and with us (cf. Rom 8:26)!
Christ Teaches Us
In harmony with the new covenant that took effect with his coming, the Saviour now teaches us also to address God as ‘our Father’. He who reveals the Father to us and who is the way to the Father for us, places that intimate name on our lips. Jesus taught his disciples the Lord’s Prayer in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 6:9-13). The context in Like 11 is striking: Jesus was praying and his prayer caused the disciples to ask the Master, ‘Lord, teach us to pray’. Clearly they wanted to pray together with him, to pray as he prayed.
There is good reason, as Pope Benedict does, to call the ‘Our Father’ in the first place the prayer of Jesus, the conversation between the Son and the Father. It always remains a prayer that can only be understood out of our communion with Jesus. We pray the prayer ‘in Christ’, to use a Pauline expression. We pray to him whose children we are by believing in his Son (John 1:12) and whom we may know as Father through the Son.
We cannot say that Christ did something outrageous and shocking when he taught his disciples to address God as ‘our Father’. We came across the appellation, ‘Father’, also in the Old Testament. But believers did not yet regularly and candidly use this form of address in the old dispensation. That is evident from the psalms and prayers that we find in the Old Testament.
The surprising novelty of the ‘Our Father’ is that Christ taught us freely and candidly to call God ‘Father’ and it is this ‘preeminent proper name’ name by which his disciples may and must from now on address God. In it God grants the full enjoyment of both his Fatherhood and our sonship. All the reserve and restraint of the old covenant belongs to the past.
J. van Bruggen emphasizes the connection with the old covenant and regards the new manner of address and the form of the ‘Our Father’ as a matter of pitch. In my opinion, in doing so, he does not do full justice to its real novelty. H.J. Schilder rightly point to the progression in salvation history: Christ has revealed the name ‘Father’ more abundantly and on the basis of his work it became ‘small change’. All the other forms of address that we know from the Old Testament find their climax in the address, ‘our Father’. The whole gospel of reconciliation is included in it.
The Heidelberg Catechism says that Christ commands us to address God as ‘our Father’, because he wants to awaken in us at the very beginning of our prayer a childlike trust toward God (Answ. 120). The context of the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6 is also about that trust. The Saviour rejects the repetitive babbling and the empty phrases of pagan prayers. Such prayers betray a particular view of the divine and manifest a lack of trust. Praying in that way insults God. For he is a Father, who knows what his children need. We need to pray in faith, with a childlike trust. And then we can be concise.
It is in this context that Jesus teaches his disciples to address God as Father! Calvin says that God wants to be called Father by us in order to free us from all want of trust by the sweetness of this name, for nowhere else can one find a greater inclination to love than in a father. With this form of address, the Saviour stamps our prayer as an intimate, tender relationship between a child and his father!
Much can happen in that relationship that may challenge our childlike trust. The psalms speak of it. Often prayers come ‘out of the depths’ of despair. And that is why it was so good and wise of the Saviour, as the Heidelberg Catechism says, to command us to address God as ‘our Father. That is how he teaches us to take shelter with our Father in our distress, to place our lives in his hand, and to expect everything from him.
Our Father in Heaven
It must not escape us that Christ inserts the possessive pronoun ‘our’ before ‘Father’. We saw already that the LORD is the Father of his people. He is the Father of all his children. And therefore he is also my Father. The personal relationship is embedded in the relationship between the LORD and his people. We do well to remember this, since today so much emphasis is placed on the personal bond with God. We share in the salvation that Christ gained for his people. And as member of that people, I may and must call God Father.
The form of address, ‘our Father’, always reminds us that in our prayers we join together with all God’s children. It is not just about our private needs. We go beyond the constraints of our own lives and place the needs of all God’s children before his throne. ‘In the “Our Father” we pray with our own heart and at the same time with all of God’s family. And at the same time our whole ‘family’ accompanies us in our petitions. Christ teaches us that our prayers must encompass all those who belong to him.
Thus, we may address God very intimately. But we must do so with reverence. For we are praying to none other than the heavenly Majesty, the God for whom even angels cover their faces! That is why the Saviour adds ‘in heaven’ to teach us about the need for reverence. For he is speaking of a unique Father who cannot be compared to any earthly father. On the contrary, all earthly fathers are fathers thanks to him and they must model themselves on him (cf. Matt 6:15). As distinct from all kinds of evangelical familiarity, it is salutary to remember this addition to the form of address, ‘our Father’, and to remember that the Lord Jesus calls God ‘holy Father’ (John 17:11)!
Calvin says about the addition: ‘But while we hear this, our thought must be raised higher when God is spoken of, lest we dream up anything earthly or physical about him, lest we measure him by our small measure, or conform his will to our emotions. At the same time our confidence in him must be aroused, since we understand that heaven and earth are ruled by his providence and power’.
This passage echoes the conclusion of Answ. 121 of the Heidelberg Catechism. Christ teaches us to expect all things from this almighty Father. This is not a matter of adding something to the Bible that it does not say. For when he addresses our worries, our Saviour speaks about the care of ‘your heavenly Father’ for his children (Matt. 6:32) ‘Our Father in heaven’: Christ teaches us that trust and reverence may and must go hand in hand!