Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 13 - God’s Only-Begotten Son, Our Lord
Question 33: Why is he called God’s only-begotten Son,
since we also are children of God?
Answer 33: Because Christ alone
is the eternal, natural Son of God.
We, however, are children of God by adoption,
through grace, for Christ’s sake.
Jesus is the only-begotten Son of God.
The Catechism does not immediately wax enthusiastic about this. Rather, we detect here a certain sense of discomfiture. After all, it feels compelled to stand up for itself in all modesty: but are we not children of God as well? This is not asked because Christ is called the Son of God. Nor because he is called the foremost Son, but because he is the only- begotten (John 3:16; “the one and only”, NIV). He has no one beside him. No brothers, no sisters. It seems that God does not have more children than this one Son.
But what about us?
It is such an important point for the Catechism that it addresses the issue right away. Is it OK to do so? Does it not sound a bit improper? Almost intrusive? Because what is being discussed here is a name of Christ, and not of us. It is not our turn at all. But the Catechism is quick to question our own position. Would it not have been more respectful to first calmly examine why Christ is called God's only Son, and only then — if necessary — to ask what this means for us who are also children of God? Why such a rush to start talking about ourselves?
The Intention of Question 33
Each name or title of our Saviour has its own story but all four reveal to us how he brings us back to God. He healed the breach. So when we hear his names mentioned we listen with keen ears to what they tell us about them.
With three of the four, this is absolutely and immediately clear he is called Jesus because he saves us. And Christ because he is our Prophet, Priest and King. And he is called Lord — this will follow later — because he has delivered us from all evil powers. But what advantage does it have for us that he is called the only-begotten Son of God? There is indeed a striking difference between this name and those three others. These three each reveal in their own way what Jesus is doing for us: he is our Lord Jesus Christ. But when he is called the only Son of God, it is as if this increases rather than decreases the distance between him and us — and also between God and us. God and Christ stand side by side as Father and Son, but are we not far removed from them? The word “only” has such an exclusive sound to it. He alone is the Son of God. No one else is. But then, what about us?
Meanwhile, we should not misconstrue the claim that we are, after all, also God’s children. There is no suspicion or uncertainty about our own connection with God. We are God’s children. The question assumes this as fact and does not question it for a moment. But what we want to know, as with the other three names, is this: what advantage or benefit is it to us that he is called God’s only begotten Son?
With that name is meant that he is the natural Son of God. What does that mean for us?
But before we answer that, another question needs to be answered first: is it really true that Jesus is the Son of God in the full sense of the word? Many people deny this. That is why we first want to see this absolutely proven from the Bible.
Jesus Is God's Natural Son
Right up to this present time there are theologians who write laudatory articles and hefty books about Jesus, yet without acknowledging that he is God’s Son in the full sense of the word.
One prominent Reformed theologian, Prof. H. Berkhof, wrote that the human self of Jesus has been permeated into the very last corners by the self of God. That sounds generous, but Jesus is no more than a human being who voluntarily allows himself to be filled with what Berkhof calls the divine self.1 Prof. E. Schillebeeckx, who enjoys authority in Roman Catholic circles, wrote two books on Jesus.2 In a third he addressed all kinds of reactions. The final question he answers reads: “Yes or no: in your view, is Jesus still God?” His answer to that question remains vague because he does not get any further than stating that the human being Jesus has something to do with the being of God.3
But when Jesus was baptized and also later during his glorification on the mountain, God spoke from heaven: “This is my Son.”4 “Son” in the full and deep sense of the word. We could think of no reason to interpret this direct revelation differently. God himself designated Jesus as his natural Son. “The Son is from the Father alone, not made nor created but begotten.”5 For he always was with God and he was God.6 Even the hostile Jews knew that Jesus called God his own Father, and that this meant that he equated himself with God.7We take away Christ’s divine honour if we do not confess unequivocally and without reservation that he is the Son of God. That is why we would not want to be in the shoes of those who violate this, even if they write books of praise about him. But there is more to it.
The Reason Why We Are Delighted That Jesus Is Called God’s Only-Begotten Son
Was it absolutely necessary for our salvation that he would be the Son of God? Or is that something incidental? A thing that does not detract from nor add to the quality of his work? For example, we can heartily agree on the good qualities of an architect and at the same time disagree on whether he is the natural son of his father. However, in terms of what he achieves it makes no difference whether he is or is not his father's biological son.
Does something similar apply to Christ? Most certainly not. Not only his divine honour, but no less our redemption would then be destroyed. Lord’s Days 5 and 6 show why we can only be saved by God’s own Son who is also truly God himself. That is also why we defend our belief that none other than the eternal natural Son of God is our Saviour. Otherwise we would still be lost!
Are We, As Adopted Children, Set Back Because Of Jesus?
As far as we know, Jesus never stood among his disciples and then spoke with them about God our Father. He always called him: my Father. He did teach them to call on God as “Our Father,” but he did not pray that with them. The very prayer for forgiveness makes that impossible. To Mary he said: “I will ascend to my Father and your Father, to my God and to your God”.8 Does he also mean that God in fact has only one Son and that we, as adopted children, come a long way behind him? Literally the word "only-begotten" does indeed mean that God has no more than one Son. That one, of course, is also his special child. In the parable of the tenants, the owner of the vineyard has one son who is called the beloved for that very reason.9 God cannot love anyone as much as he loves the One. We cannot compare to that one beloved Son. Not to mention our sins. But now the surprise!
When the Bible calls Jesus God’s only-begotten Son, it does not do so in order to exalt Jesus at the expense of us who are only adopted children. On the contrary, that happens to prove how incredibly God must have loved us. To such an extent that he did not even spare his own Son.10 For he allowed him to undergo the fury of his anger so that we might gain entrance in his Father’s house. The fact that Christ is the Son of God, even his only-begotten Son, shows the measure of God’s love for us. The apostle John was deeply impressed by this. Four times he uses the words "only-begotten Son", and it is worthwhile to examine how he does this each time in order to underline the fact that God loved us so much that he even gave up his only-begotten Son for our sake.11
But also the Son himself loved us. As does the Father, so too the Son. He is not ashamed to call us his brothers.12
He was prepared to give up everything to achieve this. He even gave up the glory that he had received as the Son of God. He came to earth and bore our punishment. He was forsaken by his own Father. We were accepted. The world upside down! That is how much the only Son of God wanted us to be accepted as God’s children.
Question 34: Why do you call him our Lord?
Answer 34: Because he has ransomed us,
body and soul,
from all our sins,
not with silver or gold
but with his precious blood,
and has freed us
from all the power of the devil
to make us his own possession.
For many Christians, the title Lord refers to Jesus, but that is about where it ends. The word itself has no meaning of its own for them, and that is a shame. That is why it is good that the Catechism specifically asks about it.
When we hear the word “lord” we may be thinking of medieval times: of lords and castles. Or perhaps we connect it to certain persons who hold a title, as in British nobility. As per the old meaning, “lord” could be the title of a ruler who was called "the lord of the land", while the members of the city council were also "the lords of the city". A lord was not just a gentleman, but also a higher authority.
Lord or Kyrios in the NT
The NT also has a very common use of the word lord or kyrios (Greek). When Mary thought she was talking to the gardener before her she addressed him as “Lord” or “Sir”.13 And when Jesus sent his disciples out to get a donkey there was talk of the owners or “lords” (Wycliffe Bible) of the donkey.14 Also the owners of dogs, eating the crumbs from under the table, were referred to as “lords” or “‘masters”.15In such cases the word has a fairly general meaning. In addition, however, it also became the honorary title that could be given to the emperor and even to gods. Did Jesus therefore have to share this title with other great men after all?
No, because he is the Lord of lords.16 He is supreme and rules over all. And when it comes down to it, he is also the only Lord. Paul writes that although there are many “lords”, for us there is only one Lord, one Kyrios, and that is Jesus Christ.17
Since When Is He Called Lord?
When we think of the name Jesus, we think of the time shortly before his birth. Then God gave him that name. Mary heard it from an angel and Joseph through a dream. With the name Christ, our thoughts go out to his baptism in the Jordan where the Holy Spirit descended upon him. At that time he was publicly and officially anointed with the Spirit.
But since when is he Lord or Kyrios? It is certain that he came to earth in "the form of a servant" and humbled himself to death on the cross.18 Now a servant or slave is anything but a kyrios or lord. So Jesus was not yet a “lord” during his suffering and until his death. He became that only afterward. Then God “exalted” him and gave him “the name above all names”. We may think especially of the name Lord, because that is what everyone would call him: Jesus Christ is Lord.19
Peter also says that God made Jesus both Lord and Christ. How did God do this? By making him sit at his right hand.20
So the name Lord is strongly associated with the glory of his resurrection and ascension and being seated at God’s right hand.
What About the Time Before This?
We had almost already drawn the conclusion that Jesus was not Lord before his resurrection. But that conclusion turns out to be premature, because according to the NT he was Lord also during his life on earth.
When Jesus spoke of his return he said, “Watch, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming”.21 That is how he called himself. When they crucified him, he was the Lord of glory. They did not acknowledge this, but he was. Even then already.22 It was so absolutely certain that he would overcome the powers. Even stronger, all his life on earth was a continuous triumph over Satan. Indeed, he accepted the status of a slave, but he remained the Lord. He fought against sin and death as the unconquerable Kyrios. So we must speak with two words here. On the one hand, Jesus humbled himself — as a servant/slave — on the cross to death. On the other hand, he conquered death — as a Lord–on that same cross. Both are true. Through suffering and dying he disarmed the powers and triumphed over them. Helplessly he hung on the cross with outstretched arms. Yet he was victorious. He appeared to be going down, but in reality he triumphed. But what does it mean when afterwards he was exalted. After all, that unmistakably indicates a real change and progress in his human existence. What did it concretely mean that he was made Lord? We would like to answer: at that point the veil fell away that had hidden him as Lord. On the cross he had accomplished the work of a supreme Lord, but — outwardly — in the form of a powerless slave. That was past when God gave him the honour and power befitting his title. Then he was no longer Slave and Lord, but fully Lord. He was allowed to sit at God’s right hand. His cross became a
throne. This is what the NT calls his exaltation. This promotion was the culmination of his suffering and death.
He is now the Lord of lords — in heaven and on earth. On earth he is Lord of all. One day every human being will bow his/her knees before him. For better or for worse, everyone will bow and acknowledge that he is Lord.
But in a special way he is also our Lord. That is what the greatness of this title is all about.
Why Do You Call Him Our Lord?
In terms of our origin we are descendants of Adam. This implies that we have been handed over to the power of the devil. Those who do not know better do not notice or believe this. Every person will admit that there are all kinds of evil powers that determine life on earth. But the fact that evil angels pull our weight is not perceived in this way. This is because the devil keeps people under the delusion that they are completely free to do as they please. But in spite of all the leeway he seems to give them, he has them in his power. It took him little effort to get us to that point. A short conversation with our mother Eve was enough, because it will not have taken much longer than what is described in Genesis 3. That is when he captured us! He just talked us into it. It could not have been any less costly.
But what did Jesus have to do to set us free again?
No — he did not try talking us out of it again. An impossible road — and impossibly cheap.
Even a violent counter-offensive against hell was out of the question. For the devil would never let us go until our debt was paid. And that was possible only through Christ’s blood. It could not come at a higher cost. No one has done as much for us as he has.
That is how he became our Lord.23 And we became his own. No one else’s!
There are lords in abundance, but for us there is only one Lord.24
All those other lords take advantage of us. But we can say goodbye to that entire crowd. For us, only one remains. He who bought us with his blood, something no other lord would do. Thankfully, he is the Supreme Lord. This is not just our wish or our aspiration, but this is the reality. Jesus is not on the way to a political victory or a societal position of power, because he has been proclaimed as Lord for two millennia.25 And just as old is the confession of the Christian church: Jesus is Lord.26 This is the truth that everyone has to face and will have to face. His power is not determined by ballot box results. That may cause us to be relaxed. We are fighting for a cause that has already been decided. Right from the start that is our starting point, also for our political and social involvement. Jesus is Lord — also of the neighbours and of all the people who ignore him. They will experience it to their horror. Because one day all creatures, without any exception — including devils and the wicked! — will be forced to confess that Jesus is the Kyrios.27 But for us, he is the Kyrios who has ransomed us with his blood from all our sins and has definitively delivered us from all the power of the devil. This also explains why we have such high expectations of faith in this Kyrios.