Are we all children of God?

Over at Crisis Magazine, Rachel Lu, Ph.D. wrote an article titled “We are not all children of God”. I thought the title might be facetious, arguing against some foolish persons who made such a claim. No, she actually makes the assertion. Then I thought that perhaps she introduces an number of distinctions, different ways or degrees by which we might be more or less fit for the term “children of God”. Not at all. She makes one distinction only: those who receive the formal Sacrament of Baptism are children of God, and all who have not received formal Baptism are not. Period. No ambiguity.

Why are Christians constantly stressing their solidarity with the rest of the world by claiming that “we are all children of God”?

All humans are made in God’s image, and Christ’s grace is available to all. Nevertheless, we aren’t all children of God. It’s actually quite important that people understand why this is. We become children of God by adoption.

At birth we are “under the law,” still waiting for our redemption. We are God’s creatures, and his servants, but explicitly not his children. Only after we are formally received into God’s family can we declare ourselves his children. What is the process by which we become God’s adoptive children? According to Church doctrine and tradition, it is baptism.

Yes, the formal Sacrament of Baptism makes us children of God. This teaching of the Church is clear from the Gospels. The older magisterial documents on this point tend to use the phrasing “sons of God”, and newer ones use “children of God”, but the doctrine is the same.

Beyond that one correct point, there are serious problems with Lu’s position on this topic. The biggest issue is the all-or-nothing dichotomy that she introduces. She places all who receive the formal Sacrament of Baptism in the category “children of God”, and all other human persons in the category “explicitly not his children”. By doing so, she contradicts the teaching of the Council of Trent. The Council of Trent (using the older term “sons of God”) includes all persons who have received any form of Baptism, not only the formal Sacrament, in the category of children of God.

Council of Trent: “By which words, a description of the Justification of the impious is indicated, — as being a translation, from that state wherein man is born a child of the first Adam, to the state of grace, and of the adoption of the sons of God, through the second Adam, Jesus Christ, our Savior. And this translation, since the promulgation of the Gospel, cannot be effected, without the laver of regeneration, or the desire thereof, as it is written; unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Ghost, he cannot enter into the Kingdom of God.” [Sixth Session, Decree on Justification, Chapter IV]

Notice the phrasing: “the laver of regeneration, or the desire thereof”. The laver (washing) of regeneration is Baptism by water in the formal Sacrament, and the desire thereof is a baptism of desire — which is exactly how non-Christians may attain to the state of grace. Baptism confers the state of grace, and the theological virtues of love, faith, and hope. A non-Christian can be in a state of grace by a baptism of desire or of blood. And the Council of Trent categorizes all such persons as adoptive sons of God, even if their baptism was a non-formal baptism of desire.

Does the desire for Baptism need to be explicit? No, it does not. Pope Pius XII taught that, for non-Christians “An act of love is sufficient for the adult to obtain sanctifying grace and to supply the lack of baptism.” [Address to Midwives, n. 21.a.] And such a person would then fall under the teaching of the Council of Trent on “the desire thereof”, receiving an implicit baptism of desire and thereby becoming adoptive children of God.

Rachel Lu claims that only persons who receive the formal Sacrament of Baptism (water, not desire) are children of God, and all others are not. Her position contradicts the infallible teaching of the Council of Trent. [However, she later corrected this error by stating that persons who receive a baptism of desire are also children of God. See my later post: Rachel Lu on baptism]

Lu says: “Only after we are formally received into God’s family can we declare ourselves his children….. We really do need to make the distinction, however, because without it we lose sight of the tremendous importance of this sacrament.”

It is clear from the above quotes, their context, and other assertions in the article that Lu thinks only those persons who receive the formal Sacrament of Baptism are children of God. She allows no room in her explanation and stark dichotomy for anyone to become a child of God by a non-formal baptism of desire (or of blood).

She cites Sacred Scripture as teaching that baptism makes us adoptive children of God. Yes, the Bible does teach that point. But if she had researched her article more thoroughly (or at all), she might have seen the verse from the Book of Wisdom, calling the Israelites “children of God”.

{12:7} so that they might worthily secure the sojourn of the children of God, in the land which is most beloved by you.

{12:7} That the land which of all is most dear to thee, might receive a worthy colony of the children of God.

New American Bible (
{12:7} that the land that is dearest of all to you might receive a worthy colony of God’s children.

How can the Israelites be children of God when they are not baptized Christians? By a baptism of desire.

[1 Corinthians 10]
{10:1} For I do not want you to be ignorant, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and they all went across the sea.
{10:2} And in Moses, they all were baptized, in the cloud and in the sea.
{10:3} And they all ate of the same spiritual food.
{10:4} And they all drank of the same spiritual drink. And so, they all were drinking of the spiritual rock seeking to obtain them; and that rock was Christ.

Can we say, instead, that all who have received any type of Baptism (water, desire, blood) are children of God, and all others are “explicitly not his children”? I don’t think so. There are some further distinctions to be made.

[Ephesians 1]
{1:3} Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavens, in Christ,
{1:4} just as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, so that we would be holy and immaculate in his sight, in charity.
{1:5} He has predestined us to adoption as sons, through Jesus Christ, in himself, according to the purpose of his will,

God chose us “before the foundation of the world”, which was certainly before we were conceived or born or baptized. And God “predestined us to adoption” as children of God. Therefore, all who ever will become children of God by any form of baptism are in some sense already children of God, awaiting their adoption “according to the purpose of his will”.

The as-yet-unbaptized children of Christian parents are children of God, in the sense that they are awaiting their formal Baptism. The children of devout non-Christian believers, who are predestined by God to adoption as children later in life are in some sense God’s children. So are any human persons who God knows will eventually enter the state of grace by any type of baptism. They are all predestined to adoption.

I say more: we are all made in the image of Christ, who is the Son of God. In that different sense, too, we are children of God.

Then there is the question of grace. All human persons, even the reprobate, are given a myriad of graces: prevenient actual graces, certainly, and subsequent actual graces in so far as they are willing to cooperate. Human persons receive grace to varying extents. The reception of sanctifying grace in baptism is a full reception of grace, making us children of God. But persons who receive grace and cooperate with grace prior to baptism (of any kind) are making their way toward that end. In a different sense, they too are children of God — in so far as they cooperate with actual graces.

Lu herself points out that: “God loves everyone, and that every life is precious. Which is true. All humans are made in God’s image, and Christ’s grace is available to all.” She then immediately makes the implicitly contradictory assertion: “Nevertheless, we aren’t all children of God.” But I would argue that all human persons are children of God, though in a different and lesser sense than what they can each and all attain by some form of baptism. “For Christ plays in ten thousand places. Lovely in limbs and lovely in eyes, not his, to the Father through the features of men’s faces.” [Poetry]. Merely by being made in the image of Christ, we are each and all children, in one sense.

The baptized are fully children of God, because they have received sanctifying grace. But then there is the opposite case to consider: those baptized persons who lose the state of grace by actual mortal sin. They are still children of God in one sense: still Christians, still members of the Church, still baptized. But they have harmed their filial relationship with God, and it needs to be repaired by repentance and forgiveness. In some sense, they have become somewhat less fit to be called children of God, and somewhat more like the children of this fallen sinful world. So for us fallen sinners, living in this sinful world, our place as children of God admits of degrees and qualifications. There are not two categories only of all human persons: “children of God” and “not children of God”.

Recall the story of the Roman Centurion from the Gospel of Matthew:

{8:5} And when he had entered into Capernaum, a centurion approached, petitioning him,
{8:6} and saying, “Lord, my servant lies at home paralyzed and badly tormented.”
{8:7} And Jesus said to him, “I will come and heal him.”
{8:8} And responding, the centurion said: “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word, and my servant shall be healed.
{8:9} For I, too, am a man placed under authority, having soldiers under me. And I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”
{8:10} And, hearing this, Jesus wondered. And he said to those following him: “Amen I say to you, I have not found so great a faith in Israel.
{8:11} For I say to you, that many shall come from the east and the west, and they shall sit at table with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.
{8:12} But the sons of the kingdom shall be cast into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

The faith of the Centurion was great, even though he was not baptized, not a follower of Jesus, and not a Jew. He must have entered the state of grace, at some earlier point in his life, by an implicit baptism of desire. He thereby received the theological virtues of love, faith, and hope.

But what of the “sons of the kingdom” of God? Some will be cast into the darkness of Hell, no longer fit to be called sons or children. So it will be with many Catholic Christians. By baptism they became children of God. By dying in a state of unrepentant actual mortal sin, they lose their place as God’s children, to join the reprobate and the devils in Hell.

Much more could be said on this issue. For a subtle and profound discussion of who is and is not a member of the Church, see the book by Cardinal Avery Dulles: The Dimensions of the Church. Real Catholic theology expresses complex and subtle distinctions, considers different ways of understanding an issue, and reaches out to the good in all humanity.

I am deeply troubled by the rise of Catholic fundamentalism in the Church today. Catholic fundamentalists reject true theology, over-simplify everything, and dogmatize everything. They see the complex terminology and distinctions of Catholic theology as mere traps to avoid. They seek to live by faith alone, distrust reason’s natural capacities, and give scant consideration to speculative theology. They preach and teach a version of Catholicism that is nothing other than their own very limited understanding. They do not learn before they teach. They do not research before they write. They spread numerous distortions of doctrine among the laity. And their every opinion, misunderstanding, and claim is presented as if it were dogma. That is the trend today among Catholics online: Teach without first having learned. Write without first having read.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and
translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

Please take a look at this list of my books and booklets, and see if any topic interests you.

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5 Responses to Are we all children of God?

  1. Francisco says:

    This is what I have understood regarding this topic:

    Jesus Christ is the only literal Son of God, same Nature, God Himself.
    Beings can be called creatures of God.
    We humans can be called children of God, for we were created in God’s image and likeness and if we cooperate with God’s grace, loving God above all and neighbor as self, we are sons of God by adoption. However, persons who reject God, do works of evil, do not deserve to be called sons or children of God; they may be called sons of perdition, the devil, or whatever sin or thing they are slaves of.

    For example, Jesus Christ Himself called the Pharisees sons of Hell (Matt 23:15); a specific person the son of perdition (John 17:12); or sons of the devil (John 8:44).

    John the Baptist told wicked men not to call themselves “sons of Abraham” (Matt 3:9) (Luke 3:8).

    [John 8]
    {8:42} Then Jesus said to them: “If God were your father, certainly you would love me. For I proceeded and came from God. For I did not come from myself, but he sent me.
    {8:43} Why do you not recognize my speech? It is because you are not able to hear my word.
    {8:44} You are of your father, the devil. And you will carry out the desires of your father. He was a murderer from the beginning. And he did not stand in the truth, because the truth is not in him. When he speaks a lie, he speaks it from his own self. For he is a liar, and the father of lies.
    {8:45} But if I speak the truth, you do not believe me.
    {8:46} Which of you can convict me of sin? If I speak the truth to you, why do you not believe me?
    {8:47} Whoever is of God, hears the words of God. For this reason, you do not hear them: because you are not of God.”

    • Ron Conte says:

      While we were yet sinners, God loved us and chose to become man and die for us. So it is not true that human persons, lacking the state of grace, are in no sense children of God. We are most fully children of God in the state of grace, and least so when unrepentant from actual mortal sin. But even a person unrepentant from actual mortal sin can cooperate with actual graces to some extent. We are NOT either holy children of God or wicked children of the devil. That is a false dichotomy; it is too stark a distinction. See my post above.

  2. Francisco says:

    Of course Jesus Christ wants the salvation of everyone. He came to this world to rescue us all from our iniquities and yes, I believe we are all His children in the sense that God created us in his image and likeness, consequently the parable of the prodigal son.

    But you still have not answered me why He calls wicked men “sons of Hell”, “son of perdition”, or “not of God, but your father the devil”. It’s not me who is saying it, it’s Jesus Christ. Why He said so if it would be erroneous to call them that way? (John the Baptist implied similar description).

    • Ron Conte says:

      Jesus was not referring to all the unbaptized. He was speaking about particular persons, who wished to kill him:
      {8:37} I know that you are sons of Abraham. But you are seeking to kill me, because my word has not taken hold in you.
      {8:44} You are of your father, the devil. And you will carry out the desires of your father. He was a murderer from the beginning. And he did not stand in the truth, because the truth is not in him. When he speaks a lie, he speaks it from his own self. For he is a liar, and the father of lies.

      And by extension, we could apply His words to those who seek to destroy the Church. But even the most wicked human persons have a good human nature (which stands as a witness against their evil deeds). We must be careful not to utterly condemn sinful persons who might yet repent, as Saul, a persecutor of the Church, repented and became Saint Paul.

      Jesus can know a person’s heart, mind, soul, and even their eternal destination. But He was certainly speaking of only certain persons, not all the unbaptized.

  3. Francisco says:

    Got it. Thank you Ron!

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