Who has the right to be called a child of God in the New Testament? Do we need to be born into the lineage of Abraham or can anyone become God’s child?
The Bible makes a clear distinction between two types of people, those who are God's and those who are not. In the Old Testament the Jews (the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob) were God’s chosen people. The Gentiles were those who were not God's – instead they worshipped other gods. But what happens in the New Testament, can Gentiles also become God's people? Who exactly are God’s children today?
A new dispensation under a New Covenant
In the Bible, the word "Covenant" and "Testament" are both translated from the same root word. So when we are speaking of the New Testament, we are actually also speaking of the time of the New Covenant. In the same way, when we are speaking of the Old Testament, we are speaking of the period in time when God worked under the Old Covenant.
The exact moment when God's covenant changed over from the Old to the New, was when Jesus offered Himself as a sacrifice on the cross. His death initiated the New Covenant, which is why only hours beforehand He taught His disciples to use communion (the symbol of His crucifixion), as a reminder of the New Covenant:
"Then He took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, 'Drink from it, all of you. For this is My blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins.' " – Matthew 26:28
"And He took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, 'This is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me.' Likewise He also took the cup after supper, saying, 'This cup is the new covenant in My blood, which is shed for you." – Luke 22:19-20
When the New Covenant was established, it replaced the Old Covenant and so the people of God found themselves in an entirely new dispensation, one that was very different to what had gone before.
"...He says: 'Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant... not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt... In that He says,'A new covenant,' He has made the first obsolete. Now what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away." – Hebrews 8:8a, 9a, 13
This leads us to our question, who are God's children in the New Covenant? This will be easier to answer if we first define the term 'Gentile' in both the Old and New Testaments.
Who are the Gentiles?
In the Old Testament, God chose the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (also called Israel) to be His people. Everyone who fell outside of the house of Israel was called a Gentile. So by definition, the Gentiles were those who were not God's people.
If we look up the word 'Gentile' in the original Hebrew text, the word is ‘Gowy’. It is defined as:
Gentiles (Strong’s H1471)
A foreign nation not worshipping the true God – hence Gentile.
Gentile, heathen, nation, people.
We will underline where the root word for Gentile appears in each verse. In our first example it is being used of all the nations of the world.
“These are the families of the sons of Noah, after their generations, in their nations: and by these were the nations divided in the earth after the flood.” – Genesis 10:32
But the word more specifically refers to a people outside of God’s covenant – those who served other ‘gods.’ Usually the word ‘heathen’ or ‘Gentile’ is used in the English translation then. We offer three examples:
“But he walked in the way of the kings of Israel, yea, and made his son to pass through the fire, according to the abominations of the heathen, whom the LORD cast out from before the children of Israel.” – 2 Kings 16:3
“So shall the children of Israel eat their defiled bread among the Gentiles where I will drive them.” – Ezekiel 4:13
“Israel is swallowed up; now they are among the Gentiles like a vessel in which is no pleasure. “ – Hosea 8:8
In the above two verses, we can see a clear distinction between Israel (God’ people) and the Gentiles (the foreign nations) they were living among. Therefore the Gentiles are those who are NOT of the house of Israel.
In the New Testament we find a Greek word ‘Ethnos’ has the same meaning as the Hebrew word ‘Gowy.’ Ethnos is where we get our English word “ethnic” from. Here is the Biblical definition of it:
Gentiles (Strong’s G1484)
A multitude associated or living together – a company, troop.
A multitude of individuals of the same nature or genus – the human family.
A tribe, nation or people group.
In the OT, foreign nations not worshipping the true God, pagans, Gentiles.
In the NT, Paul uses the term for Gentile Christians.
Let’s look at a few New Testament examples:
Example one: Here ‘Ethnos’ refers to the heathen people God drove out of the promised land.
“Our fathers had the tabernacle of witness in the wilderness... which our fathers, having received it in turn, also brought with Joshua into the land possessed by the Gentiles, whom God drove out before the face of our fathers until the days of David.” – Acts 7:44-45
Example two: ‘Ethnos’ refers to the Roman soldiers who scourged and crucified Jesus.
“Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and to the scribes; and they will condemn Him to death and deliver Him to the Gentiles; and they will mock Him, and scourge Him, and spit on Him, and kill Him. And the third day He will rise again.” – Mark 10:33b-34
Example three: ‘Ethnos’ refers to the people who worshiped demons.
“the things which the Gentiles sacrifice they sacrifice to demons and not to God” – 1 Corinthians 10:20b
It is clear from the above three examples then, that the word Gentile in the New Testament refers to those outside of the house of Israel.
Apostles preach to the Gentiles
It was because the Gentiles were outside of the Abrahamic promise, that the Jews did not expect the Gentiles to be included in the New Covenant either. In fact they wanted to kill the Apostle Paul when he said he was taking the gospel to those unclean Gentiles.
“Then He [Jesus] said to me [Paul], ‘Depart, for I will send you far from here to the Gentiles.’ ” And they listened to him until this word, and then they raised their voices and said, “Away with such a fellow from the earth, for he is not fit to live!” – Acts 22:21-22
Despite the objection of the Jews, in many places Paul makes it clear that he was called as an Apostle to the Gentiles.
“...I was appointed a preacher, an apostle, and a teacher of the Gentiles.” – 1 Timothy 1:11
But it wasn’t only the Apostle Paul who heard the Lord say he must preach the gospel to the Gentiles. The same thing happened to the Apostle Peter as well. We find the story in the book of Acts chapter 10. Peter is praying on the roof of his house when he sees a vision of heaven lowering down a great sheet full of unclean animals and God tells him to eat of them. Peter refuses, saying he will not eat any common or unclean thing. God replies, “What God has cleansed you must not call common.” This happens 3 times. Right after this, men knock on Peter’s door, calling him to come visit a Gentile, a Roman centurion called Cornelius. When he gets there, Peter says:
“You know how unlawful it is for a Jewish man to keep company with or go to one of another nation. But God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean. Therefore I came...” – Acts 10:28-29a
Cornelius then tells him how an angel appeared to him, telling him to send for Peter. So Peter replies:
“In truth I perceive that God shows no partiality. But in every nation whoever fears Him and works righteousness is accepted by Him...” – Acts 10:34-35
Peter then begins to share the gospel message with Cornelius and all the other Gentile relatives and friends he invited to join him.
“While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who heard the word. And those of the circumcision who believed were astonished, as many as came with Peter, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also.” – Acts 10:44-45
The Holy Spirit was the sign and seal of the New Covenant. So God used this experience to show Peter that the Gentiles, who were previously considered unclean and outside of God’s grace, could now also be saved. And this news came as a surprise to all the believing Jews who were with him. When Peter tells the other apostles about the experience, they also complain that he should not have gone to the Gentiles. Yet look how Peter responds:
“And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them, as upon us at the beginning... If therefore God gave them the same gift as He gave us when we believed on the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could withstand God?”
Peter had witnessed God’s approval of these Gentiles, so who was he to contend with God’s will? And the other apostles, hearing that, accepted his words.
“When they heard these things they became silent and they glorified God, saying, ‘Then God has also granted to the Gentiles repentance to life.’ ” – Acts 11:15, 17-18
It is clear from the book of Acts that the Apostles did not originally expect the Gentiles to be included in the New Covenant. And yet a closer look at the scriptures shows that it had always been God’s plan to bring the Gentiles into the family of God through Jesus Christ. Let’s go to the Old Testament to see this.
God’s intentions found in the Old Testament
Look at this verse from Isaiah: It is a prophetic passage, where God the Father is speaking to His Son, the coming Messiah:
“It is too small a thing that You should be My Servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the preserved ones of Israel; I will also give You as a light to the Gentiles, that You should be My salvation to the ends of the earth.’ ” – Isaiah 49:6
So there we have it – how extraordinary! Yes, Jesus would come to restore Israel back to God. But that was not the end of it, that alone was not enough. Jesus would also bring salvation to the Gentiles, to men at the very farthest corners of the earth.
Isaiah gives us a few more glimpses of this same truth. We offer two examples:
“I, the LORD, have called You in righteousness, and will hold Your hand; I will keep You and give You as a covenant to the people, as a light to the Gentiles,” – Isaiah 42:6
“The Gentiles shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.” – Isaiah 60:3
The Apostle Paul also tells us that evidence of God’s intentions to bring in the Gentiles can be found all the way back in the book of Genesis:
“And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the heathen through faith, preached before the gospel unto Abraham, saying, ‘In thee shall all nations be blessed’... that the blessing of Abraham might come upon the Gentiles in Christ Jesus, that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.” – Galatians 3:8, 14
The word ‘all’ used in this verse means ‘the sum of all types’ (see Strongs G3956). So Paul is pointing out that the promise God gave to Abraham would come to every single type of nation, not just Israel. And therefore, through Jesus Christ, Abraham’s blessing came upon the Gentiles as well. We will explain the reason for this more fully in a moment, but first we must address a question which often comes up at this point.
The lost sheep of Israel
The scriptures we have just quoted leave us with a peculiar question. Why would Jesus say that He was only sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, if He was actually sent to save the Gentiles as well?
“I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” – Matthew 15:24
Jesus said a similar thing again when He sent out the twelve disciples on their first mission trip. He told them to stay away from the Gentiles and go rather to the house of Israel.
“These twelve Jesus sent out and commanded them, saying: “Do not go into the way of the Gentiles, and do not enter a city of the Samaritans. But go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” – Matthew 10:5-6
Clearly then the ‘Gentiles’ are not ‘the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’
And while Jesus did not go to the Gentiles during His earthly ministry, right at the end (after His resurrection), He says something very different. When He commissions His disciples moments before His ascension, He tells them to go to “all the nations”, and make disciples of them all.
“And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations.” – Matthew 28:18-19a
So before Jesus’s death, He says to His disciples “Do not to go to the ‘Ethnos’, I was not sent to them. Rather, go only to the lost sheep of Israel”. Then after His resurrection He says the opposite, He tells them to, “Go to all the ‘Ethnos’ (none are excluded), and make disciples of them.” Mark says it this way:
“And He said to them, ‘Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature.’ ” – Mark 16:15
Atonement for all men
Why has Jesus changed His command – simply because the Covenant has changed. The moment His blood was shed on the cross, that same moment He had atoned for the sins of all mankind, and so all men could be saved by His gift of grace.
"Therefore, as through one man’s [Adam's] offense judgment came to all men, resulting in condemnation, even so through one Man’s [Jesus's]righteous act the free gift came to all men, resulting in justification of life." – Romans 5:18
“it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead the third day, and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.” – Luke 24:46b-47
So then, under the Old Covenant (which was only with the house of Israel), Jesus neither went to the Gentiles, nor did He send His disciples to minister to them. But under the New Covenant He had purchased a way for all men to be drawn back to God.
“For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men.” – Titus 2:11
“God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself” – 2 Corinthians 5:19a
“Jesus Christ, the Righteous One... is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.” – 1 John 2:1b-2
Note that the Biblical definition of this word ‘world,’ used in the two previous verses, makes it very clear who is being spoken of here. Quite literally it means ‘the whole mass of men alienated from God’, so everybody is included:
World: (Strongs G2889)
The inhabitants of the earth, men, the human family.
The ungodly multitude; the whole mass of men alienated from God, and therefore hostile to the cause of Christ.
Because Jesus’s death made this possible, we find in the book of Revelation that there are all manner of saints singing to the Lord Jesus at the end of time:
“You are worthy to take the scroll, and to open its seals; For You were slain and You have redeemed us to God by Your blood out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation.” – Revelation 5:9b
That God's grace would extend to all men, was a mystery hidden in the Old Testament and only fully revealed at the time of the apostles:
“by revelation He made known to me the mystery (as I have briefly written already, by which, when you read, you may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ), which in other ages was not made known to the sons of men, as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to His holy apostles and prophets: that the Gentiles should be fellow heirs, of the same body, and partakers of His promise in Christ through the gospel.” – Ephesians 3:3-6
But Jesus knew that He had come for the Gentiles as well as the Jews. Therefore He prophesied that after His resurrection, He would draw all mankind to Himself.
“And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all peoples to Myself.” – John 12:32
Again He shows He was sent to bring in more than just the lost sheep of Israel.
“I am the good shepherd... And other sheep I have which are not of this fold; them also I must bring, and they will hear My voice; and there will be one flock and one shepherd.” – John 10:14, 15b-16
The Apostle Paul gives us a fuller understanding of what Jesus meant by these words:
“Therefore remember that you, once Gentiles in the flesh – who are called Uncircumcision by what is called the Circumcision made in the flesh by hands – that at that time you were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For He Himself is our peace, who has made both one, and has broken down the middle wall of separation, having abolished in His flesh the enmity, that is, the law of commandments contained in ordinances, so as to create in Himself one new man from the two, thus making peace, and that He might reconcile them both to God in one body through the cross, thereby putting to death the enmity. And He came and preached peace to you who were afar off and to those who were near. For through Him we both have access by one Spirit to the Father. Now, therefore, you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.” – Ephesians 2:11-19
To put that in simpler language, Paul is saying that those who were Gentiles, and not of the circumcision, not Jews, not under the covenant of God’s promise, not under the law and without any hope – have been brought near to God by Jesus’ blood. And that God has taken the Gentile and Jewish believers and made them both one in Christ, since both now have access by one Spirit, to one God, through one Saviour. Therefore God says:
“I will call them My people, who were not My people, and her beloved, who was not beloved.” – Romans 9:25
So Jesus was sent first to the house of Israel, to draw them home. But after His resurrection, He could also draw the lost world of all mankind, who were not previously God’s people. To the Jews, He has become the fulfilment of all God’s promises. To the Gentiles, He has become a brand new and glorious hope. As Paul says in a few places, Jesus came first for the Jews, but then also for the Gentiles after that.
“For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek.” – Romans 1:16
But since all are made one in Jesus, none of these distinctions means anything any longer:
“there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised nor uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave nor free, but Christ is all and in all.” – Colossians 3:11
We offer one last verse to finish this point.
“Or is He the God of the Jews only? Is He not also the God of the Gentiles? Yes, of the Gentiles also, since there is one God who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith.” – Romans 3:29-30
We have no reason to boast
Whether Jews or Gentiles, white or black, old or young, male or female, rich or poor – we are all sinners. That makes us all unworthy of God. None of us is deserving of eternal life. The fact is that in times passed, God showed His mercy on the Israelites more than on the rest of the human race. But we make a mistake to assume that His mercy on them reveals some extra worthiness on their part. It does not.
“What then? Are we better than they? Not at all. For we have previously charged both Jews and Greeks that they are all under sin.” – Romans 3:9
“He who sins is of the devil, for the devil has sinned from the beginning.” – 1 John 3:8a
Only Jesus Christ can save us.
“Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.’ ” – John 14:6
Everything we have – our lineage, our looks, our intelligence – all was God’s gift to us. How can we then expect a greater reward from Him because of what He gave us? How can we boast about what was none of our doing in the first place?
“For who makes you differ from another? And what do you have that you did not receive? Now if you did indeed receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it?” – 1 Corinthians 4:7
Therefore we conclude that it is only by the grace of God that any man can be saved, whether Jew or Gentile, lost sheep or found, every sin is paid for by the blood of Christ Jesus, shed once for all.
“The Lord is... not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.” – 2 Peter 3:9
“And it shall come to pass in the last days, says God, that I will pour out of My Spirit on all flesh... That whoever calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved.” – Act 2:17a, 21
God's children then are those who have trusted in the mercies of a loving God, and believed in the finished work of Jesus Christ on the cross. Those who have been willing to let God transform them into people of faith – like Abraham was.
“Therefore know that only those who are of faith are sons of Abraham.” – Galatians 3:7
Which brings us to our last point: What about the promise to the seed of Abraham?
What about Abraham's seed?
Under the New Covenant, it is no longer the physical seed (or descendants) of Abraham who are the children of God’s promise. It is now spiritual seed (those who share the faith of Abraham), who are considered his seed. It is those who share his heart, not those who share his blood. Let’s use a few examples to show how this works:
“they are not all Israel who are of Israel, nor are they all children because they are the seed of Abraham... those who are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God...” – Romans 9:6b-7a, 8a
In this next passage, Jesus is speaking to some Pharisees, who are Jews by birth:
“I know that you are Abraham’s descendants, but you seek to kill Me, because My word has no place in you. I speak what I have seen with My Father, and you do what you have seen with your father.” They answered and said to Him, “Abraham is our father.” Jesus said to them, “If you were Abraham’s children, you would do the works of Abraham. But now you seek to kill Me, a Man who has told you the truth which I heard from God. Abraham did not do this. You do the deeds of your father... You are of your father the devil, and the desires of your father you want to do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own resources, for he is a liar and the father of it.” – John 8:37-40a, 44
John the Baptist had something similar to say:
“But when he (John the Baptist) saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance, and do not think to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones.” – Matthew 3:7-9
And so both John and Jesus show that God would no longer count mere descendants of Abraham as His children. It was a matter of the heart. Those willing to follow the Lord and His way would now be considered God’s children. Those who bore the fruit of righteousness and the heart of faith.
“Therefore I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a nation bearing the fruits of it.” –Matthew 21:43
That is why Jesus warned that those who used to be counted “sons of the kingdom” would find themselves cast out and others, who used to be strangers to the promises of God, would sit with Him in heaven.
“many will come from east and west, and sit down with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the sons of the kingdom will be cast out into outer darkness” – Matthew 8:11-12b
Paul exposes the irony of Israel’s problem.
“What shall we say then? That Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have attained to righteousness, even the righteousness of faith; but Israel, pursuing the law of righteousness, has not attained to the law of righteousness. Why? Because they did not seek it by faith, but as it were, by the works of the law.” – Romans 9:30-32a
“For the promise that he would be the heir of the world was not to Abraham or to his seed through the law, but through the righteousness of faith.” – Romans 4:13
So it is no longer the physical descendants (those under the Law of Moses) who are heir’s of Abraham’s promise. Instead it is by faith (in the finished work of Jesus Christ), that men become heirs. Abraham’s promise now comes through the one single seed – Jesus Christ.
“Now to Abraham and his Seed were the promises made. He does not say, ‘And to seeds,’ as of many, but as of one, ‘And to your Seed,’ who is Christ.” – Galatians 3:16
Therefore, if we are in Christ, then all that is His is accounted to us. He is the seed of Abraham, so we can all become knit into that promise through faith in Him. By God’s sovereign will, His grace has come to all men through His Son.
“Therefore know that only those who are of faith are sons of Abraham... that the blessing of Abraham might come upon the Gentiles in Christ Jesus, that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.” – Galatians 3:7,14
Even the Jews can only find their way to God now through faith in Jesus Christ.
“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” – Galatians 3:28-29
“For there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time.” – 1 Timothy 2:5-6
We conclude then that since salvation comes to all men by faith, our genealogy is no longer of profit to us, nor is it a problem for us. Continual debates about our lineage are therefore pointless.
“But avoid foolish disputes, genealogies, contentions and strivings about the law; for they are unprofitable and useless.” – Titus 3:9
“nor give heed to fables and endless genealogies, which cause disputes rather than godly edification which is in faith.” – 1 Timothy 1:4
In short then – only those who are "in Christ" are members of the New Covenant and children of God. God's children can now come from any race, gender, age or nationality. They could be born Jew or Gentile, rich or poor, be the worst of sinners or the best of men. Only this one thing is required: that we be found "in Christ". It is not a matter of physical birth but of spiritual birth.
We will soon offer a more detailed explanation of how we become spiritually born "in Christ," and what signs let us know that it has happened in our lives:
Please read our piece on the Covenants for a much better understanding of this important subject: