(The Teaching that the Second Person
 of the Triune Godhead Became the Son of God
at the Time of the Incarnation
 or at Some Other Point in History)



"We have seen and do testify that the Father sent the Son to be the Saviour of the world. Whosoever shall confess that Jesus is the Son of God, God dwelleth in him, and he in God" (1 John 4:14-15)



The vital doctrine of the eternal Sonship of Christ is under attack today. Those who deny this doctrine teach that Jesus became the Son of God at some point in history. Some say He became the Son at His baptism. Others say He became the Son at His resurrection or even at His exaltation. Most of them, however, say He became the Son of God at the incarnation.  They believe that the Lord Jesus Christ, before His incarnation in the womb of the virgin Mary, was the eternal Word, the eternal God, and even the eternal Second Person of the Trinity, but He was not the eternal Son. He did not assume the role of Son or bear the name or title of Son, they believe, until the incarnation.  Regardless of different understandings concerning the time and event marking the beginning of His Sonship, those who deny the eternal Sonship of Christ all agree that there was a time when He was not the Son of God.


Such teachers do not deny the deity of Christ, and for this we can be thankful. They do not deny the eternal existence of Christ, nor do they deny that there have eternally existed three distinct Persons in the Triune Godhead. They teach that Christ was always God, but He became the Son.  According to this teaching, only when "the Word became flesh" did He take on the role and function and title of "Son."   Thus they deny that He is essentially and eternally the Son of God.




Many years ago there was a great controversy, especially among the Plymouth Brethren assemblies, as to whether the Lord Jesus was Son throughout eternity or whether He became Son at the time of His incarnation. The influential teacher who denied the truth of His eternal Sonship, F.E. Raven, made this statement in 1895: "Now, 'Son of God' I understand to be the title of Christ incarnate; I should hardly use 'Son of God' as referring to His eternal Person." [Huebner, R.A., F.E.Raven's Evil Doctrines (Morganville, New Jersey: Present Truth Publishers, 1980), p. 26.]  This teaching by Raven and his followers was strongly countered by Plymouth Brethren leaders, especially William Kelly who considering Raven's view to be serious error. [Raven in addition to his denial of eternal Sonship also held other strange and unorthodox views, especially regarding the Person of Christ and eternal life. See Huebner's book cited above for a detailed discussion of Raven's teachings.]


In 19th century England this same controversy raged among some of the Baptists. To answer this, J.C.Philpot wrote a 93 page defense of the doctrine of eternal Sonship. It is a well written, well reasoned, reverent study. [J.C.Philpot, The True, Proper, and Eternal Sonship of the Lord Jesus Christ, The Only Begotten Son of God (England: Gospel Standard Baptist Trust Ltd., 1926 reprint).]


Attacks on the doctrine of eternal Sonship are not new and have come from a variety of sources. Theologians have denied that Christ has eternally existed as the Son  [See Ralph Wardlaw, Systematic Theology (Edinburgh: Black, 1857), Vol. 2, pp. 32-60.] and noted commentators have taught the same. [Adam Clarke and Albert Barnes would be two examples of commentators who taught Sonship by means of incarnation, although it is interesting that the editor of Barnes' Notes, Robert Frew, strongly disagreed with this position and countered it in the footnotes.] A nationally known television preacher also espouses this view.  [Jimmy Swaggart's strong denial of eternal Sonship is documented in The Biblical Evangelist, the November 1, 1987 issue, p. 7 (Editor, Dr. Robert L. Sumner, P.O. Box Drawer 940, Ingleside, TX 78362). Swaggart, according to this article, teaches that the doctrine of eternal Sonship is erroneous and contrary to Scripture. He says that as God's Son He did have a beginning, and this beginning was the time when Mary gave birth to her Son.]


Dake's Annotated Reference Bible in its comment under Acts 13:33 strongly rejects the doctrine of eternal Sonship:


As God, the person we now know of as Jesus Christ had no beginning, was not begotten, was not a Son, and did not come into being . . . .but as man and as God's Son He was not eternal, He did have a beginning, He was begotten, this being the same time Mary had a Son. Therefore, the doctrine of eternal sonship of Jesus Christ is irreconcilable to reason, is unscriptural, and is contradictory to itself.  [Finis Jennings Dake, Dake's Annotated Reference Bible (Lawrenceville, GA: Dake Bible Sales, 1963) 139 (N.T.).]


A respected theologian and author of a classic book on the cults, Dr. Walter Martin, has also repudiated the doctrine of eternal Sonship:


The Scripture nowhere calls Jesus Christ the eternal Son of God, and He is never called Son at all prior to the incarnation, except in prophetic passages in the Old Testament. The term "Son" itself is a functional term, as is the term "Father" and has no meaning apart from time. . . . Many heresies have seized upon the confusion created by the illogical "eternal Sonship" or "eternal generation" theory of Roman Catholic theology, unfortunately carried over to some aspects of Protestant theology. Finally; there cannot be any such thing as eternal Sonship . . . . the word "Son" definitely suggests inferiority.  [Walter Martin, The Kingdom of the Cults [Minneapolis:  Bethany House, 1985) 117-118.]


A more recent denial of the doctrine of eternal Sonship comes from the published writings of one of America's most popular Bible teachers, Dr. John MacArthur, Jr.*(see note below)  In His commentary on the book of Hebrews he wrote this:


The Bible nowhere speaks of the eternal sonship of Christ . . . .He was always God, but He became Son. He had not always had the title of Son. That is His incarnation title. Eternally He is God, but only from His incarnation has He been Son . . . . Christ was not Son until His incarnation. Before that He was eternal God. It is therefore incorrect to say the (sic) Jesus Christ is eternally inferior to God because He goes under the title of Son. He is no "eternal Son" always subservient to God, always less than God, always under God. Sonship is an analogy to help us understand Christ's essential relationship and willing submission to the Father for the sake of our redemption. As already mentioned, the today of verse 5 (Heb.1:5) shows that His sonship began in a point of time, not in eternity. His life as Son began in this world . . . .He was not a son until He was born into this world through the virgin birth . . . .The sonship of Christ is inextricably connected with His incarnation [emphasis his].  [John MacArthur, Jr., The MacArthur New Testament Commentary--Hebrews (Chicago: Moody Press, 1983), pp. 22-23 (though in some editions the page numbering is different, see his comments under Hebrews 1:4-5).]

In his major commentary on the book of Galatians Dr. MacArthur made similar statements:

Some 900 years before Jesus was born God prophesied, "I will be a Father to Him, and He shall be a Son to Me" (Heb.1:5; 2 Sam. 7:14), indicating that in eternity past that, though there were always three persons in the Trinity, there were not yet the roles of Father and Son. Those designations apparently came into being only at the incarnation. In the announcement of Jesus' birth to Mary, the angel Gabriel declared, "He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High;...the holy offspring shall be called the Son of God" [Luke 1:32,35]. Son was a new name, never before applied to the second person of the Godhead except prophetically, as in Psalm 2:7, which is interpreted in Hebrews 1:5-6 as referring to the event of His incarnation. John wrote, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God" (John 1:1). Only when "the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us" as "the only begotten God" (John 1:14,18) did He take on the role and function of Son [emphasis his].   [John MacArthur, Jr., The MacArthur New Testament Commentary--Galatians (Chicago: Moody Press, 1987), p.108 (see his comments under Galatians 4:4).]

Dr. MacArthur has also published a smaller commentary dealing with Romans chapter 1 in which he again makes his position on Sonship very clear:

Over the years, theologians have debated about whether Christ is the Son of God in eternity. Christ is and always has been the second member of the Trinity but only became a Son in His incarnation. When you think of the word son you probably think of the submission, obedience, and honor shown to one's father. That is the sense in which Jesus is the Son. Nowhere in Scripture does it say that Jesus has eternally been the Son...From eternity He has been the second Person of the Trinity. He assumed the role of a Son in His incarnation.  [John MacArthur, Jr., John MacArthur's Bible Studies--Acting on the Good News (Romans 1:1-16) (Chicago: Moody Press, 1987), pp. 35,41. Dr. John MacArthur has also presented His Sonship by incarnation view by means of his cassette tape ministry. One tape which very clearly sets forth this position is Tape GC 1602 (Hebrews 1:4-6), available from Word of Grace Communications, P.O. Box 4000, Panorama City, CA 91412.]

Dr. John MacArthur may be the best known proponent of the "Sonship by incarnation" position, but he by no means is alone in holding this view. Many others do as well, including one professor from a prominent Seminary who has carried this teaching to a dangerous extreme. In a letter to this author he stated, "I know that hypotheses are problematic, but I have personally hypothesized that when the divine decision was made with regard to the incarnation, any of the three members of the Trinity could have accepted the various roles."   [I have this letter in my files. My purpose in sharing this is to set forth a position that is being held today. The identity of the professor who wrote these words is not necessary or needful to reveal. Our concern in this booklet is to defend the doctrine of eternal Sonship against current denials, not to attack personalities. Some names have been cited in this chapter, but this is because these individuals have made their position known in their published and public writings.]   This means that the Father could have been the Son, the Son could have been the Spirit, the Spirit could have been the Father, etc. This is dangerous doctrine, but, after all, if "Sonship" and "Fatherhood" are merely roles that were assumed, why could they not have been interchangeable?


The position that Christ became the Son of God can be summarized as follows: 1) Nowhere in Scripture does it say that Jesus has eternally been the Son; 2) He was always God and He was always the Second Person of the Trinity; 3) He became Son at the time of the incarnation; 4) Sonship involves taking on a new function, receiving a title and assuming a role which He previously did not have; 5) The main ideas conveyed by the term Son are those of submission, obedience, subservience, and even inferiority.

In sharp contrast to this is the doctrine of eternal Sonship which affirms the following: 1) The Bible clearly teaches that Christ has eternally been the Son; 2) He was always God and He was always the Second Person of the Trinity and He was always the Son of God; 3) The eternal Son became Man at the time of the incarnation; 4) Sonship involves the very Person and Nature of Jesus Christ, the essence of WHO HE IS as the Second Person of the Trinity, and thus there could never be a time when He was not the Son because there could never be a time when He was other than WHO HE IS; 5) The term Son of God indicates three things---(a) He is a Person distinct from God His Father, (b) He is the heir, not the servant of His Father (Son of God does not mean "subservient to God"), and (c) He shares the divine nature of God His Father.  The Biblical significance of the term Son of God  will be developed further by Dr. Showers in chapter 7.


Having considered these denials of the doctrine of eternal Sonship, may we carefully and prayerfully search the Scriptures to determine if Jesus Christ became the Son of God at His birth, or if He has eternally existed as the Son of God (see chapter 6). May the blessed Holy Spirit of God give us wisdom and understanding of these things which pertain to the Person of the Son.


*Important Note:  Since this document was written, John MacArthur claims to have changed his position with respect to the doctrine of the eternal Sonship of Christ.  He claims to have repudiated the incarnational Sonship position, even though this error is still to be found uncorrected in many of his published works.


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