Ask RC: What is Sonship theology?

Sonship theology is a set of biblical notions originally propagated by Jack Miller, a former missionary and pastor in the Presbyterian Church in America (former because Jack has gone on to his reward.) The ideas were first spread through a Bible study, then through a Presbyterian missions agency. The central theme, as evidenced in the title, is that we must come to understand that we are not only justified, but that we are adopted.  It begins with an assumption that while our lips may affirm we are justified by faith alone, our Pelagian hearts are given to thinking that God is happy with us when we do well in our walk, unhappy with us when we do not do as well. It encourages us to enter fully into our union with Christ. Among the common slogans birthed in this movement are these- “Relax!. You’re much worse than you think.” And “Preach the gospel to yourself every day.”

So far there is nothing here that I could imagine objecting to. Indeed these themes are near and dear to my heart, central to my preaching, my teaching, my writing.  I agree with Jack Miller not only that we need to understand these truths, but agree that getting our hearts around the glorious truth is a potent means to a more sanctified heart, a more God-honoring family, and a more grace infused church.

But there have been complaints. Some have accused Sonship theology of being implicitly antinomian. That is, some suggest that the notion that God is already as pleased with us as He is with His Son will remove the motive for better behavior. I find this accusation profoundly telling. I am unable to see how this accusation can stick on Sonship, but not stick on the gospel. That is, this accusation is a precise echo of what Rome said about the Reformers.  Though it may be apocryphal, it is said that Luther once quipped about preaching the gospel “If you are not accused of being antinomian, you are doing it wrong.”

Others have suggested that Sonship is too introspective. As you are encouraged to look for the idols of your heart, so that they might be torn down, it seems you could spend your time gazing at your navel. But do you notice how this complaint works against the former complaint? That is, how can one movement take you off the moral hook, and then also be too accusatory? And how can it be a bad thing to mortify your sins?

Finally, some accuse the movement of being a Reformed version of “higher life.” That is, like the Keswick movement, like the charismatic movement, Christians always face the temptation to create a two-tiered Christianity. There are those Christians over there, who haven’t had our experience, and us over here that have. We’re willing to see them in heaven, but if they want to join the elite, they need to have our experience. That higher life perspective is deadly, Gnostic and foolish. But surely that can’t mean that we can’t grow in grace and wisdom. Surely it can’t mean that we can’t encourage others to grow in grace and wisdom. Surely believing the gospel more fully, more faithfully, more biblically is a good thing. Indeed, surely believing this more fully will make us more humble, not less so.

My only complaint with the movement, as with most movements, is that it is a movement. That is, it can become THE KEY in the minds of some. It can be divisive in the minds of others. It can become a focus ironically, away from the work of Christ. These failures, however, are our failures, not a failure in the glorious gospel truth that in Christ we are made the sons of God. These failures are our failures, not a failure in the glorious gospel truth that we are forever sons, and not only can nothing tear us from our Father, but that nothing from this day forward can diminish His infinite love for us. We don’t need a movement. We do need to believe the gospel.