Does Acts 17: 28, 29 prove that all men are children of God?
To imagine that we stand in a family relationship to God simply by virtue of our being men is to completely ignore the fall and the need of an efficacious sacrifice for sin. It is to say, in effect, that “Christ has died for nothing” (Gal. 2: 21). Of course Adam was “of God” (Luke 3: 38), but you and I are not the children of Adam as he came from the hand of God. We are the descendants of Adam as the sinful and fallen outcast of Eden.
The passage in Acts (which forms part of Paul’s address to the Athenians) runs as follows: “as also some of the poets amongst you have said, For we are also his offspring. Being therefore [the] offspring of God, we ought not to think that which is divine to be like gold or silver or stone, [the] graven form of man’s art and imagination” (Acts 17: 28, 29). The apostle thus teaches that mankind is the “offspring” of God. Our question assumes that this also means that we are God’s children.
Two things are contrasted in the passage: the “offspring of God” and the “graven form of man’s art and imagination”. The former is God’s marvellous handiwork in creation, the latter man’s crude workmanship. The point of comparing the two is that if the creature is so wonderfully made, then it is foolish to imagine that his creator can be a mere idol fashioned by human hands. So the word “offspring” in this context simply means that man is a product of God’s creatorial power. It has nothing to do with being constituted a child of God, and standing in relationship to Him as a Father. Indeed, it is equally valid to describe the lower creation as the offspring of God––but no one suggests describing them as God’s children!
Another so–called proof text is Hebrews 2: 14: “Since therefore the children partake of blood and flesh”. Now “children” here clearly means ‘children of God’. It is thus alleged that the term must refer to all men, since all men “partake of blood and flesh”. However, the preceding verse virtually tells us that the children of God cannot include all men: “Behold, I and the children which God has given me”––clearly some men are not given to Him. The “children” of verse 14 are not the seed of Adam (that is, mankind in general) but “the seed of Abraham” (v16)––the “father of all them that believe” (Rom. 4: 11). Thus when the writer says “Since therefore the children partake of blood and flesh”, he is saying, in effect, ‘Since those who believe are in the condition of having bodies of flesh and blood’.
By nature we are children, not of God, but “of wrath” (Eph. 2: 3). Yet if we are not naturally children of God, how do we become his children? This is taught plainly elsewhere in Scripture: “as many as received him, to them gave he [the] right to be children of God, to those that believe on his name; who have been born, not of blood, nor of flesh’s will, nor of man’s will, but of God” (John 1: 12, 13). Once again, this is not all men. We only have to go back a verse to find that “He came to his own, and his own received him not” (v11). No, it is “as many as received him”, that “believe on his name” and who have been “born … of God”. As Nicodemus had to learn, we have no claim on God as born into this world. To become His children we have to be “born anew” (John 3: 3)––an act of sovereign love on the part of God. Hence: “See what love the Father has given to us, that we should be called [the] children of God. For this reason the world knows us not, because it knew him not” (1 John 3: 1). Incidentally, observe how the world (that is, the world of men) and the children of God are here set in contrast to one another, demonstrating once again the difference between God’s children and men in general.
If any race had a natural claim upon God it was the Jew––hence their proud boast in John 8: “we have one father, God” (v41). The response from the Lord is blunt: “If God were your father ye would have loved me … Ye are of the devil, as [your] father, and ye desire to do the lusts of your father … He that is of God hears the words of God: therefore ye hear [them] not, because ye are not of God” (vs 42, 44, 47). No man is a child of God simply by virtue of what he is naturally. It requires a divine work in the soul. Nor are all men equal. We are either “of God” or “of the devil”. In one stroke all man’s false claims on God are swept away. We are thus utterly dependent on His mercy for salvation. Being God’s “offspring” will be of no avail in the day of judgement––but “if children” then are we “heirs of God” (Rom. 8: 17).