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God’s love: adoption or empowerment?

Is God’s love for us so great that we are called his children, or are we called his children because we have received, possess, and manifest his great love? The NRSV translates 1 John 3:1a as follows:

See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.

Here’s the Greek text:

ἴδετε ποταπὴν ἀγάπην δέδωκεν ἡμῖν ὁ πατὴρ ἵνα τέκνα θεοῦ κληθῶμεν, καὶ ἐσμέν.

My question hinges on the “that/ ἵνα” in this sentence. I see two ways to interpret this term and the sentence as a whole.

First, one could understand the “that/ ἵνα” as a such that. If so, the second half of the sentence is an additional explanation of the first half. Namely, the sort of love that God has for us is such that God calls us his children. That’s the sort of love that God has for us.

Second, one could instead understand the “that/ ἵνα” as an in order that or so that. If so, then the second half of the sentence describes the intended result of God giving us his love. Namely, those to whom God gives his love are properly called God’s children.

Which interpretation is best? My capacity to make a grammatical argument is fairly limited, so I’ll offer a theological assessment instead.

In the first case, the love of God in view is love as adoption. God loves us by calling us his children. This is hard to argue with as a potential interpretation. The sort of love that God has given to us is love-as-adoption so that we are called children of God. Notice, however, that this not the sort of love that God has for everyone, even his enemies. Not all are adopted, so not all receive love-as-adoption.

In the second case, however, the love of God given to us is the love which manifests God’s character, the love to which the phrase “God is love” points (4:8, 16). This sort of love is surely love for God’s enemies. It is love even for those who are not the children of God. It is also, as John repeatedly emphasizes, love for God’s adopted children.

Both interpretations could be correct, but I think the second one is often neglected. The love of God is something to be received, manifested, and transmitted. Adoption, however, can only be received. I can receive adoption but I cannot pass it on. God’s enemy-love, however, is the sort of thing that I am expected to pass on to others.

In the preceding verse, we read that,

If you know that he is righteous, you may be sure that everyone who does right has been born of him (2:29).

Those born of God through the new birth that Jesus offers manifest that new birth. Adoption for John is via new birth rather than mere legal declaration. Several verses later we read,

The children of God and the children of the devil are revealed in this way: all who do not do what is right are not from God, nor are those who do not love their brothers and sisters (3:10).

So the notion of being children of God for John is not just something that God declares out of love. Rather, the children of God are born of God and are empowered to love as God loves. Therefore, I think that upon theological reflection, 1 John 3:1a could plausibly be rendered as follows:

See what wonderful love the Father has given to us, in order that we who possess and manifest that love should be called children of God, and that is what we are.

Originally published at on June 6, 2015.