The Eternal Son of God

Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am” (Joh 8:58).[1]

This is certainly one of the greatest declarations ever made. “Truly, truly” tells us that what follows is fundamentally important. And what follows is Christ’s affirming His own eternality and deity! The Jews heard in His words the language of Isaiah 41:4, “I, the LORD, the first, and with the last; I am he.” They understood Christ’s claims and tried to stone Him for blasphemy.

In the centuries since, many have thrown stones at these same truths. Arius taught that the Son was not eternal, leading to a landslide of heretical conclusions.[2] He reasoned that the Son “was begotten timelessly, before the aeons,” but that “there was when he was not.” If the Son were not “eternal,” and if “begotten” meant beginning, then, Arius concluded, “the Son has an origin, but God is unoriginated.” This would mean the Father and the Son are not equals, and that the Son is not God. Arius slid still further into these diabolical lies and concluded that Christ was merely a created being. Athanasius was among those who countered Arius. He argued that if Christ were not God (which He could not be were He not eternal), then Christ could not have revealed God to man, we have not been redeemed by God, nor have we been united to God in Christ. In fact, if Christ were not eternally God, then we are blatant idolators for worshiping Him.[3] Clearly, Christ’s eternality is a fundamental truth!

The Apostle John treated it as fundamental. He opened his Gospel echoing Genesis 1:1. When time, space and matter were brought into existence, there, present, John states, “was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (Joh 1:1). “Was” juxtaposes “became” in verse 14. The Word’s existence outside of time contrasts the moment in time when He “became” flesh. The one whose glory is that “of the only Son from the Father,” this one always was, and this one became the man John knew.

Christ declared His own pre-earthly existence on multiple occasions. For example, He told Nicodemus that “no one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven” (3:13). He asked His disciples, “What if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?” (6:62). And He prayed, “Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed” (17:5).

Paul also affirms the preexistence of the Son. To the Romans he wrote, “God … sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh” (8:3), and to the Galatians, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman” (4:4). Paul also reminded the Corinthians “that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor” (2Co 8:9), which only makes sense if Christ’s life of poverty on earth was preceded by riches elsewhere. And to the Colossians Paul stated that by the “beloved Son … all things were created … and he is before all things” (1:13,16-17).

The writer to the Hebrews asserts the same, opening with the statement that God “has spoken to us by his Son … through whom also he created the world” (1:2; see also v10). Later the writer describes Melchizedek, whose priesthood was “made like the Son of God,” “having neither beginning of days nor end of life” (7:3 NASB). Christ was not made like Melchizedek, but the priesthood of Abraham’s contemporary was patterned after what was already true of the Son of God: without beginning or end.

Much more could be said about these and other verses which teach that Christ is the eternal Son of God, but it might be helpful to briefly touch two related scriptural terms: “firstborn” and “begotten.”

Christ is “the firstborn of all creation” (Col 1:15). “Firstborn” can refer to birth order, but this title is also used to signify occupying the place of privilege. As Exodus 4:22 and Psalm 89:27 show, “firstborn” doesn’t always signify a birth. Arianism wrongly concluded that “firstborn” meant a beginning.

Hebrews 1:5 quotes Psalm 2, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you.” And John speaks of Christ as the “only begotten” (Joh 1:14,18; 3:16,18; 1Jn 4:9 KJV). “Only begotten” conveys Christ’s uniqueness as the Son, and His being of the same essence as the Father. In human terms, we understand that what we make does not share our nature, but what we beget does. The “only begotten Son” has eternally shared the nature of His Father. We must remember that human father-son relationships are an imperfect picture of the archetype – the perpetual, divine Father-Son relationship. It would be backward to interpret Christ’s sonship based on the limits of the human parallel.[4]

In closing, consider that, if we deny the eternal sonship of Christ, “we lose our measure of the divine love. The force of a passage such as John 3:16 derives from Christ’s unique relationship with the Father. He did not become God’s Son by being given; he was given as God’s Son.”[5] We must uncompromisingly defend the truth that the Son is eternal, and at the same time bow our hearts in wonder and worship.

And when I think that God, His Son not sparing,
Sent Him to die,
I scarce can take it in …
Then sings my soul, my Saviour God to Thee,
How great Thou art,
how great Thou art![6]

[1] Bible quotations in this article are from the ESV unless otherwise noted.

[2] For more details on Arianism, see “Ancient Errors, Modern Examples: Arianism” by Dan Shutt, Truth & Tidings, November 2021.

[3] My summary of Athanasius’ argument comes from Donald Macleod, The Person of Christ, ed. Gerald Bray, Contours of Christian Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998), 123. I am indebted to this resource for its systematic treatment of Christ’s pre-existence and eternal sonship, and my article touches some of the many points that Macleod covers.

[4] John MacArthur admits that this was part of where he went wrong when he held that Christ’s sonship began at His incarnation. MacArthur explains why he abandoned that view and now affirms the eternal sonship of Christ:

[5] Macleod, The Person of Christ, 130.

[6] Stuart K. Hine (1899–1989)