Q. Why did Christ command us to address God thus: “Our Father?”
A. To awaken in us at the very beginning of our prayer that childlike reverence for and trust in God, which are to be the ground of our prayer, namely, that God has become our Father through Christ, and will much less deny us what we ask of Him in faith than our parents refuse us earthly things.
(Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 120)
It is not uncommon to hear critics of Reformation theology complain that Martin Luther, John Calvin, and those who followed them, were so preoccupied with justification, that they depreciated the family relationship that sinners enjoy with their creator (adoption). This charge stems from the Reformation (and biblical) doctrine of justification, in which it is understood that the righteousness of Christ is reckoned (or imputed) to a sinner through the means of faith, so that the sinner is given a right-standing before God and therefore saved from His wrath.
In emphasizing a Christian’s right-standing with God, critics contend that the Reformation’s focus on a person’s legal basis before God somehow depreciates the personal relationship that a sinner enjoys with God because of Christ. I once heard a Roman Catholic apologist put it like this: “Protestants use a courtroom model, while we use a family model.” In other words, the Reformation emphasis supposedly shifts the focus to being saved “from” God, instead of emphasizing being saved “for” God. God is primarily understood as a stern judge, not as a loving father.
This would be a powerful argument, if it were true. Both John Calvin and the Westminster Confession of Faith speak of the importance of the biblical doctrine of adoption (wherein we become members of God’s family) because God does not justify individuals and leave them on their own without uniting them to Himself through Christ. God incorporates all justified sinners into a covenant community (the church) and grants them access to the very throne of God (Rom. 8:26–27; 1 John 2:1-2). All justified sinners are the adopted children of God.
Calvin frequently speaks of our adoption throughout his famous Institutes, while the Westminster Confession of Faith devotes chapter 12 to this topic. The critical point that Calvin and the Westminster Confession are both making is that once the sinner is justified, that same sinner now enjoys a wonderful new status as a child of God. The sinner, who was formerly estranged from God, is now a full member of God’s family (Eph. 2:11–17). This new right-standing (justification) grants all the children of God access to His throne, and this unfettered access to the presence of God is the means through which we as God’s children are protected, preserved, given gifts of the Spirit, and even chastened as needed.
The Heidelberg Catechism does not speak of the doctrine of adoption per se, but as something implied by the very first petition of the Lord’s Prayer in question 120. Apart from Christ, we cannot speak of God as our Father, only as our creator and judge. As our creator and judge, God remains distant, even threatening to us because of our sins. There is no intimacy with God, and we dare not even approach Him. Once we are justified, because Christ’s perfect and faultless righteousness has been reckoned to us through faith, God is no longer our judge. He is now “our Father.” This comes about because God has already placed Christ under His judgment (the cross) so that we need never fear His wrath. Christ has borne that wrath in His own flesh. He was judged for us and in our place. Apart from the cross, God is our judge. Under the cross, He is our Father.
With our legal-standing firmly established, and assured that God is no longer angry with us because of our sins, we can now approach Him without fear. This is why when Jesus instructs the people of God how to pray, the very first thing He tells us is that God is to be addressed as “our Father.” This injunction implies that all those justified are now adopted into God’s family.
The Heidelberg Catechism depicts this relationship in the most intimate of terms. If God is our Father, then by implication we are His children. We revere our God. We can trust Him in all things. Because we do, we can approach Him confidently in prayer, knowing that He hears us and that He delights in our feeble efforts to communicate with Him.
But the only way we, as sinners, can become the adopted sons and daughters of God is because of Christ. His death for our sins and His perfect righteousness grants us a right-standing before God. And once that right-standing has been granted, the door to heaven is wide open, 24/7. And as God’s adopted sons and daughters, all we need to do is enter His presence and ask Him for whatever we need, knowing that He hears us and answers us because of Jesus and according to His will. After all, we are His children and He is our heavenly Father.