Just a couple of weeks before our daughter's first birthday we climbed the steps of the courthouse, and not-so-patiently waited outside the courtroom. Adoption was a decision we both knew was right, but that knowledge couldn’t work to suppress the nerves produced by our impending legal responsibilities.
Within the hour the gavel would slam the desk, and Katie and I went from having one child to three. The boys had been in our home for some time as foster children, but prior to that day, they were not legally ours. They belonged to others: first their birth parents, then the state. But on that day, the sordid DHS case was closed, marking the beginning of a new and challenging saga.
We were now a family of five: two adopted children, and Georgia, our only begotten.
A Tale of Two Translations
John 3:16 is one the most famous passages in the entire Bible.
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. (NIV)
But chances are you learned the verse this way (as I did):
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. (KJV)
A handful of translations including the King James and New American Standard Bible use this word “begotten” to describe Jesus’ relationship with the father. Most other translations use “one and only” or “only” and omit the word begotten. Nevertheless I don’t believe “one and only” tells the whole story. Here’s why.
But First, A Quick Lesson in Greek
All of these various phrases come from one word in the original Greek: monogenés. As is common in translation, there’s no equivocal word in English for the adjective. I won’t pretend to be a Greek scholar, but apparently the word denotes a host of things such as, only-born, sole, only begotten, and only one.1
A better translation of the word might be “one of a kind” or “unique,” (in the context of a child-parent relationship), but in English it sounds weird to put it that way.
New Testament writers used monogenés nine times, five of which refer to Jesus’ relationship with God. Since we don't use the word begotten everyday, it might be helpful to define it:
Beget means to father, but it also means to cause or occasion.2
Critics say using the word beget is fodder for stripping Christ of His deity. If He were begotten (i.e. fathered), how could He be God? Gods aren’t begotten; they have existed eternally. I understand this objection, and I acknowledge that “only begotten” is not a perfect translation. But I think there is a very important theological reason to read the verse with the phrase.
God has many sons and daughters, but all of His children—apart from Christ—are adopted. In other words, Jesus isn't God's one and only son, but rather His only natural child. As Paul wrote in Galatians, “God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (4:5). Through Christ’s redemptive work, we can become heirs with Him (Gal. 4:7, Rom. 8:17).
Lost in Translation
The problem—as is common in the book of John and in many things Jesus said—is that there exists a double meaning in John 3:16. As both fully God and fully man, of course Jesus was “begotten” as a newborn child. But as we established, monogenés also signifies "one of its kind.”
Jesus has a unique relationship with the Father. This distinction is critical because, as John wrote in the first chapter of his gospel account, "to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12). We who assent to Jesus, and place faith in Him become His children. But even so, Jesus remains God’s “only begotten."
As a useful parallel, consider Isaiah’s words in the ninth chapter of his book. He wrote, "For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given” (Isa. 9:6a). This passage helps clarify the phrase only begotten for us. Notice in the passage that a child is born, but the son is not born. He is given. Jesus has always been part of the Holy Trinity, part of God, and has always been the Son. So it would be impossible for the Son to be born, when He already existed and already had that unique relationship with God.
What the World Wants You to Believe About Adoption
Despite what the world might tell us, we are not all sons and daughters of God. We are all His creation, yes, and He has a tremendous love for us. But until someone believes in Jesus and repents, he or she is outside of God’s family.
Please don’t take this essay to claim we become equals with Christ once adopted into God’s family. Jesus is uncreated and divine (and we are not). But by His grace God does grant us certain rights that children receive.
Earthly adoption is a great reminder that we were orphans, but by God’s grace we have the right to be called His children.
That I adopted children does not make me any better than those who have not. I don’t believe that at all. In fact, many days I feel like an inadequate parent. But there's one tip I've picked up along the way that helps me put things in perspective when it comes to raising my kids. When I'm tempted to be impatient, this advice helps. If you're interested in reading more, grab your free copy below. Just let me know where you'd like me to send it:
Physical adoption serves as a daily reminder that I too was an orphan, spiritually fatherless, and left for dead.
Yet by the amazing love and grace of God, He adopted me into His family.
1. James Strong, Greek Dictionary of the New Testament, 167.