Slaves or Sons?

One question that I have been pondering recently is what to make of the tension between the biblical designations of believers as both sons and slaves (the Greek is doulos, more commonly translated servant) of God, highlighted by my recent reading of Murray Harris’ book “Slave of Christ”. Should I primarily think of myself as a son, but in a lesser sense a slave? Or is there another way of holding the two in balance?

Indeed, for many, if not most evangelicals, the concept of thinking of ourselves as slaves  at all seems very foreign. After all, in the famous parable, the wayward son thinks he can only come back to his father as a servant, but no, he is welcomed back as a son (Luke 15:19,20). Similarly, Paul seems to encourage us to think of ourselves as sons of God rather than slaves in Gal 4:7 –

So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.

But this is the same Paul who introduces himself in several places as a “slave of Christ”. So how can we hold these things in tension?

God the Father, Christ the Lord

I wonder whether there is a clue in the names used most commonly of the first and second persons of the Godhead. First, we have God the Father. Though he could also be called God the Creator, or God the Judge, the name that we as believers most commonly refer to him as, is “Father”, following the example of Jesus. Hence, I would argue that the primary way we think of ourselves as relating to God the Father is as his dearly loved children.

However, when we think of God the Son, by far and away the most common title he is given in the New Testament is Lord. The term is entirely religious for most people today, but in the first century, as Murray Harris points out, wherever there was a slave (a doulos) there was also a master (a kyrios, or Lord). Whilst we could say that Jesus is our elder brother, or friend, or even lover, the primary way we are encouraged to think of him is as our Lord or master, who we listen to and obey and seek to please.

“Abba Father”, “Jesus is Lord”

I wonder then if there is any coincidence that the two authentic heart-cries of the Spirit filled person are to refer to God as “Father” and to Jesus as “Lord”. “Father” is not just a name we mechanically call God as we recite the Lord’s prayer, rather the Spirit causes us to recognise deep within us that we can relate to God as his children in whom he takes great delight.

And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, "Abba! Father!" (Gal 4:6)

For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, "Abba! Father!" (Rom 8:15)

Similarly, it is the Spirit who causes us to joyfully confess the lordship of Jesus in our lives:

no one can say "Jesus is Lord" except in the Holy Spirit. (1 Cor 12:3)

This is confession that Jesus is Lord is at the very heart of our regeneration, also a work of the Spirit:

if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. (Rom 10:9)


I would suggest then that the primary way we are to think of our relationship with God is as his sons, and the primary way we are to think of our relationship with Jesus is as his slaves (although maybe obedient disciples might be a better way to express this). And since it is the Spirit who causes us to recognise these things, this is not a purely intellectual exercise. As we are filled more with the Spirit, so we appreciate and rejoice in these realities more and more.

I must admit that this solution is not perfect. Paul does sometimes refer to himself as a “slave of God” (e.g. Titus 1:1), so he clearly did not consider that self-designation to be inappropriate. Similarly, it would be a mistake to suggest that we can only relate to Jesus as slaves (e.g. John 15:15). But I think it is true to say that God the Holy Spirit is the one who helps us to rightly understand our relationship to God the Father and God the Son.