I came unto my own, and my own received me not. And the scriptures concerning my coming are fulfilled. And as many as have received me, to them have I given to become the sons of God; and even so will I to as many as shall believe on my name, for behold, by me redemption cometh, and in me is the law of Moses fulfilled. (3 Nephi 9:16-17)
What does it mean to "become the sons of God"? Aren't we already His children? Does the definite article matter? And would the meaning change if the phrase was written "to become sons of God" or even "sons and daughters of God"?
I don't think these are idle questions. The phrase appears a multitude of times in the scriptures. In fact, I read it in the D&C during my Come Follow Me study this week. The whole verse in which it appears is remarkably similar to the passage above:
I came unto mine own, and mine own received me not; but unto as many as received me gave I power to do many miracles, and to become the sons of God; and even unto them that believed on my name gave I power to obtain eternal life. (D&C 45:8)
A search of the scriptures seems to indicate that there are layers of meaning to the phrase "to become the sons of God." At one layer, the definite article is not necessary and the designation "daughters" can be added to "sons." It seems that we can be children of God in at least two ways. The first is universal and is by our premortal, spiritual birth to Heavenly Parents. The second way is by choice. Alma the Younger refers to becoming children of God by choice when, after being struck down by the power of God and ushered into 3 days of anguish, he remembers learning about Jesus Christ, cries out for mercy, and is immediately delivered into joy and peace of conscience. Arising from his bed, he declares:
Marvel not that all mankind, yea, men and women, all nations, kindreds, tongues and people, must be born again; yea, born of God, changed from their carnal and fallen state, to a state of righteousness, being redeemed of God, becoming his sons and daughters" (Mosiah 27:25)
Why would we need to choose to be the children of God when we are already His spiritual offspring? Because the opportunity to choose Him for ourselves is fundamentally why we came to Earth. Also, because of the Fall and its effect on all humankind. We stumble into moral accountability estranged from God and subject to the temptations of Satan, who seeks to supplant God as our father. Jesus spoke to Satan's claims when He told certain Jews who sought to kill him, "I speak that which I have seen with my Father: and ye do that which ye have seen with your father... Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do" (John 8:38,44).
We can be released from the bondage of Satan's fatherhood by calling upon the redeeming power of Jesus Christ and becoming His children instead. Abinadi declared,
"God himself shall come down among the children of men, and shall redeem his people... when his soul has been made an offering for sin, he shall see his seed...And who shall be his seed? Behold I say unto you that whosoever has heard the words of the prophets...I say unto you, that all those who have hearkened unto their words, and believed that the Lord would redeem his people, and have looked forward to that day for a remission of their sins, I say unto you that these are his seed." (Mosiah 15:1,10-11).
Thus, we become sons (and daughters) unto Christ (and through Him, unto the Father) by choice when we receive His atoning gift, becoming born again unto God. The First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve phrased it this way in a 1916 statement:
"If it be proper to speak of those who accept and abide in the gospel as Christ’s sons and daughters—and upon this matter the scriptures are explicit and cannot be gainsaid nor denied—it is consistently proper to speak of Jesus Christ as the Father of the righteous, they having become His children and He having been made their Father through the second birth—the baptismal regeneration" ("The Father and the Son" reprinted in the April 2002 Ensign).
I believe there's a deeper layer of meaning, though, to becoming the sons of God, one in which the definite article is necessary. I think that's especially evident in Moroni 7:48. In this case, Mormon is not speaking to new converts, but to faithful, peaceable saints in troubled times who "have obtained a sufficient hope by which [they] can enter into the rest of the Lord" (Moroni 7:3).
Entering into the rest of the Lord is another phrase that seems to have layers of meaning. I think Mormon offers a picture of what he means by it, and also of what it means to become the sons of God, in the final verse of his discourse:
"Wherefore, my beloved brethren, pray unto the Father with all the energy of heart, that ye may be filled with this love, which he hath bestowed upon all who are true followers of his Son, Jesus Christ; that ye may become the sons of God; that when he shall appear we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is; that we may have this hope; that we may be purified even as he is pure. Amen.
I think this is a stunning invitation to receive, not only the name of Jesus Christ but also His nature, until we literally receive His image in our countenance and become like Him, enough to enter into His presence. And what then? Is there a pattern for what comes next in how Jesus, although He is the Son of God, has also become the Father, so that He speaks on the Father's behalf and in the Father's voice?
In the Apostle John's account of his vision of the heavenly city, he writes something remarkably similar to Mormon's teachings: "the throne of God and the Lamb shall be in it; and his servants shall serve him: And they shall see his face; and his name shall be in their foreheads" (Revelation 22:3,4 emphasis added). Could that be a reference to the servants of God literally bearing His image as well as His authority? The next thing that happens in John's account is the heavenly messenger that showed him this vision says, "Behold, I come quickly," and John (presumably understanding that he is in the presence of Jesus) falls to worship before his feet but is told, "See thou do it not: for I am thy fellowservant, and of thy brethren the prophets" (Revelations 22:7-9).
There is so much here that I don't understand, but one thing about which I feel pretty secure. I do not believe that Mormon's invitation to become the sons of God is gender exclusive. It can't be, because we take upon ourselves the name of Christ, regardless of our gender. And we are all invited to receive Him, to be His true followers, to be filled with His love. There may be differences in the ministering roles between the female sons of God and the male sons of God, but I don't believe there is any difference in how fully the Lord wants us to receive Him. And then, to be His instruments in bringing others to receive Him too.
My quest: to know the one true God,
To know by love
And so be gathered to His bosom.
But I -
I can't approach.
I cannot even contemplate
This boundless Being
Who lives outside of time.
Eternity itself confounds my mind
And just the thought of
His numberless creations
When the lightning of His majesty
Makes my soul to quake
And I must fly away
Lest I be consumed,
How then can I know His love
And call Him home?
Ah, but His love,
Burning brighter even than His majesty,
Bequeaths His name and, yes, His Self
Upon His Son.
This Father I can start to contemplate.
Time-trapped like me
He even needed sleep,
Had dusty feet,
But oh, His love,
His boundless love
That drank my shame
And held me
Sweeter than His life!
Ah yes, His goodness staggers me.
Still, I can see enough to seek
Who tells me that His love
Is from our Father.
And I begin to know.
Again a miracle:
He bequeaths His name to me
And bids me to receive His Self,
To bear His love to all the world.
Could it be
That someone, somewhere,
By the brightness of the light of Christ
May yet be warmed
By its reflection
In frail me?