When do you become a child of God?

One of the readers of this blog sent this question:
Ephesians 1:13 says, “And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation.”  How then can we say that the whole world is already included in Christ, when not everyone has yet heard the gospel?
To answer, we need to note the larger passage in Ephesians chapter one (vv3-14, with v13 bold-faced):
3 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. 4 For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love 5 he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will-- 6 to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves. 7 In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God's grace 8 that he lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding. 9 And he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, 10 to be put into effect when the times will have reached their fulfillment-- to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ. 11 In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, 12 in order that we, who were the first to hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory. 13 And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, 14 who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God's possession-- to the praise of his glory.
Note that the primary subject here is what God predetermined to do, and now has done, in order to make us his children through adoption (v5) - an act that makes us "holy and blameless in his sight" (v4). God predestined us for this "before creation" (v4), thus the choosing for adoption has nothing to do with our action (including our personal belief). Moreover, the steps taken to make us his children were taken by God at no cost to us - God grants us this status "freely" (v6).

Also note (and this is critical), that this status is granted to us "in Christ." For Paul, the phrase, "in Christ" sums up a large and glorious truth about what happened to humanity through the birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension of the incarnate Son of God, Jesus Christ. By joining our humanity to his divinity, then living, dying, rising to new life and taking that life to heaven, Jesus re-created our humanity; as Paul says in v7, he accomplished humanity's "redemption."

But when did that redemption through adoption occur? Paul answers: "When the times..reached their fulfillment" (v10a) - a time that Paul pinpoints here as occurring when Jesus gave his life for us ("through his blood," v7). And that event occurred nearly 2,000 years ago! Thus, for us (and all humanity), it is an accomplished fact.

However, not all people know of this accomplished fact. And thus not all have come to believe in, and thereby embrace their true status as dearly loved, adopted children of God, in Christ. The work of the Holy Spirit on this side of Jesus' ascension to heaven is to make this adoption/redemption known to humanity. That is why Paul here addresses these first-century Ephesian believers as among "the first to hope in Christ" (v12). And speaking of these believers (those who know of their adoption/inclusion), he says in v13 that they came to know of it (and subsequently believe in it) when they heard "the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation" (v13b).

Given this flow of Paul's logic, we are not justified in reading v13 as though it says that it is our belief that causes (or leads to) our inclusion/adoption in Christ. Unfortunately, the way the NIV translates this verse might lead to this misunderstanding. The more literal NASB translation is to be preferred:
13 In Him, you also, after listening to the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation--having also believed, you were sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise, 14 who is given as a pledge of our inheritance, with a view to the redemption of God's own possession, to the praise of His glory.
It is not our belief that makes us God's adopted children. However when the Holy Spirit leads us to personal belief, he begins a special/new work in our lives by which we are "sealed." Through this sealing (the sealing of this knowledge in our minds and hearts), our adoption becomes "real" to us - it becomes our new, defining identity. Through the Spirit's work in our lives we come to understand and embrace who we actually are in Christ (God's adopted children). For us, this realization changes everything. It is one thing to be a child of God and not know it. It is quite another to be a child and know and embrace it - thus allowing that knowledge to redefine and thus transform our lives. As Jesus told Nicodemus, it is tantamount to being born again!

Part of what this gift of knowledge from the Holy Spirit brings to us is the great and abiding hope of our coming "inheritance" as God's children (v14). We are God's children already, however, there is a glory as his children that is our inheritance coming in the future. And only those sealed by the Spirit have this hope. And with that hope, this assurance, comes a sacred calling from the Father to join with Jesus who, through the Holy Spirit, is helping more and more of God's children come to know who they truly are.