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Where do we stand with God? Is he pleased with us? Are we confident about the future—sure about eternal life?
Hopefully, yes, but let’s pause to think about it. And let’s ask the question in light of God as the Father, Son, and Spirit God.
Justification—our engaging God’s righteousness—is a biblical linchpin for Christians. The English terms “righteous” and “just” are two translations of one root word in the original language. The idea of being set right with God seems simple enough but how it happens is more complex. Debates about justification are common as was illustrated by an exchange between Tom Wright and John Piper not so long ago.
In this small space I’d like to consider a narrower aspect of justification that doesn’t get much notice: what does our justification accomplish for God?
To answer I’ll return here to a theme I see throughout the Bible. I now refer to it regularly but I was shy to use it until I found it in the writings of Martin Luther and some of the 17th century Puritans.
Here it is. God the Father wants to share his beloved Son with others. So he created those who would become the Son’s beloved ones—his collective “bride”—to receive from the Son what the Son receives from the Father: devoted care and creative fellowship.
This narrative starts in the beginning as we meet God in his plurality: “let us” make “him” and “them” in “our” image. Later we discover the Son as the Father’s beloved companion—his “Word”—who reveals the Father to others. Together with the Spirit they are “one.”
Later in the Bible we discover labels for God: He is good, holy, righteous, pure, blameless, just, wise, and so on. These are words that describe his triune communion. And so it is that he is also said to be love—a word expressing God’s mutual devotion and the basis of his overflowing care for the creation.
This love sets up God’s gift of companionship. In love he walked in the Garden of Eden to be with Adam and Eve. Adam, however, spurned God’s love and lost confidence in God as he usurped God’s place.
Adam’s lost confidence was tied to his lost love: for a fallen person to trust God, God must fulfill that person’s will. And God must live under the fallen pretense that humans are autonomous: made to be free.
But God treats this as utter nonsense. He knows that all humans were enslaved from Eden onward by the great Liar and his one Lie: “You can be like God!”
But even after Adam’s fall God was determined to live among us. He chose a people for himself and set up, first, a tent and then a temple as his earthly home among us.
The Father also sent the Son at an appropriate time to offer humanity the ultimate expression of his love—the God-man who was not fallen. His was a life of total dependence on, and unrestrained affection for, the Father and with that a love for his creation.
Sin is a violation of this love: a complete disaffection for God. The bond of the Father, Son, and Spirit is a mystery to fallen people—and the willingness of the Father to send the Son to die and redeem his bride is sheer folly. Life in sin, instead, endorses the Enemy’s ambition to dismiss God.
The Father laughs at this—as the “nations rage”—and refuses to allow for self-love as an alternative to a love for his Son (Psalm 2). God’s love is unrestrained and unrestricted otherness—what fallen humanity can’t begin to comprehend—as in the eternal love of the Father and the Son as communicated by the Spirit.
So the sum of God’s eternal communion is love. The Old Testament refrain, for instance—“his loving kindness endures forever”—sets out God’s motivation. And that warns humans that self-love—the motive behind fallen assertions of freedom and independence—has no future. God condemns sin to a single realm: death.
The Spirit shares this mutual love of the Father and the Son. His role in humanity is to whisper God’s word—expressing his love—in our hearts. Most humans remain deaf in their sin—hard-hearted. But others begin to hear and respond to Scriptures—especially those who have been damaged by the proud and successful god-pretenders. The hearers are the elect: the bridal ones.
There’s much more to be said about God, of course, but this is enough for now. As we return to the question of our being righteous with God—of being justified—we find a lover waiting for us. The Father offers his Son in love. The Spirit woos us with that love and wins some but not all. Faith is a dawning that Satan lied and that God loves us on his terms, not ours. We were made by God, for God. And faith works through love.
Listen, then, to Jesus as he prayed on our behalf:
“Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. O righteous Father, even though the world does not know you, I know you and these know that you have sent me” (John 17:24-25).
So justification is the culmination of a love story: it is our gazing into Christ’s eyes by faith and saying, as his bride, “I do.”
And with that we become what God meant us to be from the very beginning: his beloved ones who share all that he is, including his righteousness.