Before I launch into the topic of divine love and justice, I need to clarify something about my essay of November 17, 2015. Several people took issue with it as somewhat overwrought. Okay, perhaps the title of that essay (“God’s Merciless Love, Or Why God Does Not Love Us As (Isolated) Individuals”) was a bit over the top. Of course God knows and loves individuals, every one of them! But how do you really love an individual person in the right way? That is an important question. First, you love them for what they really are, and we really are connected and interrelated with nature and other people. These relationships constitute our unique identity. We would not and could not exist without them. Hence in loving individuals God loves them along with everything that makes them who they are. Second, to love individuals means to will for them and give them what is truly good. Since God loves all people and everyone is interconnected with nature and the whole human family, what is truly good for one individual cannot be separated from what is truly good for all. I think if we keep these thoughts in mind and let them sink into our hearts, we will become less self-centered in our understanding of what is good for us.
How do we know that God’s loves us?
How do we know that God is love, that God loves you and me, that God loves the world? How do we know that God is good, that God wills the highest good for you and me and the whole world? This belief is not self-evident. As I said in the previous essay on God’s love, there have been many views of the divine that make no place for divine love. But for Christians, Jesus Christ is the revelation and proof that God loves us. Allow me to quote a few of the many New Testament statements asserting this:
7Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. 8Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. 9This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. (1 John 4:7-11).
5 And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us. 6 You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. 7 Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. 8 But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:5-8).
20 I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me (Galatians 2:20).
How does what Jesus did show that the eternal God loves us? Ordinarily we show our love by what we do, and the depth of that love is demonstrated by how much we are willing to give up for the one we say we love. John says God’s love is demonstrated by giving his Son for us. In Romans 5:8, Paul says that God “demonstrates his love” in that “Christ died for us.” And in Galatians 2:20, it is Christ who loves and gave himself for us. Clearly, Paul, John and the other NT writers see in Christ’s act of love God’s own act of love. Christ is the self-giving of God for us.
God’s act of love in Jesus is so central to the being of God that, according to John, “God is love.” The radical act of God’s love demonstrated in the self-sacrifice of Christ could have come only from the depths of God’s heart; God holds nothing back. He gives all. Jesus Christ reveals the motive for everything God does. The love of God is rooted so deep in God’s character that it permeates and conditions God’s whole being and every act. God’s being is an act of love through and through. Hence God is love.
Where then is God’s justice? If in love God gives himself to us without regard to merit or demerit, is God unjust in his overflowing love? In the classical definition, human justice is established where “each gets what is due him.” Of course, in different societies the rules that determine “what is due” differ, so social goods will be distributed differently in different societies. And even within societies disputes arise about exactly what is due to individuals and why. In every case, however, what is just is determined by the individual’s merit or demerit as measured by the law. But God loved us and Christ died for us “while were sinners” and “ungodly.” How is that an act of justice?
Just as we should not apply the human concept of love directly to God, we should not apply the human concept of justice to God without proper modification. As I said above, human justice distributes goods according to merit and demerit as measured by a set of rules or law. Just laws embody the principle of justice that says, “each according to his due.” Just acts follow those rules. A just person lives by those rules with all sincerity. Clearly the question of justice is the question of the fitting relationship between two things: between a law and the principle of proper merit or between a rule and a behavior that expresses that rule. One serves as the standard for the other.
Divine justice also involves the relationship between a standard of measure and behaviors. But in God’s case, the standard of measure must be God’s own being, life, and character, for there can be no law above God. Hence God acts justly by acting consistently with his being, life, and character. God’s justice is his faithfulness to himself. In Jesus Christ, God demonstrated that his love penetrates to the depth of his being, life and character. Hence God acts justly precisely by loving us while we were sinners! In loving us despite our sin, even “while were enemies” God is being completely faithful to himself.
God does not give us “what is due” us! A creature can never rightly assert a claim on God; everything we have, even our existence itself, is a gift from God. But what if we are “due” punishment? An act “deserves” its consequences, that is, given the natural course of things certain consequences follow on every act and are implicit in it. In our acts of sin we assert our wills against God’s will. That is the essence of sin. But God wills only to love us, to be our God, our helper, and our good. In sin we wish to be our own god, helper, and good. But apart from God we cannot live or enjoy any good. Hence death is implicit in sin. In the words of Paul, “the wages [natural consequences] of sin is death” (Romans 6:23).
The human call for justice (or “social justice” as it is now called) is often a thoughtless a cry for “what we are due.” Thankfully, God does not give us “what is due” us! And precisely by not giving us what is due to us God proves himself perfectly just. In giving himself for us in Jesus Christ, God is completely faithful to himself. God gives himself what is due to himself. And contrary to “what is due” to us, we receive mercy, forgiveness, grace, and love. Instead of death we get life and a new beginning. What justice! What love! What joy! What gospel!
The remarks in the last paragraph are very thought-provoking for me. It’s an interesting way to stave off the view that God holds His own justice at bay in order to love us. I wonder if this loops back around to remarks that I have heard given by Alvin Plantinga on the topic of Theodicy:
As a maximally great being, God possesses all attributes that are great-making. Plausibly, one such quality is the quality of being “savior.” Plantinga uses this insight to show that any world with a redemptive sacrificial atonement would be greater than one without such an atonement, even if the latter world had no suffering or pain. I am wondering if we could perhaps go in a different direction with the insight. If being Savior is a great-making quality, then one can view the redemptive sacrifice as being an integral part of who God is, bringing together His love and justice in unified accord.
Where I am internally struggling with this account is that it makes the need for a redemptive sacrifice “built-in” to the fabric of creation. It follows from that that the fall would be “built-in” from the first moment of creation as well, which could throw some questionable light on the question of whether humans have libertarian free will. Even more potentially disturbing, would it mean that God necessarily must create a world to save in order to have the attribute of Savior? It seems like we want to hold, along with Leibniz, that God did not have to create the universe.
I do not believe God creates the world out of the necessity of his being. That would not be creation but involuntary emanation. I am, or I think I am, reflecting on the being of God from within the revelation given in Jesus Christ. From that revelation we conclude to the eternal Trinity of relations in the being of God. God does not need to create the world in order to be loving or just because the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit relate eternally as mutually self-giving and mutually constituting hypostases. The internal relatedness of God grounds the possibility of other beings. The eternal generation of the Son and Spirit grounds the possibility–but does not make necessary–the act of creation.
I do not think I agree with Plantinga that God needs a lost world to save to be maximally great. God, as I said above, does not need the world to be maximally loving. And saving a lost world is but a variation on and a specification of divine love relative to the condition of the creature whom God loves. The love that the Trinity have in their mutual relations is perfectly adapted to every creaturely need. Much more could be said. Thanks for your comment!
I really like your explanation of how love and justice perfectly coincide in God. I’ve also never heard it articulated about the way in which God is love, so I enjoyed reading that as well.
I find your last paragraph thought-provoking. You compare calls for justice with calls for social justice, but I think on the public platform, they’re used very differently: Justice is usually used in a court setting (retributive justice) and can be more closely compared with concepts like revenge. But ideally, social justice is more aligned with the work of Jesus, not focusing on revenge or punishment against wrong-doers, but on giving people good things even if they don’t necessarily “deserve” them by human standards, which mimics God’s justice much more closely.
Well, as you know I put “social justice” in parentheses indicating that I am referring to some uses of that term. Generally, I think the term is used imprecisely. For it to be used properly there would need to be agreement on exactly what God’s justice is. I think one could venture such a theory. But still it would resemble the law of the Old Testament concerning the poor and the stranger. The New Testament focuses on love rather than justice. Love goes beyond justice. I am concerned, however, with a loose use of the term to address all sorts of economic or other types of inequity . Sometimes those who use it consider love inferior to justice. In any case when I hear the term my ears perk up to see what someone means by it and whether or not they can justify their interpretation. Justice must be, as I said, a fit between a law or an act and a standard. Who sets the standard? Thank you for this comment.
Thanks for your clarification on the previous post. I thought that’s what you were getting at, and I understand what you mean. We cannot live without community, therefore God has made it impossible to do so. Hypothetically speaking, we could not know Him, or really anything else, without the influence of the community around us. There remains the concept of innate ideas that Descartes is very apt to make use of in the latter part of his Meditations, but I think it would be difficult to interpret them without the proper resources that we develop as children. Many studies have shown that individuals who are born and left to themselves, outside of any sort of human interaction, find death very quickly. Not only do they not have the resources to find food and eat it, but they simply cannot develop mentally without other people. That’s why I find it really interesting that the juxtaposition of divine love and justice really has to do a lot with community. When Christ died for us, He brought us into the fellowship of believers where we can know love and happiness and reach our full potential as human beings. At the same time, a spiritual death results in our removal from the greatest good we can know, that being knowledge of and fellowship with God and the saints. The fact that both of those can be just and loving at the same time is incredible. I’m very thankful that God is a God who is merciful.