A little more than a decade ago, my wife and I sat at a table in a cramped office that reeked of scorched coffee and mildewed carpet. While social workers shuffled around us, we pored over page after page in a file that never seemed to end.
“Cruelty to animals.”
“Persistent patterns of theft and destruction of property.”
“Possible oppositional-defiant disorder.”
“Acute reactive-attachment disorder.”
As the list of disorders and destructive behaviors grew, I whispered to my wife, “Are we sure we want to do this?” We hadn’t yet met the seven-year-old that these files described, but it was clear that—if we chose to go forward with this adoption—nothing in our lives would ever be the same again. From what we could see in those files at that time, this child seemed more likely to be a puppy-flaying arsonist than the delightful daughter we’d dreamed of guiding into adulthood.
And yet, we also expected that this child would add something to our lives—and indeed she did. Through her presence, God began to dethrone self-centered patterns that we’d never noticed before and to heal souls scarred by years of infertility and failed adoptions. Our new daughter brought joy that enabled us to laugh again and struggles that drove us to our knees, begging for God’s wisdom and strength. Our choice to adopt this child hadn’t depended on anything she had to offer us, but her presence in our home brought gifts that both of us desperately needed. (And, as it turned out, only a few of her struggles were the ones described in those files. Sure, she came with some serious challenges, but puppies have fared very well around her, and the only thing she’s seriously burned so far has been her own forehead while using a hair straightener.)
A worse list of iniquities is, however, far from the sole difference between a human adoption of a troubled child and God’s adoption of sin-infected zombie rebels. There is another, far deeper distinction as well: No matter how twisted an adoptee’s past may have been, there are needs in the lives of the adoptive parents that this new child is likely to fulfill.
That’s not the case when it comes to God the Father’s choice to predestine particular people to be his children, because God needs nothing that any of us can provide. The God described in the Scriptures is the exalted King who owns everything and owes nothing (Job 41:11; Psalm 24:1; 50:10-12; Acts 17:24-25). God doesn’t even need our love! The Father, Son, and Spirit coexist in a fellowship of perfect love, and they always have. Endless ages before Adam and Eve frolicked among the trees of Eden, the three persons of the Trinity gloried in the infinite satisfaction of one another’s love, and they needed nothing from us to make their lives complete (John 17:5).
Free grace runs through the whole privilege of adoption. In civil adoption there is some worth and excellence in the person to be adopted; but there was no worth in us, neither beauty, nor parentage, nor virtue; nothing in us to move God to bestow the prerogative of sonship upon us. We have enough in us to move God to correct us, but nothing to move him to adopt us, therefore exalt free grace; … bless him with your praises who has blessed you in making you his sons and daughters. … Extol and magnify God’s mercy, who has adopted you into his family; who, of slaves, has made you sons; of heirs of hell, heirs of the promise.
–Thomas Watson, Puritan pastor
God’s choice to adopt us was not based on anything that God needed from us or any faith he foresaw in us. The basis of the Father’s choice to adopt particular people as his own children was sheer grace, overflowing from the inner life and love of the Trinity. This work of outrageous grace was an act of pure love that cost the Father the life of his Son. This sacrifice gained God nothing that he needed but, through this sacrifice, God purchased for every believer a status higher than anything we could ever deserve. That’s why the apostle John exulted in one of his letters, “See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God!” (1 John 3:1).