WITH US, FOR US, AGAINST US
Written by Doug Ponder on March 28, 2015
A Buffet for Fools
One of the great lies of our time is that truth is like a buffet: you take what you like, leave what you don’t, and it’s all good ‘cause it’s your plate. Reality doesn’t work that way, however, and since truth deals with reality, truth doesn’t work like that either.
None of this stops people from thinking of truth in that way, and this is certainly the case when it comes to moral and spiritual matters. But when we approach God like he’s a buffet of options, we come away with a plate that makes everyone’s “god” look just like them. Funny how it always works out like that.
Yet God calls us to approach him as One who has already revealed himself to us. In other words, we don’t get to “pick and choose” the parts we like and leave the parts we don’t. And when people do so, the results are disastrous for their souls and for the souls of those who listen to them (2 Pet. 2:1-3).
Consider three aspects of God’s character, and observe what happens when we leave one of them off: God is with us. God is for us. God is against us.
God is with us by the presence of his Spirit and the endless grace he gives.
God is for us through the sacrifice of Jesus, who gave his life as a ransom for many.
God is against us in our sin, in our pride, and in our opposition to him.
God With Us + God For Us – God Against Us = Liberalism
The god of liberalism is a god who is with us and for us but never against us. He is a god of “love,” filled with endless patience and tolerance (he is for us), and he is nearby at all times (he is with us) to offer a helping hand or give us a warm fuzzy feeling when we’re down. But this god would never offend us, say anything that might hurt our feelings, or command us to do things that we don’t want to do, and he certainly wouldn’t judge us. Yet Jesus clearly said, “Whoever is not with me is against me” (Matt. 12:30). And the apostle James tells us that God actively opposes those who are proud (James 4:6)—that includes the pride of thinking that we can reinvent God according to our own preferences as well as the pride in thinking that we can be good through our own efforts.
Ultimately, a god who is never against any part of us is a god who winks at sin and shrugs evil. His smile is the all-approving grin of a therapist in a magenta cardigan. He is there to help us love ourselves, but he wouldn’t judge our sins. But the real God—the God who has revealed himself in the Scriptures—is a God who is against us in certain ways. This is what is meant by the “wrath of God.” His anger against our sin is real, and it took the death of Jesus to turn us from recipients of his wrath into recipients of his mercy (Eph. 2:3-5). That’s why those who seek to make God more loving by ignoring his wrath actually end up with a less loving God. For God’s terrible judgment against sin demonstrates just how precious the sacrifice of Jesus was for us (1 John 4:9-10). Thus a god who is with us and for us but never against us is not the God of the Scriptures who is worthy of our worship.
God Against Us + God With Us – God For Us = Moralism
The god of moralism is against us in our sin and with us as our judge, but not truly for us on the cross. Moralists are clearly aware of God’s hatred for sin (against us) as well as his eternal presence (with us), but they lack faith in the finished work of Jesus (for us). As a result moralists are legalistic, fearful, and judgmental. They are legalistic because they forget that Jesus has already paid their debt, and they become self-righteous in thinking that they must add their own goodness to what Jesus has done for them. They are fearful, of course, because they wonder whether their own good efforts will prove to be enough in the end. Finally, believing that they are made right with God on the basis of their moral efforts, moralists become full-time “fruit inspectors,” constantly judging themselves and others to see whether or not there is enough evidence (fruit) in their estimation to consent or condemn.
Moralists forget that although God was against them in his wrath, because of Jesus his wrath is against them no longer. As Paul the apostle says, “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1). Jesus has taken the wrath of God away for those who trust in him, so that the God who was against us in our sins is now fully for us in his love. Paul adds, “If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” (Rom. 8:31-32). God really is for us—not for every one of our foolish ideas or sinful dreams and desires—but truly for us as the loving Father that he is. God is so for us, in fact, that he sometimes doesn’t give us what we ask him for because he knows we are asking for harmful things (James 4:2-3). God is also for us in that he remains steadfastly against our sins—not in condemnation, but in loving discipline that delivers us from slavery to sin (Heb. 12:6-11). In the end, the god of moralism removes the love and mercy of God and turns him into an ever-present critic. That’s why a god who is against us and with us and but not for us is not the God of the Scriptures who is worthy of our worship.
God For Us + God Against Us – God With Us = Deism
Deism is the technical term for belief in a god who created the world but who chooses not to intervene. Although classic deism mostly died out after the Enlightenment, a sort of “Deism Lite” is the way that most people still think of God today. Deism Lite is the belief that God exists and watches over us, but he is mostly uninvolved in our lives except when he is needed to solve a problem. Deism is perfectly expressed in the Grammy Award-winning song, “From a Distance,” which Bette Midler sang in the early ‘90s. The song sings about the many problems of the world, to which the chorus repeatedly says, “God is watching us from a distance.” In this way, the god of deism has positive feelings about us and wants us to make good decisions (he is for us—kind of), and he is saddened by all of our wars and crimes (he is against us—kind of). This produces a god who is “out there” and “sees everything,” but who doesn’t really care enough one way or another to be involved in our lives. The god of deism is out of sight, and mostly harmless, like a butler who is there when we need him, but we don’t really notice (or care about) his presence otherwise.
Those who follow the god of deism overlook the reality of the true God’s personal presence. God is not a distant “force” or “power” that can be “tapped into” from time to time. God is ever-present being. As the psalmist rhetorically asks, “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?” (Psalm 139:7). The answer, of course, is nowhere. God’s universal presence means we cannot outrun his judgment, on the one hand, but his presence also means that we can never fall beyond the reach of his grace. In the life of Jesus, God was with us in human form. And through the ongoing work of his Holy Spirit, God is still with all those who trust in him (Acts 2:38; 1 Cor. 12:14; Eph. 1:13-14). That is how Jesus can say, “I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20). This means that the God who is with us is the God who is for us and against our sin. He is present to convict us of sin (John 16:8), to point us to Jesus (John 16:4), and to give us the desire and the ability to do what God says (Phil. 2:13). Unlike the god of deism, the real God says, “I will never leave you or forsake you” (Deut. 31:8; Heb. 13:6). That’s why a god who is for us and against us but not truly with us is not the God the Scriptures who is worthy of our worship.
With Us, For Us, Against Us
The real God is with us, for us, and against us. In his perfect justice and righteous wrath, God is against us in our sins. But in his love, God is for us through the sacrifice of Jesus, who died to forgive us, cleanse us, and reconcile us to God. And by his Spirit, God is with us always, never leaving us to ourselves, but rather working in our hearts to give us the grace we need to trust him, obey him, and find our joy in him. God is against us, for us, and with us. Any other “god” isn’t the God of the Scriptures, who alone is worthy of our worship.
Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is the author of Rethink Marriage & Family. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Facebook or Twitter.