Friday, May 28, 2010

What does God have against us?

This is an interesting question that has come up in the course of my studies of the Book of Revelation in the context of some talks I am preparing for my Youth Group on discerning the will of God.This question deals with the phrase "I have this against you", which is oft repeated by the Lord in His letters to the seven churches found in Rev. 2-3. After greeting each local church and commending them for their fidelity, He calls to mind their sins and says "I have this against you." Consider the following verses:

  • "But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first" (Rev. 2:4)

  • "But I have a few things against you; you have some who hold the teaching of also have some who hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans. Repent then" (Rev. 2:15).

  • "But I have this against you, that you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess..." (Rev. 2:20).

So Scripture very clearly says that God has things "against" these churches. Since these are churches that God is speaking to, it is evident that, at face value, God can be "against" believers if they are unfaithful, which at the very least should be an admonition for us to remain in God's favor!

And yet, if we turn to the Epistle to the Romans, we see a very different statement, where St. Paul assures us that God is for us, not against us:

"And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose. For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover whom He predestined, these He also called; whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified. What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?" (Rom. 8:28-31)

Since Paul is speaking here of those He "foreknew", those who are "justified" and "glorified", we may presume he is speaking of the Church. Speaking of the Church he says "If God is for us, who can be against us?" The implied answer is "nobody." Why? Again, the implication is because God is always for us and never against us. How could God be "against" His own Church? How could Christ be "against" His Bride? "No man ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes it and cherishes it, as Christ does the Church, because we are members of His body" (Eph. 5:29). So we seem to have a contradiction - St. Paul teaches that God is for us, not against us, and that because we are His Body, the Bride of Christ, for this very reason does Christ cherish and nurture us rather than being "against" us. Yet St. John tells us very plainly that in some cases, God can be "against" the Church.

An easy answer would be to say that God is for us if we are righteous but becomes against us when we sin, since the instances mentioned in Revelation clearly deal with sin. I don't think this answer really does the issue justice though; is God really so fickle that He pledges eternal devotion to us, as a husband does a wife, but that the second we make a mistake He suddenly becomes "against" us? In some ways yes. If we commit a mortal sin, we know that we put ourselves outside God's grace; if we were to die in that state, we would find God "against" us in that we would face exclusion from heaven. But apart from the case of the sinner who actually dies in mortal sin, is the disposition of God rightly said to be "against" the believer when he commits a sin? Can God ever really be "against" a baptized believer?

One could of course try to say that one ceases being a "believer" or one of the "faithful" when they commit a sin, but this would be a Manichean view of the Church as a community of the "perfect", such as adopted by various Calvinist communities throughout history. No; the words of Christ that He has something "against" someone are addressed not to people in the world, but to the Church. So, again, can God ever be "against" a baptized believer?

Of course, if we start with St. Paul's statement that God is for us, we ought to assume that this is an absolute statement with regards to the Elect; that is, God is always for us, not just when we happen to be on the straight and narrow, but even if we screw up. If there could be windows or segments of time when God was not for us but against us, then Paul would not have been able to boast rhetorically "who can be against us?" The structure of the sentence implies that God is always for us. If nothing else, the parable of the Prodigal Son reminds us that even if we flee from God and become mired in sin, God is still "for us", still on "our side." Did the father suddenly become an enemy of the prodigal once he left home? Is the father's disposition such that he becomes against his own son when the latter leaves but then changes his disposition when the son returns? On the contrary, we see in the parable of the Prodigal Son a fatherly love that is ever for his son, even when the latter wanders.

If God is always for us, then it follows that when it says that He has things "against" us that it cannot mean in a literal sense that God has turned against us, just like those who believe in penal substitution assert happened when God the Father allegedly "turned his back" on our Lord while He suffered. But what other way can we take Christ's phrase in Revelation that He has things "against" different churches?

We know that when we speak of God changing His dispositions towards us, it is really an anthropomorphic way of saying that we have changed. Since God is simple and changeless, He cannot "get mad" and then "calm down" afterward; when we speak of God being angry when we sin and then being restored to His friendship, this assuaging His anger, we know that it is not as if He was sitting there in heaven all blissful until we sinned and then we disturbed His peace and made Him angry; rather, our language and ways of speaking metaphorically about God's changing passions are really descriptions of our changing relationship with Him. When we say God was angry with us when we sinned but now we are in His favor, we are not describing the whims of a Persian potentate but are rather explaining that we ourselves have changed our relation to Him - we have gone from a state of deprivation of sanctifying grace (being under God's "anger") to a state of possessing sanctifying grace (being in God's "favor"). But it is we who have changed, not God.

So, when God lists things He has against us in Revelation, He is not calling them to mind for His benefit, but rather for ours. When God, who is perfect, says to a man, "I have this against you," is He not rather saying, "You have done this against Me?" Remember, the Holy Spirit, our Lord tells us, plays an important role in "convicting" us of sin (John 16:8). When God speaks to us, it is often to awaken our own consciences to our need for His grace, especially in the case of those in the Church who, as in Revelation, think they are spiritually mature when really they are weak. "You have the name of being alive, yet you are dead" (Rev. 3:1). "You say, 'I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing;' not knowing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind and naked" (Rev. 3:17).

When God asks Adam, "Where are you?" He does not ask because He doesn't know where Adam is; He does it so Adam will realize that he is estranged from God. Likewise, when God lists all the things He has "against" us, it is because He wants us to understand the things we have against Him - and in thus knowing what we have done against God can we truly repent, for it is necessary to admit our sins in order to be restored to grace. If we do not see this, we are hypocrites and liars  and "the truth is not in us" (1 John 1:8).

God is our Father. He sent His Son to atone for our sins by making a perfect sacrifice of Himself on the cross. Out of this sacrificial love was born the Church, the Bride of Christ, for whom our Lord ever intercedes at the right hand of the Father. Even when we sin, though we lose God's grace, God doesn't stop loving us or alter His fundamental disposition of mercy towards us, just as the father of the Prodigal Son did not cease loving the prodigal or ever stop being "for" him. When God mentions in Revelation that He holds things "against" us, it is not He who is compiling a hit list against us, as if he is our political enemy, but it is His way of showing us what we have done against Him, and even then always with a view of bringing about repentance, as our Lord says in Revelation: ""But I have a few things against you; you have some who hold the teaching of also have some who hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans. Repent then" (Rev. 2:15).

I think this is a biblical and orthodox solution to the problem; of course, much hinges on what we mean by God being "for" or "against" somebody, but I think this explanation solves the problem without getting bogged down in semantics. I'm sure you will all let me know if this is heresy or not.


Clare Mulligan said...

Careful! Our Lord had nothing against the church in Philadelphia.

Jake said...


This is off topic, but I was wondering if you had heard about the meeting that is taking place next Monday, June 7th about the Extraordinary Form in the Lansing area? There is information on Fr. Robideau's website about it:

Do you think you could post the meeting details on the blog?

Please send me an email if you have any questions.