For God to be for us, he must oppose sin in us:
God is for us. But sometimes he must be against us before he can be fully for us. This vital biblical truth is not accepted by many believers today however. So many Western Christians think that God just wants us to be happy and have our best life now, and that he would never rebuke us or chastise us or judge us.
But it is exactly because God loves his own that he does rebuke, chastise, and judge. My title refers to the many times in Scripture where God says this very thing. And almost always when we have this phrase, or something similar, it is referring to God’s people – not to surrounding pagan nations.
Consider the very strong words I just read in Isaiah 1:21-23:
How the faithful city
has become a whore,
she who was full of justice!
Righteousness lodged in her,
but now murderers.
Your silver has become dross,
your best wine mixed with water.
Your princes are rebels
and companions of thieves.
Everyone loves a bribe
and runs after gifts.
They do not bring justice to the fatherless,
and the widow’s cause does not come to them.
But the passage goes on to say this (vv. 24-27):
Therefore the Lord declares,
the Lord of hosts,
the Mighty One of Israel:
“Ah, I will get relief from my enemies
and avenge myself on my foes.
I will turn my hand against you
and will smelt away your dross as with lye
and remove all your alloy.
And I will restore your judges as at the first,
and your counselors as at the beginning.
Afterward you shall be called the city of righteousness,
the faithful city.”
Zion shall be redeemed by justice,
and those in her who repent, by righteousness.
Yes God opposes his people and judges them, but it is in order that he might restore them unto himself. He loves his people too much to just leave them alone and to allow them to destroy themselves by disobedience and sin.
Around eight times in the book of Leviticus we read about God being against his own people. Here are just two of these passages:
Leviticus 20:6 ‘As for the person who turns to mediums and to spiritists, to play the harlot after them, I will also set My face against that person and will cut him off from among his people.
Leviticus 26:17 I will set My face against you so that you will be struck down before your enemies; and those who hate you will rule over you, and you will flee when no one is pursuing you.
And the prophets, whose main task was to enforce the covenant conditions given to Israel in places like Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy, say the same thing. A half dozen times at least Jeremiah speaks to this. Here are a few of his words:
Jeremiah 21:10 For I have set My face against this city for harm and not for good,” declares the Lord. “It will be given into the hand of the king of Babylon and he will burn it with fire.”’
Jeremiah 44:11 “Therefore thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, ‘Behold, I am going to set My face against you for woe, even to cut off all Judah.
Ezekiel does the same:
Ezekiel 5:8 therefore, thus says the Lord God, ‘Behold, I, even I, am against you, and I will execute judgments among you in the sight of the nations.
Ezekiel 13:8 Therefore, thus says the Lord God, “Because you have spoken falsehood and seen a lie, therefore behold, I am against you,” declares the Lord God.
‘But,’ some might object. ‘that is the Old Testament!’ However, New Testament writers – speaking to believers – are happy to run with the same sorts of passages. James for example quotes Proverbs 3:34 on this: “But He gives a greater grace. Therefore it says, “God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble’” (James 4:6).
Peter also quotes from that passage: “You younger men, likewise, be subject to your elders; and all of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, for God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (1 Peter 5:5).
And in 1 Peter 3:12 he quotes from Psalm 34:15-16:
“For the eyes of the Lord are toward the righteous,
And His ears attend to their prayer,
But the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.”
So the same theme runs throughout both Testaments. God’s love for his own means he must act to ensure they are true to him and not ensnared in sin and evil. So if punishment or judgment is needed to bring about a change of course, God is not hesitant in doing so.
Since this piece was triggered by my reading of Isaiah 1, let me offer a brief bit of commentary on this text. Raymond Ortlund says this about the passage:
Isaiah 1:21-31 falls into two major sections. In verses 21-26, the prophet laments our corruption. He asks What? What have we become, and what does God do with people like us? He shows us both our corruption and God’s redeeming purpose. Verse 21 says, “How the faithful city has become a whore.” Verse 26 resolves that tension: “Afterward you shall be called the city of righteousness, the faithful city.” Verses 21-26 come full circle, from a faithful city to a whore to a faithful city again. That’s redemption.
Then in verses 27-31, the prophet asks How? How does God lead us into redemption? We must understand that verses 21-26 stand back and envision the whole sweep of history. Looking from the disasters of Old Testament Israel through the failures of the Christian church, Isaiah foresees “the faithful city” of Revelation 21, 22. But verses 27-31 speak directly to every successive generation along the way. We face a decision: Will we choose to enter into the redemptive ways of God? Isaiah aims to sober us with who we are, give us hope in who God is, and urge upon us an unblinking realism about how we experience redemption. His vision is both beautiful and terrible.
But Ortlund reminds us that the ultimate judgment of God has already fallen on his Son, so we need not experience it. But a life of repentance is still a part of what it means to be the people of God. He writes:
Verses 27-31 conclude the passage, but not with the cutesy ending of a TV sitcom. These verses are hard-hitting. Why are they here? Because Isaiah doesn’t want us to misunderstand. He has been saying that God will restore his people. The church’s glory is not passing; it’s her corruption that is passing. But for us in our generation, how are we redeemed out of our failures? Isaiah wants us to know. He wants us to feel the weight of the decision we face. In verses 21-26 he fortified us with confidence that God will purify his Bride, so that now, in verses 27-31, we will dare to follow God into the refining fire and stay there long enough for his purpose to be fulfilled in us.
THE DECISION BEFORE US
Zion shall be redeemed by justice,
and those in her who repent, by righteousness.
But rebels and sinners shall be broken together,
and those who forsake the LORD shall be consumed. (Isaiah 1:27, 28)
God does not redeem us by casually sweeping his standards aside. God pays the price demanded by his own justice and righteousness. This is the magnitude of his achievement at the cross of Christ. Redemption comes not by God’s leniency but by his justice and righteousness fully satisfied in Christ. The Bible says that “our great God and Savior Jesus Christ . . . gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession” (Titus 2:13, 14). We are redeemed at a cost to God that we will never understand. At the cross he put the real moral guilt of sinners onto Christ, the perfect substitute. God honored his own moral government of the universe. Our part, Isaiah tells us, is to repent: “. . . and those in her who repent.”
How could it be otherwise? We add nothing to the value of Jesus’ sacrifice, but his love does claim all that we are. The flip side of God paying the price is that we are no longer our own (1 Corinthians 6:19b, 20a). What else can we do but repent? We need to repent of our sins every day. We need to repent of our fifth-rate righteousness every day. We need to receive afresh, with the empty hands of faith, real righteousness from Jesus Christ every day. The cross becomes a redeeming power for us as we learn what it means to repent.
There is no way around repentance. The only alternative is in verse 28: “But rebels and sinners shall be broken together, and those who forsake the LORD shall be consumed.” That is the decision before us. Will we repent and be redeemed, or rebel and be consumed? God will redeem his people, and he wants to redeem you and me. He has already paid the price at the cross. The question is, will we turn to God in repentance, even if he leads us into a refining fire (v. 25)? If we decide against repentance, we will be consumed. If we decide for repentance, we will be redeemed.
That is good news indeed. The God who must be against sin and sinners is for sinners who turn from their sin and turn toward him.