God With Us, God For Us

Originally published in 2014.

This blog post may not entirely work. It draws together two threads. And it tries to see in them what the Father is doing, and what the Father has done. For those of you who don’t understand Christian jargon (in this case, Vineyard jargon), I basically want to write about two things that I think God has been up to, and will continue to be up to. Because I believe in a God who has intervened, continues to intervene, and will continue to intervene in ‘our’ world.

I’m a reader – as a glance at my book reviews will hopefully demonstrate – and I’m usually reading/digesting multiple books at a time. One book that has particularly occupied my thoughts and prayers over the past few months is Simon Ponsonby’s brilliant devotional/study/commentary/journey of and through Romans, the carefully titled God is For Us. The other, a book I was able to review for the Church Society Journal Churchman, is Donald MacLeod’s Christ Crucified: Understanding the Atonement. Both titles are at once descriptive – and bold claims. Both are great challenges – and yet great truths.

MacLeod’s Christ Crucified is a powerful book, steeped in the old, proper, hard way of ‘doing’ systematic theology. For some, that is off-putting. But I believe it is a wonderful book, pointing to a wonderful truth. As the author writes on page 79…

The very clarity of the New Testament emphasis on the cross presents us with a serious challenge. How could the life, let alone the death, of one man in a far-off country two thousand years ago be the salvation of the human race? 

How could his blood benefit me?

Part of the answer is that while the crucified one was a man, he was no mere man. He was the son of God, acting and suffering in cooperation with the Father and the Holy Spirit. The death of this one ‘man’ has universal and inclusive significance because in him the Creator acts and the Creator suffers. By its very nature such an event, with the triune God at its heart, is bound to have cosmic significance. Anything less would have been out of proportion to the divine energy and the divine pain concentrated at the cross of Calvary.

But there is a second factor over and above the divine humanity identity of the sufferer: the special relationship between Christ and the human race. It is encapsulated in two prepositions: he was ‘with’ us, and he was ‘for’ us

I think what MacLeod touches on here starts to hint at answers to some of the most profound questions that we can have. We ask how the Cross works, who God is, how God can be with us, how God can be for us. Indeed, I have books with those questions at titles, books that hint at the start of answers, that hint at what the shape of love is. But I think that MacLeod, grappling with the whole biblical message of the Cross and its New Testament expressions, gets closer by far to thinking about what these things mean.

Simon Ponsonby, a prolific author, sought-after preacher, and general all round good chap, was invited to preach a series through the book of Romans. That series resulted in 52 sermons – which has resulted, now, in his book (with 52 chapters…). This is the book that has been feeding and informing me for months. Romans, as Simon notes throughout the early part of his book, is an epistle to the Church in Rome for Paul which has had many descriptions, interpretations, and understandings. But I think Simon sums it up best, in the title of his book, echoing one of the core parts of the heart of the Gospel;

God For Us

Donald MacLeod, in his discussion of Substitution: The Man For Others, expands on the beauty of God for us by noting that God is also with us. He notes that “it is from within this humanity that [Jesus] acts for us, intervening and entreating… But solidarity is not atonement, only its prerequisite. It is an indispensable quality in a high priest, but it does not dispense with the need for sacrifice; nor will it serve as a sacrifice“. It is not enough, as MacLeod notes, for God to be with us – which is the radical, invasive, transforming, including and loving truth of the Doctrine of the Incarnation [see this great talk from Graham Tomlin on what that means] – God is also for us. Christ is both our representative, and our substitute, according to the New Testament. And this is a matter of, the supreme instance of, God’s love. Macleod writes, referring to Christ’s intercession for us;

Christ’s pleading is clearly a pleading in our defence, his very presence at God’s right hand a living insistence that God’s love must not let us go

At the heart of the Gospel are these two great truths. God is with us, and God is for us. At the heart of human response to – and understanding of – the Gospel there are two great facts: we are great sinners, but Christ is a great saviour. The Gospel confronts these facts with the truth of God’s love. God is with us – he was with us in the person of his son, Jesus Christ, and God is with us by the person of the Holy Spirit. And God is for us – as Jesus was on the Cross and is for us in his intercessions, and as the Holy Spirit is as God indwells us and transforms us into who God longs for us to be. The Gospel is a rich story – not one-dimensional or mired in blood, nor contemporary and about transformation. The Gospel is about all that – and more than that. The Gospel is seen in the God who is with us, and for us, the Christ who died on the Cross, ascended unto life, and yet lives today. This same God is inviting you to consider his claims.

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