I posted this little quote on FaceBook from my favorite writer these days, Tullian Tchavidjian:
What motivates our obedience determines whether or not it is a sacrifice of praise. Obedience to God’s commands prompted by fear or guilt is not true obedience.
The question arose, what about all those verses about the fear of the Lord? Such as this one:
“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; Fools despise wisdom and instruction.” Proverbs 1:7, NASB.
Then question arose, what does this mean? Are we to fear the Lord? What about this verse?
“And we have come to know and have believed the love which God has for us. God is love, and the one who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. By this, love is perfected with us, that we may have confidence in the day of judgment; because as He is, so also are we in this world.
There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love. We love, because He first loved us. If someone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen.” 1 John 4:16-20, NASB.
How are we to reconcile these ideas? Is the Bible contradictory on this point?
Perhaps the first question to tackle is, what exactly does it mean to fear God? Does it mean reverence and respect? I don’t think so. The Hebrew word translated as fear, according to my Hebrew lexicon, means, fear and terror, awesome and terrifying. I think it means that. It doesn’t just mean reverence. It means fear. Real fear. Terror. Very very very bad feelings. Horror. I don’t think it helps to water this down.
Romans 3 is the perfect place to go with this. Following Solomon and Paul’s lead, we can surmise that the fear of the Lord is the BEGINNING of wisdom, but it is not the end, nor is it the substance. It is the introduction. The purpose of the law is to teach us this terror, to show us how we are the agents of injustice. It shows us that we are indeed on the wrong end of justice, and that our conscience knows very well that this is very true.
God is to be feared because He is a God of justice, and in His justice He holds power and wrath. We have shied away from the idea that God is wrathful. It seems medieval. Yet, if He loves us, He must thoroughly hate it when we are harmed or when an injustice comes against us. He does hate it. This is fantastic when it weighs out to our advantage, but it really doesn’t in the end weigh out well. We have been selfish, small-minded, idolatrous, stubborn, mean, greedy, gluttonous, adulterous, lying, and just plain evil. In true and specific ways we have hurt each other.
In fact (and I am stealing this idea from J.I. Packer’s great book “Knowing God”) the root problem is that we have loved evil, loved darkness, and in a way this IS the wrath. Try to forget your familiarity with it and read this passage from John 3:
“”For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life. “For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world should be saved through Him. “He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. “And this is the judgment, that the light is come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the light; for their deeds were evil. “For everyone who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. “But he who practices the truth comes to the light, that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God.”” John 3:16-21, NASB.
So, it would seem that the ultimate sin is to refuse to come boldly to the throne of grace. We cannot just promise to make a moral change. For one thing, we can’t, literally, make that promise. For another thing, it doesn’t matter; as I’ve said, promising never to murder again doesn’t atone for a murder already committed. All sin is this way. We are in a world of hurt and shame, and we cannot repent our way out of it. Martin Luther was an honest man, and he was terrified, almost driven to insanity by his honesty in seeing that justice would not land in his favor. Everyone is terrified for all of these reasons at the moment of their death.
It is this terror, this acknowledgement of the truth of our guilt, this absolutely necessary wrath that the love of God requires, that leads us to our need for mercy. This terror is not insanity, it the dawning of actual truth in our lives. It is, in fact, the beginning of wisdom.
God has decided that Jesus’ death satisfies justice on our behalf. By faith we enter into the universe of justification as a gift. The fear of the Lord leads us to the love of God and to peace with God. This is the message of Romans:
“Now we know that whatever the Law says, it speaks to those who are under the Law, that every mouth may be closed, and all the world may become accountable to God; because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin. But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith.” Romans 3:19-25, NASB.
And so we begin with fear of the Lord, and by faith in Christ’s work on the cross pass to the place where perfect love has cast out fear.