Tullian Tchavidjian recently posted this statement on his twitter feed:
“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.”
This may be true, but it raises the question, what about all those verses about the fear of the Lord?
“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; Fools despise wisdom and instruction.” Proverbs 1:7, NASB.
What then does this mean? Are we to fear the Lord? How does that harmonize with 1 John 4?
“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? It may include this notion, but I don’t think this is the central meaning. 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. Abject terror. Very very very bad feelings. Horror. I don’t think it helps to water this down.
In his book “The Holiness of God,” R. C. Sproul gives us an excellent illustration of this by looking at the story of Jesus calming the storm.
“What is significant about this scriptural story is that the disciples’ fear increased after the threat of the storm was removed. The storm had made them afraid. Jesus’ action to still the tempest made them more afraid. In the power of Christ they met something more frightening than they had ever met in nature. They were in the presence of the holy.” (The Holiness of God, page 83)
Imagine that you are in fact standing at the final throne of judgement, before God Himself. You finally are confronted with the fact that, yes, this is indeed all true. God is real. God is clearly able to speak and create universes and worlds teeming with life. God really is all-knowing and all-powerful. You can see the incredible love and life and power emanating from Him. He is like the best part of every child and every ancient wisdom and deep perfect justice all manifest together, and you are there. His gaze is upon you. The Creator has stopped the business of heaven and has turned His entire gaze in your direction. This will happen.
Now, far more than the storm calming incident, this is terrifying. What will be clear is that you are not a creature of love, you are an alien to it. There is an entire simplicity and devotion to compassion and love and truth that you have terribly missed. In that moment you will know that justice, if it is right, is not on your side. We see this through a cloud, with little certainty now, but in that moment, it will be clear, and His justice will be known to be the the truest and rightest thing in the universe. It will not be a fear that He has the POWER to execute justice that will be most fearful. It will be that He has the MORAL IMPERATIVE to execute justice! It is not just our history of sin that will be under scrutiny either. Our history will have led us to that point as being the kind of person who clearly doesn’t belong in the presence of God. We will realize that we have not really grappled with the true meaning and loveliness of His holiness, of the rightness of it, up to this point. We will long for it in that moment, and we will see how alien we are to it. In the moment that you are there, you will know true fear, the most genuine fear.
This is a scenario that we don’t need to wait for. The truths, the justice, the love, and our sense of being aliens to it all, are true now, today. This was really the beginning of Martin Luther’s insight, that he feared mightily long before he faced death. It is from the soil of this truth, this terror and fear, this acknowledgement of the goodness and holiness and beauty of God, that our hunger for mercy springs.
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 declared 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. Through faith we are introduced to this grace in which we stand. In Christ we no longer need stand before God in fear, because we no longer fear punishment. Justice is satisfied, and our heart knows it. As the writer of Hebrews says, our conscience is sprinkled clean from an evil conscience.
This all parallels the notion that the law impresses virtue upon an unwilling desire, meaning that the desire exists in contrast to the conscience, and there is conflict within us. If we act on either impulse, we violate the other. Under the universe of law, men either follow their desire and violate their conscience, or the follow their conscience and violate their desire. This is the Adamic curse, and this dictates our approach to God. We approach in fear.
Under grace, under faith in Jesus’ propitiation, His death which satisfies justice for our sins, we live under an entirely new rubric. We can follow our truest desires, knowing that they are no longer in conflict with our conscience. We no longer need virtue to be pressed upon our unwilling desire, we no longer need to approach God from the basis of fear. There is no punishment because justice is satisfied already. We enter the world of 1 John 4, where we know that God loves us, we believe that. We approach Him that way, thinking that He loves us, that He will work it all out so that things turn out for our good and for our blessing. The throne of judgement is also the throne of grace, and so we are rescued from the terror of that moment.