The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding. Proverbs 9:10
Fear of Judgment
For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad. Since, then, we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade men.
2 Corinthians 5:10-11
For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat. It is written: “As surely as I live, says the Lord, every knee will bow before me; every tongue will confess to God.” So then, each of us will give an account of himself to God.
Preachers harp on these verses to frighten believers into submission. But the preaching of the Law is a dead end. The flesh cannot be reformed. Christian believers are to be transformed from the inside.
But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.” Since you call on a Father who judges each man’s work impartially, live your lives as strangers here in reverent fear. For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect.
1 Peter 1:15-19
Here Peter gives us — thankfully — both sides of the issue. God is perfectly holy, and demands that we too be holy in all we do. Because His judgment is true, our response ought to be one of fear and reverence. Why? Because He will condemn us if our acts are less than perfect? No, that’s the Old Covenant. Our righteousness is “from God, apart from law” (Romans 3:21). He forgives because of His free mercy, expressed in the death of Jesus. Forgiveness thus always comes to us on His terms, not ours. We do not purchase our own redemption with silver or gold or anything we offer to Him. No, our redemption is established on the perfect blood of Christ, to which none of us contributed anything of our own.
No Fear of Judgment
The Christian should have — must have – no fear of judgment or punishment.
But perfect love casts out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The man who fears is not made perfect in love.
1 John 4:18
John says clearly that an attitude of fear (not reverence, but an abject fear of God’s punishment) is a sign of immaturity.
There is therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
[T]hose who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.”
As Christians, we are not to be slaves to fear! Paul includes the word “again” to indicate how the preaching of condemnation and Law would take us backwards, to our fleshly, pagan orientation: trusting in our own righteousness, distant from God, always anxious about our security. This is not Christianity. Preachers who bring such a message are repudiating grace and spitting on the gospel.
When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross.
For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.
This is the New Covenant. This is what we believe as Christians.
The New Testament does, however, give us reason to fear the consequences of sin. However, we shall see that in all such cases, the consequences are temporal, not eternal.
Example #1 is that of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts chapter 5:
Now a man named Ananias, together with his wife Sapphira, also sold a piece of property. With his wife’s full knowledge he kept back part of the money for himself, but brought the rest and put it at the apostles’ feet.
Then Peter said, “Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land? Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied to men but to God.”
When Ananias heard this, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard what had happened. Then the young men came forward, wrapped up his body, and carried him out and buried him.
About three hours later his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. 8 Peter asked her, “Tell me, is this the price you and Ananias got for the land?”
“Yes,” she said, “that is the price.”
Peter said to her, “How could you agree to test the Spirit of the Lord? Look! The feet of the men who buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out also.”
At that moment she fell down at his feet and died. Then the young men came in and, finding her dead, carried her out and buried her beside her husband. Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events.
The couple had falsely told the apostles that the amount they were offering was in fact the full amount they had received for sale of some property. In truth, they had withheld some of the money for themselves. Consequently, they were struck dead in separate incidents. As a result of this “great fear” is said to have seized the church. But there is no mention of their eternal condition. This was strictly a temporal judgment, to cleanse the church.
Example #2 is the “immoral brother” of 1 Corinthians chapter 5:
It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that does not occur even among pagans: A man has his father’s wife. And you are proud! Shouldn’t you rather have been filled with grief and have put out of your fellowship the man who did this? Even though I am not physically present, I am with you in spirit. And I have already passed judgment on the one who did this, just as if I were present. When you are assembled in the name of our Lord Jesus and I am with you in spirit, and the power of our Lord Jesus is present, hand this man over to Satan, so that the sinful nature [flesh] may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord.
Your boasting is not good. Don’t you know that a little yeast works through the whole batch of dough?
I Corinthians 5:1-6
He was living in an unbecoming arrangement, bringing shame to the name of Jesus in Corinth. He had persisted in this sin until it became necessary for the church to put him out, handing him over to Satan. Why?
Modern medicine now uses maggots to clean up wounds. This sounds rather nauseating; maggits are ordinarily disease vectors. But doctors have discovered that they happily “do the dirty work” because they consume only dead flesh and will not eat live flesh. For patients with wounds containing dead flesh, the maggots very precisely remove all of it, much more accurately than a surgeon’s scalpel could. The patient lives, his body is restored. In the same way, Paul encourages the Corinthian church to let Satan “do the dirty work” of destroying this man’s flesh so that his spirit might be saved. He is being given over to his evil desires, to purge them from him — even if that purging process might destroy his body.
Ultimately the man was restored to the Corinthian church:
The punishment inflicted on him by the majority is sufficient for him. Now instead, you ought to forgive and comfort him, so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. I urge you, therefore, to reaffirm your love for him.
2 Corinthians 2:6-8
This man was not deprived of his salvation. Nor were Ananias and Sapphira. None of them are subject to the eternal judgment of God, because they are “in Christ,” permanently shielded and protected from God’s eternal wrath.
Example #3 is the judgment associated with the Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians chapter 11:
Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. But if we judged ourselves, we would not come under judgment. When we are judged by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be condemned with the world.
1 Corinthians 11:27-32
Discipline is temporary, and serves the purpose of correction. Discipline looks to the future, to make a better person. God does this because of His love and desire for goodness and truth. (In some cases, rather than being directed to an individual’s rehabilitation, it instead serves to make a better church.) Punishment, on the other hand, looks to the past, to the offense committed. It is not correctional in nature; it seeks only to mete out hardship in proportion to the crime.
Based on 1 John 4:18, the Christian can have complete assurance that he need never fear God’s punishment. But a believer who is stubborn in his sinful behavior must realize that God’s discipline may come for the purpose of correction, or, in extreme cases, to remove that person for the good of the church.
The True Fear of God
The Christian’s fear of God is motivated by:
- His absolute sovereignty
- His grace
- His invisible work in us
I know that everything God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it. God does it so that men will revere him.
If you, O LORD, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness; therefore you are feared.
[C]ontinue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.
Now this is very personal for me. My journey into grace began, about 1994, when a Christian counselor requested that I spend a week meditating on Ecclesiastes 3:14 and Psalm 130:3-4. That was the gateway to a new understanding of God, an amazing opening of the floodgates of wisdom and knowledge. “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom,” indeed.
Yet I think many Christians are stuck at the gate, unwilling to abandon themselves sufficiently, i.e., to recognize their own helplessness in the face of God’s sovereignty and grace. Forgiveness comes to us on God’s terms, not ours. We add nothing. Everything God does is eternal, unaffected by Man and his foolish hubris.
When the Body of Christ is berated from the pulpit with messages of condemnation, the gospel is obscured. Grace evaporates.
The fear of the Lord is the recognition of the infinite majesty of God and the utter helplessness of Man.
- He directs the universe, not us.
- He saves us by His righteousness, not ours.
- He produces good works in us by His Spirit, not by our flesh.
Proper understanding of these three truths produces the true “fear of the LORD” for the Christian, who cannot fear punishment. In particular, #2 (grace) is the answer to the question of how to motivate good works:
For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age.
The way to motivate good works among Christians is not to frighten them with the threat of punishment, but rather to preach grace. What is the result of preaching rules and law? Exactly the opposite. Paul tells us plainly:
Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.
The notion that people must be made to behave according to the rules in order to be pleasing to God, Paul derides as being a “basic principle of this world.” We have overcome the world. We must reject its principles:
See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ.
Let us then live in fear of God, appreciating His sovereign grace in redeeming us. With Him there is forgiveness, therefore He is to be feared. Let us perfect holiness out of reverence for God.