Formerly, I lived much of my Christian life looking down at the ground in self-loathing guilt. When that was over, I would then look over my shoulder in anxious concern of the response of God. Then, I would look around the room hoping to find someone more foolish and sinful than I; this would at temporarily puff up my ego and give me something of which to boast and lighten my burden for a time.
In my theology, I was very aware of the Heavenly Law Giver and his judicial sternness. God was not to be played with; he meant everything he said. I had heard all my life how holy he was and how he rightly desired such perfect purity from all his creatures. In addition, I was thoroughly schooled in his sacred anger towards Satan and sinners. Now, it is true that I had called upon Jesus to be my Savior, and I had learned to quote catechism answers and wax eloquent about the Gospel, but there was no doubt about it — I was performing well below his sacred standard; I was not hitting the mark. Sure, I had some new desire within to sin less, but I was never sinless, and in most areas I was probably not even sinning less. Therefore, in my mind and heart, I was always rehearsing the stories of Sodom and Gomorrah, Moses striking the rock, Nadab and Abihu offering strange incense, and Uzzah touching the Ark. I was a preserved and persevering born-again believer, who was once saved and always saved, who was eternally secured from the flames of hell. However, what I was not was a sabbathing, resting, comforted, confident, bold, delighting, and enjoying child. I was not so because I was sure my ongoing relationship with God was based on faith plus faithfulness. My Father’s smile was based on Christ’s work and my work, and my work was always sub-par. Therefore, with consistency, I trembled before the Lord and in a sense hid from him.
You see, I was like a golfer on the 18th hole trying to finish a round with clouds moving in, darkness descending, rain pouring down, and lighting flashing all about. I knew I was foolish. I knew I was guilty. I knew I was dancing with the devil and playing with fate, and truthfully I deserved to be struck by one of God’s lightning bolts. However, I played on, not with delight, not enjoying the final hole, but merely out of a sense of duty and survival that maybe I might be able to score well, finish the course, and make it to the club house in one piece.
I feared God, but as a believer I feared God wrongly!
What is different now? Today, I see the fear of the Lord as the elementary beginning of wisdom. It is not the totality of truth, and it is not the post-graduate posture of him who is wise in the Gospel. Now I see that the fear of the Lord is something that results in thanksgiving for the redeemed and not terror. I no longer tremble and shake before God. I am no longer scared of My Father and his lightning bolts. You see, because of Christ alone, I have no need to shake and quake. God will not judge me as my sins deserve; he will not even judge me lighter than my sins deserve. Why is this? It is because the Fearful Judge has poured out all his condemnation and judgment upon his Son and my Savior. Now, when he sees me, he declares me to be saintly, pure, blameless, righteous, whole, and holy. So, just for a brief moment, I look at the Law and begin with the fear of the Lord — I am reminded of my sin and the horrid consequences I deserve as a sinner. But then, quickly and rightly, the fear I have causes me to look with a smile upon my Perfect Savior. And then, with fresh delight, I am reminded of my completely undeserved new beginning, new nature, new assessment, and the accompanying consequences. No longer is there any terror; only thanksgiving abounds. My Father is so kind and gentle, almost like a tender mother. My Savior is so perfect and loving; he will not crush a bruised child. The Holy Spirit is so powerful and effective; he is bringing to completion that begun by the Father and Son. Oh how gracious is God to the saint who still struggles with sin. And any discipline he sends my way, it is more discipleship than anything else. Sure, he hates my transgressions, and hard consequences still abound, but my Father is never angry towards me. He has poured out his anger on the Lamb of God. Yes, I still fear, but only for a moment, and then the Gospel causes me to shake and tremble with thoughts of thanksgiving delight. I find myself having a renewed desire to walk in holiness — not out of a sense of self-promotion or self-protection — but merely out of a renewed religious affection from the inside-out. I fear, but I fear shortly, differently, and delightfully, for it is a Gospel-based fear. I fear like one who has received immutable affection and eternal blessings from a proud Father, not like one who lives under contractual obligation with a strict and stern boss. The fear of the Lord’s is the beginning of wisdom, but delight in the Gospel is the end.
Therefore, friends who are not believers, I encourage you to tremble. You are not safe. Lightning bolts are all about you. God’s wrath is real. Hell is horrid. Why would you remain under the anger of God today and for all eternity? In the words of the older preacher, “Turn before you burn.” In the words of the Psalmist, “Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish.” (Psalm 2)
And friends who are believers, I encourage you to fear, but fear differently:
- Acknowledge your holy God.
- Acknowledge your satanic sin.
- Acknowledge your hellish deserved wages
- Acknowledge and rest in your Savior and his completed work
- Acknowledge your heavenly affection and wages you have been given
- Respond with Gospel thanksgiving and delight
- Respond with Gospel prayers longing for holiness from the inside-out
Start with fear and then preach the Gospel to yourselves one more time. The fear of the Lord is the foundational beginning of wisdom, but delighting in the Gospel is the end of all who know best their holy, holy, holy God.
Good and upright is the Lord; therefore he instructs sinners in the way. He leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way. All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness, for those who keep his covenant and his testimonies. For your name’s sake, O Lord, pardon my guilt, for it is great. Who is the man who fears the Lord? Him will he instruct in the way that he should choose. His soul shall abide in well-being, and his offspring shall inherit the land. The friendship of the Lord is for those who fear him, and he makes known to them his covenant. My eyes are ever toward the Lord, for he will pluck my feet out of the net. (Psalm 25:8-15)