As a child, a friend of mine once told her mother that she was afraid of her dad. This perplexed her mother because her dad was a very loving father. He never did anything to hurt her or anyone in her family.
My friend shared that he was a big guy, and as a little girl, she sensed the power in his size, strength and authority. This man carried a presence that inspired a healthy love and respect. “It wasn’t that I thought he would ever do anything to hurt me,” she explained, “but that I knew he could.” Of course, what she meant was not that she had any reason for “fear” in a dreadful, anxiety-driven way, but that she had a great deal of respect for her father.
The Bible teaches us that “the fear the Lord is the beginning of all wisdom” (Proverbs 9:10). Like the analogy of a good earthly father, this type of fear refers to an attitude that acknowledges God’s authority, and yet knows His character as a loving, heavenly Father. To fear the Lord, in this correct sense, is to have a reverent, and humble love for Him, one that is yielded not in terror but in honor to God. In fact, scripture associates a biblical fear of God with friendship with Him (Psalm 25:14), confidence and refuge (Proverbs 14:26), and having His favor (Psalm 147:10-11), to name a few. Obedience is a result of the believer’s response to God’s love for him, and in never wanting to do anything to displease Him.
This is in contrast to the erroneous teaching that “fearing” the Lord is based on trying to be “good”, all the while dreading and expecting some kind of arbitrary cruelty when we fail. This type of teaching depicts that the Christian life is lived primarily trying to appease God or risk eternal punishment. Why would this view sometimes prevail in those who call themselves believers?
I believe that at the root of every misconception about God is a misunderstanding of the Gospel and an imbalance and misapplication of scripture. This type of fear-based teaching is no exception. At its core, it holds to three false assumptions:
- It denies the gospel of grace and teaches salvation by works
In striving to “do good or else”, we imply that salvation is dependent upon our good works and a necessary means to avoid eternal punishment. The Bible teaches that we are born in sin, and as such, we can do nothing to win God’s favor apart from Christ.
“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).
While works are a necessary evidence of salvation, they are in response to God’s grace, not a means to salvation itself. Matthew 7:16-23)
- It denies that God’s wrath was poured out on Jesus and satisfied at the cross
“Since, therefore, we have now been justified by His blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God” (Romans 5:9)
“In this is love, not that we have loved God but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10)
The wrath of God that we deserved was transferred to Christ when he died for our sins. While Christians have the capacity to displease God, we are no longer under eternal condemnation:
“God made Him who knew no sin to be sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God”. (2 Corinthians 5:21).
- It misunderstands the Christian’s attitude and relationship to God as His children
As God’s children, we rejoice that He does not deal with our sin as He will deal with a world that does not know Him. The difference is that the believer who sins is met with discipline, while the unbeliever faces judgement. Discipline involves correction for the better. Judgement is final; a ruling of which there is no hope.
In further contrast, there is a loving, redeeming intention to God’s discipline towards his children. It is never implemented without His purpose for our good and His glory. In fact, it is one of the ways we can know that we are His own. Hebrew 12:5-6 describes how we are to respond to His discipline:
“My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when He rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son.”
Does this mean that the sins of the believer is less serious than that of the unbeliever? Absolutely not! May we never fall into the equally grievous mistake of ever denying the rightful wrath of God. Though we deserve eternal fire, He has given the believer eternal life. May we never get flippant about our own sin and need for His mercy and grace. May we never take His forgiveness for granted or forget the warnings to our fellow man, lest they should perish.
Hebrews 10:31 says that “it is a frightening thing to fall in the hands of the living God”. We must examine our lives in light of this truth. While He has the right to judge and condemn the world in its sin, He has provided salvation to those who trust in Christ. As believers, this should be even more motivation to draw closer to Him in this life.