Should members of the Body of Christ in this dispensation of Grace experience fear? Does not perfect love cast out fear?
First, let it be noted that it was John, the apostle of the circumcision, and not Paul, who said, “Perfect love casteth out fear” (I John 4:18). This passage, therefore, affords little support for the argument that believers in this dispensation of Grace should know nothing of fear. But, furthermore, it was not even the fear of God that John had in mind when he wrote this passage. It was fear of persecution and suffering.
In the will of God the circumcision epistles were written especially for believers of a future day; those who will live in the time of judgment which will follow this period of grace, when the vials of God’s wrath will be poured out upon this Christ-rejecting world. Hence these epistles contain the information they do about the Antichrist, the tribulation, the “sin unto death,” etc.
It is during this time of upheaval and judgment, when Antichrist holds sway, when the worship of God and His Christ will be made so difficult, that perfect love will give boldness and cast out fear. Let us, in our minds, put ourselves in the places of these persecuted saints of the coming tribulation and see how beautifully this passage will fit their case:
“And we have known and believed the love that God hath to us. God is love; and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him.
“Herein is our love made perfect, that we may have boldness in the day of judgment: because as He is, so are we in this world.
“There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear: because fear hath torment. He that feareth is not made perfect in love” (I John 4:16-18).
The lesson here is also applicable to us, for in the measure that we dwell in love the fear of present trials and of coming judgment will be cast out.
But surely this passage does not teach that love will cast out all sense of fearing God, or of standing in awe of Him.
Indeed, Peter, another apostle of the circumcision, writing under the Spirit’s guidance for the same period of time, teaches a lesson which we also do well to learn. He says:
“And if ye call on the Father [Lit. “call on Him as Father”], who without respect of persons judgeth according to every man’s work, pass the time of your sojourning here in fear.
“Forasmuch as ye know that ye were not redeemed with corruptible things, as silver and gold, from your vain conversation received by tradition from your fathers;
“But with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot” (I Pet. 1:17-19).
It is indeed a stupendous thought that a holy God who, offended by sin, will judge without respect of persons, pouring out His wrath and casting into hell, has saved me—paying for my sins with the blood of His Son! To think what I have escaped, and how! To think that I may address the One who will judge sinners in His wrath, as Father! What emotions this should awaken in my heart! Mingled emotions of love and joy and gratitude on the one hand, and of fear and trembling on the other, as one who has been delivered from fearful destruction by God Himself at infinite cost.
Believers whose fear of God goes no deeper than an honorable respect have little conception of the infinite love that moved Him to save them. They understand little of the Cross. They know little of His grace.
Such might well be asked:
“Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
O, sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?”
The fear to which the Scriptures exhort us, then, is not the fear of an ill-treated slave or of a guilty criminal. It is not fear of persecution or suffering or even of punishment for sin. It is exactly what the term “fear of God” implies. It is the result of a deep appreciation of our own nothingness and of the infinite greatness and majesty of God. It stands opposed to pride and self-confidence. With it goes a natural fear to disobey or displease Him. This fear is not incompatible with grace.
We dare say that if the President of the United States should graciously invite one of our readers to dine with him at the White House, that reader would prepare for the visit with fear and trembling. And this is a democracy! Our reader’s fear would not spring from any concern over what the President might do to him. It would spring rather from an appropriate realization of the importance of the presidency, if not of the President himself. Nor would it be at all becoming if the reader, thus invited, were to become too familiar with the President and treat him as a “pal.” The fact that the President had invited the reader to dinner would be no excuse for his forgetting the dignity of the President’s position.
Is it strange then that we should be so often reminded in Scripture that the fear of God should characterize our attitude and behavior? True, our Lord deigned to call His disciples “my friends,” but this does not make it proper for us to speak of Him as “Friend Jesus.” We also read in Hebrews 2:11 that “He is not ashamed to call them brethren,” but this does not make it proper for us to speak of Him as “Brother Jesus” as some have done. In this dispensation of His grace, indeed He has given us a position at His own right hand as full grown sons, blessed with all spiritual blessings in the heavenlies in Christ. But this does not mean that we should forget or ignore our own unworthiness, or who it is that has bestowed these undeserved blessings upon us. Our relationship to God will prove all the more sacred when these facts are borne in mind, but once let us forget them and we will have nothing more than a theological dogma left, with all the sacredness and blessedness gone. Forget them and grace itself will have lost its meaning.
Missing the true, wonderful meaning of grace, many in our day have become intimate with God in the sense that they seem to feel they are His equals. They use His name and His Word in a frivolous manner; there is little reverence or humility in their study of the Scripture or in their prayer life. Little wonder they live the lives they do. There is no sacredness in such intimacy with God, nor is it the kind of intimacy He invites us to, nor is it even the kind of intimacy that will bring true joy and blessing to our lives.
The fear of God has always been coupled with true devotion and consecration to His Holy name. It has always tended toward godly living.
When Ananias and Sapphira would have broken down the divine order for their day they were stricken dead and “great fear came upon all the church” (Acts 5:11). The result was that “believers were the more added to the Lord, multitudes both of men and women” (Acts 5:14).
In Acts 9:31 we read that the churches of Judaea and Galilee and Samaria, “walking in the fear of the Lord, and in the comfort of the Holy Ghost, were multiplied.”
In Acts 10:2 we read that Cornelius was “a devout man” and “one that feared God with all his house.”
Many such passages could also be cited from Paul’s epistles, but we leave these for the remainder of our article.
PAUL AND THE FEAR OF GOD
Some who are lacking in this godly fear will argue that we have no right to draw these conclusions from passages in the gospels, the Acts and the circumcision epistles. We reply that this great lesson has been equally important in all dispensations. In all dispensations has it been fitting for finite men to stand in awe before an infinite God. In no dispensation has any other attitude been proper.
But as a matter of fact Paul, the great apostle of grace, has more to say about the fear of God than any other New Testament writer.
We remind our readers that it is he who says of the wicked: “There is no fear of God before their eyes” (Rom. 3:18). Can it be then that he would at the same time teach believers that they need have no fear of God before their eyes? True, he exhorts us to love and adore God for His grace, to trust Him and come with confidence into His presence, to accept and occupy our position in Christ and to walk as sons of God. But it does not follow that this exalted position gives us reason to walk in pride and self-confidence, for this position is not ours by inherent right or personal merit, but by grace. Hence the apostle exhorts us to,
“Walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called,
“With all lowliness and meekness, with long-suffering, forbearing one another in love” (Eph. 4:1,2).
True, Paul, by the Spirit, explains that we should not have the fear of a slave or the fear that after all our sins might yet be held against us, but it is a great blunder to ignore what he does say about the place of fear in the Christian life or to suppose that in this dispensation of Grace there is no place at all for fear among believers.
It is Paul who, in Romans 11:20, exhorts us, “BE NOT HIGH-MINDED, BUT FEAR.” It is Paul who, in Philippians 2:12, bids us, “Work out your own salvation with FEAR AND TREMBLING.” 1 It is Paul who, in Ephesians 5:21, beseeches us, “Submit yourselves one to another in the FEAR OF GOD.” It is he who, in Colossians 3:22, exhorts servants to serve their masters “in singleness of heart, FEARING GOD.”
The sad lack of discipline in the Church today is often defended on the ground that this is the dispensation of Grace and we must deal graciously with each other. Thus men of God frequently evade their plain responsibility and invite confusion and disorder in their midst. Yet it is Paul, the apostle of grace, who writes to Pastor Timothy:
“Them that [practice] sin rebuke before all, that others also may fear” (I Tim. 5:20).
To the Corinthians, whom Paul himself had had to rebuke for their laxity, the apostle writes,
“Having therefore these promises, dearly beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God” (II Cor. 7:1).
And commending them for the spirit in which they had taken his rebuke, he says,
“…what carefulness it wrought in you, yea, what clearing of yourselves, yea what indignation, yea, what fear, yea, what vehement desire, yea, what zeal, yea, what revenge! In all things ye have approved yourselves to be clear in this matter” (II Cor. 7:11).
It is concerning our appearance before “the judgment seat of Christ,” that the apostle again uses this word phobos. This time it is translated terror.
“Knowing therefore the terror of the Lord, we persuade men” (II Cor. 5:11).
The “judgment seat of Christ,” of course, is not to be confused with the Great White Throne where the lost will be judged for their sins. Our sins have already been judged at Calvary and we are assured that “There is therefore now no condemnation [judgment] to them that are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1).
But entirely apart from salvation there will come a time when believers will be rewarded for service accomplished. This will take place at the “bema” or judgment seat of Christ. This “bema” was taken from the competitive games at which the judges decided to whom the prizes should go, and is not necessarily associated with legal justice. This is clear from I Corinthians 3:12-15 where, bidding us to take care how we build upon the foundation he has laid, the apostle says,
“Now if any man build upon this foundation gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble;
“Every man’s work shall be made manifest: for the day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man’s work of what sort it is.
“If any man’s work abide which he hath built thereupon, he shall receive a reward.
“If any man’s work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved; yet so as by fire.”
Thus we have the promise that even the most unfaithful saint will still be saved, for salvation is wholly by the grace of God. But it will be a shameful and bitter experience for any child of God in that day to have to suffer loss while others gain rewards; to see his works go up in flames, as it were, while he himself is saved only as by fire; to have to stand disgraced and empty-handed before the One who gave His life’s blood to save him; to be told that he has done no real service to his fellowmen.
And mark well, this particular passage does not deal with those who do not work at all for God, but with those whose work cannot be approved, who do not build aright upon the foundation laid by Paul.
If this were taken to heart by men of God today they would not so soon sell the truth for a pulpit or human applause or freedom from a bit of persecution. If this were taken to heart they would have one great passion: to know the truth and to make it known faithfully.
In the light of the passage above, how important it is that we obey the injunction:
“Study to show thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth” (II Tim. 2:15).
This is why the apostle, by inspiration, warns,
“For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ; that every one may receive the things done in his body, according to that he hath done, whether it be good or bad.
“Knowing therefore the terror of the Lord, we persuade men…” (II Cor. 5:10,11).
May God awaken us to the reality of these things! May we see the danger of indulging in the pleasures of the world and of the flesh, of living for self, of neglecting the things of God. May many, even among our readers, reconsecrate themselves to the service of Christ in view of the day when we shall stand before Him to give an account.
The fear of God is not incompatible with grace. How can it be when Paul, the apostle of grace, has so much to say about it? A deeper appreciation of His grace, a deeper gratitude and joy, a more sacred love and adoration are the fruits of this godly fear.
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- Note, he does not say “work for” but “work out your own salvation.” ↩