In Nomine Iesu. Amen 13 Therefore, preparing your minds for action,[a] and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. 14 As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, 15 but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, 16 since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” 17 And if you call on him as Father who judges impartially according to each one’s deeds, conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile, 18 knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, 19 but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot.
“We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” Those are the famous words of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, or FDR as he affectionately came to be known by the American people. In the depths of the Great Depression, when people everywhere feared for their lives and their livelihoods, when times were lean, hunger was great, money was little, and work was scarce, FDR spoke these iconic words at his inaugural address, words that inspire the American people to this day. “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” It is perhaps because of words such as these that fear has come to take on such a negative connotation in the globalized society of today. Fearful people are despised; confident, fearless people are admired. Fearful people are not self-confident, fearful people are somehow imperfect, they need to approach their fears, take them to a psychologist and deal with them, or – they should be ashamed of them. Fearlessness, on the other hand, has come to be idolized as the mark of courage, strength, and determination. The only thing true heroes should fear is fear itself.
That’s all good and well, but you run into a problem pretty quickly when you start reading the Bible. Because it keeps talking about “the fear of the Lord.” The funny thing is that even though it is still common to speak of faithful Christians as “God-fearing people,” the whole notion of fearing God seems to have become downright unpopular. It would seem that the fear of fear and nothing else has been adopted and quasi-baptized by much of generic Protestant Christianity today, to the point that preachers who speak about ‘fearing God’ can expect to be challenged on the issue. I remember very clearly one Sunday, after speaking about the first commandment “we should fear, love and trust in God above all things” – it says it there, right, “we should fear… God” that I had a congregation member come up to me afterwards and try to argue me out of it. “No pastor, that’s Old Testament theology… We should not fear God. Christ has liberated us from fear. We Christians don’t need to fear God. We should love God. Doesn’t it say in 1 John 4: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.” (V.18) So you see, pastor, you shouldn’t talk about fearing God like that. All we need to do is love God.” Well, what do you say to that? In many ways, I am glad that this member talked to me, because now I have a much better idea of what many other people are thinking. Their thinking is expressed in the other common phrase: “I’ll put the fear of God into you!” It’s the idea that the fear of God is the fear of hellfire and destruction, the primal fear of the ontological scream, that the fear of God is for wicked reprobates only, that fear really has no place in the true Christian faith for the forgiven child of God. Why should you fear your Father? And after all, doesn’t 1 John 4 back this up?
Now, as interesting as it would be to look at this issue from the perspective of Freudian or Jungian psychology, as helpful as it might be to approach it from the perspective of modern childraising techniques and a history of sociological thought, we simply do not have the leisure to do that. We also face a few far more immediate problems. For one thing, Luther speaks in his explanation to the First Commandment about fearing and loving God in the same breath. Also, the New Testament itself speaks about the fear of God, and in ways that take nothing away from the severity of the Old Testament verses on the issue. We need think only of Matthew 10 where Jesus says: Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell, or perhaps the Lukan parallel where Jesus says: But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him!
Dear saints, this is not just hyperbole, not just a figure of speech. The New Testament also directs you to fear God, and it does so not least here in 1 Peter 1:. Peter’s argument is rather straightforward. He says: Remember whom you worship. You are obedient children, he says; but whosechildren are you? Remember that you are children of the Holy God. His holiness means that he is indeed perfect, wholly different to any false god or idol in this world. Remember also that He is not satisfied with His own holiness, but that He calls you to be holy also, just as He is holy. You too are to be different, set apart, pure and whole like He is, you too are to be perfect – and this applies to your entire conduct, He says. You call Him Father – good! Remember who He is! You call on Him as Father who judges impartially according to each one’s deeds. God judges you on the basis of His perfect holiness. And that is why, says Peter, you have reason to conduct yourselves with fear. Now when you look at yourself in the mirror of the Law, you will find that your conduct is marred, flawed, and thus entirely unholy. If Peter had stopped here, you would have no hope. You would be left in abject terror of the Holy One of Israel, the God of Luther’s nightmares, the God before whom Luther shivered and shook, trembled and quivered, whom he could never appease with his own acts of righteousness. You would be left with the angry, wrathful God who destroyed the earth with the flood and who made the earth open up its mouth to swallow Korah, Dathan, Abiram, and all the wicked people who subscribed to their rebellion, and their fate would be yours, your end theirs. Reason for fear indeed, as natural religion proves.
Thanks be to God, this is not where Peter stops. Christ has the last Word. And so Peter goes on to speak of Christ. Now, to preempt Peter, this does not mean that the Christian need no longer fear God. And by the way, that is not what 1 John 4 says either. No, it simply means that your fear is qualified. You see, the Bible frequently speaks of a fear of God that is very proper for the believer, in fact, that is most necessary to have: The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, the key to wisdom. This does not mean to be afraid of God, like Luther was for a time, in the sense of terror and dread, but rather the fear of reverence and awe and worship and trust, the being cognizant of who God has revealed Himself to be as you live the life of faith, a humble appreciation and awareness of your place before God. Fear the Lord, you His saints, for those who fear Him have no lack! (Ps. 34)
Now what gives you the right to fear God in this way, instead of shivering before Him in abject terror and existential dread? It is, as Peter says, the fact that the demands of God’s perfect holiness have been perfectly met in Christ, the perfect offering, the perfect Lamb of God, without blemish or defect. It is because forgiveness is yours in the blood of Christ that you may reverently fear God as the holy judge of righteousness, for you know that Christ’s righteousness is yours in baptism, that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers – bought, paid for in full, redeemed out of, purchased away from, acquired, procured, obtained, ransomed away from heathen beliefs, from the love of sinning, from pagan errors, from idolatry, from ancestral spirits, from primal fears, from fear of the unknown and fear of the unknown God, from fear of being loyaed and from curses and from pointing and the evil eye, from fear of powerful evil spirits and those who serve them. Those things you serve no longer, and you need fear no longer. No, you have been bought out of them – not with the diamonds of Cullinan and Kimberly, not with the bullion of the reserve bank, but with something far pricier, in fact, with the most expensive currency this universe will ever know: The blood of God. Luther writes: “Just one drop of this innocent blood would have been more than enough for the sin of the whole world. Yet the Father wanted to pour out His grace on us so abundantly and to spend so much that He let His Son Christ shed all His blood and gave us the entire treasure.” So the treasure of the church then is not the superabundant works of Mother Theresa and the saints, but the priceless blood of Christ, yours for the believing and the covering.
“Therefore,” continues Luther, the Lord “does not want us to make light of and think little of such great grace; but He wants us to be moved to conduct ourselves with fear, lest this treasure be taken away from us.” This fear is therefore more than appropriate for the baptized believer who receives the righteousness of Christ. Fearing God is the beginning of wisdom, fearing God is by God’s grace the keeping of the first commandment, fearing God goes hand in hand with loving God and trusting in Him above all things. No matter what the culture or what popular Christian culture might say, the Lord still looks for, enables, and approves of God-fearing Christians. Taking FDR out of context, we would have to say that “We have nothing to fear but fear itself” is incorrect. Rather, by the grace of God, by the blood of Christ, by the love of the selfless Lamb, you may fear God in reverence and faith and confidently say: “Whoever fears God has nothing to fear.” Amen.
Soli Deo Gloria – Pastor Karl Böhmer