Fear And Forgiveness

One of the things that has come up in exchanges with emergent thinkers, whether through blog posts, videos, or books, is the idea that God is not to be feared. Some believe this a la Rob Bell — hell isn’t God’s wrathful punishment on the unrepentant.

Others, a la Paul Young — God, as portrayed in The Shack, serves Man. (“I’m not a bully, not some self-centered demanding little deity insisting on my own way. I am good, and I desire only what is best for you. You cannot find that through guilt or condemnation or coercion, only through a relationship of love.”)

Another group, a la Mike Morrell — God is to be re-imaged as a learning, evolving being who himself repented of his violent nature and through Jesus preached love instead.

One commenter to a year-old post said, “And for the first time in my life, I no longer fear GOD…which is a huge step toward maybe coming to a place where I can trust GOD.”

That attitude stuck with me. Consequently, as I’ve read through the Old Testament, I’ve made mental notes of people’s response to God. What I noticed most was reverential fear.

The people of Israel, for example, were so afraid of God after He talked with them, they told Moses to be their intermediary from then on because they didn’t want to die! Others fell on their faces, some apparently became as dead men.

The fear of the Lord is a theme throughout the books of poetry, too. But none grabbed me more than this one:

But there is forgiveness with You,
That You may be feared.
– Psalm 130:4

That short verse contains the heart of God’s nature, I think. Yes, God is all powerful and will pour out His wrath on unrepentant sinners, but those who fear Him are the forgiven.

It is we who revere Him because we realize He is our lifeline, the enduring thread that holds us to His side. How can we but bow down and worship when the insurmountable debt we owed has been lifted from us to His scarred shoulders?

Might the unrepentant sinner also fear God? Perhaps in an angry, rebellious sort of way. The unrepentant sinner who believes in God may not see that He is just, that when He stands in judgment, His view of His creation is right and true. Consequently, a person who believes God to have the power to mete out punishment may not think it is fair of Him to do so.

This is not genuine fear, but imagined fear, more closely aligned to being afraid of the monster under the bed than the reverential terror described in Scripture when someone came face to face with God.

And yet …

The amazing thing is that God loves us. Which explains the forgiveness part. And the forgiveness causes the face-to-the floor response to God because of the wonder that such a Great Person could and would and did die for me.

Published in: on April 7, 2011 at 6:18 pm  Comments (13)  
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  1. The ones who feared God tended to be the believers and the repentant ones. The people like Pharaoh, the wicked kings of Israel, Belshazzar, etc, they never struck me as the “fearing” type.

    “Another group, a la Mike Morrell — God is to be re-imaged as a learning, evolving being who himself repented of his violent nature and through Jesus preached love instead.”

    That one STILL amazes me. I don’t think I’ve seen a more, shall we say, creative way to try to explain why the “wrathful God of the Old Testament” than this.


  2. explain away* the “wrathful God of the Old Testament” than this. Sorry, this blog does not offer an edit for spelling mistakes!


  3. Does God love us because He has forgiven us, or does He forgive us because He loves us?


  4. Bram,
    Romans 9 I think answers your question. (For the children being not yet born, neither having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works, but of him that calleth;) Later the ‘elect’ are called ‘beloved’.


  5. Jason, that’s what I realized, too. The people who stood in opposition to God knew nothing of His love and forgiveness. It really was a surprise to me. I hadn’t put the two together before.

    And don’t worry about the type/spelling issues. We all have them from time to time. I’ve hit the post button on comments before, then cringed as I saw my uncorrectable mistakes posted for all the world to see. 😆



  6. Bram, I’d add to what Bob says this verse: “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us (Rom. 5:8).

    God’s love is first. His forgiveness is born out of that love. Though as I type this, I realize both these — His love and His mercy — are part of His character and therefore a this-before-that breakdown may be spurious when talking about our eternal God.

    I’m curious why you ask.



  7. Becky,
    I like your choice of verse.

    The order of events for salvation have always been debated. I’m currently trying to sort where repentance falls. We hear ‘repent and believe’. Mustn’t I already have a changed heart to repent, and a work of mine (repentance) can’t add to salvation. Repentance must be a sign of salvation and not a condition.


  8. Thanks Jason! Creativity is one of God’s gifts. 🙂


  9. but those who fear Him are the forgiven.

    It seems to me that this text is the other way around: the forgiveness causes the fear, not vice versa. Perhaps what the Psalmist is getting at here (like Paul in Romans 1) is that by nature we defy God and seek glory for ourselves; only the forgiven have the proper reverence.


  10. At the risk of sounding like an Emergent person (which I am most definitely not) I have been very careful to back off the concept of using fear to sell any ideology.

    Of course, the problem is that we are using several different operational definitions of the word “fear” and people start getting their hackles up unnecessarily.

    This next part is also going to sound oogie, so I have to be very careful in parsing the language. (Here is where the internet does such dialogue a disservice.)

    I don’t think there is that much difference (i.e. any) between “the Old Testament God” and the “New Testament God.” But I do think there is a vast difference in the way we CAN approach GOD now than the Israelites et. al could approach God back then. The Bible is many things–inerrant, God-Breathed–but it is also the story of our journey from separateness back to fulfilled oneness with God. I think that’s why the narrative of the rent veil during the crucifixion is so key. Many of the things that the Righteous of the Old Testament had to do in order to broach a topic with God were taken care of by Jesus’ sacrifice.

    You mention this:
    The people of Israel, for example, were so afraid of God after He talked with them, they told Moses to be their intermediary from then on because they didn’t want to die!

    That’s a perfect example of what I’m talking about. Contrast that with Paul’s extensive writings about Jesus being our High Priest. We no longer have to fear God in that way.

    Snippets of other verses in the New Testament come to mind:

    –Hebrews 4:16 tells us to come BOLDLY to the throne of Grace

    –2 Timothy 1:7 says that God has NOT given us a spirit of FEAR AND TIMIDITY but one of power, love and self-control.

    –1 John 4:18 says: “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.”

    There seems to be a reactionary temptation among us of the more traditional “fuddy duddy” denominations (I always feel like the Emergents are laughing at some of us behind our backs, calling us old fogies for adhering to scripture) to emphasise the aspects of God covered in the Old Testament as proof that a beat-down is a comin’. There’s that little splinter of Johnathan Edwards and The Great Awakening that wants us to sell Salvation as an escape from God’s wrath as opposed to a coming-into-the-fullness that Grace truly is.

    Do I think God is to be feared? Reverentially, yes. To borrow from the oft-quoted Lewis’ description of Aslan–[God] isn’t safe. But [God] is Good. There is a mighty power there that dwarfs all of creation, that can unspeak everything in an instant. But instead made himself lower than the angels out of a love for us, so that we may be reconciled.

    On an unrelated note: I think the Shack is one of the worst pieces of drivel to ever be published. Unfortunately I worked for the woman who published it. Granted, we no longer worked together when she brought it to market. If we had I wouldve begged her not to.


  11. […] yesterday’s Fear And Forgiveness post I centered my thoughts on Psalm 130:4 which states that a purpose of God’s forgiveness […]


  12. You wrote:
    “The people of Israel, for example, were so afraid of God after He talked with them, they told Moses to be their intermediary from then on because they didn’t want to die!”

    I don’t know if this is a good example of “fear” for your argument, Rebecca. It is important to note in Exodus 19.10-13, the people are forbidden to go up the mountain until **after the long blast of the shofar/horn/trumpet**. I.e., *After* the long blast, it’s ok to go up the mountain.

    But, in Exodus 20.18ff, we see that after the trumpet has sounded, they refuse to go up the mountain. Even though God invites them to come closer up the mountain, they refuse because of their fear. God wanted to have EVERYONE come to Him in the cloud, but the people did not want to…; i.e. their “fear” was not based on respect but on something else, esp. since Moses in 20.20 labels this fear differently (do not be afraid) than a “fear of the LORD”.

    While I agree in some sense that fear = respect in some sense, the example you use is not appropriate for your argument. It seems that, even in Moses’ time, “fear” had a number of uses and some fear was good (i.e., respect) and some fear was bad (i.e., not trusting God or His invitation to ascend the mountain)….


  13. My fear of God is similar to the fear I have of the huge storms that come ripping through the midwest (where I currently live).

    Let me see if I can describe one: one time the clouds were forming so fast that it looked black ink was dripping into the sky, then spreading out much like ink does inside water. I’ve never seen clouds like that before. The wind was howling, lightning flashing like a strobe light and the boom from the thunder shaking the building I was in. I was both terrified and in absolute awe of the beauty and raw power I was seeing.

    That’s my fear of God. Terror and awe of the beauty and power of God. Yet I also know that God has the strongest, most gentlest of hands as he holds us through life. Power and love, beauty and terror. Amazing!


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