Modern man does not like to think of God in terms of wrath, anger and judgment. He likes to make God according to his own ideas and give God the characteristics he wants Him to possess. Man tries to remake God to conform to his own wishful thinking, so that he can make himself comfortable in his sins.
Key point: Fearing God is a first step toward being made right with Him.
The Protestant Reformation, which we have discussed in recent posts, has countless lessons for believers today. In this article, I’d like to hone in on five, all of which are related.
With a retelling of Martin Luther’s conversion story as a backdrop, we’ll make some fresh observations. You can access a brief account of Luther’s spiritual journey here.
Against the historical historical and biographical backdrop of Martin Luther’s journey to peace with God, I’d like to highlight five principles that ring true down through the centuries to our day.
A Diligent Search and a Priceless Discovery
First, Martin Luther’s salvation experience is a testimony to the principle we see so clearly in Jeremiah 29:13. God declared to his people, You “will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart.”
And you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart.
—the Lord to His people in Jeremiah 29:13—
We should understand that this verse is part of a message God sent through Jeremiah to “the remainder of the elders who were carried away captive—to the priests, the prophets, and all the people whom Nebuchadnezzar had carried away captive from Jerusalem to Babylon” (Jer. 29:1). Even so, it is not an unreasonable stretch to see in verse 13 an application with regard to salvation and forgiveness of sins. Similarly, Isaiah 55:6-7 states,
6 Seek the Lord while He may be found,
Call upon Him while He is near.
7 Let the wicked forsake his way,
And the unrighteous man his thoughts;
Let him return to the Lord,
And He will have mercy on him;
And to our God,
For He will abundantly pardon.
Fearing God Is a Key Step to Finding Him
Second—and we must not miss this point—Martin Luther sought peace with God because he was afraid of Him. He knew he was a sinner destined for hell and was compelled to search desperately for divine forgiveness and peace. Luther’s good and noble works didn’t resolve his situation one bit; but all the confessions, prayers, acts of penitence, occasions of fasting, and other disciplines indicated just how earnest he was. Honoring Luther’s search, God, in His grace and mercy, brought Martin to a clear understanding of the liberating truth about salvation. No one can earn it. Rather, it is a free gift received by relying on Christ and the sufficiency of His substitutionary death to pay the penalty for one’s sins. The key verse for Luther in this revelation, as we have seen, was Romans 1:17. In this verse, Paul quoted from Habakkuk 2:4: “The just shall live by his faith.”
Third, the American evangelical church today, as we indicated in items 6, 7, and 86 of our 95 Theses for the Protestant Evangelical Church in the 21st Century, tends to present a lopsided view of God.
- The church has emphasized God’s love to the point of effectively neglecting his holiness and wrath.
- The church says very little about hell, yet hell is very real.
- The church, through a variety of actions and inactions, promotes the idea that God can be approached in a thoroughly casual fashion. Note that this failure is not tied exclusively to music styles or lyrics.
In using the word casual in this last point, I am not at all arguing against the principle that sinners must come as they are to God, with all of their sin, and rely fully on Jesus’ death and the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit for cleansing. I am saying we must never take God’s grace for granted (see Isa. 1:18; John 3:5-8; 1 Tim. 2:5; Rom. 2:4; 1 Pet. 3:18).
Many people say, “God is a God of love who never would send anyone to hell.” Where have they gotten this idea? Ultimately, it is a lie from Satan, but regardless of the avenues through which Satan propagates this distortion, the church seems to make little or no effort to correct it, even among its own people. Yes, God is a God of love, but He also is a holy and just God who must punish sin (go here and here).
Bad News; Good News
Believers, both individually and corporately, need to present the truth about God’s love and holiness. Yet—and this is our fourth point—we seem to have failed to understand that the good news of the gospel can be seen for how wonderful it is only against the backdrop of its bad news about sin, accountability to a holy God, and certain judgment. Again, God is holy and perfect, and He must judge sin. As we say in our presentation of how to become a Christian, “While we might not think of our violations as being all that extreme, even the smallest infraction in our eyes is enough to make us guilty before God. The penalty for sin is death—and not just physical death, but spiritual death, eternal separation from God forever (see Matt. 7:23; 25:41,46; see these verses in context here; also see Rom. 6:23).”
Oh, we don’t like this! Christian apologist Greg Koukl explains,
[For one thing, t]he notion of a “vengeful” God strikes us as inconsistent with a God of love. This seems right at first, but the complaint is based on a misunderstanding. God’s love is not a thing in itself, so to speak, but is tied, like all of his attributes, to his goodness, the very goodness we are inclined to question when evil runs rampant. “Why doesn’t God do something?” we wonder. Yet we cry foul when we learn God will do something decisive about evil and we are the evildoers.”1
Later in his book, Koukl shows how God’s love, God’s wrath, and Jesus’ death are intertwined.
Jesus came to earth to save sinners. The statement is so common to our ears, it is easy to miss its significance. Save means to “rescue from imminent danger.” Jesus came to rescue us because we were in danger. What was the danger? What was Jesus rescuing from? Here is the answer. Jesus did not come to rescue us from our ignorance or our poverty or our oppressors or even from ourselves. Jesus came to rescue us from the Father.2
Remember, the King is angry. He is the one who is offended. He is the one who is owed. He is the Sovereign we have rebelled against, the father we have disobeyed, the friend we have betrayed. And that is a dangerous place for us to be. Jesus said, “Do not fear those who kill the body, but are unable to kill the soul, but rather fear him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” Later in the Story we learn, “It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”3
But we’d much rather talk about God’s love—and that’s what we do! While the Church in the 16th century made the mistake of emphasizing God’s wrath over His love (and didn’t really talk about His wrath in full accordance with biblical teaching), the church today is making the opposite mistake. We do need to talk about God’s love, but in the context of a proper emphasis on His justice and wrath.
Let’s learn a lesson from history. Despite all the distortions of biblical truths about God for which the Church in Martin Luther’s day was responsible, Luther was right to fear Him. In the end, he benefited from this fear because God used it to help him discover the truth that ultimately set him free.
Advocating a Healthy Fear of God
Let me be clear. I am not advocating or affirming the view of God that prevailed in 16th-century Europe. I am saying the church needs to rediscover a healthy fear of God. This is our fifth point.
“But God’s kindness leads us to repentance!” someone might say, citing Romans 2:4—and he or she would be right. Even so, the context for this verse conveys in unambiguous terms that God is holy and divine judgment is certain.
That isn’t all. Read these verses carefully.
- The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom. A good understanding have all those who do His commandments.His praise endures forever” (Psalm 111:10).
- The fear of the LORD isthe beginning of knowledge,
But fools despise wisdom and instruction (Prov. 1:7).
- The fear of the LORD isthe beginning of wisdom,
And the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding (Prov. 9:10).
In each of these verses, the same Hebrew word is used for the English word fear.
May the church rediscover, preach, and proclaim a healthy fear of Almighty God!
A quick review:
- Martin Luther’s salvation experience is a testimony to the principle we see so clearly in Jeremiah 29:13. God declared to his people, You “will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart.”
- Martin Luther sought peace with God because he was afraid of Him.
- The American evangelical church today tends to present a lopsided view of God. Its emphasis on God’s love overshadows any affirmation of His holiness and wrath.
- The church apparently has failed to understand that the good news of the gospel can be seen for how wonderful it is only against the backdrop of its bad news about sin, accountability to a holy God, and certain judgment.
- The church the church needs to rediscover and preach a healthy fear of God.
Copyright © 2017 by B. Nathaniel Sullivan. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, Scripture has been taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Scriptures marked NASB are taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE®, Copyright © 1960,1962,1963,1968,1971,1972,1973,1975,1977,1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.
1Gregory Koukl, The Story of Reality: How the World Began, How It Ends, and Everything Important that Happens in Between, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017), 97.
2At this point, Koukl provides this clarification in a footnote: “Jesus saves us from the Father, but His intention is not at odds with the Father since it was the Father who out of love, sent Jesus to rescue the world in the first place.”
3Koukl, 117. Scripture quotations are from Matthew 10:28 and Hebrews 10:31, respectively, New American Standard Bible.
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