Is There a Place for Fear and Trembling?
What’s your gut reaction when you hear words like fear and trembling? Is it primarily negative or positive? What should it be? Are fear and trembling fitting emotions for those who trust in Jesus? After all, what do we have to fear?
On the one hand, the Bible often speaks of fear in a negative way. In Acts 24, Paul was preaching to Felix, and the text says that as “[Paul] reasoned about righteousness and self-control and the coming judgment, Felix trembled…” (Acts 24:25). And why not? Felix wasn’t saved. And the Bible says that “It’s a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:31)
On the other hand, this same Paul tells the Philippian Christians, who did trust in Christ, to “work out [their] own salvation with fear and trembling, (Phil. 2:12). So apparently not every kind of fear and trembling is sub-Christian. In fact, it would seem that a certain kind of fear and trembling is uniquely Christian.
To take another example. John tells us clearly in 1 John 4:17,
By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world. 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. (1 John 4:17–18)
There is a kind of fear that has to do with punishment; a fear that will keep us from having confidence for the day of judgment. That kind of fear needs to be cast out—and the way to do it is to grow in love for God.
On the other hand, the Apostle Peter sounds a different note in 1 Peter 1:17—not a contradictory note or a dissonant note, but a different note, when he says,
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…” (1 Peter 1:17–19)
The God you call on is a God who judges impartially according to each one’s deeds. So how should that make you feel and live? Answer: You should conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile—i.e. during your time on earth.
Now notice—it’s not that Peter is contradicting John. He’s not saying that we should live in mortal terror because we can never know if we’re saved. No, he says right here that this is a fear that addresses God as Father! ‘If you call on him as Father, you should conduct yourselves with fear.’ It’s a sonly fear, not a slavish fear. The rest of the verse says “Conduct yourselves with fear…knowing that you were ransomed—redeemed—set free by the blood of Christ!”
So this is clearly not the kind of fear that John is condemning in 1 John 4. Yet Peter still calls it “fear,” and he still connects it to the final judgment. And in that he sounds different than John.
This is the challenge we face as we ponder the question, What should we as Christians expect at the final judgment? How should we feel about it? Is there any sense in which fear and trembling are appropriate? Will our sins be brought up or exposed for any reason? If not, how do we explain the verses that seem to say yes? And if so, how does that not make us dread Christ’s appearing instead of loving it?
These sorts of questions don’t yield easy answers. So we as ponder them together, I want us to keep the following advice in mind.
Giving the Bible Functional Authority
In a recent blog post, I mentioned John’s Piper advice for “How to Give the Bible Functional Authority in Your Speech and Writing.” Piper’s rule was this: anytime you’re about to say or write something that is debatable, you need to ask yourself two questions first:
1) Is there any passage in the Bible that supports what I’m about to say?
2) Is there any passage in the Bible that sounds contrary to what I’m about to say?
So imagine you’re going to preach 1 John 4:17-18. You have a text that clearly says that if we’re loving God, then we should have confidence for the day of the judgment, and not fear punishment. That’s wonderful. You should preach that! But before you empty the day of judgment of all judgment whatsoever, you need to bear in mind texts like 1 Peter 1:17 that sound a different note. Other texts tell us that we’re going to appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil (2 Cor. 5:10). Other texts even speak of a person being saved on the final day, but suffering loss because he had built with wood, hay, and stubble (1 Cor. 3:10-15).
And of course, as you interpret those verses, you need to bear in mind that there really is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:1), lest we empty the gospel of its sin-forgiving power and the second coming of its joy-giving hope.
Why It Matters
This is the method I mean to follow in the next two posts, and the challenge I would urge all of us to take up. Give the Bible functional authority in thinking and speaking and teaching. Don’t just pick the verses you’re comfortable with and run with them while ignoring the texts that don’t make sense to you. Because all of us have verses that we’re more comfortable than with than others. Verses that make more sense to us. Verses that ring truer to our experience.
For example, the Apostle Paul refers to himself as “the chief of sinners.” (1 Tim. 1:15) He’s candid about his own struggles, admitting “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing” (Rom. 7:19). Most of us would read statements like these and say, “Yeah, I get that! That’s me all over.”
But here’s the thing—that same Apostle Paul also said things like, “You [Thessalonians] are witnesses, and so is God, of how holy, righteous and blameless we were among you…” (1 Thess. 2:10 NIV). And “join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us.” (Philippians 3:17 ESV)
I suspect fewer of us would identify with those verses. Not only would most of us never dream of speaking that way, we might even rebuke someone we heard speaking that way. We might think to ourselves, “There’s a guy that doesn’t know his own heart. He must not believe in total depravity. Besides, he should pointing people to Christ, not to his own weak example!”
The problem is that these verses are in the Bible, too. They’re even written by the same man! But they sound different, don’t they? “I’m the chief of sinners,” and “I’m a good example.” How can the same person hold such thoughts together in his head? The answer isn’t simple. So if we’re not careful, we can end up just picking the verses we like better and leaving the others unexamined. It’s easier than working to see how they fit together.
But that’s the thing—giving the Bible functional authority means doing the hard work. It means asking the hard questions instead of just firing off easy answers. It means being patient and prayerful and digging down beneath both sets of texts to find the underlying unity.
So that’s the challenge that we face as we look at the question, What should we as Christians expect the final judgment? As we give the Bible functional authority, I believe it will yield two answers.
- We should expect to be saved, and that should make us confident.
- We should expect to be examined, and that should make us diligent.
We’ll deal with each one in a separate post…