There is an ugly reality in the hearts of many Christians – a thing that most wish not to be there. No, I am not talking about lust or adultery in the heart or covetousness or anything like that, although if truth be told, more of us than we would like to admit do struggle with those problems. I am talking about fear. Fear that paralyzes and immobilizes and robs us of the initiative to rise to noble heights of service and love. Fear that prevents us from reaching the heights of achievement in personal development and growth by learning and the consequent change that could come as we become more and more like Jesus our Lord and Savior.
We are taught to fear God, but that does not mean the cowering, shrinking, hiding in terror kind of fear that the Lord urges us not to have. In Matthew 8 there is found the account of the Lord calming the storm that threatened to swamp the little boat he and his disciples were in out on the Sea of Galilee. Jesus was asleep and the disciples in terror awoke him pleading with him to save them. Jesus rebuked not only the storm but his fearful disciples as well. “Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?” (vs. 26).
There is in this passage both a description and an explanation of the kind of fear that Christians should not allow to posses them. Jesus’ disciples were terrified. Jesus said their fear meant a lack of faith. When we possess this kind of fear it means we do not trust God. It means we have not learned to rely on him for the help he will unfailingly give.
In our previous post we asked; “So where does the wrong kind of fear come from? Certainly our Lord does not want us to have this kind of fear so it can’t come from him.” We noted in that post that the primary source of fear is the devil who plants uncertainty and doubt in our hearts. But there are numerous other ways he works his evil.
One of the most insidious and pervasive sources of fear is legalistic religion. This kind of teaching, unfortunately, permeates many different religious groups. It is the fear that Peter had when Paul had to rebuke him over in Galatians 2. After the gospel had gone to the Gentiles in Antioch, Peter visited these new brothers. But when some of the legalistic Jewish brethren (Paul called them “false brethren”) came from Jerusalem Peter was afraid of offending them or of a possible confrontation with them and distanced himself from the new Gentile converts “fearing the circumcision party” (vs. 12). Paul said he “opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned” (vs. 11). Peter wasn’t a legalistic Judiazer but legalism was what was behind his fear. It was a fear of disapproval or criticism or confrontation with the legalists.
Fear is one of the manifestations of legalism – the idea that one must obey law perfectly in order to be right with God. Legalism views God in much the same way as idolaters view their gods. In order to get the blessing one sought from the idol he had to perform the ritual precisely. One slip up and he had to start all over – or risk the wrath of the god.
When God is viewed in this way it tends to cause people to see him as angry, vengeful and uncaring about human beings – the same as the idols. Thinking of God in this way only exacerbates the fear. One lives constantly under a cloud of doubt that they can ever do enough to please God. If God is like that, then there is never any way to be absolutely certain of our standing before him. One is always at the bottom of a dark hole, clawing and trying to climb out but knowing they can never do enough to get out of the trap they are in.
There is the other extreme of legalism and that is an egotistical certainty that one knows perfectly what God requires and that he has fulfilled all divine expectations. This is seen in the arrogant boastfulness of the Pharisee of whom Jesus spoke in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14).
The problem with legalism is that there is no room for grace. Grace and legalism are mutually exclusive. According to the legalistic point of view man has to perform perfectly – or die. God will only approve a perfect performance. But grace allows for the certainty of man’s shortcomings. Without grace no one would be saved because no one is perfect. A true understanding of grace does not do away with faithful obedience – it simply acknowledges that without God’s forgiveness and continuing help we could never be pleasing in his sight.
Our obedience is our faith responding in love to the Father’s love and grace. We respond with a sincere desire to do what the Father wants us to do – and that with a healthy respect (or fear) for God, but knowing at the same time the loving, forgiving, saving concern he has for his children. And that awareness alleviates the anxiety and fear that comes from legalistic religion.
Talking about grace to a person who believes in a legalistic approach to religion creates fear in their heart. The legalist is afraid of grace and so takes a very narrow view of what grace is and what grace allows. He is afraid that grace will be perceived as license to do as one pleases so he must “fence” grace in with all kinds of warnings and precautions. “Grace is not…” Grace doesn’t mean…” and on and on.
There is, of course, the possibility of people abusing the grace of God. Grace isn’t a catch-all to excuse laxness in morals or doctrine, but neither is is a shrunken, reluctantly given thing. God was fully aware of how some people would perceive his goodness but that didn’t prevent him from giving us the greatest gift imaginable. And having given that gift, he was also aware that many people would abuse it with the mistaken belief that since he had been so good to us when we were in sin that surely we can continue in sin that he might continue to be good to us as it seems some may have been arguing in Rom. 6:1. Of course we can’t presume upon the goodness of God to do anything we want. His grace obligates us to live according to his expectations for us (Rom. 6:2).
But the truth about grace is that it is far better than man expects. Jesus told a parable once to illustrate this point. He told about a man who went out early in the morning to hire laborers to work in his vineyard, agreeing to pay them the standard daily wage. As the day wore on he continued to hire workers up until just one hour before “quitting time.” At the end of the day he gathered all the workers and paid them each the same amount. Those who had worked one hour received the same as the ones who had worked twelve hours. Needless to say these latter folk were upset that those who had only worked one hour had received as much as they. But the master said to them, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong” and points out that they had agreed to what they had received. Besides, he said, it was his money and he was free to do with it what he pleased.
This, Jesus said, is what the kingdom of heaven is like. It is better than we ever dreamed – much better! We who are saved are all like the ones who came in at the eleventh hour and are paid a full day’s wage. We didn’t earn it. It is a gift based not on our own work but upon the goodness of the Master.
No, grace isn’t a cause for fear. When properly understood it becomes a means of overcoming fear. Grace means that God comes alongside us to help us and to see that we succeed in everything he asks of us. Paul wrote …
2 Corinthians 9:8 “And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work.”
There is in grace a ground for confidence that expels fear. Grace gives us the calm assurance that no matter what we may face in life that God is there to lift us up and enable us to stand. Peter wrote …
1 Peter 5:10 “And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.”
Legal exactitude cannot impart his assurance. It is only through grace that we can have this “Blessed Assurance” that gives us calm repose and stills our anxious hearts in the dark nights when we are alone with ourselves and most aware of our human limitations and failures. Truly, God’s grace is amazing!