Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Fear and Fear Not

               I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do.  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!  Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies?  And not one of them is forgotten before God.  Why, even the hairs of your head are all numbered.  Fear not, you are of more value than many sparrows.
                                                                            Luke 12:4-7
               No transition, no explanation, no harmonization.  In this passage, it looks like Jesus has flat-out contradicted himself.  Fear.  Fear not.  What is one to do?  Jesus has said weird things before, but at least they made sense; this saying makes no sense; it both warns and comforts, telling listeners to be afraid of God and to fearlessly trust Him.  Has Jesus gone off the deep end?  Is He just trying to confuse His disciples?
               At first glance, the easy way to explain this passage would be to say that Jesus is telling His followers to fear the Devil but to put their trust in God.  But this is clearly an incorrect reading; Satan certainly seeks to destroy God's people but he has no authority; he can only go so far as God permits him.  The Devil certainly does not have "authority to cast into hell," for he himself is cast into the pit.  No, the one with the authority to condemn to hell, who Jesus warns his listeners to fear, is none but God Himself.
                               So how can this be, that we must fear and not fear God, cower from Him and yet trust in Him?  This tension exists not only in this passage; we hear Old Testament believers commanded again and again to fear God, and Peter exhorts New Testament saints to do the same (1 Peter 2:17).  Yet the angels who announce the incarnation cry "Do not be afraid" (Luke 1-2); Jesus, after He has calmed the storm, asks His disciples, "Why are you so afraid?" (Mark 4:40); and John writes that "Perfect love casts out fear" (1 John 4:18).  So this is the tension of our relationship to God in Scripture.  We are to fear and fear not.  Love fully and be fully afraid.  This tension is summed up perfectly in Luther's explanation of the first commandment, that we must "fear, love, and trust in God above all things."
                This contradiction can only be explained if we learn to properly divide Law and Gospel.  For although it seems ridiculous to both fear and love God, the precious doctrine of Law and Gospel makes us realize how this is both possible and salutary.  Let us consider briefly the above passage, in which Jesus exhorts His listeners to both fear and not fear God.  The first part of this saying is Law.  Christ warns his disciples not to fear the wrath of men, who can kill with an earthly blow, but rather to fear the wrath of God, who commands both soul and body.  Because of our sins, we must fear the wrath of God, for He is just; He hates sin, and evil cannot stand in His presence.  It is as if Jesus had said, "Do not fear the displeasure and wrath of men; they are displeased about many things and able to punish on account of their displeasure, but the harshest wound they can inflict is an earthly death.  Rather, fear the displeasure of God, who sees your sins and knows your heart.  He is perfectly just, but you are sinful and deserving of His eternal wrath.  Therefore, fear Him!"
                 This saying rightly strikes fear into the human spirit, infusing us with anxiety and cutting to our hearts.  Like the Jews in Jerusalem listening to Peter's sermon, we shudder at this word and ask, "What shall we do?" (Acts 2:37).  But Jesus, having struck at His listeners with the Law, does not delay but immediately follows up with the good news of the Gospel to free us from the Law.  Christ turns the previous saying on its head; He has already reminded us that God, who knows everything, is to be feared because He has the authority to condemn body and soul.  But now He tells us also that God, being conscientious of all things, will not forsake us but will be ever watchful of our well being, and therefore we must trust in Him.  What?  Did Jesus not just say that God's power and omniscience ought to strike fear into our hearts?  Why, now, does He declare the same qualities to provoke love, trust, and fearlessness?  Ah, it is because this fear, far from driving us away from God, causes us to seek the salvation that can only be found in Him.  The Law rightly frightens us, but, when followed by the Gospel, drives us straight into the loving arms of our savior, Jesus Christ.  The very God whom you once rightly feared, says Jesus, will yet soothe your fears and provide for all your needs, as He once again repeats later in chapter 12: "Consider the ravens, they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them.  Of how much more value are you than the birds!" (Luke 12:24)
                  It is no accident, therefore, that Christ uses the analogy of the birds to illustrate the fearless trust God desires us to have in Him.  We, while we still strive to appease God and to make ourselves right with him through our deeds, ought to fear Him, for He sees each one of our deeds and knows that every one of our sins is deserving of hell.  But when like the birds we cease our fruitless efforts; when, by the grace of God, we trust in Him alone and not in our works, then there is no fear, for God forgives all of our sins by His grace and provides all that we need for both body and soul.  It is as if Jesus had said, "The very same one, however, who has authority to destroy body and soul also has authority and power to preserve them.  Your works can only merit destruction, but through faith you can be saved, as the sparrows, living not by works, but by trust, are protected by their Maker."
                  For we cannot save ourselves by our works, but only Christ's perfect works - His sinless life, atoning death, and triumphant resurrection - can accomplish salvation and ensure that we, God's precious sheep, will be fed with the Bread of Life and clothed with the Robe of Righteousness.  When we grow complacent or self-righteous, tempted to trust in ourselves, the Law inspires fear in us, but that fear drives us, not to despair, but to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the one who takes us under his wings and drives away our doubt and anxiety.  For it is not our imperfect love, but His perfect love that truly casts out fear, for

In Christ alone
My hope is found,
He is my light, my strength, my song.
This cornerstone,
This solid ground,
Firm through the fiercest drought and storm.
What heights of love,
What depths of peace,
When fears are stilled,
When strivings cease,
My comforter,
My all in all,
Here in the love of Christ I stand.

Luther Quotation from Luther's Small Catechism, published by Concordia Publishing House, hymn quotation from "In Christ Alone" by Keith Getty and Stuart Townend.

No comments:

Post a Comment