by Al Maxey

Issue #473 ------- January 27, 2011
There is no greater hell
than to be slave to fear

Ben Jonson {1572-1637}

The Fear of the Lord
Should the Disciples of Christ
be Fearful of their Father?

A dear brother-in-Christ from the beautiful state of Colorado (where both my wife and my middle son were born) recently sent me the following email --- "Bro. Al, I have just what you need today: another topic to write about! Seriously, I have long felt that I was not getting the proper impact from the phrase 'the fear of the Lord.' Of course, the 'standard' answer has been that it means 'respect.' However, I feel that there must be some element of 'fear and trembling' in this phrase. I, and perhaps many others, would genuinely love to hear your insights on the phrase 'the fear of the Lord.' Peace and Grace to you!"

Fear is a legitimate human emotion given to us by our Creator, and it serves us well as part of our "defensive shield" against a great many very real dangers that may threaten our personal survival. Humans, along with most other cognitive living creatures, have a built in defense mechanism that sounds a loud, urgent warning when that creature's life is perceived to be in jeopardy. Some such fears are abnormal (which are generally classified somewhat negatively as "phobias"), such as a fear of dust or of butterflies or of the color red, fears that can be debilitating, and which may require extensive therapy to overcome, whereas other fears are very much legitimate and even in our best interests to heed, such as a fear of falling when we are too close to the edge of a high cliff (a fear which may compel us to back away to a safer distance). The Scriptures speak of a great many different types of fears that men may experience during the course of their lives. These are simply a normal part of our human nature and are not in and of themselves a negative emotional experience, although they can quickly become such if we permit such fears to gain mastery over our lives.

When examining the concept of fear, especially as it relates to man's perception of God, there are several things that must be considered. First, the words employed for "fear," in both the OT and NT writings, have a rather wide semantic range. In other words, they may convey vastly different concepts depending on the context within which they are used. Absolute terror, or a healthy respect, or even a deep sense of reverence and awe, are all suggested by these words, and each may be a legitimate emotion, in light of differing contextual circumstances, when the mere creature is confronted by the Creator! Second, which of these understandings and applications of the terms might apply will be greatly impacted by the nature of the relationship to deity of the being in question! For example, when facing God, the difference between terror and reverence will have much to do with whether one is a child of God or an enemy of God. Thus, studying "the fear of God" is not quite as simple a study as one might imagine; indeed, it can be rather complex, as there are a great many factors that must be considered when considering the meaning of each individual passage in which this phrase appears. "The notion of fear ranges from terror, which may be evidenced by shaking or trembling, to awe or reverence, which induces love or worship rather than terror. That these two extremes are not contradictory is suggested by instances of the same word being translated by both extremes" [International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 2, p. 289].

In general, the expression "the fear of the Lord" ("the fear of God") denotes the qualities of one who is in covenant relationship with deity. Those who have spurned their God, who have no desire to yield their lives to Him, are consequently outside of this blessed relationship, thus "there is no fear of God before their eyes" (Rom. 3:18). There is no reverence for God, no respect for Him, no sense of awe when they consider the Creator, nor even a sense of terror (for many men deny He even exists). From their perspective, He is utterly irrelevant. For such persons, terror awaits them -- "It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God" (Heb. 10:31). Such rebels might have no "fear of God" (respect, awe, reverence) now, but a day is coming when they will stand before the One they have rejected, and it will be a day in which they will truly "fear God" (terror, horror, dread, dismay). The wise man "fears God" during his life here on earth, so that he will not be forced to face Him "in fear" on that final day. Our love, honor, respect, awe and reverence for the Lord God here will abolish all fear, terror, dread hereafter (and, indeed, it increasingly removes such fearfulness from our hearts even now as our faith grows and matures). In this way, the apostle John declares, we, who are in covenant relationship with God, "will have confidence on the day of judgment." After all, "there is no fear in love; perfect love drives out fear" (1 John 4:17-18).

Our heavenly Father has no desire for His beloved children to be terrified of Him. Yes, we should be fearful of the consequences of turning away from Him, or of disobeying Him, but a sense of terror in a child with respect to his or her father does not suggest a very healthy relationship. Quite the opposite, as a matter of fact. As genuine believers in Christ Jesus, we're part of the Family of God. We're no longer under the dominion of LAW, but dwell within the merciful parameters of His matchless GRACE. We have been called into fellowship with Him, and within the warmth of this divine embrace we find love and forfeit fear. "The religion of law, in which God was a Sovereign to be obeyed and a Judge to be dreaded, was consummated by the religion of love, in which God is a Father and Christ a Savior-Brother. It is the distinctive message of Christianity that God wills men to serve Him without fear. The atmosphere of the household of God is filial trust, not servile suspicion and dread" [Dr. James Hastings, Dictionary of the Apostolic Church, vol. 1, p. 403]. "The concept that believers need not fear receives its most radical expression in 1 John. This epistle, with its great emphasis on love and its fatherly tone, reassures its readers that on the day of judgment they need not fear, because fear has to do with punishment, and God's perfect love for them has removed that threat" [ISBE, vol. 2, p. 292].

This distinction between feeling terror at the presence of God and "fearing Him" in a far more healthy manner is powerfully presented in the account of the people of Israel assembled at Mt. Sinai shortly after their exodus from Egyptian bondage. God had descended upon the mountain in an awesome display of His glory. "All the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain surrounded by smoke. When the people saw it they trembled and stood at a distance" (Exodus 20:18). There was certainly some "fear and trembling" going on here, since they were utterly terrified. Moses said to them, "Do not be afraid, for God has come to test you, so that you will fear Him and will not sin" (vs. 20). It almost seems like a contradiction, doesn't it? They were to "fear God," and yet they were NOT to be "afraid." God's display of His majesty on the mountain was not for the purpose of "scaring them to death," but rather for the purpose of conveying to them that He was worthy of their awe and reverence, which would be manifested in their lives of devotion to His will. In Heb. 12:28 we are told to come before our God in a spirit of worship that is characterized by "reverence and awe," rather than fear. The people of Israel had come to Mt. Sinai "trembling with fear" (Heb. 12:21), "but you have come to Mt. Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, to the city of the living God" (vs. 22), and through the atoning sacrifice of Christ Jesus you now come into His presence "with confidence" (Heb. 10:19), rather than with dread.

There are a great many blessings associated with this "fear of the Lord" ("fear of God"). "Behold, the fear of the Lord is wisdom" (Job 28:28). "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom" (Psalm 111:10). "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge" (Prov. 1:7). "The fear of the Lord prolongs life" (Prov. 10:27). "In the fear of the Lord there is strong confidence" (Prov. 14:26). "The fear of the Lord is a fountain of life" (Prov. 14:27). "By the fear of the Lord one can keep away from evil" (Prov. 16:6). "The fear of the Lord leads unto life" (Prov. 19:23). "The reward of humility and the fear of the Lord are riches, honor and life" (Prov. 22:4). Little wonder then that Solomon should observe, "The conclusion, when all has been heard, is: fear God and keep His commandments" (Eccl. 12:13). Peter urged his readers to "love the brotherhood" and "fear God" (1 Peter 2:17). Just such a man was Cornelius, "a devout man, and one who feared God with all his household, and gave many alms to the Jewish people, and prayed to God continually" (Acts 10:2). Commenting on this centurion, Peter declared, "In every nation the man who fears Him, and does what is right, is accepted by Him" (Acts 10:35).

Although there is much that could be said about this concept of "fearing" our Lord God (since much is said in Scripture about it), yet I believe it comes down to this -- any person who desires a saving relationship with the Father must come before Him with reverence and awe, yet in the full confidence of the gift of His grace in Christ Jesus, which salvation we appropriate through faith, which faith allows us to come boldly before Him in complete surrender of ourselves to His sovereignty. Thus blessed by deity, we commit our lives to daily walking in the light of His love, showing our reverence to Him in our loving relationships with one another. In this manner, we exemplify the reality of "the fear of the Lord" in our daily lives for all people to behold, thereby giving Him all the glory and the honor and the praise. In this way, we today may experience the following -- "So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria enjoyed peace, being built up; and, going on in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it continued to increase" (Acts 9:31).

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Readers' Reflections

From a Minister in Texas:

Dear Brother Al, Your last Reflections was an excellent treatise on the salvation of Cornelius and its implications for understanding the respective roles of faith and baptism as they relate to personal salvation! Like you, I have not lowered the value of baptism by not regarding it as a sacrament, and, in fact, my appreciation of it is heightened, rather than diminished. Baptism testifies loudly and clearly about the preeminence of the Savior whose death, burial and resurrection are symbolically reenacted. It is a clear witness to the saving faith of the person who is being immersed. It is also a pledge to the Body of Christ, as others witness this courageous act of obedience, which act is a visible commitment of the confessor to a new life of full surrender and service. It is a thrilling event, and it always generates applause and cheers of "Amen" and "Hallelujah" when it happens in our public assemblies!! By the way, I had a brief correspondence with Darrell Broking about 15 years ago. It was just as fruitless then as your later encounter with him. I have to wonder if he can now see how inequitable it is that he is now labeled as an "apostate" by his former "friends" in the CFTF camp for having come to a different view on some point of discussion that most likely affects no one's eternal destiny!! It just makes me sad. Love ya, brother!!

From a Reader in Barbados:

Dear Bro. Al, I give all praise to God for the Scriptural insight you have provided in your article "Cornelius and Balaam's Ass." One would think that a presentation like this would convince the legalistic pundits, but I am not holding out much hope there!

From a Reader in Georgia:

Dear Bro. Al, It is genuinely amazing that openly and honestly presenting what this divinely inspired passage of Scripture clearly says about Cornelius should cause such great consternation among the traditionalists. To see it any other way than what you have clearly shown it to teach is to force one's uninspired personal beliefs into the passage. Al, peer review of your study will be intense, as it should be with anything held so sacred as baptism, but that review should also be as exegetically honest and accurate as what you have presented, or it should be rejected.

From an Elder/Physician in Texas:

Brother Al, I am grateful that you are my brother!! Your recent article opposing the sacramentalist approach to baptism seems to me to be right on target. A related question would then be to look at the tendency toward private baptisms, which usually seem to stem from treating baptism as a sacrament. What difference does it make who is around, if the only point is getting the ritual done properly -- as if grace is dispensed only along with the proper performance of the ritual?! However, if baptism is a sign, rather than a sacrament, then it would seem that a public demonstration would be more appropriate. In public, by consenting to baptism, I proclaim to all who are present my faith in Jesus; my belief in His death, burial and resurrection; my acknowledgement that He saves me by grace (just as someone else lowers me and raises me up); and I proclaim that I have died to self and have risen a "new creation" in Christ. That public act of baptism is a sign to all who are present: it is a public testimony that I now belong to Christ. Now, I know that there are people who are pathologically shy, and there are circumstances (like Phillip and the Eunuch) where no one else is around, so I don't want to proclaim some silly rule about this. But, most people find themselves in very different circumstances than these. For most people, a public demonstration of their faith and of God's acceptance of them into His Family, is good for the person making the proclamation and also good for those observing. I would be curious as to the opinion of your readers on this. Once again, Al, thank you for all the good that you do! Your Reflections promote some controversy and conflict, as a few hardliners don't want you to forget. Yet, in my opinion, your writings promote far more reconciliation and widening of fellowship than anything else. Keep up the good work!!

From an Elder/Physician in South Carolina:

Brother Al, As a free thinker, I agree with you on most of your topics, while some others make me a little uncomfortable. But, that is okay. In terms of salvation, I agree with your conclusion that we serve a merciful God who knows our penitent heart and faith, and would save those who might die on the way to the baptismal pool. As a medical doctor, I see God's providence almost every day, when bodies are healed and minds are restored despite our human ignorance and limitations. My Christian colleagues are quick to give God credit when patients improve. I have always tried to give patients realistic hope and encouragement, no matter what they are facing. Patients, I have found, truly need and appreciate this approach. I trust that our Lord and Savior, our Great Physician, is infinitely more interested in our salvation. May God continue to bless you with good health and an open, critical mind.

From a Minister in Oklahoma:

Brother Al, I just wanted to let you know today how much I appreciate the consistency, depth, and quality of your writings. You faithfully use the gift God has given you for the purpose of building up His kingdom. Thank you!

From a New Reader in Arizona:

Dear Brother Maxey, It was likely over a year ago that I read a commendation by Bro. Edward Fudge, in his GracEmail "Family Notes," of something you had written! He likely gave a link at that time to your writings, but I failed to make use of it. Just recently, one of the elders here mentioned your Reflections, and today he sent me a printed copy of Reflections #471 -- Our Purpose for Assembling. I was almost certain I would appreciate your writings because of Edward's past commendation, and now that I have read some for myself I would like to be added to your mailing list.

From a New Reader in Ontario, Canada:

Dear Brother Maxey, Please put me on your email list to receive your weekly Reflections. I've been following your writings online for nearly a year, but sometimes I forget to look them up. I really appreciated your article on the purpose of our assemblies. Thank you for that encouraging message!

From a New Reader in [Unknown]:

Dear Brother Al, I just wanted to tell you how much I have enjoyed reading your writings online. My wife was raised in a conservative church and her dad was one of the elders there. I had no idea there were so many flavors of Churches of Christ until their indoctrination of me began. After much prayer and thought, we left that church and now attend where love, instead of law, is the overriding principle. I believe if more folks would just love others the way God loves us (I know that's impossible, but we should at least strive for it), then many of our silly arguments would go away. Thank you so much for helping me to grow in my journey of faith. Also, please add me to your mailing list for Reflections.

From a Reader in Mississippi:

My Good Brother Al, I am not sure if you remember me or not, but some 18-20 years ago I was part of a Bible discussion group of which you were the owner. It's actually been so long ago that I have even forgotten the name of that group. Anyway, for many years now I have been receiving your Reflections, and I just wanted you to know, dear brother, how very much I enjoy your writings, and how greatly I have benefited from them!! I also admire the great courage you have shown in not allowing all the hateful venom spewed by those who take offense to our Father's Grace to deter you. It is truly sad to see that so many of our brethren from the Stone-Campbell heritage have chosen "law and works" over "grace and faith." I myself came from a very, very legalistic wing of the Churches of Christ, and one could rightly say that I was a "Pharisee." I was well-learned and proficient in the "party line" of my little group; I had all the answers back then!! During those years "grace" was like a "four-letter word." It was LAW that we had to have! That lasted about 20 years for me, but thanks be to God, through a lot of study, I found my way out of the labyrinth of legalism and came to understand the true meaning of our Father's Grace!! So, dear brother, I just wanted to encourage you to keep up the great work you are doing for people like me. May the Lord bless you, Brother Al.

From a Reader in Alabama:

Brother Al, Thank you for your article on "Cornelius and Balaam's Ass." Your courage in trying to get this "right thinking" out to so many brethren still immersed in restrictive, legalistic teaching is so needed. I held the hand of a dying man who very much wanted to be baptized, and was concerned that he was not physically able to do so. I assured him that God was able to know his heart, and he smiled, closed his eyes, and left this world. I stated in an adult Bible class exactly what you had written about cases like this, and God's mercy to save. Shortly afterward, a sermon was preached that declared those men, like the one whose hand I held, "should have thought about that" before waiting so long (I suppose Jesus should have told the thief on the cross that too)!! He preached that they waited too long, and thus died lost because they couldn't get to a baptistery. If what's being preached by these conservative brethren is true, then the devil has never needed to work hard to get souls to join him in hell, as God has been, and is, casting them down there faster than the devil can find room for them!! As this preacher stated in his sermon, "In Wal-Mart, I looked around and was sad that I was the only one in there who was going to heaven!!" God bless you and your efforts, as both are so needed today! I remain your brother and admirer!!

From a Minister in Tennessee:

Dear Bro. Al, I really appreciated your wonderful message in "Cornelius and Balaam's Ass." While serving with a church in Florida, I had a very tragic experience. We had a number of "snow birds" (winter visitors) attending our assemblies. I got a call in the wee hours of the morning from a woman whose husband was in ICU following a heart attack. She asked me to come and have prayer with him. When I arrived I learned that she was an immersed believer, but that he had never been immersed. He had believed in God and in the Lord Jesus for most of his mature life, but he had never been baptized. I asked him about his faith in God and his faith in the perfect work of salvation through Jesus Christ. He indicated his complete faith in the grace of God. I asked him to express his faith in Jesus Christ, which he did. I had a prayer with him and told him that we could arrange for his baptism either in the hospital or at the church building as soon as he was able. I left and went home and back to bed. Later that morning his wife called to tell me that he had suffered a massive heart attack later that night and died! Was he saved or lost?! The people you described in your article would say that he was lost and condemned to hell. Bro. Al, I agree with you, and NOT with the legalists. Should he have been baptized sooner? Yes. But, he believed in the Lord Jesus and he had lived a godly life. In fact, he lived a far more godly life than many of the "church members."

From a Reader in Connecticut:

Dear Brother Al, My own beloved grandfather, who was a lifelong Pentecostal Holiness preacher, lay on his deathbed, while the "loving and caring brethren" of a legalistic congregation assured me in my hour of grief that he was "bound for Hell" regardless of how good or holy he was because he had not been baptized right (although I had seen him baptize others in the river, and although he was baptized at age 15, yet he was not baptized "right" because he wasn't baptized in a Church of Christ church). One kind and wise elder (who has now passed on) came to me quietly during that time and told me, "I wouldn't worry too much! Our God knew your grandfather's heart, and that's what matters! HE is the final judge!" Right then and there I knew that there were others within the Churches of Christ who also felt the same way I did about salvation. It was a huge load off my mind. Al, I just want to tell you that it is amazing to be literally witnessing history as you shake up the rigid thinking in the Churches of Christ. The line by Charlton Heston from "The Ten Commandments" (when he realized Nefritiri would be the channel of God's work) comes to mind -- "Yes, you may be the lovely dust in which God works His purpose!"

From a Reader in Oklahoma:

Dear Bro. Al, I have made a few selected statements, and I have asked several pointed questions, at our congregation about the purpose of our assemblies, and the response I got is about the same as if I had belched while serving the Lord's Supper!!

From a Reader in Texas:

Dear Brother Al, I read your book Down, But Not Out a few years ago. I can't even begin to say how much help it was to me! In fact, I would go so far as to call it "lifesaving!" Thank you, Al.

From a Reader in Michigan:

Bro. Al, I just finished reading Chapter 19 of your new book One Bread, One Body in which you discussed the matter of someone wanting to observe the Lord's Supper during a wedding ceremony. Interestingly, I just recently had a rather strong discussion about that very topic with my minister here. His position was that the couple should bow to the wishes and the scruples of the audience -- forget that it was their wedding, and not the audience's. I asked, "What if the groom wanted to wear a tux in the green and gold colors of the Packers? Should a Bears fan in attendance have veto power over the groom?" His answer was "Yes." Same answer for other silly questions, like the food served at the reception, etc. Unbelievable!! I asked whose wedding it was, anyway, and he said it didn't matter!!

From a Minister in Ohio:

Bro. Al, I was raised in, and am still a part of, what you describe as the legalistic, patternistic, one-cup, non-exception faction of the Churches of Christ, and yet I am considered by some within this fellowship to be a "liberal." I pretty much agree (though not totally) with how I have been brought up and taught, but I definitely do NOT agree on the practice of disfellowshipping those with whom we disagree on various matters. I have a quick question on your article: Would Cornelius, or anyone else saved by grace through faith, have sinned if he partook of the Lord's Supper prior to his baptism?

From a Reader in Florida:

Brother Maxey, "Cornelius and Balaam's Ass" was an excellent issue of your Reflections. Keep it up, brother!! Also, write us a book on baptism, just as you have done on the Lord's Supper (One Bread, One Body). I'm so excited that you are boldly approaching this topic just as Edward Fudge and David Lawrence have also done!! I agree with your following two statements: (1) "The more I examine the Scriptures, and I do so very carefully and prayerfully, the more I am convinced that baptism is not a sacrament," and (2) "I now believe I have a better appreciation for its significance as an evidentiary act, and as a point of reference and point of participation in the eternal realities it reflects and represents."

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