As we all know, God’s really changed over the years, done some growing. He used to be so rigid and wrathful– all “fire and brimstone” this and “tossed in a lake of endless fire that.” But the Prozac’s really working out for Him and He’s singing Kumbaya over with the hippies and yippies at Woodstock and He’s all about “free love” now. Go ahead and sin all you want because He’s all about endless grace and forgiveness. All you have to do is believe in Him and you’ll get to Heaven! We all know that, right? Right?
Of course not. God is a loving God– not only that but He is love. But it’s not the whole picture. Romans 11:22 tells us to “Consider the kindness and sternness of God.”
The sternness of God! Where did that come from? A lot of preachers are scratching their heads right now. We have so preached about the goodness and grace of God, we left out the fear and sternness of God.
To have a full understanding of God’s nature, we need to understand both the sternness and the kindness of God. To have a right relationship with God, we need to love Him and fear Him.
There’s a passage that should be a real reality check for us. In Matthew 7:21-23 it says that many who call God their Lord and perform miracles in God’s name will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Not only that but He will say, “I never knew you” and cast them away. I don’t know about you but that certainly puts a little fear in my heart! This passage reminds me of some wise words I once heard someone say that I never forgot: When we eventually go up to Heaven, we will be surprised by some of the people we see there, and we will be equally surprised by some of the people we don’t see there. Friends, this wake up call is for me too. Only Jesus lived without sin. We are all sinners and we all need to hear this, to die to ourselves daily and pick up our crosses daily and follow Jesus. We all need to work out our salvation with fear of the Lord and trembling.
Thank God the Lord tells us what He requires of us! “What does the Lord your God ask of you but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul?” (Deuteronomy 10:12).
Fearing the Lord is walking in obedience to Him and serving Him. Throughout the Torah it is clear that fear of the Lord means keeping His commandments. Some particularly important cases:
“Oh, that their hearts would be inclined to fear me and keep all my commands always” (Deuteronomy 5:29).
“Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid… The fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning” (Exodus 20:20).
Of Job they said: “This man was blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil.” (Job 1:1).
“And he said to the human race, “The fear of the Lord—that is wisdom, and to shun evil is understanding.” (Job 28:28).
The reason we need to fear the Lord with obedience and shun evil is because God does have a stern side; if we do not fear the Lord there will be consequences.
A passage that encompasses the kindness and sternness of God is Psalm 103:8: “The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love.” His sternness is gentled by His kindness. But that does not mean He is without anger. His anger is provoked and a response to sin, which is the good news. But the bad news for some is that Romans 2:5 makes it clear that God’s wrath can be stored up with every sin we commit against Him. And we will be righteously judged for it. The rest of Romans 11:22 explains that God is stern to those who sin, and even those who were once in His kindness can be “cut off.” God lays clear consequences for sin and not following His commandments, and He will follow through with appropriate punishment for those who do not follow His precepts.
His sternness is actually a vital part of His kindness.
Think of a shepherd and his flock. His job is to protect that flock from whatever may harm them, to keep them away from what may harm them, and to keep them from wandering off and getting lost. A good shepherd loves his sheep. No matter how often they try to wander off over that cliff edge or try to eat the poisonous weed, he’s going to protect them. But sometimes he’s going to need to bring the rod into it. If the sheep tries to wander off, he needs to nudge them back into the herd with his rod. If they’re slow to move, he’ll prod them forward. And then sometimes he’ll use his staff– that’s the long one with the crook at the end. If they’re trying to eat something they shouldn’t or about to step into a ravine, he’s going to use that staff to haul them back from what will hurt them.
Sin hurts us. Humanity is pretty stubborn and willful; we want to do what we want to do. But sometimes what we want to do will hurt us. To be honest I fully believe if God never punished us then would almost never do the right thing. If God spared the rod, we’d spoil ourselves and our lives. We’d walk right off the cliff edge. Sometimes God uses His rod against us in order to protect us. Sometimes God nudges us with His rod or hooks us with His staff to nudge or pull us away from what will harm us, or towards better pastures, towards His plan for us.
He’s merciful and slow to anger, but that doesn’t mean the punishment will never come. It is God’s nature to be slow to anger. He is giving us the opportunity to correct our behavior and repent of our sins, to come back into His flock.
But punishment will come. God does give people over to their sin, and that itself is a punishment. “Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts,” Romans 1:24 says in the NIV. But the NLT translation says, “So God abandoned them to do whatever shameful things their hearts desired.” God’s abandonment is certainly a punishment– without Him we are without His protection and care. We are sheep without a shepherd. If we abuse the mercy of God, He will abandon us to the mercy of the wolves of the world. The punishment might not even come in this lifetime– it might come in the form of eternity.
But fear of the Lord does not mean we should Fear God with a capital F and be afraid because of punishment. “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love” (1 John 4:18).
Rather, the fear of the Lord is about honoring and obeying God. We might be doing miracles in God’s name but are we being obedient to Him everyday? Are we following His commandments? To get to Heaven takes more than just belief; faith without works is dead (James 2:26). Just as we might be surprised by who we see in Heaven and who we don’t see in Heaven, I want to make sure I’m not surprised where I end up!