Many people picture God as a scary bookkeeper recording everything they say and do, and on Judgment Day he’ll shame them by playing the dirty tapes of their secret lives. As we saw in a recent post on the Bema Seat, this caricature is far removed from reality. God is not counting our sins against us. Because of Jesus we can have confidence on the Day of Judgment (1 John 4:17). You have nothing to fear.
So what are we to make of Paul’s words in the verse that follows the one about the Bema Seat?
Since, then, we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade others. (2 Cor 5:11)
Some translations say “the terror of the Lord,” as in, “Knowing therefore the terror of the Lord, we persuade men” (KJV). Pretty much every commentator you’ll read says this is referring to the terror of hell and wrath. “Because hell is frightening, we have to persuade men to trust in Jesus.”
But there are a few of problems with this. First, it’s the fear of the Lord, not the fear of hell. God is not hell. Second, it is Paul who knows this fear, and Paul never went to hell. Third, there’s no bad news in the good news.
Jesus said, “Repent and believe the good news,” not “Repent because of hell.” To persuade men that God loves them but will fry them forever if they don’t love him back is both illogical and unscriptural. Jesus never did it, and Paul’s not doing it here.
So what is the fear (or terror) of the Lord that motivates Paul to preach and persuade others?
The fear of the Lord
Everyone knows about fear. Fear has been around since Adam heard God walking and hid in the bushes. “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid.” Fear is a fruit of sin. It’s the one thing that keeps us from enjoying life and approaching God. I like what Bill Johnson says about fear:
The biblical command repeated most often is: Do not fear. Why? Fear attacks the foundation of our relationship with God… our faith… Fear is also a decay of the heart. It attracts the demonic in the same way as bitterness and hatred. ~When Heaven Invades Earth, p.50
When it comes to God, fear is not good for us. Fear elicits two responses: fight or flight. Do you think God wants you to run away from him? Do you think he wants you to fight him? If “fear of the Lord” means running away or fighting him, something doesn’t add up. We need a broader definition of fear, one that is based on scriptures such as these:
(The women) departed quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy (Matt 28:8)
Fear with great joy? That doesn’t sound like your everyday kind of fear.
Full of fear, they praised God, saying, “What marvelous things we have seen today!” (Luke 5:26, GNB)
They didn’t have a little fear but a lot, and they were happy. They were bouncing off the ceiling with joy because they had seen Jesus heal a crippled man.
Then the church … enjoyed a time of peace and was strengthened. Living in the fear of the Lord and encouraged by the Holy Spirit… (Act 9:31)
Fear and peace? Fear and encouragement? Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore.
The beginning of wisdom
As Jesus explained, to fear the Lord is to worship him. It’s not being afraid, as Adam was, but being thrilled and awed as you realize that God is good and he is good to you!
Afterward shall the children of Israel return, and seek the Lord their God, and David their king; and shall fear the Lord and his goodness in the latter days. (Hos 3:5)
Hosea prophesied that Israel would be startled by God’s goodness. The context was the unconditional and undeserved love he showed to his faithless wife. That’s how God loves you, only more so. His love is great, his grace is hyper, and his goodness is off-the-scale. When you see it your jaw will drop, your knees will shake, and your heart will tremble.
Adam’s fear caused him to run from God, but the fear of the Lord causes you to draw near in awestruck reverence. Adamic fear, or being afraid of the Lord, is a bad thing, but Biblical fear, or the fear of the Lord, is a good thing. And the latter is the cure to the former; the fear of the Lord is the antidote to fear.
When you see God as he truly is, nothing scares you. When you have trembled in awe-struck adoration at his goodness and your knees have buckled under the weight of his glory, the problems of life are reduced to nothing. You realize that, “God loves me! God is for me! Who can be against me?”
Now we begin to understand why the same apostle who said, “The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again” (Rom 8:15), also said this, “Since we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade others” (2 Cor 5:11). He was talking about two different things; a fear that causes you to run from God and an awe that draws you near.
So here is my paraphrase of Paul’s words:
Since we know what it is to fear the Lord (since we have tasted the goodness of God who loves us and wants to bless us), we try to persuade others (that he is good and longs to be good to them). (2 Cor 5:11)
Are you persuaded?