A short time ago, I was walking with a friend who doesn’t attend church, and we passed a large Catholic parish that was in the middle of Saturday evening mass. The parking lot was full, and I remarked how the church was really “bringing ‘em in!” My friend’s response caught me off guard: “Well, yeah, but it’s because they’re all afraid they’re going to hell!” Apparently, this person’s experience of the church had been very negative. Everything in the church was guilt and fear-driven; one goes to church or lives a moral life simply out of fear. Not a fun way to spend a Saturday night!
This isn’t just a problem in the Roman Catholic Church. Many Christians of various denominational backgrounds are trying to abide by Jesus’ teachings out of fear. And so, they go to church, read their Bibles, and serve their neighbors, hoping to assuage God’s heavy gaze. This fear-driven devotion is indicative of a view of God that is incomplete. In this understanding, he is the divine judge, wielding his heavenly hammer, waiting to crush us the moment we break one of his arduous commandments. Of course, God is the divine judge, but he’s not a judge like the terrible Pharaoh of Egypt. He’s the divine judge that is also the Heavenly Father, a Father who so loved us that he sent Jesus to fulfill the law we had imperfectly kept (Matt. 5:17). It’s this other aspect of who God is, so central to the gospel message, that we must grasp if ever we are to obey God out of love.
Is your view of God distorted? Is your Christian obedience based on fear? To help you answer these questions, consider what theologian John Owen asked: “When you are by sin driven to make a stand, so that you must either serve it and rush at the command of it into folly, like the horse into battle, or make head against it to suppress it, what do you say to your soul? Is it, ‘Hell will be the end of this course; vengeance will meet with me and find me out’?”
In other words, when you’re tempted to disobey God, do you typically think to yourself, “Uh oh, if I do this, God’s going to crush me, the heavenly-hammer will fall, hell fire awaits”? Owen continued, “Know that this reserve will not long holdout. If your lust has driven you from stronger gospel forts, it will speedily prevail against this also” (The Nature of Mortification).
Owen noted that the problem with fear driven obedience is that it will only last so long. It’s a reserve that speedily depletes. People begin to grow tired of God because they feel like he’s impossible to please; eventually, they stop trying altogether. Hence, instead of obeying out of fear, we need to obey from the fortress of the gospel. Here, Owen wasn’t appealing to the terror of God but to the love of God: in the gospel, God didn’t say, “Obey me so that you can avoid hell and judgment,” but rather, “Obey me because I have born hell and judgment in your place.”
Do you see the difference? We don’t go to church with the hope that God will make us his children if we’re good enough; we go because he’s already adopted us into his family through Jesus despite our sin. Fear-based obedience does not have the longevity of love-based faithfulness to God. But there’s more!
When our hearts are changed by the love of God, the commandments we once dreaded become a delight because we obey them not to be accepted but because we are accepted. John wrote, “For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome” (1 Jn 5:3). Have you ever noticed how difficult work seems lighter when done out of love (Gen. 29:20)?
This is what John presupposes is the case for Christians, as he said in the previous chapter: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. We love because he first loved us” (1 Jn 4:18-19). As we dwell in gospel forts, we feed on the glorious love of God. Once our hearts our satiated with God’s love, we stop fearfully trying to satiate God’s justice. Instead, we obey him as his beloved children with the joy that comes from knowing God not solely as judge, but also as Father and Savior.