Faith and the Fear of God:
How to Know Whether Your Faith is Thriving or Dying

By Greg Wright

Presented at Grace Baptist Church, Hartsville, Tennessee, February 6, 2005
Scripture taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE(r),
Copyright (c) 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995
by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.

Good morning. Please turn in your Bibles to Genesis chapter nineteen.

December 2004 will be remembered for possibly the worst tsunami in human history. Last I checked, the death count had exceeded 220,000, with 166,000 from Indonesia alone.

We note with sadness that in many places there were warning signs before the tsunami hit. Had people known what to look for and how to respond, many could have avoided disaster. For example, in some places before the tsunami came, the ocean quickly receeded, leaving boats stranded and a lot of fish flopping around on the sand.

According to National Geographic News, this was a warning that you had about five minutes to get to higher ground. One Indian man who had watched a National Geographic documentary called Killer Wave sounded an alarm and saved about 1500 villagers. Also, a ten year old girl who had paid attention during geography class saved about 100 people at a private beach in Thailand. They knew which warnings to look for, and they heeded the warnings when they came.

In the story we are about to read, another disaster is pending, a disaster that will wipe out whole cities. There will be warnings. Some will heed the warnings and survive. Others will disregard the warnings and perish.

In Genesis 19:1-26 we read:

Now the two angels came to Sodom in the evening as Lot was sitting in the gate of Sodom. When Lot saw them, he rose to meet them and bowed down with his face to the ground. And he said, "Now behold, my lords, please turn aside into your servant's house, and spend the night, and wash your feet; then you may rise early and go on your way." They said however, "No, but we shall spend the night in the square." Yet he urged them strongly, so they turned aside to him and entered his house; and he prepared a feast for them, and baked unleavened bread, and they ate. Before they lay down, the men of the city, the men of Sodom, surrounded the house, both young and old, all the people from every quarter; and they called to Lot and said to him, "Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us that we may have relations with them." But Lot went out to them at the doorway, and shut the door behind him, and said, "Please, my brothers, do not act wickedly. Now behold, I have two daughters who have not had relations with man; please let me bring them out to you, and do to them whatever you like; only do nothing to these men, inasmuch as they have come under the shelter of my roof." But they said, "Stand aside." Furthermore, they said, "This one came in as an alien, and already he is acting like a judge; now we will treat you worse than them." So they pressed hard against Lot and came near to break the door. But the men reached out their hands and brought Lot into the house with them, and shut the door. They struck the men who were at the doorway of the house with blindness, both small and great, so that they wearied themselves trying to find the doorway.

Then the two men said to Lot, "Whom else have you here? A son-in-law, and your sons, and your daughters, and whomever you have in the city, bring them out of the place; for we are about to destroy this place, because their outcry has become so great before the LORD that the LORD has sent us to destroy it." Lot went out and spoke to his sons-in-law, who were to marry his daughters, and said, "Up, get out of this place, for the LORD will destroy the city." But he appeared to his sons-in-law to be jesting.

When morning dawned, the angels urged Lot, saying, "Up, take your wife and your two daughters who are here, or you will be swept away in the punishment of the city." But he hesitated. So the men seized his hand and the hand of his wife and the hands of his two daughters, for the compassion of the LORD was upon him; and they brought him out, and put him outside the city. When they had brought them outside, one said, "Escape for your life! Do not look behind you, and do not stay anywhere in the valley; escape to the mountains, or you will be swept away." But Lot said to them, "Oh no, my lords! Now behold, your servant has found favor in your sight, and you have magnified your lovingkindness, which you have shown me by saving my life; but I cannot escape to the mountains, for the disaster will overtake me and I will die; now behold, this town is near enough to flee to, and it is small. Please, let me escape there (is it not small?) that my life may be saved." He said to him, "Behold, I grant you this request also, not to overthrow the town of which you have spoken. Hurry, escape there, for I cannot do anything until you arrive there." Therefore the name of the town was called Zoar.

The sun had risen over the earth when Lot came to Zoar. Then the LORD rained on Sodom and Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the LORD out of heaven, and He overthrew those cities, and all the valley, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and what grew on the ground. But his wife, from behind him, looked back, and she became a pillar of salt.

The story of Lot's wife displays both great mercy and great tragedy. Much mercy was extended, only to have Lot's wife perish as a pillar of salt. What happened? What went wrong? Consider all the acts of mercy that came before this tragedy:

Oh yes, there was mercy in the warnings too. "Escape for your life! Do not look behind you, and do not stay anywhere in the valley; escape to the mountains, lest you be swept away" (Genesis 19:17). These warnings were for their protection. They were given to keep them safe.

Lot heeded the warnings; his daughters heeded them; but Lot's wife disobeyed them and became a pillar of salt. Why? Why did she make that tragic decision? Three possibilities come to my mind:

  1. Perhaps she was concerned about the people left behind and wondered if any had followed them. Most likely, she did have relatives there. Surely, it is not wrong to be concerned. But it is wrong to disobey God. Those angels carried the very authority of God as his messengers. To disobey them was to disobey God.
  2. Or maybe she was confused about the character of God. She might have known much about the love of God but knew little of his wrath. Her confusion might have led her to believe that it was safe to disobey Him.
  3. Maybe she got distracted. Maybe she got so excited that she forgot the warnings.

Whether she disobeyed God deliberately or accidentally, and whether or not she was confused about His character, we will never know. But we do know this. It is dangerous to ignore God, and it is dangerous to forget his commands.

You might challenge, "Dangerous for whom? I disobey God all the time, yet I am still alive and well. So do my friends, and God never zaps any of them. None of my friends ever get turned into pillars of salt."

In a way, you would be right. Immediate retribution from God is rare. This is good for Christians, since they sin too. Even the most pious Christian slips and falls. But he repents. It is his nature to fight against sin. The life of the true Christian is a life of ongoing repentance.

No, the danger is revealed in the fact that you quit fighting. Persistent, continuous, willful sin reveals your attitude towards God. It reveals that you are not living by faith. Indeed, when Lot's wife looked back, she revealed a faith problem.

You might reply, "Looking back did not reveal a faith problem. That was just one sin. All she did was disobey one command!"

Remember, that one command had been received directly from God's angels. No interpretation was necessary. She knew exactly what she was supposed to avoid.

Also, that command was important because of the context in which it was given--a crisis experience. The moment of crisis rather than the moment of ease is more likely to reveal the quality of faith. Often that is how it is for us. When the tsunami of testing strikes, faith will either stand firm like the house built upon a rock, or it will wash away like a house built upon the sand.

But do we have to wait for the storms of life to know the quality of our faith? If we have a faith problem, we need to know it now! Would it not be great if we could know it now, while we can still do something to correct it? If we wait for the moment of crisis, it might be too late. Would it not be great if we could know whether we have a faith problem before the time of testing arrives?

I have good news. God has given us an instrument that will do just that. It will let us know when we have a faith problem. This instrument is called the Fear of God. The Fear of God is the gauge of faith. It is the warning light that lets you know when your faith is dying. It is able to do this because of the way the Fear of God depends on faith in God. For Lot's wife, faith that God would be true to his threats would have led to fear, and fear would have led to obedience. Her lack of fear was the warning light that she had a lack of faith.

Therefore, the title of this sermon is "Faith and the Fear of God: How to Know Whether Your Faith is Thriving or Dying." We are going to examine faith, the Fear of God, and how they are connected. Then we will consider how the Fear of God is essential to living the Christian life. Finally, we will consider how to examine the nature of our Fear of God in order to know whether our faith is thriving or dying.

Throughout this discussion, I will keep referring to the theme, Don't look back. This is a call to avoid the tragedy of Lot's wife by fearing God and standing firm in your faith. It is a call to examine your life and know whether you are living in the Fear of God.

What is faith?
First we will examine faith. We will consider faith in terms of its definition, its nature, and its consequences.

Hebrews 11:1 is often treated in the commentaries as a definition of faith. If we interpret the passage in that sense, the Renaissance New Testament gives one of the clearer translations: "Now faith is the title deed of things being hoped for; the ground for assurance that things not seen have real existence. A title deed--something familiar to anyone who has ever purchased a house--assures us that a piece of property is ours, even if we have not seen it. So it is that faith is the title deed of eternal life.

However, I would like to suggest that the primary purpose of this verse is not to provide a complete definition of faith, although it does help us to understand some things about faith. It does provide a definition, but that is not the primary goal of the writer. John Calvin agrees. He says this in his commentary on Hebrews:

Greatly mistaken are they who think that an exact definition of faith is given here; for the Apostle does not speak here of the whole of what faith is, but selects that part of it which was suitable to his purpose, even that it has patience ever connected with it." [emphasis mine]

Now, it is important to know that Calvin often uses the word patience the way we use the word perseverance. So he is suggesting that Hebrews 11:1 is a continuation of the discussion on perseverance. Look at Hebrews 10:39 together with Hebrews 11:1 and see if you agree: "But we are not of those who shrink back to destruction, but of those who have faith to the preserving of the soul. Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen" (Hebrews 10:39-11:1).

Prior to this passage, the writer of Hebrews has been pleading with the reader to continue in his faith, warning him of eternal condemnation if he shrinks back. But in Hebrews 10:39, the writer expresses confidence that neither he nor the reader will shrink back because: "We are not of those who shrink back to destruction, but of those who have faith to the preserving of the soul."

The writer says we are not of those who shrink back? Then he gives two reasons:

  1. We have faith.
  2. This faith preserves our souls.

When you see Hebrews 11:1 in the context of immediately following Hebrews 10:39, it seems clear that the faith discussed is not faith as an abstraction but the faith that we have. This is personal faith. And the thing hoped for is eternal life and all that comes with it.

How are we assured of eternal life? Not by abstract faith but by personal faith in Christ: we still have faith. We have not shrunk back. We have not abandoned our confession; our faith is still alive. It is through the possession of faith--possession--that we have present and personal assurance that we will have the things hoped for (eternal life and all its blessings). We know that we are safe, because our faith is still thriving. It is persevering faith. We have heard the warnings of God, and we are not ignoring them.

This is how faith is "the assurance of things hoped for" and "the conviction of things not seen." Since we are saved by grace through faith, present faith detected in our hearts serves as evidence of three things:

Thus we are called to be patient, and thus we are called to persevere in faith.

We learn more about faith by examining its nature. Theologians often identify three dimensions of the nature of faith: knowledge, agreement, and trust. We will look at knowledge first.

Please go ahead and find your diagram. The primary purpose of this diagram is to show how the Fear of God depends on faith in God. If you look to the top left, you should find a block titled Historical Faith with the word knowledge underneath.

You can think of knowledge in terms of information: statements with which you either agree or disagree. Some knowledge is necessary for saving faith, including:

However, knowledge alone will not save you.

There must also be agreement, so on the diagram I have placed the word agreement below the word knowledge. We must not only know what the Bible says about Jesus, we must believe it is true. Many know what the Bible says, but they do not take it seriously. They believe that Jesus was a good man, and they admire Him for his courage and love. But they do not believe He is the Son of God. Others believe everything the Bible says about Jesus. In fact, they believe everything they have read in the Bible: they honor the scriptures as God's word. But not all of these people are saved either. They agree with what the Bible says, but some of them do not trust God.

Knowledge and agreement together make up what theologians sometimes call historical faith. Historical faith by itself is not saving faith. That is why there is a question underneath the historical faith block: "Has the person been regenerated?" Has the person been born again? By itself, the best that historical faith can do is cause a person to fear God without hope. This is the "spirit of slavery that leads to fear" in Romans 8:15, and this is the "spirit of fear" in 2 Timothy 1:7. There is a kind of Fear of God that often pursues the unrepentant. But in many cases, it does not cause them to suffer. They manage to hide from it by staying busy with amusements, distractions, and unending noise. Indeed, we have never had a culture where it was easier to drown out the quiet voice of conscience.

But let that timid heart be regenerated, and a miracle happens. He hides no longer. No longer does he run from God; he runs towards Him. And as that regenerated soul learns to trust in Christ and to rely on Him, He delights to sing with John Newton that precious verse, "'Twas grace that taught my heart to fear and grace my fears relieved." The fear that sprang from a rebellious heart is replaced with that godly fear that springs forth from the trusting heart of a child of God.

Trust is essential. For even demons can have knowledge and agreement without trust, as we find in James 2:19, "You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder."

Trust is expressed in confident reliance upon Jesus. It seeks nothing but His finished work for salvation: his perfect righteousness for our sin.

However, trust encompasses more than the doctrine of salvation. Many trust Jesus to tell them how to go to heaven, but they do not trust Jesus to tell them how to live.

Instead, they construct a kind of Jesus-light, a modified Jesus. They limit the domain of his authority to soteriology, the doctrine of salvation, and they ignore His doctrine of life. Well, you can have your light yogurt, your light cheese, and your light salad dressing, but there is no light Jesus offered in the gospel. If the only thing you are trusting Jesus for is a ticket to heaven, then you are trusting in a God of your own making, a God who will not save you on that day when the real God judges the world.

However, when you truly trust Jesus in the sense required in the Bible, every part of your life is affected. You set no limits to His authority.

Consequences of faith
Now, where there is trust, faith will have consequences. You can see this on the diagram in the block to the right of the trust block.

Bare knowledge and agreement will not keep the cowardly from falling, but trust will endure the flames. Trust will continue to rely upon God in the midst of a dark Providence, manifesting itself in several ways. Some of these come early. Some of these develop as the Christian matures. Here are just of few, and I am sure you could think of others:

Hopefully I have clarified the difference between mere knowledge and agreement and the power that knowledge and agreement have when joined to trust. Together, in the context of a heart that has been regenerated, knowledge, agreement, and trust show the nature of saving faith.

Fear of God
Now, in the diagram we actually have two blocks coming out from trust. One is called the Consequences of Faith. It is on the right. The other is called the Fear of God. It is underneath trust. This is how the Fear of God is manifested:

However, ask people to define the Fear of God, and many will say only "reverence and awe." No doubt, reverence and awe are an important aspect of the Fear of God. In fact, in the scriptures it is the primary aspect. However, trembling and dread are an essential part of the Fear of God. In the Old Testament, sometimes the word pachad is used, which is translated dread. An example is found in 2 Chronicles 19:5-7:

He appointed judges in the land in all the fortified cities of Judah, city by city. He said to the judges, "Consider what you are doing, for you do not judge for man but for the LORD who is with you when you render judgment. Now then let the fear of the LORD be upon you; be very careful what you do, for the LORD our God will have no part in unrighteousness or partiality or the taking of a bribe."

You might be tempted to hold up your hand and say, "Wait a minute. That's the Old Testament." Yet, the Fear of God is demanded in many places in the New Testament. Consider this passage from Acts 9:31:

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.

You might respond that in this verse the Fear of God is only reverence and piety. There is no dread and trembling here.

For a stronger verse, consider Hebrews 4:1: "Therefore, let us fear lest, while a promise remains of entering His rest, any one of you may seem to have come short of it." It sounds like a threat to me. Some say this verse is only talking about rewards. But surely the phrase entering His rest refers to more than rewards: heaven itself is at stake!

In this next verse, Romans 11:19-22, the idea of fear and trembling is more obvious:

You will say then, "Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in." Quite right, they were broken off for their unbelief, but you stand by your faith. Do not be conceited, but fear; for if God did not spare the natural branches, He will not spare you, either. Behold then the kindness and severity of God; to those who fell, severity, but to you, God's kindness, if you continue in His kindness; otherwise you also will be cut off.

We will look at one more passage, Philippians 2:12-13:

So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.

This trembling is the Greek word tromos. It is the ancestor of our word trauma. According to Strong's Greek and Hebrew Dictionary, when this word is used in the context of fear and trembling, it describes "the anxiety of one who distrusts his ability completely to meet all requirements, but religiously does his utmost to fulfil his duty."

There are several other verses we could use, but for now, these should be enough to argue that the Christian should fear God with dread and trembling. The Christian should fear God with reverence and awe, and the Christian should fear God with dread and trembling. This is not the dread and trembling of those without hope but the dread and trembling of those who might, in a moment of weakness, let go of the only rope that binds them to Christ: their faith. They regard the possibility of shipwrecking in their faith with dread and trembling. We will consider this in the context of Assurance of Salvation in a few minutes.

Fear directs the consequences of faith
But for the moment, let us return to the diagram. Again, two arrows emerge from Trust. One points to the Consequences of Faith and the other points to the Fear of God. However, the other consequences of faith will be misapplied if they are not tempered by the Fear of God. That is why I have an additional arrow coming out of the Consequences of Faith block back into the Fear of God block. I have this arrow for several reasons:

For the ancient Hebrew, a member of the holy people, covenanted with a holy God for a unique purpose in history, there is no paradox in the liturgical command, "Serve Yahweh with fear, and rejoice with trembling!" (Ps. 2:11).

Again, that is why I have the consequences of faith redirected into the box that says Fear of God. The Fear of God touches all of Godliness. It was a unifying theme in the Old Testament. It is often the lens through which you can see faith in the Old Testament. And it is a continuing theme in the New Testament.

While the Fear of God proceeds from trust, it is also dependent on knowledge and agreement. It requires knowledge, agreement, and trust--all three of these things. Therefore, we must both learn and remember what the Bible teaches about God and His judgment of man, lest we forget His deeds and forget why God is to be feared.

The next block, Faithfulness, also contains things that might rightly be considered consequences of faith rather than consequences of the Fear of God. Nevertheless, these things must also be directed by the Fear of God.

Some say that faith equals faithfulness. This is not true. Hunger will drive one to eat, but hunger and eating are not the same thing. Thirst will drive one to drink, but thirst and drinking are not the same thing. True faith will drive the Christian to faithfulness, but faith and faithfulness are not the same thing. Rather, inherent to saving faith is a hungering and thirsting after God. We long to live in harmony with God. So it is that Jesus says, "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied" (Matthew 5:6). It is this hunger and thirst for righteousness that makes faithfulness a necessary consequence--consequence--of faith.

Hopefully, that explains the diagram you have before you. These are the connections I see between faith and the Fear of God.

Now, back to those troubling verses: those verses that tell Christians to be afraid. How can we have assurance of salvation if God on the one hand says all of the elect will persevere but on the other hand tells Christians that if they do not continue in their faith they will be condemned? Perhaps we could relax if we could just see our election: if we could just look in a mirror and see a big "E" on our forehead we could relax. But God does not want us to relax. He wants us to be faithful.

The Bible itself provides a story where these seemingly inconsistent ideas of promise and warning are reconciled. The story comes from Acts 27. Paul is a prisoner aboard a ship. He is being carried to Rome where he will testify before Caesar. Then a storm strikes and all hope for survival is lost. We will take up the story as told by Luke at Acts 27:20-37:

Since neither sun nor stars appeared for many days, and no small storm was assailing us, from then on all hope of our being saved was gradually abandoned.
When they had gone a long time without food, then Paul stood up in their midst and said, "Men, you ought to have followed my advice and not to have set sail from Crete and incurred this damage and loss. Yet now I urge you to keep up your courage, for there will be no loss of life among you, but only of the ship. For this very night an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I serve stood before me, saying, 'Do not be afraid, Paul; you must stand before Caesar; and behold, God has granted you all those who are sailing with you.' Therefore, keep up your courage, men, for I believe God that it will turn out exactly as I have been told. But we must run aground on a certain island.

But when the fourteenth night came, as we were being driven about in the Adriatic Sea, about midnight the sailors began to surmise that they were approaching some land. They took soundings and found it to be twenty fathoms; and a little farther on they took another sounding and found it to be fifteen fathoms. Fearing that we might run aground somewhere on the rocks, they cast four anchors from the stern and wished for daybreak. But as the sailors were trying to escape from the ship and had let down the ship's boat into the sea, on the pretense of intending to lay out anchors from the bow, Paul said to the centurion and to the soldiers, "Unless these men remain in the ship, you yourselves cannot be saved." Then the soldiers cut away the ropes of the ship's boat and let it fall away.

The soldiers heeded the warnings, and all survived.

We have two promises here that are conveyed by Paul:

  1. There will be no loss of life.
  2. Unless the men remain in the ship, there will be loss of life.

We have a dreadful warning: a warning to make the heart tremble. We have a merciful warning: a warning to keep the heart beating. The warning is both dreadful and merciful. Before Paul's announcement, all they had was dread and trembling. Now they have dread and trembling and hope.

Likewise, be sure that the warnings of God are both dreadful and merciful: dreadful to those who will be lost through ignoring God, merciful to those who will be preserved by faith in God. Your only hope is that you continue in your faith. This faith is your title deed to things hoped for and your evidence of things unseen.

God promises that the elect will persevere in faith. He guarantees this by keeping their faith from dying. Those who live in the Fear of God have evidence that their faith is alive. Their faithfulness reveals their faith. God also promises to reject those who depart from their faith by refusing to submit to Him. Their disobedience reveals that they neither trust God nor fear Him. Faith believes the promises; faith also believes the threats. That is why absence of the Fear of God reveals a faith problem. When you ignore God, you reveal that you do not believe all that He has said.

Are you living in the Fear of God, or has something driven a wedge between you and God?

I am going to ask you a question. Do you fear God enough to cry out for help? The drowning child fears death enough to cry out to the lifeguard. Do you fear the drowning of your faith? Eternal consequences await! Do you fear God? Don't look back.

If you really have awe and reverence for God, you will know the foolishness of fighting against Him. Instead, you will cling to your faith with a death grip. If you see it slipping away, you will tighten your grip and you will seek those who can strengthen your hand. You will cry out for help. Do you fear God? Don't look back.

If you regard God with dread and trembling, you will be afraid to abandon your faith. You will heed His warnings. The angels warned Lot's wife not to look back. God warns you also.

Do you fear God? Don't look back.

If you fear God you will hate sin. Do you hate sin? You are looking back when you delight in sin.

Do you fear God? Don't look back. We have lost too many already. Fear God, lest you turn back.

- The internet
- Your music
- Your associations
- Your very imagination

Fear God and live. Don't look back.

Let us pray.

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