...it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” And if you call on him as Father who judges impartially according to each one’s deeds, conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile...
1 Peter 1:16-17
In a few short days, little ones might be rapping at your door in search of sweets, while adults everywhere will be finding yet another reason to recreate. Whether one is young or old, the attraction to October 31 is twofold: the opportunity to masquerade in alternative identities and the opportunity to entertain notions of things fearful. Whether it is ghastly sights, the threat of death, or the mysteries of the spiritual world, on this last Friday in October many will dabble whimsically in what they’d like to ignore the rest of the year.
But October 31 commemorates something else that relates to fear. On Reformation Day, we celebrate a simple, profound statement on what it means to fear God rightly—the watershed moment when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenburg. For years the monk Luther had agonized over his understanding of God. To him, the holiness of God was an entirely fearful thing when he recognized his own lack thereof. How could he love the God whose justice and holiness was so beyond him? Finally, he saw how in the gospel the fearful wrath of God had been met and satisfied by the astounding grace of God. Luther then understood what a proper fear of God was.
As we heard Sunday, Peter speaks to that fear in 1 Peter 1:17: “Conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile.” At first glance it may seem that Peter is having an intramural squabble with his fellow apostle, John. John says in his first letter, “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” (1 John 4:18).
John means that there is a fear that cannot coexist with our love for God; that’s the fear of punishment. For in Christ we need not fear punishment because He is our advocate (2:1). Furthermore, God’s love for us is based not on our having loved Him first, but on His love for Christ and Christ’s love for us, expressed inestimably at the Cross (4:19). Our confidence in His love for us cannot stand if we find ourselves thinking His love is contingent upon our loveliness. In that sense, fear does not comport with true love.
Is Peter’s letter contrary to John’s when he calls us to walk in fear of God during our time of exile? Hardly. Upon further review, we find complementarity, rather than a collision of views.
(Of the many gifts of the Reformation, the notion that we must interpret scripture with scripture remains one of the most salutary guides to understanding the faith. For this clarification we have Martin Luther also to thank.)
When Peter speaks of a right fear of God, he means at least three things—things John would have no quarrel with.
A right fear of God sees all other potential anxieties in context. Whatever else might threaten your stability (sickness, loss, persecution, unmet desires) simply pales against the backdrop of the fearful things Christ has rescued us from. Recalling what we’ve been ransomed from is Peter’s attempt to have us see that context (1 Peter 1:18). John likewise points us Cross-ward (1 John 1:7).
Is it your discipline to preach the gospel to your fears, whatever they may be?
A right fear of God anticipates the downside of disobedience. It sees the intrinsic danger of living frivolously, ungratefully, egotistically. It sees also the sorrow of offending the One who abhors disobedience and labored mightily to rescue us from its debt. That’s why Peter recalls the command to be holy in verse 17, and why John casts the sin of hatred as a self-blinding act (1 John 2:11). Francis Schaeffer defended the practice of confessing our sins despite their having been forgiven in Christ. We confess, he said, because though our standing before God does not change when we sin, our intimate fellowship with Him is lost, and “we remember what we had.” In sorrow and in desire for renewed closeness we seek His restoration.
Is it your discipline to muse on what you would lose in disobedience?
Last, a right fear of God liberates us unto love for our neighbor and our enemy. To know you’re loved is a potent motivator. If you know His love for you is unassailable and unflinching, all fears of not being loved by others are subdued; all distress at having your loving acts go unrequited are swallowed up. Peter sees that connection between the fear of God and the love for others in verse 22. John does likewise in I John 4:19-21.
Do you find yourself more or less motivated to love these days?
So these two apostles who’d been invited into Jesus’ inner circle, who’d been with Him at His transfiguration and His darkest hour of anguish in the garden—they walk in lockstep with one another when it comes to a right fear of God.
And so must we.
Are you properly fearful?