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Forgiveness: the Foundation for Fear (Psalm 130:3-4)

"But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared" (Ps

If the title to this meditation strikes you as a contradiction in terms, read on.

Let me begin by asking a simple question: "What do you fear most?" As for myself, the first things that come to mind, in no particular order, are squash, wasps, and the possibility of no baseball in heaven. Of course, I realize that I can hold my nose when I eat squash and wait for my taste buds to recover. I assume, as well, that no matter how painful a wasp sting may be, I won't die. And, of course, as long as Jesus is in heaven I'll be infinitely happy in the age to come. But it's a good question, nonetheless. So, what do you fear most?

A lot of people will supply the expected spiritual answer: God. But if pressed to define what that means, many will falter and fumble for an explanation. Needless to say, it all depends on how we define our terms. What precisely do we mean by the word "fear"?

First, though, let's consider how pervasive and important "fearing God" is in Scripture. Of the literally dozens of texts I could cite, there are a few that come immediately to mind. For example, as Abraham was about to slay Isaac, God said: "Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me" (Gen. 22:12).

When Satan stood before God, the Lord said to him: "Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil?" (Job 1:8). We're all familiar with the declaration in Proverbs that "the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge" (Prov. 1:7a).

The New Testament is also familiar with this truth, as Peter, for example, issues this command to his readers: "Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor" (1 Peter 2:17).

What, then, does it mean for the believer to "fear" God? The most frequently heard response is that it entails reverence and awe, and that is no doubt true. By this I understand that we must live and speak and think and act with a keen and ever-present awareness that he is holy and we are not, he is powerful and we are weak, he is self-sufficient and we are utterly dependent for every breath on his goodness and grace. This is the sort of "fear" that expresses itself in trembling and amazement and an overwhelming sense of personal frailty and finitude.

This sort of fear is the antithesis of presumption, pride and self-righteousness. Yes, God is our heavenly Father and he sings over us with rapturous delight. But he is also a consuming fire (Heb. 12:28-29), in whose glorious presence both John the Apostle and the twenty-four Elders fall prostrate in humble adoration (Rev. 1:17; 4:9-10).

To fear God means to live conscious of his all-pervasive presence, conscious of our absolute, moment-by-moment dependence on him for light and life, conscious of our comprehensive responsibility to do all he has commanded, fearful of offending him, determined to obey him (Deut. 6:1-2,24; 8:6; Pss. 112:1; 119:63; Malachi 3:5), and committed to loving him (Deut. 10:12,20; 13:4).

When we look to Proverbs we discover that to fear God is to know him (Prov. 1:29; 2:4-5) and to hate evil (Prov. 8:13; 16:6). Fearing God yields confidence (Prov. 14:26) and humility (Prov. 3:7; 22:4), and contentment (Prov. 23:17).

The fear of God, then, is many things. But we now come to what it is not. It is not to be frightened of him in the sense that we live in uncertainty as to whether he might one day turn on us and lay upon us the condemnation that our sin deserves. It is not to be afraid of him in the sense that we live in doubt about his intentions or whether or not he plans on fulfilling the promises of his Word. It is not to be terrorized and paralyzed at the prospect of having our transgressions visited yet again upon us, in spite of the fact that they have been fully and finally visited on our Savior, the Lord Jesus. It is not to live in anxious dread that divine wrath will yet find us out and bring death and eternal destruction to our souls.

One passage that particularly reinforces this truth is Psalm 130:3-4. It's the sort of text that is easily overlooked and ignored. Here it is:

"If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared" (Ps. 130:3-4).

On first reading, something seems terribly askew. Would it not have made more sense for the psalmist to have said: "But with you there is justice, that you may be feared"? Is it not the prospect of God exacting payment for our transgressions that evokes fear in the human soul? If God should indeed "mark iniquities" then fear seems the only appropriate response.

But the good news is that with God "there is forgiveness"! That being the case, would not all "fear" be eliminated? One would certainly think so. Yet the psalmist asserts that the result of forgiveness (perhaps even its purpose) is that we might fear God ever more fervently. So the meaning of this remarkable text must be found elsewhere.

Think deeply about what is being said. With God there is forgiveness. From him proceeds the grace that provides a propitiation for our sins. He has taken every step necessary to accomplish our redemption through his Son. As we saw in Psalm 103:10, he no longer deals with us according to our sins or repays us according to our iniquities. Indeed, our sins have been removed from us as far as the east is from the west (Ps. 103:12).

This is why the "fear" of God mentioned in this text cannot be fear of facing condemnation or fear of encountering and experiencing his righteous wrath. Do you see the psalmist's logic? If what we find with God is forgiveness for our sins, what grounds remain for us to live in terror of his judgment or wrath? If God has wiped clean the slate of our sin and guilt, then clearly he has chosen not to "mark iniquities" and just as clearly all reason for fear is gone. Therefore, if the "fear of God" in this passage were a reference to the dread of impending destruction, forgiveness is emptied of all meaning and value.

But according to what we read in v. 4, forgiveness is the foundation for fear! The unshakeable knowledge that God will never "mark iniquities" (v. 3), which is to say, the assurance that our sins have been forever forgiven, is the reason why we fear God. There's no escaping the force of the psalmist's language: fearing God is the necessary fruit of forgiveness! This alone demands that fearing God entail something altogether other than being afraid of judgment.

Forgiveness, as much as any act of God, reveals his incomprehensible greatness and majesty. The infinitely transcendent God of holiness and truth has acted in grace on behalf of hell-deserving sinners. Once the reality of this is fully grasped, the only reasonable response is one of brokenness, humility, and breathtaking awe at such amazing love.

Certainly there is joy in the knowledge of our forgiveness, as well as gratitude and praise. But these are perfectly consistent with holy fear, that bone-shattering realization that it is by divine mercy alone that we are not forever consumed by divine wrath. One can simultaneously "taste" the goodness of the Lord (Ps. 34:8a) and "fear" him (Ps. 34:9a). In fact, "it is grace which leads the way to a holy regard of God, and a fear of grieving him" (Spurgeon; 3:119).

So let it never be said that holy reverence for the Almighty is incompatible with freedom and joy. For as Thomas Adams so perfectly put it, "no man more truly loves God than he that is most fearful to offend him" (cited by Spurgeon, 127).