It’s Monday Grace!
“Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”
That’s a famous sermon title preached with great effectiveness by Jonathan Edwards on July 8, 1741. In the sermon, Edwards said that the only reason sinners are not dropped into hell is because of the patience of God. Their actions and attitudes deserve hell, and they are objects of God’s wrath. They are already condemned. Edwards went on to describe the sinner dangling over the fiery pit of hell.
Now, this sermon, as politically incorrect as it might be today, was a call to conversion. And it worked. Even as the sermon was delivered, people were moaning and crying out to be saved. There is little doubt that God used this intense message to bring people to Him.
But why would preachers use that theme in church today? Very few “evangelical” churches are filled with unsaved people. What would you guess is the percentage of those who would admit they are unsaved in your local church? It would be very small.
Yet, some preachers really like this kind of sermon for Sunday morning. They stand up in front of their already saved congregation to “put the fear of God in them.” And their people leave in doubt and discouragement.
I remember a man telling me that he left my church (just before I arrived as pastor) because he knew he needed to feel afraid as he left church, and he wasn’t getting that. He went to another church where the preacher focused on the fear of God.
What does it mean to fear the Lord? It is a Scriptural phrase and concept, of course. The beginning of wisdom, we are told, is the fear of the Lord. So, according to the preachers, the ones who fear God the most are the most wise. They hammer the point so much that the people who hear them live in fear of connecting with God.
Is that the proper goal for a pastor with his people? (Perhaps it is if he wants them to depend on him rather than the Lord. But that’s another discussion.)
No, a pastor should be leading the people to a real and active relationship with the Lord who loves them. God’s primary emotion toward His people is love, not anger or wrath. He draws them with love, warns them because of love, and comforts them in love.
Fear is meant to protect us and draw us to safety. Fear comes to us when we are in danger. That’s what it is for. Apart from the Lord there is danger. Hell is real. Consequences for sin are real. But those who have come to Jesus for safety (forgiveness and reconciliation) have no more reason to be afraid.
It is not by accident that the phrase “do not be afraid” is used so often in the Scriptures. God’s call to those He loves is always “do not be afraid.” Why? Because He wants us to know His heart. He is not angry with us. Those who come to God through Jesus have found the way of salvation and peace.
So, what does the Bible mean when it says people should “fear the Lord?” It means they should recognize the reality of God and how much they need Him. It means they should listen to His call and come to Him, take Him seriously. It means they are in danger apart from Him.
It is natural to run and hide from the things we fear. Is that what we want people to do when they think of the Lord? Is that what we want the people in churches to do? No! They should draw near to Him because of His love. But why would they draw near if they have been taught to be afraid?
“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Just the beginning. Not the whole of wisdom. Yes, God is God, great and mighty. Yes, there is much to fear apart from Him. Once a person understands that and yields to the Lord, they find nothing to fear. In Him we find rest and peace. In Him we find welcome and love.