Forgiveness and the Fear of God

I’m grateful to be a part of Cornerstone Church of LincolnWay.  Our pastor, Arvid Svendsen, leads a Bible study on Friday mornings, at the McDonald’s on Maple St/Lincoln Hwy, in New Lenox, IL.  (If you’re in the area, join us at 6AM…it’s open to anyone!).  This morning we considered the relationship between “the fear of the Lord” and “progressive sanctification”.  In the course of our study, I began to think of a somewhat peculiar passage in Psalm 130

“If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities,

O Lord, who could stand?

But with you there is forgiveness,

that you may be feared.”

(Psalm 130:3-4, ESV, emphasis mine)

It seems rather counterintuitive that forgiveness would lead to fear.  My first thought would be that forgiveness would lead to comfort, joy, and relief…but fear?  Yes, fear.

Octavius Winslow, in a sermon on Psalm 130:4, entitled “Forgiveness and Fear”, brilliantly illustrates and explains this seemingly peculiar and paradoxical relationship.

Winslow states:

“But there remains a clause in this verse of the psalm pregnant with the deepest and holiest instruction: “There is forgiveness with You, that You may be FEARED.” “How can this be?”, exclaims the unreflecting mind. Fear, the fruit and effect of pardon! It is an incongruity—a paradox! And yet such is the word of God, and as such we believe and accept it. How, then, are we to interpret the clause? A holy, filial, loving fear of God is ever the effect of His full and free forgiveness of sin; it is the natural, spontaneous and blessed result. All fear, if apart from a sense of pardoned sin, is legal, servile, and slavish; it is not the fear of a forgiven sinner, of a pardoned child. The pardoned soul sees in the grace of the act, such a display of God’s holiness and hatred of sin, such an unfolding of His grace and love, as at once inspires a holy, reverential, and child-like fear of offending Him. Never did the believing soul see sin’s exceeding sinfulness, love’s amazing greatness, and grace’s fullness and freeness, as when first it saw and felt it in a sense of God’s pardon. Oh, there is no human act which has such a tendency to melt, subdue, and win the whole being as that of forgiveness, be it judicial or parental, human or Divine. A heart that has become hardened in crime and steeped in sin, whom no reasoning could convince and no discipline could subdue, has at length been melted by mercy, conquered by forgiveness, and enchained by love. I quote an illustration of this truth.

A soldier was brought before his commanding officer for a misdemeanor frequently committed and as frequently punished. He had been tried, flogged, and imprisoned; but, imperative and stern as military discipline is, all to no purpose. He was an old and incorrigible offender, whom no threats could dismay, and no infliction reform. As the officer was about to repeat his punishment, the sergeant stepped forward, and, apologizing for the liberty he took, said, “Sir, there is one thing which has never been done with him yet.” “What is that?” enquired the officer. “He has never been forgiven.” Surprised at the suggestion, and yet struck with its force, the officer meditated for a moment, then ordered the culprit before him. “What have you to say to the charge?” “Nothing, sir, only I am sorry for what I have done.” “Well, we have decided to inflict no punishment on this occasion, but to try what forgiveness will do.” The criminal, struck dumb with astonishment, burst into tears, and sobbed like a child. And what was the effect? From that moment he was another and a changed man. No longer the inveterate and hardened offender- a plague to his regiment and a dishonor to the service he became one of the most well-behaved and orderly men that ever wore the uniform or bore the standard of his sovereign. Forgiven, he became loyal and obedient: respect for military rule, and the fear of dishonoring the service and degrading himself, henceforth became to him a law and a shield.

A similar incident in the life of Dr. Doddridge illustrates the same truth. Believing that there were extenuating circumstances in the case of a condemned criminal awaiting execution in Northampton Jail, Dr. Doddridge waited upon George III, and petitioned for his life. It was granted. Hastening back to his cell, he read the king’s order of reprieve. The pardoned criminal rose, fell at his feet, and, clasping his person, exclaimed, “Oh, Sir! I am your servant, your slave for life! For you have purchased every drop of my blood.” And shall a human forgiveness thus conquer, thus win, and thus inspire the fear of offending? O Lord, “there is forgiveness with You; for You have cast all my sins behind Your back, that I may serve You with reverence and godly fear all the days of my life, and henceforth to be Your servant, Your child forever!” Oh what a corrective of sin, what a motive to fear, what an incentive to obedience is God’s forgiveness! “There is FORGIVENESS with You, that You may be FEARED.”

That which gives us the clearest, deepest, and most solemn view and conviction of God’s holiness and love, inspires the most effectually a holy, filial, loving fear to offend Him. And where shall we find such an awful display of His holiness, and such overpowering demonstration of His love, as in the cross of Christ? Men do not fear God because they have no view of His holiness, no sense of His mercy, and no experience of His love. But God’s forgiveness of sin furnishes the believer with the most convincing argument and with the most persuasive motive to live a pure, a holy, and a godly life. “The grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world; looking for that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Savior Jesus Christ”(Titus 2:11-13).” (emphases mine)

If you’re interested in reading more of Winslow’s work, consider Soul Depths and Soul Heights: Sermons on Psalm 130 and No Condemnation in Christ Jesus.

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