Many people are ready to embrace the idea that God is love, if they themselves can define what that means. Perhaps they want it to mean that God affirms them no matter who they are and what they do. Or that God is there for us when we need Him. It fits in well with a therapeutic culture that focuses everything on the self. But it doesn’t fit with the biblical view of God as transcendent and glorious in holiness. It is true that God is love and He is good but God is also holy. He is a God of both mercy and justice. He is described as a consuming fire in the New Testament as well as the Old.
What does this mean? In both Deuteronomy 4:24 and Hebrews 12:29 it speaks of God’s holiness, justice and jealousy for His worship. We ought to worship Him with a deep, spiritual sense of His holiness and greatness. We need grace to approach His worship in the right way. The particular grace mentioned is fear, a spiritual awe and reverence. As is clear in both Deuteronomy 4 and Hebrews 12, this also includes a loving carefulness in relation to God’s worship. We must confine ourselves to the ways He has appointed for us to worship Him (Deuteronomy 4:2; Leviticus 10:1-3; Exodus 20:5). Taking Hebrews 12:29 seriously means recognising both that God is still a consuming fire and that this still requires of us the same reverence and fear. Robert Traill notes that the Bible frequently says that true religion begins with and is summed up by the fear of God. In this updated extract he draws out the implications of Hebrews 12:29. In the first place he deals with common objections to the idea of fearing God.
1. Should We Really Fear God?
There are various false objections against this precious and necessary grace.
(a) Isn’t God All Mercy and Goodness?
The first carries away thousands to destruction; it is the idea that God is all mercy and goodness. It is true that His mercy and goodness are infinite; yet, so is His justice. We will not stop to show why this is mistaken or discuss it further. It is enough that the Holy Spirit declares the awesome majesty of God, in this figurative expression “our God is a consuming fire”.
(b) Isn’t This Just an Old Testament Idea?
Some think that the New Testament does not require the fear and dread of God in the way that the Old Testament did. They draw a contrast between law and love and punishment and mercy. The apostle clearly corrects this mistake in Hebrews 12:18-29. He both compares and identifies the differences between the two eras. In verse 28 he concludes that all the love and mercy revealed in the gospel must produce worship with fear. He supports this in verse 29.
(c) Doesn’t Salvation Remove Fear?
Others acknowledge that God is still holy and just in Himself. Yet they say that when we are saved and in Christ all such dread and fear is removed. Salvation requires nothing but love, and delight, and familiarity. The Holy Spirit corrects this mistake by declaring, that even “our God,” our covenanted God, is a “consuming fire.” As consuming fire is a dreadful thing, so when God is described in this way we are to take account of His dreadful nature and majesty.
(d) Isn’t this Legalistic?
Some are ready to object that serving God with fear is inconsistent with the boldness in approaching God that His people are privileged to have. Deep heart-reverence and holy awe is not legalistic or the opposite of faith and love. Serving God acceptably, with reverence and godly fear because He is a consuming fire does not imply unbelieving fear.
Sometimes is difficult to be filled with joy and holy fear together; this is due to our weakness. But this does not mean that the two graces are opposed to each other. Sometimes we are indeed called to exercise either reverence or love more than the other. A despondent soul should meditate more on the mercy and love of God to stir itself to faith and love. But a backslidden believer should meditate on God’s holiness, majesty and hatred of sin to stir themselves up to repentance and returning to God.
2. God is a Consuming Fire in Himself
(a) There is an infinite distance between Him and us and every soul that truly considers this must be filled with dread. No one can see God and live.
(b) God is holy in His nature (Isaiah 6:3; Revelation 4:8). Only God is holy (Revelation 15:4). He is of purer eyes than that He can behold iniquity. How then can a sinner not fear?
(c) God is just. He sits on His throne judging right (Psalm 9:4). We are breakers of His law from the womb to the grave. How dreadful is this attribute of God!
(d) God is infinitely faithful and irresistibly powerful in exercising justice. No creature can either by subtlety or strength escape His hand.
3. God is a Consuming Fire in His Works
The way that God orders and maintains all creation, and how He accomplishes all His purposes according to His wise decrees should make us tremble. Heaven and hell are fearful things, and should awaken our hearts to greater fear.
Yet how much of His fearful glory is to be seen in His church and ordinances. He is terrible out of His holy places (Psalm 68:35; Genesis 28:17). In His ordinances this consuming fire draws near to us and we to him, though with offers of mercy and salvation. Yet to those who abuse them there is a certain fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation, which will devour the adversaries. In prayer, we speak to Him. What fear Abraham, Moses and Jacob express in prayer!
4. God is a Consuming Fire in Covenant
Even God in covenant with His own is to be feared (Deuteronomy 28:58). Why is this?
(a) Because they know Him, and none can know Him without fearing Him. It is natural to have a holy fear when God is revealed to us (Job 37:24). Lack of fear shows lack of knowledge.
(b) Because He is still the same God. It is true that His justice satisfied in Christ will never break out against them to destroy them. They can consider all the attributes of God (even the most terrifying) with comfort and delight. Yet all those things in Him which produce fear and reverence are still in our covenanted God.
(c) Because we still have unholiness within us. It is true that there is a change in the state of believers in justification and adoption. A change in their natures has begun through sanctification; yet still they are creatures. And there is still much unholiness in their hearts and lives. All sin in itself is equally hateful to God and contrary to His holy nature. They are still under His holy law and bound to obey it not as the way to life but as a rule of life. They will still be chastised for disobedience.
(d) Because we have experience of being chastised. This was so eminently with David, (Psalm 51:5). The saints fear God’s goodness, love, pardoning and healing mercy (Hosea 3:5, Psalm 130:4).
5. We Should Serve Our God with Fear
(a) In Our Lives
Careful walking with God, keeping a watch over the heart and edifying conversation are only theoretical to most Christians. This comes from an ignorance of Him with whom we have to do? How rarely does the power of religion shine in the lives of Christians.
(b) In Our Worship
When many come to pray, they rush into it irreverently as though they were coming to talk to someone just like themselves. How rarely are hearts deeply impressed with the sense of the majesty of the one whom they address. Many listen to sermons as if the purpose was to weigh up the gifts of the speaker or to get more brain-knowledge. Few take heed how they hear. Few come to get a message delivered to them from the living God, and tremble at the Word. This is due to the lack of a proper fear of God. Many approach the Lord’s Table without proper preparation and so eat unworthily. They do not consider that it is one of the most solemn approaches that the Lord makes to us, and that we make to Him. We would prepare far differently if we feared to take His name in vain in that ordinance.
(c) In Our Hearts
Are you careful to maintain constant communion with God. Do you live as though you were in His sight? Do you take His law for your rule in all your ways? Is godliness no more than being outwardly respectable and attending church? This is a serious mistake. What do you with the convictions of your conscience? Do you quench them or consider them? What do you give your affections to throughout the day? What do you think about first in the morning and last at night? Is it God? How can the fear of God be in us?
We must seek to know God more and have deeper views of His majesty. We need to maintain our sense of both His holiness and love together without losing either. Let us meditate on Him more and pray that He will manifest more of His glory to us. This will help stir up this holy fear and reverence within us.