Discipleship and the Fear of God, Part 3
The Cultivation of Godly Fear in our Churches. By Osofo Annang
How then may we cultivate godly fear in our congregations?
Firstly it is through the Discernment of Divine Discipline in our midst. It is our ability to see the discipline of God in our daily experiences that instils fear of Him in us. God is a responsible Father, and as such He disciplines us all the time for our own good. The problem is that many of us fail to see God’s hand of discipline in our daily affairs and employ naturalistic explanations for our experiences.
When Ananias and Sapphira died, there were so many explanations that were open to the church. They could have interpreted it, as some do today, that the couple were merely shocked by Peter’s exhibition of the gift of a word of knowledge and so fainted and died. They could have said it was a perfectly explainable accident and there was nothing special about that. Instead they immediately discerned that God was at work in the couple’s death and realized His hand of discipline.
I think that God continues to discipline His children all the time and in many ways. The book of Hebrews correctly says that if God did not discipline us then we are indeed bastards (Heb 12:8). The problem is not that God is not disciplining us; the problem is that we are so blind that we do not see His discipline in our daily experiences. Like Balaam, the judging angel of the Lord could be standing right in front of us with his flaming sword drawn and yet we could not see it. If we had discernment that some of the things that go wrong among us and that some of the difficulties and hardships we experience are God’s way of bringing us back to the correct path, we will have His fear among us.
We need an attitude that sees God at work in all the little and big experiences we face in life. We need an attitude that says, “I am a clay in the hands of God and whatever is happening to me, He is using it as a means of disciplining me and to bring me into line with His will”. Take the Corinthian church as an example. We all know about how notoriously that church had strayed from God’s path. The divisions, the adultery, the civil lawsuits, the fornication, the spiritual elitism, the worldliness, the desecration of the Lord’s Supper and the hypocrisy; these things did not escape God’s attention. But God did not abandon them to their own stubbornness.
He was always disciplining them and trying to restore them. Among them some people were dying prematurely and many were falling ill (1 Cor 11:30). But the Corinthian believers were so absorbed with themselves and in their spiritual snobbery and elitism, they failed to discern the discipline of God in their midst. Is that not also true of our churches today? It was the apostle Paul who discerned and drew the Corinthians’ attention to God’s discipline among them. We need this discernment all the time if we are to fear God.
Secondly, to cultivate the habit of godly fear in our churches we need the correct Application of Congregational Discipline. There is little fear of God because there is little discipline in our churches. Because there are so many churches, people are spoilt for choice. Churches have become so much in need of people rather than people needing churches. Many congregations have stopped disciplining members, in case they would abandon and leave the fellowship for another one. The members have therefore become the kings and queens in our churches.
Instead of the Lord Jesus reigning, our feelings and whims reign in our churches. Church elders who fail to apply the loving discipline of the Lord to faltering believers are harming the cause of Christ. How many churches today discipline stumbling believers and even excommunicate apostate ones? The deaths of Ananias and Sapphira were types of divine excommunication; it was God’s way of warning His people that in His presence there must be holiness. The test of our spirituality, Paul told the Galatians, is in the manner in which we restore brothers and sisters who stray from the faith (Gal 6:1).
Finally godly fear is cultivated in the church through the Passionate Preaching of the coming Judgment. One of the most important means of building God-fearing disciples is through the ministry of the preaching of the fierceness of God’s judgment. Preaching fire and brimstone judgment is not popular these days, but it is supposed to play a very important role in building disciples. Warning people of the danger of falling away and incurring God’s wrath is one of the solemn responsibilities of preachers.
Preachers must shoulder some of the blame for the lack of godly fear in our churches today. Preaching God’s love, His kindness, His power and His generosity is very important. So also is preaching about His holiness and fierce judgment. It is true that salvation is once and for all, and once we are in Christ, we “shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:28). But that is one side of the coin about our salvation. Though it is permanent, it is equally a daily matter of not taking God for granted and not presuming upon Him. We must realize that falling away is possible. It occurred in the New Testament times and continues to occur today.
Salvation is seen not by the theological formulae or jargons that we are able recite but by the character that we exhibit. When Paul spoke about those upon whom God’s judgment would come, he didn’t say that God’s anger will come on those who don’t attend this or that church; he said rather that God "will give to each person according to what he has done…those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger” (Rom 2:6-8). Preachers need to preach like that. They shouldn’t be saying, “come to our church and you shall escape judgment”. They should say, “Repent from these sins, abandon immorality and show your salvation by fearing God”. If a preacher were to preach like that, his colleagues would accuse him or her of preaching “works righteousness”, that s/he is encouraging the congregation to seek salvation by doing good works. But that is not so. True faith, true belief in the gospel, shows itself by its product. Jesus said, “by their fruit you will recognize them. Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Mat 7:20-21).
In each and every book of the New Testament, there are parts in which the writer takes pains to warn of the fierce anger and punishment of God on those who do not fear Him. When Jesus did it in the gospels, He used His predictions of the fall of Jerusalem and the judgment to follow (Mat 24, Mk 13) to warn His disciples to stay true to their calling and close to His words. When Paul wanted to warn the Corinthians, he used the destruction of the Exodus generation in the wilderness as an example. He wrote “We should not test the Lord, as some of them did—and were killed by snakes…these things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us” (1 Cor 10:9, 11). When Peter wanted to warn his people, he wrote: “it is time for judgment to begin with the family of God; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God? And, "If it is hard for the righteous to be saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner” (1 Pet 4:17-18).
The writer of Hebrews was an expert at such pastoral warnings of God’s discipline. Again and again he cajoles and coaxes and persuades and warns his people to be careful, to fear lest they fail to reach God’s promised rest. “If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God” (Heb 10:26-27). If only we preached like that, there would be the fear of God in our churches. You see people ask the wrong questions of the Bible. They ceaselessly debate whether it is possible for a Christian to loose their salvation.
But debate was not the aim of these verses. The aim was to instil in us godly fear so we don’t deliberately keep on sinning. That is what effective passionate and pastoral preaching of God’s judgment does. And this is what we need today in our churches.
The disciple-maker may be likened to a driving instructor. The duty of the instructor is twofold: firstly s/he must teach the details of driving to the point of instilling confidence in the learner so s/he can drive safely on the road. But secondly s/he must put fear in the learner; yes the fear of death if you don’t drive carefully, the fear of accidents that are waiting in every corner of the
road. S/he must inculcate in the learner the need not to presume, not to be overconfident; not to drive while tired, drunk or confused and not to loose concentration on the road. This fear is a good thing for it keeps the learner alive! This is exactly what godly fear does in discipleship.
It is the duty of preachers, cell leaders, Sunday school teachers and all disciple makers on the one hand to ensure that believers are confident about their salvation, and sure of the love and acceptance of God. But at the same time, it is our duty to ensure that believers fear God, that they don’t presume upon Him and belittle His grace. We are doing the first duty very well, but somehow we are failing the Lord and our people for not teaching the Biblical fear of God. May God grant to us this fear that He gave the early church.
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