Gold Coast Bereans

Out of Ghana, West Africa; Christian hearts and critical minds seeking, speaking and writing the truth with love. This is a conversation of a group of friends, now living in the USA and the UK, who have known each other for more than 20 years.

Friday, October 06, 2006

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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Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Discipleship and the Fear of God, Part 2

The Characteristics of Disciple-Making Fear, by Annang

What are the features of the kind of fear that brings blessing and growth on the people of God?
Firstly, it is a God centred fear; it is a fear that exalts God among His people. Because it sees God as a “consuming fire”, it worships Him in the acceptable way (Heb 12:28). Godly fear does not play with fire. It is conscious of God’s holiness and does not take Him for granted: “The LORD Almighty is the one you are to regard as holy, he is the one you are to fear, he is the one you are to dread” (Is 8:13).

It all depends on how high or how low your view or fear of God is and how fierce or how tame He is in your midst. The more we try to make our God relevant to today’s circumstances, language and jargons, the more we make Him irrelevant as the exalted Lord Almighty. Godly fear knows who God is; and like Moses in the wilderness, or Isaiah in the temple, the person with this fear is filled with dread and submits unreservedly to Him. This fear enriches our worship. “In the council of the holy ones”, Ps 89:7 says, “God is greatly feared”. The holier God’s people are, the more His presence is tangible to them and the more they fear and worship Him.

Not only holiness but also love for God characterizes godly fear. Those who would love God fear Him more. “And now, O Israel, what does the LORD your God ask of you but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul” (Deut 10:12). This is the paradox of the Christian faith, that the more you fear God the more intimate your relationship with Him becomes, because the more of Himself that He reveals to you. We love Him less because we fear Him less.

Secondly, godly fear is a matter of the will more than the emotion. Perhaps this is why we struggle to fear Him today, because much of our Christian efforts and activities these days are geared towards strengthening and uplifting the human emotion rather than the human will. One of the strangest verses of the Bible is God’s assessment of Abraham’s faith in Gen 22:12: “Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son”! You are right to ask, did God not know that Abraham feared Him until he attempted to sacrifice his son in faith and obedience?

In God’s economy, fearing Him is shown by your action and attitude of submission to Him out of faith. It is when you have given all in your hands to Him, when you have refused to cling to the little idols you hold so dear, when you have surrendered and obeyed Him to the uttermost sacrifice that God comes to know that you indeed fear Him. Tell me, does He know that you fear Him? Is God aware of your fear of Him? It is not your tears that show your fear, my friend; it is your act of obedience from the will.

Godly fear, my brothers and sisters, is shown when we refuse to doubt and question God even in the face of disappointments, loss of jobs, dear ones and things that we hold so dear. It is when we remain resolutely humble under His mighty hand through pain and suffering that we show that we fear Him. Godly fear is an act of surrender and submission to God’s all-knowing wisdom in dealing with us. It is a personal decision not to belittle God and rebel but to stay close to Him despite your disappointment. When Job was crushed and disappointed with the way God has dealt with him against all his expectations, he was encouraged by others to confront God, curse Him, and perhaps provoke God to anger so He would take him out of his misery. But Job refused to do any of these things. Why didn’t he? The answer is this: It is because Job feared God. He said “I am terrified before him; when I think of all this, I fear him” (Job 23:15).

People who get bitter against God when things are not going the way they had hoped and expected have lost this sense of fear for God. It is time Christians in the postmodern world learnt that no one can box Jehovah God into a corner and manipulate Him to their every whim. Sometime, somehow, your Abraham or Job moment will come; when God may appear to go against your plans and wishes, and you will have to show Him that you fear Him. When you submit and surrender your will to His, God will know that you do indeed fear Him.

Thirdly, godly fear is a matter of ethical behaviour. This iis the reason why in countries, homes, workplaces and schools where there is no fear of God, sin reigns. David sets out the characteristics of godly fear in Ps 34:11-14. Godly fear, he says, is keeping the tongue from evil; it is turning from evil to do good. If you fear God, people will know it when you refuse to gossip, lie and slander your neighbours. In Lev 25 the Bible says that fearing God is a matter of not taking advantage of your sister or brother (Lev 25:17); it is a matter of helping the poor and destitute among you and not demanding interest rates for the loans you give them (Lev 25:35-36) and not being bossy over your subordinates at work (Lev 25:43-46).

Fearing God is demonstrated by how you conduct yourself in your mundane duties at home, school and work. In Luke 18:4, Jesus speaks about a judge who didn’t “fear God or care about men”. Why is that? It is because frankly, this judge was lazy and didn’t want to do his work. He couldn’t be bordered because the poor widow would not pay him enough. So he went on strike! If he feared God, he would have got on with his duties of administering justice.

Godly fear is practical. If you really fear God, you should be winning “the employee of the month” award at your workplace more often!

But godly fear is not just a matter of ethical behaviour, it is also a way of thinking, it is a philosophical outlook to life itself. Fear of God does not entertain thoughts and worldviews unworthy of Jehovah. This is what Solomon meant when he wrote in Prov 1:7: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge”. The search for true knowledge, the Bible says, should have as its foundation the fear of God. Scientists who fear God will not propose and teach theories that suggest that He does not exist! Sociologists who fear God will not explain things away as if God is dead.

Economists or geographers or accountants or doctors or nurses or administrators or traders or cleaners or labourers or farmers or fishermen or the unemployed or mothers or fathers or daughters or sons who fear God will not behave as if God is blind or deaf. Our whole way of approach of life in this world, according to 1 Pet 1:17 should be characterized by godly fear: “pass the time of your earthly residence in fear”. How much we need this fear today to beexhibited in our homes, schools and churches.

In the final and concluding part, we shall consider how to cultivate godly fear in our lives and in our Churches.

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