From Fear To Faith
29 October 2017
A study on the proper fear of God by John Dugas
Grace Bible Church, Tulsa
Full Audio Message
From Fear To Faith
The Gospel has the power to move us from fear alone, to a faith that fears and trusts God. Today on Reformation Sunday, we are reminded of what God did through His saving work in a monk named Martin Luther. Why did we need a Reformation? It had a lot to do with a distorted view of God. Most people only thought about God in terms of terror-fear. There was no trust-fear.
Unbelieving religious leaders could only understand the terror-fear of God. They saw God only as the “All Terrible” God. This worked well for them because that terror kept the people dependent upon their leaders. You could only please such a wrathful God through multiplying good works that were prescribed by the religious leaders such as pilgrimages, confession, sacraments, indulgences, and so on. Like children with an unpredictable father, they constantly sought approval.
But how would you know what is enough? This caused great anxiety. People lived in terror under this distorted view of God. This, and the leaders’ need for money gave rise to the selling of indulgences which provided written “proof” of heaven. The leaders taught that if you didn’t do enough to appease God, you had to spend time in Purgatory where you would be tormented and tortured to pay off your remaining sins. This could be for a very long time. Buying indulgences supposedly got someone out of purgatory early.
Along came a young university student who had grown up under all of this. Martin Luther had no way of knowing if he would ever satisfy God’s wrath. How can we live under a holy God that we can never satisfy? Paintings and drawings popular at that time contributed to this fear. One popular picture of Christ showed a lily coming from out of the right side of His head (resurrection life) and a sword out of the other side (eternal punishment). You never really knew which He would greet you with. Imagine the Prodigal son seeing his father holding in one hand a ring and a robe and in the other a sword. Which would he greet his son with? That’s the fear that the people lived with.
He had a couple of religious experiences which impacted him greatly, but couldn’t move him beyond terror-fear of God. God constantly watched so He could punish. The first was when as a university student he was traveling along the road when a violent storm arose and a bolt of lightning crashed nearby, knocking him to the ground. He called out to St. Anne. If she would save him, he promised to become a monk. The second experience came when as a monk he was performing his first mass. He was utterly terrified and nearly had a breakdown at the thought of calling upon this All Terrible God to turn the bread and wine into the body and blood of God Himself! (His father was there too, causing fear of man to arise!)
Luther used a German word to describe the spiritual trials of life, anfechtung. It describes “all the doubt, turmoil, pang, terror, panic, despair, desolation, and desperation which invade the spirit of man” (Bainton, Here I Stand, p. 42). And because of his distorted view of God, anfechtung led to “spiritual doubts that we could ever be forgiven and welcomed as the Father’s son or daughter” (Kellemen, Counseling Under The Cross, p. 12).
While Luther excelled as a monk, it still offered him no assurance that he was any closer to satisfying God’s wrath for his sins. There were times when he would wear out the other priests with his six hour confession sessions! But he found that the more he did, the more uncertain he became.
What turned Luther from the distorted view of God was getting him into the Bible. Eventually, Luther came under a mentor named Johann von Staupitz. Struggling to know how to get Luther to stop focusing on desperately confessing sins, Staupitz appointed Luther to teach the Scriptures. That is where Luther came face to face with God’s truth and it was then that God’s Word began to exert its miraculous power on Luther.
When Luther was preaching through Psalms, he came to Ps 22 which opened with these words on the lips of our Savior, “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?” Luther was astounded. Did our Savior experience anfechtung too? And for us? That was a turning point that changed his view of God. Instead of being the All Terrible God, Jesus was a truly merciful Savior. Next, Luther taught through Romans and Galatians. He would soon learn where righteousness must come from.
Luther hated the Gospel because it appeared to tease him with an offer of life, but an offer that he could never earn. Can any sinner achieve the righteousness of God? David acknowledged before God in Ps 143:2 “in Your sight no man living is righteous.” What hope did Luther find?
What was at the heart of the problem in Luther’s day (and is at the heart of the problem in any era) is the problem where people seek to become righteous by their own power. Let’s look now at Romans 1:18
All of the omnipotent power of God is at work in the gospel to save sinners. This is astounding—that God would put such power into the Gospel to save sinners. God loves sinners so much that He provided the Gospel infused with His omnipotent power—power capable of saving sinners! Why then is it that the gospel is the saving power of God to everyone who believes? Look at v. 17.
I. Righteousness is given by God.
Paul is here talking about the Gospel from Romans 1:16. It is in the preaching of that powerful Gospel that God reveals to us His righteousness. What is this righteousness of God?
When Martin thought about righteousness, he always assumed it referred only to the righteousness of God, meaning the wrath of God. He told about how he hated Paul with all his heart for saying that God’s righteousness is revealed in the gospel. Looking back, he later explained, “That text helped me. There I saw what righteousness Paul was talking about…I learned to distinguish between the righteousness of the law and the righteousness of the gospel…[previously] I regarded both as the same thing But when I discovered the proper distinction—namely, that the law is one thing and the gospel is another—I made myself free.” (Luther’s Works, quoted in Kellemen, pp. 33-34).
By this idea, the righteousness of God, Paul means that believers are given a righteous status by the work of God where God declares the believer to be righteous. Paul will develop this idea further in Rom 5:17, saying that believers are given “the gift of righteousness”. And that gift came to us based on the righteousness of Jesus (Rom 5:18). We don’t cause our salvation. God does. This idea of ‘given’ is supported by the next word, “revealed”.
It is in the power of the gospel preached that God makes known that His righteousness is given to people. It is this alien [from outside of us] righteousness that is given to the person who believes. You see, the word ‘revealed’ carries with it the idea that God’s righteousness is given. It is not merely revealed in the sense of making it known, but also revealed in applying that righteousness to the believer. For example, the very next verse uses the term ‘revealed’ to mean that God’s wrath is inflicted upon ungodly people. That is, God’s wrath is given to them.
II. Righteousness is received by faith.
It is possible to understand this phrase from faith to faith to describe how the gospel is preached by one person of faith and then received by another person of faith. This would tie in with Rom 1:16 and Rom 10:14. However, I think Paul means that the power of the Gospel works within a person “altogether by faith” (Cranfield). The idea then is that salvation comes by faith from start to finish. In other words, our righteous standing and living is completely by faith and only by faith.
Paul supports the idea that God’s righteousness comes only to those who believe by quoting from Hab 2:4, that the righteous man shall live by faith. There was a contrast in Habakkuk’s day between two kinds of people. There were those who were proud and self-sufficient and those who humbly trusted God by faith.
Habakkuk complained that God wasn’t doing anything about the injustices among God’s people. But God explained how the righteous person is to face these difficulties and apparent contradictions between what God promises and what is happening in history. The righteous person lives by faith. He trusts in God. Similarly in Paul’s day, Jews assumed that by their good works, keeping the Law, they earned a righteous standing. So Paul says that it is not by the works of the Law that makes a person righteous, but those who have faith in God, who receive the righteousness that God gives.
Luther told of how his understanding was corrected when studying Rom 1:17 that our righteousness doesn’t come from our works but by faith. “I soon came to the conclusion that if we, as righteous men, ought to live from faith and if the righteousness of God should contribute to the salvation of all who believe, then salvation won’t be our merit but God’s mercy…My spirit was thereby cheered. For it’s by the righteousness of God that we’re justified and saved through Christ…The Holy Spirit unveiled the Scriptures for me” (Luther’s Works, quoted in Kellemen, p. 36).
III Righteousness that is received, results in life.
Paul explained that those who receive God’s righteousness by faith shall live. In Romans, Paul means by the word ‘life’ that the believer becomes spiritually alive after being spiritually dead (Rom 4:17; 5:18). He also means life with God (Rom 6:4, 11), and true spiritual life which the believer begins now but will enjoy fully in eternity (Rom 5:17, 21; 6:23). Life comes to those who believe.
Armed with truth from Ps 22, Romans and Galatians, Luther came to understand that God is The All Merciful One. Luther came to understand that God the Father sent His Son to die in the place of sinners, instructing our Savior to pay for our sins and satisfy the wrath of God so that we would not have to endure that wrath. We receive Jesus’ righteousness by faith alone.