What we saw last week from Philippians 1:27–28 is that Christians are called to live a life that shows the worth of the gospel. "Lead a life worthy of the gospel," Paul said. Let your life be an advertisement for how valuable the gospel is.
And then Paul said that one of the effects that the gospel has on the life of those who believe it is fearlessness. "Lead a life worthy of the gospel so that when I come I may find that you stand firm, unafraid of any of your opponents." In other words, one of the ways that our lives show the worth of the gospel is when the gospel makes us bold and courageous and unafraid.
Now what we see today in Proverbs 28:1 is a powerful confirmation of that truth. It says, "The wicked flee when no one is pursuing, but the righteous are bold as a lion." In other words, there is a correlation between wickedness and fear on the one hand, and righteousness and courage on the other hand. And the gospel is a message about how wicked people can get right with God through Jesus Christ so that they have a righteousness that makes them as bold as a lion.
Removing a Misunderstanding
Let's begin our thinking about this verse by removing a misunderstanding. When Proverbs says that "the wicked flee when no one is pursuing," and, "the righteous are bold as a lion," it does not mean that there are no bold wicked people, and no times when the righteous become timid. It means that in general there is something about wickedness that leads to fear and something about righteousness that leads to boldness.
The reason we know this is because, for example, in Proverbs 14:16 it says that the fool "rages and is bold" (the same Hebrew word as used here for what the righteous do—they're bold as a lion). Most versions translate the word "careless"—"the fool rages and is careless." The verse means that it is possible for a fool who doesn't even believe in God, let alone the gospel, to act in a bold and reckless way, and even risk his life.
So the point of Proverbs 28:1 is not that the wicked can't ever act in bold and reckless ways. In fact for the sake of more wickedness there is often an utterly foolish willingness to take crazy risks (promiscuous sex, mind-altering drugs, dirty needles, dangerous speeding, Russian roulette, all kinds of criminal acts). Proverbs 28:1 doesn't have in mind that kind of boldness when it says the righteous have it and the wicked don't. The boldness in view is the boldness required for a just cause.
What Is It About the Wicked That Makes Them Flee?
But what is it about the wicked that makes them so often flee (in the presence of justice) when no one is pursuing? We can answer that question from our own experience and from biblical examples. The answer is: a bad conscience. When you see a police car ahead, is your response one of confidence and peace, or is it one of fear and avoidance—even when he has no intention to pursue you? Does the way you play basketball or soccer or football have anything to do with how you feel when a whistle blows, even when it's not blowing for you? Do you ever start defending yourself in a conversation before anybody even criticizes you of something?
We flee when we're not even being pursued because we have a bad conscience. There are enough stored up bad things we've done, that a voice inside tells us someone is after us even when they are not. Guilt is the parent of fear. Our conscience creates the pursuer that ought to be there even when he is not there.
Illustrated in the Life of Adam
The earliest example of this is Adam in the garden of Eden. He sins against the Lord. He acts wickedly, believing the serpent instead of God his Father. Then Genesis 3:8 says that Adam and Eve "heard the sound of the Lord walking in the garden in the cool of the day." Not stalking, just walking. He is not pursuing. He is there, as he often was for the good of his people. But things were not the same now. Adam and Eve now have a bad conscience. And a bad conscience makes breezes into burglars and shadows into ghosts and police into adversaries and parents into police and God into an enemy—even when they are not.
Verse 8 goes on: "And the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden." And then the Lord called to the man and said, "Where are you?" And Adam said, "I heard the sound of you in the garden and I was afraid."
Never before did Adam have to flee at the arrival of God. And now he flees when no one is pursuing. Why? Because his conscience condemns him and he hears this condemnation in every breeze that blows and every creak in the door and every whistle on the field; he sees it in every shadow and every flashing light; and he feels it in the presence of God.
What a Guilty Conscience Does
"The wicked flee when no one is pursuing." What this is teaching is that you and I have a conscience given by God, and that our conscience is committed to getting our accounts settled—to making things right when we've done wrong. In fact, this God-given conscience is so committed not to let us rest with unrectified wrong that it will create pursuers out of nothing. A guilty conscience will turn shadows into phantoms and ambulances into police cars and innocent inquiries into indictments and doorbells into threats and mailmen into warrant officers and school teachers into wardens and parents into cross-examiners and friends into traitors and simple office memos into termination papers.
A guilty conscience will create pursuers out of anything unless we drown it with alcohol, or numb it with drugs, or silence it with endless blasts of music and flights from quiet solitude, or harden it with constant denials. The wicked are people who will not make right what they have done wrong nor set their face to do good. And while the grace of God persists, they flee when no one pursues. But woe to the wicked who cease to hear the footsteps of God in the garden.
The righteous are not so. The verse goes on, "The wicked flee when no one is pursuing, but the righteous are bold as a lion."
Who Are the Lion-Hearted Righteous?
Who are the righteous? Who are the lion-hearted righteous ones? Let me take the one answer from Psalm 32, and then let Martin Luther show us how he became righteous before God and how it made him bold as a lion.
In Psalm 32:1–2 David says, "How blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered! How blessed is the man against whom the Lord does not impute iniquity!" Then at the end of the psalm David tells us what sort of person this is whose sins are forgiven and whose transgressions are not counted. Verses 10–11: "He who trusts in the Lord, loving kindness shall surround him. Be glad in the Lord and rejoice you righteous ones and shout for joy all you upright in heart."
The righteous ones are the ones who trust in the Lord—the ones who have faith and bank their hope on the mercy and power and wisdom of God. These are the ones against whom the Lord does not impute iniquity and whose sins are forgiven. They are righteous not with a righteousness of their own, but with the imputed righteousness of God.
These are the ones who are free from fear. Their consciences are "sprinkled clean from an evil conscience" (Hebrews 10:22). Their hearts no longer condemn them (1 John 3:21). They are right with God, because of his grace, not because of their merit. And their boldness with God and with men shows the worth and the value of the gospel (Hebrews 4:2, 6) of God's grace.
Illustrated in the Life of Martin Luther
The life of Martin Luther illustrates the connection between getting right with God and a life of boldness. If it can be said of anyone since the days of the apostles that "the righteous are bold as a lion," it must be said of Martin Luther, the great German reformer.
Luther was a monk who could not find peace with God because of his sin. In the fall of 1515 Luther was lecturing in the University of Wittenburg on the epistle to the Romans. The most decisive event of his life happened. Here is the way he tells it:
I greatly longed to understand Paul's Epistle to the Romans and nothing stood in the way but that one expression, "the justice of God," because I took it to mean that justice whereby God is just and deals justly in punishing the unjust. My situation was that, although an impeccable monk, I stood before God as a sinner troubled in conscience, and I had no confidence that my merit would assuage him. Therefore I did not love a just and angry God, but rather hated and murmured against him. Yet I clung to the dear Paul and had a great yearning to know what he meant.
Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the justice of God and the statement that "the just shall live by his faith." Then I grasped that the justice of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justifies us through faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise. The whole of Scripture took on new meaning, and whereas before the "justice of God" had filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressibly sweet in greater love. This passage of Paul became to me a gate to heaven.1
Luther had begun to see this in the Psalms (cf. Psalm 32:11–12 = Romans 4:7–8) in 1513–1514. Now he had seen it clearly in Romans, the door to paradise was opened, he banked his hope fully on the gospel and received the righteousness of God through faith and became as bold as a lion.
His life was one long act of lion-hearted boldness against the abuses of the Roman church and for the glory of the gospel.
His most famous stand was taken in 1521 at a kind of trial in the city of Worms before the Catholic Holy Roman Emperor Charles, the local governor, Fredrick the Wise, the Archbishop of Trier named Eck, and a host of lords and princes. The power of the assembly was enough to banish or execute him for heresy.
The prosecutor cried, "Do you or do you not repudiate your books and the errors which they contain?" Luther replied,
Since then Your Majesty and your lordships desire a simple reply, I will answer without horns and without teeth. Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason—I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other—my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. [Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise.] God help me. Amen.2
"The wicked flee when no one is pursuing [because their conscience—the echo of God—condemns them], but the righteous are bold as a lion," because their conscience is made clean by the righteousness of God imputed to them through faith in Jesus Christ, and there is no condemnation. May the gospel of God's free righteousness (2 Corinthians 5:21; Romans 1:17; Philippians 3:19) take us captive like it did Martin Luther, and radically free us from fear, so that we can be as bold as a lion for the sake of the gospel!
1 Quoted in Roland Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (New York: Mentor, 1950), pp. 49–50.
2 Quoted in Roland Bainton, Here I Stand, p. 144. The bracketed words were not recorded on the spot but do appear in the first printed versions.