Interview with

Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org

Audio Transcript

“Pastor John, my name is Chase, and I’m a senior in high school. I’m wondering if you could shed some light on an issue I’ve been wrestling with the past few months. The best way I can phrase my question is: Does turning to Christ, motivated by a fear of avoiding hell, qualify as a legitimate form of saving faith? In other words, can someone be scared into salvation? Verses like Acts 8:24 and my experiences in the church and in evangelism make me think the answer is no, but I just read Jonathan Edwards’s sermon, ‘Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.’ He seems to think that the answer is yes, and beyond him, Christ warns of hell . . . A LOT. That makes me think the answer is yes, that fear of hell can save. I don’t want the comfortable answer, Pastor John, I want truth! Please help.” What would you say to Chase?

Well, I am really glad that this question comes right now, because it lets me, perhaps, kill two birds with one stone. A while back I spoke in Vancouver at a Look at the Book conference and a man named Andrew approached me — and I am saying his name so that he will know I am talking to him, because I just wrote him a letter today to say: I recorded my answer to your letter.

So we have got Chase and we have got Andrew and we are talking to both of them. And what Andrew asked me was a similar kind of question. He said something like: I have no qualms when you say a person comes to saving faith by seeing the beauty of Christ’s crucifixion and how it displays Christ’s glory. Here is his exact quote now: “Where I get confused is when you have stated that people should not think they are truly converted if they come to Christ for any other reason than for Christ himself.”

Okay, so you can see how similar the questions are. Chase is asking whether you can be truly converted if you are motivated by fear or desire to escape hell. And Andrew is asking whether you can be converted if you come to Christ for any other reason than the motive of fellowship with Christ himself or the enjoyment of the glory of Christ himself. So they really are very similar questions.

It is not bad to be motivated by fear to fly away from hell into the arms of Jesus and there discover that he is 10,000 times better than anything, including hell. That is not bad. In fact, that is normal. I would say that is normal. In other words, many motivations, many impulses, many experiences in life drive us to Jesus. Whether those motivations and impulses and experiences prove to be a means of salvation depends on what we make of Jesus when we get there. It might be a car wreck. It might be cancer. It might be anything. Anything can drive us to Jesus. So what drives us there is not what saves us. What saves us is what happens when we get there.

So now the same response would be true of positive motives alongside Jesus. That is Andrew’s question. We may be drawn by desire for forgiveness or desire to be free from a guilty conscience or the desire to have a meaningful life or the desire to belong to a loving group of people, because these truth people seem nice, or the hope of being free from disease some day. That is a nice promise to have. Now none of those desires is evil. They are all good. And they may function as motives to lead us to Christ who bought all those benefits for us. But again, the question of whether they prove to be means of our salvation is what we make of Christ when we come to him.

Now my guess is that virtually all Christians — and Andrew makes this point explicitly in his note — are motivated by desires that we have in addition to the desire to see Jesus himself and be with Christ himself. In other words, almost everybody comes to Christ with desires for more benefits in addition to being with Christ himself. It seems to me this reality is inevitable, not only because the way we were created and have physical appetites which we can’t stop like hunger or food. I like food because I am made to like food. But it is true also because the Bible itself holds out to us promises and blessings that include satisfaction of those appetites. It pictures the future as a banquet. And there are all kinds of pleasures that are held out to us that are pleasures besides being in the presence of Christ.

So let me throw out a few passages of Scripture that shed light on why I emphasize what I do. Here is Luke 12:4–7: “I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him. Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God. Why, the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not — fear not — you are of more value than many sparrows.”

So we are told to fear God, because he can cast into hell. And then we are told not to fear him because we are more valuable than sparrows. And I think the proper function of fear in those verses is to warn us that it is eternally deadly to fear man. In other words, fear the consequences of God’s judgment and let it drive you to be unafraid of God in the presence of Christ. Let it drive you away from fear of man into trust in Jesus so that you can realize that you are more valuable than sparrows and, therefore, fear not.

And here is another one: It says the same kind of thing in Romans 11:20, “You stand fast through faith. So do not become proud, but fear.” Well, what does that mean? You stand fast only through faith. Trust him. Trust him. Do not become proud, but fear. Fear what? Well, fear not trusting him. Fear becoming proud. Fear the horrible consequences of turning away from Jesus and let it drive you to him and his gracious promises. So I think fear has a powerful, appropriate, biblical function and role to play in maintaining the very faith that overcomes ungodly fear.

So what I want to maintain and to emphasize is that, if we come to Christ only motivated by fear — that is answering Chase’s question — if we come to Christ only motivated by fear or only motivated by desire for something other than the glory of Christ — and that is answering Andrew’s question — in either case we are not converted. I will say that again, because I don’t know if they are going to like it. If we come to Christ and all we feel moving us or holding us there is fear, or if we come to Christ and all we feel holding us in his presence are his gifts and not himself, then we are not saved. And here is why I say that: 1 Corinthians 16:22 says, “If anyone has no love for the Lord, let him be accursed.” So if you don’t love the Lord — you just love his gifts — you are cursed.

Here is another one: 1 Peter 3:18 says, “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God.” And if we don’t want to be with God — if all we want is a disease-free heaven with lots of physical pleasures there and we don’t really care whether God is there or not if I don’t have any pain anymore — then we are not saved.

Here is another one: Philippians 3:8 says, “For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count all of them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.” Now here is the key: “in order that.” “I count everything as rubbish in order that.” What does that mean? “In order that I may gain Christ.” I think it means that you don’t gain Christ if you love your rubbish more than him. If you just have rubbish and Christ and you don’t see Christ as superior to the rubbish, you don’t gain Christ. That is the logic of Philippians 3:8. So I want to emphasize that, if we come to Christ only put there and held there by fear or only put there and held there by some gift of Christ and not his glory, no, we are not saved.

So in answer to Andrew’s question: I think he misquoted me. I hope he misquoted me. I mean, I might say things wrong, but I don’t mean to teach that it is illegitimate to desire other things besides Christ when we come to Christ. Rather, what I mean to teach is that, if we do come to Christ with the desire for other things besides Christ, we must desire Christ more than the other things. Is that clear? And the reason is because of Matthew 10:37: “Whoever loves mother or father more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.”

It is okay to love your mother and father — just not more than Jesus. And if they have died and gone to heaven, it is okay to want to see them some day — just not more than Jesus. We are idolaters if we love any good thing more than we love Jesus. And here is one more point: As we mature, we will come to experience the reality that we taste Christ not simply as sweeter than all other things, but that we taste Christ as the best sweetness in all other things.

So in summary, yes, we can be motivated to come to Christ out of fear and that may be a good thing, provided that, when we come to Christ, we want Christ and not only his gifts and we want him more than his gifts.