We are approaching Halloween. It will be here on Sunday. For many, it’s a day about ghosts and ghouls and goblins and pumpkins and candy. But for some of us, the day serves as an annual reminder of the Protestant Reformation. Reformation Day reminds us how Paul’s epistle to the Romans ignited a fire in Martin Luther’s soul, a fire so bold that he stood against an entire religious system that wanted to shut him up and shut him down. It didn’t. Luther gave his life to preach the gospel of justification before a holy God through the vicarious substitution of Jesus Christ. The Reformer epitomizes lionhearted boldness. So where does such boldness come from? And why are sinners so fearful in life? As we move toward Reformation Day, this is a great clip from a 1993 John Piper sermon, a sermon on Proverbs 28:1, which reads, “The wicked flee when no one pursues, but the righteous are bold as a lion.” It begins with Pastor John mentioning Proverbs 14:16 and talking about the guilty conscience. Here he is.
Bold for Justice
“The fool rages and is bold” (Proverbs 14:16, author’s translation). And the word bold is the same word as in Proverbs 28:1: “The righteous are bold as a lion.” So fools can be bold and the righteous can be bold, which causes me to think — as you find with so many Proverbs — that what is being said here in this verse is that, in general, there’s something about wickedness that kindles fear, and there’s something about righteousness that kindles boldness. But it’s not so absolute that there isn’t a kind of boldness that the wicked can have and there isn’t a kind of timidity that, now and then, the righteous can have.
And we all know that from experience, and we know it from the Bible, that there is a reckless boldness that the wicked have, especially in the pursuit of their wickedness: dirty needles, promiscuous sex, speeding, reckless crime. It takes a lot of stupid boldness to do what many wicked do. They are not often cowardly in the pursuit of sin. They take manifold risks with their lives and their freedom and their eternity.
So there is a kind of boldness that the wicked have; it’s just not the kind that’s being talked about in verse 1. The kind of boldness that’s being talked about here is the boldness that’s required in the atmosphere of justice. And there’s something about wickedness that, in the atmosphere of justice, flees even when there’s no one pursuing. And there’s something about the righteous that is bold as a lion for the cause of justice.
Scared from the Start
What is it about the wicked that makes them flee when no one is pursuing? I think you know the answer to that. We can find it from the Bible. We can find it in our experience. The answer is that a bad conscience, a guilty conscience, an evil conscience, makes the person flee when no one is pursuing. When you see a police car, is your first response gratitude that there are law-keepers? When you play basketball, or used to play basketball or soccer or football, did the way you play affect the response you felt every time the whistle blew? When you’re in a conversation, do you begin to defend yourself even before there’s been any accusation or anything clearly said against what you think? Do you flee because you can hear an accuser where there may even be none?
We flee when we’re not being pursued because we have a bad conscience. There are a lot of things stored up in our lives, bad things that we have done that we have not made right, and a voice inside is telling us that someone is after us, even when they are not. Guilt is the parent of fear, and our conscience is very creative. Conscience creates pursuers where there ought to be some and are not any. The breeze turns into a burglar. The shadows turn into ghosts. Police turn into adversaries. Parents turn into police. God turns into an enemy — all when they are not.
Genesis 3:8 says, “The man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden.” He wasn’t pursuing. He didn’t have a gun. And God said to Adam, “Where are you?” (Genesis 3:9). And Adam said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid” (Genesis 3:10). And we’ve been afraid ever since. We’ve been afraid of him ever since.
“We flee when we’re not being pursued because we have a bad conscience.”
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 schoolteachers into wardens, and parents into cross-examiners, and friends into traitors, and simple office memos into termination papers. The conscience is almost infinitely creative, and the wicked flee where there is no one pursuing — but there ought to be. The conscience makes up for what isn’t by creating out of nothing the pursuers we need to have to bring us to justice and repentance and reconciliation and forgiveness with people we’ve wronged.
A guilty conscience creates pursuers where there are none, unless you drown it with alcohol, or numb it with drugs, or blast it with constant loud music, and constant escapes from solitude, or endless denials — “It isn’t there, it isn’t conscience, it doesn’t count, it’s not important; I can live without talking to them” — until you go so far in hardening yourself against this God-given voice that it ceases, and you can no more hear the steps of God in the garden. And that is a dreadful place to be.
Lionhearted in Christ
The righteous ones are the people who trust in the Lord, and not in themselves and their own merit and their own deeds and their own righteousness. They trust in the Lord and his mercy and his steadfast kindness. And then they are the ones who, according to Psalm 32:1–2, have their sins covered, and their iniquities are not imputed to them. Their iniquities simply are not counted because they trust in the Lord. Now that’s who the righteous are in the Old Testament, the New Testament, and everywhere in this universe: the righteous are people who trust in the Lord and bank on Jesus Christ for everything they have and need. And they are as bold as a lion.
“Fear with men is rooted in the fear of not being right with God.”
If you can have that kind of boldness with God like Martin Luther had — so that you know, as you look the almighty, holy, infinitely wise and beautiful God in the face, that he imputes no iniquity to you — you will be as lionhearted as can be with men. Fear with men is rooted in the fear of not being right with God. If you knew God was standing at your right hand with infinite power, with his right hand on your shoulder, you’d be bold as a lion.
Here We Stand
Now I want to take Martin Luther as an example of that. In 1521, the lionheartedness came out. His whole life was one of incredible courage, but let me close with one illustration of his boldness. It was the fall of 1521. It was in the city of Worms. Charles, the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, and who had the biggest empire since Charlemagne, was there in the cathedral. Fredrick the Wise, the local governor, was there. The Archbishop of Trier, named Eck, was there. And a room at least as large as our sanctuary was filled with lords and nobles. Every one of them was against Martin Luther, and all of them had the capacity to sentence him to death for heresy and treason if he did not recant his criticisms of the Holy Catholic Church.
Eck said, “Do you or do you not repudiate your books and the errors which they contain?” And first in German, and then in Latin so that it could go down in the official register, he responded like this:
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. (Here I Stand, 182)
“The righteous are bold as a lion” (Proverbs 28:1). They are as bold as a lion because they are righteous in Christ. They look into the face of God, and they see a smile that imputes to them no iniquity, but rather makes “him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). And standing clothed with the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus, they are as bold as a lion before God and before men.
And my prayer for us in these days as a church is that God, by the gospel of the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ through faith, might deliver us from fear of God and fear of men and make us valiant for the truth in this city.