Interview with

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Audio Transcript

Comforted, warned, threatened. Comforted, warned, threatened. Comforted, warned, threatened. Does your Bible reading feel like an emotional roller coaster? Mine does a lot of times. And I know that is not my experience alone. So, is this experience by design? Another really important Bible question today that you have sent to us. And we’ve had a lot of those over the years, as you can see in the APJ book on pages 1–46 — the longest section in the book — talking about Bible reading and Bible memorization.

This next Bible-reading question is from a young man who listens to the podcast. “Hello, Pastor John! Every day I seem to get happy and feel comforted. And every day I feel sad and worried. Almost like it switches in a moment. The reason for this is the words of comfort and warning from Jesus and Paul. For instance, I’m happy to hear Jesus say, ‘Whoever comes to me I will never cast out’ (John 6:37). But then I hear him say, ‘No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God’ (Luke 9:62). Then I hear Jesus say to the seemingly mature church of Ephesus that if they don’t repent, he will take their lampstand out of its place (Revelation 2:1–7). Is it right to feel sort of emotionally pushed back and forth like this so regularly in my Bible reading? Is this healthy and normal for the Christian life to feel like this — comforted, then warned, then threatened? Is the Christian life in this fallen world meant to feel like this by design?”

That’s such a good question. There are over four hundred imperatives in the writings of Paul, over a thousand in the four Gospels. Now, what this means is that when Paul says in Romans 8:29 that God predestined Christians to be conformed to the image of Christ — that is, to be holy like he’s holy, to love like he loves, to be morally perfect as he’s morally perfect — the means by which God brings that about, that predestined reality, is by hundreds of commands given to those predestined saints. That’s the key thing. He uses commands that we must take seriously because they are his appointed means for our moral perfecting, our glorification.

Commanding the Justified

There are people who think that because we are justified by faith alone, there are no imperatives that we must obey in order to show that our justifying faith is genuine and that we’re true Christians. But in fact, the way God brings us to the final state of glory, moral perfection, is by means of commanding us to stay on the narrow way that leads to life. The fulfillment of these commands is rooted in the fact, now, that we are already justified, already forgiven, already accepted because of what Christ has done for us and our attachment to him by faith. But it is unbiblical to say that because we’re already forgiven, already accepted, there’s no need for God to command us to do anything. That’s unbiblical to say that.

It’s unbiblical and foolish to say that God gives no threats of destruction for disobedience. That’s not true. God’s means of bringing about what he has predestined to take place — namely, our holiness, our glory, our perfection — is to command us to be holy and then, by the Spirit, enable us to do what he commands us to do. St. Augustine was right when he prayed, “Command what thou wilt, O God, and give what thou commandest” (Confessions 10.29.40).

New-Covenant Commandments

And here’s what our friend, who sent this question, is drawing our attention to: God uses both promises and threats to motivate that obedience to his commandments. Lest anybody say, “Whoa, whoa, whoa. I don’t even need the word commandments. We shouldn’t even use the word commandments in the New Testament. That’s an Old Testament idea. We don’t live by commandments in the New Testament. That’s law. We live under grace.” To that I respond,

  • “By this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments” (1 John 2:3).
  • “Whoever keeps his commandments abides in God, and God in him” (1 John 3:24).
  • “This is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome” (1 John 5:3).
  • Jesus said in John 14:15, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”
“The Christian life in this fallen age is a pattern of continuous confident faith and occasional threatened fear.”

And so on. People need to read their Bibles and not just make theological pronouncements about what the Bible means without paying close attention to texts. The difference between the old covenant and the new covenant is not the absence of commandments, but the presence of power to keep them. “I will write my law on your heart and cause you to walk in my statutes” (see Jeremiah 31:33). That’s the heart of the new covenant. Obedience to commandments is the fruit of the Holy Spirit and the fruit of faith. Paul calls it “the obedience of faith” (Romans 1:5).

Promises and Threats

What our friend is pointing out is that God motivates us to this obedience by using promises and threats. And his experience is that threats make him feel sad and worried, while promises make him feel happy and comforted. And he wonders if this is normal. Is it the way God designed the Christian life to be in this fallen world? Now, I can’t get inside his head or heart to pass any judgment with any confidence on whether this particular Christian experience of his is healthy and normal. It might be, so I’m not going to base my counsel on his experience, but on the biblical pattern.

The biblical pattern is that God motivates positively with promises and negatively with threats and warnings. The positive pattern looks like this: God’s promise leads to confident faith, which leads to obedience. And the negative pattern looks like this: God’s threat leads to fear, which drives us back to confident faith, which leads to obedience.

Here’s an example of the positive. Hebrews 13:5–6:

Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said [here comes the promise], “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” So we can confidently say, “The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?”

So, the promise is this: “I will help you and never forsake you.” The confident faith: “So we can confidently say, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not fear.’” And then the obedience: we stop loving money by believing that promise.

And here’s the negative side. Romans 11:18, 20–21:

Do not be arrogant toward the [broken-off Jewish] branches. . . . They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith. So do not become proud, but fear. For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you.

So, the threat is this: God won’t spare breaking off your branch if you are arrogant. That causes fear. I don’t want to be a broken-off branch. This fear drives you away from boastful self-exaltation and self-reliance and leads you back to humble faith in Christ. And then the obedience is that you stop boasting over Jewish unbelievers.

How Faith and Fear Relate

Here’s what’s important to see about the way the two emotions relate to each other — confident faith on the one side, fear on the other side. They’re not equal or balanced in the Christian life. Confident faith is the continuous, lasting, normal condition of the Christian heart in this age. But because of sin, God also uses fear as a temporary warning to drive us back to Christ, his cross, his forgiveness, his acceptance, his love, and faith when we’re tempted to sin.

But that’s not the only difference between these two emotions. It’s not just that faith is to be continuous and fear is to be temporary, but also that a confident feeling of faith is the end, and a threatened feeling of fear is a means to drive us to the goal. So, continuous versus temporary is one difference, and end versus means is another difference.

So yes, the Christian life in this fallen age is a pattern of continuous confident faith and occasional threatened fear. This is the way every healthy family raises kids. We want our kids to be overwhelmingly, dominantly happy and confident that there’s an ongoing, continuous trust in the goodness and helpfulness of their parents. But we also want them to know the boundaries — where they could get themselves killed in the street or in an electric socket — and for their own good they don’t cross the boundaries. They feel fear of the discipline that’s going to come to them if they cross the boundaries and are tempted to cross them.

God is a good Father toward us. He knows how to bring his predestined children home to glory, and he uses both confident faith and the feeling of fear that comes through his warnings.