The fear of hell is a good and useful thing. Jesus said, "Do not fear those who kill the body and after that have no more that they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear. Fear him who, after he has killed has the power to cast into hell" (Luke 12:4–5). In other words, fear the judgment of God.
Last week's text in Romans 11:20 and 22 said, "Do not become proud but fear . . . behold the kindness and the severity of God." Hebrews 10:31 says, "It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God."
Hell as an Echo of God's Glory
Hell is a horrible reality. It is fearful beyond expression or imagination. Last week we saw that this awesomely terrible reality is an echo of the glory of God. The Bible assumes that it is a just and righteous recompense to all who sin. And for that to be true, how infinitely valuable and worthy must be the glory of God that sin belittles and scorns! In other words the horror of hell is an echo of the infinite worth of God's glory.
And if the death of Christ can justly deliver millions of people from deserved eternal torment, how infinite must have been the torment of the Son of God when he took our place.
So the justice of hell stands as an everlasting witness to the infinite greatness of the glory of God, and the infinite greatness of the suffering and righteous of Christ to redeem all who repent and believe in him. Hell is an echo of the glory of God.
The Insufficiency of Hell to Save
But today I want to stress the insufficiency of hell. Hell is insufficient to save anybody. I mean hell cannot scare anyone into heaven, because heaven is a place for those who love God, not for those who just fear hell. This is what we hear in Psalm 63.
1 O God, thou art my God, I seek thee, my soul thirsts for thee; my flesh faints for thee, as in a dry and weary land where no water is. 2 So I have looked upon thee in the sanctuary, beholding thy power and glory. 3 Because thy steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise thee.
Fear of hell is no proof of love for God. Desiring to be rescued by the lifeboats before you drown, does not prove that you love the captain of the ship. James 2:5 says that God promised the crown of life to those who love him—not fear hell, but love God. James 2:12 says that God promised the kingdom of God to those who love him. The pathway to heaven is the path of love to God. Fear may show you that you are on the wrong path. It may point you to the right one. But fear is not the path or the gate that leads to life. It is what you should feel when you wander off the path.
What Causes True Tears of Repentance
Last January during Prayer Week I made a remarkable discovery in getting ready to lead us into repentance during the night of prayer. I learned that the tears of repentance do not flow from the fear of hell but from the joys of heaven. I learned that you have to fall in love with the holiness of heaven before you can weep over sins of hell. Let me take you on the path of my discovery.
David Brainerd's Observations
I re-read some portions of David Brainerd's Diary. I recalled that he had seen great repentance and contrition among the Indians at several times in his preaching. On August 9, 1745, he preached to the Indians of Crossweeksung, New Jersey, and made this observation:
There were many tears among them while I was discoursing publicly . . . Yet some were much affected with a few words spoken to them in a powerful manner, which caused the persons to cry out in anguish of soul, although I spoke not a word of terror, but on the contrary, set before them the fullness and all-sufficiency of Christ's merits, and his willingness to save all that come to him; and thereupon pressed them to come without delay.1
He had said earlier on August 6,
It was surprising to see how their hearts seemed to be pierced with the tender and melting invitations of the Gospel, when there was not a word of terror spoken to them.2
Again on November 30 he preached on Luke 16:19–26 concerning the rich man and Lazarus.
The Word made powerful impressions upon many in the assembly, especially while I discoursed of the blessedness of Lazarus 'in Abraham's bosom' [Luke 16:22]. This, I could perceive, affected them much more than what I spoke of the rich man's misery and torments. And thus it has been usually with them . . . They have almost always appeared much more affected with the comfortable than the dreadful truths of God's Word. And that which has distressed many of them under convictions, is that they found they wanted, and could not obtain, the happiness of the godly.3
What Brained is saying is that hell is insufficient. It is insufficient to bring about what is really needed, namely, deep, spiritual sorrow for sin—call it evangelical contrition.
Peter's Response to Jesus' Miracle of Grace
The same dynamic seems to occur in Luke 5:1–10. After teaching the crowds from a boat off land in the lake of Gennesaret, Jesus told the fishermen to push out into the deep and let down their nets for a catch (v. 4). Simon protested, "Master, we toiled all night and took nothing! But at your word I will let down the nets." When the nets went down, they filled with so much fish that they started to break. Both boats were filled and started to sink from the catch.
Peter's response was remarkable, very unlike our more modern response to grace. Verses 8–10:
But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus' knees, saying, "Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord."
What is remarkable here is that a miracle of grace, not a word of judgment, broke Peter's heart and brought him to contrite, evangelical repentance. It was the same with the Indians of Crossweeksung and the fisherman of Galilee.
Now Why Is That?
Genuine evangelical contrition for sin is a sorrow for not having holiness. But now you have to be careful here. It is possible to weep over not having holiness NOT because you love God and want to enjoy all that he is for you in Christ, but because you fear the punishment that comes for not having holiness. Many a criminal will weep when his sentence is read not because he has come to love righteousness but because his freedom to do more unrighteousness is being taken away. That kind of weeping is not true evangelical repentance.
The only true sorrow for not having holiness comes from a love for God's holiness not from a fear of the consequences of not having it. Or a more precise way to say it is this: true remorse over not having holiness is remorse over not enjoying God and living by the impulse of that joy. To cry over the punishment one is about to receive for wrongdoing is no sign of hating wrong, but only hating pain. For crying and contrition to be real and evangelical it must come from the brokenhearted feelings you have for lacking a life of joy in God, not just from the fearful feelings of being threatened with pain.
The Startling Discovery: You Must Fall in Love with God
But now think what this means. This was the startling discovery I made last January. In order to cry over not having something, you must really want to have it. And the more you want to have it, the more you feel distressed over not having it. This means that true evangelical contrition, true repentance must be preceded by a falling in love with God. To truly weep at not having God's holiness, you must long for God's holiness. To truly weep over not possessing it, it must be attractive to you.
So you see how strange this seems at first: God and his way of holiness must become your joy before you can weep over not having it. You must fall in love with a person, before estrangement really hurts.
So hell is insufficient to produce tears of genuine repentance. For the tears to be real, they have to come from really missing God, not just missing heaven. Brainerd found that words of winsome attractiveness produced more brokenheartedness in the Indians than did the words of warning. Warning has value in stirring us up to take the glories of holiness and heaven seriously so that we come to see them for what they are and delight in them. But it is the delight in them that causes true grief when we fall short. No one cries over missing what they don't want to have.
Peter saw in the miracle of Jesus a treasure of hope and joy that was so wonderful he was overwhelmed with how out of sync his life was with such a treasure. If this much power and this much goodness is there in Jesus for those who trust him, then O how different would be my life if I truly believed! How radical would be my obedience! What abandon would I feel in my living for such a Christ! What freedom from petty grievances and from fleeting pleasures of sin would I enjoy!
So the discovery I made was that true remorse and contrition and repentance flow from falling in love with all that God is for us in Jesus. Until God is our treasure we will not grieve over our falling short of being satisfied in him and living in a way that shows that satisfaction.
Hell cannot produce satisfaction in God. And so it cannot produce remorse for not having God. And so it cannot produce gospel repentance. And so it cannot save. It is insufficient.
Taste and See That the Lord Is Good
If we want to bring about tears of gospel repentance, we have to say things that make God and his holiness—not the comforts of heaven or the escape of hell—but God himself and all that he is for us in Christ—look alluringly attractive. The Holy Spirit takes this alluring portrait of God and Christ and causes people to fall in love with God. That's called regeneration, or new birth, or effectual calling. And when a person falls in love with all that God is for them in Christ, then the tears for sin will come. And they will be tears of remorse that God had been missed and spurned; and they will be tears of joy that finally there is something infinitely satisfying to live for and not just something to fear and to flee.
The most striking way to put this is that the pain of genuine repentance flows from the pleasure of seeing God for who he is. As paradoxical as it may sound, genuine grief over sin flows from genuine joy in the glory of God.
Hell is powerless to produce this. The tears that hell can produce are the tears of remorse and fear that the sin we love will destroy us. The practical purpose of hell is to shock us out of our love affair with the world and send us running to the fountain of life. But only the taste of that fountain will give a passion for God and break our hearts that we have loved anything else.
So I urge you: Don't let the fear of hell be your only motive for wanting heaven. Instead, come to the living waters of God's love and truth and goodness and wisdom and power and justice and grace and glory. Taste and see that the Lord is good. His steadfast love is better than life. Let the fearful insufficiency of hell drive you to the all-sufficiency of God.
1 Jonathan Edwards, The Life of David Brainerd, ed. by Norman Pettit, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 7, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985, p. 310.
2 Jonathan Edwards, The Life of David Brainerd, p. 307.
3 Jonathan Edwards, The Life of David Brainerd, p. 342.