The Present Effects of Trembling at the Wrath of God
My aim today is simple and straightforward. I want to show from Scripture the proper emotional effect of believing in the wrath of God. And then I want to show how that belief and that emotion transforms (1) the way we do corporate worship, and (2) the way we raise children, and (3) the way we do evangelism and to display the glory of Christ.
Last time we saw from the Bible that the wrath of God is eternal, terrible, deserved, and escapable, because of the death and resurrection of Christ. Let the apostle John remind us of how terrible and eternal the wrath of God is with just one of his most dreadful images.
In Revelation 19:15 he describes Christ in his second coming: “From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron. He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty.” Notice the four parts of this terrible picture of God’s judgment on those who do not repent.
God is “almighty.” We are dealing here not with a mere world ruler, like the president of the United States or the Chinese Premier. They are as nothing compared to the power of the Creator of the Universe. “Almighty” means that God has all the power in the universe. All atomic power. All electromagnetic power. All gravitational power. All the power in the greatest explosions that are or ever have been among the greatest stars of space.
This almighty God will pour out his wrath. He is not only a God of love, but of holiness and justice and wrath.
His wrath is full of fury. John speaks of “the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty.” The wrath is not cool opposition. It is furiously angry opposition.
And perhaps most terrible, Jesus himself is pictured as treading the winepress of this fury. That means that those who rebelled and did not repent are like grapes under the feet of the fury of Christ, and are crushed until their blood runs like wine from the press.
The point today is that believing in this reality produces a proper fear and trembling in the life of a Christian that transforms everything. Listen to several passages of Scripture that show this godly trembling. From the Old Testament, we hear Psalm 114:7: “Tremble, O earth, at the presence of the Lord, at the presence of the God of Jacob.” Psalm 119:120: “My flesh trembles for fear of you, and I am afraid of your judgments.” Isaiah 66:2: “This is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word.”
And from the New Testament, we hear most clearly Philippians 2:12, “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” If you know God — really know God — for who he is in the greatness of his holiness and justice and wrath and grace, you will tremble in his presence. And this is not something you will grow out of. In fact, the immature must grow into it.
The Two Meanings of “Fear Not”
If you say — which you should — “But doesn’t the Bible teach us not to fear? Aren’t there many commands like, ‘Fear not, for I am with you.’ What do they mean?” They mean two things. They mean, Don’t fear man, fear God. And, second, they mean, Don’t fear God as your enemy, fear him as one who once was your enemy and still is infinite in power and holiness. Here’s the support for these two ways of not fearing.
“Don’t fear man, fear God.”
First, Matthew 10:28: “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” In other words, Don’t fear man, fear God. Tremble at the prospect of distrusting God, not displeasing man. Listen to the way Isaiah put it: “Do not fear what they fear, nor be in dread. But the Lord of hosts . . . Let him be your fear, and let him be your dread. And he will become a sanctuary” (Isaiah 8:12-14). Don’t fear displeasing man, fear distrusting God, and he will become your sanctuary from the wrath of man. (See Exodus 20:20.) So the first meaning of “Fear not” is don’t fear man, fear God.
The second meaning is: If you are his child, fear God not as your enemy, but fear him as one who was once was your enemy and still is infinite in power and holiness. If you were stranded on a windy ledge fifty stories above the street and about to lose your balance and suddenly a policeman grabbed you and brought you to safety inside the building, you would not stop trembling just because you were safe. The height is still in your mind. The wind is still in your mind. The weakness and the vulnerability are still in your mind. But now you are totally secure. This trembling is different than when you were on the ledge.
Isn’t there something like that demanded in the Bible? Consider Psalm 130:3–4: “If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared.” There is forgiveness that you may be feared. Once our iniquities fell before us like a terrible chasm. Who can stand! We cried. Then we were snatched by grace — sovereign grace alone — and now we are free. We are forgiven. And we tremble, not because God is our enemy, but because he was, and oh, how terrible it would have been if he had not saved us.
So I say again, in the Christian life — the forgiven, heaven-bound, eternally secure, Spirit-indwelt Christian life — there is a proper fear and trembling that transforms everything. So let us take a look at a few of the things that it transforms.
Fear and Trembling Transforms Corporate Worship
The first thing we should say is that this Christian fear and trembling should be felt especially in our worship services. Corporate worship is the experience of coming corporately and consciously before the face of God. Here, if anywhere in the Christian life, there will be a proper fear and trembling. Consider how the Bible connects worship and the fear of the Lord.
Psalm 96:9: “Worship the Lord in the splendor of holiness; tremble before him, all the earth!” Revelation 14:7: “Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has come, and worship him who made heaven and earth, the sea and the springs of water.” Revelation 15:4: “Who will not fear, O Lord, and glorify your name? For you alone are holy. All nations will come and worship you, for your righteous acts have been revealed.”
But now, here is a great fear-transforming reality, and it explains why Christians sing with joy in worship, and Muslims don’t. Fear and trembling are not because God is our enemy but because he saved us from his wrath through Christ, and now we stand on the brink of the Grand Canyon of his holiness and justice and grace and wrath with unspeakable wonder, knees wobbling and hands trembling, but overcome with worship at the depth of his majesty, not with worry that we might fall in.
Listen to the way the Bible says it so paradoxically, and yet, all true saints know what these words mean. Psalm 2:11: “Serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice with trembling.” This fear is shot through with joy. Isaiah 11:3: “And his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.” This fear is full of delight. Nehemiah 1:11: “O Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer . . . of your servants who delight to fear your name.” This fear is what the saints delight to experience.
Those who have seen and savored the holiness of God and justice and wrath and grace of God can never again trivialize worship. It is so sad when someone hears a message like this and then comes up and says, “Don’t you think we can have fun in worship?” What is sad about that response is that their heart is so small that the only alternative they can think of to fear is fun. I don’t like to use the word “fun” for what we do in worship — or in ministry for that matter. It is a sad commentary on the superficial condition of our times that one of the most common things said about good experience in ministry and worship is that “we are having fun.”
“Fear of God is what the saints delight to experience.”
The point is not that Christians can’t be light-hearted. You are probably sick if you can’t be light-hearted. The point is there is a time and a season for everything under the sun. And something should happen in corporate worship, before the face of the infinitely holy God, that calls forth a different vocabulary than what you experience at the amusement park.
We are Christian Hedonists. We pursue joy with all our might, because we believe that God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him. And Christian Hedonists can smell the flames of hell. Christian Hedonists tremble still at the ledge from which we were snatched. Christian Hedonists see those who are toppling toward wrath as people who are just like us, only not yet snatched by grace alone from the ledge. Christian Hedonists feel a potential for joy — infinitely serious joy — in the God of holiness and wrath and grace that is so great it would break our heart if God did not give us a divine ability to bear the weight of our happiness without being crushed by it.
Oh, the difference in worship when the wrath of God is known and felt! Gone is jesting and silliness and slapstick and pettiness and trifling and joking and clowning and levity. Listen to Charles Spurgeon:
We must conquer — some of us especially — our tendency to levity. A great distinction exists between holy cheerfulness, which is a virtue, and that general levity, which is a vice. There is a levity which has not enough heart to laugh but trifles with everything; it is flippant, hollow, unreal. A hearty laugh is no more levity than a hearty cry. (Charles Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students, 212)
Over and over again, we on the staff at Desiring God and Bethlehem remind ourselves of 2 Corinthians 6:10 as the watchword of Christian Hedonism: “sorrowful yet always rejoicing (lupoumenoi aei de chairontes).” “Serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice with trembling.” That’s what happens in corporate worship when you believe and feel the wrath of God.
Fear and Trembling Transforms Parenting
I said a few moments ago, if you know God for who he really is in the greatness of his holiness and justice and wrath and grace, you will tremble in his presence. And this is not something you will grow out of. In fact, the immature must grow into it. And my word to parents, especially fathers, is be the kind of parent who helps your children tremble with joy in the presence of God.
I will mention only one thing to the fathers (and if there is no father at home, moms must pick it up and draw in other men): Fathers, be the kind of father that your children delight to fear. And thus help them know God. Take your place as the special representative of God in this family and display the fullness of who God is so that your children will delight to fear you.
If they only fear you, and there is no delight in it, it’s wrong and dysfunctional. If they only delight in you and do not fear you, it’s wrong and dysfunctional. In both cases, you will have made it very difficult for the children to embrace the true God — the God of wrath and mercy.
On the one hand, fathers, you hear Proverbs 13:24: “Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him.” Why? Because that’s the way God is. Hebrews 12:6: “The Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.” So when you discipline your child, you display God’s judgment.
But on the other hand, fathers, you hear this word from Ephesians 6:4: “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” You are in the place of the Lord. You are doing the discipline of the Lord. Your children are learning what the Lord is like. And what is he like? Psalm 103:13–14, “As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him. For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust.” And do we not, therefore, delight to fear him?
May you be so God-like in your compassion and your wrath that your children delight to fear you! May they speak to you with words like Isaiah’s, “Daddy, disobeying you is a fearful thing. And I am thankful that it is. But, oh, what a sanctuary you are to me! How I love to live the light of your strength and your joy!”
Fear and Trembling Transforms Evangelism and the Glory of Christ
Which brings us to evangelism and the question: How does fear and trembling at the wrath of God transform the way we help others see and savor the glory of Christ? The answer is, we need to help people know that they are under the wrath of God because of their sin.
There is so much good intention to show people the love of God, without realizing that the love of God in Christ is a love that rescues us from the wrath of God. Listen carefully and thankfully to Romans 5:8–9, “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God.” The love of God rescues us from the wrath of God.
This means that in America today, as well as on the mission field, it won’t do to simply present God as a caring loving God. The gospel will not be the gospel against that backdrop. It only makes sense against the backdrop of truth. God is holy and glorious. We have all sinned against him and fallen short of that glory. We are under his just wrath and without hope. But God so loved the world that he sent his only Son that whoever believes in him might be saved — saved from wrath (John 3:16, 36). Relationships don’t save anybody. They can be the matrix for truth and for the life-giving gospel. But sooner or later you need to ask your friend for a few minutes to share the gospel. Then lay it out, wrath and all. It will be the most loving ten minutes you ever lived.
“The love of God rescues us from the wrath of God.”
When Paul, the prisoner, had one chance to speak to Felix the governor, Luke tells us, “He reasoned about righteousness and self-control and the coming judgment” (Acts 24:25). Felix needed to understand the wrath of God.
Evangelism, parenting, corporate worship — all of them, and all of life — exist to magnify the glory of Jesus Christ. That glory was displayed in its deepest love and highest beauty when Jesus willingly went to the cross to bear the wrath of God against our sins. Our evangelism, our parenting, our corporate worship will never display the glory of Christ as they ought until the wrath of God is known and feared. Then our hearts will leap up with love and gratitude and joy and trembling when we say,
Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:4-6)
That is as true today as it was then. So I invite you to embrace Christ as the most precious treasure of your life, who delivers from the wrath to come (1 Thessalonians 1:10).