Thursday, June 13, 2013

Psalm 130:4 and John Murray on the Fear of God

In Psalm 130:4 we have a curious and intriguing sentence: "But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared." If it had just said that the LORD may be loved, or thanked, or praised, or worshipped, that may have been more expected. But why "feared"? Often we have a conception of fear which pushes away from rather than drawing us near to God. How does an apprehension of forgiveness lead us to fear the LORD?

I think John Murray's little treatment on "the Fear of God", the last chapter within his book, Principles of Conduct: Aspects of Biblical Ethics, is helpful here. Murray first distinguishes between two Scriptural senses in which we are to fear God, which he describes in a footnote as: "the fear of being afraid of God and his punitive judgments" and "the fear of reverential awe and adoration". And then he makes this important point which helps us to understand Psalm 130:4...
The fear of God which is the soul of godliness does not consist, however, in the dread which is produced by the apprehension of God’s wrath. When the reason for such dread exists, then to be destitute of it is the sign of hardened ungodliness. But the fear of God which is the basis of godliness, and in which godliness may be said to consist, is much more inclusive and determinative than the fear of God’s judgement. And we must remember that the dread of judgement will never of itself generate within us the love of God or hatred of the sin that makes us liable to his wrath. Even the infliction of wrath will not create the hatred of sin; it will incite to greater love of sin and enmity against God. Punishment has of itself no regenerating or converting power. The fear of God in which godliness consists is the fear which constrains adoration and love. It is the fear which consists in awe, reverence, honour, and worship, and all of these on the highest level of exercise. It is the reflex in our consciousness of the transcendent majesty and holiness of God. It belongs to all created rational beings and does not take its origin from sin. The essence of sin may be said to be negation of God’s fear.
It is only through an apprehension of God's mercy and forgiveness, and the restored relationship that results from that, that we will really be able fear God in the second sense. Without it, we will only turn away from God, and even the first sense of fear will only further push us away from God instead of drawing us closer to him in reverential fear.

I am further reminded of how the Westminster Confession of Faith describes true repentance in turning to God, which must also include a proper apprehension of God's mercy in Christ...
Repentance unto life is an evangelical grace, the doctrine whereof is to be preached by every minister of the Gospel, as well as that of faith in Christ. By it, a sinner, out of the sight and sense not only of the danger, but also of the filthiness and odiousness of his sins, as contrary to the holy nature, and righteous law of God; and upon the apprehension of His mercy in Christ to such as are penitent, so grieves for, and hates his sins, as to turn from them all unto God, purposing and endeavouring to walk with Him in all the ways of His commandments.
[WCF 15:1-2]

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