His Love and Our Fear: Can the Two Co-Exist? (2 Cor. 5:11, 14)
“Houston, we have a problem,” words made famous by Jim Lovell of Apollo 13 fame, may well apply to our efforts to understand something Paul said in 2 Corinthians 5.
Careful students of Scripture will have noted that Paul is describing in chapter five, among other things, his motivation for how he conducted himself among the Corinthians and in the world at large. Yet, he appears to affirm what many would consider mutually incompatible, contradictory ways of relating to God, as well as two reasons or rationales for ministry that seem incapable of existing simultaneously in the same soul. Let’s look closely at his words.
In 2 Corinthians 5:11 he spoke of “the fear of the Lord”, an obvious reference to our fear of him. This fear is what moved and stirred his heart to “persuade others” (v. 11). Yet, later in 2 Corinthians 5:14 he speaks of “the love of Christ” (his toward us) as the controlling or constraining power in his life, a power that shaped and fashioned his every movement and word.
As I said, “Houston, we have a problem!” The problem is the apparent inconsistency of fearing the very One whose love for you is eternal and all-consuming. If Christ loves us in the way Paul describes, a love that led him to offer up himself on our behalf on the cross, what possible role does fear have in our relationship with him?
Did not John the Apostle say “perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18; cf. also Romans 8:15)? Indeed, he did. It appears, then, that “love” and “fear” are antithetical one to the other. How then can Paul argue that both play a role in motivating him in ministry and governing both why and how he relates to God?
To make sense of this, let’s look briefly at this famous passage in 1 John 4:18. In the preceding verse, John wrote: “By this is love perfected with us so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world” (v. 17).
According to John, God’s love has a goal. God does not love us aimlessly. John speaks of God’s love being perfected or coming to full expression in us. I believe that John is saying much the same that Paul said in Romans 5:5. The Father’s love for his children reaches its intended goal when it produces in them a feeling of security so powerful that they lose all fear of judgment. When our sense of being loved by God becomes so internally intense that we can only smile at the prospect of judgment day, his passion has fulfilled its purpose.
Someone might think it presumptuous to have lost all fear of judgment. But John clearly says that our confidence is based on the fact that the believer is “as he [Jesus] is”. What could that possibly mean? In what sense is the Christian “as Jesus is” in the world? John may mean that we are righteous, as Jesus is righteous. By faith in him we are justified, declared righteous in the sight of God and therefore we look forward to judgment day confident that there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (cf. Romans 8:1). That’s possible, but I think the answer lies elsewhere.
Look again at 1 John 4:17. John is saying that our confidence is linked with God’s love for us and that in some sense we are as Jesus is. These two pieces of the puzzle are put together in John 17:23 where Jesus affirms that the Father loved the disciples “even as you [the Father] loved me [Jesus].” This is astounding! Jesus is saying that the Father loves us just like or even as he loves Jesus! Think for a moment of the magnitude of affection God the Father has for God the Son. That’s how much God loves you! Therefore, when John says that our confidence is based on the fact that we are as Jesus is, he means we are loved by the Father as Jesus is loved by the Father! No wonder all fear is cast out (v. 18). There is no need to fear him who you know feels only love for you.
But if this is true, how can Paul speak positively and affirmatively in 2 Corinthians 5:11 of “knowing the fear of the Lord”? Had Paul failed to attain for himself a sense of God’s love in the way John had? Clearly not, as 2 Corinthians 5:14 attests. How, then, do we resolve this problem? In fact, let me exacerbate things by mentioning other texts that go so far as to command fear, such as Luke 12:5; Acts 9:31; Romans 11:20; 2 Corinthians 7:1; Philippians 2:13; and 1 Peter 2:17.
This is not unlike the remarkable exhortation of David in Psalm 34:8-9 where he tells us to “taste and see that the Lord is good” (v. 8a), an obvious reference to the mercy and love and grace of God, yet follows this immediately in v. 9 with the command that we are to “fear the Lord”!
Do we not, then, truly have a problem? No, we don’t, once we recognize that David, Paul, Luke, Peter, and John are all using the word “fear” in two different senses, depending on the context of their comments and even more importantly the differing judgments that are in view. But for the sake of time and space, let me restrict my observations to Paul in 2 Corinthians 5 and John in 1 John 4.
A close look at 1 John 4 indicates that the “judgment” to which he refers is punitive. It is the “day” on which the wrath of God against sin and unbelief will be manifest. John is not speaking of godly reverence for Jesus but rather the dread of the criminal who stands guilty in a court of law awaiting sentence. His point, therefore, is that we no longer fear the punishment of God as judge (v. 18b) because we know and are assured of the pleasure of God as Lord and Lover and Savior of our souls!
This distinction must also be applied in the reading of 2 Corinthians 5:11. As we noted in an earlier meditation, Paul has in mind the fear of loss of reward, not salvation. His fear is awakened and sustained by the realization that he, like all of us, will one day “appear before the judgment seat of Christ” to “receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil” (v. 10).
There is a legitimate trembling and discomfiting of the soul in anticipation of the day on which we will give an account for our lives and the opportunities either seized or squandered for Christ. But this has nothing to do with our eternal salvation or God’s undying love for us or the status of our souls as forever forgiven through the blood of Christ. In fact, I’m persuaded that it is precisely his love for us as Savior, in justifying us apart from works, that instills in our souls a profound, trembling, and deeply awesome respect for Christ as Judge, in rewarding us according to our works.
Therefore, the “fear” that John says is inconsistent with “love” is fear of eternal judgment, the fear of enduring the wrath of God for sin, the fear that our guilt has not been forgiven. Entering into the unshakable knowledge and experiential assurance of Christ’s “love” for us will, over time, progressively drive from our souls all “fear” of facing a vengeful and angry God. We can, therefore, as John says, “have confidence” on that day of judgment.
On the other hand, the “fear” that Paul says is consistent with “love” is the realization that we will yet have to give an account to God for the life that his redeeming love has made possible. Knowing now that one day I will stand before the God whose unending love for me has forever removed all ground for condemnation (Romans 8:1), while every word and deed are exposed and given their “due” (2 Cor. 5:10), is cause for trembling (but not terror!).
We should, therefore, feel no hesitancy or inconsistency in heeding David’s two-fold counsel “to taste and see that the Lord is good” (for “blessed is the man who takes refuge in him”), and to “fear the Lord” (since “those who fear him have no lack”) (Psalm 34:8-9).
“Never mind, Houston. Problem solved!”