Preachers who lay claim to the legacy of Martin Luther address their own hearers when they preach the law of God and its revelation of their need to turn from that which offends God to the restoring and re-creative Word that comes from Christ’s cross and empty tomb. It is easy to satisfy the preacher’s self-expectation by preaching some kind of law that goes over the hearers’ heads or passes them by without touching them. Such preaching aims for common sins that are widespread in society or some historic, classical targets of Christian proclaimers of God’s Word. This approach to discharging the compulsory “law” part of a sermon that distinguishes law and gospel effectively leaves the congregation in front of the preacher untouched, at best, or at worst, it fosters a kind of “holier-than-others” attitude with the destructive spiritual pride that comes from comparisons of the type made by the Pharisee in the temple (Luke 18:11-12). Preachers could just as well be silent for all the good (and potential harm) such proclamation does.
When we think about what troubles many in the United States today who regularly worship in our churches, a variety of what the church has labeled “actual sins” may find hearers who need to be brought to repentance. These are sins committed in violation of God’s will and also sins that spring from neglecting obedience to God’s commands to love and serve. But among those besetting disruptions of our relationship with God in North America today is a phenomenon that we seldom think of as sin: fear. In the last two decades U.S. Americans have given way to fear of many things: economic decline, loss of values, limits on our personal rights, to name a few. Too many of us live with some sense of threat and menace hanging over our heads and haunting our hearts.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt was not correct when, in his slogan that was designed to encourage the citizens of the United States to refuse to permit the overwhelming challenges of the economic depression of the 1930s to reduce them to inactivity and grumbling, he said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” While there are things in a sinful world that indeed arouse genuine fear in the hearts of God’s faithful people, believers should be wary of letting fears dominate their lives and deceive them into thinking that they have to defend themselves in ungodly ways.
That said, there is a timeless kernel of truth in Roosevelt’s statement. Too often our fears are the expressions of our desires for that which we love or prefer in order to make life easy or good by our own definition. Such fears often reveal to us which creatures of God have assumed the role of idol in our lives. We should be afraid of such fears, for they simply give evidence that we do not truly trust God to take care of us. Such fears disconnect us from the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. His power and presence are key to enabling us to live out God’s calling for us to embody His love and care for His creatures, human and otherwise. Such fears turn us in upon ourselves and thus deprive us of the joy and contentment that come from being God’s instrument for the welfare of others.
Luther regarded the first commandment as the key for examining the essence of who we are. The heart of our very beings expresses itself in fearing, loving, and trusting God above all things. We preach the law in order to aid our hearers in analyzing the disruption of their relationship with God. That disruption comes with our rejection of His lordship and our doubt of His Word. From this doubt and defiance of our Creator spring all the other offenses against His plan for our lives.
Some of those offenses actively resist God’s will. Far more often, though, our sins take place as defensive reactions against threats we perceive to that which we hold precious or regard as vital for our safety, security, identity, and existence. One of the ways in which Luther defined sin describes this defensive move as being turned in upon ourselves (incurvatus in se). True, we turn in on ourselves as narcissists, because we find ourselves so attractive, but far more often, fright refocuses our eyes on ourselves. Fear and foreboding force us to strike back at others whose problems seem about to impinge on our pursuit of our own pleasure or welfare. Our own preoccupations so fix our gaze on ourselves that we ignore the needs of those whom God has brought within our reach rather than embody God’s love for them by helping to meet their needs.
We should not ignore or deny the reality of many threats in our society. The abandonment of our “Judeo-Christian heritage” for an individualistic, materialist view of life that falsely defines “freedom” as the fundamental value in human life produces fear of losing personal maneuvering room or material blessings. Such fears reveal these values have become idols for us. Trust in the providing and protecting love of Christ vanishes. God is not regarded as sufficient protection for us or adequate insurance that our way of life can continue in the way we prefer.
U.S. Americans today are more beset by fear than perhaps ever before in our history. We fear loss of the material benefits of our generation for the next generation. We fear infringement upon our “rights”. We act as if the exercise of the informal national anthem’s boast that “I did it my way” is more important than taking care of those whom God has placed within our reach.
I once observed to Gerhard Forde that there is no Biblical word for “my rights.” He responded, “What then is the word that the Biblical writers use in its place?” I replied, “responsibility,” and he asked me where he could find that word in Scripture. I responded by asking him what he thought the dynamic equivalent of “my rights” in the Bible might be, and he gave the correct answer: “obedience.” Words for “obedience” in Hebrew and Greek come from the stem that denotes hearing. Listening to God flows naturally into obedience, into hearkening to the Word of the Lord. Defense of personal freedom is noble because it permits a more freely given service of others for Christ’s sake, but the freedom to do what seems best to me is not in itself a necessary “good” for life. Doing what seems best to God is possible even in defiance of civil law, if it becomes necessary, to obey God in the face of human commands (Acts 5:29). Proclamation of the law in this situation will involve both the exposure of the emptiness of the idols of North American cultures with their current values and the assessment of what our fears tell us about the nature and strength of our trust in our God and His power to save.
God’s law does not forbid fear of evil, but it does condemn letting fears dominate our thinking and determine what constitutes our view of life. Our true peace and joy stem from trusting in the presence, providence, and power of our Savior and Creator. In his first epistle, John reminds us that love casts out fear (4:18). This love that cannot tolerate fear is God’s love for us which flows through us to those around us, sisters and brothers for whom God has placed us in the locations in which our lives take place (4:7-21). The Holy Spirit moves to put justified fears in the perspective of God’s providence and to mock fears of losing those earthly idols in which we truly have no lasting security and find no enduring meaning. Of the many who have had justification for being fearful in the world’s history, Jesus must be high on the list. As he was taken from Pilate’s court to the Place of the Skull, there was much of which He might have been afraid. Because He has traveled that path and shown us that torture, pain, and death cannot have the last word, we can travel even the most threatening paths of life in the firm confidence that our Lord is Lord of everything throughout His creation and beyond.
For if God is on our side, who can truly oppose us—or fill us with fear? He who did not spare His own Son but gave Him up for us all, how will He not also, along with Him, freely give us all things and protect us in all situations? Can tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword really harm us? Indeed, for your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered. In fact, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. Neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:31-39, ESV with paraphrase).