INTRODUCTION – Scripture makes it clear that all men are in bondage and slavery to the fear of death (Heb. 2:14,15). The source of the fear has to do with what lies on the other side of death (Job 18:14). The fear involved is a dread fear ofpunishment (1 John 4:18; Heb. 9:27; 1 Cor. 15:56).
The fear beneath all fears is one of ultimate judgment. In that form of judgment, the person and his right to exist are condemned. There is a radical diminishing of the self so that all wellbeing is lost. (In our earthly experience, think of how difficult it is to forget times of intense shame and humiliation that we have experienced.)
Living with this fear of judgment colors our whole experience of life. The fear is rooted in the fear of ultimate condemnation. That fear finds its day to day expression in anxiety, rage, tension, stress and depression. People will do almost anything to prevent returning to that unbearable place of exposure and condemnation.
When sin entered the human race, the fear of condemnation was its instantaneous companion. Immediately after sinning, Adam and Eve utilized strategies to ward off the threat of judgment. Adam attempted to cover his shame. He was afraid. He tried to hide from his Creator and Judge. He engaged in blame in order to defer judgment away from himself (Gen. 3:7-13). According to Scripture, the guilt man feels as a sinner is not simply the irritations of conscience, it is actual legal guilt before God (Rom. 3:23; 2:5).
Adam’s fear of punishment (his response to loss of innocence), is the universal response of his sinful descendants. The human condition is characterized by guilt, blame, shame, hiding, anxiety, flight and defiance.
By nature, we are like Adam, we do not deal courageously with our sin. The fear of punishment makes cowards of us all (Note the baseball and the broken window story). The roots of cowardice penetrate deep in our lives because not only are we condemned in our acts of sin, but also in our whole nature and being.
Only a perfect atonement can end our fear of judgment! The design of Christ’s propitiatory sacrifice was to deliver us from the bondage of fear. Only when that fear is cast out can we be perfected in love (1 John 4:18). (The word propitiationrefers to the power of Christ’s substitutionary death to fully satisfy the claims of God’s law against the sinner. Apart from His propitiation, the full eternal weight of God’s wrath falls upon the unbeliever.)
THE POWER OF SIN IS THE LAW (1 COR. 15:56).
By means of the Law, sin is charged to our account (Rom. 5:13). When we transgress the Law of God, iniquity is imputed to us. The Law declares death’s legal power over us as the just penalty for sin (Ez. 18:4; 1 Cor. 15:56).
Sinners are capital offenders in custody, awaiting judgment (Gal. 3:22). The degree to which God’s verdict is resisted by the human race almost defies reason. So great is man’s antipathy to the verdict, it could be compared to the following scenario. A man was led to an immense stack of bricks and lumber. He asks the purpose for the building materials. He is told that he is to construct a courthouse in which he will be tried and found guilty, to build a cell in which he will be incarcerated and to erect a gallows on which he will be hung.
Men imagine that they are acting in their own interest when they refuse to believe God’s verdict regarding their sin and what it deserves. But such is not the case, for only those who agree with God’s verdict avail themselves of God’s merciful remedy.
The legal condemnation of God’s Law hangs over a person like a huge sword ready to drop, pierce and cleave us by God’s wrath. (In our glorious gospel, the Son of God placed Himself between us and God’s “sword” of wrath. In the substitutionary death of Christ, the “sword” of God’s wrath falls upon the Son of God in His death by crucifixion.)
THE LAW WAS THE MINISTRY OF CONDEMNATION AND DEATH (2 COR. 3:7-9).
Sinful human nature staggered under the Law’s crushing demands. Instead of being able to control a person morally, the Law strangles and suffocates the sinner. (The Law’s demands are absolute, but it grants no power or inclination to the sinner that enables obedience.)
The Law came with a curse (Gal. 3:10-13). The Law was meant to be the great revealer of man’s sinful condition (Rom. 3:20). The inability of the Hebrew nation to keep God’s Law is an authoritative commentary about the entire human race (Note that one only has to test one bucket of water in order to find out if a whole bay is polluted. The nation of Israel was a small portion of humanity.)
THE LAW IS NOT OF FAITH (GAL. 3:12).
In the Sermon on the Mount, Christ’s words struck the religious establishment of Jerusalem like a thunderbolt. The Jewish religious leaders had systematized the Mosaic Law into a predominately external moral code that was achievable by human exertion.
In Christ’s discourse, the spirit of the Law which was clearly taught in the Torah, was driven home in His sermon – love for God and neighbor is not just externals,it extends to what a man thinks, loves, speaks and looks at!
Martin Luther’s comments on the Sermon on the Mount can be summarized in the following way. The Sermon is meant to exasperate the sinner in order to prepare him for the gospel. (In other words, who can possibly keep such a high divine standard?)
Not only, does the Law exasperate, it may also exacerbate the sinner’s problem (Rom. 5:20). (Def. of exacerbate – increase severity of or bitterness of. This is reminiscent of the public’s response to the freeway signs that said, “Drive 55 and stay alive.” ) (Remember the example of the Law acting as a stir stick that stirs up the sediment in the glass of water.)
The sinner must learn that the Law way is closed as a way of obtaining right standing with God (Rom. 3:20; 10:1-4; 4:4-16). The present evangelical function of the Law is that of a tutor to lead a person to Christ as the only Way of right standing (Gal. 3:24,25).
Though the Law’s commandments are holy, righteous and good (Rom. 7:12), the Law only brings death, wrath and condemnation because of the weakness of human flesh (Rom. 8:3-8). (Man’s weak and sinful flesh cannot be raised up to God by means of the Law anymore than overcooked meat can be lifted up in one piece by a two-pronged fork.)
THE UNBELIEVER’S RESPONSE TO GOD WHO DEMANDS JUSTICE AND RIGHTEOUS IS ENMITY (ROM. 5:10; EPH. 2:15,16).
Unrepentant man has no sentiment for God’s purpose to glorify Himself through the knowledge of Himself. The natural man does not appropriate God’s purpose that mankind must be a moral reflection of God’s righteousness. The natural man is an enemy of God’s glory (Rom. 5:10; Phil. 3:18,19).
The N.T. Greek word for enemy (echthros), is closely related to the Greek word for enmity, (echthra). The word for enmity describes the disposition of the enemy, that of hostility. Paul asserts that the mind set on the flesh is “hostile” (echthra) toward God (Rom. 8:7 – see the Williams Translation). Man’s refusal to obey God’s Law involves defiant opposition. The soul enslaved to sin, alienated from God and under condemnation cannot love God (Titus 3:3 ff). The sinner ruled by his iron lusts cannot love the Holy One.
Man’s enmity is a function of his resentment that God should hold him liable to judgment. The good news of the gospel is that the solution to man’s problem is entirely from the outside of man. Man is not even part of the solution! God has unilaterally acted to solve man’s dilemma.
In Israel of old, the murmuring Hebrews were plagued by the bites of “fiery” serpents in the wilderness. God told Moses to cast a brazen serpent and place it upon a pole. When a Hebrew was bitten, all he had to do was look at the brazen serpent in faith, and his symptoms would be removed. So also, one believing “look” at Christ can strike the enmity from a man’s heart (John 3:14-18). The cross not only makes us acceptable to God, it also makes God’s holiness desirable to us. Justification by grace through faith annihilates our enmity toward God.
MAN’S NATURAL CONDITION IS AKIN TO BEING STUCK IN A VICE
By reason of sin, man’s image bearing integration in God was lost. Man became darkened, fragmented and broken (Note example of broken window pane with cracks radiating to all sides of the frame). The aspects of man’s soul were no longer in harmony. Instead, they were at odds, pulling against each other. The conscience and the affections became hopelessly separated -- people attempt to meet their needs by sinning, then the conscience justly accuses them for doing so.
Sin and self replaced God at the center of the life. As a result, dread, fear of punishment, blame and guilt displaced peace.
The obligation to obey God remained in full force, but the inclination to obey God was decimated by the fall. This condition put man is a crushing vice so to speak. A man’s desires, needs and wants are dictating to him one direction (his mind is set on the flesh), and at the same time, the Law of God demands that he be righteous or face death.
What the Law says he should be and what his desires dictate form the two arms of the vice clamped upon him. As he seeks to solve his needs and problems by sin, the arms of the vice squeeze harder, producing more fear of punishment.
SIN MAKES COWARDS OF US ALL (HEB. 2:14,15; 1 JOHN 4:18).
The fear of condemnation makes us cowardly concerning our sin. We do not deal with our sin courageously. The principle of guilt before God’s Law seeks to dominate our lives through fear of punishment. We tend to be cowed, defiant and self-protective. In our flesh, we will run anywhere but to the atonement God has provided in His Son. We desperately need Christ’s work in order to be free of guilt’s captivity.
The reason the roots of cowardice run so deep in our lives is because God’s Law condemns not only our individual acts of sin, but also our whole being (what we are by nature). All our fleshly strategies employed to avoid judgment utterly fail. Whether it is denial, appeasement, rationalizing or defiance, the efforts we make to escape the painful truth about ourselves falls short of the heroism God calls us to practice.
STRATEGIES OF THE FLESH THATARE USED TO WARD OFF JUDGMENT
Guilt and fear of condemnation move a man to seek an “atonement” or a strategy to defend against the threat of punishment.
Fleshly strategies include:
1. Flight – In this strategy the person seeks to escape the accusations of Law and conscience by devoting themselves to some diversion, escape or amusement. Denial of guilt factors heavily into this strategy. Biblical examples include Nabal’s feast (1 Sam. 25:36-38), Pilate’s denial of guilt by hand-washing (Matt. 27:24), Jonah’s voyage in the opposite direction of Ninevah (Jonah 1:3), Judah’s escapist mentality of “eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we may die,” (Is. 22:13,14).
2. Open Resistance – This strategy involves contempt for God’s judgment. It is an attempt to take on the judgment with a defense or with defiance. Biblical examples include the Chief Priests’ plot to kill Jesus (Matt. 21:45), Job’s desire to bring God into court (Job 23:1-7), Zedekiah’s burning of the Word of God (Jer. 36), the apostates of Jerusalem defying the Word of God (Jer. 44:16,17).
3. Appeasement – This strategy is an attempt to win God’s favor by law-keeping. It is an effort to appease God by successful obedience. Law keeping that is legal in nature is always selective, scrupulous and legalistic (Matt. 23:23). Biblical examples include the rich young ruler (Matt. 19:16), Saul of Tarsus prior to his conversion (Phil. 3:4-6; Gal. 1:14).
THE CONSCIENCE OF MAN WILL ONLY BE AT REST WHEN TRUE JUSTICE HAS BEEN DONE (2 COR. 5:21).
Every strategy employed by man to elude judgment will ultimately fail. Every false hiding place will someday be revealed as a “refuge of lies,” (Is. 28:17). Men take no account now of the fact that they daily “bribe” their consciences with alibis for their transgression of God’s commandments.
The startling truth is that man is made in the moral image of God. Man’s conscience is not a product of social conditioning, it is God’s moral mark upon us. For that reason, the conscience can never be eradicated. All efforts to do so will only result in greater eternal anguish.
The conscience is a constant reminder of the great assize to come, it is a harbinger of judgment day. Though men experience temporary “success” in quieting their consciences in this life, a day is coming when the conscience will take its full revenge.
On that day, the conscience will accept no bribes, it will demand strict justice. It will agree with God’s verdict that man’s sin deserves eternal wrath.
Against this dark fact, the atonement of Jesus Christ is grace beyond description.
In the atonement, the believing sinner beholds Christ, the suffering God-man, bleeding and dying in his place. This is NOT to arouse pity or sympathy – this is the satisfaction of JUSTICE. The law of God and the conscience of man will accept nothing less than perfect justice.
When the believing sinner casts a believing “look” at Christ, for the first time in his life, his conscience is at peace and rest. He sees that justice has been served concerning his sin. With his sin forgiven, his formerly troubled conscience becomes like the placid surface of a lake – now he begins to reflect the character of his Creator.