Sunday, February 25, 2007

Fear, Servile and Filial

I have been arguing that one of the benefits of the New Covenant is that the believer may now serve the Lord without fear. A question has arisen, however, concerning the passages in the New Testament that speak about "working out our salvation with fear and trembling" (Phil. 2:12) or it being "a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God" (Heb. 10:31). What do we make of these verses?

What we must not do is simply interpret them in such a way as to place us in the same precarious situation as the saints under the Old Covenant. There is too much written in the New Testament about our belonging to a community whose covenant is "better" than the Mosaic (since it is "founded upon better promises") for us to take the approach that these two sets of verses just cancel each other out, placing us back at the foot of Sinai (Heb. 8:6; cf. 12:18).

To be sure, the New Covenant (and its sign of baptism) places dual sanctions upon its subjects, meaning that our failure to trust Christ places us in the position of earning a harsher judgment than those outside the covenant community. Furthermore, the grace promised in the gospel, once received, should make us deplore the thought of (ab)using that grace as a license to sin. It is precisely for these reasons, therefore, that the New Testament instructs us to serve Christ "with fear and trembling."

But there are crucial dissimilarities between the saints under the Old and New Covenants that must not be glossed over. The Israelites served God according to a covenant whose underlying principle, according to Paul, was antithetical to faith (Gal. 3:12). The reason God placed his people in such a situation was to demonstrate to all the sheer impossibility of securing one's inheritance by means of one's own law-keeping (hence the "pedagogical use" of the law, Gal. 3:19-25). Israel's eventual exile proved the nation's need for a "true Vine" whose fulfillment of "the work that the Father gave [him] to do" would result in his "giving eternal life to as many as the Father had given [him]."

So yes, we serve God in holy fear, but that fear is not the servile fear of underage children who "differ not from slaves," but the filial fear of those before whose eyes the love of God has been consummately demonstrated at the cross (Gal. 4:1-2; Rom. 5:8).

A love that, in turn, "casts out fear" (I John 4:18).