“In his explanation of the commandments, Luther begins every one with these words, ‘We should fear and love God…It is perhaps well known that there are some Christians today who maintain that Luther made a mistake in this. They strike out the ‘fear’ and say that we should love God, nothing more…But when people of our superficial generation have read the the Bible as thoroughly as Luther did, they will see that Luther was right also in this…He has seen that love to God does not exclude fear, but that they mutually strengthen each other…The greater the good in life, the more dangerous it becomes to us, if we misuse it. And since the grace of God is life’s most precious good, grace is more dangerous than anything else int he world, if we misuse it.”-Ole Hallesby, Under His Wings
How does one make sense of a passage like this in light of the most preponderant commandment in Scripture: “Be not afraid”? What about John’s insistence that “perfect love drives out fear”. (1 Jn 4:18)?
There is certainly a sort of fear that is inappropriate for the baptized. Such fear is more likely the product of an unsanctified imagination than a pious heart. Perhaps it’s the sort of fear rooted in the suspicion that when confronted with God, we will meet someone or something much like ourselves. One who reckons, forgives, judges much the same way we do. This is indeed a fearful prospect, but in the end it probably tells us more about ourselves than about God (which as Calvin reminds us isn’t a bad thing, as true knowledge of self will ultimately, by God’s grace, lead us into knowledge of God).
The fear Luther finds appropriate, which the Scriptures tell us is the beginning of wisdom, must be rooted in something much more like the Psalmist speaks of in Psalm 147:
“He declares his word to Jacob, his statutes and and his judgments to Israel.
“He has not done so to any other nation; to them he has not revealed his judgments.
It is only when one comes into the embrace of grace that one even glimpses the nature of divine judgment and justice. Von Balthasar gets at something like this in Love Alone Is Credible:
“…the moment we see our sins objectified before us on the Cross, it becomes all the more impossible to leave the One who died for us to his fate; so loveless a thought reveals our whole evil heart to us, love awakens fear in us, and the terrifying reality of being left behind by God (which is timeless as far as the one abandoned is concerned) shows us vividly that hell is no pedagogical threat, it is no mere ‘possibility’. Instead, it is the reality that the God-forsaken one experienced in an eminent way because no one can even approximately experience the abandonment by God as horribly as the Son, who shares the same essence with the Father for all eternity…We are therefore not required to bring a systematically conceived hell into harmony with the love of God and make it credible, or indeed justify it conceptually as love (and not perhaps merely as the revelation of self-glorifying divine justice), because no such system could be constructed out of a possible ‘knowledge’ apart from or beyond love and at the same time related to it. We are required only not to let go of love, the love that believes and hopes through both is suspended in the air so that its Christian wings may grow. Soaring in the air, I also necessarily experience the abyss below, which is only part of my own flight. Similarly, I can speak of hell only in relation to myself, precisely because I can never imagine the possible damnation of another as more likely than my own.”
There is perhaps no more painful fear than that of wounding or betraying one’s beloved. And yet this fear is not possible without first pledging, with one’s whole self, one’s love. Before that, it is abstract, a possibility, one that cannot produce the sort of fear that is rooted in love. Perhaps perfect love drives out imperfect fear, replacing it with a fear that flows from faith, rather than inhibiting it.