Beckett: Pastoral Thoughts – Do Not Fear, But Fear God (Exodus 20:19-20)

After witnessing God’s theophany on Mt. Sinai, the people of Israel say to Moses, “‘You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die.’ Moses said to the people, ‘Do not fear God, for God has come to test you, that the fear of Him may be before you, that you may not sin'” (Exodus 20:19-20).

What sort of sense does that make? I think what Moses says will start to make more sense when we look at the purpose clauses of his statement in view of the wider context and theology of Scripture with the help of our Confessions.

God has come to test the Israelites for two purposes. The first is “that the fear of Him may be before you.” So, it is proper that they fear God. But how does this make any sense when Moses said just before this, “Do not fear God”? It begins to make sense once we read the second purpose clause, “that you may not sin.” The question, then, is what sense they are to fear God.

In my thoughts on Exodus 6-14, “When You Know that God is Yahweh,” we looked at the two possible responses to the fear of the Lord: trust or flight, and faith is the key that unlocks the door to trust. In this wider context, we remember that God’s people are not to fear God as the Egyptians did by running away from the Lord. Rather, they are to fear God in exercising the rule of faith. Simply put, exercising the rule of faith is remembering who God is in His Story of Everything, that is, who He is according to the Scriptures in His plan of salvation.

When we fear the Lord and remember who He is according to this faith, one of two things can happen: Law or Gospel. First, by remembering who God is and fearing Him, His Law can act as a curb and help us restrain our sin. For example, as a child, when I had the urge to steal something, I remembered God’s commandment that prohibited stealing. Out of fear of Him, sometimes I restrained myself, and He kept me from sinning. Anytime I want to do something sinful, and my knowledge of the Law prevents me from doing it, it is the fear of the Lord that is curbing my sin. This fear of the Lord is wisdom (Proverbs 9:10).

That is the Law. With the Gospel, by remembering who God is and fearing Him, when I have already sinned, or have failed to restrain my sin, and whereas the Law has helped me realise this sin, my fear of the Lord leads me not to run from Him but to run to Him in repentance. This is contrition and faith—the two parts of repentance—mentioned in a previous article (see FC SD XII, 29-36). The Law moves my fear of the Lord to be contrite for my sins, and that same fear moves me to confess my sins and trust in His mercy to forgive my sins according to who He is and His plan of salvation in Christ Jesus my Lord. This fear of the Lord is also wisdom.

Therefore, do not fear the Lord so that it causes you despair and to despise Him. Rather, fear the Lord so that you may not sin—either by restraining yourself when you catch yourself about to sin, or by running to Him for refuge when your restraint fails—to the one who has given us shelter in His only-begotten Son.

Theology Terms Used

  • Rule of Faith: remembering who God is according to the Scriptures in His plan of salvation.

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