Whatever Happened to the Fear of the Lord?

“How would you react if you were suddenly face-to-face with God?” inquires Bible expositor John MacArthur in a blog post he penned over at Grace to You. When Isaiah saw a vision of God he fell prostrate before Him and cried, “Woe is me! For I am undone.” Isaiah felt his guilt and shame in the presence of a holy God.  MacArthur reminds us that “We ought to be shaken to our roots when we see ourselves against the backdrop of God’s holiness. If we are not deeply pained about our sin, we do not understand God’s holiness at all.”

Now listen to Dr. MacArthur’s teaching on the Fear of the Lord…

Isaiah 6:1 Holy, holy holyWhile many Christians today think of the Lord in friendly, passive terms, the truth is that none of us would be leaping into the arms of our Father. The testimony of Scripture is clear: All sinners—even strong believers with mature faith—are right to cower in the light of God’s holiness.

For example, in Genesis 18 Abraham confessed in the presence of God that he was dust and ashes. Similarly, Job said after his pilgrimage, “I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear; but now my eye sees You; therefore I retract, and I repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:5–6). Ezra 9 records the high priest’s profound sense of shame as he came before the Lord to worship. Habakkuk had a vision of God’s power and majesty, and his knees began to knock: “I hear, and my body trembles; my lips quiver at the sound; rottenness enters into my bones; my legs tremble beneath me” (Habakkuk 3:16 ESV).

Isaiah’s Encounter with God

In Isaiah 6:1, Isaiah describes how he saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lifted up. He heard the seraphim cry back and forth to one another in antiphonal response, “Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord of hosts, the whole earth is full of His glory” (v. 3). God’s holiness fills all—even when it is hidden from our view.

As Isaiah perceived the holiness of God, he cried out: “Woe is me, for I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts” (Isaiah 6:5).

Some might think that Isaiah did not have a very good self–image. He was not thinking positively; he was not affirming his strengths. Surely, Isaiah knew that he had the best mouth in the land! He was a prophet of God! He was the foremost spiritual leader in the nation. And yet he cursed himself. Why?

The answer is very clear. We find it in the words “My eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts.” Isaiah had seen a vision of God in His holiness, and he was absolutely shattered to the very core of his being by a sense of his own sinfulness. His heart longed for purging.

Perceiving God’s Holiness and Our Sin

When we see God as holy, our instant and only reaction is to see ourselves as unholy. Between God’s holiness and humanity’s unholiness is a gulf. And until a person understands the holiness of God, that person can never know the depth of his or her own sin. We ought to be shaken to our roots when we see ourselves against the backdrop of God’s holiness. If we are not deeply pained about our sin, we do not understand God’s holiness at all.

Without such a vision of God’s holiness, true worship is not possible. Real worship is not giddy. It does not rush into God’s presence unprepared and insensitive to His majesty. It is not shallow, superficial, or flippant. Worship is life lived in the presence of an infinitely righteous and omnipresent God by one utterly aware of His holiness and consequently overwhelmed with his own unholiness.

You and I may not have a vision of God like Isaiah’s, but nonetheless, the lesson is true that when we enter into the presence of God, we must see Him as holy. Our sense of sinfulness and fear is proportional to our experience of the presence of God. If you have never worshiped God with a broken and a contrite spirit, you’ve never fully worshiped God, because that is the only appropriate response to entering the presence of holy God.

My heartfelt concern is that there is too much shallowness today with regard to God’s holiness. Our relationship to God has become too casual. In the modern mind, God has become almost human, so affable and ordinary that we don’t understand His holy indignation against sin. If we burst into His presence with lives unattended by repentance, confession, and cleansing by the Spirit and the Word of God, we are vulnerable to His holy indignation. It is only by His grace that we breathe each breath, is it not? He has every reason to take our lives, because the wages of our sin is death. We have lost our sense of that fear, and too many people approach God with a casual familiarity that borders on blasphemy.

Much that is done in the name of worship today clearly does not genuinely regard God as holy, and thus it falls woefully short. A lot of catchy songs are being sung, poignant feelings are being felt, congenial thoughts are being thought, and pleasurable emotions are being cultivated. But too often these things are merely self-indulgent exercises masquerading as worship without any serious acknowledgment of the holiness of God. That kind of worship bears no relationship to the worship we see in the Bible. It may be more psychological than theological, more fleshly than spiritual.

The response of a true worshiper to a vision of God should resemble Isaiah’s. We should be overwhelmed with our own sinfulness and consequently consumed with a sense of holy terror. I am certain that if the people today who claim to have seen God really saw Him, they wouldn’t be lining up to get on the latest Christian talk show; they’d be lying prostrate on the ground, grieving over their sin. Continue reading

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