What does this fear of God entail? Need we fear God’s punishment? Before I answer this question, the answer may very well turn on semantics and how we define our words. For me, I define punishment with more of a connotation of wrath and retribution. For me, punishment is different than discipline. I raise the following question: Need we fear God’s wrath (punishment)? I propose the following answer: we need not!
I believe God takes sin seriously.
The LORD is a jealous and avenging God; the LORD takes vengeance and is filled with wrath. The LORD takes vengeance on his foes and maintains his wrath against his enemies. - Nahum 1:2
But as children of God, are we the Lord’s enemies? Surely not!
Colossians 1:20 describes Jesus Christ the reconciler as one who made “peace by the blood of his cross.” (See also Ephesians 2:16.) Christians know that we are saved by faith alone… not by any of our works. This is only possible because the wrath of God has been satisfied in Jesus Christ. He was a propitiation for our sins. (Hebrews 2:17, Romans 3:25) The wrath of God against our sins has been totally and fully satisfied in Christ. He became a curse for us on the cross. What love!
In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. - 1 John 4:10
So in what sense are we to have fear and trembling? We should have a fear and trembling that embraces the knowledge that God is holy and that we are his children now, saved from his holy wrath. We should NOT take our salvation for granted, but instead, make sure that our calling and election is sure. (2 Peter 1:10) For it is those who endure to the end that show forth that they are truely God’s own. If we are not walking in obedience to God, we may not be true Christians. “For no good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit.” (Luke 6:43)
Sin is simply stupid. Sin has inbuilt negative consequences. We will reap the inbuilt consequences of our sin. (Psalms 32) But another consequence of our sin is this: our Holy God will discipline us out of love to restore us to Him.
And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons?
“My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord,
nor be weary when reproved by him.
For the Lord disciplines the one he loves,
and chastises every son whom he receives.”
It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. - Hebrews 12:5-8
Oh how kind and merciful of God to discipline us!
At the same time, we need not fear God’s wrath.
Writing in the Old Testament, before Christ died, Micah says it this way:
Rejoice not against me, O mine enemy: when I fall, I shall arise; when I sit in darkness, the LORD shall be a light unto me.
I will bear the indignation of the LORD, because I have sinned against him, until he plead my cause, and execute judgment for me: he will bring me forth to the light, and I shall behold his righteousness. - Micah 7:8-9 (ESV)
John Piper describes Micah’s statement as one exhibiting “gutsy guilt.” We should have a fear and trembling before God, knowing that God is holy. He has saved us from his wrath. When we sin, we can stand before God and ask for grace and forgiveness because of Christ. We are to stand in faith and hope, with trembling awe of his holiness and love.
Psalms 2:11-12 puts it this way: (Note the words I have italicized, indicating the positive aspects of a proper fear and trembling before an awesome God.)
Serve the LORD with fear
and rejoice with trembling.
Kiss the Son, lest he be angry
and you be destroyed in your way,
for his wrath can flare up in a moment.
Blessed are all who take refuge in him.