Trembling Before the Cross

James M. Renihan

Professor John Murray once wrote that the fear of God is the soul of godliness, and surely he was right. Though often neglected, it is one of the central concepts in all of Scripture. God's people fear Him, because they know Him as He has revealed Himself. Thomas Manton said, "This must be the note of God's servants, because it is the great principle that both hinders us from sin and quickens us to duty. The fear of God is one of the fundamental and essential graces which belong to a Christian" (Works, 6:409).

Manton hints at the two major characteristics of the fear of God when he says that it "hinders us from sin and quickens us to duty." On the one hand, there is a sense of terror in standing before a holy God. Isaiah, in his great vision of the Lord seated in the temple, falls to pieces as his own sin is laid bare before God's burning holiness. Though one of God's own people, he knew the potential of the power of God when released against sin. He experienced what was expressed by the writer to the Hebrews, who reminds us that it is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. But on the other hand, the fear of God is evidenced in a profound love and reverence for God's person. God is attractive to those who follow Him. His people want Him, and long for the sense of His presence and majesty. They are glad to bow down before Him and adore His glorious sovereignty. For them, their greatest joy is to be found in exalting their Lord.

Many illustrations of this double sense of the fear of God might be proposed. Let us consider one of them, the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.

As we meditate on the cross, with all of the fullness of New Testament understanding?as instructed Christian disciples?certain facts grip our minds. Here is the Son of God?holy and undefiled?pure and righteous in every way. He is the one of whom the Father had said "This is my beloved Son, hear Him; I have glorified His name, and will glorify it again." And there is the Father?the initiator of the Son's errand?in character exactly like His Son?holy, undefiled, pure and righteous.
The Son is mocked and scorned, beaten and tormented by wicked men, and the Father will not intervene. The Son goes to Calvary and receives in his body the ultimate torture, crucifixion. Not only does the Father refuse to aid His Son, but He infinitely increases the Son's agony by opening the floodgates of His wrath and sends them upon His Son relentlessly. The heavens are blackened, the earth heaves with a quake, and still Christ endures the fierceness of the fury of almighty God. God is angry with sin, and this is how He punishes it, by pouring out His anger on His own dear Son. How can anyone fail to fear his judgments? He is a terrible God. Christ fell into His hands, and found no mercy. It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the Living God.

Yet a New Testament disciple cannot stop there. He recognizes not only the fierceness of the wrath of God, so powerful that he shields his eyes from the horror and desires to flee, but his understanding of the Gospel causes further meditation. The agony of Christ is punishment for sin, but not His sin, rather it is the believer's sin. The blood shed is a propitiation, a covering, that turns away the wrath of God and satisfies the demands of divine justice. It is the greatest display of love ever accomplished. My sins?deserving all of that punishment in my body?are forgiven through Christ's agony. This is how God removes sin. How can anyone fail to fear such a merciful and loving God?

Apart from the eye of faith, all that one sees at the Cross is as Isaiah describes: "He has no form or comeliness; and when we see Him, there is no beauty that we should desire Him. He is despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. And we hid, as it were, our faces from Him" (Isaiah 53:2-3). But the believer looks more closely and says, "Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement for our peace was upon Him, and by His stripes, we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all" (Isaiah 53:4-6).

The cross of Calvary well illustrates the double nature of the fear of God. It demonstrates the fury of the wrath of God. As we consider the anger poured out on the Son of God?holy, undefiled, pure, beloved?dying in indescribable agony, we catch a glimpse of the awesome anger of God. Who is this God that He would do such an aweful and awful thing? He is to be feared, if He would punish sin in such a way.

The cross also demonstrates the love of God. As we consider the action of the Father in sending His Son to bear the penalty of His people's sins, and of the Son freely accepting the blows of His beloved Father, we catch a glimpse of the mercy, compassion and love of God. Who is this God, that He would do such an aweful and awful thing, for me? He is to be profoundly feared, if He would punish my sins in such a way. The old spiritual had it right:

Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Sometimes, it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?