Christian Freedom: Grasping the Motivation to Love

The Reformation produced two classics on motivation in the Christian life, Martin Luther’s The Freedom of a Christian (1520) and John Calvin’s chapter on “Christian Freedom” in the first edition of The Institutes of the Christian Religion (1536). Luther published his treatise with an open letter to Pope Leo X in the hope of reconciliation with Rome. Of this work author and theologian John Dillenberger remarks, “If one were to single out one short document representing the content and spirit of Luther’s faith, The Freedom of a Christian would undoubtedly be at the top.”

Luther’s aim was to defend the doctrine of justification by faith alone and to show its implications for the Christian life. “Our faith in Christ,” he wrote, “does not free us from works but from false opinions concerning works, that is, from the foolish presumption that justification is acquired by works.”

The motive of proving oneself worthy of salvation Luther discerned to be self-serving and inhibiting. The gospel of justification by faith renders works unnecessary for acceptance by God. “Therefore [the Christian] should be guided in all his works by this thought and contemplate this one thing alone, that he may serve and benefit others in all that he does, considering nothing except the need and the advantage of his neighbor.”

For Calvin also, Christian freedom was a matter of intense pastoral concern. “Its whole force consists in quieting frightened consciences before God … that are perhaps disturbed and troubled over forgiveness of sins, or anxious whether unfinished works, corrupted by the faults of our flesh, are pleasing to God, or tormented about the use of things indifferent.” The doctrine of justification is the answer to the first problem, the doctrine of adoption the answer to the second, and the doctrine of creation the answer to the third.

Christian liberty and liberty of conscience are also subjects of a Westminster Confession of Faith chapter, the first paragraph of which is a particularly helpful summary of the doctrine articulated by Luther and Calvin in the preceding century. “The liberty which Christ hath purchased for believers under the gospel consists in their freedom from the guilt of sin, the condemning wrath of God, the curse of the moral law; and, in their being delivered from this present evil world, bondage to Satan, and dominion of sin; from the evil of afflictions, the sting of death, the victory of the grave, and everlasting damnation; as also, in their free access to God, and their yielding obedience unto Him, not out of slavish fear, but a child-like love and willing mind (20.1).”

“Slavish fear” refers to conformity to moral law motivated by the threat of punishment. But this is not what the Bible means by obedience. As Augustine observed, “if the commandment be done through fear of penalty and not through love of righteousness, it is done in the temper of servitude not freedom — and therefore it is not done at all.” A “child-like love,” on the other hand, is motivated by the thought of pleasing one’s heavenly Father and so yields the true obedience of a willing mind. The gospel’s glory is that it creates such motivation, though not without internal struggle, as the apostle Paul himself attests (Romans 7:21- 25).

Key biblical texts which contrast filial affection and slavish trepidation are Romans 8:14-15 and 1 John 4:18.

[Romans 8:14-15 reads], “Those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit who makes you sons.”

[And 1 John 4:18], “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The man who fears is not made perfect in love.”

The word translated “punishment” is kolasis, used only here and at Matthew 25:46. It refers to God’s retributive justice or penal satisfaction (cf. the verb kolaz in 2 Peter 2:9). The objects of kolasis are the unrighteous. Consequently, to be motivated by threats of the law is sub-Christian. In the words of Augustus Toplady’s great hymn: “The terrors of law and of God / With me can have nothing to do; / My Saviour’s obedience and blood / Hide all my transgressions from view.”

Fear and Dread versus Veneration and Honor

We should note the Scripture’s use of the word “fear” in two distinct senses. There is the fear of terror and dread, and the fear of veneration and honor. The fear of terror makes us want to run away and hide; the fear of honor leads us to stand in awe and worship. The gospel removes the fear of terror as a source of motivation in the Christian life. Punishment has no power to rehabilitate. As theologian John Murray notes, “Even the infliction of wrath will not create the hatred of sin; it will incite to greater love of sin and enmity against God.”

Fear of punishment must be expelled so that love may reign supreme as the Christian life’s animating principle. Since it is love to God that is in view, it is necessarily a reverent love. God is majestic in His holiness, and His acts of redemptive love are awe-inspiring. The only proper response to the crucifixion of the Lord of glory is, “Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.” Believers tremble at the righteous judgment of God against sin. They are no longer afraid of punishment, but they are sobered by the awesome transaction: Christ died for our sins; God made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us; He bore our sins in His own body on the tree.

The fear of terror makes us want to run away and hide; the fear of honor leads us to stand in awe and worship. The gospel removes the fear of terror as a source of motivation in the Christian life. When the Scripture tells us to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12), it does not mean that we are to live lives of nervous apprehension because the completion of our salvation is up to us. The reading of the New American Bible, “work with anxious concern to achieve your salvation,” is as misleading as it is common. The full text of Philippians 2:12-13 is as follows: “Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed — not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence — continue to work out (katergazesthe) with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.”

The verb translated “work out” is the only New Testament instance of katergazomai in the imperative mood. Although it can mean “to effect or achieve” (cf. Romans: 5:3, “tribulation works patience”; 2 Corinthians: 7:10, “godly sorrow works repentance”) or “to finish [off] or conquer” (cf. Ephesians: 6:13, “after you have done everything”), it can also mean “to practice or work at.” The question is, which is the most likely meaning in this context?

We should first mark Paul’s opening note of confidence, “that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6). Salvation is the Lord’s doing, and the outcome is not in doubt. Paul now grounds his imperative (katergazesthe) in this primary truth, “for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose” (Philippians 2:13). Your salvation is not a goal to be achieved by human effort but a gift bestowed by divine grace. Significantly, the imperative is in the present tense: “Go on putting your salvation into practice, go on actualizing your salvation.” This fits with Paul’s reference to the Philippians’ established pattern of response: “as you have always obeyed.”

We should also recall Paul’s earlier prayer for motivation in the Christian life, “that your love (not fear) may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight.” Fear and trembling is a stereotyped expression (it rhymes in Greek — phobou kai tromou) for proper respect (cf. 2 Corinthians 7:15, Ephesians 6:5). Here it refers to the awed reverence that comes from the realization that God (the word order in Greek puts the emphasis here) is the one working in us both to will and to act according to His saving purpose. J.B. Phillips’ translation is right on the mark: Work out the salvation that God has given you with a proper sense of awe and responsibility. For it is God who is at work within you, giving you the will and the power to achieve His purpose.

Punishment versus Discipline

As there is a fundamental difference between the fear of terror and the fear of honor, so is there a fundamental difference between punishment and discipline. The goal of the Christian life is to be like Christ, the image of God. In the transformation process, “God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness” (Hebrews 12:10). Whereas punishment is the execution of God’s retributive justice, discipline is the expression of His corrective love (Hebrews 12:6; cf. Revelation 3:19, “Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline”). Though the experience of discipline is never pleasant, it is endurable in the knowledge that in the long run it “produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:11).

Affliction thus has an entirely different face depending upon whether it appears as punishment or discipline. It is not too much to say that punishment and discipline are as far apart as God’s wrath and God’s love. Sinners rightly take refuge in Christ to escape the penal consequences of sin, but this is not the continuing motivation of the Christian life other than as a standing warning against apostasy. The message of Hebrews 12:4-11 is not, “If you sin, you will be punished,” but “If you are a son or daughter, you will be disciplined.” Though painful, discipline is welcome as the sign of God’s love. Through it we are led to progressive obedience, not out of fear of the consequences but out of love for Him who first loved us.

David Clyde Jones is professor emeritus of systematic theology and ethics at Covenant Theological Seminary. Jones earned his B.A. at William Jennings Bryan College, his B.D. and Th.M. at Westminster Theological Seminary, and his Th.D. at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis.

This article originally appeared in Covenant magazine, the quarterly magazine of Covenant Theological Seminary. © 2003 Covenant Theological Seminary.

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