Belgic Confession, Article 24: Evil Motives in the Unjustified: Fear of Damnation
Rev. Martyn McGeown
Article 24 of the Belgic Confession:
We believe that this true faith being wrought in man by the hearing of the Word of God, and the operation of the Holy Ghost, doth regenerate and make him a new man, causing him to live a new life, and freeing him from the bondage of sin. Therefore it is so far from being true, that this justifying faith makes men remiss in a pious and holy life, that on the contrary without it they would never do anything out of love to God, but only out of self-love or fear of damnation. Therefore it is impossible that this holy faith can be unfruitful in man: for we do not speak of a vain faith, but of such a faith, which is called in Scripture, a faith that worketh by love, which excites man to the practice of those works, which God has commanded in his Word. Which works, as they proceed from the good root of faith, are good and acceptable in the sight of God, forasmuch as they are all sanctified by his grace: howbeit they are of no account towards our justification. For it is by faith in Christ that we are justified, even before we do good works; otherwise they could not be good works, any more than the fruit of a tree can be good, before the tree itself is good. Therefore we do good works, but not to merit by them, (for what can they merit?) nay, we are beholden to God for the good works we do, and not he to us, since it is he that worketh in us both to will and to do of his good pleasure. Let us therefore attend to what is written: when ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you, say, we are unprofitable servants; we have done that which was our duty to do. In the meantime, we do not deny that God rewards our good works, but it is through his grace that he crowns his gifts. Moreover, though we do good works, we do not found our salvation upon them; for we do no work but what is polluted by our flesh, and also punishable; and although we could perform such works, still the remembrance of one sin is sufficient to make God reject them. Thus then we would always be in doubt, tossed to and fro without any certainty, and our poor consciences continually vexed, if they relied not on the merits of the suffering and death of our Savior.
I Kings 21:27: “And it came to pass, when Ahab heard those words, that he rent his clothes, and put sackcloth upon his flesh, and fasted, and lay in sackcloth, and went softly.”
There are many in the church today who are impressed by the lives of some unbelievers. They conclude—wrongly—that unbelievers are able to do genuinely good works. One evil motive of unbelievers is self-love. The second evil motive of unbelievers is fear, especially the fear of damnation.
Not all unbelievers sin in the same way. Not all unbelievers are murderers, for example. But all unbelievers are murderers at heart—and so are we (Matt. 5:21-22). One reason why many, who are murderers at heart, do not commit the act of murder is fear of being caught and punished. The same is true with respect to many other crimes. It is not that people would not like to commit certain crimes, but that they dare not risk being caught—the shame, the court appearance, and the prison sentence are active deterrents. But that is not the Christian motivation for doing good works or for avoiding sin.
Others do not commit sins—at least not outwardly—because they are afraid of God’s judgment, which is so much greater than man’s judgment. Fear of hell keeps many people religious, and acts as a bridle for many sinners. Pope Gregory I summed up the position of the medieval church thus: “the holy church … mingles hope and fear, in order that they may never incautiously trust in His mercy nor in despair fear His righteousness.” The message of Rome was to keep the people guessing, not to give assurance, to keep them “on their toes.”
King Ahab in I Kings 21 was afraid of the judgment of God. Elijah the prophet had declared that God would “bring evil” upon Ahab and “cut off” Ahab’s house. In response, Ahab did not repent, but put on sackcloth. When Ahab—the worst of Israel’s kings—wore sackcloth and appeared to repent, he did not perform a good work pleasing to God. Ahab had already rejected God by marrying the heathen Jezebel and worshipping Baal. He was guilty of murder and theft, as well as many other sins. He thought a show of humility and sackcloth would turn away God’s anger. But Ahab was not sorry for his sin, merely for the evil consequences of his sin. Ahab would have gladly sinned further if he could have escaped punishment. There was no love for God in Ahab’s heart—he acted out of self-love and fear of damnation.
Self-love and fear of damnation are the only motivations of the wicked with respect to God. That is why unbelievers cannot understand the motivation of the Christian, which is love. The unbeliever who does not know the love of God never acts out of love for God, but the believer who knows God’s love lives out of thankfulness. That is why the believer does not need to be threatened with hell and damnation. The heart of the Christian melts because of love!
These are two very different motives. One is the motivation of a slave. A slave obeys the master because he fears his master’s wrath, but he does not love his master. He only obeys out of necessity. The other is the motivation of a son who obeys his father out of love. A son does not serve his father because he fears being beaten and even disowned as a son if he does not perform well enough as a son. A son serves his father because he loves his father, and because he is thankful for all the good things that his father has given to him.
Thus it is with us. We keep God’s commandments and we perform good works, because we are filled with thanksgiving. That is the Christian’s true motivation. Is it yours?
Rev. Martyn McGeown (Larisa)
Pastorates: Missionary-pastor in Limerick, Ireland for the Covenant Protestant Reformed Church of Northern Ireland - 2010; Providence PRC (Hudsonville, MI), Sept. 2021Website: www.prca.org/current/news/churches/usa-canada/providence-prc-hudsonville-mi
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