Grace That Taught My Heart to Fear


Conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile, knowing that you were ransomed… ~1 Peter 1:17-18


The greatest realities in the universe are wrapped up in the paradox of God’s wrath and love. Reading through the Old Testament, you can almost feel the urgent leaning forward, pressing in farther and farther to the paradox, looking for the answer but never quite arriving. The prophet Habakkuk complains about the mingling of divine justice and mercy, until he throws up his hands in worshipful surrender, saying, “Yet I will rejoice in Yahweh; I will take joy in the God of my salvation” (Habakkuk 3:18). Afflicted and beaten down, Job longed for a mediator between a holy God and sinful man who could reconcile the realities of divine punishment and divine clemency. But when God finally addresses him, Job’s trembling response was humbled repentance: “I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know… therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:3,6). The Psalms tremble with brokenness and beauty, an agonized wrestling with a just and loving God: “I say to God, my rock, ‘Why have you forgotten me?… Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God’” (Psalm 42:9,11). The last prophet of the Old Testament, Malachi, gives the final word on fearing God, a simultaneous promise of hope and horror: “The day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble. The day that is coming shall set them ablaze, says the LORD of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings” (Malachi 4:1-2). In fact, the last sentence of the Old Testament is a promise of the coming messiah and the restoration of God’s people. But the last word in that sentence, the final word of the Old Testament? “Destruction.” And so the curtain falls on the Old Testament with the paradox unresolved.


With the fullness of the new covenant and the resolution of the paradox in Jesus’ death and resurrection at last unveiled, the apostle Peter stands amazed, and invites us to participate in his amazement. Trace carefully what Peter says about the resolution of the paradox:

Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories. It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look. ~1 Peter 1:10-12

All those prophets—Habakkuk, Job, David, Malachi, and others—saw the grace that has now been given to you, and longed to experience and understand what you enjoy. You enjoy access into the mind and heart of God unparalleled in all of redemptive history, because you are the recipient of the unveiling of the greatest realities in the universe. The “sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories” are the answer to every unanswered question of the Old Testament. All of those prophecies, Peter said, were ultimately not for their benefit, but for yours, that you might more fully know and rejoice in the paradox of God. They saw the shadows dimly from a distance; you get to sit back and enjoy the substance.

But it gets even better than that. Did you see the last phrase of Peter’s? All this glory, all this grace, all this good news, are “things into which angels long to look.” All the angelic hosts of heaven are utterly baffled by this mystery. They themselves stand in awe of the God of wrath and love, and even though they have heavenly, front-row seats to the paradox, they long to understand and experience what you enjoy.

That’s a truly tremendous thing to say; I can’t think of a bigger way to state the massive significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection than to say, “Even angels long to look into these things.”  The intermingling of judgment and mercy, the sacrificial death of God’s Son, and the everlasting rescue of rebels, are utterly baffling to the heavenly host.

But it does beg a question: to what extent are you enjoying the grace that prophets searched for and angels long to understand? Are you amazed by the grace that you have received, or have the most breathtaking realities in the universe become routine to you? Has the good news become old news?

If it has, don’t despair. Peter continues, laying a foundation for a life motivated by amazing grace, captivated by the fear of God at the foot of the cross. Read on:

Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” And if you call on him as Father who judges impartially according to each one’s deeds, conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile, knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot. ~1 Peter 1:13-19

I love the phrase, “Set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you.” Believer, anchor your security in one thing and one thing only: the amazing grace that saved a wretch like you. The unveiled paradox of wrath and love is the foundation of all hope and confidence. Don’t trust your works, your faith, your repentance, or any other host of good things; Jesus, and Jesus alone, is the only source of salvation and security.

And yet, if you truly understand that, if you are amazed by the grace that amazes angels, if your hope is fully set on free grace, the result will not be a lazy life of wishy-washy commitment. No, your life will look like “obedient children.” Amazing grace is transforming grace. Grace that does not amaze will not transform, and if you’re not being transformed by it, it’s because you’re not amazed. Amazement lies at the heart of all Christian transformation. The paradox at the blazing heart of God, when it captures your heart, will start to work its way out in your life by making you look more and more like the paradox you love. “As he who called you is holy”—that is, utterly unique, set apart, and radically committed to justice and mercy—“you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy.’” Let your life be like a lens refracting the beauty of the paradox into this darkened world, so that people can see the holy love of God worked out through your own love of sinful people.

As we keep reading, we see how Peter makes clear that the life he is describing is no less than what it means to fear God. “If you call on him as Father who judges impartially according to each one’s deeds, conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile.” The reality that our heavenly Father is a holy and impartial judge, Peter said, should fill us with an appropriate holy fear of displeasing him. He is a gracious, lavish, blessing, pursuing Father… but he is also a holy, wrathful, sin-hating Father. These twin realities are the paradox that has saved us, and we must never lose sight of both sides of our Father’s heart. If we lose sight of his kindness, we will only view him with a slavish fear– and that’s not the kind of fear Peter is talking about here. But conversely, if we lose sight of his ferocious holiness, we will forget that our Father has high standards for his children and will miss the whole meaning of the Lord’s prayer: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.” That means, let your name be seen as holy, held in reverence… starting with me and everyone who sees me.


Those two aspects of the paradox– our Father’s holiness and his great love for us– are always in tension in the Christian life as we fight for clearer views of his grace and continue to struggle with indwelling sin. That’s why Peter says that we are to conduct ourselves with fear in a certain, specific kind of way. He says to conduct yourselves with fear… knowing something. “Conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile, knowing that you were ransomed.”

This sentence is the clearest place in the Bible where the fear of God and the grace of God are brought together. In fact, it was this sentence that prompted me to write this whole book. “Conduct yourself with fear, knowing that you were ransomed.” This is, in the words of John Newton, “grace that taught my heart to fear.” In the ransom that God paid for us at the cross, we see the paradox of God’s holiness and love brought together. Any kind of fear that lacks this knowledge of redemption will ultimately prove destructive. But fear of God that says, “Father, you are holy… and you have redeemed me,” is the kind of fear that Proverbs 14:27 talks about: “The fear of Yahweh is a fountain of life.” This is the kind of fear that the paradox of God creates, on which the entire Christian life is based. This is not slavish fear of punishment; this is the fear of a child who knows his father’s love and delight and therefore eagerly wants to please him. Only a knowledge of gospel redemption can create this kind of fear in our hearts.

So how exactly does this work? How does the gospel operate to create this kind of fear in our hearts and in our lives? The gospel fear that we need to cultivate, the kind of gospel fear that will lead to a joyful pursuit of holiness and reverent fear, knows that we have been ransomed. Therefore it follows that the more we know and understand about this ransom, the greater our gospel fear will be. And so Peter continues: “You were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers…” This means that we have been purchased out of a slavery far more destructive than the Israelite’s slavery in Egypt; we have been purchased out of an inherited slavery to sin. This is a greater sight of glory than Moses ever glimpsed on Mount Sinai when the paradox was first revealed; in the gospel we have been ushered through a greater Exodus out of greater slavery into greater freedom and greater glory.


What was the cost of this purchase? Peter continues: “You were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot.” No mere gold or silver or any other perishable thing could pay for the great cost of our sin; for a rescue on this scale, a passover lamb will not suffice. Nothing we could offer to God could come close to the price necessary. Psalm 49 lays out this problem and solution in a beautiful, gospel-foretelling way:

Truly no man can ransom another, or give to God the price of his life, for the ransom of their life is costly and can never suffice, that he should live forever and never see the pit… But God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol, for he will receive me. ~Psalm 49:7-9,15

It is impossible to ransom yourself, or to ransom anyone else, because “the ransom of their life is costly and can never suffice.” The nature of sin– infinite crime against an infinite God– means that no human ransom could ever suffice. The price is impossibly high. The value of your life is simply not enough to pay the ransom. And also note who demands the ransom: not the devil, nor any person, but God himself. “Truly no man can give to God the price of his life.” Here we see the paradox again: God, who is the One we have offended and sinned against, demands payment for sin and will by no means leave the guilty unpunished. The ransom must be paid.

But God (oh how precious are those gospel words!), but God will ransom my soul, the psalmist declares. Only God can pay to God what God requires, and so the impossibly high price is paid by God himself. The psalmist doesn’t elaborate on how this could be done, but standing on the other side of the cross, we know the full reality that Psalm 49 points to: only the precious blood of Christ, the God-man, could pay the impossibly high price of the ransom.

It would do us well to linger longer here, on the words “the precious blood of Christ,” and let the full weight of these words sink further into our souls, so that they will have the effect that Peter intended: a holy gospel fear.

To feel the full weight of these words, consider why the price had to be paid. Sin is an infinite crime against an infinite God that deserves an infinite punishment. One moment of less-than-perfect love, misplaced trust, or ugly pride is enough to justly condemn you to an eternity of punishment in hell. And you and I stand guilty of literally millions of those moments. Jesus said that the most basic summary of God’s law was “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37). I don’t think I have ever done that, even once; I have never once loved God with every emotion in my heart and every fiber of my being and every thought in my head. Never once. And neither have you. That means that each and every moment of your entire life fails to live up to even the most basic summary of God’s requirement. Every moment of my life, by itself, merits an eternity of punishment. How many eternities of punishment have you and I earned by our costly disobedience? Countless millions. Truly, no one can give to God the cost of his life, for the ransom is costly and can never suffice. If left to pay it ourselves, endless ages of eternal punishment will never exhaust our guilt.

Stand in wonder, then, that the Son of God, in one act of sacrificing himself in your place, paid the entirety of your debt… and the debt of every person who would ever trust him!  Six hours on the cross exhausted the infinite debt of countless millions, each of whom owed countless millions of eternities of punishment. And all of that guilt was paid for by one man, on one day, in one final sacrifice.

How valuable, then, must the Son of God be, to be sufficient to pay the full ransom for all God’s people by himself! “The precious blood of Christ” hardly begins to describe the great worth of Jesus Christ. He is infinitely glorious, infinitely worthy of everlasting praise. He is the most valuable Reality in the universe, the very definition of beauty and splendor, the King of all creation, the Self-Existent I AM, the One by whom and for whom everything exists. So, when he steps forward to offer the price of his life, the sheer value of his divine person means that his sacrifice pays for all the sins of all who trust him across all of history, and purchases them for himself for all eternity.

Oh, how the great worth of Jesus should move us to worship and fear! We were made to behold his beauty, to be satisfied by his steadfast love, to delight in his glory, to revel in his worth. And nowhere is his beauty, steadfast love, glory, and worth more clearly displayed for the everlasting enjoyment of his people than at the cross, where he made us his forever.  In the light of his great glory and worth, the call to holiness and fear is simply a call to embrace what is most beautiful, most satisfying, most thrilling– Jesus himself.

That’s why Proverbs can say strange things like, “The fear of Yahweh is a fountain of life.” Here is the endless fountain of amazing grace, the living water flowing from our Savior’s wounds that satisfies the soul and transforms our lives. The heart of gospel fear is seeing and feeling the infinite worth of Jesus as he bleeds for our sins. Gospel fear trembles to think that each act of disobedience cost the Son of God his life, trembles to realize that such a high price would be paid for an unworthy one such as I, and trembles with joy to see every crime against heaven absolved and paid for and buried in an ocean of precious, atoning blood. Is it any wonder that for centuries saints have sung with John Newton,

‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear
And grace my fears relieved
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed!

May the Holy Spirit so open your eyes to the preciousness of paradoxical grace that its value in your eyes would only increase, day by day and into eternity, where we will join around the throne to praise, singing, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain!”