Grace That Taught My Heart to Fear

CHAPTER 4- STANDING ON THE STONE OF STUMBLING

Let him be your fear, and let him be your dread. And he will become a sanctuary and a stone of offense and a rock of stumbling to both houses of Israel. ~Isaiah 8:13-14

Solid rock is a good thing or a dangerous thing, depending on the context. It can be the foundation on which you build your house, or the landslide that destroys an entire neighborhood. A mountain can be majestic and beautiful—or it can be an insurmountable, immovable obstacle. Sometimes rock can even be both dangerous and good at the same time. To a ship in a storm, solid rock means a shipwreck. But if your boat runs aground and you find yourself adrift in that storm, the same rock that destroyed your ship is your only hope of safety—your life depends on getting to solid ground. The paradox of rock is that it can be life-taking and life-giving, both dangerous and good.

That’s why, throughout the Bible, Jesus Christ is referred to as a solid rock. Sometimes that metaphor is a picture of stability, foundation, and security. Other times it’s a picture of crushing, judgment, and stumbling. And surprisingly, sometimes it’s both.

In Isaiah, we have a prophecy of the coming Messiah as a precious foundation and cornerstone who will be a source of safety for his people:

Behold, I am laying a foundation in Zion, a stone, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone, of a sure foundation: whoever believes will not be in haste. ~Isaiah 28:16

Jesus picks up on that imagery when he promises that those who trust in him and build their lives on his precious words will be like those who build a house on a firm foundation:

Everyone who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. ~Matthew 7:24-25

But the prophet Isaiah also said this about Jesus, the solid rock:

He will become a sanctuary and a stone of offense and a rock of stumbling to both houses of Israel, a trap and a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem. And many shall stumble on it. They shall fall and be broken; they shall be snared and taken. ~Isaiah 8:14-15

Therefore, the same Savior who offered himself as a foundation and shelter in the storm also said this to those who refused to put their trust in him as their solid rock:

He looked directly at them and said, “What then is this that is written: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone?’ Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces, and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him. ~Luke 20:17-18

The same Rock that is a precious cornerstone and sure foundation to those who believe is also the Rock that breaks and crushes those who stumble in unbelief. The parallels are striking: Jesus is the “precious cornerstone,” and “a trap and snare.” The Solid Rock is both a trap and a treasure. And go back and look at Isaiah 8:14 again and you’ll see both realities brought together in the same verse: “He will become a sanctuary and a stone of offense.” He is either a trap or a treasure, a sanctuary or a stone of offense; the difference depends on how you respond to him.

As we’ve unfolded the gospel heart of fearing God through the last couple chapters, we’ve seen a lot of paradoxes, haven’t we? He is the forgiving God who will by no means clear the guilty; he is both the Lion of Judah and the Lamb of God. Here is yet another glorious paradox: Jesus Christ is a perilous source of dangerous security. I love that seeming contradiction; it’s the essence of his glory that he is merciful and mighty, majestic and meek, lion and lamb, both storm and shelter, trap and treasure, sanctuary and stone of offense. One key to fearing God with an appropriate gospel fear is to see how all these contradictions come together in the compelling and utterly unique character of God’s Son.

DON’T MESS WITH MERCY

In Acts chapter 4, the apostle Peter was on trial before the Jewish high council for daring to preach that Jesus is the Savior. Peter—whose own name, given to him by Jesus, means “rock”—points the religious leaders to Psalm 118:22, a prophecy about Jesus being the cornerstone rejected by the builders, and he urged the leaders to come back to the salvation that they had rejected:

This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone. And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved. ~Acts 4:11-12

In architecture, a cornerstone is the essential element that holds up the walls of a building. Remove the cornerstone, and the entire structure will collapse. The fact that Jesus is the cornerstone means that he alone holds up the entire edifice of salvation. He is the only shelter strong enough to provide protection from divine judgment, because he alone was worthy to absorb all our sins on the cross and rise triumphant over them. To reject him, therefore, is nothing less than everlasting catastrophe, because salvation can only be found in him.

Suddenly, the words of the song, “On Christ The Solid Rock I Stand” take on a little more urgency:

My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness;
I dare not trust the sweetest frame
But wholly lean on Jesus’ name.
On Christ, the solid Rock, I stand;
All other ground is sinking sand.

Do you hear the fearful urgency of the hymn? “All other ground is sinking sand;” his cross is the only place of safety that will stand in the storm of divine judgment. There is no other salvation, no other rescue, no other safety except in the name of Jesus. That’s why it says, “I dare not trust the sweetest frame” In other words, to put my hope in any other place than Jesus’ blood and righteousness is to find myself opposed to the Solid Rock and outside his saving shelter. When Jesus is both precious cornerstone and stumbling stone, you don’t mess around with his grace or play games with his promises of safety.

That’s why that prophecy in Isaiah 8 comes prefaced like this:

Let him be your fear, and let him be your dread. And he will become a sanctuary and a stone of offense and a rock of stumbling.

“Let him be your fear,” Isaiah commands. Why would you fear a sanctuary? Because the sanctuary is also a stone of offense, a rock of stumbling, a trap and snare to those who fail to come to him in faith. The gospel’s free offer of gracious sanctuary is not an offer to be taken lightly. Don’t mess with this kind of mercy.

HIDING IN THE ROCK OF AGES

In June of the year 1776, as the American revolution was igniting across the Atlantic, the English pastor Augustus Toplady found himself caught outside in a violent thunderstorm. Looking for shelter, he saw a limestone cliff with a small cleft worn into it, and was able to press his way into it. Safely ensconced behind the rock, he was able to safely wait out the storm. While he sheltered there, his mind was drawn to the words of Isaiah 26:4, which in the English translation of his day read, “Trust ye in Yahweh forever, for in Yahweh God is the rock of ages.” Moved by the power of the storm and the security of his shelter, he wrote his most famous hymn while the thunder rolled outside his sanctuary:

Rock of ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee;
Let the water and the blood,
From Thy wounded side which flowed,
Be of sin the double cure;
Save from wrath and make me pure.

Jesus Christ, the precious cornerstone, is the Rock of Ages, and the only salvation from wrath and sin is to hide yourself in him. The sheltered harbor of his mercy is the only refuge from wrath, because he has already borne the entire divine punishment for everyone who trusts in him. And so, just like Toplady sheltered in the cleft in the limestone cliff and watched the storm go by, everyone in Christ will watch the storm of divine judgment pass by them, and they will emerge into eternity unscathed.

The next two verses of Toplady’s hymn echo the urgency of “On Christ The Solid Rock I Stand” by affirming that only Jesus’ death and resurrection provide sufficient safety for the sinner:

Not the labor of my hands
Can fulfill Thy law’s demands;
Could my zeal no respite know,
Could my tears forever flow,
All for sin could not atone;
Thou must save, and Thou alone.
 
Nothing in my hands I bring,
Simply to Thy cross I cling;
Naked, come to Thee for dress;
Helpless, look to Thee for grace;
Foul, I to the Fountain fly;
Wash me, Savior, or I die.

These two verses encapsulate what gospel fear looks like: recognizing the futility of even our best works, and that “Thou must save, and Thou alone.” The best labors of my hands could never fulfill his Law’s perfect demands; all my righteous deeds are like filthy rags in comparison to his spotless perfection (Isaiah 64:6). My best deeds are not sufficient to qualify me for grace; even if I had unflagging zeal for God and perfect tears of repentance, I would be unable to pay the costly ransom for my soul and atone for my own sin. To think that I could somehow earn God’s favor by obedience is the height of folly and arrogance; to think that way betrays that I either grossly overvalue my worth or grossly undervalue God’s. At the end of the day, if I am to have any hope of standing before God and emerging unscathed, he must do the saving. I am utterly dependent on his mercy. “Wash me, Savior, or I die.”

That’s where gospel fear starts, but that’s not where it ends. Verse 3 unpacks the correct response to a holy God of wrath and love: “Nothing in my hands I bring, simply to Thy cross I cling.” This is the liberating good news of the gospel, and the central joy in fearing God: the death of Jesus is enough. His spilled blood is sufficient to atone for all my sins. His perfect life is sufficient righteousness to qualify me to stand before God. There’s nothing for me to do, nothing to earn, nothing to bring; rather, I simply cling to what he has done, what he has earned, what he has brought to me.

Yes, coming to Jesus for this kind of salvation requires owning up to the humbling fact that I’m “naked…helpless…foul,” which is probably why so many people stumble over the sanctuary instead of coming inside and finding salvation. But for those who fear God—who tremble at his wrath and holiness and come to Jesus for shelter—they find everything they need: robes of righteousness for their nakedness, grace upon grace for their helplessness, and thorough cleansing from their foulness. Our greatest need is rescue from the wrath of God, and in Jesus we have everything we need. He is the Rock of Ages, the precious cornerstone, the sure foundation, the sanctuary, the only one in whom there is salvation.

The song of the soul who stands on the Stumbling Stone, who has found in Jesus a refuge from wrath and a rock of salvation, sings with joy. What else could we do, we who have in Jesus everything we need? The song of Psalm 18 will be our anthem forever:

I love you, O Yahweh, my strength! Yahweh is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer, my God, my rock in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the strength of my salvation, my stronghold.

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