I’ve been having a conversation on our Facebook page with a man who objects to my post “Christians Don’t View Jesus as a Means to an End.” He insists Christians are motivated only by the “carrots and sticks” of Heaven and Hell, despite my explanation.
I think the conversation is helpful for understanding why we often hear people (usually atheists) accuse Christians of “living in fear.” Of course, as Christians, we know we’ve been freed from the kind of fear they’re talking about; we’re not living in it. What do we have to fear? If Christ died to secure our salvation while we were His enemies (Rom. 5:10), “much more, then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him” (Rom. 5:9).
We know we have “an inheritance which is imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away, reserved in heaven for [us], who are protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (1 Pet. 1:4). As Paul explains in Romans, we are completely secure, for “these whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified” (Rom. 8:30). If you have been justified by faith in Christ, you will be glorified with Him in the end. How do we know this? Because “He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things?” (Rom. 8:32).
So what do we have to fear? “Who will bring a charge against God’s elect? God is the one who justifies; who is the one who condemns?” No one, says Romans 8:33–39—not as long as Christ is interceding for us at the right hand of God (Rom. 8:34), and that is forever (Heb. 7:23–25).
Adopted by God
As I explained in “Christians Don’t View Jesus as a Means to an End,” Christians follow God and seek to be like Him not because we’re using Him as a tool to avoid Hell, but because we’ve been changed into people who love and desire Him.
We’ve been adopted by God, which means our relationship with Him is no longer that of a Judge and criminal; now the relationship is that of a Father and child. Of course we don’t want to disobey God; we respect Him as a child rightly respects his father, knowing that “those whom the Lord loves He disciplines,” and that “God deals with [us] as with sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline? … He disciplines us for our good, so that we may share His holiness” (Heb. 12:5–11).
But the discipline of a good father is obviously quite different from the wrath of a good judge, and the kind of “fear” a child has of disobeying a good father is quite different from the “fear” a criminal has of a good judge. In both cases, the fear results from the goodness of the authority figure, but there is clearly a qualitative difference between a child’s “fear” of the discipline of a loving father (i.e., a deep respect and desire to please that’s motivated by the child’s love for the father and undergirded by the security of the familial relationship) and the “fear” a criminal has of a just judge (i.e., a fear of facing judgment for his crimes, motivated merely by a desire not to suffer). Despite the fact that a Christian’s position is analogous to the first, the kind of “fear” people accuse us of is the second.
I think I understand why this confusion exists among atheists and other non-Christians. You have to remember that they are on the other side of the fear divide from Christians, and they are seeing God from a completely different angle—His judging wrath rather than His loving discipline. They have not yet been adopted by the Father through faith in Christ; their relationship to God is still that of criminal to Judge, so they can hear only warnings of Hell. And if the Facebook conversation is any indication, they hate the concept of the Christian God as Someone who has the power and authority to execute the perfect justice of His wrath against those who commit moral crimes.
Why Some Only See Carrots and Sticks
Why can some people only see carrots and sticks in Christianity? Because God’s righteous wrath against the evil of sin is threatening and ugly to them. They think our God is evil and undesirable, so they can't see any other reason for following Him other than carrots and sticks. But the reason why Christianity is not all about carrots and sticks is that Christians view God as desirable. This undesirable/desirable divide is the root difference between non-Christians and Christians, and one’s view of God can only change from the first to the second by a work of the Holy Spirit.
I have, in the past, explained the gospel to people who were so focused on their anger against God’s wrath that they literally could not comprehend what I was saying. They just kept returning again and again to the idea of God’s wrath and couldn’t see past it. And they hated Him for it. As I’ve written before,
This is as far as atheists see into Christianity—an unforgiving, impossibly high moral law enforced by a fearful Judge. They accuse us of “living in fear,” and they want no part of that kind of life.
Those who see God only in this way assume that everyone else sees Him through the same lens, and that, therefore, Christians must be submitting to this ugly God merely out of necessity—in order to avoid a punishment and gain a reward. They can’t imagine anything else. They certainly can’t imagine being motivated by desire for this God. They’re unable to see the love of God or the peace we enjoy with Him. They’re unable to see Him as He is, though the truth is there for all to see.
The Truth about Our Good God
And here is the truth about our good God: “God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ…so that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:4–5). He is the reward we seek, this God of perfect justice and self-sacrificing love. And this is the kind of love we see: “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). Jesus died for His enemies. He displayed His love on the cross for all to see who will submit to seeing (by the power and grace of God), and no enemy is beyond His power to save. But the vitriol against God in the Facebook conversation is another reminder that “with people this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matt. 19:26).