Robert Rayburn's sermon on 1 Samuel 6 captures the essence of the point I was driving at in my sermon on the same text, namely the demand that our faith in God must produce fear of God and obedience to God.

Here some excerpts from his sermon (the last two paragraphs are especially important):

“Behold the goodness and the severity of God,” Paul says. But we are much more interested in beholding his goodness than his severity. That is perhaps natural enough, but if it leads us to being careless about his severity, his holiness, then we put ourselves in danger. And there is reason to believe that a large part of American Christianity has put itself in that danger. And that is so for two reasons, or, I should say, because they make two mistakes in the reading of this text, 1 Samuel 6:19.

First, they do not think that it applies to them, living as they do in the age of the Spirit, the New Testament.

There would be many evangelicals who would read 1 Samuel 6:19 and, without hesitation, assume that such a thing would happen, could happen, only in the Old Testament. God was much more strict, much less gracious in that day and in that Mosaic epoch. G. Bromley Oxnam, the prominent United Methodist bishop of the middle 20th century, put it more polemically: “the God of the Old Testament is a dirty bully.”

Christians recoil from that thought, but a large number of them, nevertheless, accept that God treated people far more harshly in what they think of as the “age of the law” than he does now in what they think of as “the age of the gospel.” There is, however, precious little evidence to prove this and a great deal to disprove it. Think of just this from the New Testament itself.

  1. Acts 5: Ananias and Sapphira were executed for cheating on their tithe.
  2. 1 Corinthians 11: some Corinthian church members had lost their lives for their irreverence toward the Lord’s Supper – an event not dissimilar to that recorded in 1 Samuel 6:19!
  3. The Book of Hebrews contains many warnings to folk in the churches to which it was written, to the effect that it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God, and that our God is a consuming fire. Indeed, the judgments of the Lord against Israel in the OT are cited as exemplary warnings for us. Don’t be unfaithful as they were or you will get what they did.
  4. Revelation 3: the threat the Lord makes to the church in Laodicea.
  5. Or, even, in John 5, the Lord’s later remark to the man he had healed at the pool of Bethesda. “Stop sinning or something worse will happen to you.”
  6. Then, of course, all the terrible judgment scenes, so many of which come from the Lord’s own mouth!
  7. Remember, it is in Romans 11, in the NT, that we are told to behold “the goodness and the severity of God.”

How is 1 Samuel 6 different from Matthew 7 and the Lord’s terrible, “Depart from me, I never knew you!”? And how is the Lord’s judgment of these 70, who had offered sacrifices to the Lord, different from his casting away from himself those who, at the judgment, could say and would say that they had cast out demons in the Lord’s name, but, according to him, they still had not done his will?

Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever, and both his goodness and his severity are thus the same. And so the question the men of Beth Shemesh asked is a question we are to ask as well!

It was the Lord Jesus, after all, in his famous parable of the sower and the soils, who spoke of people who have an initial joy but have no root and eventually fall away. He is describing people like those at Beth Shemesh who would have thought their participation in the sacrifices, their joy at the ark’s return, would have rendered them immune to the Lord’s wrath. But their indifference to God’s holiness finally found them out!

The very many warnings in the Bible about a superficial and insincere faith, warnings which come in the form of illustrations such as this one in 1 Samuel 6 as well as in the sermons of the prophets and the letters of the Apostles, are precisely designed to force upon our conscience the issue of the seriousness and the sincerity of our faith.

Richard Baxter wrote, “Seriousness is the very thing wherein consisteth our sincerity. If thou art not serious, thou art not a Christian. It is not only a high degree in Christianity, but the very life and essence of it. As fencers upon a stage differ from soldiers fighting for their lives, so hypocrites differ from serious Christians. [‘The Saints Everlasting Rest, in Practical Works, p. 46]

Texts such as the one before us, are designed to make us serious Christians, to make us fearful of being light and insubstantial and insincere Christians. And those texts, full of judgment, thunder and lightning, come as well in the NT as the OT. There is no difference. Now as then it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God, a statement made, in both the OT and the NT, to people who thought themselves God’s people, and to many who were in truth God’s people.

So, we must put the question to ourselves as well: “Who can stand in the presence of the Lord, this holy God?”

But, there is a second reason why many evangelical Christians do not take seriously the warning that is here for us in 1 Samuel 6:19: they give the wrong answer to the question of v. 20.

The simple assumption of many Bible readers in our day would be that the answer to the question posed in v. 20 would be: “Why, those who believe in Jesus Christ.” The way anyone stands in the presence of the Lord is in the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ. We have no righteousness of our own. Our righteousness, as Isaiah put it, is “filthy rags.” To stand before a holy God one needs real righteousness, perfect goodness, complete obedience to God’s will. We don’t have it. But Christ does and offers to give it to all who trust in him....

All of that is true, of course, most gloriously true! We could never stand before the holiness of God in our own deeds and expect anything from him but punishment. Let no one take our crown in proclaiming justification by faith, our acquittal in the judgment of God on the basis of Christ’s righteousness reckoned to us through our faith in him. We will happily admit that the question posed in 1 Samuel 6:20 can be answered in terms of justifying faith. It is, for example, answered that way in Revelation 7 (vv. 9, 13-14).

But, that being said, that is not the Bible’s customary answer to the question posed in 1 Samuel 6:20! In Psalm 24:3, for example, we have a similar question put:

            “Who may ascend the hill of the Lord?

Who may stand in his holy place?”

And what answer is given?

            “He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to an

Idol or swear by what is false.”

The answer to the question in 1 Samuel 6:20 is that those who are faithful to the Lord in their living will stand before his presence. You get this all through the OT prophets and then you get it again in the NT. The Lord sends away those who thought they were saved because, he says, “you did not do the will of my father in heaven.” At the day of resurrection, he says, men will awake and those who have done good will rise to live and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned. James tells us that true religion amounts to helping the needy and keeping oneself uncorrupted by the world.

Indeed, picking up the same thought of “standing before the Lord,” Paul says that we will all stand before the judgment seat of Christ to give an account of the deeds done in the body, whether good or evil.

Clearly, we cannot be righteous before God in our own righteousness. We must have the righteousness of Christ. But a question like 1 Samuel 6:20 is designed precisely to force upon us that very question: do we have the righteousness of Christ? Have we trusted in him? Do we have a living faith in Christ the Savior? And one key way of testing the genuineness of faith is to see whether it produces an obedient, reverent, devoted life.

In the case of these men from Beth Shemesh, those 70, they thought themselves right with God, they participated in the worship of God, but their hearts were far from him. They had only an outward faith, a faith sufficient to produce an outward conformity. But when that faith was tested it was shown up to be insincere, unreal. They didn’t love and fear the holiness of God, not really? They didn’t revere his name, not really? They didn’t keep his commandments, not really? And on the occasion of the ark’s return, they were tripped up. It didn’t occur to them not to do what so offended God, because their hearts were far from God.

This, brothers and sisters, is a very common problem in the church. Such insincere faith is widespread. Always has been. And so, throughout the Bible, warning after warning of every kind, to keep us thinking about our faith, our lives, to keep us careful to be not only hearers of the Word but doers of it.

The fact is, the Israelites, the people who supposedly belonged to the Lord, were no more protected against the punishment of infidelity than the pagans around them! The difference between heaven and hell is not and never has been between those who belong to the church and those who do not, but rather, between those who belong to Christ by a living faith and those who do not, whether they are in the church or outside of it.

There is a peace that passes all understanding that is to fill the hearts of those who know the love of God and who know that they have peace with God through the Lord Jesus Christ. But that peace, the entire Bible testifies, is not incompatible with or inconsistent with a serious concern to live a holy, devout, and obedient life before the Lord. It is not incompatible with what Peter calls making our calling and election sure by the faithfulness of our living before and with our God. It is not incompatible with the terrible seriousness of commitment that led even the Apostle Paul to say that he beat his body and made it his slave, lest having preached to others, he himself might be disqualified for the prize.

It is the paradox of the Christian life. The safest and the most secure Christian, the Christian most at peace in his heart, is the one who takes with the greatest seriousness these warnings he or she finds everywhere in the Bible and, so, “works out his own salvation, her own salvation, knowing that it is God who is within you to will and to act according to his good pleasure.”

It is interesting to me that in the church’s past, when God’s Spirit has been moving most mightily, and people have enjoyed the strongest impressions of his utterly free saving grace and love, of the perfection of Christ’s righteous as now belonging to them, they have, at the same time, been most careful to live seriously and obediently and devoutly. They have never thought there was a contradiction between free grace and justification by faith and the absolute necessity of Christians, who have been saved by grace, living a devout and consecrated life. The one must lead to the other. If not it must be doubted if faith is genuine.

“An old Highland minister said of a time of revival that during it they were ‘like men walking on ice,’ they had to be so watchful over every word and thought not to slip and so grieve the Holy Spirit, who was working amongst them and resting over them in His love.”

Well, revivals are just powerful concentrations of normal Christian experience. The principles are the same at any time. And true faith, perhaps not so powerfully, but still really, cares always to live according to God’s will.

I want us all to be happy Christians, serene in the knowledge that we stand before the Lord not in our own righteousness, but that of our Redeemer, Jesus Christ. But, I want us, at the same time, to be serious Christians, deadly serious, absolutely committed to the proposition that real and living faith in Christ will transform the life and that those who love God will keep his commandments. So, when we come across the texts that remind us of God’s entirely free grace and Christ’s perfect righteous given to us as if it were our own, to make us as if we had never sinned or been sinners, we will grab hold of those texts with all our might. I love, you love those texts that teach us how free the grace of God truly is; that teach us that if we but believe in Jesus Christ all our sins, no matter how terrible, how constant, how inexcusable, are swept away and buried in the deepest sea — all because Christ died for them. But, I also want to love those texts that teach me that God cares vary much about the life I live and that warn me that I must live a life faithful to him. And, when we come across warnings such as the one before us tonight, we will grab hold of those texts also with all our might.

To answer the question of 1 Samuel 6:20 with “the one who believes in Jesus Christ” is calculated to put churches and Christians to sleep. To answer it instead, as the Bible does, with “he who has clean hands and a pure heart” will force us, daily, to confess our sins and seek anew the righteousness of Jesus – for consecrated Christians who try to live a holy life are the one who fully appreciate how far short they fall of God’s standards – , but it will also make us careful to remember that faith without works is dead!