Courage and Fear

A sermon on 2 Corinthians 4:17-5:10 by Coty Pinckney, Desiring God Community Church, Charlotte, NC, 12/7/03

The time: March 4, 1933. Unemployment in the US is at 25 percent. There is no unemployment insurance. There is no food stamp program, no WIC program, no public welfare.

The event: The inauguration of Franklin Roosevelt as president of the US. He speaks these words:

This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance

Roosevelt was sounding a much needed chord in 1933. The impact of fear on the economy had been shown again and again. One example: The fear that a bank would fail led to a rush by depositors to withdraw their money – leading to the bank’s failure, even if the bank was in perfectly good financial health before the rush.

Fear bred economic failure. Fear was to be feared.

Our passage this morning tells us that there is a right fear and a wrong fear. We must reject – in a sense, we must fear – the wrong fear. And we must embrace the right fear. What are these fears? Pick them out as I read:

So we do not lose heart. Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. 17 For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, 18 as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. 5:1 For we know that if the tent, which is our earthly home, is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. 2 For this reason we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, 3 if indeed even when putting off [our earthly home] we may not be found naked. 4 For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened--not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. 5 He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee. 6 So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord; 7 therefore we walk by faith, not by sight. 8 Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. 9 So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. 10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil. 11 Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord . . . 2 Corinthians 4:16-5:11a

Do you see the two types of fear? The second type mentioned above, the right fear, is the most obvious. In verse 11 of chapter 5 Pauls mentions the fear of the Lord, the fear for our appearance before the judgment seat of Christ, the fear of His proclamation, “I never knew you. Depart from me.”

We’ll get back to that type of fear later. But what is the first type?

The word “fear” does not appear elsewhere in this text, but 2 Corinthians 4:16 says, “We do not lose heart,” and 5:6 says, “We are of good courage.” Not losing heart and being of good courage are opposite to fear. Paul must mean that there is some reason present that would lead to fear in most people. What is that reason? The Corinthians are tempted to fear what?

Remember the context of this section of 2 Corinthians: Paul has suffered, and his opponents claim that such suffering disqualifies him from being an apostle. He has been beaten, he has been left for dead. Furthermore, they mock him, saying he is unimpressive. Thus, those who want to follow Paul fear the same could happen to them. They fear physical suffering: Persecution, even death, for themselves, for the families, for their children. They fear the loss of health, the loss of their jobs, their assts, their homes, their land. They could suffer substantial physical losses by following Paul. Furthermore, like Paul, they could suffer relationally. They could lose respect, they could be mocked and ridiculed, they could lose friends.

How should they deal with fear? How should we deal with fear today? Paul provides three answers, which will serve as our outline: 

An Eternal Perspective: The Cure for Fear

As we saw last week in verse 17 of chapter 4, endurance with praise, not avoidance of pain, is the evidence that the kingdom of God is here. In the eternal perspective, whatever we face here – any kind of suffering, whether physical or relational – when compared to the glory to be revealed and produced by that suffering, is minuscule. The pain is momentary, the glory is eternal; the affliction is light, the glory is weighty.

Paul continues with this idea in the next verse:

as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. 2 Corinthians 4:18

Now this is weird, isn’t it? Imagine a friend says:


You say, “At what?”

He says, “Look at those snow-capped mountains!”

You say, “What? No one can see snowcapped mountains from Charlotte!”

He says, “That’s right. I’m looking at the mountains that can’t be seen.”

What will you think of your friend? In the normal course of events, we look at the things we can see, not those that we can’t see! But Paul tells us, as Christians, by the help of the Holy Spirit, we are able to see what is otherwise invisible: God’s plan, God’s perspective on events in this world. Furthermore, he says the unseen things are actually more important than those that are seen. What we see is transient; what we don’t see is eternal.

Verses 1 to 4 of chapter 5 discuss the most obvious objects we see: our bodies. These visible bodies, like all things seen, are temporary and earthly. Yet God is preparing for us eternal, incorruptible bodies. Even with our bodies, what is unseen is more important than what is seen.

Parts of these verses are difficult to understand. The issue is complicated by a textual problem in verse 3; a one-letter discrepancy between some Greek texts makes a good bit of difference. But the major point of these verses is not obscure. Look at the words used to describe a man’s earthly body and what accompanies it:

Now consider the words used to describe the body that is to come:

Just looking at those words: Which would you rather have? Which is better, physically and relationally? There is no question. God is preparing an eternal kingdom where His perfected people will dwell in perfected bodies with Him for all eternity.

Look at verse 5:

He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee (or downpayment)

Paul says, “Do you believe that God is preparing for you an eternal life with Him in glorified bodies? If you do, then why worry about what might happen to this temporary earthly tent you now inhabit? It’s all dying anyway, and even for the healthiest of us, eventually it will wear out and quit functioning. But God Himself is preparing for you what will last, what will be rich, what will work towards your great joy. And He has already given you the Holy Spirit, so that you might get a foretaste of the things to come, and live with confidence in the fulfillment of these promises.”

Such an eternal perspective kills fear. For if our enemies kill us, we are better off. God has guaranteed it.

So Paul concludes in verses 6 to 8:

6 So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, 7 because we walk by faith, not by sight. 8 Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.

How often should we be of good courage? Always. We must never be dominated or controlled by fear. The eternal perspective cures us of fear.

An Eternal Perspective: Stimulus to the Right Fear

Let’s now read verses 9 to 11a:

So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil. 11 Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord,

Isn’t this interesting? In verses 6 and 8 Paul says, “We are of good courage.” We have no fear. Yet in verse 11 he says, “knowing the fear of the Lord.” Are we courageous and fearful at the same time? Is Paul contradicting himself?

Not at all. Our eternal perspective on this life, comparing this present body with what is to come, cures us of earthly fears. We should have no fears or worries about health, persecution, suffering, or loss. We should have no fear or worry even about lost relationships.

On the other hand, that same eternal perspective highlights the extreme importance of what happens at the judgment seat of Christ. All else hinges on the outcome of that judgment. So we should indeed fear that judgment. As Jesus says,

And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell. (Matthew 10:28)

Some fears are wrong, while other fears are right. We should not fear earthly persecution. We should fear God!

Some of you may have questions in your mind at this point. Consider these two possible questions:

1)  “Paul just said that we have the Holy Spirit as a guarantee. If we have the Spirit, why should we fear the judgment seat of Christ? Our salvation is guaranteed!”

2) “I thought we were justified, declared righteous by grace through faith. Why does Paul say that at the judgment seat, each of us will receive what we deserve for what we’ve done, whether good or evil?”

Our fear of the judgment seat of Christ is consistent with the guarantee of the Spirit and our being justified by grace through faith. We’ll look more deeply into justification when we consider verse 21 of this chapter (see sermon):

God made him who had no sin to be sin for us so that in him we might become the righteousness of God

But even today, let’s take a brief detour from the main point of this text to show that the idea of justification by faith but judgment of deeds is not peculiar to this passage. First, consider Romans 2:6-10:

6 He will render to each one according to his works: 7 to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; 8 but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury. 9 There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, 10 but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek.

Also, consider 1 Corinthians 9:27:

27 But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.

The word translated “disqualified” means “tested and rejected.” The word itself is most naturally interpreted to mean “not saved.” Indeed, in the next several verses Paul talks about the Israelites who disobeyed God and died in the desert. These were not saved people.

Finally, consider Matthew 7:16-17, near the end of the Sermon on the Mount:

"You will know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles, are they? So every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit."

We could look at many more passages, but the point is clear: Scripture says we will be judged by our works. How is this consistent with justification by grace through faith?

Works are evidence of salvation, not the instrument of salvation. All who are saved will bear fruit – doing the works God prepared for them. No one saves himself by doing any works. But remember our discussion of the New Covenant: The Law is written on our hearts! So we can expect Jesus to say, “You claim to know me. You claim to be saved by grace through faith. Where is the evidence that you really know me? Where is the evidence that My law is written on your heart?” If there is no evidence, then that miracle never took place. His Law was not written on our hearts. We are not saved.

In Galatians 6:7 Paul writes:

Do not be deceived. God is not mocked. A man reaps what he sows.

There is a right fear, my friends. Fear the one who can throw both body and soul in hell. Do not depend on a false sense of security. Do not depend on any religious activity or ceremony.

Are you bearing fruit? Praise God.

Are you failing to bear fruit? Look to Him, seek His face, seek Him above all else! And then make use of this church to challenge you and spur you on to love and good works.

As Paul tells us in verse 9 of our text, this fear has a good effect on us. Rather than being afraid to do anything, “We make it our aim to please Him!”

If we focus on this life, if we focus on the temporal realities of this world, what is our aim?

But if we have an eternal perspective, we make it our aim to please Him. We have no fear concerning the things of this world. We do not seek pain and suffering, but we have no fear of them. We do not seek to exalt ourselves, and have no fear of being thought unimportant. We do not seek out risks for their own sake, but we do not fear when God leads us into risky situations. On the other hand, we do have a healthy fear of the judgment seat of Christ. Far from paralyzing us, this fear spurs us on to become all Christ intends us to be.

An eternal perspective produces the right fear.

Walking by Faith and Not by Sight

How do we live this out on a day-by-day basis? Verse 7 tells us:

We walk by faith not by sight.

Consider three very different ways that we can walk by sight, that we can live by our own wits.

Note carefully: These three methods of dealing with risk and danger are all variants of walking by sight. In all three cases, we look at what we can see, and we live in light of what we can see. Too many supposedly Christian books try to get us to put into practice the third method of walking by sight.

Now, we are not to throw away our lives or waste the resources God entrusts to us. Indeed, we should plan ahead, we should consider the risks that face us, and we should take steps to protect our families, our businesses, and our ministries from risk.

But if we are walking by faith, we will often take steps that make no sense from a practical point of view. For when we walk by faith, we live by faith in God’s future grace. We are confident that He is in control, and He will exert His grace tomorrow, and the next day, and the next year, and the next decade for our good and His glory. Thus, we are willing to take risks to glorify God. We will be willing to risk:

We can do all this because we have an eternal perspective. We know that we cannot lose when following God. As the psalmist writes,

Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. (Psalm 73:25 NIV)


Martin Luther provides a wonderful example walking by faith because of this eternal perspective. But in 1530, thirteen years after he nailed the 99 Theses on the door of Wittenberg Castle, the entire reformation seemed in danger. The cause appeared to rest on the shoulders of only a few men, and these men were in danger of being killed. All they accomplished could disappear.

In this situation, Luther wrote the following letter to his colleague Philip Melanchthon, using his characteristically blunt style:

With all my heart I hate those cares by which you state that you are consumed. They rule your heart . . . by reason of the greatness of your unbelief. . . . If our cause is false, let us recant. But if it is true, why should we make Him a liar who has given us such great promises and who commands us to be confident and undismayed? . . .

What good do you expect to accomplish by these vain worries of yours? What can the devil do more than slay us? Yes, what? . . .

I pray for you very earnestly, and I am deeply pained that you keep sucking up cares like a leech and thus rendering my prayers vain. Christ knows whether it comes from stupidity or the Spirit but I for my part am not very much troubled about our cause. . . . God who is able to raise the dead is also able to uphold his cause when it is falling or to raise it up again when it has fallen, or to move it forward when it is standing. If we are not worthy instruments to accomplish his purpose, he will find others. If we are not strengthened by his promises, where in all the world are the people to whom these promises apply? But more of this at another time. After all, my writing this is like pouring water into the sea.

Luther had an eternal perspective. He had a confidence in God’s future grace. He knew God’s promises. He knew they applied to him. And so in faith he took great risks for the glory of God. And in his own peculiar way, he exhorted Melanchthon to do the same.

Friends: What do you fear? The loss of the things of this world?Or do you fear God? You can’t really fear both!

Too many Christians are paralyzed by fear. Too many Christians are fearful to leave their earthy comforts. Too many Christians refuse to believe that God might call them to take risks. And it is true of them to say the only thing they have to fear is fear itself.

False fear leads to timidity, and thus makes you miss out on the greatest joy of all.

Right fear leads to courage, and the finding of the greatest joy of all.

Jesus Christ has come in the flesh, as the Savior of the world. Jesus Christ is coming again in the flesh, as mighty king and judge of the world. Fear Him. Trust Him. Love Him. Throw you life down at His disposal.

And enter into the eternal joy of your Maker.

This sermon was preached at Desiring God Community Church in Charlotte, NC on 12/7/03. The Luther quote is taken from the excellent compilation Luther: Letters of Spiritual Counsel, edited by Theodore Tappert and published by Westminster Press in 1955. The letter is dated June 27, 1530. Scott Hafemann’s The NIV Application Commentary: 2 Corinthians (Zondervan, 2000) was helpful.

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