This brings us to the conclusion of Kierkegaard’s discourse. There are a few related concepts here, all which revolve around the central idea of meeting God:
“God is near enough, but no one can see God without purity, and sin is impurity, and therefore no one can take cognizance of God without becoming a sinner.”
This matter of seeing oneself as a sinner is not a matter of being made to feel guilty by a skillful orator. “A fear and trembling inspired by abomination of religious debauch is not true fear and trembling.” A true sense of sin, as Kierkegaard will explain concerns one actual coming to be before God, “If he learns to know that he is a sinner, then it happens that he learns it, just he, by being alone with the Holy One….Whoever is alone with the consciousness of sin, will indeed feel himself, yet not by comparison with others, to the greatest sinner, for he will be conscious of himself as an individual, and he will feel himself the essential magnitude of his sin in the presence of the Holy One.”
In this place of being confronted with God, one comes to the place of true worship, “Learn first to be alone, thus you will true worship which is to think highly of God, and humbly of yourself.”
What really strikes in this discussion is the reality of the meeting of God. This is not a meeting in a crowd; it is a meeting of the individual with God. And while the Church is not a collection of bare individuals, there is a striking element of being an individual when it comes to confession.
In this element of confession, Kierkegaard seems to have something of this passage in mind:
Zechariah 12:10–14 (ESV)
10 “And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and pleas for mercy, so that, when they look on me, on him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn. 11 On that day the mourning in Jerusalem will be as great as the mourning for Hadad-rimmon in the plain of Megiddo. 12 The land shall mourn, each family by itself: the family of the house of David by itself, and their wives by themselves; the family of the house of Nathan by itself, and their wives by themselves; 13 the family of the house of Levi by itself, and their wives by themselves; the family of the Shimeites by itself, and their wives by themselves; 14 and all the families that are left, each by itself, and their wives by themselves.
An emphasis on reality of this confrontation is underscored by a parable used by Kierkegaard. He speaks of a ship’s pilot who has studied in books how to rightly handle a ship in a storm, who the confronts an actual storm at sea. It is the reality of the experience, not the speculation of the knowledge which matters. It is a matter of appropriation, “a mature person learns only by appropriation, and he appropriates essentially only that which is essential to living.”
In his comparison of the false fear and trembling brought about by the “thundering” of a skillful preacher and true conviction brought about a confrontation with the living God, Kierkegaard reminds me of the Puritan distinction between legal and evangelical conviction. Legal conviction brings a kind of despair without hope; it is the condemnation of the law without rescue:
Despair is the result of strong legal convictions, urging the sentence of the law against us, without any consideration of gospel-grace for our relief and succour. This works great consternation, fills the soul with amazing fears, shuts it up in a dark dungeon, claps it in irons, binds it hand and foot, and so leaves it under a fearful expectation of fiery indignation to devour it.
James Nichols, Puritan Sermons, vol. 2 (Wheaton, IL: Richard Owen Roberts, Publishers, 1981), 515. Stephen Charnock explains the difference between the two:
A legal conviction ariseth from a consideration of God’s justice chiefly, an evangelical from a sense of God’s goodness. A legally convinced person cries out, I have exasperated a power that is as the roaring of a lion, a justice that is as the voice of thunder; I have provoked one that is the sovereign Lord of heaven and earth, whose word can tear up the foundations of the world with as much ease as he established them. This is the legal conviction. But an evangelically convinced person cries, I have incensed a goodness that is like the dropping of the dew; I have offended a God that had the deportment of a friend, rather than that of a sovereign. I have incurred the anger of a judge, saith a legalist; I have abused the tenderness of a father, saith an evangelically convinced person. Oh my marble, my iron heart, against a patient, wooing God, a God of bowels! It makes every review of acts of kindness to be a sting in the conscience; it makes such a person miserable by mercy, and scorches him with the beams of goodness; turns the honey into a bitter pill, and useth a branch of the balsam tree as a rod wherewith to lash him. O wretch, to run from so sweet a fountain to rake in puddles! to rush into a river of brimstone, through a sea of goodness! What a cut is it, when ingenuity is awakened, to reject a natural goodness, much more an infinite goodness; to reject the goodness of a man, much more that of a God; the goodness of a friend never provoked, much more the goodness of a God that had been so highly incensed! There is a torture of hell in both, kindled by the breath of the Lord; in the one by the breath of his wrath, in the other by the breath of his goodness. One is inflamed by justice to a sense of rebellion, the other by goodness to a sense of his own vileness. This is that which was promised should be in gospel times, that in the latter days men should fear the Lord and his goodness, Hos. 3:5. That is a true evangelical conviction, that springs from a thorough sense of God’s goodness, when the goodness of God excites ingenuity, as well as the majesty of God strikes a terror.
Stephen Charnock, The Complete Works of Stephen Charnock, vol. 4 (Edinburgh; London; Dublin: James Nichol; James Nisbet and Co.; W. Robertson; G. Herbert, 1864–1866), 199.
Kierkegaard seems to address the same topic but from the experience of the one confronted by God. The discussion is not doctrinal but existential.
By comparing the two explanations of the same events gives us a fuller understanding.