CultureWatch

Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

The Fear of God

Aug 29, 2010

This is a topic not often heard in today’s churches, and when it is, it is often misunderstood. Many believers think it has no place in contemporary Christianity, and if it is mentioned, it is usually with the disclaimer, “Oh, it really just means respect”.

Thus it is worth looking at this concept in more detail. And with such terminology, a cursory understanding of the original languages is certainly in order. In Hebrew there are a number of terms used. The main noun is yira or mora, and the main verb is yare.

In the New Testament the main Greek term is phobos and phobeo (noun and verb respectively). Context of course in large measure determines how we understand the terms. There is fear of death, fear of man, fear of the unknown, and so on. Here we are concentrating on the fear of the Lord.

Eugene Merrill says this about the terminology: “While the normal meaning of fear as dread or terror is retained in the theological use of the terms, a special nuance of reverential awe or worshipful respect becomes the dominant notion.”

Tremper Longman seeks to summarise the biblical data: “‘Respect’ may not do justice to the gravity of the word, though ‘fear’ may connote an unhealthy dread. Still, the object of fear is the Creator of all, the one who is sovereign over his creation. Those who experience fear in his presence know their rightful place in the universe. An English word that may be a candidate for translation is ‘awe,’ understood as veneration of the sacred.”

There are numerous references to the fear of God in Scripture. It is true that in the NT, our relationship with Jesus enables us to be called friends by our Lord. But as C.S. Lewis reminds us in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, Aslan (the Christ figure) is not tame, or safe:

narnia“‘Is – is he a man?’ asked Lucy. ‘Aslan a man!’ said Mr. Beaver sternly. ‘Certainly not. I tell you he is the King of the wood and the son of the great Emperor-Beyond-the-Sea. Don’t you know who is the King of Beasts? Aslan is a lion, the Lion, the great Lion.’ ‘Ooh,’ said Susan, ‘I thought he was a man. Is he – quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.’ ‘That you will, dearie, and make no mistake,’ said Mrs. Beaver; ‘if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.’ ‘Then he isn’t safe?’ said Lucy. ‘Safe?’ said Mr. Beaver; ‘don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the king I tell you’.”

While we can have a personal love relationship with God because of what Christ has done for us, the Creator/creature distinction never becomes inviolate. We still approach him with all the awe and reverence that the King of the Universe is due.

Those who do not come to God through Christ have only a genuine terror of the Lord to deal with. As one author notes, “Although there is a desirable reverential fear of God, the Bible also portrays God’s actions as being causes of terror, especially – but not only – for those who do not trust in God.”

Or as Merrill states, “There are, thus, two sides of the fear of the Lord – that which produces awe, reverence, and obedience, and that which causes one to cower in dread and terror in anticipation of his displeasure.”

It may be worth looking at just one particular passage to round out this discussion. Consider Philippians 2:12: “Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence – continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” Leaving aside the contentious issue of working out one’s salvation (but see verse 13 for the full context), what is this ‘fear and trembling’ all about?

Gordon Fee offers this commentary: “If the whole universe of created beings is someday (soon, from their perspective) to pay homage to their Lord, then they themselves need to be getting on with obedience (= working out their salvation) as those who know proper awe in the presence of God. One does not live out the gospel casually or lightly, but as one who knows what it means to stand in awe of the living God.”

G. Walter Hansen nicely ties together the various NT themes about fear in relation to this passage: “Although believers are repeatedly commanded to ‘fear not’ (see, e.g., Luke 1:13, 30; 2:10; 5;10; 8;50), assured that God has not given ‘a spirit of fear’ (2 Tim 1:7), and informed that ‘perfect love casts out fear’ (1 John 4:18), fear and love are still paradoxically united in Christian experience.”

Yes, the blend of love and fear, even if hard to reconcile, are indeed the twin components of the believer’s walk with God. As A.W. Tozer puts it, “The love of Christ both wounds and heals, it fascinates and frightens, it kills and makes alive, it draws and repulses, it sobers and enraptures. There can be nothing more terrible or more wonderful than to be stricken with love for Christ so deeply that the whole being goes out in a pained adoration of His person, an adoration that disturbs and disconcerts while it purges and satisfies and relaxes the deep inner heart.”

Or as Tozer says elsewhere: “Christ can never be known without a sense of awe and fear accompanying the knowledge. He is the fairest among ten thousand, but He is also the Lord high and mighty. He is the friend of sinners, but He is also the terror of devils. He is meek and lowly in heart, but He is also Lord and Christ who will surely come to be the judge of all men. No one who knows Him intimately can ever be flippant in His presence.”

John Stott put it this way: “The fear of God is a profound respect for His holiness, which includes a fear of the consequences of disobeying Him. It shouldn’t scare us out of our wits; it should scare us into them.” Quite so. And R.C. Sproul offers this perspective:

“We are called to fear God, and Luther described that fear, not as a servile fear, like that of a tortured prisoner for his tormentor, but as a filial fear, similar to that which we have for a parent whom we love and do not want to disappoint. It is not that we fear the loss of certain privileges or other punishment, but that we do not want to displease the parent.”

I conclude with more wise thoughts from the pen of Tozer, as he discusses ‘The Terror of the Lord’:

“No one can know the true grace of God who has not first known the fear of God. . . . The presence of the divine always brought fear to the heads of sinful men. Always there was about any manifestation of God something that dismayed the onlookers, that daunted and overawed them, that struck them with a terror more than natural. This terror had no relation to mere fear of bodily harm. It was a dread consternation experienced far in toward the center and core of the nature, much farther in than that fear experienced as a normal result of the instinct for physical self-preservation. I do not believe that any lasting good can come from religious activities that do not root in this quality of creature-fear. . . . The effort of liberal and borderline modernists to woo men to God by presenting the soft side of religion is an unqualified evil because it ignores the very reason for our alienation from God in the first place. Until a man has gotten into trouble with his heart he is not likely to get out of trouble with God.”

[1331 words]

20 Responses to The Fear of God

  • Thank you so much for this. It is something I have looked for for ages – a clear and rounded exposition of the subject. I intend to print it out and think about it before making a fuller comment.
    Katharine Hornsby

  • Too right Bill,
    Our forefathers knew all too well the importance of having a correct Biblical view of our Glorious Father.
    It would seem that so much has been lost or downright excluded in the Church today about who God is and what we are commanded by our Lord to uphold and pursue.
    Sin is not dealt with adequately, false doctrine not fearfully rejected and we wonder why the Church is the way it is today.
    Keep on exposing the Truth Bill….your ministry is well appreciated here.
    Sarah Rossic

  • Many thanks Katharine and Sarah.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Thanks Bill for this excellent article. Something else I think that Tozer wrote went along the following lines…..

    It is because of Jesus that we can approach and worship this Holy God. It is because of Jesus that we can come into His presence, and not get consumed by a Holy Fire.

    As we take up God’s invitation to walk on this journey with God, it is right to cling onto Jesus with all our might, knowing full well that anything based on our own merit would mean we would be consumed by our Holy God.

    And the best part of this journey, is that as we cling to Jesus, Jesus wraps His arms around us, holding us in close, drawing us closer to Him, and guiding us along the path.

    Peter Baade

  • Good one Peter.

    He also said, “. . . although God wants His people to be holy as He is holy, He does not deal with us according to the degree of our holiness but according to the abundance of His mercy. Honesty requires us to admit this.”

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Thanks Bill…

    It’s interesting, I preached on this very subject at Citylight about 4 weeks ago… Recently another speaker picked up on the theme.

    Matt 7 resounds loud and clear… I suspect much of modern Christendom has been watered down and the holy, reverent fear of our Lord has been lost. That is sobering….

    Paul Evans

  • Thanks Paul

    Yes it is such a vital topic, yet one we have managed to water down or ignore altogether.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Yes Bill and inadvertently by attempting to present God as warm and cuddly and user-friendly, we’ve diluted the message. It’s interesting that Acts 5:11-14 records great fear coming on the church and the community and no one dared join the the disciples lightly but multitudes were added to the church. Ananias and Sapphire discovered the hard way what it means to worship God acceptably with reverence and godly fear. So much for being seeker friendly!
    Glenn Christopherson

  • Bill,

    It is interesting how the fear of God and wisdom and knowledge are linked, in several Bible verses, such as:

    “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom: and the knowledge of the holy is understanding.” (Proverbs 9:10)

    “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge: but fools despise wisdom and instruction.” (Proverbs 1:7)

    There is also instruction under grace, talking about our current position in God through Jesus Christ, who is the mediator of the new covenant:

    “Wherefore we receiving a kingdom which cannot be moved, let us have grace, whereby we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear: For our God is a consuming fire.” (Hebrews 12:28-29)

    Last time I checked, this word “fear” still also means “fear”.

    David Alston

  • This subject is often strongly coloured by the culture of the reader. It seems that Aussies have trouble understanding the idea of “fearing” yet in Africa, many have trouble with the idea of actually having a relationship with such a being – yet that is also taught by the Scriptures – indeed it is critical.

    We all read the Scriptures through the lenses of our own cultural biases. Our tasks as interpreters of the Scriptures is to seek to understand what was intended by the author, and understood by the original addressees in their context. This subject of the fear of God is one subject which suffers from cultural blindness. We Aussies just seem to find it difficult to understand that there are beings around worthy of such awe that “fear” is a good word to use to describe it.

    Thanks for a really good article, Bill.

    John Symons

  • Many thanks John.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • I think the nearer we seek to come to our Almighty Creator, the more we begin to gain a tiny bit of insight into the infinite gulf between His Holiness and our sinfulness. That, in turn, engenders an appropriate “fear” – at least as far as our limited understanding allows! The Holiness of God is too overwhelming for us to really recognise or “know”. Mercifully, we have Jesus to bring us into union with The Holy One and, in Him, we feel some confidence where we might otherwise die of fright!!
    Anna Cook

  • Yes quite right Anna

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Next time you sing Amazing Grace, consider John Newton’s succinct drawing out of the tension between grace and fear:

    ‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved.’

    Mansel Rogerson

  • Good one Mansel.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Luke 20:9-18
    Then began he to speak to the people this parable; A certain man planted a vineyard, and let it forth to husbandmen, and went into a far country for a long time.
    And at the season he sent a servant to the husbandmen, that they should give him of the fruit of the vineyard: but the husbandmen beat him, and sent him away empty.
    And again he sent another servant: and they beat him also, and entreated him shamefully, and sent him away empty.
    And again he sent a third: and they wounded him also, and cast him out.
    Then said the lord of the vineyard, What shall I do? I will send my beloved son: it may be they will reverence him when they see him.
    But when the husbandmen saw him, they reasoned among themselves, saying, This is the heir: come, let us kill him, that the inheritance may be ours.
    So they cast him out of the vineyard, and killed him. What therefore shall the lord of the vineyard do unto them?
    He shall come and destroy these husbandmen, and shall give the vineyard to others. And when they heard it, they said, God forbid.
    And he beheld them, and said, What is this then that is written, The stone which the builders rejected, the same is become the head of the corner?
    Whosoever shall fall upon that stone shall be broken; but on whomsoever it shall fall, it will grind him to powder.

    John 3:18
    He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.

    Hebrews 10:26-31
    For if we sin wilfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins,
    But a certain fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation, which shall devour the adversaries.
    He that despised Moses’ law died without mercy under two or three witnesses:
    Of how much sorer punishment, suppose ye, shall he be thought worthy, who hath trodden under foot the Son of God, and hath counted the blood of the covenant, wherewith he was sanctified, an unholy thing, and hath done despite unto the Spirit of grace?
    For we know him that hath said, Vengeance belongeth unto me, I will recompense, saith the Lord. And again, The Lord shall judge his people.
    It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.

    David Skinner, UK

  • There is also the aspect of fearing God above all other fears. To our loss, we fear men, we seek their favour. We fear death, pain – all sort of things. What we fear most is what we allow to rule us or have influence over us.
    Greg Cadman

  • Greg,

    Yes, the connection between what we fear and what we worship is a very good point. To fear anything above God is a form of idolatry:

    Like a scarecrow in a melon patch, their idols cannot speak; they must be carried because they cannot walk. Do not fear them; they can do no harm nor can they do any good.
    Jer 10:5

    Mansel Rogerson

  • The Bible often tells us to “fear not!”, but what is it asking us not to fear? Fear not our circumstances, fear not the enemy that surrounds us, fear not all the little things that worry us so much. But whom are we to fear? Fear the Lord!

    David Hutchinson, South Korea

  • Thanks Bill. I enjoy reading your articles. I also feel strongly about the need for the church to embrace the ‘fear of God’. I believe that the interpretation of this as being the ‘awe of God’ is terribly inadequate. As a child I loved my parents and felt safe with them, but I also definitely feared them at the same time. I knew from experience that they were in authority and I needed to be obedient or there would be painful consequences. I see this as a healthy and necessary fear. And the same with God. I’ve experienced enough painful discipline from His hand, to know that it is wise to fear Him. And I thank Him with all my heart for every moment of discipline because of the fruit that it has brought, no matter how painful it has been. So I definitely fear God and yet I love Him with all my heart and feel safe in His arms. I trust Him. In my heart there is no incompatibility between this fear and love.
    And when I think of the examples in the Bible, it also makes perfect sense that ‘fear’ should be interpreted as fear and not merely as awe. In the Old Testament, Israel should have known the fear of the LORD – as a nation their discipline was most painful and worth being afraid of when they ignored God’s instructions and warnings. In the New Testament, the Church knew the fear of the LORD when Ananias and Sapphira were disciplined. And how can we not be afraid when we read the book of Revelation and the message to the churches? But this fear is fruitful – it inspires us to obedience and concentration on our God and following His ways. It is so true that the fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom.
    And when fear of the LORD is combined with love of God and love from God, then the balance is right. We must have BOTH!
    Thanks Bill for bringing this topic up and prompting our thought.
    Kirsten Jack

Leave a Reply