On the Fear of God

I have of course written often on the subject of the fear of God, but important biblical themes can never be discussed too often, or from too many angles. This is especially the case when so much of the contemporary church either minimises such a key doctrine, or ignores it altogether.

Here I wish to focus primarily on just one aspect of the fear of God: a fear of judgment to come. My reason for writing about this stems from my daily reading – now in Isaiah. A few passages found early on in the book struck me, and it seemed good to share them with others. They are not pleasant verses, but necessary ones. They have to do with God’s terrible judgment on a proud and unrepentant people.

When such judgment comes, it will be a horrible time indeed. There will be nowhere to hide, and it will be a most fearful experience. The proud will be brought low, and there will be no excuses for anyone. Consider just three verses which speak to this (2:10, 19, 21):

christGo into the rocks, hide in the ground
from the fearful presence of the Lord
and the splendor of his majesty!
People will flee to caves in the rocks
and to holes in the ground
from the fearful presence of the Lord
and the splendor of his majesty,
when he rises to shake the earth.
They will flee to caverns in the rocks
and to the overhanging crags
from the fearful presence of the Lord
and the splendor of his majesty,
when he rises to shake the earth.

Wow, terrifying stuff. If people do not fear the Lord now, they better get to it. When he comes in his just wrath to punish those who have rejected his blood-soaked offers of forgiveness, it will be too dreadful to even contemplate. The day of the Lord will finally and forcefully deal with human pride, idolatry and immorality.

And this must be the case. God cannot allow such contemptible rejection of him and his ways to continue. In his holiness and righteousness he must ultimately deal with these matters. And throughout Scripture we are promised that he will indeed.

And recall this important truth: this warning of judgment to come which we just looked at is addressed to Judah – to God’s very own people. There are of course many chapters in Isaiah warning of God’s judgment on the surrounding pagan nations.

But this one, and many others like it, deal specifically with the people of God. As such, the people of God today need to take careful note. We too need to walk in a healthy, humble and holy fear of God, and not tempt him with sin, disobedience and pride. As Gary Smith comments on the day of the Lord in the Isaiah passage:

“That will be a day of divine judgment on the proud; that will be the day that God reveals his power and glory as he intervenes in Judah’s history. God makes no apology for that day, nor is there any attempt by the prophet to make God’s actions more humane or ‘politically correct.’ God will totally devastate the proud. They will finally meet the real holy God that they attempted to define out of existence by reconstructing his ways after the desires of their own imagination.”

Indeed, just today I read this from Isaiah 30:9-10: “For these are rebellious people, deceitful children, children unwilling to listen to the Lord’s instruction. They say to the seers, ‘See no more visions!’ and to the prophets, ‘Give us no more visions of what is right! Tell us pleasant things, prophesy illusions’.”

Why do I always think of certain megachurch pastors when I read a passage like this? So the word of Yahweh through Isaiah to Judah is fully applicable to God’s people today. We too can be just as guilty of making a god in our own image, and worshipping that instead of the one true God.

But some believers may well complain at this point, and say that this is simply the God of the Old Testament – a judgmental and grumpy God – who is not at all the same as Jesus in the New Testament. They will claim that God in the NT is a God of mercy and grace, while God in the OT is a judgmental, wrathful God.

But this of course is complete foolishness. The truth is, God is both, and both traits are found fully in both Testaments. God is always the same, and the Son and the father share fully the same attributes, including holiness and justice. Moreover, these folks forget (or never knew in the first place) who will in fact be carrying out the day of the Lord.

It is of course none other than Jesus himself. One simply has to read the book of Revelation to see a God just as holy and just as opposed to sin as in the OT. And a God just as much able to carry out judgment. And of course Jesus, the Lamb of God, is the one who will do all this.

Consider just one passage from Revelation (6:15-17) which speaks not only to this truth, but uses the very same theme as found in Isaiah – people in sheer terror seeking to hide from the day of the Lord:

“Then the kings of the earth, the princes, the generals, the rich, the mighty, and everyone else, both slave and free, hid in caves and among the rocks of the mountains. They called to the mountains and the rocks, ‘Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can withstand it?’”

The truth of God’s hatred of sin and his judgment upon it runs from Genesis to Revelation, and Jesus is the one who will implement this judgment on the final day. But, I can already hear other objections, and I can already anticipate a supposed counter passage. Folks will immediately throw up 1 John 4:18: “perfect love drives out fear”. Yes, but not so fast here. As is always the case, context is everything. The full context of this is verses 17-18:

“This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.”

It is not that the fear of God as such which is incompatible with the love of God. It is the fear of future judgment and punishment. This is gone because such punishment is not the fate of the believer. So we need not be terrified of God’s wrath and punishment to come. But a proper fear of God remains for the believer.

As Robert Yarbrough comments, we must be cautioned against “leaping to the conclusion that ‘fear [of God]’ is something that John rejects categorically when other biblical writers regard it positively. John is more likely to have in mind the fear of eschatological judgment. . . . The biblical commendation of a healthy fear of God is therefore not mitigated by 4:18.”

We can rejoice that because of what Christ did on our behalf, those who have found new life in Christ have no fear of coming judgment. We have been delivered from that thanks to the perfect work of Christ. But a healthy fear of who God is will always be appropriate for the believer.

Indeed, a lack of such fear may well indicate that a person is not a true follower of Jesus Christ. As Martyn Lloyd-Jones says:

“I cannot possibly regard men and women as Christians unless they have known an element of fear: fear because they have sinned against God; fear because they realize that they are in the hands of God, and that He is a holy, just and righteous God, and they have got to stand before Him in the Judgment. If people know nothing about the fear of death and of the Judgment, I cannot see how they can be Christians at all. Fear! It is a vital part of saving faith.”

Of course the believer will face a judgment of works, not a judgment of condemnation. While we have passed from death to life, we believers must still all stand before God’s throne to give an account of how we have lived our Christian life. So a healthy fear remains – not of being banished from God’s presence, but of a testing of our works for him.

[1469 words]

5 Replies to “On the Fear of God”

  1. Could we possibly gauge which kind of fear we have by what that fear makes us do? In the passages described above, the fear makes them want to hide and get away from God. The fear of God described in Ps 130 is a response to the realization of the enormity of God’s forgiveness, it makes us want to fall down in worship
    Many blessings
    Ursula Bennett

  2. Ecc 12:13-14 Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man. For God shall bring every work into judgement, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil.
    2Timothy 1:7 For God has not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *