On Fearing God

The fear of the Lord goes with love for God and the joy of the Lord:

What Abraham said to Abimelech in Genesis 20:11 is certainly a perfect description of the contemporary Western world: “There is surely no fear of God in this place.” But sadly this can be said of far too many churches, denominations and individual believers as well.

Fear need not be at odds with other ‘positive’ responses or feelings. One biblical passage that I have long been intrigued with is Matthew 28:1-10 where we read of differing sorts of fear. Indeed, note how fear differs depending on where one stands with the Living God:

Now after the Sabbath, toward the dawn of the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And behold, there was a great earthquake, for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. And for fear of him the guards trembled and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, for he has risen, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples that he has risen from the dead, and behold, he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him. See, I have told you.” So they departed quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. And behold, Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came up and took hold of his feet and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee, and there they will see me.”

While the pagan guards were simply terrified, the two Marys had great fear mingled with great joy. Faith certainly makes all the difference. And other pairings can be mentioned here. Loving God and fearing God are not polar opposites as some might think, but are two sides of the same coin. We are to do both – simultaneously.

Consider just a few texts on this. In Deuteronomy 6:1-5 we read:

Now this is the commandment—the statutes and the rules—that the Lord your God commanded me to teach you, that you may do them in the land to which you are going over, to possess it, that you may fear the Lord your God, you and your son and your son’s son, by keeping all his statutes and his commandments, which I command you, all the days of your life, and that your days may be long. Hear therefore, O Israel, and be careful to do them, that it may go well with you, and that you may multiply greatly, as the Lord, the God of your fathers, has promised you, in a land flowing with milk and honey. Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.

Israel was to both fear God and love God. We get similar thoughts in Psalm 145:18-20:

The Lord is near to all who call on him,
    to all who call on him in truth.
He fulfills the desire of those who fear him;
    he also hears their cry and saves them.
The Lord preserves all
who love him,
    but all the wicked he will destroy.

And it is worth noting that the prophetic mention of the Messiah who was to come would actually delight in the fear of God. As Isaiah 11:1-3 puts it:

There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse,
    and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.
And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him,
    the Spirit of wisdom and understanding,
    the Spirit of counsel and might,
    the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
And his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
    or decide disputes by what his ears hear,

If the fear of the Lord was crucial even for Jesus – something he even delighted in – how much more for us? But still, many believers think that love has nothing to do with fear. They are quite happy to cite a passage such as 1 John 4:18 which talks about ‘perfect love casting out all fear.’

I have already dealt with this text in a fair amount of detail. I concluded one article with these words: “In sum, a healthy fear of God is part and parcel of the Christian life. But we have no fear of future judgment as does the non-Christian. Instead, we have confidence and assurance that we have passed from death to life. Being accepted in the beloved means we need not fear eternal punishment.” billmuehlenberg.com/2019/08/05/difficult-bible-passages-1-john-418/

The fear of God is consistently associated with very good things in Scripture, including knowledge and wisdom. Just two – of many verses on this:

Proverbs 1:7 The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and discipline.
Proverbs 9:10 The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.

I have penned various pieces on the fear of the Lord over the years, including these two:

billmuehlenberg.com/2010/08/29/the-fear-of-god/

billmuehlenberg.com/2013/11/19/love-fear-and-god/

So instead of repeating what I have already written, I will simply conclude by mentioning a few helpful volumes and offering a few useful quotes. The Puritans of course wrote often about this topic. Just three volumes come to mind here:

Bates, William, On the Fear of God.
Bunyan, John, The Fear of God.
Flavel, John, A Practical Treatise on Fear.

But let me alert you to seven rather recent books which are all worth getting a hold of. I provide the details of each, and then offer one good quote from each.

Beeke, Joel and Paul Smalley, John Bunyan and the Grace of Fearing God. P&R, 2016.

The fear of the Lord produces holy fruit. Bunyan taught that sinners are justified by faith in Christ alone and not by their works. However, justifying faith shows itself in the good works that it motivates and produces (see Titus 3:7-8). At the heart of becoming more holy is the fear of God (see 2 Cor. 7:1). It gives the believer the sense that he lives in God’s presence and the submissiveness of heart to honor him. The fear of God makes the believer tender and zealous for God’s glory (see 1 Sam. 17:26, 45). It moves them to hate sin (see Prov. 8:13) and to love obedience to God’s law (see Ps. 112:1). Godly fear makes them watchful, prayerful, and worshipful. Those who fear the Lord deny themselves and serve others, even at their own expense or at risk of their lives (see 1 Kings 18:3-4; Neh. 5:15). Fear kills pride and nurtures hope in God’s grace (see Ps. 147:11; Rom. 11:20).

Bevere, John, The Fear of the Lord. Charisma House, 1997, 2006.

Moses said, “Do not fear.” Then he said that God had come “… that His fear may be before you.” This verse makes a distinction between being afraid of God and fearing Him. Moses feared God, but the people did not. It is an infallible truth that if we do not fear God, we will be afraid of Him at the revelation of His glory, for every knee shall bow to Him, if not out of godly fear then out of terror (2 Cor. 5:10-11).

Bridges, Jerry, The Joy of Fearing God. Waterbrook Press, 1997, 2004.

…reverential awe – a mixture of fear, veneration, wonder, and admiration, all directed toward God himself. There are indeed many facets to the fear of God and many outworkings of its presence in a believer’s life, so to restrict its meaning only to reverential awe would fail to do justice to the biblical concept. But underneath all these many facets and outworkings is this profound sense of awe toward God that provides the motivation and driving force for all the other elements that together make up the biblical portrait of fearing God.

Martin, Albert, The Forgotten Fear: Where Have All the God Fearers Gone? Reformation Heritage Books, 2015.

The fear of God is a massive and dominant theme in Scripture. It is also a theme that was very prominent both in the thinking and in the preaching of our spiritual forefathers. When our spiritual forefathers desired to describe someone who was characterized by genuine godliness, they would often call him a God-fearing man. This designation reflected the fact that men realized the fear of God was nothing less than the soul of godliness. Take away the soul from the body, and all you have left in a few days is a stinking carcass. Take away the fear of God from any profession of godliness, and all that is left is the stinking carcass of pharisaism, barren religiosity, or calculated hypocrisy.

Montgomery, Mattie, Scary God: Introducing the Fear of the Lord to the Postmodern Church. Thomas Nelson, 2018.

It may sound contradictory, but being fearless doesn’t mean eliminating all fear from your life. It means eliminating the wrong kind of fear—fear that denies the truth of who our God is, that denies He is greater than anything that may come against us—which can only be replaced with the right kind of fear—fear that acknowledges the truth of who our God is. The right kind of fear is not a fear of anything in the world, but a fear of something above and beyond and before it. The fear of the Lord, like Spurgeon’s mighty lion, chases away all other fears. Because the church has been taught, “Don’t be afraid” so much, we have failed to recognize that God Himself is scary. He, like the thunderous cyclone… is a Force to be reckoned with. But we don’t have to be afraid of Him, if we’ve found shelter—seated in a place called Christ.

Petrie, Alistair, In Holy Fear: Rediscovering the Fear of the Lord. Chi-Books, 2015.

This is not a fear based on intimidation – it is a fear based on absolute holiness and ‘separateness’. This is what lies behind Exodus 20:18-21 in which we see the people full of fear and even trembling due to the presence of God experienced through the thunder, the lightning and the sound of the trumpet. Little wonder they stayed at a distance and asked Moses to be their go-between in conversing with this holy, powerful God. Moses already had experienced the presence of God and assured the people by saying: “Do not be afraid. God has come to test you, so that the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning.

 

Therefore, on the one hand the people were not to tremble in fear, yet on the other hand God had come to revel Himself in such a profound manner so that they would fear Him and so keep his commandments. They were not to be afraid of God and be terrified to be in relationship with Him, but they were to fear Him as a deterrent to sin. They were not to become so familiar with God that they would lose His sense of infiniteness, and compromise this with their finiteness.

Reeves, Michael, Rejoice and Tremble: The Surprising Good news of the Fear of the Lord. Crossway, 2021.

The right fear of God, then, is not the flip side to our love for God. . . . Moses’s command to Israel in summarizing the law was precisely that God’s people should fear and love the Lord their God. Right fear does not stand in tension with love for God. Right fear falls on its face before the Lord, but falls leaning “toward the Lord.” It is not as if love draws near and fear distances. Nor is this fear of God one side of our reaction to God. It is not simply that we love God for his graciousness and fear him for his majesty. That would be a lopsided fear of God. We also love him in his holiness and tremble at the marvelousness of his mercy. True fear of God is true love for God defined: it is the right response to God’s full-orbed revelation of himself in all his grace and glory.

 

Evidently, the fear that Christ himself has (Isa. 11:1–3), and shares with us, is the opposite of being afraid of God. Godly fear casts out being afraid. But neither is it a cool, passionless regard of God. Time and again we have seen in Scripture that believers who have a godly fear tremble before God. Overwhelmed by his goodness and majesty and holiness and grace and righteousness—by all that God is—the faithful tremble. The biblical theme of the fear of God helps us to see the sort of love toward God that is fitting. It shows us that God does not want passionless performance or a vague preference for him. To encounter the living, holy, and all-gracious God truly means that we cannot contain ourselves. He is not a truth to be known unaffectedly, or a good to be received listlessly. Seen clearly, the dazzling beauty and splendor of God must cause our hearts to quake.

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2 Replies to “On Fearing God”

  1. People who have no concept of the ‘fear’ of God, have no concept of God. People who know the great creator of all there is, the one who exists in and of himself in trinity…who never did not exist and love know what godly fear is. It is not terror, it is awe, admiration, a tint of thrill, and an eternally scaled humble gratitude at being called to be in his family for ever.

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