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Few topics are more challenging to think about than the fear of God. Pride and the constant temptation to make God conform to our ideas of what He ought to be like tempt us to abandon concepts that Scripture plainly teaches. The culture in which we live reinforces these distorted perceptions of who God is and how He relates to us. The particular idea of fearing God is virtually lost in our culture, not just outside the church but, in many respects, within it as well.

Historically, one of the important uses of the law of God was to restrain evil in a general sense by cultivating a healthy fear of God and the consequences of our actions. Yet our society has lost even the most basic fear of God that would otherwise restrain evil acts. Unfettered by a healthy fear of God, everyone does what is right in his own eyes, and thus, close on the heels of this moral anarchy is the breakdown of society itself.

For instance, gone are the days when people took oaths in court, swearing to tell “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God” with a holy fear of God’s just judgment if they should lie. Without the fear of God in our legal system, is it any wonder that nearly everyone balks at ideas such as justice? Yet where there is no justice, there is also no peace, and anarchy always follows.

Inside the church, the fear of God has become for many an archaic sentiment of the past. Preachers who continue to insist that God is to be feared are labeled either as legalistic Bible-thumpers or as “hellfire-damnation” preachers. Certainly, the idea of the fear of God can be stated in ways that create a culture of fear, and pulpits can regrettably become places where the grace of the gospel is supplanted by threats and manipulation. But is there no place for a proper, healthy fear of God in the Christian life?

A recent popular movement among evangelicals has suggested that the idea of the love of God is so strong in Scripture that any sense of fearing God is a mark of spiritual immaturity. To fear God, according to this movement, suggests that we do not really understand who God is and the love God has for us in Christ. In this view, “love wins.” And since God is all-loving, not only should Christians not fear God anymore, but God is apparently too loving to send anyone to hell. This view, which has descended into universalism (which suggests that everyone goes to heaven because God is so full of love that He would not condemn anyone), has become a cancerous blight upon the face of evangelicalism. Barely recognizable is the justice of God and His redemptive plan to rescue a blood-bought bride out of this sin-stained world and deliver her safely into the bliss of everlasting life and communion with God.

However, to say that God does this for the whole world is a violent twisting of Scripture and a denial of the doctrines of judgment and a literal hell. Some of the old Puritans used to say that “the foundation of God’s throne is justice.” Any denial of the justice of God and even eternal damnation makes our salvation cheap, and it turns God ultimately into a toothless tiger.

The particular idea of fearing God is virtually lost in our culture, not just outside the church but in many respects, within it as well.

While the movement described above is certainly a fringe movement and ultimately a Christianity falsely-so-called, it is still arguable that even Christians who reject universalism either have virtually no fear of God, or they simply don’t understand where the idea of the fear of God fits into the Christian life. None of us wants to be a legalist, and after all, “God is love.” But does that mean that the fear of God has no place in our Christianity? A brief survey of the idea in Scripture suggests the very opposite: that a healthy and properly understood fear of God is not only endorsed by Scripture, but it is healthy, it is beautiful, and it leads to a Christian life that is full of joyful obedience and service.

Very familiar to many of us is Proverbs 1:7, which says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction.” I love the Proverbs and try each day to read the chapter that corresponds to the day of the month (the book has thirty-one chapters, which make it a great way to begin devotional reading). Over the years, the book of Proverbs has been very helpful, challenging, and encouraging. As a young man, I found the book of Proverbs to be like listening to the voice of a wise, godly father instructing his son in how to live a life that is pleasing to God. The world is filled with temptations and folly, and the book of Proverbs is like a map that safely leads us around the dangerous shoals upon which we can so easily crash. But what would the book of Proverbs be without the notion of the fear of God? Oft repeated in the book of Proverbs is the idea of the “fear of the Lord” (2:5; 3:7; 9:10; 10:27; and many other places). The phrase is used sixteen times and helps the one who fears God to find wisdom, hate evil, prolong life, and enjoy satisfaction, honor, and safety. Without the fear of God, the young listener to the book of Proverbs falls into many traps, is lured away by evil, is seduced by the desires of the flesh, and ends up destroyed by a lack of wisdom. In short, without the fear of God, our path is one that leads us away from God and to destruction. To fear God in the book of Proverbs is to pursue life, peace, and joy in the sight of God.

Some have wondered if the idea of fearing God is narrowly an Old Testament idea. This view is not new; it joins hands with those who have suggested that the God of the Old Testament is full of wrath and anger, but the God of the New Testament is full of love and peace. Such a dualism between who God was in the Old Testament and who He is in the New Testament is unbiblical and unhealthy. One clear example of this is the fact that God promised in the Old Testament that in the new covenant era, He would put the fear of Him into the hearts of His people (not just His enemies). Through the prophet Jeremiah, God said, “I will make with them an everlasting covenant, that I will not turn away from doing good to them. And I will put the fear of me in their hearts, that they may not turn from me” (Jer. 32:40). That promise is clearly fulfilled in Christ in the new covenant. As God has made Himself our God and redeems us to be His people, He calls us, like the son in Proverbs, to walk in the fear of God.

This is perfectly embodied in Jesus, of course. Jesus is the perfect, Proverbs-keeping Son who not only shuns evil but walks in the fear of God. Everything the Proverbs command a young man to do, Jesus perfectly did (including cultivating a proper fear of God). Everything the Proverbs commands a young man not to do, Jesus resisted with all His heart. Jesus is the perfect Son, and as such, He is the only one capable of delivering us from our sins and imperfections and ultimately the fear of hell. The Bible is strikingly clear that Christ has undergone judgment on our behalf in such a way that the believer has been declared righteous in the sight of God not through anything that we can do but through the righteousness of Christ (Gal. 2:21). The Christian, being united to Christ, cannot lose his salvation (Col. 3:3). He presently has eternal life, for he has passed from death to life and shall not come into judgment (John 5:24). In Christ, our hope of eternal life in heaven is secure and cannot be taken away. This is one of the sweetest and most important comforts of the Christian life: that we belong to Christ and thus heaven belongs to us. Apart from Christ, we have no hope whatsoever, but in Christ, our hope is blissfully secure.

This is the point made by 1 John 4:18, a verse that is often used to suggest that there is no longer any place for the fear of God in the Christian life. The verse says, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” Taken out of context, the verse might seem to suggest that the Christian ought not to have any fear of God as a result of God’s love. Seeing the verse in context, however, clarifies the issue:

By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. (1 John 4:17–18)

It seems clear that the “fear” John is describing here has to do with the “punishment” on the “day of judgment” awaiting those who are liars and do not actually have the love of God within them. John’s goal through this book is not only to challenge his readers pastorally but also to comfort them in their assurance of salvation based on their adoption into the family of God through their union with Christ. For those who belong to Christ, in whom the love of God abides, there is no fear of the day of judgment because Jesus, the Son of God, was sent to be the “propitiation for our sins” (v. 10). Since we have this confidence in Christ, our fear of the day of judgment is gone, but that does not mean there is no remaining sense in which a Christian ought to fear God. It is to this proper sense of fearing God that we now turn.

Building on the redemptive promises of God, Paul urges the church in Corinth to continue pursuing holiness in the context of fearing God. He does this beautifully in 2 Corinthians 7:1, which says, “Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God.” Paul is expounding upon the language of Leviticus and its call to God’s people to be separated from the world and to live holy lives, viewing their own bodies as the temple of the living God. Both our bodies and souls belong to God, and they are to be separated from the world for the purposes of holy living. That is what it means to “cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit.” Paul and the New Testament do not view holiness as something that has been completed in the life of the believer, but rather as something that is ongoing—a work in progress. In fact, Paul urges us to “bring holiness to completion in the fear of God.” This language likely echoes the ministry of the old covenant priests, who were to pursue the holiness of God with humility and devotion. In like manner, believers live their lives coram Deo (before the face of God), and as priests ministering in the presence of God, we ought to conduct our business before Him with a measure of fear that reminds us of the One in whose presence we live and serve. Christians, in a certain sense, are priests in service to the living God, and both our bodies and souls should be regarded as holy unto the Lord and set apart for the service of God. Rather than living out of a callous indifference or shallow sense of service, we are called to humble ourselves in the sight of God, lift up His name, and do everything we can to glorify and enjoy Him in our endeavors.

Just as mercy and justice sweetly kiss at the cross, so do love and fear sweetly comply in the context of a healthy Christian life.

No reflection on the topic of the fear of God would be complete without at least a brief reflection on the language of adoption. Nothing reconciles the perceived tension between loving and fearing God better than adoption, as the bond between God and the believer is tenderly illustrated in the analogy of a father and a son. I should admit that I am particularly fond of the adoption metaphor in Scripture. I have three adopted children—two sons and a daughter. Occasionally, the older two will ask my wife and me why we adopted them (they each came from very broken situations). Our answer is simple and consistent: we adopted them because we love them. I often tell people that there is nothing in the world better than being a dad. I love being a pastor; I feel awkward when people call me “doctor”; but when my kids say the word “dad,” I feel as light as a feather and as happy as I can be. It’s truly beautiful.

But that does not mean that my kids should not have a proper fear of me. In fact, they often do. They know there are rules in the house. They know the face of my pleasure and the face of my displeasure. They know the sound of my voice when I call to them in joy and when I call to them in frustration. They also know that no matter what they do, I will never un-adopt them. Their identity is secure. They are my kids, and I will always love them. But there are times when the gravitas of what it means for me to be dad and for them to be children should inform their behavior and decisions.

If these qualities are appropriate in our earthly relationships, how much more should they be in our relationship with God? Love and fear, properly understood, are not antithetical; they are complementary. There is no true love of God without a proper fear of God. Christians who do not fear God live in a state of anarchy and uncertainty; they neither truly know God nor truly know themselves. Yet just as mercy and justice sweetly kiss at the cross, so do love and fear sweetly comply in the context of a healthy Christian life. God is the perfect Father—full of justice and full of love. His love does not suppress His justice; it fulfills it.

Practicing the fear of God in a relativistic world is a joyful privilege as well as a humbling challenge. The world around us, and at times even other Christians, so diminishes the attributes of God that our perception of God is easily distorted. A distorted view of God will inevitably lead to a distorted view of the Christian life. We all think too much of ourselves and too little of God, and at times, even the good things that we do are driven by self-serving goals. That prideful sense of self-centeredness is reined in by the fear of God and leads to walking with Him in wisdom and righteousness. To love God as Father includes a healthy fear of Him that keeps us humble and causes us to strive to bring holiness to completion in the fear of God.

The Blessings of Fearing God

Worship and the Fear of God

Keep Reading Fearing God

From the January 2018 Issue
Jan 2018 Issue