The Puritan preacher John Bunyan may be best known for his classic work The Pilgrim’s Progress, the world-famous allegory of the Christian life. Perhaps lesser known, but also significant for its value to the Christian faith, is his work titled A Treatise on the Fear of God.
Published the year after The Pilgrim’s Progress, this book unpacks the often misunderstood and neglected doctrine of the fear of the Lord. In his treatise, Bunyan systematically dissects this teaching, helping believers understand the inherent connection between such fear and the Christian faith. In fact, Bunyan considered this fear our highest duty as children of God: “I call it the highest duty, because it is, as I may call it, not only a duty in itself, but, as it were, the salt that seasoneth every duty. For there is no duty performed by us that can by any means be accepted of God, if it be not seasoned with godly fear.”1
He begins the book with describing why we are to fear the Lord. He describes God in His glory, majesty, goodness, and holiness. He shows us that He is wholly other and One whose name is Fear. As we encounter God in all His wonder and splendor, as we understand His character and attributes, we can only respond with reverence and awe. “The goodness as well as the greatness of God doth beget in the heart of his elect an awful reverence of his majesty.”2
There is a great difference between the fear God’s children have for Him and the fear of those who are outside Christ. Those who are not God’s children by faith fear Him for His wrath and judgment; the elect fear God for His goodness to them in Christ. They fear Him for who He is and all He has done. They fear Him because they know Him and are known by Him. Bunyan makes this distinction clear, reminding us that our godly fear of the Lord is a grace given to us by God Himself through the work of the Spirit within us.
One key section of the treatise contains a detailed list of privileges that come to those to fear the Lord. This is a beautiful list, one that all believers should relish and treasure, for it contains promises found in God’s Word. Here are five of those privileges.
- The Privilege of Trust: Those who fear the Lord are granted the grace to trust in the Lord. They find Him as their help and shield. “You who fear the Lord, trust in the Lord! He is their help and their shield” (Ps. 115:11). Bunyan noted: “Now what a privilege is this! an exhortation in general to sinners, as sinners, to trust in him, is a privilege great and glorious; but for a man to be singled out from his neighbours, for a man to be spoken to from heaven, as it were by name, and to be told that God hath given him a license, a special and peculiar grant to trust in him, this is abundantly more; and yet this is the grant that God hath given that man!”3
- The Privilege of Being Taught by God: God promises to lead, guide, and teach those who fear Him. “Who is the man who fears the Lord? Him will he instruct in the way that he should choose” (Ps. 25:12). Bunyan encourages us that we are not left to our own devices: “Well, but the Lord whom thou fearest will not leave thee to thy ignorance, nor yet to thine enemies’ power or subtlety, but will take it upon himself to be thy teacher and thy guide, and that in the way that thou hast chosen.”4 What a glorious privilege!
- The Privilege of God’s Eye upon Us: Those who fear the Lord can know He is watching over them to deliver them. God protects His children from evil and ensures all things happen for our ultimate good. “Behold, the eye of the Lord is on those who fear him, on those who hope in his steadfast love, that he may deliver their soul from death and keep them alive in famine” (Ps. 33:18–19). God does so because we are His delight. As Bunyan wrote, “His eyes are upon them, and he will keep them as a shepherd doth his sheep; that is, from those wolves that seek to devour them, and to swallow them up in death. His eyes are upon them; for they are the object of his delight, the rarities of the world, in whom, saith he, is all my delight.”5
- The Privilege of God’s Salvation: Scripture tells us that God promises salvation for those who fear Him. “Surely his salvation is near to those who fear him, that glory may dwell in our land” (Ps. 85:9). God’s grace is at the ready to rescue us from our spiritual enemies. Bunyan exhorts us to trust in God’s deliverance: “The devil, and sin, and death, do always wait even to devour them that fear the Lord, but to deliver them from these his salvation doth attend them.”6
- The Privilege of God’s Mercy and Love: God’s mercy is new every morning. It is rich and abundant; He freely showers it on those who fear Him. “But the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him, and his righteousness to children’s children” (Ps. 103:17). Bunyan encourages us: “Child of God, thou that fearest God, here is mercy nigh thee, mercy enough, everlasting mercy upon thee. This is long-lived mercy. It will live longer than thy sin, it will live longer than temptation, it will live longer than thy sorrows, it will live longer than thy persecutors.”
The fear of the Lord is often neglected in contemporary Christianity. John Bunyan’s A Treatise on the Fear of God is a helpful guide for believers, leading us through God’s Word to see just how central this fear is to our faith. And what joy for the Christian to realize all the rich promises that come to those who fear the Lord! May we all relish and treasure these promises, seasoning all we do in the fear of the Lord.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on November 30, 2020.