If you’ve ever played a Bible trivia game, you likely know that “Do not fear” is a frequent command found throughout Scripture. I haven’t personally counted, but some say it can be found hundreds of times. Yet there’s also another frequent command. This command stands in stark contrast: “Fear the Lord.”
Oh, fear the Lord, you his saints, for those who fear him have no lack! (Ps. 34:9)
“And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matt. 10:28)
Just what does this command mean? Are we called to fear the Lord in the same way that we fear harm or loss or some great evil? Are we called to feel terror before the Lord? Does this fear make us want to run and flee? Or might it mean something else?
It depends. The Bible describes two different types of this fear. And as we’ll see, the main difference between the two is love.
The first type of fear is what theologians refer to as servile fear. This fear is like the fear a slave has for his cruel master or like that of a prisoner to his jailer. They obey out of fear of harm and only to the extent that obedience will keep them from trouble. It is this kind of fear the unregenerate have for God and the kind of fear we have before coming to know Christ. It’s the kind of fear the demons have of God (James 2:19). It is true terror of God.
An example of servile fear is found in Matthew 25. In this parable, Jesus describes a master who gives talents to his servants to invest. One servant just buried his talent in the ground: “He who had received the one talent came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here, you have what is yours’ ” (Matt. 25:24–25). The servant was motivated to do what he did—which turned out to be sin—by his terror for his master.
The second kind of fear is referred to as filial fear. It’s the fear a child has for his father. The word filial comes from the Latin, meaning “son.” A child who knows he is loved by his father obeys him because he doesn’t want to disappoint him or let him down. It is a respectful fear, one that seeks to honor the one feared. It is not a terror-fear but a fear born out of love. Sinclair Ferguson defines filial fear as “that indefinable mixture of reverence and pleasure, joy and awe which fills our hearts when we realize who God is and what he has done for us. It is a love for God which is so great that we would be ashamed to do anything which would displease or grieve him, and makes us happiest when we are doing what pleases him.”1
Outside of Christ, we would all have a servile fear of God. But in Christ, we are adopted as God’s children (Gal. 4:4–7). God is our Father, and like a good earthly father, He loves us, provides for us, protects us, disciplines us, and teaches us. Because He is our Father, the fear we have for Him is a filial fear. We know the great lengths He went to in bringing us from death to life in Christ. We know the riches of His grace in the gospel. We know all He has done for us, and so we respond to Him with a filial fear.
The Difference Is Love
The difference between servile fear and filial fear is love. It’s the love God has for us when He chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world and adopted us as His sons and daughters (Eph. 1:4–5). It’s the love we have for God in return for the gift of His grace showered on us through Christ. It is this love that makes the fear of the Lord a joy and not a duty. It’s a fear born not out of fear of harm but out of our heart’s desire to honor the One who loved us first. It’s a fear not in response to panic and terror but that comes from an overflow of our heart’s wonder and thanksgiving for who God is and what He has done.
The Puritan Jonathan Edwards describes this fear born out of love:
If a child was respectful to his father from fear alone, or hopes of a larger inheritance, but not from the heart, would that be acceptable to the father? Love for God is the enjoyment of the loveliness and sweetness of his divine nature as one’s chief good. When once the soul is brought to relish the excellency of the divine nature, it will naturally incline to God in every way. It will seek to be with him and enjoy him. It will be glad that he is happy. It will desire his glory, and desire to do his will in all things.2
This is a Christian’s filial fear of the Lord. May it be so in our own hearts.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on November 19, 2020.