“It will put the fear of God in you.”
This phrase is often stated by someone as a warning to another before they try some fiery hot sauce, watch a scary movie, or ride a looping roller coaster. Parents have even said it to their wayward children to warn of future discipline if they disobey. Outside of these uses, we don’t often hear much of the fear of God these days, but the Bible talks a lot about it. The fear of God is a theme taught throughout the pages of Scripture and which shows up hundreds of times in our Bibles.
Some may consider the fear of the LORD to be something for non-believers and they say true Christians shouldn’t fear God. They may even quote 1 John 4:18, which states, “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.” But we must never build a system of theology on one verse, but instead let the whole of revealed Scripture illuminate a matter. The verse from 1 John reveals not that we shouldn’t fear God, but that our fear of God is different now that we’re in Christ.
The great protestant reformer Martin Luther is known for distinguishing between servile fear (that of a child facing an abusive bully at school each day) and filial fear (that same child’s deep respect for his loving father and the desire to only do what pleases him). This is illustrated well in one of my favorite books on the topic: The Joy of Fearing God by Jerry Bridges. In his book, Bridges uses the illustration of a soldier who trains under a strict drill sergeant and is terror-stricken around him. But as the soldier gradually moves up in rank and begins to have a deeper respect for this officer over him, his fear of him changes. Eventually, the soldier and his commanding officer are both in an IED attack and the soldier is injured badly. While in an army hospital, the soldier’s commanding officer visits regularly to check on him and the soldier’s fear grows even deeper towards such a loving and yet authoritative man. Sinclair Ferguson has defined the fear of God as, “that indefinable mixture of reverence, fear, pleasure, joy, and awe which fills our hearts when we realize who God is and what he has done for us.”
So how does Scripture address us with this concept of the fear of God?
1. The fear of the LORD compels…our proclamation
Sharing Christ with another person can be scary work. Our minds so quickly and unconsciously present us with a multitude of possible negative outcomes: “What if they think I’m a weird religious fanatic? What if they never want to talk to me again? What if they insult me or make fun of me in front of others?” Jesus told his disciples, “…proclaim on the housetops. 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…So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven” (Mt. 10:28, 32, 33). Jesus often answered our unhealthy fear of persecution or lack of provision with a healthy fear of Him. Paul likewise told the church at Corinth, “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil. Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade others” (2 Cor. 5:10-11a). In both Jesus’ words and Paul’s, we get a sense that our evangelism and witness are to be driven by the fear of God. Our proclamation of the Gospel should be bold even in the face of opposition because both we and our hearers will answer to God in the end.
2. The fear of the LORD compels…our worship
There are so many factors that can negatively affect our worship of God: impure motives, unrepentant sin, prayerlessness, wasting our time. Yet we must remember just who this God is that we’re to worship and how He alone is worthy of our whole-hearted worship. The author of Hebrews tells us, “let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:28b-29). Unacceptable worship is any worship that fails to rightly acknowledge the awesome majesty of the God before whom we come. So we must approach Him as those who deserve His just wrath and yet enjoy His smile because of the wonder of Christ’s propitiation. Our prayers must be humble and serious, our Scripture reading must be disciplined and meditative, and our service must be zealous and grateful as sinners redeemed by the blood of God’s Son.
3. The fear of the LORD compels…our holy living
The pursuit of holiness is hard work because we are fighting against ourselves for ourselves. One of the reasons we struggle with practical holiness is that we forget how it is to be motivated by our fear of God. Anytime we divorce holiness from a healthy reverence for God, we turn it into a self-wrought work or a set of morals. Paul told the church at Corinth, “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” (2 Cor. 7:1). We see this also in the Old Testament: “And he said to man, ‘Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom, and to turn away from evil is understanding’” (Job 28:28). Here God equates fear of Him with personal holiness. One who is not growing in holiness is not living with a fear of God. God told the prophet Isaiah, “For the LORD spoke thus to me with his strong hand upon me, and warned me not to walk in the way of this people, saying: “Do not call conspiracy all that this people calls conspiracy, and do not fear what they fear, nor be in dread. But the LORD of hosts, him you shall honor as holy. Let him be your fear, and let him be your dread” (Is. 8:11-13). How do we not walk in the way of “this people” who don’t know God? By a letting God be our fear and dread.
4. The fear of the LORD compels…our bold obedience
This is similar to the others and yet distinct. A fear of God produces a boldness that chooses to obey Him no matter the cost. Among the hall of faith in Hebrews 11 are two women who protected the Hebrew baby boys from evil Pharaoh in Moses’ day. Where did they get such boldness in the face of such evil and opposition? You guessed it: the fear of God. Moses records their names for us and informs us, “But the midwives feared God and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but let the male children live.” He later tells the people of God wandering through the wilderness, “And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul” (Deut. 10:12).
5. The fear of the LORD compels…our fellowship with God
If we want close communion with God, we cannot have it without a fear of Him. David writes, “The friendship of the LORD is for those who fear him, and he makes known to them his covenant” (Ps. 25:14). In other psalms, we are informed: “Behold, the eye of the LORD is on those who fear him,” and, “The angel of the LORD encamps around those who fear him, and delivers them” (Ps. 33:18a; 34:7). In each of these psalms, David shows us that a right fear of God leads to the blessing of His friendship. Some may think they’d never want to be friends with a God who demands we fear Him, but any lesser god isn’t worthy of our friendship. Think of the wonder of these verses! The God of all creation is inviting us to be His friends! We ought to enter in with joy-filled reverence before such a God. Why wouldn’t we want such a friend on our side and for us?
6. The fear of the LORD compels…our safety
Solomon writes, “The fear of the LORD leads to life, and whoever has it rests satisfied; he will not be visited by harm” (Prov. 19:23). Yes many who feared God have died martyrs for Christ, but they’ve never truly been, “visited by harm.” Listen to Jesus’ words to his disciples: “You will be delivered up even by parents and brothers and relatives and friends, and some of you they will put to death. You will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your lives” (Lk. 21:16-19). Read over that again. He is literally saying, “They are going to hate you and beat you and arrest you and kill you…but you will live.” I was speaking with a pastor friend about this one day and he said something that really struck me: “In reality, nothing bad ever happens to the Christian.” Sure you may get COVID-19 or pancreatic cancer or you might be killed by a drunk driver or die at the hands of some vigilante, but this is all part of God’s sovereign plan. Isn’t that glorious! How liberating the fear of God is for us!
7. The fear of the LORD compels…our prayers
We are told in Jeremiah 26:19b of King Hezekiah, “Did he not fear the LORD and entreat the favor of the LORD, and did not the LORD relent of the disaster that he had pronounced against them?” Want a more earnest and passionate prayer life? Then before you pray, contemplate who it is you are approaching. A good fear of God will make for good prayers.
8. The fear of the LORD compels…our church health
One of the major errors of the church growth movement was a failure to stand on the truths that highlight the fear of God. Doctor Luke informs us that it is this fear of God which grew the early church. “So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was being built up. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it multiplied” (Acts 9:31). A healthy and multiplying church isn’t one whose mere numbers grow, but whose members grow in the fear of God. Even when God’s hand of discipline fell on wayward members, we’re told, “And great fear came upon the whole church and upon all who heard of these things. Now many signs and wonders were regularly done among the people by the hands of the apostles. And they were all together in Solomon’s Portico. None of the rest dared join them, but the people held them in high esteem. And more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women” (Acts 5:11-14). A church that fears God will be marked by holiness among its members and will eventually grow numerically as outsiders see Christ among them.
9. The fear of the LORD compels…our labors
Paul told the church at Colossae, “Bondservants, obey in everything those who are your earthly masters, not by way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord” (Col. 3:22). Here the Bible’s reference to earthly masters and bonderservants has been compared to more of an employer-employee relationship and not so much the American system of slavery with which we’re familiar. Paul addressed those in the congregation who were bondservants because God cared about their daily lives just as He did the others in the flock. He commends a fear of God which lends itself to honest and diligent work. Find a man or woman who fears God and you’ll find someone who refuses to cut corners at work or steal time from the clock. They don’t hold back from these things because they’re afraid of God, but because they wouldn’t dare offend such a gracious and good God who has given them His only Son’s life.
10. The fear of the LORD compels…our leadership
Every organization needs good leadership and yet the best leaders aren’t those who’ve built great empires, but those who fear a great God. When Moses’ father-in-law recommended a plurality of leadership to help he and the struggling flock of Israel, he wisely instructed him to look for men of both caliber and competence. “Moreover, look for able men from all the people, men who fear God, who are trustworthy and hate a bribe, and place such men over the people as chiefs of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties, and of tens” (Ex. 18:21). David’s last words even highlight the beauty of God-fearing leadership. We read in 2 Samuel 23:3-4, “The God of Israel has spoken; the Rock of Israel has said to me: When one rules justly over men, ruling in the fear of God, he dawns on them like the morning light, like the sun shining forth on a cloudless morning, like rain that makes grass to sprout from the earth.” Leaders who fear God are a true blessing to those under their leadership.
May we all learn to live with this fear of God and let it pour down into every aspect of our daily lives so that all may see the glory of our great and awesome God.