At the very beginning of this series of posts we noted that to fear the Lord means to revere Him; to be in awe of God. It means fearing to run away from Him; fearing to seek refuge, joy, hope, purpose, and happiness anywhere but in God. It means keeping before our eyes what a fearful prospect it is to stop trusting and depending on God to meet our needs. But for many people this phrase, “the fear of God” is met with only suspicion. There is great resistance to preaching about the fear of God. The topic just is not part of the culturally correct view of a healthy, satisfying, spiritual life. That is because this doctrine has been poorly taught by some, and totally ignored by others. Both extremes, as is usually the case, are way off target. The fear of God should not be used as a tool to frighten people or send them on guilt-trips, nor should it be viewed as an anachronistic doctrine of bygone days.
When reading the Bible one cannot ignore the teaching of the fear of the Lord. The Scriptures are saturated with this truth. Therefore it is good for all followers of Christ to recognize that growing deeper and stronger as a Christian comes not by choosing to embrace only those Biblical teachings with which one is already comfortable and which are easily understood. One does not grow that way. Rather, one grows deep and strong by also embracing the teachings that are not comfortable and that are hard to understand, while being confident that in His Word God has not taught anything false or harmful.
We need to wise up about the fear of the Lord, and Proverbs has much to say about it. In fact, the fear of the Lord is the heart of this book; it is presented as the path to wisdom.
- Proverbs 1:7, “The fear of the LORD [is] the beginning of knowledge: [but] fools despise wisdom and instruction.”
- Proverbs 9:10, “The fear of the LORD [is] the beginning of wisdom: and the knowledge of the holy [is] understanding.”
- Proverbs 14:27, “The fear of the LORD [is] a fountain of life, to depart from the snares of death.”
The fear of the Lord includes a wide range of attitudes and responses. On one end there is indeed terror. The following graphic is taken from page 97 of the book When People are Big and God is Small by Edward Welch.
All mankind are sinners who will be judged by a perfectly righteous and holy God. That is a terrifying prospect. As Hebrews 10:31 says, “[It is] a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”
This kind of fear shrinks back from God, and no one is exempt from this, believers or unbelievers. Christians, however, have been opened to God’s great love. We know of God’s holy justice and His holy love. On this end of the spectrum is the fear of the Lord which was discussed above; a reverent submission to Christ that leads to obedience. This is not a “terror-fear” but a “worship-fear” because while it is familiar with God’s purity, justice, and anger against sin, it is also aware of God’s great forgiveness, mercy, and love towards the sinner. Christian counselor and author Ed Welch writes about this kind of “worship-fear” in his book When People are Big and God is Small:
“It knows that because of God’s eternal plan, Jesus humbled himself by dying on a cross to redeem his enemies from slavery and death. It knows that, in our relationship with God, he always says ‘I love you’ first. This knowledge draws us closer to God rather than causing us to flee. It causes us to submit gladly to his lordship and delight in obedience. This kind of robust fear is the pinnacle of our response to God.”
Knowing the difference between these two fears prevents us from pointing to 1 John 4:18, “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear: because fear hath torment. He that feareth is not made perfect in love” and using it as a proof text to say such foolish things as: “Fearing God is an Old Testament attitude. The new covenant is not about fear. The new covenant is about grace.”
Praise God that salvation is all of grace! Praise God that we are to be gracious ministers of the Gospel of grace! But do not think for one moment that grace precludes the fear of the Lord. Consider this sampling of New Testament passages:
- Luke 12:4-5 – “And I say unto you my friends, Be not afraid of them that kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do. But I will forewarn you whom ye shall fear: Fear him, which after he hath killed hath power to cast into hell; yea, I say unto you, Fear him.”
- Hebrews 12:28-29 – “Wherefore we receiving a kingdom which cannot be moved, let us have grace, whereby we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear: For our God [is] a consuming fire.”
- 1 Peter 1:17-19 – “And if ye call on the Father, who without respect of persons judgeth according to every man’s work, pass the time of your sojourning [here] in fear: Forasmuch as ye know that ye were not redeemed with corruptible things, [as] silver and gold, from your vain conversation [received] by tradition from your fathers; But with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot.”
Is scripture contradicting itself? NO! Scripture is teaching that God’s people are no longer driven by terror-fear (the fear that has to do with punishment), but God’s people are blessed with worship-fear (the reverential awe motivated by love for and the honor due our Lord).
There are three prominent adversaries for those who would properly fear the Lord.
- The World
- The devil
- Our own flesh (heart)
Our sinful nature is influenced by the world and Satan, and all three works at elevating other people or other things over God. There are many strategies used in that regard. Here are a few.
- Minimize sin – This suggests that God is distant and His Word is irrelevant. God is holding out on us, keeping us from good things (Genesis 3:4-5).
- Rationalize sin – They are not sins but “shortcomings.” After all, you are only human, nobody is perfect, and everybody is doing it.
- Obscures sin – Sin often rides on the back of good things. For example, work is good; a man should provide for his family. Being a workaholic, however, is never “for the kids” or “to provide” but is really for you. Most sins are ungodly exaggerations of good things.
- Downgrades obedience – This is more concerned with appearances or actions than attitudes. God isn’t feared in every area of life; after all, I’m a fairly good guy.
These opponents and their strategies ensure that growing in the fear of the Lord will not always be smooth, but we do have powerful resources to aid us.
- God’s Word
- The Holy Spirit
- The Body of Christ
The Bible is a lamp to our feet and a light to our path. It will enlighten us in all areas of truth, including the fear of the Lord. Psalm 34:9-11:
“O fear the LORD, ye his saints: for [there is] no want to them that fear him. The young lions do lack, and suffer hunger: but they that seek the LORD shall not want any good [thing]. Come, ye children, hearken unto me: I will teach you the fear of the LORD.” (cf. Deuteronomy 17:18-19; 31:13)
The Holy Spirit guides us in all truth (John 16:13-14), enabling us to learn and live the fear of God. The local church is a primary place where the fear of the Lord is taught, practiced, and demonstrated. God’s people covenant together to do the work of the Lord, and to hold one another accountable to their Lord.
The book of Proverbs lists many of the benefits of fearing God. It is, as already noted and quoted, the beginning of wisdom and understanding, but it also brings these blessings:
- Those who fear the Lord will fear nothing else. Proverbs 19:23 – “The fear of the LORD [tendeth] to life: and [he that hath it] shall abide satisfied; he shall not be visited with evil.”
- The fear of the Lord is a secure fortress for you and your family. Proverbs 14:26 – “In the fear of the LORD [is] strong confidence: and his children shall have a place of refuge.”
- The fear of the Lord brings genuine riches and true honor. Proverbs 15:16 – “Better [is] little with the fear of the LORD than great treasure and trouble therewith.” Proverbs 22:4 – “By humility [and] the fear of the LORD [are] riches, and honour, and life.”
- The fear of the Lord is worthy of praise. Proverbs 31:30 – “Favour [is] deceitful, and beauty [is] vain: [but] a woman [that] feareth the LORD, she shall be praised.”
- Proverbs also informs us what the fear of the Lord looks like. Proverbs 8:13, “The fear of the LORD [is] to hate evil: pride, and arrogancy, and the evil way, and the froward mouth, do I hate.”
The opposite of the fear of the Lord is the fear of man. Really, those are the only two options available. We will either fear the Lord or we will fear man. There are modern labels for the fear of man:
- For teens – peer pressure
- For adults – people pleasing
- For the clinical – co-dependency issues
Regardless of what name it is given, unless you fear God you fear man, and everybody fears somebody. Who do you fear? For whom are you living? Who do you want to please? Who do you want to emulate?
If it is Jesus you will continue in wisdom, because in Jesus “are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Colossians 2:3).
If it is anyone else you will end up a fool. Why? Because “The fear of the LORD [is] the beginning of knowledge: [but] fools despise wisdom and instruction.”
Hear the prophet Habakkuk (2:20), “the LORD is in his holy temple: let all the earth keep silence before him.” That’s the fear of God. Awe and reverential respect for His majesty and this fear of the Lord is the soul of religion and the soul of godliness. This controlling sense of the majesty and holiness of God and the profound reverence which this apprehension elicits is the thing that drives and brings joy to life in this fallen world; a joy-filled reverence and awe for the one true God which shakes you to the core and brings forth a response of faith and love and obedience.