The Fear of God

The Fear of God[1]

John Murray said, “The fear of God is the soul of godliness.”[2] In fact, the “most prevalent use of fear in the Bible is the fear of God.”[3] Rarely do we ever speak of someone as “fearing God.” Fear connotes something negative to most people, even to Christians. Yet no believer can exist without a genuine fear of God. Paul says, “Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade others.” (2Cor. 5:11) In v. 10, Paul points out that everyone will appear before the judgment seat of Christ. Verse 11 is the proper response to this truth. One commentator explained the verse this way, “The “fear of the Lord” here is not personal piety nor the terror that the omnipotent Lord arouses in human hearts (e.g., Ge 35:5), but the reverential awe Paul had for Christ as his divine assessor and future judge (v. 10). Aware of his personal accountability, Paul strove to persuade people.”[4] Jesus is our “divine assessor and future judge” and therefore we must rightly fear him.

Another commentator adds this: “He knows that he is accountable to God and stands in reverential awe of God’s final judgment. It is said that whatever it is that one fears the most that is what one will serve the most. Paul is steeped in the Old Testament tradition that understands fear of the Lord as the beginning of wisdom (Prov 1:7), but he understands it be the basis of faithful service as well.”[5] Remember, we are taught in the OT that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; it is the bedrock upon which our wisdom grows and on which our piety thrives. Without it, we cannot be genuine believers. It is as Murray said, the “soul of godliness.”

Below is William Jay’s reflection on 1 Peter 1:17. Again, the fear has in view the judgment awaiting us. That knowledge awakens our sluggish indifference and arrests our cavalier approach to our Christian walk. “And if you call on him as Father who judges impartially according to each one’s deeds, conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile, knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot.” (1:17-19, ESV) As exiles or as sojourners, we must conduct our life here with godly fear. What does that mean? William Jay gives us a helpful guide to this question.


Pass the time of your sojourning here in fear.”  1 Peter 1:17 (KJV) by William Jay

From these words, I might consider the nature of the Christian life — which is a sojourning here: and also — the time appointed for it.  But let me rather reflect upon the manner in which I am to pass the one, in accomplishing the other — “Pass the time of your sojourning here in fear.”  This cannot intend every kind of fear, without making the Scripture inconsistent with itself: for how often does it forbid fear!


Not the Fear of Man

We must not, therefore, give way to apprehensions of any thing we may suffer from our fellow creatures, in following the path of duty.  Here we should boldly say, “The Lord is my helper; I will not fear what man can do unto me.”  “Fear not,” says the Savior — mentioning the extremest case, “Fear not them that kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do.”  And this Paul exemplified:  “None of these things move me: neither count I my life dear unto myself, so that I might finish my course with joy.”

When Peter and John were threatened if they spake any more in the name of Jesus, they replied, We have nothing to do with consequences: we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard: we ought to obey God rather than man: and he has commanded us to preach the Gospel to every creature.  So should it be with us.

We are not, indeed, to run into sufferings for our religion; but we can never go on well in divine things till we are delivered from the fear of man that bring a snare. What is it but this that produces so many concealments, and defections, and inconsistencies in those who know what is right, and are excited by their convictions; but have not courage enough to resolve and proceed?  Perfect love casteth out this fear.


Not Fearing that God will be Unfaithful to His Word

We are equally to shun a distrustfulness of God’s word.  This fear is at once the most dishonorable to God, and injurious to our own souls.  It robs us of comfort, and lays open the mind to temptation; as we see in Abraham, who, in a moment of unbelief, prevaricated, and debased and exposed himself in Gerar.

Having the assurance of God in any case, we should feel no uncertainty as to the result; it must be accomplished; we have something firmer than the earth and the heavens to rely upon.  But we may fear, not whether we shall perish in the way everlasting; but whether we are in it.  Not — whether the promise will fail; but whether we are the heirs of promise.  This the Apostle even admonishes — “Let us therefore fear, lest, a promise being left us of entering into his rest, any of us should seem to come short of it.”  This is a case too important to be taken for granted.  The consequences of mistake are remediless; and the possibility, yea, the probability of it is great.  It will, therefore, be better to err rather on the side of solicitude, than of security.


Not Servile Fear

A servile fear, too, is not to be cherished.  This may, indeed, precede something better: but if our fear of God begins with the judge, it must end with the father.  It argues a very low degree of religion when a man can only be held to duty, like the slave, by the dread of the lash.  We have not, says the Apostle, received the spirit of bondage again to fear, but the Spirit of adoption.  The slave is converted into the child: and God spares him as a man spares his own son that serves him.


Proper and All-Important Fear: Fear of Respect, Esteem, and Gratitude

But there is a proper and all-important fear, which God has engaged to put into the hearts of his people, that they may not depart from him — It is a fear of respect, and esteem and gratitude.  It regards not only God’s greatness, but his goodness.  There is, therefore, nothing irksome in it.  It is compatible with consolation and joy; and the first Christians walked in the fear of the Lord, and in the comfort of the Holy Ghost.  It is, in reality, the same with affection:  it is the love which an inferior bears to a superior; the love of a dutiful child to a parent; or of a good servant to a master; or of a thankful dependent to a benefactor.

This shows itself much in a way of reverence, and obedience, and attention.  Hence, the more I love God, the more I shall fear him; the more I shall dread to offend him; the more I shall study to please him; the more I shall ask, Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?  the more I shall pray, “Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my strength, and my redeemer.”


The Fear of Caution or the Fear of Sinning

There is, also, a fear of caution, in which it becomes us to live.  This regards sin. Sin is the greatest evil to which we can be exposed.  And we may see enough in the case of David to make even a good man stand in dread of it.  For though God put away his sin, as to its future penalty, yet it was ever before him in the sufferings it occasioned.  The sword never departed from his house.  He was filled with dread of divine abandonment.  He was deprived of his peace and joy.  His bones were broken and his tongue was struck dumb.

And a holy God will always cause the backsliding even of his own people to reprove them, and make them know that it is an evil and a bitter thing to sin against him.  He will becloud their hope, and destroy their comfort and perhaps quarter troubles upon them for life.  Reputation, which is the produce of years, may be ruined in a moment; and the effect of a thousand good actions may be lost by one evil deed.  He who has befriended religion may cause the way of truth to be evil spoken of, and become a judgment on the whole neighborhood in which he dwells.


Be not High-Minded, but Fear

And are we in no danger of this?  Read the Scriptures.  See the falls of good men and men eminently good.  Have not we a subtle and active enemy always at hand?  Have we not a wicked world without us?  Have we not an evil heart within us?  Owing to our remaining depravity, are we not liable to be ensnared by every thing we come in contact with, however harmless in itself?  If we think caution unnecessary, we have the greatest need of it; for “pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.”  Be not high-minded, but fear.


Fear Rising in the World

If we would maintain this frame of mind, let us walk circumspectly; not as fools, but as wise. Let us not be anxious to rise in the world, and gain the affluence which will require a moral miracle to preserve us. ‘He that makes haste to be rich, shall not be innocent.’ ‘They that will be rich fall into temptation, and a snare, and into many foolish and hurtful lusts, which drown men in destruction and perdition. For the love of money is the root of all evil; which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.’


Let us Fear

—Let us keep our mouth with a bridle. In a multitude of words there wanteth not sin. —Let us not run into perils, uncalled of God — We are only authorized to look for his protection when we are brought into them in the discharge of duty. And, while we watch, let us also constantly pray — ‘Hold thou me up, and I shall be safe.’ ‘Blessed is the man that feareth always.’


John Murray’s Summary[6]

It is symptomatic of the extent to which the concept of the fear of God and the attitude of heart and mind which it represents have suffered eclipse that we have become reluctant to distinguish the earnest and consistent believer as ‘God-fearing’. Perhaps our reluctance arises from the fact that believers manifest so little of the fear of God that we scarcely dare to characterize them as God-fearing; we may even be hesitant to call them godly.

But whatever reason, the eclipse of the fear of God, whether viewed as doctrine or as attitude, evidences the deterioration of faith in the living God. Biblical faith means the fear of God, because the only God is ‘glorious in holiness, fearful in praises, doing wonders’ (Exodus 15:11) and his name is glorious and fearful (cf. Deuteronomy 28:58). If we know God we must know him in the matchless glory of his transcendent majesty, and the only appropriate posture for us is prostration before him in awe and reverence.

To think otherwise is to deny the transcendent greatness of God, and that is infidelity. The pervasive emphasis of Scripture upon the fear of God as the determinative attitude of heart in both religion and ethics and as the characteristic mark of God’s people is exactly what must have been if the Bible is consistent with itself. The doctrine of God could know nothing else. To discount this emphasis and have any other is proof that the faith of the Bible is not ours. Our consciousness is not biblical unless it is conditioned by the fear of God.

[1] This study will principally work through William Jay’s Morning Exercises (Aug. 20th).

[2] John Murray, Principles of Conduct (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1957), 229. He gives a whole chapter on “The Fear of God,” 229-242.

[3] See “FEAR,” in ZPEB.

[4] Murray J. Harris, “2 Corinthians,” in Romans–Galatians (vol. 11 of The Expositor’s Bible Commentary Revised Edition, ed. Tremper Longman III and David E. Garland; Accordance electronic ed. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008), 477.

[5] David E. Garland, 2 Corinthians (NAC 29; ed. E. Ray Clendenen; Accordance electronic ed. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1999), 268.

[6] Principles of Conduct, 241.

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