The Fear of God

The Bible often speaks about the “fear of God.” There are two types of the fear of God, the first is a slavish fear, and the second is a filial fear. Both are referred to in Exodus 20:20, “And Moses said to the people, ‘Do not fear [slavish]; for God has come to test you, and that His fear [filial] may be before you, so that you may not sin.’” John Murray described the fear of God (in this second sense) as “the soul of godliness.”[1]

He also wrote, “The fear of God in us is that frame of heart and mind which reflects our apprehension of who and what God is, and who and what God is will tolerate nothing less than totality commitment to Him.”[2]

  1. The fear of God is produced by the grace of God. The apostle Paul summarizes the natural man’s condition in Romans 3:18 by saying, “There is no fear of God before their eyes.” By nature, man sees God as his enemy and therefore, man does not fear God as he ought to (Rom 8:7-8). If man is to be moved into a state of the proper fear of God, God’s grace must produce that fear in the heart of man. John Newton captured this sentiment in his famous hymn, “Amazing Grace”: “Twas grace that taught my heart to fear…”[3] This accurately reflects the promise of the New Covenant in Jeremiah 32:40, “And I will make an everlasting covenant with them, that I will not turn away from doing them good; but I will put My fear in their hearts so that they will not depart from Me” (emphasis added). As John Flavel wrote, “This fear of God is a gracious habit or principle planted by God in the soul, whereby the soul is kept under an holy awe of the eye of God, and from thence is inclined to perform and do what pleases Him, and to shun and avoid whatsoever He forbids and hates. It is planted in the soul as a permanent and fixed habit…To fear man is natural, but to fear God is wholly supernatural.”[4]
  1. The fear of God affects our thinking. The Book of Proverbs often refers to the fear of God and it begins with a reference to this positive aspect of the fear of God: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction” (see also Prov 2:5; 9:10; 14:26; 15:33). The great commandment of the law assumes the fear of God and demonstrates the effect upon the mind of man: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all you mind(Mt 22:37, emphasis added). Believers in Christ have “the mind of Christ” (1 Cor 2:16) and Christ is described in Isaiah as One who had the “fear of the LORD” (Is 11:2).
  1. The fear of God affects our actions. This is another recurring theme in the Book of Proverbs, for instance, “Do not be wise in your eyes; fear the LORD and depart from evil” (Prov 3:7; see also 8:13; 15:16; 16:6; 19:23). Though Genesis 39 does not specifically mention Joseph’s fear of the LORD, it does emphasize that “the LORD was with Joseph” (Gen 39:2, 21, 23). No doubt this fear of the Lord was an impetus in Joseph’s continual resistance against the sexual advances of Potiphar’s wife and his wonderful statement in verse 9, “How then can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?” In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul commands the believer in Christ to perfect “holiness in the fear of God” (2 Cor 7:1).
  1. The fear of God conditions our public worship. This lesson was vividly demonstrated in Leviticus 10 when Nadab and Abihu offered “profane fire before the LORD” (Lev 10:1), after having received specific directions on how to approach the Most High in Leviticus 1-9. The Lord who had previously sent fire to consume the proper sacrifice (Lev 9:24), now sent fire to consume these men who had perverted the worship of God. The Lord underscored the reverence (fear) that is due to Him in worship by saying, “By those who come near Me I must be regarded as holy; and before all the people I must be glorified” (Lev 10:3). The Book of Hebrews makes the same application for the New Covenant people of God: “Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us have grace, by which we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear. For our God is a consuming fire” (Heb 12:28-29). Much of what passes for Christian worship fails miserably at this point.

Conclusion

The people of God today must realize that the fear of God is not an Old Testament concept which was done away with the coming of Jesus Christ. It is not an out dated, antiquated concept confined to a primitive people serving their god among the nations serving their gods. Rather, it is “the soul of godliness” that is the result of the grace of God and which frames the heart and actions for service to God. It is that disposition of soul which should find expression in the church of Christ as the people of God gather together for worship. It is the right response to those who are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. David rightly recognized this: “If You, LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with You, that You may be feared” (Ps 130:3-4).

 

 

[1] John Murray, Principles of Conduct (1957; reprint, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1984), 229.

[2] Ibid., 242.

[3] John Newton, Trinity Hymnal (Philadelphia: Great Commission Publications, 1961), 402.

[4] John Flavel, The Works of John Flavel (1820; reprint, Edinburgh/Carlisle: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1982), 3.252.