The Fear of the Lord

The ‘fear of the Lord’ is a phrase of Old Testament piety meaning that it was a fulfillment of religious obligations. But it is not just a command from the Old Testament.

Our Lord in Matthew 10:28 commanded us to fear the God who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Was Jesus himself merely practicing Old Testament piety when his prayer in Gethsemane was “heard for his godly fear”—as the Revised Standard Version translates Hebrews 5:7? (The Bauer-Arndt-Gingrich lexicon translates the Greek noun here as “reverent awe and fear.”) Isaiah 11:3 had prophesied that the messianic shoot from the stump of Jesse would “delight in the fear of the Lord.”

Isn’t it the very essence of man’s total depravity in every age, according to the apostle Paul, that “there is no fear of God before their eyes” (Romans 3:18, quoting Psalm 36)?  The repentant criminal asked the other criminal in amazement at Calvary: “Don’t you fear God?” (Luke 23:40). When our Lord wanted to indicate the character of the unjust judge in a parable, he did so by saying that he “neither feared God nor cared about men” (Luke 18:2).

God’s people, on the other hand, are described in the New Testament as those who are “living in the fear of the Lord” (Acts 9:31). The risen and ascended Christ has poured out his Spirit upon his church, and, as we have seen from Isaiah’s prophecy, the Spirit of Christ is the Spirit of the fear of the Lord. As John Murray wrote in The Joy of Fearing God and I recommend that book to you. John Rosemond, whose advice on parenting is syndicated in many newspapers, says he learned something from Bridges’s book about the proper attitude of the child to the parent: that fearing one’s parents and knowing that they love you are not incompatible.

What a grave error it would be to imagine that the new covenant, in contrast to the old, has replaced the fear of God with the love of God. That would be as contrary to the New Testament understanding of the proper response to the God of holiness and mercy as it would be contrary to the Old Testament understanding. Before you hastily assume that there is a tension between fear of God and love of God—or between fear of God and faith in God—meditate upon the truth of Psalm 130:3-4:

“If you, O Lord, kept a record of sins, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness; therefore you are feared.”

Yes, praise God, the word of 1 John 4:18 is true: “Perfect love drives out fear.” But it is the dread of eternal torment that love drives out, not reverence and adoration before God’s majesty. In the song of Moses and of the Lamb, we hear, “Who will not fear you, O Lord, and bring glory to your name? For you alone are holy” (Revelation 15:4).

And so there is good reason why the NIV chooses to use the word “reverence” to speak of that fear that is a godly and proper fear. That fear is the rich convergence of awe in the presence of the eternal God—the Creator of the universe, the holy Lawgiver, the righteous Judge, and the merciful Savior—and a consciousness of being in his presence every moment. There is the convergence of awe, reverence, adoration, honor, worship, confidence, thankfulness, love, and, yes, fear.

We must not omit the element of fear from our understanding of that proper reverence that the Bible commands us to have. To test the patience of our holy God, to willfully disobey his revealed will, should be to us a fearful as well as a hateful thing, because it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God (Hebrews 10:31). We have seen that it is the very essence of the depravity of unbelieving men that “there is no fear of God before their eyes.”

The Fear of God Today

Sometimes it seems—incredible though this is going to sound—that having no fear of God is the root sin of the evangelical church in America today, the root cause of its moral flabbiness and ineffective witness! Although it is certainly too strong to say that there is no fear of God, it does seem that there is too often very little fear of God.

A few years ago, certain prominent televangelists were making the headlines with the discovery of their blatant sins of financially defrauding trusting supporters and engaging in immoral sexual behavior. And now, once again, the president of the National Baptist Convention has begun a prison term for racketeering to the tune of 4 million dollars and pocketing thousands of dollars entrusted to him for rebuilding burned-out churches in the South. The question that immediately comes to mind is, “Don’t these men fear God?” They were ministers of the Word of God, what the New Testament calls “men of God,” and yet they were living (until they were caught) like children of the devil! And after asking whether such “Christians” fear God, one must go on to ask whether they can really believe in God and be guilty of such detestable hypocrisy.

Jerry Bridges writes: “There was a time when committed Christians were known as God-fearing people. This was a badge of honor. But somewhere along the way we lost it. Now the idea of fearing God, if thought of at all, seems like a relic from the past” (page 1).

Well, the term may seem old-fashioned, but let us pray that the Spirit of Christ will make us a God-fearing people. Then, fearing God, we shall have no one or nothing else to fear. As we read in Isaiah 8:11-13:

The Lord spoke to me with his strong hand upon me, warning me not to follow the way of this people. He said: “Do not call conspiracy everything that these people call conspiracy; do not fear what they fear, and do not dread it. The Lord Almighty is the one you are to regard as holy, he is the one you are to fear, he is the one you are to dread, and he will be a sanctuary.”