In the church today fearing the LORD isn’t a popular subject to be taught on. Too often we divide up the God of the Old Testament from the God of the New Testament, or think of our God as only a God of love and grace. But to have a proper understanding of God’s love is to understand His correction and His holiness in light of sin.
We may ask, “What are some improper and proper ways Christians should understand what fearing the LORD means?” This is a common question because, in my opinion, our teaching on this subject has become lax or “soft.”
What does it mean to fear the LORD from a Biblical perspective?
The definition of fear is this, “a distressing emotion aroused by impending danger, evil, pain, etc., whether the threat is real or imagined; the feeling or condition of being afraid.”
Proverbs 1:7 says,
The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.
To begin this conversation I believe that we need to make some important distinctions about the biblical meaning of “fearing” God. Even the historical figure Martin Luther struggled with the concept of Biblical fear during his life. He ultimately made this distinction to aid in his understanding; he distinguished between what he called a servile fear and a filial fear.
The servile fear is a kind of fear that a prisoner in a torture chamber has for his tormentor, the jailer, or the executioner. It’s that kind of dreadful anxiety in which someone is frightened by the clear and present danger that is represented by another person. Or it’s the kind of fear that a slave would have at the hands of a their master with a whip. Servile refers to a posture of servitude toward a evil owner.
Luther distinguished between that and what he called filial fear, drawing from the Latin concept from which we get the idea of family. It refers to the fear that a child has for his father. In this regard, Luther is thinking of a child who has tremendous respect and love for his father or mother and who dearly wants to please them. He has a fear or an anxiety of offending the one he loves, not because he’s afraid of torture or even of punishment, but rather because he’s afraid of displeasing the one who is, in that child’s world, the source of security and love.
The primary difference here on our part is a sense of awe and respect for the majesty of God. A sense of living to please our Father instead of walking on eggshells.
So other than fearing because we are commanded to do so, how can a Biblical Fear of God enable us to live more God-honoring lives as Believers? Let’s think together.
Biblical Fear Guides us.
Our fear of God should not be paralyzing. Instead, we should have fear and intimacy at the same time. Our relationship with God is like one that a child shares with a parent. The parent in that relationship has the responsibility to teach the child that there is a responsibility for sin and with sin comes discipline. If we are living in disobedience to God then it is made clear to us that we do have a reason to be anxious or distressed… but luckily we don’t serve a God who is sitting on His throne waiting to smite us at the first chance or at our first mistake.
A sign of God’s love for His children is the way He disciplines His children. He loves us enough to guide us and correct us… to keep us from evil. Proverbs 15:27 says,
The fear of the LORD prolongs life, but the years of the wicked will be short.
This verse can be seen in many lights… but it can be read as practical (not always). A parent who invokes fear in their child, as far as playing in the street goes, is doing a good thing. They are protecting their child from injury or harm. God hides us, shields us, and protects us. We can take refuge in the LORD and in His goodness and justness.
Biblical Fear of God Conquers Other Fears.
The remarkable thing about the fear of God is that when you fear God you fear nothing else. When we truly fear God Biblically and are consumed by Him we have no reason to fear anything else. When we do not have a proper understanding of the fear of the LORD then we often fall victim to living in fear of other things because we don’t fully recognize who He is. A Biblical fear of the LORD is more than respect. It is trusting Him and acknowledging Him in all our ways.
The fear of the LORD is recognizing that God has a concern for all things… so all things should have a concern for God.
Psalm 130:3-4 says,
If You, LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with You, that You may be feared.
We know that everyone sins, and by sinning they on their own earn the death penalty and an eternity in Hell. So this passage tells us that God’s offer of forgiveness to those who repent gives us a reason to fear—a reason to change. Through that fear and change we are also given a reason to be eternally grateful and to grow in love to be more like our loving God!
Ultimately, the fear of the Lord is designed to help us grow to become more like God—to grow in love. And this growth removes any need to be terrified of God’s judgment or of any other worldly thing. 1 John 4:17-18 says,
Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness in the day of judgment; because as He is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves torment. But he who fears has not been made perfect in love.
Romans 8:15 says,
For you did not receive the spirit of bondage again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption by whom we cry out, ‘Abba, Father.
Biblical Fear Motivates us to Live Right.
When thinking about the fear of the LORD we must ask ourselves, “How can a God of love not also be a God of wrath when it comes to sin?” To fear the LORD and love the LORD is to obey the LORD. Jesus said, “If you love me keep my commandments.” We cannot truly fear the LORD and live in disobedience to Him. The fear of the LORD creates a motivation to do the right thing and to live for Him. We want to not only avoid discipline, but we also want to honor Him before the nations and bring glory to His name. Think about a child who doesn’t want to embarrass or let down his parents. Not always for fear of discipline… but sometimes just to make them look good or to look upon them favorably. Proverbs 15:16 says,
Better is a little with the fear of the Lord than great treasure and trouble with it.
God’s grace doesn’t cause us to sin more… but it should really cause us to sin less because of the grace He has shown to us. God’s grace isn’t a life with a “license to sin” or do what we want… but it is actually an enablement to live a life of holiness.
What we often misunderstand or leave out is that a healthy fear of God does in fact include the fear of the consequences of disobedience! There have definitely been times in my own life where in times of temptation or trial I forgot/ ignored and neglected some of the better reasons for obeying God, and the only thing that kept me from falling into that particular sin(s) is the thought of the consequences! We see Moses convey this thought to the Israelites in Exodus 20:20 where he says,
Moses said to the people, “Do not fear, for God has come to test you, that the fear of him may be before you, that you may not sin.”
2 Corinthians 7:1 says,
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.
So it’s clear to me from these passages, that fearing God is good because it saves us from caving into our own sinful nature and motivates us to live right before our God. As sinful people, we have every reason to fear God’s judgment; it is part of our motivation to be reconciled with God.
Biblical Fear Helps us Accomplish our Calling.
In Christ we have been made new. The fear and discipline the LORD provides help to push us to achieve our calling in Him. Paul says that we “can do all things through Christ,” and throughout Scripture we are “called to righteousness.” Proverbs 16:6 says,
By steadfast love and faithfulness iniquity is atoned for, and by the fear of the Lord one turns away from evil.
Proverbs 9:10 says,
The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.
Lastly, Proverbs 3:7 says,
Be not wise in your own eyes; fear the LORD, and turn away from evil.
So, rather than a paralyzing terror, the positive fear of the Lord taught in the Bible is a key element in our own personal change. It helps us have a proper, humble perspective of ourselves in relation to our Father. A Biblical fear also helps us in times of temptation when we need to remember the serious consequences of disobeying God; and it motivates us to become more like our loving Creator.
Proverbs 14:27 says,
The fear of the LORD is a fountain of life, to turn one away from the snares of death.
Proverbs 19:23 says,
The fear of the LORD leads to life, and he who has it will abide in satisfaction; he will not be visited with evil.
We cannot accomplish our calling apart from a healthy Biblical fear of our God.
So… how do you fear God? Let’s get off the eggshells together and step into life.