6-4 Fearing God

Should we fear God? For some time I answered this frequent question along these lines: 'Fear is a kind of idiom for respect, we must respect God as children do a Father, but we shouldn't be fearing God in the sense of quaking at the knees'. But analyzing this question more deeply, I'm not sure this is quite right. God is only likened to a Father, but this doesn't mean that in every sense we should treat Him just as a child treats a Father. God also likens Himself to a slave owner who must be not only honoured but feared: " If then I be a father, where is mine  honour? and if I be a master, where is my fear?" (Mal. 1:6).

There are times when our Bible study leads us to a conclusion we just don't want to accept; and the idea of fearing God is one of them. The New Testament uses the Greek word phobos  for " fear" - and from it comes the word 'phobia'. We have to remember that the New Testament would have been read and heard by those who knew Greek; God chose words which were in current usage at the time. It seems that in the first century, phobos  meant fear, real fear- not just respect (for which there is another word). Their idea of phobos was based on how it was used in earlier, classical Greek; and there, phobos meant real fear. For example, Homer associates phobos  with " panic-stricken flight" (Iliad, 9.2). And Biblically, phobos means real fear rather than merely respect. It is used of men in rigid fear in the presence of Angels (Lk. 1:12,65; 2:9; Mt. 28:4), or in the aftermath of the death of Ananias (Acts 5:5,11).

The Hebrew yare likewise means both fear / dread, and also reverence / worship. It is used for literal fear in Is. 8:12,13: instead of fearing the Assyrian invaders, Israel were to be fearing God. Knowing the enveloping mercy of God should lead to a real fear of a God so gracious (Ps. 5:7). However, obedience to God's commands would lead to a fear of Yahweh's glorious and fearful name (Dt. 28:58); not the other way round, whereby fear of God leads to obedience. God's character is not just partly severe, partly gracious. His grace and His judgment of sin are wonderfully interconnected within His character. Thus destruction comes from Shaddai, the fruitful, blessing one (Is. 13:6); and the meek, harmless Lamb has great wrath (Rev. 6:16,17). And yet, fearing God's judgment and righteousness is not in itself a bad motivation. It may not be the highest motivation, but in practice, because we so often understand no other language (to use a school teacherly phrase), the real fear of God is a necessary motivation. Knowing the " terror of the Lord" (a phrase used in the OT with reference to coming judgment), Paul persuaded men to accept His grace (2 Cor. 5:11). Noah went into the ark (cp. baptism) from fear of the coming flood (Gen. 7:7), as Israel crossed the Red Sea (again, baptism) from fear of the approaching Egyptians, as men fled to the city of refuge (again, Christ, Heb. 6:18) from fear of the avenger of blood, and as circumcision (cp. baptism) was performed with the threat of exclusion from the community (possibly by death) hanging over the child.

We live in a world and a brotherhood increasingly under the influence of 'happy-clappy' music and emphasis on love. Whilst there is nothing wrong with such emphasis or music in itself, there is a very real possibility that we can be influenced to relate to God without any sense of fear. And yet there is repeated Biblical emphasis on the urgent need to be fearing God. A true fear of God is the motive for so much. It has been observed: " Phobos  is the source of Christian effort (Phil. 2:12). The Christian must work out his own salvation with phobos, fear, and trembling. The sense of the judgment which he faces, the sense of the goal which he may miss, the sense of the crucial importance of life and living, the sense of the necessity of in some way seeking to deserve the love of Christ, all combine to fill the Christian with an awed wonder and a trembling of eagerness, and a passionate effort" (1) . Sometimes a piece of writing captures the real spirit of truth; and this, to my mind, is one such. The words bear repeating: " ...the sense of the judgment which (the believer) faces, the sense of the goal which he may miss, the sense of the crucial importance of life and living... all combine to fill the Christian with an awed wonder and a trembling of eagerness, and a passionate effort" . " The crucial importance of life and living" - it's a fine way of putting it. 

Biblically, phobos  is the motivation for a pure life (1 Pet. 3:2; 2 Cor. 7:11), for humility in our dealings with each other (Eph. 5:21), for accepting the Gospel in the first place (2 Cor. 5:11). It must be remembered that the Gospel is not only good news, but also the warning of judgment to come on those who reject it (Mk. 16:16; Acts 2:38-40). The good news is so  good that a man can't hear it and decide not to respond- without facing judgment for his rejection of God's love and Christ's death. There are many who know the Gospel (e.g. by being 'brought up in the Faith') but who calmly walk away from the call of the cross. I would suggest that they need more reminding than it seems they are given of the fear of God, the tragic inevitability of judgment to come, the sense of desperate self-hate and bitter regret that will engulf men then, the sense of no place to run... . Paul used " the terror of the Lord" , the concept of fearing God, to persuade men who had rejected his beseeching (2 Cor. 5:11). I write all this with the knowledge that it will not go down well with some. But I think it has to be said; if we have heard the call, we have been called, we are responsible before God for every moment and every action and every thought; we are not our own, we are bought with a price, the Lord who bought us would fain have us for His own. We will each one bow before the glory of God in the face of His Son; and more than that, we should be doing so now.  

Yet there is, of course, another side of the coin. We are saved by grace, already, we are elevated to the heights of heavenly places on account of being in Christ. A perfect love casts out fear (1 Jn. 4:16,18), fear is associated with bondage rather than the freedom of sonship which we enjoy (Rom. 8:15). Yet all this can in no way erase the very clear teaching of many other passages: that we ought to fear God, really fear Him. What's the resolution of all this? It may be that ideally, we are called to live a life without any fear in the sense of phobos- in the same way as we are asked to be perfect, even as God is (Mt. 5:48). Yet the reality is that we are not perfect. And perhaps in a similar way, we are invited to live a life without phobos , but in reality, it is necessary to have it if we truly realize our weak position. We ought to be able to say with confidence that should Christ come now, we will by grace continue to be in His Kingdom. Yet in the same way as we always assume a future, so we inevitably look ahead to the possibility of our future  apostasy; as we grow spiritually, there is an altogether finer appreciation of the purity of God's righteousness. The risk of rejection, the sense of the future we may miss, and the faint grasp of the gap between God's righteousness and our present moral achievement, will inevitably provoke a sense of fear in every serious believer. And yet fearing God, unlike fear on a human level, is a motivating and creative fear. Our fear of and yet confidence with God is a strange synthesis. The Lord Jesus will rule, or shepherd (Gk.) His enemies with a rod of iron (Rev. 2:27). He can somehow both shepherd and crush at the same time. Our relationship with Him is a reflection of these two aspects of His character.


(1) William Barclay, New Testament Words (London: SCM, 1992 Ed.).


A Criticism Of Evangelical 'Christians' By An Evangelical

" Where the Puritans called for order, discipline, depth, and thoroughness, our temper is one of casual haphazardness. We crave for stunts, novelties, entertainments; we have lost our taste for solid study, humble self-examination, disciplined meditation, and unspectacular hard work in our callings and in our prayers. The hollowness of our vaunted biblicism [a fine phrase!- D.H.] becomes apparent as again and again we put asunder things God has joined. Thus, we concern ourselves about the individual, but not the Church, and about witness but not worship. In evangelizing, we preach the gospel without the law, and faith without repentance, stressing the gift of salvation and glossing over the cost of discipleship. No wonder so many who profess conversion fall away!

In teaching the Christian life our habit is to depict it as a path of thrilling feelings rather than of working faith, and of supernatural interruptions rather than of rational righteousness; and in dealing with Christian experience we dwell constantly on joy, peace, happiness, satisfaction, and rest of soul, with no balancing reference to the divine discontent of Romans 7, the fight of faith of Psalm 73, or any of the burdens of responsibility and providential chastenings that fall to the lot of a child of God. The spontaneous jollity of the carefree extrovert comes to be equated with healthy Christian living...while saintly souls of less sanguine temperament are driven almost crazy because they cannot bubble over in the prescribed manner. Whereupon they consult their pastor, and he has no better remedy than to refer them to a psychiatrist" .

J.I. Packer, from An Introduction To Puritan Theology.

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