Recovering the Fear of God

When God revealed Himself at Mt. Sinai, His people, the Israelites whom He had just delivered from slavery in Egypt, trembled. In fear, they cried out to Moses and said, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen; but let not God speak to us, lest we die” (Ex. 20:19). So Moses spoke to them the Words of God, “Do not be afraid; for God has come in order to test you, and in order that the fear of Him may remain with you, so that you may not sin” (Ex. 20:20).

What words of comfort! What words of dreadful consequence! Yet, are they for us today?

Unfortunately words like these are seldom heard in contemporary preaching and teaching. The doctrine of the fear God is rarely addressed in today’s pulpit or classroom. While we may acclaim great works that treat the fear of God—such as John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress or Jonathan Edwards’ sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”—there is little effort afforded to intentional instruction of what it means to fear God.

As a result, modern evangelicalism is reaping what has been sown: a popular Christianity that creates God in man’s image—a God not to be feared. At worst, God has become completely absent from personal affairs. At best, He has become merely a good luck charm to wish upon when all else fails. Having a proper biblical understanding of the fear of the Lord is a necessity for every believer, for this is foundational for coming to a correct knowledge of God and essential for obedience to His Word.

Devotion to God is described in the Old Testament as “the fear of the Lord,” often depicted also as “the beginning of wisdom.” This fear is not dread or a servile fear that produces works merely to avoid punishment. It is awe-inspired reverence for God, coupled with love and confidence.[1] This fear is what has been called a filial fear, a fear arising out of love for God.[2] For Old Testament believers, it was the response to God’s revelation of Himself, His mighty works and promises, and the giving of the law. In the New Testament fear of God is a proper response to the gospel, Christ’s fulfillment of the law resulting in faith and godliness.[3]

Those who truly fear God are not weak personalities preoccupied with an excessive need to appease God. Rather, they are those who have come into a miraculous and gracious relationship with the living and holy God. The fear of God springs from coming to a knowledge of God through Jesus Christ. As Karl Barth put it,

When the right fear of the Lord takes possession of our hearts, we are both lost in amazement and struck by awe, even terror. For we discover that God, since the beginning of time, has not hated or threatened you and me, but has loved and chosen us, has made a covenant with us, has been our helper long before we knew it and will continue this relationship.[4]

Salvation’s proper end for the believer in the present and the future is as Ephesians 2:10 declares: “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” As God promised and in Christ fulfilled, these works of true godliness are only grown in the fertile soil of the fear of the Lord.

Brian Pinney is the BibleMesh administrator.

[1] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1992), 99.

[2] Timothy J. Wengert, “‘Fear & Love’ in the Ten Commandments,” Concordia Journal, 21 Ja. 1995, pg. 19-27.

[3] Berkhof, 99.

[4] Karl Barth, “The Fear of the Lord Is the Beginning of Wisdom” (a sermon, preached in the Prison of Basel, July 20, 1958), Deliverance to the Captives (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1961).