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.
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
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.