Fearing God: Appropriate Fear
21 May 2017
A study on the proper fear of God by John Dugas
Grace Bible Church, Tulsa
Full Audio Message
When the Lord brought His people out of Egypt, He led them to Mt Sinai and prepared them to receive His Law and covenant. God drew mear to teach His people to fear Him. Pay close attention to all the things that would cause the people to fear the Lord as we read Exodus 19:1-20:2
All of these things created an atmosphere that would drive home the holiness of the Lord. In response, the people moved back from the mountain trembling and in fear. Moses encouraged them to “not be afraid” and explained to them that “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.” While Moses is here describing the two poles of fear, it is important to notice that the words “fear” and “afraid” are from the same root. There is an organic connection between the two.
Last time we explored the question: are there two kinds of fear? We talked about how there are two poles in fearing God: terror-fear and worship-fear. Unbelievers can only experience terror-fear. But when a person is saved, they gain an increased capacity to experience the fear of the Lord. So the believer experiences both terror-fear and worship-fear. When the believer doesn’t deal with his sin, he should experience the terror of the Lord because chastisement will come. But when the believer is living righteously, he will experience worship-fear. And so we said that for the believer, the fear of God is a spectrum between terror and worship. But fearing God is genuine fear.
This morning I want us to explore a second question: is genuine fear appropriate for believers? We will tackle that question first, then I want to show you a key way in which genuine fear is certainly appropriate for believers. In many passages like Ex 20:20, God’s people are told to not be afraid. So is it appropriate for us to have fear toward God?
I. Genuine fear is appropriate for believers.
John Murray pointed out that “There is much loose thinking on this aspect of the question. Is it proper to be afraid of God? The only proper answer is that it is the essence of impiety not to be afraid of God when there is reason to be afraid” (Principles of Conduct, p. 233). You should be afraid when there is good reason to be afraid. Does he have any biblical support for saying this? I love what Paul said in Rom 13:4, “if you do what is evil, be afraid”! Governing authorities are “ministers of God” and through them God avenges evil.
But this is not the same as the “unbelieving anxious dread” Murray said was characteristic of unbelievers. He explains, “The fear of God which is the soul of godliness does not consist, however, in the dread which is produced by the apprehension of God’s wrath” (p. 236). A believer should never live in dread of God’s wrath (Rom 5:9; 1 Thess 1:10).
Jerry Bridges points out that we shouldn’t equate this idea of the fear of God with being afraid of God. However, he cautions, “We must not drop that aspect altogether, since even for the Christian it remains an element in the overall concept of fearing God. But it is by no means the dominant element” (p. 25). So while it is true that we should be afraid of God in a certain sense, for a believer living righteously, it should be worship-fear that is dominant. Let’s look at more scriptures.
Ps 119:120 “My flesh trembles for fear of Thee, and I am afraid of Thy judgments”. The word for ‘afraid’ is the usual word for fear, but the word ‘fear’ is a different word. It refers to a strong emotion of fear or terror or dread that makes a person tremble. Here a godly man trembles with strong emotion as he meditates on God’s decisions as Judge.
Turn to Jer 5:20-24. They don’t fear God because they have “a stubborn and rebellious heart” (v. 23). God is addressing unbelievers, but if they had been believers, they would have said in their heart, “Let us now fear the Lord our God” (v. 24). What about the NT?
In Phil 2:12-13, how does Paul tell believers to work out their salvation? They are to do so “with fear and trembling” because “it is God who is at work in you”. 1 Pet 1:17 “And if you address as Father the One who impartially judges according to each man’s work, conduct yourselves in fear during the time of your stay upon earth”. This is all because of the preciousness of His Son’s blood which has redeemed us. Now let’s focus in on one reason why genuine fear is appropriate for believers.
II. Fear of consequences is appropriate for believers.
In Rom 13:3, Paul lays out the principle that obedience avoids the fear of consequences. Then as we saw in Rom 13:4, he warned us, “if you do what is evil, be afraid”. Earlier in Rom 11:20-21, Paul warned Gentile believers against being conceited toward unbelieving Jews, “do not be conceited but fear” the consequences of what God may do.
There were times in Israel when someone got themselves severely in debt. To have money to feed their families, they might sell their land to fellow Israelite or even sell themselves into slavery to a fellow Israelite. But God gave a law to set them free in due time. Moses explained the Year of Jubilee in Lev 25. Every 50 years, you had to let go any Israelite slave and you had to give back any land you bought from a fellow Israelite. And God warned the people to take this law seriously. In v. 17 He warned, “So you shall not wrong one another, but you shall fear your God; for I am the Lord your God.”
As Moses left instructions for how God’s people were to live before the Lord, at several places in Deuteronomy he ordered severe punishment on certain evil doers. If someone tried to entice others to follow after other gods, the one who refuses to abide by the decision of judges, someone who bears false witness against another, and rebellious children, were usually to receive the death penalty (Dt 13:11; 17:13; 19:20; 21:21). Punishing those who did evil was to deter others from repeating their sin. Stoning was to be done by all the men of the city “so…all Israel shall hear of it and fear.”
Similar NT passages: 1 Tim 5:20 “Those who continue in sin, rebuke in the presence of all, so that the rest also may be fearful” of sinning. Turn to Heb 4:1; 10:27, 31.
Jesus told us not to fear people who can only kill the body. But instead, “But I will warn you whom to fear; fear the One who after He has killed has authority to cast into hell; yes, I tell you, fear Him!” (Lk 12:5; Mt 10:28). Solomon explained it this way in Ecc 12:13 “The conclusion, when all has been heard, is: fear God and keep His commandments, because this applies to every person. For God will bring every act to judgment, everything which is hidden, whether it is good or evil”.
Turn back now to Ex 20:20. The term “afraid” stands alone. Their fear was a loose terror that wasn’t actually tied to anything in particular. Were they afraid because they were sinners in close proximity to a holy God? Were they afraid of the scariness of the situation? Were they simply afraid? This is sort of like the phrase “fear of the unknown” we use today.
That sort of fear is rooted in things like one’s own guilt, a lack of relationship to God and a lack of trust in Him. While it takes His power and justice seriously, it does not embrace His other character traits like love, mercy, grace, compassion and forgiveness. So in this unbelieving fear, Yahweh is to them no different than any other pagan god who must be feared but can’t be trusted.
Now on the other hand, when Moses used the term “fear” as a good thing, he tied it to God Himself (“the fear of Him”). This is profoundly different than their terror which wasn’t really tied to anything. Recall the difference we discussed in an earlier session between “unbelieving anxious dread” and “trusting adoring fear”. The people’s lack of faith caused them to move away from God in terror-fear. Moses’ faith in God caused him to move toward God in worship-fear.
The fear that Moses was instructing them in here takes God’s law seriously, takes punishment for breaking the law seriously, takes God’s sovereign power seriously, but it also embraces through a personal relationship of trust, all of God’s attributes. So while Yahweh must be feared, He can also be trusted. He is faithful to His promises and to His character. He was there giving them the Old Covenant. He is our God. We can trust Him.
What all of this means is that the man or woman who fears the Lord has a healthy fear of One who is their Creator and Sovereign Lord, One who takes sin seriously. Moses told them that God drew near to them “in order that the fear of Him may remain with you, so that you may not sin.”
Next time I plan to cover a second key way in which fearing God is appropriate for believers: the greatness of God.
God takes sin seriously and so must we. In Prov 3:7, Solomon instructs us to “fear the Lord and turn away from evil”. But what if we don’t. He goes on in vv. 11-12 to warn us that God will discipline us. Is that out of anger? No. It is out of love for us and delight in us as His sons. We should fear His discipline. Sometimes it can be severe. But always know that it is done out of fatherly love.