Fearing God: Genuine Fear
7 May 2017
A study on the proper fear of God by John Dugas
Grace Bible Church, Tulsa
Full Audio Message
Fearing God: Genuine Fear
Should believers have a genuine fear of God? Can we say of believers that in some sense they should be afraid of the Lord? We just read 2 Sam 6:1-11. David, the man after God’s own heart, was “afraid of the Lord that day”. Maybe that was just the OT. Surely things have changed in NT times. Turn to Acts 5:1-11. God disciplined Ananias and Sapphira and great fear came upon the church. And what about those warnings given to believers in Hebrews? Look at Heb 10:30-31, 12:21, 29.
Those passages seem to be talking about a genuine fear. But is that correct? Maybe we are misunderstanding the whole concept of the fear of God. Is it really something less than real fear? Is it more the idea of sober respect but not quite fear? Should ‘fear’ be translated ‘reverence’?
While I believe that we can describe the fear of the Lord as reverential awe or affectionate reverence—and I think those are good and helpful descriptions—I’m concerned that we may misunderstand those and make a subtle shift away from the biblical idea of the fear of the Lord. My concern is that we might soften the fear of the Lord into a polite respectfulness. Think about the term ‘reverend’ that is applied to ministers. It comes from the same word as ‘reverence’, yet it does not carry the idea of fear. Instead, it is a polite respect. Polite respect is NOT biblical fear of God.
I want us to explore this question: are there two kinds of fear? As we saw in our first study, the fear of the Lord forms the building blocks of wisdom and it is also the starting point for our pursuit of wisdom. If we don’t really know what the fear of the Lord is, how will we truly learn biblical wisdom? And if it is a choice we must make, how will we know we’re choosing the right thing?
In Scripture, we do find two responses to the greatness of God. So before we attempt to answer that question as to whether these are two different kinds of fear, let’s look at those two responses.
I. Unbelieving anxious dread, also called terror fear
Ed Welch claims that the fear of God “does indeed mean a terror of God” (p. 96). He calls this terror-fear or threat-fear because it focuses on God’s threats made to men if they disobey. John Murray also helps us understand this by labeling it “unbelieving anxious dread” (Murray, p. 232). This is what the Lord calls His people to avoid when He calls them to not be afraid (Josh 1:8-9; Isa 41:10). Let’s take a minute to unpack those ideas.
This expression of fear is seen clearly in unbelievers, so Murray calls it first “unbelieving”. For unbelievers, this is all that they will have. They have no reason to believe that God will be anything less than wrathful toward them if they do not submit to Him by faith. And so it rightly makes them anxious. They never know when God will cast them into the eternal punishment they deserve. And that leads to a real dread—always terrified of God’s punishment. It is rightly called unbelieving because they do not know the covenant love of God for His people. Meditate on this in the coming week and let it deepen your compassion for these poor souls!
We find this terror-fear displayed in Scripture. In Ps 9:20 David calls out to the Lord to judge the nations then prays, “Put them in fear, O Lord; let the nations know that they are but men.” Probably one of the clearest displays of it is in Rev 6:16 when God will pour out His judgment upon the earth. Unbelievers will say to the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the presence of Him who sits on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb; for the great day of their wrath has come; and who is able to stand?”
Before we leave this, I want to return to Ed Welch. He cautions us against completely assigning this to unbelievers, “No one is excluded from this fear, Christians or non-Christians. For Christians whose eyes have been opened to God’s great love, this fear is fading” (p. 97).
II. Trusting Adoring Fear, also called worship fear
John Murray helps us to see both ends of the spectrum: “There is the dread or terror of the Lord and there is the fear of reverential awe. There is the fear that consists in being afraid; it elicits anguish and terror. There is the fear of reverence; it elicits confidence and love” (Murray, p. 233). As we unpack this idea, trusting has in it the idea of faith or believing, which in turn produces in the believer a confidence that his or her Lord is on their side. It is adoring in that it is an expression of worship. But it is still genuine fear.
Ed Welch defines the fear of the Lord for believers this way, “This fear of the Lord means reverent submission that leads to obedience, and it is interchangeable with “worship,” “rely on,” “trust,” and “hope in”” (p. 97). He goes on to explain that “The Bible teaches that God’s people are no longer driven by terror-fear, or fear that has to do with punishment. Instead, we are blessed with worship-fear, the reverential awe motivated more by love and the honor that is due him” (p. 98).
While Welch admits that there is still a bit of terror-fear in a believer’s heart, that is not what drives him or her. We are driven by worship-fear out of love and adoration of God. This confident fear of God is displayed in David’s soul. In Ps 27:1, 3 he draws out the trust aspect of fearing God, “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the defense of my life; whom shall I dread?” Then he declares in v. 3, “Though a host encamp against me, my heart will not fear; though war arise against me, in spite of this I shall be confident.”
III. Fear as a spectrum
While I doubt that there are two types of fear toward God, it is probably better to view fear on a sliding scale in our response to God’s greatness. Welch helps us here by pointing out that the fear of God is “a spectrum of attitudes” (p. 96). So we can view the fear of God as a spectrum between two poles. For the unbeliever, there is only terror-fear. For the believer, there is a measure of terror-fear that serves to keep us from living in sin. But to the extent that you are disobeying God, to that extent your “terror-fear” will increase and your “trusting adoring fear” will decrease.
But to the extent that you are obeying God, to that extent your “terror-fear” will decrease and your “worship-fear” will increase. This is by design to drive us away from sin and into the arms of God. Worship-fear will increase as you are walking in a steadily deepening relationship to God. This is by design to keep us close to Yahweh our loving, faithful Father.
So, “terror-fear” and “worship-fear” are inversely proportional. As one increases, the other decreases. When you allow sin in your life, you should experience a growing “terror-fear” to drive you away from sin. When you obey and walk closely with your Lord, you will experience a growing, thriving relationship of love, confidence and trust in Him. And that means less terror-fear.
“Terror-fear” is never totally absent in the believer’s soul in this life. It remains there in a small quantity as a reminder for us to flee from sin and remain near to the Lord. Also, “trusting adoring fear” is never totally absent in the believer’s soul, even during times of disobedience or times where we are not pursuing an active relationship with the Lord. Why not? Because we are in a personal father-child relationship of love and trust with our Lord and we never lose that. We may not experience it in its fulness because of the poor quality of our daily walk, but He will never cease to be our Father and will never cease to be faithful to His promises to us.
We’ll have a lot more to say about topics we’ve touched on this morning. In later lessons, we’ll look further into the “unbelieving anxious dread” that unbelievers experience. We’ll look further into the
“trusting adoring fear” that should be dominant in a believer’s experience. We’ll talk about how appropriate a real fear is for believers in this life. Next week, I want to look into the woman who fears the Lord. But let me leave us with these thoughts.
Every human being should have a genuine fear of our Creator. There are times when you should make this part of the Gospel you present. Make sure that unbelievers know that the true God is to be feared. For your part, allow their anxious dread of God to deepen your compassion for them. But also realize that you should have a genuine fear of God.
Uzzah reminds us that we must take God seriously. Yes, God deeply loves His children. But He is God and is worthy of our deepest respect and awe. In fact, it should lead us to greater obedience and richer worship. Let us worship Him at the Lord’s Table and then again in song.