What Does It Mean To ‘Fear God?’

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“The paradox of orthodox Christianity is that love and fear are not opposites. We come to love God first through fear. When experienced rightly, the fear of the Lord is a servant who brings us to the King of Love.”

WILLIAM WOLFE

No one likes feeling afraid. No one enjoys that impending sense of doom or disaster, that feeling like something horrific is about to happen or something creepy is about to jump out and cause harm. When we speak of people “living in fear” it’s not in a positive light. But when can fear be the right, even the best, thing to feel? Well, when we fear the right thing. Most significantly — and ultimately — that would be when we fear the Lord.

The Bible makes it clear that if we don’t fear God, it means we don’t really know God. To know Him, rightly, is to fear Him greatly.

This might seem somewhat strange in an American church culture context that prioritizes sappy sentimentalism and “easy believism.” God is love, right? 

But it’s not strange, it’s deeply biblical. Proverbs 1:7 teaches us that, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction.” 

Far from something to be avoided, fear is actually the first step down the right path — the straight and narrow one — and the road to eternal life. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge. Or, as Proverbs 9:10 puts it, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.” Without fearing the Lord, we will never have knowledge. Without fearing God, we will never even begin to be wise. It seems pretty important, then, that we get this right. 

If fear of the Lord is the first step down the path to knowledge and life, something I trust we all desire to have, we must ask ourselves: How do we do this? How do we rightly fear God? 

What does it mean to fear God? 

I propose, as a good Baptist, to answer this question in three steps. First, we will consider how we are to fear God. Second, we will look at who exactly we are fearing — who is this God? Third, and finally, we will answer what to do with the fear of God. How, who, and what to do. I hope this helps you better understand what it means to fear God and how to love and serve Him more faithfully for it.

How To Fear: With Humble Awe and Holy Reverence 

“To fear” can mean “to be afraid of (someone or something) as likely to be dangerous, painful, or threatening.” But that’s not exactly what it means in a biblical sense when used in relation to God. The fear we are supposed to feel when considering the eternal, omnipotent, omnipresent, Triune Creator God who flung a billion stars into the universe and then made mankind out of dust is not at all the same fear that you may feel when considering heights or spiders. 

No, when Christians speak of “fearing” God it means to “stand in utter awe and wonder” and to “recognize that this infinite, holy God holds not just the whole world — but your life — in His hand.” Most importantly perhaps, it’s means have a fear of the final judgement. Of coming before a judge. The Judge. We don’t fear God like we fear a trip to the dentist office. We fear God like we fear standing before the Great White Throne when God will judge every soul who has ever lived and eternally separate the redeemed from the damned (Revelation 20). 

In his excellent new book What Does It Mean to Fear the Lord? Michael Reeves explains it like this: “I want you to rejoice in this paradox that the gospel both frees us from fear and gives us fear. It frees us from our crippling fears, giving us instead a most delightful fear. And I want to show that for Christians ‘the fear of God’ really does not mean being afraid of God.”

I agree with Reeves. This fear is not one of just being afraid. No, it’s much more. It’s even “delightful.” Reeves goes on to say, “If, then, we are to be faithful to Scripture’s presentation of the fear of God, we should use words that encompass that spectrum of positive and negative experience. That helps us see the common feature of those fears: trembling. It shows us that the fear of God is no mild-mannered, reserved, or limp thing. It is a startlingly physical, overpowering reaction.” 

What does this look like in action? It looks like Isaiah when he has a vision of God in Isaiah 6: 1-5:

“In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphim, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.’ At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke. ‘Woe to me!’ I cried. ‘I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.’”

The Lord, high and exalted. Isaiah, humbled and confronted by his sin. Overcome by his own guilt, Isaiah passes a sentence of death upon himself—”I am ruined!”—for having seen the Lord.

What is the kind of fear we experience when we fear Lord? That kind.  

If you’re reading this and think, I want that kind of fear, but I’ve never had a vision of God like Isaiah, so what can I do? I understand. Time does not permit me to also tease out the connection between faith and fear, because in many ways we must fear rightly someone we haven’t seen: God. Here, Reeves is helpful yet again. Forming our fear into this “delightful trembling” doesn’t come through a checklist, it comes through a heart change. Reeves writes, “The fear of God is not a state of mind you can guarantee with five easy steps. It is not something that can be acquired with simple self-effort. The fear of God is a matter of the heart.”

There’s an old Sunday School song that talks about having the “love, love, love, love down in my heart.” Turns out we also need to have the fear of God down in our heart as well.

Who to Fear: The One True God

That’s what the fear is.  But who exactly is the One we are fearing? The one true God. The One who was, is, and is to come. The Creator and life giver. The One who holds even death in the palm of His hand.  

But we ask: Is He a jealous and temperamental God, like the gods of the Greeks and Romans? Is He a distant and uninterested God, like the god of the Deists — that great “clockmaker” of the universe who winds it up and then lets it all go just to play out however it will? Is He a God of love, no questions asked, willing to just let anyone into His presence who lived a “good life” (by their own standards, of course)? 

Man-made gods may be like that, but that’s not the God who has revealed Himself to us in the Bible. The God of the Bible — of Proverbs, of Isaiah, and of Revelation — is a being who is so far beyond our comprehension we don’t even know how much we don’t know. This God is so great, and so mighty, that when Moses asks Him to reveal His name, He replies: “I AM.” The God we are to fear is the one, true, and living God.

We fear Him rightly for who He is but also for what He will do — justly judge us. This great, holy God will hold us all accountable for everything we have ever done. His standard? Perfection. Our nature? Fallen and sinful. When we reckon rightly with the reality that, as Romans 3:23 reminds us, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” and that “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23), our hearts should drop. Our knees should drop, too. In our sinful state, in our natural condition, we are on a collision course with God the Judge, who will justly sentence us to eternity in Hell for our sins.

This is the God who we fear. This is the God we bow down before in total submission and holy reverence. 

What To Do with Our Fear: Flee to the Cross

The God we fear is a God of justice. He is also the God of the gospel. In 1 John 4:18 we read that, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.”

The paradox of orthodox Christianity is that love and fear are not opposites. We come to love God first through fear. When experienced rightly, the fear of the Lord is a servant who brings us to the King of Love.” 

In fact, this was my own experience. I become a Christian in large measure by reading through the book of Isaiah. It was at the end of the book, in chapter 66, that a right fear of the Lord pierced my heart for the first time. As I considered how Isaiah depicts the end of all time, when God gathers His people to Himself and executes judgement upon His enemies and those who rejected Him, I was gripped by this fear. By the fear of being counted among those for whom “the worms that eat them will not die, the fire that burns them will not be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind” (Isaiah 66:24).

In that moment of dread, with the weight of the holiness of God bearing down on my sinful soul, I fled back through the pages of Scripture to the hope found in Isaiah 53 — the hope of a suffering servant and a substitute bearing God’s wrath on my behalf. The fear of God led me to cast myself at the foot of the cross, where God the Son Incarnate died so that those who had not feared God as they should — proud and reckless fools like myself — might live. “He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5). 

Through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God has made a way for the fear of final judgment to be transformed into the certain hope of vindication. Because of the cross, God will look upon us and see not our sin, but the righteousness of Christ. We will still stand in fear before this God, but not the fear of judgement. Perfect love has indeed cast that out. It is now instead the right fear of humble reverence for a holy God, a fear that has helped us find the beginning of wisdom — the saving knowledge of God through the wisdom of God incarnate, Jesus Christ. 

John Piper was once asked this very same question. I will close by pointing you to his marvelous meditation on the topic, even as he points us back to God, the One who we all must faithfully fear if we desire to fully live:

“Or here is one last image, and I love this one, because I love the picture of a big, holy, sovereign, majestic God. So I picture myself climbing in the mountains, say the Himalayas. And I’m on these massive rock faces, and I see a storm coming. It is going to be a massive storm, and I feel unbelievably vulnerable on these mountain precipices. And so, I am desperately looking for a little covert in the rock where I won’t be blown off the side of the cliff to destruction.

And I find a hole in the side of the mountain, and I spin quickly, and suddenly the holiness, and justice, and power, and wrath, and judgment of God breaks over me like a hurricane, but I know I am totally safe, which means all that horrible danger is transposed into the music of majesty, and I can enjoy it rather than fearing it. And I think that is what the cross is. Jesus died for us to provide a place where we could enjoy the majesty of God with a kind of fear and trembling and reverence and awe, but not a cowering fear.” 

That is what it means to fear the Lord. That is the beginning of wisdom. That is the first spark of true humility kindled in our hearts before a holy God. And it is available to all who seek this shelter, provided they seek it in the only place it can be found — the cross of Jesus Christ. 


Follow William on Twitter! @William_E_Wolfe