The Fear of the Lord
The Bible teaches that the first motivation given for holiness is the fear of the Lord. Psalm 111:10 declares, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” And Proverbs 16:6 teaches us, “One turns from evil by the fear of the Lord.” Repentance is the first thing we are commanded to do to be reconciled to God, and repentance is first motivated by a holy dread of God and His just punishment.
Jesus teaches us in Luke 12:4-5, “I say to you, My friends, don’t fear those who kill the body, and after that can do nothing more. But I will show you the One to fear: Fear Him who has authority to throw people into hell after death. Yes, I say to you, this is the One to fear!” Note that we are not commanded to fear going to hell, but we are called to fear Him who can send us to hell. We should respect the authority and justice of the Holy One. We are to remember that God is not mocked, but that we will sow whatever we reap. If we are living in rebellion to God, the fear of God will turn us away from that rebellion.
But it is not only sinners that need to fear God. The Bible teaches us that even God’s children should fear Him. 1 Peter 1:17 instructs, “If you address as Father the One who judges impartially based on each one’s work, you are to conduct yourselves in fear during the time of your temporary residence.” The reason we should fear God even though we are in a right relationship with Him is because He still has authority to judge us. Though we living in obedience to Him and know we have eternal life, yet we know that we have not yet finished the fight of faith. The fear of God not only turns people from evil, it is also intended to keep us from evil. Though we are secure at present because we walk in a living faith, we must continue in faith or we will be judged by the impartial Judge. As it says in Romans 11:22, “Therefore, consider God’s kindness and severity: severity toward those who have fallen but God’s kindness toward you — if you remain in His kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off.”
Sometimes we believe that fear is a wrong motivation, or that believers should not “conduct ourselves in fear.” But God disagrees. Though Adam and Eve lived in perfect righteousness and were under the blessing of God, he motivated them with fear. He warned them that if they sinned they would surely die. He didn’t motivate them with love, but with fear. He did this because it was a strong motivation that would keep them from sin. Fear might not be a pleasant feeling, but God is more concerned with our safety than He is with our feelings. Fear is a good motivation because it can keep us safe.
We are not to walk around unsure of God’s regard for us as though He could at any moment for no reason cast us into hell. Such irrational fear is not the fear of the Lord. We are to walk confident in our standing in Christ and in our fellowship with God. But we are also warned, “Whoever thinks he stands must be careful not to fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12). We must be confident that we stand, but we must also be aware that it is possible for us to turn away from God back into sin. For this reason we are commanded to be watchful and vigilant.
The fear of God can be compared to the healthy respect we have for gravity. Unless we are controlled by an irrational fear of gravity, we do not walk around terrified that gravity could kill us at any moment. In fact for the most part we will be unconscious of gravity’s existence. We will live and walk in gravity without being terrified of danger. But this is because we have learned to respect gravity and trained ourselves to walk in line with the rules of gravity. The same goes with the fear of God. We know that His character is not arbitrary, so we don’t imagine He will strike us down at any moment for no reason at all.
On the other hand, when we are standing on the roof of a 3 story tall building we are aware of gravity with every step we take. We pay close attention to where we step. And we even take note of which way the wind is blowing. So it is when we are faced with temptation. We know that God is an impartial judge and that a person will sow what they reap, so in reasonable fear, we watch our step. We know that God is holy and just, so we walk in fear. Truly, the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.
The Love of God
1 John 4:17-19
In this, love is perfected with us so that we may have confidence in the day of judgment, for we are as He is in this world. There is no fear in love; instead, perfect love drives out fear, because fear involves punishment. So the one who fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because He first loved us.
This passage seems to contradict what we read in 1 Peter 1:17. But the fear that is being spoken of here is different than the one commanded in Peter. Peter was telling us to fear God knowing that if we turn to sin we will be judged. It is a fear that keeps us from God’s judgment. In this passage John is telling us that Christians do not live in expectation of punishment. We are confident that we have been reconciled to God and through Christ are saved from the wrath of God. Peter is warning us not to stray from God, John is telling us to rejoice that we remain in God.
The fear of the Lord has as its focus the holiness of God and the danger of sin. But the love that John speaks of has as its focus the love of God towards us and the honor of His Name. Fearing God turns us away from sin. Loving God turns us towards God. Through the fear of God we avoid danger. Through love for God we become devoted to pleasing and honoring God. Though the fear of the Lord is pure and good, it is negative. But love is a positive motivation.
We noted above that the fear of the Lord corresponds with the first condition of reconciliation with God, namely repentance. But love is intimately acquainted with the second condition of reconciliation, namely faith. Through faith we see the love of God manifested in Jesus Christ. Through faith we see our salvation accomplished on the cross. And through faith we see our salvation manifested through God’s sanctifying and keeping grace.
Romans 5:5 tells us that when one comes to faith in Christ the love of God is poured out into their heart. They are confirmed by the Holy Spirit as children of God. In Christ they find the assurance of acceptance with God. This assurance of His love naturally leads to our hearts loving Him in return. As John put it, “We love because He first loved us.” Not until we receive assurance of God’s love can we truly love Him. And until we love Him we cannot truly live holy lives. Assurance of acceptance with God is the beginning of sanctification.
Though fear can turn us from sin, it cannot make us truly devoted our Father in heaven. Through fear we can avoid the judge, but only through love can we draw near to our Father. Fear and love are both good motivations, but love is most certainly a higher motivation. Only love can lead to wholehearted and delightful surrender to God. This thought is best expressed in Romans 12:1, “Therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, I urge you to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God; this is your spiritual worship.” True worship comes from a person responding to the grace and mercy of God. Fear leads us to stop sinning. Love leads us to offer ourselves in devotion.
But faith does not only help us to see the love of God on the Cross, but also the love of God in His disciplining grace. Hebrews 12:5-6 encourages us, “And you have forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons: My son, do not take the Lord’s discipline lightly or faint when you are reproved by Him, for the Lord disciplines the one He loves and punishes every son He receives.”
When we were enemies of God, He sent His Spirit to convince us that we were in danger of His judgment. In love He terrified us with the warning of His coming wrath. This created the beginning of wisdom in us and turned us away from sin. Upon coming to Him He poured out His love in our hearts, and we in turn devoted ourselves to Him. As we continue to walk with Him, He continues to point out sin and darkness in our hearts and lives. But this conviction and discipline does not come with a sense of condemnation and wrath, but instead with a sense of God’s loving concern for our growth in holiness and freedom. His rebukes don’t make us shrink in a corner waiting for lightening to strike. But instead they lead us to further place our complete trust in His sanctifying grace.
The Positive and the Negative
Throughout the Christian life we are moved along by the negative motivation of fear and the positive motivation of love. One keeps us from evil and one draws us near to good. We walk in confidence in God’s love, while at the same time being careful not to walk in presumption. We know with great assurance that we have already been reconciled to God. But we walk with great humility knowing that one who has started a race should not boast as one who has finished a race. The fear of the Lord and the love of God are the two primary motivations that lead the disciple on in sanctification.