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The Fear of God

Category Articles
Date April 24, 2003

God sometimes sovereignly makes examples of some of His people so that all of His people may lead exemplary lives all of the time

by William Harrell

Most preachers and Bible teachers consistently modify any reference to the fear of God by saying that since perfect love casts out fear, such fear must imply reverence and not dread. The distinction between reverence and dread is certainly valid. However, for many of us that is as far as the analysis of the fear of the Lord goes, with the result that God is conceived of as being indulgent, which He is not.

The fear of God contains two facets. One is holy reverence. Perfect love does not cast out but enhances such reverence. The other facet is the dread of a guilty conscience as it convicts us before our righteous God. Perfect love casts out this type of fear. But lest we in our haste assume that such love is automatically operative in the life of every professing believer at any given time, we do well to consider further what our being perfected in love really means.

As there is a distinction in fear, so there is in love. The love of benevolence loves not because of the loveliness and worthiness of the beloved, but in spite of the unattractiveness and unworthiness of the object of such love. The love of complacency recognizes and delights in the worthiness of the beloved. Due to the love of benevolence of our God, we are justified by Christ’s imputed righteousness. The divine love of complacency for us results from our sanctification, wherein progressively our Lord loves us not in spite of who we are, but because of who we are becoming. Jesus Himself tells us as much when He declares that He and the Father love obedient disciples: "He who has My commandments, and keeps them, he it is who loves Me; and he who loves Me shall be loved by My Father, and I will love him…" (Jn. 14:21). As we grow in loving obedience, the Father and Son love us with complacency, and our cause for dread diminishes.

Before we glibly dismiss all thought of the applicability to our lives of the dreadful aspect of the fear of God, we do well to realize that it is only when we are perfected in both facets of love that we can be free from all such dread. Our haste to exclude the punitive aspect of the fear of God is not truly warranted, since our love for Christ, our obedience springing therefrom, and His resultant love of complacency for us-all remain imperfect for each of us in this life.

Therefore, instead of our reducing the concept of the fear of God, we should consider carefully its true character and import. Many people say that they love and are loved by God without their understanding all dimensions of the nature of God as revealed in Scripture. In fact, such people love a fabrication of their own fancy, and not the one, true, living God. It is easy not to fear (or respect!) a fantasy; it is impossible and unsanctifying not to fear the jealous God of Scripture, into whose hands His Word tells us that it is terrifying to fall (Heb. 10:31).

We can too easily train ourselves to forget or to consider as irrelevant the fact that our God is a jealous God (Ex.20:5). We can suppress the truth that repeatedly His jealous ire has been aroused and manifested in redemptive history. There are, for example, those incidents where rank departure from and rebellion against His revealed Word and ordinances have met with Swift capital punishment. When the Israelites grew riotous over the golden calf which they pleaded with Aaron to make, the Lord, through Moses, instructed the sons of Levi to kill more than 3,000 of the people (Ex. 32:25-28). When Korah rebelled against Moses, he and his family were destroyed by the Lord opening up the earth (Num. 16:31-35), while 14,700 members of the covenant people, who sympathized with rebellious Korah were killed by a plague (Num. 16:41-49). Later in Israel’s history, 24,000 of those joining themselves to Baal of Peor were put to death (Num. 25).

Nor is it only crass and open rebellion which proved fatal to those inclined to indulge in it. A man was ordered by the Lord to be stoned to death because he collected firewood on the Sabbath (Num. 15:32-36); more than 50,000 men from Bethshemesh, a Levitical town, were struck dead by God because they looked into the ark (1 Sam. 6:19); Nadab and Abihu, the two eldest sons of Aaron the high priest, were struck dead by the Lord on the day after they were consecrated as priests, because they offered strange fire to the Lord (Lev. 10); Uzzah died because he touched the ark as it tottered on an ox cart (1 Sam. 6; 1 Chron. 13). And, lest we wrongly conclude that such capital punishments are confined to Old Testament times, bear in mind that Ananias and Sapphira were struck dead by God because they lied to the Holy Spirit (Acts 5), while many in the church at Corinth were weak, sick, and some had died because of their unworthy partaking of the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:27-30).

Who in his right mind would not fear a God who had done such things, and be in dread of offending Him? If anyone objects that for the vast majority of the time God does not so severely chastise His people, the apostle Paul reminds us that it is not due to the Lord’s indulgence, but rather to His patience, which is exercised to lead us to repentance (Rom. 2:4).

All of these things are written in God’s Word, not so that we might discount and ignore them, but they are for our admonition and amendment. I believe that Matthew Henry wrote, in commenting on Uzzah’s death, that God sometimes sovereignly makes examples of some of His people so that all of His people may lead exemplary lives all of the time.

It is not morbid and grim rightly to fear the Lord. David calls the fear of the Lord clean, more desirable than gold, sweeter than honey, and rewarding (Ps. 19:9-11). When we remember that our God is both compassionate and a consuming fire, we shall take greater care in our thinking, speaking, and walking to keep from sins great and small, while we dwell more vitally and consistently in Jesus. In this respect we all do well to hear and heed the call of the psalmist: "Do homage to the Son, lest He become angry, and you perish in the way, for His wrath may soon be kindled…." Indeed, it may be kindled sooner and over smaller matters than we think! Our safety and satisfaction are not found in a perversion of the Lord’s grace and love into a license for complacent living, but rather in the fear of the Lord, which drives us when love fails to draw us to the Son, of whom the psalmist also says: "How blessed are all who take refuge in Him." (Ps. 2:12).

William Harrell

Immanuel Presbyterian Church, Norfolk, Virginia.

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