‘The fear of God’ is not a term heard often. It once was.
Exactly when it fell out of popular use, no one can be sure. What seems more certain is that it no longer occupies a central place, even in the thinking of professing Christians!
That is strange. Why? Because it should have a central place in our thoughts. One is inclined to say it should never be neglected. Three reasons may be given.
First, the example of Abraham. When in Gerar, why did he fail to say Sarah was his wife? His explanation says much: ‘I did it because I thought there is no fear of God at all in this place’ (Genesis 20:11). That lack troubled him.
Second, the example of Job. There was none on earth like him. Three truths about him stand out. He turned away from evil; led a blameless life, and feared God (Job 1:8f). Surely the first two truths are there because of the third.
Third, the example of Solomon. Having surveyed life, he boldly asserts we are to ‘fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of mankind’ (Ecclesiastes12:13). He also tells us ‘the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’ (Proverbs 1:7; 9:7).
The cause for this neglect may not be hard to find. We live in an age when the idea of fear is viewed solely in negative terms. To fear or be afraid is not seen as a bedfellow with happiness. Fears are phobias. And what we need for them, it is argued, is help from a doctor, counsellor or friend.
We live at a time when it is thought mankind has the answer to the challenges before us. In the political realm the idea of democracy is dominant. The choice of the majority must come first.
People look to scientists for solutions. Popular thought claims it is not God but science that will help us. Even in churches, the focus is on joy and peace rather than fear. There is certainly a place for joy or peace, but not to the exclusion of fear.
What is the fear of the Lord? Christian and Hope, characters in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s progress, both saw its value. ‘Fear’, says Hope, ‘tends much to men’s good’. Why? Because the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom.
There are two types of fear. We can be afraid or frightened. We can also stand in awe of someone or something — such is godly fear; it is the fear of respect and admiration.
Can I know whether I have a right or wrong fear? In the Bible, wisdom is never mere knowledge. Though the intellect is engaged, wisdom is more than fact or theory.
Many intelligent people lack true wisdom. Conversely, many of average (or below average) intelligence are wise! So who is wise? Who truly fears God? We can answer that by looking at the cause, consequence and character of godly fear.
First, its cause. The fear of God arises in response to an awareness of sin. What did Isaiah do when he saw the greatness, majesty and glory of God? He admitted his guilt: ‘Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips’ (Isaiah 6:5).
What does the Holy Spirit produce in people? Christ says he will ‘convict the world of sin, righteousness and judgement’ (John 16:8ff). In other words, he causes us to see that sin is serious. Those not right with God face being condemned on the day of judgement.
These facts humble us; they teach us to fear God. The unbeliever should be afraid — on the last day he will be cast away for ever. But the one who trusts in Christ is amazed. His awe is nurtured by an awareness of the seriousness of sin.
Second, godly fear’s consequence. The fear of God leads us to trust in Christ. When we see sin as God sees it, we realise we cannot eradicate it. Nor can we make good the bad things we have done.
Good deeds can never blot out sins. Instead, sin pays a wage: death (Romans 6:23). Does that mean there is no hope? It does not. Christ lived and died for sinners. His perfect life is reckoned ours when we trust in him. And the death he died dealt with the consequence of believers’ sins for ever.
As we fear God, we see our need of Christ (he alone must save us); the uniqueness of Christ (he alone can rescue us); and what Christ has done (he alone has satisfied the justice of God, by paying the price for our sins).
The fear of God makes us Christ-centred. As a result, we resist the temptation to drive a wedge between joy on the one hand and fear on the other. A true fear of God causes joy and peace to thrive.
Third, godly fear’s character. The fear of God affects the way a Christian behaves. He shows a sincere and enduring respect for God, his Word and ways.
True Puritans encourage us to read three books: creation, the Bible and providence. Creation speaks of God’s power, wisdom and love. The Bible speaks of his will for us and his grace to us in Christ Jesus. And providence speaks of his ways with us. Those who love God discover ‘all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose’ (Romans 8:28).
When the fear of God is absent, we go astray. When the fear of God is present, wisdom follows. Where is that fear today?
The author is minister of Elswick Parish Church, Newcastle upon Tyne, and a trustee of the Christian Institute