Should Christians Fear God?
After a wild ride through life under the sun, Ecclesiastes concludes with these words: "The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man" (Ecclesiastes 12:13).
But what does it mean to "fear God"? That's a concept with which a lot of Christians are unfamiliar or even uncomfortable.
Doesn't the gospel eliminate the fear we might otherwise feel toward God? 1 John 4:18 says, "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."
And Hebrews 4:16 urges us, "Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need."
So is there any place for fearing God in light of the cross of Jesus Christ?
Two Kinds of Fear
Since the Reformation, theologians have used two helpful categories to clarify what the fear of God means and what it doesn't mean. They spoke of "servile fear" (think “servant” or “slavish”) versus "filial fear" (from the Latin words for son and daughter, so think "childlike"). One is the kind of fear that you need not have toward God because of all that God has done for you in Jesus. The other kind of fear—filial fear—is the kind that is appropriate for sons and daughters to feel toward their Father in heaven without compromising their comfort and confidence in his generous love.
Zacharias Ursinus, in his commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, writes this:
"Servile fear, such as the slave has for his master, which consists in fleeing punishment without faith and without a desire and purpose of changing the life, being accompanied with despair, flight and separation from God—such a servile fear differs greatly from that which is filial. 1. Filial fear arises from confidence and love to God; that which is servile arises from a knowledge and conviction of sin, and from a sense of the judgment and displeasure of God. 2. Filial fear does not turn away from God, but hates sin above every thing else, and fears to offend God: servile fear is a flight and hatred, not of sin, but of punishment and of the divine judgment, and so of God himself. 3. Filial fear is connected with the certainty of salvation and of eternal life: servile fear is a fear and expectation of eternal condemnation and rejection of God, and is great in proportion to the doubt and despair which it entertains of the grace and mercy of God. This is the fear of devils and wicked men, and is the commencement of eternal death, which the ungodly experience already in this life. 'I heard thy voice in the garden and I was afraid.' 'The devils believe and tremble.'”†
Chapter 20.1 of the Westminster Confession of Faith says, "The liberty which Christ hath purchased for believers under the gospel consists ... also, in their free access to God, and their yielding obedience unto him, not out of slavish fear, but a childlike love and willing mind."
Do not “slavishly” fear God
The justified and adopted children of God never need to fear God with the kind of fear people in horror movies feel toward the alien or the zombies or the serial killer trying to get them. Servile fear is the fear a prisoner in a torture chamber feels toward his captor, or the fear that hostages feel toward masked terrorists with guns. It’s not the fear that God, who gave his Son for you while you were still sinning, means for you to feel toward him. Those who fear God in this way either do not know about or are not trusting in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Fear God like a son or daughter who respects his or her father
Leviticus 19:3 restates the 5th Commandment like this: “Every one of you shall revere his mother and his father.” The ESV uses "revere" to translate the Hebrew word yārē, "fear." It's the same word used everywhere the Old Testament speaks of the fear of the Lord. So this verse commands children to fear their parents. This kind of fear refers to respect, the desire to please, or the desire to avoid offending or causing pain. (If it sounds strange to think of children fearing or revering their parents, that says less about how far our culture has progressed and more about how much respect and honor we have lost.)
John Frame defines the fear of God as "that basic attitude of reverence and awe that inevitably carries with it a desire to do God's will."‡
There is no contradiction between fearing God and delighting in God. In fact, the only right way to fear God is to trust him. Psalm 119:63 (the only text outside of Deuteronomy and Ecclesiastes that combines “fearing God and keeping his commandments”) says, “I am a companion of all who fear you, of those who keep your precepts” (emphasis added). And that verse is bookended by language of comfort and joy like this:
- "The Lord is my portion" (v. 57)
- "I entreat your favor" (v. 58)
- "Be gracious to me according to your promise" (v. 58)
- "At midnight I rise to praise you, because of your righteous rules" (v. 62)
- "The earth, O LORD, is full of your steadfast love" (v. 64)
So is there any place for the fear of God in the life of the Christian? Yes! In fact, look at what Acts 9:31 says. "So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was being built up. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it multiplied." Peace, fear, and comfort go hand in hand for those who know that the holy, righteous, and transcendent God has drawn near in the person of Jesus Christ to atone for sin, ransom sinners, and make us sons and daughters of God.
† Zacharias Ursinus, The Commentary of Dr. Zacharias Ursinus on the Heidelberg Catechism, trans. G. W. Williard (Cincinnati, OH: Elm Street Printing Company, 1888), 514.
‡ John Frame, Systematic Theology, (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2013), 706.