The late Professor John Murray said, “The fear of God is the soul of godliness.” Yet the fear of God is a concept that seems old-fashioned and antiquated to many modern-day Christians. There was a time when an earnest believer might have been known as a “God-fearing man”. Today we would probably be embarrassed by such language. Some seem to think the fear of God is strictly an Old Testament concept that passed away with the revelation of God’s love in Christ. After all, doesn’t perfect love drive out fear, as John declares in 1 John 4:18? Although it is true that the concept of the fear of God is treated more extensively in the Old Testament, it would be a mistake to assume that it is not important in the New Testament. One of the blessings of the new covenant is the implanting in believers’ hearts of the fear of the Lord. In Jeremiah 32:40 God said, “I will make an everlasting covenant with them: I will never stop doing good to them, and I will inspire them to fear me, so that they will never turn away from me.”
“Nothing could be more significant,” observed John Murray, “than that the fear of the Lord should be coupled with the comfort of the Holy Spirit as the characteristics of the New Testament church: ‘So the church ... walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit was multiplied’ (Acts 9:31). Paul and Peter both use the fear of the Lord as a motive to holy and righteous living.” The example of the Lord Jesus himself, of whom Isaiah said, “and he will delight in the fear of the Lord” (11:3), should put the question beyond all doubt. If Jesus in his humanity delighted in the fear of God, surely we need to give serious thought to cultivating this attitude in our lives.
Some of the aversion to the phrase “fear of God” may be due to a misunderstanding of its meaning. The Bible uses the term “fear of God” in two distinct ways: that of anxious dread, and that of veneration, reverence, and awe. Fear as anxious dread is produced by the realisation of God’s impending judgment upon sin. When Adam sinned he hid from God because he was afraid. Although this aspect of the fear of God should characterise every unsaved person who lives each day as an object of God’s wrath, it seldom does. Paul’s concluding indictment of ungodly mankind was, “There is no fear of God before their eyes” (Rom. 3:18).
The Christian has been delivered from fear of the wrath of God (see 1 John 4:18). But the Christian has not been delivered from the discipline of God against his sinful conduct, and in this sense he still fears God. He works out his salvation with fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12); he lives his life as a stranger here in reverent fear (1 Pet. 1: 17).
For the child of God, however, the primary meaning of the fear of God is veneration and honour, reverence and awe. Murray says this fear is the soul of godliness. It is the attitude that elicits from our hearts adoration and love, reverence and honour. It focuses not upon the wrath of God but upon the majesty, holiness, and transcendent glory of God.
It is impossible to be devoted to God if one’s heart is not filled with the fear of God. It is this profound sense of veneration and honour, reverence and awe that draws forth from our hearts the worship and adoration that characterises true devotion to God. The reverent, godly Christian sees God first in his transcendent glory, majesty, and holiness before he sees him in his love, mercy, and grace.
There is a healthy tension that exists in the godly person’s heart between the reverential awe of God in his glory and the childlike confidence in God as heavenly Father. Without this tension, a Christian’s filial confidence can easily degenerate into presumption.
One of the more serious sins of Christians today may well be the almost flippant familiarity with which we often address God in prayer. None of the godly men of the Bible ever adopted the casual manner we often do. They always addressed God with reverence. The same writer who tells us that we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place, the throne room of God, also tells us that we should worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, “for our God is a consuming fire” (Heb. 10: 19 and 12:28-29). The same Paul who tells us that the Holy Spirit dwelling within us causes us to cry, “Abba, Father,” also tells us that this same God lives in “unapproachable light” (Rom. 8:15 and 1 Tim. 6:16).
In our day we must begin to recover a sense of awe and profound reverence for God. We must begin to view him once again in the infinite majesty that alone belongs to him who is the Creator and Supreme Ruler of the entire universe. There is an infinite gap in worth and dignity between God the Creator and man the creature, even though man has been created in the image of God. The fear of God is a heartfelt recognition of this gap — not a put-down of man, but an exaltation of God.
In our day we seem to have magnified the love of God almost to the exclusion of the fear of God. Because of this preoccupation we are not honouring God and reverencing him as we should. We should magnify the love of God; but although we revel in his love and mercy, we must never lose sight of his majesty and his holiness.