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Turned to God's Will by Fear

We won't love God if we don't fear Him.

Advice for Preachers and Teachers (8)

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom;
A good understanding have all those who do His commandments.
His praise endures forever. Psalm 111.10

“Before all it is necessary that we be turned by the fear of God toward a recognition of His will, so that we may know what He commands that we desire and what He commands that we avoid. Of necessity this fear will lead us to thoughts of our mortality and of our future death and will affix all our proud motions, as if they were fleshly members fastened with nails, to the wood of the cross.”

  - Augustine, On Christian Doctrine

Fear? Really?
Augustine has been insisting that nurturing love for God and neighbors, from the mind, heart, and conscience, must be the aim of all those called to the ministry of the Word. This is the goal of all instruction (1 Tim. 1.5); and these are the highest calling of the Christian life (Matt. 22.34-40). Every Christian knows this, to some extent at least; and no small part of effective discipleship involves cultivating that frame of mind and disposition of heart which lead to loving obedience to God through Jesus Christ.

We love God because He first loved us (1 Jn. 4.19). We must learn to love God, since loving Him does not come naturally to us; all believers will insist they love God, and they would love to love Him more.

But the same God Who commands our love also commands us to fear Him: ““And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all His ways and to love Him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul…” (Deut. 10.12). This is not simply an Old Testament mandate that we can perhaps easily dismiss. The Lord Jesus echoed this command in Matthew 10.28: “and do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” Paul issued the same instruction, insisting that the fear of God is that which defines and sustains our quest for holiness (2 Cor. 7.1).

Now we don’t hear much about fearing the Lord these days. In fact, about the last thing many pastors or teachers seem to want to tell their people is that they should in any way relate to God with fear. God is our Father, Jesus is our Friend and Brother, and the Holy Spirit is our Comforter. What’s to fear there?

In large segments of the believing community today we have concluded that fear is not a proper affection for conducting a relationship with God.

Obviously, that conviction needs to be reconsidered.

Why fear?
As a result of the neglect of teaching and instruction on the fear of God, many believers do not fear the Lord, and, frankly, their lifestyles demonstrate as much. To the extent that we do not desire what God desires, nor avoid what He commands us to avoid, we demonstrate that we do not fear Him as we should. If we feared the Lord, we would be mindful of offending or disappointing Him, or in any way provoking Him to exercise discipline against us. If we feared the Lord, we might tremble for our churches and our country, since we are an increasingly sinful people, and God is a just and all-powerful God. If we feared God as we should, we would set aside all pride in self or our accomplishments, and cling to the cross of Jesus as our daily calling and delight.

When the only affection we nurture toward God is love, we aren’t likely to obey Him as we should. And when we fail in obeying God, we show that we do not truly love Him.

But why should believers fear God? Apart from the fact, as we have seen, that we are commanded to fear God, we should consider the very nature of the Deity. As Asaph points out in Psalm 76, God is powerful to overcome all adversaries (v. 3). He is majestic beyond all description (v. 4); wrathful toward those who oppose Him (vv. 5, 6; cf. Rom. 1.18-20); and able to subdue and punish those who arouse His anger (vv. 7-9). The writer of Hebrews reminds us that, as our loving heavenly Father, it pleases God to discipline His children from time to time; and, since no discipline is ever pleasant, we should regard the very prospect of discipline with a certain amount of fear (Heb. 12.7-11). Stan Gale explains, “The fear of the Lord is cultivated through magnifying His Name, reciting to ourselves those characteristics of the Divine. It is particularly in His transcendence that the fear of the Lord is fostered, and we find ourselves positioned to regard Him rightly and respond accordingly.”

If we do not fear the Lord, then we will be slow to check our inclination to indulge those behaviors that provoke God’s discipline against us, and reluctant to take up those aspects of God’s will which do not seem convenient.

More than awe
Sometimes people want to reduce the fear of God to a kind of reverential awe. That’s a component, to be sure. But the fear God commands is more than simple awe, although it includes that. The fear of God is a healthy dread of what so powerful, majestic, and holy a God might do to demonstrate His indignation and impatience with recalcitrant sinners such as we.

But besides the fact of God’s commandment to fear Him, as well as His worthiness to be feared, there are the many benefits that accrue to those who nurture and sustain a healthy fear of God. Nurturing the fear of the Lord opens wide doors of opportunity to enjoy full and abundant life in ways that, apart from the fear of the Lord, we can never fully know.

To be sure, in fearing God we do not leave off loving Him. These are two sides of the same coin. Our love for God can only grow as we nurture fear of Him, because the enormity of His everyday grace becomes even more starkly evident against the backdrop of our own unworthiness, and of what we deserve at the hands of our holy and just God.

If we love God, truly love Him, we will want to fear Him as well; for these two seemingly opposite affections create a healthy tension in the soul, where righteousness and abundant life can flourish, and love for God and neighbor are increasingly in evidence.

For if the fear of God influences us, we will not be so much disposed to indulge ourselves, nor will there be a bursting forth of that audacity of wantonness, which showed itself among the Corinthians. For how does it happen, that many delight themselves so much in outward idolatry, and haughtily defend so gross a vice, unless it be, that they think that they mock God with impunity? If the fear of God had dominion over them, they would immediately, on the first moment, leave off all cavils, without requiring to be constrained to it by any disputations.

  - John Calvin, Commentary on 2 Corinthians 7.1

For reflection
1.  Why do you think the fear of God is neglected in churches today?

2.  Is there something about us, about the kind of beings we are, that needs to fear God? Explain.

3.  How can fearing God help us grow in love for Him?

T. M. Moore

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Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Unless otherwise indicated, quotes from Church fathers are from The Ancient Christian Commentary Series (InterVarsity Press).

T.M. Moore

T. M. Moore is principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He and his wife, Susie, make their home in the Champlain Valley of Vermont.
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