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“The fear of God,” the Presbyterian John Murray has said, “is the soul of godliness,” (Principles of Conduct, p. 229). Murray is right. The fear of God is the essence of the Christian life. There can be no godly, pious living apart from the fear of God.

There is in the church today a sad lack of fear of God. This is a lack of fear of God that often shows itself in the flippant, disrespectful, even irreverent way in which the worship services are conducted. The solemnity and reverence of the worship servicesmore and more are done away with. Preaching becomes a time for relating humorous stories and jokes. God is addressed in prayer as if men were talking to their next door neighbors. The people come to church dressed more and more casually, the younger men wearing blue-jeans and the younger women wearing slacks. The things of God’s Word, spiritual things are not taken seriously, but regarded with indifference.

Undoubtedly this general loss of the fear of God in the churches today is due, in large measure, to the widespread acceptance of the false teaching that God is a God of all love and that God loves all men. Just in proportion as the churches have made their message the message of the universal love of God, they have muted the message of the wrath and fear of God. And the loss of the message of the wrath and fear of God has bad the most disastrous effects on Christian living. 

There can be no Christian life apart from fear of God. The whole motivation for Christian living, why we do the right and hate the wrong, is only this: the fear of God.

The Scriptures make plain how indispensable to the Christian life is the fear of God. The Psalmist says inPsalm 111:10, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Upright Job is described by God Himself inJob 2:3 as “a perfect and an upright man, one that feareth God.” The Virgin Mary proclaims concerning God in Luke 1:50, “And His mercy is on them that fear Him from generation to generation.” The Apostle exhorts us in II Corinthians 7:1, “Having therefore these promises, dearly beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.” In I Peter 2:17 we are admonished, “Honor all men, love the brotherhood, fear God, honor the king.” In Jeremiah 32:40 God promises the children of Israel, “I will make an everlasting covenant with them.” In the same verse He goes on to explain what the establishment of His covenant will mean: “I will put my fear in their hearts, that they shall not depart from me.” The whole Book of Proverbs calls covenant parents to bring up their children in “the fear of God.” Of the outstanding men of faith in the Old Testament, such as Abraham, Moses, Joshua, Job, David, and Solomon, it is said that they “feared God.” 

Obviously, the fear of God exhorted upon the child of God is distinct from the fear of pure dread and terror. There is nothing godly or Christian in this attitude. James tells us that the devils possess this kind of fear of God. He writes in James 2:19 that “the devils also believe, and tremble.” Of that unbelieving monarch, Felix, which confronted by the gospel-preaching of the Apostle Paul, we are told that he “trembled” (Acts 24:25). But this was no genuine fear of God. In fact, this kind of fear stands opposed to the genuine, saving fear of God that characterizes the believer. The Apostle John writes, “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear: because fear hath torment. He that feareth is not made perfect in love” (I John 4:18). 

But in distinction from the fear of terror, of dread, there is the good, necessary, and proper fear of God. 

This proper fear of God is occasioned, first of all, by a recognition of ourselves as guilty sinners and as those who, on account of the guilt of our sins, are liable to God’s righteous judgment. In the end, it is impossible to eliminate entirely from the Biblical teaching concerning the fear of God the terror which His righteousness and judgment cannot help but produce. Surely, this is not the only thing, or even the main thing, that characterizes the fear of the child of God. But it is an element! It does enter into the picture! 

That ought not seem strange to us. This is true even in earthly relationships. Every believing son loves his father. But that doesn’t prevent him from having a certain fear of his father also, especially a fear of the wrath of his father and the chastisement of his father should he sin against his father. And it is exactly that fear that motivates him not to do what would be displeasing to his father. This same thing, now, is true of our relationship to God. Murray states:

. . . it is quite obvious that the Scripture represents the dread or terror of God’s wrath as belonging to the total concept of the fear of God. Even where there is no sin, and therefore no existent wrath, we cannot eliminate the fear of incurring God’s displeasure as one motive deterrent to the commission of sin (Principles Of Conduct, p. 235).

The Scriptures often emphasize this aspect of the fear of God. The Psalmist declares in Psalm 119:120, “My flesh trembleth for fear of Thee; and I am afraid of Thy judgments.” Jesus says to His own disciples, “Be not afraid of them who kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do. But I forewarn you whom ye shall fear: Fear him, which after he hath killed hath power to cast into hell; yea, I say unto you, Fear him” (Luke 12:4, 5). The writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews urges this fear upon his readers: “Let us therefore fear, lest, a promise being left us of entering into his rest, any of you should seem to come short of it” (Heb. 4:1). The Apostle Peter exhorts in I Peter 1:17, “And if ye call on the Father, Who without respect of persons judgeth according to every man’s work, pass the time of your sojourning here in fear.” In the Old Testament, the person who sinned presumptuously, was to be put to death. God Himself gives the reason for this, “And all the people shall hear, and fear, and do no more presumptuously” (Deut. 17:13). 

But, in the second place, the fear of God which the Scriptures enjoin is a fear motivated by reverence for and love of the God Whom we fear. The fear of God contains an unmistakable element of dread, but goes beyond that. It is more than mere dread aroused by the apprehension of God’s wrath. And, in the end, dread of judgment will never itself produce the love of God and hatred of sin in which salvation consists. The fear of God that characterizes the believer is a fear which manifests itself in adoration, love, and humble supplication of God. It is the fear that consists of awe, reverence, honor, and worship before a God Whom we know to be a holy God, a God of all glory, truth, and righteousness. 

The Apostle John has this fear of God in mind when he says in Revelation 15:4, “Who shall not fear Thee, O Lord, and glorify Thy name? for Thou only art holy: for all nations shall come and worship before Thee; for Thy judgments are made manifest.” The Psalmist says in Psalm 2:11, “Serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice with trembling.” And in Psalm 5:7, “But as for me, I will come into Thy house in the multitude of Thy mercy: and in Thy fear will I worship toward Thy holy temple.” The good condition of the early church is described in Acts 9:31, “Then had the churches rest throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria, and were edified; and walking in the fear of the Lord, and in the comfort of the Holy Ghost, were multiplied.” Believers are exhorted to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12). The ungodly, who reject the revelation of God and refuse to worship Him, are described in Romans 3:18: “There is no fear of God before their eyes.” 

There is nothing more conducive to godly, holy living than the fear of God. There is nothing that so much motivates the child of God to hate and flee from sin as the fear of God. There is nothing that produces in his life carefulness to know and obey the will of God as the fear of God. There is nothing so sadly lacking in the church today as a proper and healthy fear of God. 

Such a fear of God is of benefit to us ourselves. It’s demanded by God Himself, but it’s also beneficial to us ourselves. There is no book of the Bible that emphasizes this truth so much as the Book of Proverbs. “The fear of the Lord prolongeth days: but the years of the wicked shall be shortened” (Prov. 10:27). “The fear of the Lord is a fountain of life, to depart from the snares of death” (Prov. 14:27). “By humility and the fear of the Lord are riches, and honor, and life” (Prov. 22:4). 

Let each of us make the prayer of the Psalmist inPsalm 86:11 our own: “Teach me Thy way, O Lord; I will walk in Thy truth: unite my heart to fear Thy name.”