Fear of the Lord

Psalm 112, Acts 9:31

10 September 2006

Woodley Baptist Church

Morning service


This morning I want to examine a quality which is spoken of a great deal in the Bible, but hardly at all, if ever, in the modern church.

It's a quality that has enormous benefits. Here are some of them.

Sounds pretty good, doesn't it? And on the other hand, the following hazards are faced by those who lack this quality.

So what is this amazing quality which brings us all these benefits? What can it be?

Well, let's look at the Bible and all will become clear. I could have chosen any number of places to go to to demonstrate this point, but in the end I settled on Psalm 112. I'm fond of the Psalms. Please turn to it if you can [p. 614].

Look at verse 1: Blessed is the man who fears the Lordref. Here is the quality I've been talking about. A quality described hundreds of times in the Bible, but strangely overlooked today. Blessed is the man who fears the Lordref. Note that women are not off the hook, because, as Proverbs 31 says, a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.ref

The rest of the Psalm unpacks the character of this man who fears the Lord, and the benefits he gains.

[Read Psalm 112]

So the character of the man who fears the Lord is righteous, verses 3,4 and 9. He is gracious and compassionate, verse 4. He is generous and just, verse 5. He is steadfast and trusts the Lord, verse 7. He takes care of the poor, verse 9.

The benefits he enjoys are children who succeed, verse 2; wealth and riches, verse 3; light in the darkness, verse 4. Good comes to him, verse 5, and his reputation is enduring, verse 6. In verse 7, he might fear the Lord, but he doesn't fear bad news; he is secure and has no fear of his enemies. He is honoured, verse 9.

It's a deeply attractive picture, isn't it? Which of us wouldn't aspire to a lifestyle like this? But note that it is the fear of the Lord that underpins all of these virtues and benefits.

In the light of this, then, why isn't the fear of the Lord a concept that we are embracing with both arms in the church today? Are we missing out on a whole dimension of spiritual life?

This is the question I want to explore today - is fear of the Lord an appropriate characteristic of the New Testament church? Should Christians fear the Lord?

I'd love to talk you through all the Biblical material on this, but my kids will be going berserk if I'm still talking at lunchtime, so I'll restrict myself to making three observations.

Observation 1: The Christian does not fear condemnation

Romans chapter 8 begins with Paul's triumphant cry Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesusref. The most terrifying of all reasons to fear God has been lifted from us, because Jesus Christ has taken our place. He was condemned so that we may be spared. If we are in Christ we have no fear of death or hell.

This is what John is discussing in 1 John 4:18 where he reassures us that we may have confidence on the day of judgement because There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.ref What Jesus was doing as he died on the cross was taking that punishment for those who trust him. This is God's perfect love in action, and the Christian does not have to fear the judgement because Jesus faced it for us.

The converse, of course, is that the non-Christian should be terrified. Jesus said to the crowds Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.ref

Fear of the Lord, terror, dread, horror are entirely appropriate responses to the prospect of coming under the judgement of God. Every one of us deserves it; but in coming to Christ we are spared. If you are not a Christian, and you are not terrified of God, then you are living in denial. If you are fearful of God: come to Christ; he is our only grounds for confidence in the face of judgement.

So, observation 1 is that the Christian does not fear condemnation.

Observation 2: Most references to FotL are Old Testament

At this point I feel I should own up that by far the majority of mentions of fear of the Lord are in the Old Testament, and all of the benefits I talked about earlier are taken from the Old Testament.

Now, it's often said that the God of fear is the Old Testament God, and the New Testament God is the God of love, isn't it?

For example, it's clear from reading the Old Testament that fear of the Lord is closely bound up with obedience to the Lord. We saw that in the first verse of our Psalm, Blessed is the man who fears the Lord, who finds great delight in his commands.ref Fearing the Lord and obeying the Lord are often used almost interchangeably.

In the New Testament, specifically, three times in John chapters 14 and 15 Jesus says if anyone loves me, he will obey my teachingref. So the New Testament motivation for obedience is love, just as the Old Testament motivation was fear. It's neat, isn't it?

This kind of thinking seems to be very widespread these days, and I think perhaps it's why in a fair few places the NIV translation substitutes "fear" of the Lord for reverence, or worship, which are somewhat weaker and woollier. And I think often when we read the Old Testament we subconsciously edit it ourselves: we read "fear of the Lord" as "devotion to the Lord" or even "love of the Lord". We simply don't see fear as being a valid response to God for a New Testament believer.

So, this "fear of the Lord is Old Testament" idea is theologically neat, and it is pretty much widespread in the church today. But is it true?

Which brings me to my third observation.

Observation 3: there are a number of awkward New Testament references to FotL

It's a shame to spoil a good theory by looking at the facts, but please turn with me to Acts chapter 9, verse 31, which is the verse that hit me between the eyes a little while ago and started off this whole train of thought. [p. 1103]

Now this is one of those little summary verses in Acts; a little breather before the action takes off again in another direction. Saul — the Apostle Paul to be — has just been converted. Peter will soon visit Cornelius who became the first gentile believer. And this verse is a kind of intermission, updating us on the state of the church at large.

Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace. It was strengthened; and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it grew in numbers, living in the fear of the Lord.ref

Here is a successful church: being strengthened, encouraged by the holy Spirit and growing in numbers... and living in the fear of the Lord! If we were to list the things we as a church aspire to I think we would happily tick the first three, but it would hardly occur to us to think of the last, would it.

Now, we can mentally substitute "godliness" for "fear of the Lord" if we like. But that ignores the fact that Luke specifically chose to use the word "fear" here: "phobos" in Greek. He had other perfectly good words at his disposal if he'd wanted to say "godliness", or "reverence", but he chose to use "fear". Striking, isn't it?

And we shouldn't overlook how they began to acquire their fear of the Lord. Back in chapter 5 God very publicly killed Ananias and Sapphira for lying to the Holy Spirit. And we're told in chapter 5 verse 11, Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events.ref

This rather spoils the idea that we can understand "fear of the Lord" only in terms of "reverence" and "awe", don't you think?

Another example of an awkward verse is in Philippians chapter 2 where Paul tells the people of the church to continue to work out your salvation with fear and tremblingref.

Evidently fear and trembling are appropriate responses for the New Testament believer!

Once you start looking, it's surprising how many other examples of fear of the Lord there are in the New Testament: Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5 knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade othersref; again, in 2 Corinthians 7 he talks of bringing holiness to completion in the fear of Godref. It's not just Paul. Peter says Honour everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God.ref There are others, but I'll leave tracking them down as an exercise for the interested.

So, I think this last of my observations forces us to conclude that we can't just leave fear of the Lord in the Old Testament. The healthy New Testament church is a church living in the fear of the Lord. The healthy New Testament believer is the believer working out his salvation in fear and trembling.

In the light of all this I want to look at two questions in the remaining minutes. First, what does fear of the Lord mean for the Christian? And second, how can we build our fear of the Lord?

What does FotL mean for the Christian?

Well, we've seen what it doesn't mean: it doesn't mean fear of condemnation by God.

But what I think it does mean is exactly the same as it means in the Old Testament: fear of the Lord's discipline.

It is abundantly clear in the New Testament that God disciplines his people, because he loves us, because he wants us to grow in maturity. So Peter tells the church Since you call on a Father who judges each man's work impartially, live your lives as strangers here in reverent fear.ref God judges our work, not to condemn us, but to discipline us.

We see this discipline at work in the Corinthian church where they were behaving in a deeply unloving and offensive way at the Lord's supper. Paul warns them A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without recognising the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgement on himself. That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep.ref God's discipline at work in a wayward church — if only they'd known a dose of the fear of the Lord.

While we are in this world, any true relationship with God will have a dimension of fear, because our lives still have a dimension of sin. Not sin that condemns us, but sin that offends God. So we should fear the Lord's discipline; we should fear offending him; we should fear unconfessed sin. We should always remember what Hebrews says, It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.ref

The outcome of fear of the Lord should be to spur us on to godliness and obedience. Yes, we obey primarily because we love as we saw earlier. But because we are still sinful, hard-hearted people we need a dose of stick as well as carrot, don't we?

What is it that keeps me slaving over a hot word processor to prepare a sermon for a Sunday morning? On the positive side there is the love I have for you all, my desire to edify the church, and my desire to please God. But, sinful man that I am, even a carrot that attractive is not always enough to drag me away from a decent movie on telly when I have the choice. I need the stick as well: what really gets me going is fear — fear of standing here like a total muppet with not a word to say!

And it's the same in the rest of my life. I don't know about you, but I suspect you're no different. We want to please God, but sometimes we just don't want it enough to do anything about it. Sometimes we need a fear of him to keep us from sin — a fear of offending him; a fear of being exposed before him. That's why we work out our salvation with fear and trembling.ref Fear of the Lord spurs us on to godliness. Stick as well as carrot.

How do we build FotL?

So, the last thing I want to look at is how we can work at building this fear of the Lord in our own lives.

Well, Proverbs chapter 2 exhorts us to search for wisdom to understand the fear of the Lord as if it were treasure. We should devote ourselves to the search. How can we find it?

1. Read the hard bits of the Bible

In the book of Deuteronomy it says that we learn fear of the Lord from the word of the Lord. so, we should read our Bibles — especially the hard bits!

By the hard bits, I mean the places where we usually start to skim-read, if we even go there at all. So, Christian, read Leviticus, read Deuteronomy, read Jeremiah and Ezekiel and the so-called minor prophets. Read Proverbs. These are gold-mines for learning the fear of the Lord. And preachers — I'm speaking to myself here too — preach the hard bits!

Recently I read the book of Lamentations properly for the first time, and it knocked me sideways. God's comprehensive judgement on his people is spelt-out there, and it is gut-wrenching stuff. It's exactly the kind of book that teaches us fear of the Lord. Now, I've been a christian for over 20 years. That's well over a thousand Sundays, and not once have I heard a sermon from Lamentations. Strange, isn't it?

So, let us read the Bible, especially the hard bits.

2. Meditate on God's forgiveness

There is a very strange verse in Psalm 130 which says of God, with you there is forgiveness; therefore you are feared.ref

It seems all backwards, doesn't it? If a child at school repeatedly gets sent to the headmaster's office for bad behaviour, and every time the headmaster says "don't worry about it, it's quite all right" , that's hardly likely to instill fear, is it?

No, I think the picture the Psalmist has in mind is a bit different. It is more like a near miss when we are driving. In my driving career I've had a couple of near-misses: extremely nasty accidents that were only just avoided, brought about through my inattention or recklessness.

One response would be to say "Hey, I got away with it there, I'll be even more reckless next time" , and some people do seem to drive like that, don't they. But my response is fear and relief. My response is to be more cautious next time, because I never want to come that close to danger again.

It is the second response that the Psalmist is recommending, with you there is forgiveness; therefore you are feared.ref We've had a near miss with God's judgement; we've escaped from hell by the skin of our teeth, and only because God had mercy on us. Pondering this will build in us a great repect for God's judgement.

So meditate on God's forgiveness is key to learning the fear of the Lord.

3. Teach FotL to others

In 2 Kings there is an interesting incident where a priest is called upon to teach the people fear of the Lord. Clearly it can be taught and learnt.

I think that this has to impact our evangelism. Evangelism has come a long way since "The end is nigh; repent or be damned" , hasn't it? But sometimes I wonder if we've swung too far to the other extreme.

Modern evangelism revolves around God-all-Matey, rather than God Almighty, doesn't it? I wonder if, because of this, the church sometimes ends up weaker because of its evangelism rather than stronger. If living in the fear of the Lord marks a healthy church, then surely this will be the case.

It is a mark of C. S. Lewis's genius that he cast the Jesus-like figure in the Narnia books as a lion, Aslan. And what a brilliant reply he writes to Lucy's question "Is he safe?" . No, of course he's not safe, he's a lion! But he is good. The phrase "he's not a tame lion" , is often repeated, and we need to remember that our God is not a tame God. But so often we present him to others as a tame pet: come to Jesus, he'll meet all your needs; come to Jesus he'll give you fulfilment; come to Jesus, he'll heal your life.

Of course these things are true as far as they go, but Jesus is so much more than this. Although Jesus is love and compassion personified, those who saw Jesus' divinity while he was on earth were sometimes terrified!

We're told when he calmed the storm in Mark chapter 4, They were terrified and asked each other, Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!ref. The woman healed of bleeding in the next chapter came to him trembling with fearref. After Jesus brought the widow's son back to life Luke tells us that fear seized them allref.

An encounter with the divine always has a dimension of fear, and unless that dimension features in our evangelism, then I'm afraid we are not presenting people with the living God, into whose hands it is dreadful to fall. A two-dimensional God is just a caricature, isn't he?

Anyway, you can tell that this is a bee in my bonnet, so I'll stop ranting now. But nonetheless, the point stands. I believe that for us to be the best church that we can be, we need to build fear of the Lord into our experience. And we can make a start by reading our Bibles, especially the difficult bits, by meditating on the forgiveness of God, and by presenting the true God to people in our evangelism.


So, I hope you'll have gathered by now that my answer to the question, "is fear of the Lord an appropriate characteristic for the New Testament believer?" is "yes, yes, yes!" Not fear of condemnation, but fear of the Lord's discipline.

I'm certainly not advocating a return to medieval servility in the church, or Victorian hell-fire and damnation preaching. But I do think the pendulum has swung too far, and the right balance is not where we are now. It does seem to me that the medicine of learning the fear of the Lord would do the often weak and ailing church in this country no end of good.