The Fear of God

April 18th 2024

The Fear of God

“ . . . for God has so worked that men should fear Him.” – Ecclesiastes 3:14b (NASB)

The Fear of God in the Garden

It was the 17th-century Puritan Thomas Reade (1612–1682) who said, “Fear is a most powerful passion in the human breast. Its natural effect is painful; hence we instinctively fly from everything which excites its agitating influence.”1 It is against the backdrop of those words from Reade that I would venture to say many, if not most, professing Christians today view the fear of God as an “agitating influence,” something that causes them to want to “fly from,” or distance themselves from God, rather than draw closer to Him (Jas 4:8a).

God’s Word provides a clear-cut reason why, even as believers, we have a tendency to, as Reade put it, “fly from” God, and that reason is our sin (Eccl 7:20; Rom 3:23). The initial reaction of our first parents, Adam and Eve, upon becoming aware of their nakedness, was fear. That reality is recorded for us in Genesis 3:9–10, which reads, “Then the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, ‘Where are you?’ He [Adam] said, ‘I heard the sound of You in the garden and I was afraid.’”

Adam’s servile fear of God, which was an immediate consequence of his disobedience, was central to a sermon preached in 1870 by Charles Haddon Spurgeon, in which he commented, “This disease of fear came into man’s heart with sin. Adam never was afraid of his God till he had broken His commands.”2

The Fear of God and Original Sin

Each of us has been endowed by God with an innate awareness of His holiness and our depravity (Lev 19:2; Ps 99:9; Rom 1:18–32). As the Belgic Confession of Faith states, “. . . by the disobedience of Adam original sin has been spread through the whole human race. It is a corruption of the whole human nature— an inherited depravity which even infects small infants in their mother’s womb, and the root which produces in humanity every sort of sin.”3

More than anything else, it is our sinfulness that causes us to fear God–and rightly so–for God is holy and we are not (Hab 1:13a). As the 17th-century Puritan Thomas Watson (1620–1686) affirms in his book A Body of Divinity, “God sees all the sins of men, but is no more defiled with them than the sun is defiled with the vapors that rise from the earth. God sees sin, not as a patron to approve it, but as a judge to punish it.”4

Martin Luther’s Dichotomy of the Fear of God

The 16th-century German theologian Martin Luther (1483–1546) said the fear of God is demonstrated in us in two ways: servile fear and filial fear.5 Whereas servile fear is an uneasy and apprehensive sense of anxiety, filial fear is a reverential and respectful awareness of the holiness of God in contradistinction to his creatures (1 Jn 1:5).

The late Dr. R.C. Sproul (1939–2017) explained Luther’s dichotomy of the fear of God in this way, saying, “Martin Luther made an important distinction concerning the fear of God. He distinguished between servile fear and filial fear. He described servile fear as that kind of fear a prisoner has for his torturer. Filial fear is the fear of a son who loves his father and does not want to offend him or let him down. It is a fear born of respect. When the Bible calls us to fear God, it is issuing a call to a fear born of reverence, awe, and adoration. It is a respect of the highest magnitude.”6

But notwithstanding Luther’s doctrine of servile and filial fear, his idea presents us with an interesting irony, in that the distinction between servile and filial fear is not an either/or proposition, but rather is a both/and consideration.

Fearing God in the Totality of His Being

That God is loving, merciful, and forgiving toward us is no reason to disregard, ignore, or turn a deaf ear to the reality that He is also a God of wrath, justice, and righteousness (Ps 96:9). As the beloved Puritan John Bunyan (1628–1688) expressed, “The goodness as well as the greatness of God doth beget in the heart of His elect an awful reverence of His majesty.”7

In that one simple yet profound statement, Bunyan is confronting us with the reality that we cannot embrace the benevolence of God apart from esteeming all of His divine attributes (1 Chr 29:11; Ps 8:1–9; Isa 40:18–20). As the 17th-century Puritan William Ames (1576–1633) declared, “The attributes of God set forth what God is and who He is.”8

The Wisdom of Fearing God

God’s Word teaches us that the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom (Prov 1:7a). The 20th-century Scottish theologian John Murray (1898–1975) said poignantly that, “The fear of God is the soul of godliness.”9

The God who gives life and breath to all things (Acts 17:25) is unquestioningly deserving of the heartfelt reverence and respect of His people (Ps 99:5). It is with that truth in mind that, as believers in the one true God (Isa 46:9; Jn 17:3), we would do well to heed the words of Hebrews 12:29–29, which exhort us to “show gratitude, by which we may offer to Him an acceptable service with reverence and awe; for our God is a consuming fire.”

[1] (first paragraph) [2] [3] Article 15: The Doctrine of Original Sin [4] [5] [6] [7] John Bunyan, A Treatise on the Fear of God, Chapter 1, Audible® audiobook version, 13:41 timestamp. See also here: [8] The Marrow of Sacred Divinity, (pg. 30 of the PDF, bullet 31). [9]

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Author: Darrell Harrison