The missing note in Christian piety
When I was a young Christian in the nineteen-fifties I quite often heard a fellow believer described as a God-fearing man or woman. It is many years since I heard any one so described. The expression seems to have dropped right out of Christian conversation. Why should this be?
One reason is our changed view of God. Let me illustrate what I mean. In one of my pastorates I was challenged by a woman who knew her texts better than her Bible. She argued that the fear of God was an Old Testament concept which had no place in the devotion of new covenant believers today. My reply was immediate: ‘Since we have these promises, dear friends, let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence [fear] for God’ (2 Cor. 7:1).
Why did that woman get it so wrong? Because she had a restricted view of Christian piety. She assumed that the fear of God is somehow incompatible with Christian joy in the experience of the believer today. But this is not so because Christian joy is always tempered with reverence for God. The joy of the angels in heaven over one sinner who repents (Luke 15:10) is always suffused with the fear of God, otherwise it would be only human joy akin to the joy when my side scores the winning goal at a football match.
The woman supported her assumption by separating the OT from the New, not the first time this has been done in Christian history, nor will it be the last! Now it is true that the expression ‘the fear of the Lord’ occurs much more often in the OT than it does in the New, but it is not absent from the New. It is plain that the concept is linked both with individual Christian behaviour and congregational life. So Christian slaves are called to respect their masters ‘with fear and trembling, in sincerity of heart, as to Christ’, and congregations, too, should ‘submit to one another in the fear of God’ (Eph. 6:5, 5:21, NKJV). Though, then, there are fewer references to the fear of God in the NT they build on the many references to it in the OT.
The fear of God in the Old Testament
The fear of God in the OT is particularly connected with the law, wisdom and daily living. In a classic passage Moses links love to God with the fear of God without any sense of embarrassment: ‘Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts’ (Deut. 6:4-6). The following verses make it clear that the law applies to every part of life (vv7-9). Yet Moses sees no disjunction between loving God and fearing Him for later in the passage he says, ‘The LORD commanded us to obey all these decrees and to fear the LORD our God’ (v24). To love God is also to fear Him, so love is saved from sentimentality and fear from cringing.
The book of Proverbs, the book of wisdom par excellence, links wisdom with the fear of God. ‘The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding’ (9:10). The fear of God humbles the believer before God so he does not lean to his own understanding (3:5) for he knows that ‘wisdom will save [him] from the ways of wicked men, from men whose words are perverse’ (2:12).The fear of God is not restricted to worship. It has a marked influence on daily living, both negatively and positively. ‘A wise man fears the LORD and shuns evil’ (14:16). An outstanding example is Joseph who, when Potiphar’s wife made a determined attempt to seduce him, replied to her blandishments with words that showed that he feared God in his daily life: ‘My master has withheld nothing from me except you, because you are his wife. How then could I do such a wicked thing and sin against God?’ (Gen. 39:9). Fear of God does not only motivate us to avoid sin, God is also to be feared because He can deal with the problem of sin: ‘with you there is forgiveness, therefore you are feared’ (Ps. 130:4).
The fear of God in the New Testament
As I have already suggested the OT lays the foundation of the concept of the fear of God. The NT proceeds to build on it. In the early chapters of Acts the corporate aspect comes to the fore. When God’s judgement came upon Ananias and Sapphira for attempting to deceive the church we are told that ‘great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events’ (Acts 5:11). But not only may a church be solemnised by God’s judgement; it may be refreshed by the Lord’s favour. ‘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’ (Acts 9:31). The very atmosphere in which the church lived was suffused with reverence in worship and in daily living.
The fear of God influences how we pray. We approach God not to wheedle from Him what He is reluctant to grant but to pray that His will may be done on earth as it is done in heaven. We fear lest we ask amiss – anything that would not be to His glory. The fear of God also determines how we live. It runs through the whole of life. We are ashamed when we sin for we displease God when we do so. We do our work with integrity and honesty, out of reverence for God. When we know the fear of God in our hearts our worship is transformed. We begin to feel the force of Frederick William Faber’s words:
My God, how wonderful Thou art,
Thy majesty how bright!
How beautiful Thy mercy-seat,
In depths of burning light.
O how I fear Thee, living God,
With deepest, tenderest tears,
And worship Thee with trembling hope
And penitential tears.
How desperately we need to recover a sense of the fear of God in our churches and in our individual lives. Though it is central in true Christian piety it has largely vanished. John Murray’s words, in Principles of Conduct, call us to serious reflection:
- If we know God we must know him in the matchless glory of his transcendent majesty, and the only appropriate posture for us is prostration before him in awe and reverence. To think otherwise is to deny the transcendent greatness of God, and that is infidelity… Our consciousness is not biblical unless it is conditioned by the fear of God.
David Kingdon is a member of the editorial board of The Evangelical Magazine.