The Fear of God as a Central Part of Reformed Spirituality

This morning devotional was given at the conference of the World Reformed Fellowship.

“Meaningless! Meaningless!/I says the Teacher. Not only was the Teacher wise, but also he imparted knowledge to the people. He pondered and searched out and set in order many proverbs. The Teacher searched to find just the right words, and what he wrote was upright and true. The words of the wise are like goads, their collected sayings like firmly embedded nails given by one Shepherd. Be warned, my son, of anything in addition to them. Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body. Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil.” Ecclesiastes 12:8–14

When I was a student I lived in a dormitory where we used to have devotions at evening meals. One of the students would read a portion from the Bible, give a psalm or hymn to sing and then lead us in prayer. During times of exams some students used to read Ecclesiastes 12:12: “Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body,” giving the idea that students should be careful not to study too hard!

But that of course is not the meaning of this verse. When we read it in context the meaning is that if we read and study books that do not lead to our growth in the fear of God, such books are useless.

In this way it relates to the message of the whole book of Ecclesiastes, namely, that a life without God is senseless and meaningless.

From the beginning of chapter 1 the whole book has been weighing many things which people believe to give meaning to their lives. The author then ends with a seemingly very depressed conclusion in chapter 12:8: Everything is meaningless.

But then he says that in his search for the deepest meaning of life he has found the ultimate meaning of life: That is to fear God.

For many Christians, one of the most perplexing commands in the Bible is this command: “Fear God!” They feel uncomfortable with such an exhortation. When through Christ we call God “Father,” is there still any room left for fearing Him? Surely we are meant to love Him, not to fear Him. Doesn’t perfect love drive out fear (1 John 4:18)?

Yet, I am deeply convinced that this concept of the fear of God is a central part of true Reformed spirituality.

In many places of the Old and New Testaments, the Bible makes it clear that the heart of true religion is this fear of God.

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom … (Proverbs 9:10).

Since you call on a Father who judges each man’s work impartially, live your lives as strangers here in reverent fear (lPeter 1:17).

In fact, God’s wish for His children is that they should fear Him. He says to Moses according to Deuteronomy 5:29, “Oh, that their hearts would be inclined to fear me and keep all my commands always, so that it might go well with them and their children forever!”

The deepest wish of any true child of God is to truly know this fear of God. Therefore, each true child of God will pray with sincerety as David prayed in Psalm 86:11: “Teach me your way, O Lord, give me an undivided heart, that I may fear your name.”



What Does the Fear of God Mean?

It is not always easy to give the exact meaning of the Hebrew word yare’ that has been translated with the word fear. It is sometimes translated with reverence, sometimes with severity. Perhaps one of the German paraphrases comes closest to the real meaning when it translates: “Mit Gatt ernst machen.”

True fear of God almost defies definition, because it is really a synonym for the heartfelt worship of God for who God is and what He has done.

What we have to realize very well, is that the phrase fear of God does not mean that we must be afraid of God, or that a Christian should have anxiety or terror for Him.

It is true that the Bible uses the expression “the fear of God” in two different ways. Sometimes it does mean “terror,” even a “horror” of God. But then it is the fear of an unpardoned sinner who lives in deep antagonism against God (e.g., Genesis 3:10). It is the kind of terror that a slave has for his master, because he thinks that his master acts like a tyrant. In the parable of the talents this is the kind of fear in the attitude that the servant with the one talent had toward his master. He said: “Master, I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. So I was afraid and went out and hid your talent in the ground” (Matthew 25:25). That is not the fear we should have for God.

The true fear of God is a child-like fear. Some of the Puritans used to call it a “filial fear.” It is a combination of holy respect and glowing love. To fear God is to have a heart that is sensitive to both His Godness and His graciousness. It means to experience great awe and a deep joy simultaneously when one begins to understand who God really is and what He has done for us.

Therefore the true fear of God is not a fear that makes a person run away and flee from God. It is a fear that drives him to God. Love for God and fear of Him are, therefore, not at all incompatible. To think that they are is to fail to see the richness of the character of the God we worship. It is to ignore the way in which knowing Him in all of His attributes, and responding appropriately to Him, stretches our emotional capacities to their limit. Scripture portrays the fear of the Lord and the love of the Lord as companion emotions.

F. W. Faber saw this clearly when he wrote:

They love Thee little, if at all, Who do not fear Thee much: If love is Thine attraction, Lord, Fear is Thy very touch.

It is a feeling of deep awe and respect about His magnitude. It gives the child of God a deep inner peace and calm. It lets him cry out in amazement: “O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!”

This kind of spiritual experience that makes one kneel down before God in amazement and adoration and with deep thankfulness for His indescribable mercy. It brings him to cry out in utter amazement: “How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God!”

Do you know the fear of God like this? Have you known occasions when His Word arrested you with such force that you realized that He knows even the intentions of your heart (Hebrews 4:12)?

Have you sometimes meditated on the cross of Christ and found yourself saying: “Amazing love! How can it be, that Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?”

This is the fear of God. It is awe, admiration, wonder, and love, all experienced simultaneously in the presence of His glorious majesty. If you know and experience this filial fear of God it will have influence on every aspect of your life. Let us look at the impact this kind of spirituality has on our lives.

The Effects of the Fear of God in the Life of a Child of God

The most obvious impact of the fear of the Lord is that it produces holiness in our lives. It provides the spirit in which we continue to work out our salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12).

The Bible abounds in illustrations of the sanctified lifestyle which the fear of God produces:

1) It holds us back from continuing in sin. Look at Exodus 20:20. After God had given the law to His people, Moses said to them: God has come to test you, so that the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning.

Maybe you can recall the wellknown history of Joseph when the wife of Potiphar tried to seduce him. She blatantly invited him to come and sleep with her but he resisted. How did he do it? The answer shows clearly in his words: How could I do such a wicked thing and sin against my God (Genesis 39:9)? His fear of God kept him from sinning.

Why do we experience such blatant unfaithfulness, immorality, perversity and even homosexuality these days? The main reason is that the fear of God has almost disappeared.

According to the Bible, the fear of God is the foundation of genuine Christian morality.

Dear parents, is it your wish that your children should live a clean, unblemished life? Teach them then, from early childhood the true fear of God. Let your own life be an example of the true fear of God.

2) Child-like fear of God makes you a person of integrity, somebody who can be trusted.

Nehemiah was such a person. The governors of his time all reigned through bribery and corruption. In Nehemiah 5:15 he says that the earlier governors—those preceding him—placed a heavy burden on the people and demanded bribes of money, food and wine. Their assistants also lorded it over the people and then he concludes by saying: So did I not, because of the fear of God.

If we shared this sense of awareness that we live “before the face of God” (coram Deo as Calvin used to put it), a new honesty would mark our speech and make us stand out in the world.

3) Child-like fear of God promotes obedience to God’s commands in our lives.

When Noah received the order to build an ark he was obedient. Despite the scorn of the people of his time, he built the ark on dry ground. In Hebrews 11:7 we read that Noah built an ark in holy fear to save his family.

4) Fear of God drives away your fear of people and what they possibly could do to you. Jesus said that we should not fear those that can only kill the body, but that we should fear Him who can destroy body and soul in hell.

Many Christians are afraid to show that they are followers of Christ. Here is the answer to our own lack of courage in witness! The great reformers in history were all people who acted with undaunted bravery. For example, friend and foe said of John Knox that he feared no man because he feared God. That is one of the reasons why all of Scotland decreed a change of religion only one year after Knox started to work full time in Scotland. Of his preaching it was said: “Others lop off branches, but this man strikes at the root.”

5) The true fear of God provides a vision and a zeal for missions. Look how clearly it is written in 2 Corinthians 5:11. Paul is explaining what it was that made him such a zealous missionary. He then says: Since, then, we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade men. For him involvement in missions was not a kind of a special hobby or a kind of sentimental exercise as some Christians and churches view it.

Those who fear the Lord, who have been gripped, awed, stunned by their knowledge of God naturally want to employ all their energies and gifts to bring others to trust such a gracious Savior. This is what happened in the early church: It was strengthened and encouraged by the Holy Spirit; it grew in numbers, living in the fear of the Lord (Acts 9:31).

This applies not only to individuals, but also to congregations as a whole in their daily lives as well as in their worship together.

Look at 1 Corinthians 14:24–25 where Paul says that there should be such a consciousness of God’s presence when Christians are worshiping that an unbeliever who might be there, will be touched to such an extent that he “will fall down on his knees and worship God, declaring that God is really there among them.”

How Does One Achieve a Filial Fear of God?

When you realize the greatness and majesty of God, when a respectful awe settles in your soul, then you really start to fear God. After God had revealed something of his predominant majesty to Job, and had asked: “Do you have an arm like God’s, and can your voice thunder like his?” (Job 40:9), Job replied: “I know that you can do all things; no plan of yours can be thwarted…My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:2, 5, 6).

You see, a realization of our insignificance before God Almighty lets us bow before God with awe and true fear. But this realization is not enough to produce the true filial fear of God in our hearts. The main thing needed for growth in the filial fear of God, is the realization of God’s mercy for us as lost sinners.

“But there is forgiveness with you, that you may be feared” (Psalm 130:4). What does this mean? It means that an understanding of God’s mercy and lovingkindness in the final instance produces the true fear of God in our hearts. The realization that the sovereign, great, almighty God, who should condemn me for all my sins, has forgiven me, has sent His Son to save me, has adopted me and made me His heir. This realization generates the true fear of God. As John Newton says in his song, Amazing Grace: “’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear.”

The Holy Spirit produces this true fear of God in the hearts of people. He does it through the preaching of the gospel. Where Jesus Christ is preached faithfully, God has allowed us to look into His heart—a heart filled with so much love for a broken, lost, condemned world, that He sent His only Son, whom He loved dearly, to rescue sinners.

Oh, you who fear God, bow before Him and confess: “But with you O God, there is forgiveness; therefore you are feared” (Psalm 130:5).


O LORD, God of heaven, great and awesome God, who keeps your covenant of love with those who love you and obey your commands let your ear be attentive and your eyes open to hear the prayer your servants are praying before you. Holy Father we come to you with humble adoration. We do not know what we ought to pray in order to bring real glory to your name. Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of you O God! How unsearchable your judgments, and your paths beyond tracing out!

Who has known your mind O Lord? Or who has been your counselor? Who has ever given to you O God, that you should repay him? For from you and through you and to you are all things. To you be the glory forever!

How great is your goodness, which you have stored up for those who fear you, which you bestow in the sight of men on those who take refuge in you.

We confess our sins we have committed against you. We have acted very wickedly toward you, by not walking and living and working in your presence with reverence and a sense of awe and wonder.

So many times even in our worship and in our service we have been acting so flippantly and superficially. So many times we have more fear of people than we have filial fear for you. Oh Father please forgive us in the name of your dear Son Jesus Christ. Look at us through His blood.

Teach us through your Holy Spirit how to really walk in the comfort of the Holy Spirit and the fear of God. Make us faithful, humble, yet bold witnesses of your glory and greatness to all the tribes and tongues and nations of the world.

We long for the coming of the great and wonderful day when the Gospel will have been preached to all the nations and the numbers of your elect are filled and our Lord and Savior will return with glory to wipe away all the tears from our eyes and be with us for evermore so that we may then serve you with perfect holiness.

Therefore we pray as your church: Come Lord Jesus, do come quickly. Amen.