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One important word much used in Christian discourse until the mid-20th century, but now virtually absent from it, is the expression “fear of God” or “fear of the Lord.” When did you last hear a sermon on this topic, and how often, if at all, does the expression, or one synonymous with it, occur in modern liturgy and in modern extempore and charismatic services?
The way that the Bible has been understood over the centuries – until apparently recent times – is that it is impossible either to worship God or to love God, unless there is first the fear of God in the soul. For, as the Psalter and the Proverbs declare: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom….and of knowledge.” Without experiencing the fear of the LORD, the one true and living God, it is impossible to know him, to worship him, to love him and to keep his commandments.
The prophecy concerning the coming Messiah in Isaiah 11 declares: “The Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD, and his delight shall be in the fear of the LORD.” The Messiah’s delight shall be in the fear of the LORD!
In the Letter to the Hebrews we read of Jesus the Messiah: “In the days of his flesh Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him [the Father] who was able to save him from death, and he was heard for his godly fear” (Heb.5:7). Jesus was heard for his godly fear.
The Blessed Virgin Mary in her Magnificat declared of the LORD that “his mercy is on those who fear him from generation to generation” (Luke 1:50). God’s mercy rests on those who fear him.
In the Letters of St Paul the fear of the Lord is presented as a necessary component of the Christian walk with God. “Since we have these promises [from God], beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, making holiness perfect in the fear of God” (II.Cor.7:1). Holiness is made perfect in the fear of God.
Addressing baptized Christians as exiled from their true home in heaven, St Peter urges them to “conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile” (1:17). Fear of the Lord is a necessary part of the life and attitude of pilgrims.
In the worship of heaven, the angels and archangels with redeemed humanity fear the LORD, the Holy Trinity. The angel with the eternal gospel cried with a loud voice, “Fear God and give him the glory….” (14:7); and singing the Song of the Lamb the heavenly choir say, “O king of the ages! Who shall not fear and glorify thy name?” (15:5), Further, the redeemed are identified as those who fear God, when they are urged by a voice from the throne, “Praise our God, all you his servants, you who fear him, small and great” (19:5). In heaven the fear of God is necessary and perfected.
So it would appear that all baptized Christians are called to be, and must be, if they are to worship, love and serve God the Father aright, “God-fearing persons.” This is truly a filial fear, the fear of both God’s adopted daughters and his sons.
The fear of God obviously includes a dread of his wrath and judgment against sin. This basic fear can never be eliminated this side of the Great Judgment at the end of the age! Nor would the godly want it to be removed! But more often in the O.T. and the N.T. fear refers to the sense of awe, reverence, amazement, and abasement in the mind and heart, as the forgiven sinner stands before the purity of holiness and righteousness of the Majesty of God the LORD. Only with this attitude governing his relation to the Father through the Son, will he be able – in biblical terms – truly to worship, truly to love and truly to obey the Lord, for the fear of the Lord is truly the beginning of wisdom (perceiving what God requires) and of knowledge (of who is God and what he has revealed). If we know God we must know him in the matchless glory of his transcendent majesty, and the only appropriate posture for us before him is prostration before him in awe, reverence and humble adoration, for his Name is glorious and fearful (Deut. 28:58).
Certainly “perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18) but this kind of fear is not the fear of the Lord but fear of torment, and such fear is removed by the indwelling presence of the Holy Ghost.
One obvious reason why the genuine fear of God is missing in modern piety and devotion is that God has been, as it were, domesticated. He is seen more as the everywhere-present “Father-God” and “Loving God” whose presence his children may always feel. He has been brought down from the Throne of His Majesty to dwell most of his time on earth. So the fear of the Lord has been replaced by “feeling good” and “being affirmed” and knowing one’s “self-worth and dignity” through “self-realization.” The Rite II liturgies, and their successors in The Episcopal Church, are such that their effect, in the context of the general lack of a sense of the transcendent glory of the LORD in culture of church, is to eliminate “the fear of the Lord” as a necessary affection and motion of the soul. Thus the “the fear of God” is rarely to be seen in contemporary piety, be it that of the “progressives” or the “orthodox.” Instead, “celebration” has become the key aspect for all.
In general, it would seem, modern Christians have so engaged in dumbing-down of doctrine and piety, devotion and liturgy, that they have lost that necessary ingredient of pure religion which is “the fear of the LORD.” Let us not forget that true saints on earth love and fear God and they do not cease when they are promoted to the heavenly Jerusalem, for there also Jesus in his sacred, perfect humanity, leads the heavenly host in the fear, worship and love of the Father, by the Holy Ghost!
The Rev’d Dr. Peter Toon MA., D.Phil (Oxford)