This is the commandment: that you may fear the LORD your God. ~Deuteronomy 6:2
Fear is a funny thing. Nobody likes to be afraid—except for when we do: roller coasters, haunted hay rides, scary movies. Over and over again, we’re commanded in the Bible to not fear. In fact, I’ve been told (although I haven’t done the counting myself) that the Bible says “Don’t fear” 365 times, one for every day of the year. Apparently it’s a message that we, who are so quick to fear and lose faith, need to hear over and over again.
But there’s another thing that the Bible teaches about fear, and at first glance it almost seems like the opposite of those 365 “Don’t fear” commands. Over and over again, we are told in Scripture to fear God. “You shall fear your God: I am the LORD” (Leviticus 19:14). “This is the commandment: that you may fear the LORD your God” (Deuteronomy 6:2). “Great is the LORD and greatly to be praised; he is to be feared above all gods” (Psalm 96:4). “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 1:7). Isaiah 8:13 says it the most bluntly: “Let him be your fear, and let him be your dread.” And lest you think this is just an Old Testament concept, consider 2 Corinthians 5:11—“Knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade others,” or 1 Peter 2:17—“Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God.” And of course, remember the less-than-warm-and-fuzzy comfort that Jesus gave: “Have no fear of them… Don’t fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28). Thanks, Jesus. I feel a lot better now.
These texts, and many more like them, are worth our sober consideration. If it’s true that God repeats things to get our attention, then we had better sit up and take notice. This command is so prevalent throughout Scripture, it must be important. Yet for something so important, we seem to have very vague and fuzzy notions about what it means to fear God. And fuzzy thinking always leads to fuzzy living; if we don’t think clearly and biblically about a certain topic, that deficient thinking will always manifest itself in deficient living and deficient holiness. So how are we supposed to obey the command to fear God if we’re not even sure what that means?
And there’s another problem. Fearing God seems somehow out of step with the gospel. If God loves me and sent his Son to die for me to forgive my sins so that I would be his child forever with my entrance to heaven secured by his grace… where does fear fit into that? I thought “perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18). If in Christ God is now my Father, Friend, Savior, and Lover, that would seem to leave no room for fear. And yet Jesus himself, the Great Redeemer and Good Shepherd, tells me to fear God. Paul, who heralded the radical gospel of free and sovereign grace more passionately than anyone, said that his gospel ministry was propelled by “knowing the fear of the Lord.”
The saints of old seemed to know how to hold these two pieces together better than we do. John Bunyan, who wrote The Pilgrim’s Progress in 1678 while imprisoned for preaching the gospel, wrote, “Christian, let God’s distinguishing love to you be a motive to you to fear him greatly.” William Gurnall, a 17th century pastor and author, expositing Matthew 10:28, said, “We fear men so much, because we fear God so little. One fear cures another. When man’s terror scares you, turn your thoughts to the wrath of God.” And John Newton, in his hymn “Amazing Grace,” wrote these mysterious and profound lines: “’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear / And grace my fears relieved.” Clearly these men of God understood something about fearing God that we, in the 21st century, struggle to grasp.
So if these two seemingly opposite things—the fear of God and the grace of God— feel contradictory to you, it’s probably because we breathe the poisonous 21st century air of cheap grace far more deeply than our predecessors. If we can’t conceive of a gospel of “grace that taught my heart to fear,” we have not sufficiently encountered biblical grace.
Fortunately, God is kind to us, and has given us a wealth of direction in his Word, sufficient to recover the lost link between grace and fear. In my previous book, Cross Connections, I laid out what I believe is the central thesis of the Christian life: every single thing that the Bible tells Christians to do, believe, think, or say, is explicitly and directly, in a verse or passage, tied to cross of Christ. Time and time again, the biblical authors draw lines of motivation from the cross to specific areas of our lives: our love, or joy, our purity… and our fear of God. “We love because he first loved us.” “Forgive one another as God in Christ forgave you.” “You were bought at a price; therefore honor God in your body.” “Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself for her.” “Conduct yourselves with fear, knowing that you were ransomed…” Nothing—not even the fear of God— falls outside the cross’s purview.
There are two primary biblical texts that are fueling this short volume. The first is 1 Peter 1:17-18: “Conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile, knowing that you were ransomed…” Do you hear the connection that Peter makes? “Conduct yourselves with fear”—in other words, fear God—knowing that you were ransomed. The kind of fear that Peter is after is a fear filled with knowledge of Christ’s ransoming work on the cross. How does that work? What’s the relationship between fear and ransom? That tension is what I want to draw out in these pages.
The second text driving this book is Isaiah 8:12-15. Here it is in its entirety:
Do not call conspiracy all that this people calls conspiracy, and do not fear what they fear, nor be in dread. But Yahweh the Almighty, him you shall honor as holy. Let him be your fear, and let him be your dread. And he will become a sanctuary and a stone of offense and a rock of stumbling to both houses of Israel, a trap and a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem. And many shall stumble on it. They shall fall and be broken; they shall be snared and taken.
This surprising passage is a message of comfort (“Don’t fear! He will be your sanctuary!”) wrapped in a message of judgment. It’s about a fear of God that kills every lesser fear, and a reckoning with an Absolute Reality that is simultaneously a sanctuary and rock of stumbling. Once again, it’s those tensions that I want to explore here.
To do that, we will take a whirlwind tour through the heart of God revealed in His Word, attempting to get glimpses of the glorious paradox that shines at the heart of reality and, most brightly, at the cross. This book is laid out as seven meditations on the fear of God and the gospel; some of them are extended, and some are only a few pages. In this short volume, as we survey what the Bible says about fearing God, we will find again and again that we are doing nothing less than surveying the wondrous cross on which the Prince of glory died. At first glance, the topics covered in these pages might seem scattered, but that’s intentional; it’s my goal for us to see the blazing heart of God refracted through many facets of gospel truth. As we turn the gospel diamond in our hands to to see the cross from new angles, we’ll also gain new perspectives on what it means to fear God. My prayer for you is that, through these few pages, God will teach your heart to sing anew,
‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear
And grace my fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed!