Grace and the Fear of the Lord

Michael Hoch

What do you fear? We all fear something or someone. When it’s an inordinate or unusual fear it’s a phobia. For example, anthrophobia is fear of flowers, arachibutyrophobia is a fear of peanut butter sticking to the roof of your mouth, bibliphobia is the fear of books (rare among pastors) and phobophobia is the fear of phobias. While most of us don’t fear flowers or books, we all fear. We were designed to fear; it is God-given and good. There are, however different types of fear. Some fears are natural and appropriate, such as the fear of wrestling a hungry lion. Some fears are sinful, such as the fear of man. The point is fear is unavoidable.

When experienced as God intended, fear is desirable and beneficial for our physical and spiritual survival. It is good that we’re afraid of tight-roping across the Grand Canyon. Even better and more important is our fear of the Lord (Deut 6:24). Both of these fears protect us from danger and both help us make good choices. The fear of the Lord, however, is not like other fears, which amount to anxious feelings caused by the threat of danger. Instead, fearing God provides strength and wisdom (Prov 9:10). It engenders God’s favour toward us (Ps 147:11) and puts us in a posture to receive His grace and mercy (Ps 103:11, 13, 17).

The fear of the Lord may be defined as that reverential submission to and adoration of God that affects a desire to please Him by doing His will and a dread of displeasing Him by sinning; it is cultivated and sustained by His grace. Reverential submission and adoration is at the heart of what it means to fear God. It describes an attitude of someone standing before the King of kings and Lord of lords with a disposition to worship and obey. In Eph 5:21 we're told to submit to one another in the fear of Christ. We are to respectfully submit to each other based on our reverentially submission to Christ. John connected the fear of the Lord with worship when he wrote, [the angel] said with a loud voice, “Fear God, and give Him glory, because the hour of His judgment has come; worship Him who made the heaven and the earth (Rev 14:7; cf. Heb 12:28-29). This reverential submission and aspiration to worship God produces in us a desire to please Him by obeying His revealed will. For example, Solomon ended his arduous pursuit of the meaning of life with the words, The conclusion, when all has been heard, is: fear God and keep His commandments, because this applies to every person. For God will bring every act to judgment, everything which is hidden, whether it is good or evil (Eccl 12:13-14; cf. 2 Cor 5:9-11). The fear of the Lord also produces a dread of displeasing Him by sinning (Prov 16:6; Isa 8:13-14a). All of this is sustained by God’s grace or else it will deteriorate into a frustrating legalism. That’s why we need to connect fearing God with His grace.

David was a man of action, accustomed to hardship and danger. At one point, while fleeing from Saul, he encountered Achish, the king of Gath (1 Sam 21:10-15). David was afraid the king would kill him so he deceitfully pretended to be insane. Despite his lack of trust in God, he was delivered and subsequently wrote Psalm 34 to praise God and instruct others to fear Him. David teaches us that those who fear the Lord taste and see that He is good (8a); they are blessed and take refuge in God (8b); they seek the Lord and are not in want of any good thing (10). In addition, the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous who fear Him (15) and He is near to them (18). The final verse of the psalm is perhaps the most instructive because it says the Lord redeems and does not condemn (i.e. hold guilty for their sin) those who fear Him (22). Redemption and freedom from condemnation come at a high cost, namely the blood of Jesus Christ, our Savior (Eph 1:7; Rom 3:21-26; Gal 3:13). Ultimately, David was delivered from death because he had Christ’s righteousness and because God is gracious. Peter also understood that fearing God is based on and connected to redemption. He commands us to fear God knowing that we were redeemed with the precious blood of Christ (1 Pet 1:17-21). In both the Old and New Testament the gospel of grace precedes and sustains our reverential submission and adoration to God.

Psalm 103 also relates the fear of the Lord to the gospel. God’s immeasurable lovingkindness, complete forgiveness, and fatherly compassion are toward those who fear Him (11-13, 17). The entire psalm is a celebration of God’s gracious forgiveness of our sins. He knows that we are weak, frail, and helpless creatures who are totally dependent on Him (15-16). That is why He saves us, so that His grace toward undeserving sinners will be exalted (cf. Eph 1:6; 2:7) and will create worshippers who love Him by obeying (cf. John 14:21). Just as we love because He first loved us (1 John 4:19), so we fear the Lord because He graciously lavished us with compassion.

Psalm 134 succinctly states, there is forgiveness with You, that You may be feared (4). God’s forgiveness is only possible through the gospel of Jesus Christ and forgiveness produces in us an appropriate fear of the Lord. Thus, we can conclude that the gospel is the foundational motivation for rightly fearing God. We all want the above definition to be a description of our life. In order for that to happen we must daily rehearse the truths of the gospel. Only the sweet promises of redemption, a life humbled by and boasting in the cross, a clear view of the beauty and magnificence of our Savior, and an application of the new resurrected life in Christ will produce in us that reverential submission and adoration that affects a desire to please Him by doing His will and a dread of displeasing Him by sinning. Only the gospel will prevent our obedience and pursuit of holiness from deteriorating into legalism. The gospel is the power of God! The gospel is our doorway to a personal and intimate relationship with our Maker and Master. It is means by which every other fear except the fear of the Lord is cast out (1 John 4:18; cf. Exod 20:20).

T’was Grace that taught my heart to fear. // And Grace, my fears relieved
— John Newton