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The Fear Of The Lord Vs. Unhealthy Fear

How do you reconcile the many passages of Scripture that call God’s people to not be afraid and those which call them to fear the Lord? The Old Testament has much to say about the fear of the Lord and contrary to what some people say the New Testament also has a good deal to say about the fear of the Lord.

Here are some passages in the OT that may puzzle some of us:

Moses said to the people, “Do not fear, for God has come to test you, that the fear of him may be before you, that you may not sin.” Exodus 20:20 ESV

“And Samuel said to the people, “Do not be afraid; you have done all this evil. Yet do not turn aside from following the Lord, but serve the Lord with all your heart...

Only fear the Lord and serve him faithfully with all your heart. For consider what great things he has done for you.”1 Samuel 12:20, 24 ESV

So which is it? Fear or don’t fear?

There are also NT passages that teach us to fear the Lord such as:

Jesus On the Fear Of the Lord

“So have no fear of them, for nothing is covered that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. 27 What I tell you in the dark, say in the light, and what you hear whispered, proclaim on the housetops. 28 And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. 29 Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. 30 But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. 31 Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows. Matthew 10:26-31 ESV

Here again, we see coming from the lips of our Lord do not be afraid and fear God. You and I are designed for awe and wonder and this is to be centered around the Lord, who created us for Himself. If we fail to live in awe of God, or in the fear of the Lord, then we will be subject to all sorts of other fears dominating our life.

Peter of the Fear of the Lord

  • The Apostle Peter wrote: Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor. 1 Peter 2:17 ESV

  • And if you call on him as Father who judges impartially according to each one's deeds, conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile. 1 Peter 1:17

Paul on the Fear Of the Lord

The Apostle Paul wrote:

  • Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade others. 2 Cor. 5:11 ESV

  • …They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith. So do not become proud, but fear. Romans 11:22 ESV

John On The Fear of The Lord

The Apostle John hear an Angel say:

  • “Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has come, and worship him who made heaven and earth, the sea and the springs of water.”Revelation 14:7 ESV

So it’s evident that both the NT and OT teach the fear of the Lord and call God’s people to not fear evil, people, trouble, death, etc…

Some passages are also very clear about us not walking in a certain type of fear such as these:

  • For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” Romans 8:15 ESV

  • for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control. 2 Timothy 1:7 ESV

  • There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. 1 John 4:18 ESV

So what do we make of these two concepts that the Bible teaches? We have all seen enough of unhealthy toxic fear in our lives that robs us of quality of life. Clearly, a tactic of Satan is to use this kind of fear to keep people in bondage. Yet the fear of the Lord is clean and pure (Psalm 19:9). The fear of the Lord describes a life that is oriented towards God and worshipful of Him.

Luke wrote about the early church walking this:

  • So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was being built up. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it multiplied. Acts 9:31 ESV

Here are so ways that godly men have distinguished between the two fears that Scripture addresses:

• A forbidden fear vs. a fear commanded- John Bunyan

• Bondage fear vs. reverential fear - Stephan Charnock

• Filial fear vs. servile fear - George Swinnock

• Idolatrous fear vs. worshipful fear - John Gill

• Fear that draws men further from God versus fear that drives men toward God. - Charles Spurgeon

  • Twas grace that taught my heart to fear And grace my fears relieved- John Newton

This last quote from the most loved hymn Amazing Grace has been so helpful for me as I’ve wrestled with seeing the compatibility of the fear of the Lord and New Testament grace. It reminds me of the powerful words of the Prophet Jeremiah when he wrote about the New Covenant:

I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear me forever, for their own good and the good of their children after them. I will make with them an everlasting covenant, that I will not turn away from doing good to them. And I will put the fear of me in their hearts, that they may not turn from me. Jeremiah 32:39-40 ESV

The reality that God puts a holy fear of Him in us is a gracious gift. And that fact that through this holy fear, we are kept from departing from Him is also God’s grace, which helps sustains us.

The gospel of Jesus addresses our deepest fears, such as fear of death, rejection, and judgment, by Christ taking the punishment for sin, tasting death for us, and becoming sin for us that we might become to the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21). Knowing what Christ has done for us relieves us of the paralyzing toxic fear, while at the same time, we are awestruck by who God is and what great things He has done for us at the cross. We respond as Psalm 2 instructs us to:

Serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way, for his wrath is quickly kindled. Blessed are all who take refuge in him. Psalm 2:11-12 ESV

We are those who have fled to Jesus for refuge and reverently welcome his reign in our lives, knowing that he has bore the wrath of God’s judgment for our sin (1 Peter 3:18, 1 John 2:1-2). Our hope is in Christ alone.

Note the fear of the Lord is accompanied by hope:

  • Behold, the eye of the Lord is on those who fear him, on those who hope in his steadfast love, that he may deliver their soul from death and keep them alive in famine. Psalm 33:18 ESV

  • …the Lord takes pleasure in those who fear him, in those who hope in his steadfast love. Psalm 147:11 ESV

Perhaps some of us need to recover a healthy fear of the Lord and be relieved through the gospel of the unhealthy fears in our life.

The Scripture highlights several benefits to walking in the fear of the Lord and the consequences for not doing so. Here are some benefits:

  • The fear of the Lord leads to life, and whoever has it rests satisfied; he will not be visited by harm. Proverbs 19:23

  • Who is the man who fears the Lord? Him will he instruct in the way that he should choose. His soul shall abide in well-being, and his offspring shall inherit the land. The friendship of the Lord is for those who fear him, and he makes known to them his covenant. Psalm 25:12-14 ESV

  • …by the fear of the Lord one turns away from evil. Proverbs 16:6 ESV

  • In the fear of the Lord one has strong confidence, and his children will have a refuge. The fear of the Lord is a fountain of life, that one may turn away from the snares of death. Proverbs 14:26-27 ESV

  • Oh, fear the Lord, you his saints, for those who fear him have no lack! Psalm 34:9 ESV

May you and I experience all the benefits of this holy fear in our lives as we ‘work out our own salvation with fear and trembling, knowing that God who works in us, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.’ Philippians 2:12-13

May we be delivered from every toxic fear that Scripture calls us to courageously resist so that we might glorify God more fully with our lives (Psalm 34:4).

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