Various Passages

Discussion Questions

  1. What comes to mind initially when you think of "the fear of God?" How do Christians (and non-Christians) often misunderstand this doctrine?
  2. What are the two kinds of fear of God found in the Bible? What is the difference between the two?
  3. Why must a person first experience Fearful Dread of God before they can experience Fearful Delight in God? How does the gospel lead us from the first fear to the second?
  4. What were the three daily practices for growing in the right (delightful) fear of God? Which stood out to you the most?
  5. How do you need to grow in the fear of God?


This morning, I want to put the fear of God in you.

I wonder, as you hear that, what image is conjured up in your mind? Perhaps a memory of your exasperated mom or dad, frustrated that they can’t get you to pay attention to them and respect them. Or maybe a coach from your youth who sees your slacking and wants to motivate you to stop messing around and try harder. They invoke this phrase, “the fear of God,” to try and grab you by the ears and force you to understand the gravity of the not-so-great situation you find yourself in, and to hopefully motivate you to do better, try harder, and turn your life around.

Maybe you think fearing God is kind of like that. Maybe it’s supposed to make you feel like you are looking up into the eyes of the big neighborhood kid who is a good two feet taller and fifty pounds heavier than you, who you knew could pound you into dust if he wanted to. It would be natural to fear someone like that. He’s big; you’re small. He’s strong; you’re weak. The rules with someone like that are pretty clear—”don’t cross me, don’t make me mad, do what I say, and I won’t beat you up.” You might very well have a kind of “awe” and “respect” for someone like that, but not admiration or love. Your goal is simply to avoid trouble, stay on their good side, and keep your distance as much as possible.

I wonder if this is not too far off from how you think of the “fear of God—” a doctrine the Bible uses like the crack of a whip to force your obedience and unyielding allegiance to God—never fully sure if you’ve done enough to appease God’s anger at your sin, never totally confident that he won’t one day abandon you because of your repeated failings.

Or maybe that’s not you. Maybe you think of “the fear of God” as something more archaic—an Old Testament teaching needed to keep the wayward people of Israel in line. Perhaps, you think, that God needed to parade around his holiness and righteous anger to enforce his Law. But now that Jesus has come and has fulfilled the Law of God and has fully dealt with our sin on the cross, there is now no place for trembling or fear for the Christian. Our very reason for rejoicing, you might say, is that we no longer have to fear God! We are forgiven, adopted, loved, and secure in Christ.

  • Doesn’t 1 John 4:18 even say, “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?” Yes, and amen.
  • And yet another New Testament writer, the apostle Paul, tells the Philippian church to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12).

So, is the Bible contradicting itself? Or is it more likely that the misunderstanding rests in us, and not the Bible?

This morning I want to argue that the doctrine of the fear of God is one of the most misunderstood teachings in all of the Bible, and at the same time, is the thing most paramount to lasting love for God, joy, and peace in the Christian life.

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

My aim this morning is to help us examine the two kinds of “fear of God” that the Bible presents—1) Fearful Dread and 2) Fearful Delight, and how it is only the good news of the gospel that can move us from the first fear to the second. We’ll then conclude with three daily practices that can help us grow in the right fear of God.

Fearful Dread
  • Hebrews 10:31 “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”

Every person alive has a reason to fear God. He is the Creator of all living things. “He alone who is immortal and dwells in unapproachable light.” He is the Sovereign Lord who holds all power and authority in his hands.

  • Psalm 99:1-2 “The LORD reigns; let the peoples tremble! He sits enthroned upon the cherubim; let the earth quake! The LORD is great in Zion; he is exalted over all the peoples.”

And he alone is God, and he does not share his glory with any other.

  • Deuteronomy 5:9 You shall not bow down to [false gods] or serve them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me…”

And he alone is holy and just.

  • 1 Timothy 6:16 “ [God] who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see. “
  • Leviticus 19:2 “Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them, You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.””

And he calls us to be holy, as he is holy, and that we cannot saved out of our sins unless we acquire this perfect holiness.

  • **Hebrews 12:14 “**Strive for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.”
  • Matthew 5:20 “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

But if we’re honest with ourselves, we know too how deep the root of sin runs in our hearts, and how miserably inconsistent we are in our obedience to God.

  • Psalm 51:3-4 “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment.”

If God is holy and just, and we are unholy sinners, we have every reason for fearful dread. There is divine wrath, ever increasing, that is being stored up for every person who has not placed their trust in a righteousness outside of themselves.

So then, how can you move from fearful dread of God, to fearful delight in him? The gospel!

In the gospel, we see both God’s holiness and man’s depravity put on full display. God, the Creator, made us to know, love, and worship him. He gave us dominion over creation and made us in his image so that we would carry his glory and goodness through the world. And yet, like our forefather Adam, each of us has rebelled against God, choosing sin over obedience, self-worship over God-worship, defiling the name of the God in whose image we were made. We were called to be “holy as he is holy,” and yet because of our sin, “we have all sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). The wages of this sin is spiritual death—eternal, conscious torment in hell as the due penalty for our sins. God is the righteous judge.

And yet, in unfathomable, undeserved mercy and grace, spurred by great love, this holy and righteous Creator has made a way for your sins to fully and forever paid for. “But,” Paul says in Galatians 4:4-5, “when the fullness of time had come,” when you were at your very worst—exiled from God, drowning in your sins, “God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.” Jesus came and he drank the cup of God’s wrath that was meant for you. He tasted eternal death so that you would never have to. And by acknowledging your sinful state before God, repenting of your sins, and placing your faith in Christ alone, you receive a full pardon—not just a clean slate, but the full righteousness of Jesus credited to your account! And adoption into the family of God, the promise of eternal life, and the constant presence of God with you in the Holy Spirit. God is the merciful Father.

But friend, here is the key: You cannot know God as merciful father unless you first know him as righteous judge. You cannot know forgiveness until you know that you need forgiveness. In other words, you cannot experience fearful delight in God, until you first experience fearful dread of God.

At this point in the sermon, I want to stop and ask if you have ever considered what kind of “fear” you most defines your relationship to God? Do you find yourself relating to God more from a place of fearful dread? You see God as severe, holy, terrifying, unyielding? If this is where your conception of God’s character ends, then your trembling dread is actually appropriate. God is holy. And you can be absolutely certain that he will judge your sin. Proverbs 11:21 says, “Be assured, an evil person will not go unpunished.“

In the book of Revelation, we get a startling picture of the trembling dread that will overwhelm the hearts of every person who has not trusted in Christ: Revelation 6:15-17 “Then the kings of the earth and the great ones and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, calling to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?” If right now, you are not trusting in Christ—if your hope is in your church attendance, the faith of your parents, your religious efforts, anything else—this is the end that awaits you. You should tremble in dread*.*

And yet, if you are in fearful dread before God right now, can I encourage you? In your trembling dread you are perfectly positioned to embrace the very thing necessary for fearful delight. If you have been brought low by despair over your awful sin, and you now see that God is right and just to pour out his wrath upon you for that sin, you are now ready to receive the remedy that he has made available through his Son to cancel the record of your sin debt that stood against you, and to embrace you not only as an appeased judge, but a loving Father!

  • “Let not conscience make you linger, Nor of fitness fondly dream; All the fitness He requireth Is to feel your need of Him.” -Come Ye Sinners, Poor and Needy

This is why John Calvin could say, “The knowledge of God set forth for us in Scripture invites us first to fear God, and then to trust Him.” This order is inescapable.

But now we might ask, “if Jesus came to free us from the fearful dread of God’s anger and wrath, do we still have any reason to fear Him?” **Yes! Reeves, in the opening chapter in Rejoice and Tremble, explains this strange paradox of Christianity:

  • “…the gospel both frees us from fear and gives us fear. It frees us from our crippling fears, giving us instead a most delightful, happy, and wonderful fear” (16).
Fearful Delight

Let’s turn now to consider how we are to understand and experience this “delightful, happy, and wonderful fear” that the gospel calls us into—this fearful delight.

You might think it strange to connect fear and delight, two experiences that appear to be the epitome of opposites. Perhaps you can envision both loving someone and fearing them at the same time. A child might delight in his father’s generosity and quick sense of humor, and yet fear his explosive anger. Both positive and negative traits exist in his father’s heart, and yet the child, for the sake of love, might try to overlook the bad to embrace the good. Is this how Christians should relate to God? Should we delight in what we see to be most pleasing **in God—his grace and mercy? And yet fear his more frightening attributes—his power and holiness? No!

  • “It is not as if love draws near and fear distances. Nor is this fear of God one side of our reaction to God. It is not simply that we love God for his graciousness and fear him for his majesty. That would be a lopsided fear of God. We also love him in his holiness and tremble at the marvelousness of his mercy. True fear of God is true love for God defined: it is the right response to God’s full-orbed revelation of himself in all his grace and glory” (Reeves, 53).

So, here is our answer: to fear God IS to love him; and to love him IS to fear him. Look how the Psalmist uses both fear and love interchangeably in Psalm 145:

  • “He fulfills the desire of those who fear him; he also hears their cry and saves them. The LORD preserves all who love him, but all the wicked he will destroy.” (19-20)

But how can we learn to appreciate—yes, even delight in—those parts of God that seem to us dreadfully fearful? When we see how God has wielded his infinite power, holiness, and justice for our good in Christ. It is not as if God puts away his holiness and justice in order to forgive us. It is at the cross of Christ where we see both justice and mercy meet! At the cross we are both struck with the horror of our sin and the unfathomable mercy of God. This should cause us to fearfully delight in God.

  • **Psalm 130:3-4 “**If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared.
  • Jeremiah 33:8-9 “I will cleanse them from all the guilt of their sin against me, and I will forgive all the guilt of their sin and rebellion against me. And this city shall be to me a name of joy, a praise and a glory before all the nations of the earth who shall hear of all the good that I do for them. They shall fear and tremble because of all the good and all the prosperity I provide for it.

I love the image Charles Spurgeon painted in one of his sermons. He asks if there has ever been a moment, where you’re looking up into the countless stars at night, or examining the intricate wings of the most delicate insect, or watching lightning crash and thunder boom all around you, and shrink into yourself saying, “God, how terrible (or fearfully awesome) art thou!—not afraid, but full of delight, like a child who rejoices to see his father’s wealth, his father’s wisdom, his father’s power—happy, and at home, but feeling oh, so little!” (Spurgeon, ”A Fear to be Desired”)

Last night, Melissa was helping me think through some illustrations to describe what this trembling, delighted fear should look like. She shared with me the memory of a time a few months ago where she had left our youngest son, Jamie, then about 8 months old, home with her mom while she ran some errands. When she arrived back at home and came through the front door, Jamie, at first content playing with Nana, spun his head around, and realizing who it was who just came through that door, opened his eyes wide, began to shake involuntarily, and squealed with delight at the sight of his mother. He knew down to his bones the character of this person he cherished more than anyone else in the world. He had experiential knowledge of the fierce love and affection his mother had for him, and he knew the safe haven that she was for him, that in her arms, he had nothing to fear. And so, he trembled with delight. Friends, this is the kind of fearful, trembling delight that God intends for you to find in Him. He is strong, and you are weak. He is holy, and you are sinful. Yes. And yet, he in his love, mercy, and strength, has sheltered you under the righteousness of Jesus his Son, and now calls you clean, safe, beloved.

And it is this trembling, fearful delight for all that God is for us in Christ that is the overflowing pool of motivation for Christian obedience. If you misunderstand the fear of God, you might think that God intends to motivate you to obey him by fear of punishment. “If you don’t do what I say, I’ll take away everything good in your life, and if you are really unfaithful, I’ll send you to hell.” But what kind of obedience does that produce? Listen to what the Puritan John Murray has to say here:

  • “And we must remember that the dread of judgment will never of itself generate within us the love of God or hatred of the sin that makes liable to his wrath. Even the infliction of wrath will not create the hatred of sin… Punishment has of itself no regenerating or converting power. The fear of God in which godliness consists is the fear which constrains adoration and love” (Principles of Conduct, 236).

No, the true Christian fear of God that leads to obedience is not a fear of punishment, but a desire to honor please, and love the One who has done us so much good. This is why John can say in 1 John 4:18-19,

  • “There is no fear [trembling dread] in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. We love because he first loved us.”

This is the essence of the right fear of God. When we know the depth of our sin and what we deserve from a holy God, and yet we are met not with judgment and wrath, but undeserved grace and love, the only appropriate response is trembling delight and devotion.

Let’s turn now to consider three daily practices that can help us grow in this fearful delight.

How can you grow in the right Fear of God?
  1. Read your Bible every day to see and delight in God’s true character.

    • “True fear of God is true love for God defined: it is the right response to God’s full-orbed revelation of himself in all his glory and grace.” (Reeves, 53).
    • When we are not daily saturating ourselves in the Word of God, we will slowly find that the God we worship looks less and less like the God of the Bible. If you by nature are prone to despair over your sin and are crushed by the weight of self-condemnation, the lens with which you view God will begin to distort. You might begin to see him as harsh, unforgiving, and distant. And yet this is the furthest thing from the truth!
      • Nehemiah 9:17-18, speaking of Israel’s backsliding in the wilderness says, “But you are a God ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and did not forsake them. Even when they had made for themselves a golden calf and said, ‘This is your God who brought you up out of Egypt,’ and had committed great blasphemies, you in your great mercies did not forsake them in the wilderness.”
      • Embrace the God of forgiveness, grace, mercy, and steadfast love! Tremble in delighted fear before him that he is all of these things for you in Christ, though your sins are many!
    • Or if you by nature presume on God’s grace, are not terribly troubled by your sins, you might begin to see God as a distant and lenient benefactor, happy to bless you with no strings attached, or simply a “non-judgmental friend” who is there to support you, but never confront you. If this is you, you need to read the stark warnings given in passages like Hebrews 12:
      • 12:14 “Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed. Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.”
      • And then 28-29: “Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.
      • If you are in Christ, your sins are forgiven, true, but you cannot treat him casually. He is a consuming fire. To borrow the words of Mr. Beaver from The Lion the Witch and Wardrobe, God is not safe, but he is good.
  2. Call to mind your sins, then call to mind the love and mercy of God.

    1. I’ve heard Christians say before that “Because God no longer ‘remembers’ our sins, neither should we.” That because we are forgiven in Christ, and “the old man has passed away,” it is wrong, unfruitful, and even dishonoring to God’s grace to bring our sins to mind. But this is not what the Bible teaches.

      • Psalm 51:3-4 “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment.”
      • Ephesians 2:11-12 “Remember [Gentiles/Sinners] that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.”
      • Lamentations 3:19-20 “Remember my affliction and my wanderings, the wormwood and the gall! My soul continually remembers it and is bowed down within me.
    2. When we call to mind our sinfulness, and the innumerable ways that we constantly fall short of God’s grace, we are humbled. We are still poor and needy sinners. We don’t have what it takes on our own. We are miserable wretches who, apart from God’s grace, would rightly stand condemned.

    3. And yet! God is abounding in love and mercy for wretched sinners like us! Did you notice that I only read half of the three passages above? Listen to how the Bible beautifully fills out the rest of the picture:

      • Psalm 51:7-8 “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have broken rejoice.”
      • Ephesians 2:13 “…But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.”
      • Lamentations 3:21-24 “But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. “The LORD is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.”

      This is the wonderful paradox of Christian joy, Reeves explains:

      • “It is a ‘blessed confusion’ made of sweet tears, in which God’s grace adn kindness shown to you at the cross make you weep at your wickedness. you simultaneously repent and rejoice. His mercy accentuates your wickedness, and your very wickedness accentuates his graces, leading you to a deeper and more fearfully happy adoration of the Savior” (Rejoice and Tremble, 124).
  3. Renounce half-hearted, anemic Christianity.

    1. I think one of the great travesties in our modern age is the general embarrassment we all have with earnestness. We cringe when we see that guy on the park basketball court who is just running all-out for every play, or the newly married couple at the restaurant who can’t stop holding hands across the table and peering into their lover’s eyes. We prefer cool detachment in our conversations with others—“Don’t seem too interested, don’t try too hard.” And for how many of us has this cool detachment transferred over to our Christian life? “Don’t sing too loudly or raise your hands at church. Don’t talk about spiritual matters too much with others lest they think you are weird or fake. Don’t get too involved in the life of the church so that you don’t appear like a “radical” to your lost family and friends. And so we become pitiful, half-hearted creatures, never fully rejecting God, but never truly delighting in him either.
    2. I think of all the churches that receive a warning in Revelation, our church might most resemble the church in Ephesus. Hear the warning Jesus gives to these saints in Revelation 2:2-5:
      • “I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary. But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first.”
      1. What’s remarkable about these Christians are all the things they are doing right! They hate sin, they call out false teachers, and they are patiently enduring trials while they wait for Jesus’ return. They are doing all of the right things, but they are doing it out of a cold, dutiful heart. Brother, sister, might this be a warning Jesus means for you this morning too? You dutifully come to church, you read your Bible and pray consistently, you appreciate solid, Biblical teaching and you are wary of false teachers, and yet your heart has grown cold toward Christ. You struggle to remember the last time that you were truly left in awe of God. From the outside looking in, your life may look scrupulous and above reproach, and yet there is no fire of love and zeal for the Lord. Perhaps you have lived this way for so long that cold-hearted Christianity just feels normal to you now.
      2. If this is you, what should you do? Look again at verse 5: “Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first.”
        1. Remember: Remember the love and fear you used to have for God. Don’t buy the lie that this was simply the splashy, fleeting emotion of a new, naive Christian. This hot-blooded, overwhelming zeal is what should be occupying the heart of every Christian.œ
        2. Repent: Jesus calls this cold-hearted, loveless Christianity what it is—sin. And what do you do with sin? You repent of it! You acknowledge it before the Lord as sin, you confess it to other Christians, and you resolve to do the works you did at first—the practices that will stoke the fires of trembling love that you had before.

If your faith is not in Christ, you should feel fearful dread toward God. His righteousness, justice, and holiness are not occasions for your rejoicing, but are the very mechanisms by which he will judge you for your sins. But oh Christian, if you have repented of your sins, if you have flung yourself onto Christ as your only hope, the gospel has both freed you from fear and gives you a new fear—a fearful delight for all that God is for you in Christ. And so, believer, resolve to grow in the fear of God!

See and savor God’s character in his revealed Word. Call to mind your sins and rejoice in God’s mercy for your sins, and renounce half-hearted, anemic Christianity.

God calls you now into this delightful, happy, and wonderful fear of his name.