Lawrence R. Eyres
Once I preached a sermon on the fear of God. At the close of the service I chatted with a onetime visitor. He liked the sermon, he said, but “respect would be a better word than fear.” Of course, I defended my word. We parted amicably, but it made me think: respect is appropriate between equals. I have a neighbor who is an ardent Roman Catholic. I disagree with him. Still I respect him. We remain good neighbors. But I fear God: I dare not disagree with him. Those who do not fear God do not know him.
First, consider our God—who and what he is. He is unique, absolute, and unchangeable. Not only does he work all things according to his sovereign will, but he is just and holy. His ways are inscrutable, but we must accept them as just and righteous. He is awesome! His mercy and grace are beyond comprehension. But man, of all earthly creatures, is fallen and deserves his wrath. This we know from Scripture, the flawless record of his self-revelation in human history. If we are wise, we will fear him!
Job asked, “Where can wisdom be found?” (Job 28:12). After a litany of negatives, he answers: “Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom; and to depart from evil is understanding” (see verses 20–28). The writer of Proverbs agrees: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction” (Prov. 1:7). Foolishness is the antithesis of wisdom. The fool does not say “There is no God” out of ignorance. He has innate knowledge of God, but refuses to accept it. That is why he is a fool (Ps. 14:1; Rom. 1:19–20). But for those who hunger after God, “the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding” (Prov. 9:10). We all were born in the folly of ignorance. Only by God’s grace were our hearts opened to hear his call (see Matt. 11:25–30). Fearing God is wisdom’s beginning—not just the ABCs, but the very heart and quintessence of wisdom.
How do we attain godly fear? By storing God’s Word in our hearts. Mere memorization of Scriptures or catechisms cannot impart this fear. These are but conduits of Spirit-given grace. We need to pursue, believe, and meditate on what God’s Word says about this fear. I would suggest two areas for biblical meditation.
The first truth to meditate on is God’s just wrath against all ungodliness and wickedness of fallen mankind (Rom. 1:18). I believe that the doctrine of eternal punishment could not have been invented by man: where in all false religions do we find hell’s equivalent? Hear our Lord’s words: “And in Hades [the rich man] lifted up his eyes, being in torment, and saw Abraham far away, and Lazarus in his bosom. And he cried out and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool off my tongue; for I am in agony in this flame’ ” (Luke 16:23–24).
Whatever the reality, hell will include not only anguish of body, but also of soul. The doomed of mankind will know why they are there and that there’s no way out. Again our Lord says: “And if your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life crippled, than having your two hands, to go into hell, into the unquenchable fire, where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched” (see Mark 9:42–49). These are the words of the meek and gentle Jesus!
Jude paints a different picture of hell. Certain ungodly men are like “wild waves of the sea, casting up their own shame like foam; wandering stars, for whom the black darkness has been reserved forever” (Jude 13).
Finally, consider our Lord’s words to his disciples: “And do not fear those who kill the body, but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt. 10:28). Apart from the grace of God, you and I deserve this destiny. A favorite hymn by Frederick W. Faber, “My God, How Wonderful Thou Art” (Trinity Hymnal, #35), puts it well:
O how I fear thee, living God, with deepest, tend’rest fears,
and worship thee with trembling hope, and penitential tears.
Yet I may love thee too, O Lord, almighty as thou art;
for thou hast stooped to ask of me the love of my poor heart.
The second path to the fear of God is meditation on the cross, where Christ suffered and died for the sins of his people. Trying to earn the pleasure of God by keeping his commandments is hopeless, “because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in his sight; for through the law comes the knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:20). “There is no man who does not sin” (1 Kgs. 8:46). “If we say that we have not sinned, we make [God] a liar, and His word is not in us” (1 John 1:10).
Read and meditate on our Lord’s agonies. No wonder the bloody sweat in Gethsemane (Luke 22:44)! No wonder the cry from the cross, “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46; cf. Ps. 22:1)! The apostle Paul put it most pointedly: “He [God] made him [Jesus] who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in him” (2 Cor. 5:21).
When the full meaning of the cross became clear to me, then my joy and gratitude knew no bounds. To quote the words of Isaac Watts’s hymn, “Alas! and Did My Savior Bleed” (Trinity Hymnal, #254),
But drops of grief can ne’er repay
the debt of love I owe;
here, Lord, I give myself away,
’tis all that I can do.
But now that the wrath of the law has been removed forever, is there still a need for the fear of God? Indeed there is. In our backslidings, when our assurance begins to weaken because of sin, the fear of wrath drives us back to repentance. The words from Hebrews 10:31 burn their way into our heart: “It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” Of course, this fear need not trouble the obedient believer. But there is another fear that moves him to serious reflection—the fear of displeasing the Lord who bought him with his blood (Acts 20:28).
It is believers whom Paul admonishes in Ephesians 4:30: “And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.” The believer who does not know the depths of his own sinfulness is in grave danger of severe chastenings, which he ought to fear.
And what of those who, while ardently professing Christ, nonetheless by their careless living bring reproach on his name? As long as saints sin, they will need to fear God. We live in a confusing world. None of us is immune to the cares of this world and to the pursuit of wealth, pleasure, and honor. “Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Cor. 10:12). This calls for daily repenting of particular sins. Develop a sensitive conscience. And remember, when duty becomes burdensome and the joy of the Lord fades, seek God in the way of obedience and he will meet you in the way of blessing.
Is the fear of God essential to Reformed faith and life? Indeed it is. Covenantal faith and life are central to all we hold dear. In fact, our whole life is covenantal. Membership in our churches, our marriages, baptism, our ordinations—these are all covenant-bound. All of these ordinances are carried out before God and executed by solemn vows. These vows are made to God, who sees and knows even the secret thoughts of our hearts. How can we keep them unless we fear God?
It is the curse of church membership generally that all members make the same verbal promises, but some think nothing of breaking them from day one. The marriage vows recommended in our Directory of Worship are carefully crafted from Holy Scripture, yet marital dysfunction and even divorce are common in our churches. Baptized children are not always brought up in the fear and admonition of the Lord. The rules become more strict for those in ordained office, yet none of us is completely free from guilt in these things. In fact, in the day in which we live it’s hard to be true to the obligations we have taken on ourselves by the vows that God’s Word requires. How can we live honorably before God and the world in these covenant-breaking times?
Live in the fear of God, but do not let that fear be slavish obedience. Let it be governed by love, for “there is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love. We love, because he first loved us” (1 John 4:18–19). These words are not in contradiction to biblical fear of God. The kind of fear John writes about is a legalistic fear—obedience or else!
There are things that godly husbands and wives do for each other which, if done for them by anyone else, would exact a high price. But love makes the most distasteful duty a joy because the doer loves the beneficiary of his or her doing. And whether the covenantal obligation is one of wives to husbands or of husbands to wives, of parents to children or of children to parents, of brothers and sisters in Christ to other brothers and sisters in Christ, or of all of us to suffering humanity regardless of worth or affinity, love is the force that makes our duty a joy. And that love is God’s gift to those who fear him.
The Rev. Lawrence Eyres faithfully served as a pastor in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church from 1938 until his retirement in 1993. Mr. Eyres went to be with the Lord in Glory in 2003. Reprinted from New Horizons, March 2001.