Before you start this study, take a piece of paper and a pen and write down what you think the words the fear of the Lord mean. Keep this definition you wrote in a safe spot; we will look at it again later.
Quotes from Chapter 1
Fear is probably the strongest human emotion. But it is one that baffles us.
To fear or not to fear?
There is no fear in love; instead, perfect love drives out fear, because fear involves punishment. So the one who fears is not complete in love.1 John 4:18
He has given us the privilege,Luke 1:73–75
since we have been rescued
from the hand of our enemies,
to serve him without fear
in holiness and righteousness
in his presence all our days.
Now since the children have flesh and blood in common, Jesus also shared in these, so that through his death he might destroy the one holding the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who were held in slavery all their lives by the fear of death.Hebrews 2:14–15
The most frequent command in Scripture is “Do not be afraid!”
Yet, again and again in Scripture we are called to fear God.
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,Proverbs 9:10
and the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.
The fear of the LordProverbs 1:7
is the beginning of knowledge;
fools despise wisdom and discipline.
Teach me your way, Lord,Psalm 86:11
and I will live by your truth.
Give me an undivided mind to fear your name.
There will be times of security for you—Isaiah 33:6
a storehouse of salvation, wisdom, and knowledge.
The fear of the Lord is Zion’s treasure.
His mercy is from generation to generationLuke 1:50
on those who fear him.
So then, dear friends, since we have these promises, let us cleanse ourselves from every impurity of the flesh and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God.2 Corinthians 7:1
Slaves, obey your human masters in everything. Don’t work only while being watched, as people-pleasers, but work wholeheartedly, fearing the Lord.Colossians 3:22
When all has been heard, the conclusion of the matter is this: fear God and keep his commands, because this is for all humanity.Ecclesiastes 12:13
The fear of God is the soul of godliness.John Murray 1
The fear of the Lord means the whole worship of God, moral and instituted, all the obedience which we owe unto him.John Owen 2
The fulfillment of the law means we are to fear, love, and trust God above all things.Martin Luther 3
On the one hand, we are told that Christ frees us from fear; on the other, we are told we ought to fear—and fear God, no less.
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.
The fear of God does not mean being afraid of God.
Then a shoot will grow from the stump of Jesse,Isaiah 11:1–3
and a branch from his roots will bear fruit.
The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—
a Spirit of wisdom and understanding,
a Spirit of counsel and strength,
a Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord.
His delight will be in the fear of the Lord.
Even the Messiah, in his sinless holiness and perfection, has the fear of the Lord. The Spirit who rests on him is the Spirit of the fear of the Lord, and his delight is in the fear of the Lord.
Today’s Culture of Fear
Seeing where out society now is can help us understand why we have a problem with fear—and why the fear of God is just the tonic we need.
We are an increasingly anxious and uncertain culture. The certain safety we long for evades us, leaving us feeling vulnerable.
Though we are more prosperous and secure, though we have more safety than almost any other society in history, safety has become the holy grail of our culture. And like the Holy Grail, it is something we can never quite reach. Protected like never before, we are skittish and panicky like never before.
It is moral confusion in society that has led to an inability to deal with fear, a rise in anxiety, and so an increase in the number of protective fences erected around us.
Moral confusion itself is a consequence of a prior loss: the fear of God. It is God who provides the logic and matrix of morality: when he is no longer feared, moral confusion must follow. Moral confusion is not the root of our anxiety: our moral confusion today and our general state of heightened anxiety are both the fallout of a cultural loss of God as the proper object of human fear.
Without a kind and fatherly God’s providential care, we are left utterly uncertain about the shifting sands of both morality and reality. In ousting God from our culture, other concerns—from personal health to the health of the planet—have assumed a divine ultimacy in our minds. Good things have become cruel and pitiless idols. And thus we feel helplessly fragile. No longer anchored, society fills with free-floating anxieties.
Where fear is a response to something specific, anxiety is more of a general condition, like something in the atmosphere.
The Fearful Legacy of Atheism
Atheism sold the idea that if you liberate people from belief in God, that will liberate them from fear.
Throwing off the fear of God has not made our society happier and less fretful.
More knowledge does not necessarily mean less fear; it often means more. Mere advance in knowledge and technology does not eliminate fear.
Given its essentially secular self-identity, our society will not turn to God. Thus Western, post-Enlightenment society has medicalized fear. This does not mean that the use of drugs to curb anxiety is wrong—only that they are a palliative, at times an important one, and not an ultimate solution.
That attempt to eradicate fear as we would eradicate a disease has effectively made comfort (complete absence of fear) a health category—or even a moral category. Where discomfort was once considered quite normal (and quite proper for certain situations), it is now deemed an essentially unhealthy thing.
The loss of the fear of God is what ushered in our modern age of anxiety, but the fear of God is the very antidote to our fretfulness.
Speaking a Better Word
Christians in past generations who embraced the fear of God managed to speak of fear with an enviable combination of tenderness, optimism, and roudedness.
Among all the creatures God hath made (devils only excepted) man is the most apt and able to be his own tormentor; and of all the scourges with which he lasheth and afflicteth both his mind and body, none is found so cruel and intolerable as his own fears. The worse the times are like to be, the more need the mind hath of succour and encouragement, to confirm and fortify it for hard encounters; but from the worst prospect, fear inflicts the deepest and most dangerous wounds upon the mind of man, cutting the very nerves of its passive fortitude and bearing ability.
If men would but dig to the root of their fears, they would certainly find unbelief there, Matth. viii.26. Why are ye afraid, O ye of little faith! The less faith, still the more fear: Fear is generated by unbelief, and unbelief strengthened by fear; … and therefore all the skill in the world can never cure us of the disease of fear, till God first cure us of our unbelief; Christ therefore took the right method to rid his disciples of their fear, by rebuking their unbelief.John Flavel 4
Anxiety grows best in the soil of unbelief. It withers in contact with faith. And faith is fertilized by the fear of God.
A Rose by Any Other Name Would Smell as Sweet
Not all fear is the same, or bad, or unhealthy, or unpleasant. We must distinguish between different sorts of fear, between wrong fear and right fear. 5
The fear of God commended in Scripture is a fear that causes delight to Christ and delight to his people. It is the one positive, wonderful fear that deals with our anxieties.
- John Murray, Principles of Conduct: Aspects of Biblical Ethics (London: Tyndale, 1957), 229.
- John Owen, Temptation and Sin, vol. 6 of The Works of John Owen, ed. William H. Goold (repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1967), 382.
- Martin Luther, The Small Catechism, 1529: The Annotated Luther Study Edition (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2017), 217.
- John Flavel, “A Practical Treatise on Fear,” in The Whole Works of John Flavel, vol. 3 (London: W. Baynes and Son, 1820), 239, 264.
- Flavel, “A Practical Treatise on Fear,” 245.
- What is one of the strongest human emotions?
- What is the most frequent command in Scripture?
- What are we called to do again and again in Scripture (Page 14)?
- How does the gospel both free us from fear and give us fear (Page 16)?
- Does the fear of God mean being afraid of God? No
- Based on Isaiah 11:1-3, what does the Messiah delight in?
- What can help us understand why we have a problem with fear?
- Explain this (the answer to question 7).
- What is the tonic to our problem with fear?
- What has moral confusion in society led to?
- Can you think of examples of this in society around you? In your personal life?
- Moral confusion is a consequence of what?
- Contrast fear and anxiety.
- What did atheism teach regarding fear?
- How have advances in knowledge and technology affected fear?
- How does our culture handle anxiety?
- Does this mean the use of medications to curb anxiety is wrong?
- What has the medicalization of fear done?
- What has been the consequence of the loss of the fear of God as detailed on page 24, and what is the antidote?
- Explain the relationship between unbelief, faith, and the fear of God (Page 25).
This article is adapted from: Rejoice & Tremble by Michael Reeves