Design a site like this with
Get started

Sinful Fear

Quotes from Chapter 2

We fear when we encounter something we cannot control. We fear when we face the prospect of either losing something we love or experiencing something bad. We even fear when we face the prospect of gaining something wonderful, when that thing seems too impossibly wonderful for us.

Fear issues forth from love. 1

Wilhelmus à Brakel

We fear because we love: we love ourselves and so fear bad things happening to us; we love our families, our friends, our things and so fear losing them.

It is not only that we fear losing those things we love; strange to say, we also fear precisely that which is lovely. We find we must avert our gaze in the face of great beauty, for sheer loveliness can be overwhelming.

The fear of success is often stronger than the fear of failure. Our frailty is such that in the face of greatness, vitality, and joy, we can feel it is all too much for us.

All fear, good and bad, hath a natural propenseness in it to incline the heart to contemplate upon the object of fear, and though a man should labour to take off his thoughts from the object of his fear, whether that object was men, hell, devils, &c., yet do what he could the next time his fear had any act in it, it would return again to its object. 2

John Bunyan

Whether we are fascinated or repelled by the object of our fear, there are common traits to all our fears: they arise from what we love, they excite the body, and they can fixate the mind.

There are different sorts of fear.

All the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain surrounded by smoke. When the people saw it they trembled and stood at a distance. “You speak to us, and we will listen,” they said to Moses, “but don’t let God speak to us, or we will die.”
Moses responded to the people, “Don’t be afraid, for God has come to test you, so that you will fear him and will not sin.”

Exodus 20.18–20

Moses here sets out a contrast between being afraid of God and fearing God: those who have the fear of him will not be afraid of him.

There are different types of fear of God. There is a fear of God that is good and desirable, and there is a fear of God that is not.

Natural Fear

Since we live in a fallen world, we live surrounded by danger. We fear accidents, pain, and enemies. The fall made the world a place full of fear.

That does not mean that our fears of these dangers are themselves sinful.

He took Peter, James, and John with him, and he began to be deeply distressed and troubled.

Mark 14.33

Being in anguish, he prayed more fervently, and his sweat became like drops of blood falling to the ground.

Luke 22:44

Christian theologians have commonly described two different types of fear of God. John Flavel distinguished between “sinful” and “religious” fear; George Swinnock wrote of “servile” and “filial” fear; William Gurnall, of “slavish” and “holy” fear; and John Bunyan, of “ungodly” and “godly” fear. 3 I will call them “sinful” and “right” fear.

Sinful Fear

It is actually quite right for unbelievers to be afraid of God. The holy God is terrible to those who are far from him.

Sinful fear is a fear of God that flows from sin.

You believe that God is one. Good! Even the demons believe—and they shudder.

James 2.19

And he said, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked, so I hid.”

Genesis 3:10

Sinful fear drives you away from God. This is the fear of the unbeliever who hates God, who remains a rebel at heart, who fears being exposed as a sinner and so runs from God.

This is the fear of God that is at odds with love for God. It is the fear that is, instead, rotted in the very heart of sin. It is the motor for both atheism and idolatry, inspiring people to invent alternative “realities” in place of the living God.

Misunderstanding God

Sinful fear that flees from God arises in good part from a misunderstanding of him.

I was afraid of you since you’re a harsh man.

Luke 19:21

The man who had received one talent also approached and said, “Master, I know you. You’re a harsh man, reaping where you haven’t sown and gathering where you haven’t scattered seed. So I was afraid and went off and hid your talent in the ground. See, you have what is yours.”

Matthew 25:24–25

He sees nothing of his master’s kindness: in his shortsighted eyes the great man is all parsimonious severity, and therefore the servant is simply afraid.

Satan laboureth to represent God by halves, only as a consuming fire, as clothed with justice and vengeance. Oh, no! It is true he will not suffer his mercy to be abused by contemptuous sinners; he will not clear the guilty, though he waiteth long on them before he destroyeth them; but the main of his name is “his mercy and goodness.” Take it as God proclaimeth it, and see if you have any reason to have hard thoughts of God. 4

Thomas Manton

Satan’s chief labour is to misrepresent God. He would present him to us as purely negative threat, the embodiment of anti-gospel. For then, when we perceive God as pure threat, we will run from him in fear, wishing that the heavenly ogre did not exist.

While this deception-fueled fear of God drives people away from their Maker, it does not always drive them away from religion. To all the world they can seem devout, exemplary Christians, if rather lacking in joy.

When a man is driven to acts of obedience by the dread of God’s wrath revealed in the law and not drawn to them by the belief of His love revealed in the gospel, when he fears God because of His power and justice and not because of His goodness, when he regards God more as an avenging Judge than as a compassionate Friend and Father, and when he contemplates God rather as terrible in majesty than as infinite in grace and mercy, he shows that he is under the dominion or, at least, under the prevalence of a legal spirit. 5

John Colquhoun

When people, through misunderstanding, become simply afraid of God, they will never entrust themselves to him but must turn elsewhere for their security. It is when people have this confused fear of God that they turn to other gods.

But the people of each nation were still making their own gods in the cities where they lived and putting the in the shrines of the high places that the people of Samaria had made. The men of Babylon made Succothbenoth, the men of Cuth made Nergal, the men of Hamath made Ashima, the Avvites made Nibhaz and Tartak, and the Sepharvites burned their children in the fire to Adrammelech and Anammelech, the gods of Sepharvaim. They feared the Lord, but they also made from their ranks priests for the high places, who were working for them at the shrines of the high places. They feared the Lord, but they also worshiped their own gods according to the practice of the nations from which they had been deported.

2 Kings 17:29–33

When unbelievers transfer the government of the universe from God to the stars, they fancy that their bliss or their misery depends upon the decrees and indications of the stars, not upon God’s will; so it comes about that their fear is transferred from him, toward whom alone they ought to direct it, to stars and comets. 6

John Calvin

Their misguided fear of God thus leads them to a fear of other things, things that cannot liberate or enliven but only enslave and deaden.

People with this fear of God will not then trust in Christ for their salvation. They will look elsewhere. They will trust the law, their own efforts, or anything or anyone but Christ.

Samuel replied, “Don’t be afraid. Even though you have committed all this evil, don’t turn away from following the Lord. Instead, worship the Lord with all your heart. Don’t turn away to follow worthless things that can’t profit ro rescue you; they are worthless. The Lord will not abandon his people, because of his great name and because he has determined to make you his own people.
As for me, I vow that I will not sin against the Lord by ceasing to pray for you. I will teach you the good and right way. Above all, fear the Lord and worship him faithfully with all your heart; consider the great things he has done for you.

1 Samuel 12:20–24

The Dread of Holiness

The fear of letting go of sin—the dread of holiness

Our sinful fears are an erroneous fear of putting sin to death, a fear that fails to understand the glory of the new life to follow in Christ.

Sinners prefer their darkness and their chains to the light and freedom of heaven, and so they dread its holiness.

Sinful Fear in Christians

Christians are not immune to this sinful fear. Poor teaching, hard times, and Satan’s accusations can all cultivate this cringing fear of God in our hearts.

Quest. 1. Do not these fears make thee question whether there was ever a work of grace wrought in thy soul?
Answ. Yes, verily, that they do.

Quest. 2. Do not these fears make thee question whether ever they first fears were wrought by the Holy Spirit of God?
Answ. Yes, verily, that they do.

Quest. 3. Do not these fears make thee question whether ever thou hast had, indeed, any true comfort from the Word and Spirit of God?
Answ. Yes, verily, that they do.

Quest. 4. Dost thou not find intermixed with these fears plain assertions that thy first comforts were either from thy fancy, or from the devil, and a fruit of his delusions?
Answ. Yes, verily, that I do.

Quest. 5. Do not these fears weaken thy heart in prayer?
Answ. Yes, that they do.

Quest. 6. Do not these fears keep thee back from laying hold of the promise of salvation by Jesus Christ?
Answ. Yes; for I think if I were deceived before, if I were comforted by a spirit of delusion before, why may it not be so again? so I am afraid to take hold of the promise.

Quest. 7. Do not these fears tend to the hardening of they heart, and to the making of thee desperate?
Answ. Yes, verily, that they do.

Quest. 8. Do not these fears hinder thee from profiting in hearing or reading of the Word?
Answ. Yes, verily, for still whatever I hear or read, I think nothing that is good belongs to me.

Quest. 9. Do not these fears tend to the stirring up of blasphemies in thy heart against God?
Answ. Yes, to the almost distracting of me.

Quest. 10. Do not these fears make thee somethings think, that it is in vain for thee to wait upon the Lord any longer?
Answ. Yes, verily; and I have many times almost come to this conclusion, that I will read, pray, hear, company with God’s people, or the like, no longer.

Well, poor Christian, I am glad that thou hast so plainly answered me; but, prithee [i.e., please], look back upon thy answer. How much of God dost thou think is in these things? how much of his Spirit, and the grace of his Word? Just none at all; for it cannot be that these things can be the true and natural effects of the workings of the Spirit of God: no, not as a spirit of bondage. These are not his doings. Dost thou not see the very paw of the devil in them? 7

John Bunyan

It is the devil’s work to promote a fear of God that makes people afraid of God such that they want to flee from God. The Spirit’s work is the exact opposite: to produce in us a wonderful fear that wins and draws us to God.

  1. Wilhelmus à Brakel, The Christian’s Reasonable Service, trans. Bartel Elshout, ed. Joel R. Beeke, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage, 1992), 291.
  2. John Bunyan, “A Treatise on the Fear of God,” in The Works of John Bunyan, ed. George Offer, 3 vols. (Glasgow: W.G. Blackie & Son, 1854; repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1991), 1:463.
  3. John Flavel, “A Practical Treatise on Fear,” in The Whole Works of John Flavel, vol. 3 (London: W. Baynes and Son, 1820), 245; George Swinnock, The Works of George Swinnock, vol. 3 (Edinburgh: James Nichol, 1868; repr., London: Banner of Truth, 1992), 295; William Gurnall, The Christian in Complete Armour, rev. and abr., 3 vols. (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1986-1989), 1:119, 222, 263, 372, 373; 2:579; Bunyan, “A Treatise on the Fear of God.”
  4. Thomas Manton, Works of Thomas Manton, vol. 9 (London: James Nisbet, 1872), 645.
  5. John Colquhoun, Treatise on the Law and Gospel, ed. D. Kistler (1859; repr., Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria, 1999), 143.
  6. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2011), 1.16.3.
  7. Bunyan, “A Treatise on the Fear of God,” 452.


  1. What causes you to fear?
  2. Why do we fear?
  3. Why is the fear of success be often stronger than the fear of failure?
  4. What are some common traits to all our fears listed on page 29?
  5. Are our fears of dangers in the world (like accidents, pain, enemies, etc.) necessarily sinful? What example do we have in Scripture?
  6. Explain how there are different types of fear.
  7. What are some different names for the two different types of fear of God as defined by Christian theologians?
  8. What is sinful fear at odds with? What does sinful fear lead to?
  9. What is Satan’s chief labour and what results from that, as described on page 34?
  10. What is the dread of holiness?
  11. Are Christians immune to this sinful fear? Why?
  12. Contrast the devil’s work and the Spirit’s work.
  13. After completing this chapter, explain in your own words the difference between being afraid of God and fearing God.

This article is adapted from: Gentle and Lowly by Dane Ortlund and Gentle and Lowly Study Guide by Robert Zink.


Website Built with

%d bloggers like this: