Quotes from Chapter 4
There are different sorts of fear: some good and enjoyable, some bad and terrifying; there is a right fear of God, and there is a sinful fear of God. There are even more sorts of fear: different sorts of right fear of God.
John Calvin said there are two steps or levels to our knowledge of God: the knowledge of God the Creator and the knowledge of God the Redeemer in Christ. Just as there are two levels of knowledge of God, so there are two corresponding right fear responses to God: fear of God the Creator and fear of God the Redeemer in Christ.
“O Lord, How Majestic Is Your Name in All the Earth!”
The first sort of right fear is the weak-kneed and trembling response to the fact that God is the Creator. God is holy, majestic, perfect, all-powerful, and dazzling in all his perfections.
Lord, our Lord,
how magnificent is your name throughout the earth!
You have covered the heavens with your majesty.
When I observe your heavens,
the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
which you set in place,
what is a human being that you remember him,
a son of man that you look after him?
Lord, our Lord,Psalm 8:1, 3, 4, 9
how magnificent is your name throughout the earth!
Hence that dread and wonder with which Scripture commonly represents the saints as stricken and overcome whenever they felt the presence of God. Thus it comes about that we see men who in his absence normally remained firm and constant, but who, when he manifests his glory, are so shaken and struck dumb as to be laid low by the dread of death—are in fact overwhelmed by it and almost annihilated. As a consequence, we must infer that man is never sufficiently touched and affected by the awareness of his lowly state until he has compared himself with God’s majesty. Moreover, we have numerous examples of this consternation both in The Book of Judges and in the Prophets. So frequent was it that this expression was common among God’s people: “We shall die, for the Lord has appeared to us”.John Calvin 1
“We’re certainly going to die,” he said to his wife, “because we have seen God!”Judges 13.22
Then I said:Isaiah 6:5
Woe is me for I am ruined
because I am a man of unclean lips
and live among a people of unclean lips,
and because my eyes have seen the King,
the Lord of Armies.
This dumbstruck, overwhelmed wonder is the result of considering the majesty of the Creator. It is right that trembling fear should be the right reaction to the Creator. The holiness of the sovereign Lord is tremendous, vivid, and dazzling. Not to fear him would be blind foolishness.
In the splendour of the Creator’s majesty, we should be abased. In the brightness of his purity, we should be ashamed. Such knowledge of the Creator produces a fear that leads to humility, repentance, and contempt for all self-complacency and self-conceit.
Fear of the Creator in Unbelievers
There is a sense in which all people, not just Christians, can know something of this fear of the Creator. The fearfulness leads to consider how dreadful the Creator must be, but leads no further. So one is left dreading but not loving the Creator.
The thing that is unknown, yet known to be, will always be more or less formidable. When it is known as immeasurably greater than we, and as having claims and making demands upon us, the more vaguely these are apprehended, the more room is there for anxiety; and when the conscience is not clear, this anxiety may well mount to terror. According to the nature of the mind which occupies itself with the idea of the Supreme, whether regarded as maker or ruler, will be the kind and degree of the terror. To this terror need belong no exalted ideas of God; those fear him most who most imagine him like their own evil selves, only beyond them in power, easily able to work his arbitrary will with them. That they hold him but a little higher than themselves, tends nowise to unity with him: who so far apart as those on the same level of hate and distrust? Power without love, dependence where is no righteousness, wake a worship without devotion, a loathliness of servile flattery.George MacDonald 2
Fear of the Creator in Believers
Eternal power, whose high abode
Becomes the grandeur of a God,
Infinite lengths beyond the bounds
Where stars resolve their little rounds.
The lowest step around Thy seat,
Rises too high for Gabriel’s feet;
In vain the tall archangel tries
To reach Thine height with wondering eyes.
Thy dazzling beauties whilst he sings,
He hides his face behind his wings,
And ranks of shining thrones around
Fall worshiping, and spread the ground.
Lord, what shall earth and ashes do?
We would adore our maker, too;
From sin and dust to Thee we cry,
The Great, the Holy, and the High!
Earth from afar has heard Thy fame,
And worms have learned to lisp Thy name;
But, O! the glories of Thy mind
Leave all our soaring thoughts behind.
God is in Heaven, and men below;Isaac Watts, “Eternal Power, Whose High Abode” 3
Be short our tunes, our words be few;
A sacred reverence checks our songs,
And praise sits silent on our tongues.
Watts had not only the knowledge of God the Creator; he also had the knowledge of God the Redeemer in Christ. Our wonder at the Creator’s magnificence—and our enjoyment of it—increases when we know it as the perfect magnificence of the kindest Saviour. When we know God as Redeemer, we are freed from all fears that this awesome God might be against us. We are freed fully to enjoy him as Creator.
‘Tis possible that those who are wholly without grace, should have a clear sight, and very great and affecting sense of God’s greatness, his mighty power, and awful majesty; for this is what the devils have, though they have lost the spiritual knowledge of God, consisting in a sense of the amiableness of his moral perfections; they are perfectly destitute of any sense or relish of that kind of beauty, yet they have a very great knowledge of the natural glory of God or his awful greatness and majesty; this they behold, and are affected with the apprehensions of, and therefore tremble before him.Jonathan Edwards 4
While believers have an adoring fear of God, “we, who believe in Jesus, are not afraid of God even as our King.” 5 For we know the beautiful character of the one who rules: the sovereign Creator is a gracious and merciful Redeemer. Those who are taught only—or even predominantly—that God is King and Creator will be left with dread. Only those who also get to hear of God’s redeeming graciousness to sinners will begin to experience pleasure in this Creator.
Gazing upon the vast expanse of waters,—looking up to the innumerable stars, examining the wing of an insect, and seeing there the matchless skill of God displayed in the minute; or standing in a thunderstorm, watching, as best you can, the flashes of lightning, and listening to the thunder of Jehovah’s voice, have you not often shrunk into yourself, and said, “Great God, how terrible 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!Charles Spurgeon 6
Spurgeon was quakingly delighted (and not afraid) because the immensity of the heavens and the complexity of the insects and the might of the thunder all came from “his father’s wealth, his father’s wisdom, his father’s power.” He knew the Creator was his Father in Christ.
The Benefits of This Fear
Safe in the knowledge that the awesome Creator is our tender Redeemer, Christians can delight themselves in the overwhelming majesty of the Creator. Contemplating the splendour of God and so stoking our fearful wonder at him is at the heart of Christian health?
We all, with unveiled faces, are looking as in a mirror at the glory of the Lord and are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory; this is from the Lord who is the Spirit.2 Corinthians 3:18
The grandeur of God pulls our focus up and away from ourselves.
This is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and the one you have sent—Jesus Christ.John 17:3
Do any of us find decays in grace prevailing in us;—deadness, coldness, lukewarmness, a kind of spiritual stupidity and senselessness coming upon us? … Let us assure ourselves there is no better way for our healing and deliverance, yea, no other way but this alone,—namely, the obtaining a fresh view of the glory of Christ by faith, and a steady abiding therein. Constant contemplation of Christ and his glory, putting forth its transforming power unto the revival of all grace, is the only relief in this case.John Owen 7
The Creator is inexpressibly tremendous and fascinating. He is a majestic, consuming fire whose splendour causes read in sinners and delight in saints.
The feeling of our nothingness before God’s immensity should humble us. However, it is not the only facet of God’s holiness that humbles us. More than God’s immensity, the humility and grace of the Redeemer—seen ultimately in the cross—fuel a deeper and more eager humility in believers.
The fear of God which is the soul of godliness does not consist, however, in the dread which is produced by the apprehension of God’s wrath. When the reason for such dread exists, then to be destitute of it is the sign of hardened ungodliness. But the fear of God which is the basis of godliness, and in which godliness may be said to consist, is much more inclusive and determinative than the fear of God’s judgement. And we must remember that the dread of judgement will never of itself generate within us the love of God or hatred of the sin that makes us liable to his wrath. Even the infliction of wrath will not create the hatred of sin; it will incite to greater love of sin and enmity against God. 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.John Murray 8
Christians need to press beyond the fact that the living God is the Creator to know what sort of being God is in himself. Knowing God the Redeemer in Christ will make our Christian fear distinct from the fear shown by the devotees of other gods. It is what we need if our fear is to be specifically and happily Christian.
- John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2011), 1.1.3.
- George MacDonald, Unspoken Sermons, Second Series (London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1885), 73.
- Isaac Watts, “Eternal Power, Whose High Abode” (1706).
- Jonathan Edwards, Religious Affections, ed. John E. Smith, vol. 2 of The Works of Jonathan Edwards (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1959), 263.
- C.H. Spurgeon, “A Fear to Be Desired,” in The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit Sermons, 63 vols. (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1855–1917), 48:498.
- Spurgeon, “A Fear to Be Desired”, 496.
- John Owen, The Glory of Christ, vol. 1 of The Works of John Owen, ed. William H. Goold (repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1965), 395.
- John Murray, Principles of Conduct: Aspects of Biblical Ethics (London: Tyndale, 1957), 236.
- Is there only one type of fear?
- What are the two steps to our knowledge of God as per John Calvin?
- How are these two levels of knowledge of God related to fear?
- Explain the first sort of right fear related to God the Creator.
- What is the result of considering the majesty of the Creator?
- The right knowledge of the Creator produces a fear that leads to what?
- Explain what the fear of the Creator in unbelievers is.
- Explain the second sort of right fear related to our knowledge of God the Redeemer in Christ.
- When we consider the majesty of God the Creator, why do we not need to be afraid?
- What is at the heart of Christian health?
- What should our response be to beholding God’s immensity?
- What should fuel our humility?
This article is adapted from: Gentle and Lowly by Dane Ortlund and Gentle and Lowly Study Guide by Robert Zink.