Fear and Sonship

On a prima facia reading, the Scriptures seem to give us contradictory statements about the roll of fear in the life of the believer. On the one hand we are called to fear the Lord (e.g. Lev. 25:17; Deut. 6:2; 1 Samuel 12:14; 2 Kings 17:39; Psalm 2:11; etc.) and on the other hand we are told, "There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves torment. But he who fears has not been made perfect in love" (1 John 4:18). So how are we to explain the difference between the two kinds of fear that are taught in Scripture? And, what roll is fear to play in the believer rendering obedience unto God? 

There are many who have insisted that the true believer, because he or she is called to "tremble at the threatenings, and embrace the promises of God" (WCF 14.2), should be one who constantly lives in fear of the wrath and judgment of God. Sinclair Ferguson has helpfully explained that many who are most zealous to uphold the force of the warnings of Scripture are also the most susceptible of failing into a "He loves me; He loves me not" kind of mentality regarding their relationship with God. "It is as if" he suggested, "they believe that God is tryinging to convince His children that they are not really His children. This is a mistake of monumental proportions. It is unthinkable that any earthly father would do such a thing to His children, and yet we allow ourselves to fall into this fatal error." In fact, in chapter 20 of the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Divines make the the following important distinction between "slavish fear" and "childlike love" when they exposit the liberty that the children of God are called to enjoy:

The liberty which Christ hath purchased for believers under the gospel consists in their freedom from the guilt of sin, the condemning wrath of God, the curse of the moral law; and in their being delivered from this present evil world, bondage to Satan, and dominion of sin, from the evil of afflictions, the sting of death, the victory of the grave, and everlasting damnation; as also in their free access to God, and their yielding obedience unto him, not out of slavish fear, but a childlike love, and a willing mind.

The contrast between "slavish" or "servile fear" and "filial fear" is one that is not foreign to the history of Reformed thought. Consider the following exposition of 1 John 4:18 by Jonathan Edwards. In his entry on it in the Blank Bible, Edwards noted:

“There is no fear in love,” Love is the evangelical, fear the legal, principle. Love is the spirit of adoption; servile fear is the spirit of bondage. The evangelical principle gives boldness, as it is said in the foregoing verse. Servile fear keeps at a distance, prevents boldness of access.

“Perfect love casts out fear,” or much of a spirit of adoption casts out fear, because it naturally assures the person of his good estate, of his being a child of God, and loved and accepted of him, as the apostle Paul (Rom. 8:15–16).

This Apostle had much experience of this heavenly principle of divine love. His writings show how his heart abounded with that grace; and he had particular experience of this tendency of love here spoken of, viz. to cast out fear, and to open the way for boldness and nearness of access. He had experience of it when he leaned on Jesus’ bosom [John 13:23]. His great love opened the way to such freedom and boldness, and drew him to such nearness and intimacy.1

So, if, as Edwards intimates, "servile fear" is a fear of God that lacks the assurance of His love and care--and carries with it a certain expectation of judgment (or that which drives obedience merely out of a desire to escape judgment)--what sort of fear are we being called to exhibit when we are commanded throughout the Scritpures to fear the Lord? The late John Murray explained that the biblical idea of "the fear of God" is “the fear which constrains adoration and love…[that] consists in awe, reverence, honor and worship…that is the reflex of our consciousness of the transcendent majesty and holiness of God." In short, godly fear is a fear that belongs to the realm of sonship. It is the reverence and respect that a son shows to his father. It is not the fear of a slave to his Master. Jesus Himself drew out this contrast when he said, "a slave does not abide in the house forever, but a son abides forever. Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed" (John 8:35-36). 

The doctrine of adoption is one of the most important doctrines for understanding our place in the Father's heart and house. In justification we are taken to God's lawcourt as guilty criminals and are dismissed as pardoned and righteous men. In adoption we are taken from the law court to the living room. When we fail to understand or believe the doctrine of adoption we live as orphans and slaves. The fear that we will exhibit will necessarily be servile or slavish fear. The heart that has come to know that the Father has loved us and has "received into the number," and had given us "a right to all the privileges of the sons of God (WSC 34), is a heart that will fear God with that precious gift of "filial fear." We will go boldly then to the throne of grace and will plead with the One who loved us and gave Himself for us. We will grieve over the way in which our sins have grieved His Spirit and we will rejoice that we are now and ever will be the children of God. When we possess the love that drives out the servile fear we will rest in the fact that we have boldness in the day of judgment because we have been adopted into the Divine family through our Lord Jesus Christ. 


Related Resources

Sinclair Ferguson Children of the Living God

John Murray Principles of Conduct

Sinclair Ferguson "Christian Service: Slavery or Sonship"

Jack Miller Saving Grace

Trevor Burke The Message of Sonship

Jerry Bridges Joy of Fearing God

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