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Mark Johnston (MDiv Westminster Theological Seminary) is the Minister of Bethel Presbyterian Church (EPCEW) in Cardiff, Wales. He was previously Senior Pastor of Proclamation Presbyterian Church Bryn Mawr, PA and of Grove Chapel in Camberwell, London. He began his ministry as a church planter in Ireland. He serves on the Board of Banner of Truth Trust and has authored several books including three titles in Banner's Let’s Study series, You in Your Small Corner, and Our Creed.

Column: Resident Aliens by Mark Johnston

The Fear of the Lord

June 30, 2015 •

Given the frequency with which ‘the fear of the LORD’, or one of its variants, is mentioned in the Bible, it is more than a little unusual that so little seems to be said about it in the church today.

In all too many cases a focus on the immanence and intimacy of God as revealed in Scripture has been given such precedence over his transcendence and majesty that the latter have been all but eclipsed. The effect of this is not merely to create an inadequate view of God, but also a deficient understanding of what it means to relate to him. The Bible does not allow us to do either.

The keynote sounded in the book of Proverbs is that ‘the fear of the LORD is beginning’ of both ‘knowledge’ (1.7) and ‘wisdom’ (9.10). In other words, the key to a sound epistemology in life as well as to the requisite ‘skill for living’ – the idea bound up with the Hebrew word for wisdom [hochma] – is a right disposition towards God.

It would be nice to simply assume that the notion of what it means to ‘fear’ God is sufficiently understood in the Reformed and evangelical community that it does not need further definition or explanation. But I am not altogether sure this is still the case for the present generation. The years, during which this concept has been neglected or marginalised, have meant that for many this is something of an unfamiliar, or perhaps even a worrying concept. So a brief elucidation may be in order, not least because the vocabulary of fear in Scripture is nuanced by the context in which it appears.

Perhaps the best example of this is seen in what happens immediately after God gave Moses the 10 Commandments at Mt. Sinai (Ex 20.18-21). The Israelites, waiting at the foot of the mountain while God met with Moses saw the thunder and lightening and heard the sound of the trumpet while this encounter was taking place (20.18-19). They were almost certainly, in Old Testament terms, witnessing a theophany and it had a profound effect on them. They ‘trembled with fear’ (20.18) and ‘stood at a distance’ (20.19) and they pleaded with God to act as a mediator between them and God. Their reaction is in many ways understandable; but what is both interesting and instructive is how Moses responds to them.

He says, ‘Do not be afraid. God has come to test you, so that the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning’ (20.20). At first glance his statement seems to be a contradiction in terms. On the one hand he tells them not to be afraid and on the other he says that God’s purpose in this was to teach them to fear. So clearly Moses has in mind two very different kinds of fear that are possible for God’s believing people.

One is what an older generation of theologians sometimes called ‘craven fear’, that is a holy dread of God because of his nature and attributes. There is without question a place for that. God should indeed fill us with dread in part because of his otherness as our eternal Creator, but also because of his character as the holy, just and righteous One. The writer to the Hebrews captures this well when he says, ‘our God is a consuming fire’ (He 12.29) and ‘it is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God’ (He 10.31). Regardless of the blessings of his immanence, the sheer transcendence of God is awesome in the ultimate sense of that word.

It is only when we grasp the fear that is associated with the otherness of God that we can truly begin to appreciate the kind of fear that Moses has in view in what he says to Israel by way of explanation of the drama played out on the mountain. He tells them that there was something quite deliberate in the way that God had revealed himself to them on that occasion. He showed them that they certainly did have good reason to be afraid of him. Not least because he was not only the great law-giver, but was also the eternal law-enforcer and Judge before whom every human being will one day stand. But he was more than that. He had, after all, already reminded the Israelites in the preface to the Ten Commandments, ‘I am the LORD your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery’ (Ex 20.2). That is, he was none other than their Saviour-God.

The fact that this detail precedes the giving of the Law has huge implications for the way it should be understood. At one level it cradles the terror of the Law in the comfort of the gospel for all who have come to know the LORD as their Saviour-God. Whereas the perfection and the penetrating power of the Decalogue exposes us all as lawbreakers – deserving its full penalty – it reminds us that our redemption comes from the very same God who has given it. In that sense the kind of ‘fear’ it is designed to generate in the hearts of those who know him in this way is (again to borrow the language of an older generation of pastor-theologians) is ‘filial fear’. The respect children show (or ought to show) to their father.

Knowing God as the One who, through his Son, has delivered us from ‘the empty way of life’ that once was ours (1Pe 1.18) and from a life of ‘lawlessness’ (1Jn 3.4), serves only to intensify our highest regard for him as simultaneously just and gracious. It will lead us to love and serve him, not out of a sense of servile obligation; but in joyful devotion as his justified and adopted children in Christ.

Going back to Moses’ word of explanation to the Israelites at Sinai, the fear or reverence God was seeking to instill into them through this encounter was ‘to keep [them] from sinning’. That is, it was intended to encourage their obedience. Seen in that light we cannot help but see how much the church as the New Israel needs to learn that lesson all over again. A rediscovery of what it means to fear the LORD will impact the kind of worship we offer (He 12.28), the service we render (2Co 7.1) and the witness we bear to a hostile world (1Pe 3.15). Therein indeed lies the skill for living that will transform our lives and reach the world with the gospel.

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