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Crazy Notions: To ‘fear God’ actually means to ‘revere God’

I think pretty much every western Christian has heard something like ‘to fear God’ as described in the Bible actually means ‘to revere God’ or ‘to be in awe of God’.

A highly educated, uncompromising pastor who I hold in high regard argued for this in a series of sermons at his church a number of years ago. So it is not just left leaning Christians who see the fear of God this way.

No doubt the motivation for such a view is that to fear something in the sense of being afraid of it seems so incompatible with love. That is, how can we have a loving relationship with God if we are afraid of Him?

But first, it seems patently obvious to me that ‘fear of God’ must involve being afraid of God. Look at how Jesus described the fear of God:

Mat 10:28 ESV And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.

Jesus answers this question once and for all by describing the type of fear we should have towards God. We should fear God like we should fear someone who wants to kill us. That means we are to be afraid or even terrified. This clearly does not mean ‘to revere God’. In fact, it is quite possible that we would have no reverence for someone who is trying to kill us. We should indeed revere God. But to exchange the fear of God with a reverence for God completely empties Jesus words in Matthew 10 of their meaning and causes it to mean something entirely different.

But how can we have a relationship with someone we fear in this way.

Note that in Matthew 10 it says we are to fear Him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. This is a key word. It would be impossible to have an intimate relationship with someone who is actually trying to destroy our body and soul. It would also be very difficult to have a relationship with some who might be seeking our destruction. However it is quite possible to have an intimate relationship with someone who we know has the power and the willingness to destroy us in Hell but who we know will not do so if we remain faithful to Him.

This idea is unpalatable to many, especially Calvinists. They tend to argue that unless you have 100% certainty of your ultimate salvation you can have no certainty at all. And without certainty you can have no relationship. However the truth of this idea is not seen in other relationships we are familiar with.

My father was a good man. He was not perfect, but he was much closer to perfection than I was as a child. That meant that I was regularly disciplined. My parents had levels of discipline from being sent to one’s room to corporal punishment. The latter sometimes involved hands, belts, a coat hanger or a short piece of garden hose. The last two I feared the most. I got them enough at the hands of my father to know that they hurt a lot. So how did this affect my relationship with my father?

I loved my father. I liked being with him. I wanted his help. I enjoyed doing the things that kids do with their fathers. I can’t ever recall fearing evil from my father. Nor can I recall ever feeling unloved or unwanted. I feared his discipline. I feared the pain he could cause when I was in the wrong. But I never thought my father was evil nor did I think he did evil to me. My experience is not uncommon. It is the experience of millions of children through the ages.

Now this should not be thought as arguing that all corporal punishment is good. Some fathers are evil and some punishments are evil. But this was not my experience nor is it the experience of many.

So it is clear, to me at least, that it is quite possible to fear a person who can inflict real pain yet still love him and feel loved by him. This is how it is with God. We should always fear His justice – but we can presently delight in His grace. We should always fear that if we are given what we deserve we will be eternally destroyed. But today, right now, while I trust in His grace alone, my fears are swallowed up in gratitude.

Is this emotionally possible? Is it possible to both fear and love a person simultaneously? Probably not. But that is not what fearing God is about. It is about holding an abiding or latent fear that if I am unfaithful to Him He will destroy me. But if I remain faithful to Him, He will remain faithful to me.

Rom 11:19-22 ESV Then you will say, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” (20) That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith. So do not become proud, but fear. (21) For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you. (22) Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off.

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