If “the fear of the Lord” is the beginning of knowledge, wisdom, and a fountain of life (Prov 1:7, 9:10, 14:27) then why are preachers so reticent to talk about it?
Many who stand in pulpits each Sunday translate the biblical witness into contemporary psychological and therapeutic terms and the call to “fear the Lord” is difficult to mesh with the self-esteem and the “your so special” emphasis of much contemporary church culture. God is often envisioned as more of a cosmic life-coach than Lord of the cosmos. When “the fear of the Lord” is mentioned, the preacher often immediately attempts to soften the biblical language, assuring the congregants that the phrase only means respect. But the assertion is not true and is lethal to the church’s gospel mission.
The biblical call to “fear the Lord,” means much more than our term for respect. We can respect our teachers, elected officials, store clerks, coaches, and the person who delivers our mail. Respect can be abstract and distant. The biblical call to “fear the Lord” is a call to submission, devotion, awe, adoration, and worship. It is to be so overwhelmed by the triune God that the reality of who he is dominates and controls us. As CS Lewis noted, it is to know God is not safe but he is good.
Everyone fears something. The fear that the Scripture calls us to reject is worldly fear. Worldly fear is marked by a self-referential dread of the future. Worldly fear is always cast in negative terms. Those marked by worldly fear spend their lives hoping certain things they dread will not happen. They hope they will not get cancer, be betrayed, die before they see their children grow up. They are dominated by the fear of the things they dread. It is this fear that the Scripture says the fear of the Lord drives out:
Moses said to the people, “Do not fear, for God has come to test you, that the fear of him may be before you, that you may not sin.” (Exodus 20:20)
There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. 1 John 4:18
But the answer to vanquishing the fear marked by dread of the future is not found in having no fear. The answer is found in transforming fear from dread to delight. The fear of the Lord casts out worldly fear and causes his people to exult for all eternity. We never outgrow our need to fear the Lord because it is rooted in the reality of who he is and what he has done. Consider the role that fearing the Lord has in eschatological glory:
Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall fear and exult, because the abundance of the sea shall be turned to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you. (Isaiah 60:5)
Who will not fear, O Lord, and glorify your name? For you alone are holy. All nations will come and worship you, for your righteous acts have been revealed.” (Rev 15:4)
The church must instill this awe. The biblical storyline takes us to the battlefield not to the therapist’s couch. Much of the weakness and impotence of the contemporary church is rooted in a lack of holy awe for God and a portion of the blame lies with the one called to stand in the pulpit and speak as the voice of Christ to God’s people. Fearful dread of the future produces self-protectiveness not courageous, missional gospel warriors. The hope-filled, gospel awe of those who fear the Lord is ground zero for Great Commission faithfulness because the future is our delight—not our dread.
Perfect love casts out worldly fear marked by dread of the future. And the fear of the Lord casts out flaccid sentimentality often falsely packaged as love in our culture. When the apostle Paul defends his apostolic gospel ministry to the church at Corinth he uses two parallel phrases, which are two ways of explaining his motivation.
Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade others. But what we are is known to God, and I hope it is known also to your conscience. We are not commending ourselves to you again but giving you cause to boast about us, so that you may be able to answer those who boast about outward appearance and not about what is in the heart. For if we are beside ourselves, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you. For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised. (2 Cor 5:11-15)
It is the compulsive force of the fear of the Lord, which is also explained as the love of Christ that dominates, compels, and controls Paul’s life and ministry. Fear has been transformed from negative dread of the future to a Christ-centered delight-filled anticipation of the future—no matter how present circumstances appear. Fear is always eschatological. It is either dread of the future (worldly fear) or delight in the future (the fear of the Lord). Jesus tells us that there is fear to be banished and the fear to be cultivated: “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” (Matt 10:28). Pastor, choose you this day whom you will fear (Gal 1:10).