The only way to find the right fear of God is through the Person and Work of Jesus Christ. The cross of Christ is where majestic holiness and infinite mercy find their perfect conjunction as far as man is concerned. It is in the gospel that men can look at blinding holiness and glorious love and see them in light of each other. When the gospel is rightly taught, there is neither the dilution of God’s wrath, power and majesty, nor a grudging admission or dismissive assent to God’s love, grace, and mercy. As surely as the Incarnation requires belief that Christ is truly God and truly man, so the gospel (and the doctrine of simplicity) requires we believe that God is infinitely great and infinitely good.
Here’s a short test. What follows is a list of several words associated with fear. Which of these have to do with the fear of the Lord?
Horror, awe, terror, quiet, despair, seriousness, intimidation, dread, timidity, scariness, panic, astonishment, trepidation, anxiety, reverence. The exercise is not primarily to get it exactly “right”, for even these words carry connotations that will differ from person to person. Generally speaking, most thoughtful Christians will weed out the most negative and destructive of fears (despair, horror, panic) while retaining the ones that suggest seriousness.
Understanding the inner affection of reverence is as difficult as trying to define any human emotion. Our best chance of understanding it well is to begin negatively: eliminating the wrong kinds of fear on either end of the spectrum. From there, we will likely find the kind of fear the mixes elements of both sides.
What is the fear “spectrum”? On one extreme, we would have the kind of fear that a sinner would face should he experience the pure, unmitigated greatness of an infuriated omnipotent god, were that god his enemy. This fear would be terror and horror of the most agonising kind. Nothing except the despair of the sinner’s inevitable destruction looms over him. No hope is here, only panic, for there is nothing but threat to one’s being.
The opposite extreme would be the over-familiarity that a friend or relative might have with one in a position of authority. The position of authority is known to the friend, but the close relationship leads the friend to almost scoff at his position, as if it is an inside joke that such authority does not rule over friends. The ‘goodness’ of his friend, their relationship of friendship does not simply render his authority friendly; it neutralises it altogether.
Of these two, we know which is in the ascendancy today when it comes to worshipping God.