The very thought of life apart from Christ’s cross stirs fear, terror, and awe. Since God is love, he took our sins upon his son, thereby immediately removing them from us as far as the east is from the west. While we fear God because of who he is, we need never fear his approach because his wrath and anger toward us have been turned aside at Calvary.
I was still in my teens, but I vividly remember the preacher’s words. “When the Bible speaks of the fear of the Lord, it doesn’t mean to be afraid of God, but to respect him. We must never be afraid of God because he loves us.” The preacher had a point and there was palpable relief felt in the congregation upon his declaration. It sounded like God’s love somehow canceled out any fear of God which might trouble us.
But I continued to wonder, how does the softening of fear into “respect” square with the well-known verse in Proverbs 1:7, “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, something which fools despise”? The question remained. What does it mean to “fear the Lord” especially when failing to fear the Lord is to be a fool who lacks knowledge?
I figured I would settle the critical point by doing a bit of research (one of my very first efforts at biblical studies). A commentary on Proverbs told me that the “fear” (yirāh) of the Lord means exactly what I thought it did–to be afraid, terrified, or in awe. There was no justification for understanding “fear” as mere respect, however important it was not to overlook God’s love for sinners. I discovered the word “fear” appears frequently throughout the Old Testament, often connected to wisdom as its source. Wisdom, in turn, is found in knowing who God is–witnessing his awesome power, coming to grips with his holy and righteous judgments, as well as understanding that God brings all things unto the ends for which he has appointed them. In this sense, the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. That is what the author of Proverbs was getting at. Fools, on the other hand, ignore God who reveals himself as a “consuming fire” through his word and in his deeds (Hebrews 12:29). If wisdom arises from fear of the Lord, the height of foolishness is to pretend that God who is all-powerful, holy, and sovereign, does not reveal himself and grant us wisdom.
The fear of God is not a mere abstract theological speculation resulting from observing natural phenomenal like lightening or earthquakes. From the time of Abraham until Israel’s Exodus from Egypt and the Conquest of Canaan, God’s people repeatedly witnessed God’s presence with them through his supernatural power over nature. This is especially the case in the way in which God brings judgment upon his enemies–the fate of the elite Egyptian chariot units in the waters of the Red Sea comes to mind. The people of Israel also witnessed God’s awesome presence with his people as they made their way from Egypt into the promised land of Canaan (i.e., the pillar of fire by night and the cloud by day). Joshua recounts how the people of Jericho were terrified once they became aware that YHWH was leading his people (Israel) toward them (Joshua 2:10-11). YHWH is to be feared because of who he is.
But how do we resolve the apparent discrepancy between a God who is to be feared, and one whom the Scriptures also tell us “is love” (1 John 4:8)? What the preacher of my childhood completely missed was the fact that we need not weaken the force of the biblical affirmation that God is to be feared in order to preserve the fact that God is love. There is a biblical way to solve the conundrum which preserves both biblical points–God is to be feared and he is love. The solution is a proper understanding of the biblical covenants and a bloody cross.
God is to be feared because we have all rebelled against him. We are all guilty before him because of our sins–guilt for Adam’s sin imputed to us, as well as guilty for our actual sins (Genesis 3). After our first parents sinned in Eden, they were terrified by YHWH’s approach. The reason for their terror? God is perfectly and absolutely holy. Adam and Eve were once innocent. But the guilty rebels were soon cast from Eden, unable to enjoy God’s presence and terrified of his wrath. From that moment until now, God is to be feared, because he is holy, we are sinners, and all human sin must be punished.