Contemporary Evangelical Perspectives on the Fear of the Lord
A well-known evangelical psychologists in one of his books made the pronouncement, “We should never fear God.” That’s a rather jarring assertion in light of the many times that Scripture speaks of the fear of the Lord has an essential element of our faith.
This psychologist seems to have come to this conclusion because the fear of the Lord is out of sync with his teaching on unconditional acceptance. I must credit him with the recognition that the fear of the Lord and unconditional acceptance are incompatible. Unfortunately, he opted in favor of his psychological theory rather than an often repeated truth of Scripture.
The conclusion of the psychologists that God accepts us unconditionally is held by both secular society and the evangelical community. Therefore, both groups, recognizing the incompatibility with this belief, sense a need to somehow do away with scriptural teaching regarding the fear of the Lord.
The primary approach to reconciling unconditional acceptance and the fear of the Lord is found in redefining the fear of the Lord to mean reverential awe. All of us no doubt have heard evangelical ministers, psychologists, and others pronounce that the fear of the Lord does not actually refer to fear in the common definition of the term.
Scriptural Teaching on the Fear of the Lord
The teaching that our attitude toward God should be one of reverential awe is certainly far more comfortable than the view that we should genuinely fear God. However, the real issue is what the Scripture teaches.
In many passages, Scripture is clear that fear means fear. For example in Matthew 10:28 Jesus teaches, “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” It is evident that the prospect of one’s soul and body being cast into hell provides very compelling cause for genuine fear. Trying to fit reverential awe into this context would be harder than fitting Shaquille O’Neal into one of my shirts.
Or take verses such as 2Chronicles 17:10, “And the fear of the LORD fell on all the kingdoms of the lands that were around Judah, so that they did not make war against Jehoshaphat.” This verse is clearly stating that these nations were scared to do battle against Judah. We are talking about plain ordinary fear in this context.
Likewise with 2Chronicles 19:7, “Now therefore, let the fear of the LORD be upon you; take care and do it, for there is no iniquity with the LORD our God, no partiality, nor taking of bribes.” The sense of this passage, written to judges, apparently is that they should be afraid to show partiality or to take bribes because God will chasten them for their misdeeds.
Should We Live in Fear
The typical objection to this position is that certainly God does not want us to go through life cringing. And the answer is that of course he does not.
However, it is not difficult to reconcile the position that fear means fear with the perspective that God wants us to live free of fear. Consider, for example, the verse just cited. A judge can be free of fear if he doesn’t contemplate taking bribes. The fear of the Lord kicks in when sinful intensions arise.
Those of us who have had a good dad, as did I, easily understand the concept. My father and I had a warm and loving relationship. However, when I stepped over the line he had drawn, bad things happened. As a result, the prospect of stepping over that line engendered healthy fear, and after I did so that fear was substantially elevated as I waited for judgment to fall.
So the concept is fairly simple. We only need to fear God when our intents or behaviors are displeasing to Him. Otherwise, we never need to cringe. God places living free of fear within our reach.
The Benefit of the Fear of the Lord
Of course, this perspective does not fit well with the contemporary commitment to unconditional acceptance, which would not have us fear God or any authority regardless of how wicked our plans or behaviors.
However, it should be evident to all that this unconditional acceptance program is not working well in our society. For example, imagine how different America would be if our politicians feared the Lord or even the voters when they lied or cheated or took bribes? The same might be said regarding a large segment of evangelical men engaged in pornography or men or women contemplating leaving their family for an adulterous relationship.
Motivation by Love Rather Than Fear
Some might contend that we should be motivated by love for God rather than fear. When I was a kid fear motivated me to obey my dad. As I matured, at least marginally, I began to obey him out of love. Likewise, as we grow as believers love takes a more dominant role in our motivation to obey the Lord.
Unfortunately, even after walking with the Lord for many years, at times I am still not sufficiently mature to obey Scripture totally out of love. If I didn’t fear retribution from God I might consider cheating on my income tax. After all, the government will probably either waste my money or take it themselves. I may be able to outsmart the IRS but God has warned me that my sin will find me out. No, it’s not love of God that motivates my contributing to political greed but my fear that God would not take kindly to my cheating ways. I hope you are more mature than I am and do it all out of love. But I am betting that none of us outgrow the need for the fear of the Lord. Both secular society and the church could use a healthy dose of this very scarce commodity.