One of the most frequent exhortations in the Bible is for people to fear God. It is also one of the most frequently misunderstood exhortations. Perhaps this is because the Bible envisions two types of fear.
On the one hand, Scripture recognises the reality of dreadful fear, from which Christians have been freed. The New Testament encourages, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love” (1 John 4:18). Here, we learn that those who are the recipients of God’s love are done with a certain type of fear: the fear that leaves us cowering in God’s presence, terrified of his righteous judgement. If we are in Christ, we have confidence that he took God’s judgement for our sin on himself so that we do not have to fear judgement.
On the other hand, Scripture recognises the reality of delightful fear, in which Christians walk. The Bible speaks of a kind of fear of God that is a “delight” (Nehemiah 1:11; Isaiah 11:1–3). This is not a fear of judgement but a fear that keeps us responding in a righteous way toward God. Proverbs contrasts “the one who fears the LORD always” with the one who “hardens his heart” (4:28) while Isaiah speaks of the one who “trembles at [God’s] word” as “humble and contrite in sprit” (66:2). Delightful fear humbles us and causes us to walk in God’s commands. This is the kind of fear that is produced by the gospel.
Peter wrote of this kind of fear in 1 Peter 1:17–21. He exhorted his suffering readers to “conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile” and rooted this exhortation, as he did throughout this opening section of exhortations, in the salvation that they had received through “the precious blood of Christ.”
In their suffering, these believers needed to hear this exhortation. In suffering, we always face the temptation to fear man rather than God and to therefore bow to the pressures that would cause us to deny Christ. Peter knew the reality of this temptation first-hand. He had caved to the fear of man when he had denied Christ in the courtyard on the night in which Jesus was betrayed. He desperately wanted his readers to avoid falling into the same trap, so he reminded them of their need to fear God above all else in light of the glorious gospel.
John Piper says that to fear the Lord means to regard him as so holy and awe-inspiring that you would not dare run from him. He tells the story of taking his then six-year-old son to visit a church member, whose large breed dog stood as tall as the young boy. Having forgotten something in the car, he asked his son to fetch it. The boy eagerly trotted off toward the car and the dog immediately followed, growling menacingly. A look of sheer terror overcame the boy. The owner called out, “Don’t run. He doesn’t like it when people run away from him.” Once the boy slowed to a walk, the dog walked happily alongside him.
Piper compares his to our fear of God. When we run from God, we have every reason to fear his judgement. When we run to God, we have every reason to anticipate his embrace.
As you reflect on this truth this morning, ask God for the grace to enable you to come to him reverently, humbly, without any expectation that he owes you anything. Ask him to instil in you a holy trembling whenever you feel the inclination to run from him, because there is only eternal destruction away from his presence.
Peter again argued that “hope” results from this kind of fear (v. 21). This is because a healthy fear of God drives us closer to him and causes us to hope in his covenant love for his people, not in our own ability to face the trials of life.
Do you want to face the trials of life with hope? Then learn to fear God because of your confidence in Christ and your salvation by the gospel.