In my last post we discussed the fear of the Lord as it is used in the Old Testament and especially in the book of Proverbs. But what about the New Testament? Are Christian believers still supposed to “fear” God? And if so, what does that mean in light of Jesus’ teaching about God being our loving Father?
Respecting Our Heavenly Father
When we get to the New Testament, we find that the concept of fearing God does continue to be an important theme. But it’s a theme that takes on some important nuances and qualifications in light of Jesus and the new era of the Spirit.
In Matthew 10:28 Jesus tells us to fear God rather than people, knowing that God has the power to judge eternally. He is especially concerned with making sure his disciples are encouraged not to be afraid of human opposition. Notice that in the next verse Jesus balances his point about fearing God alongside the truth of God’s fatherly care for believers who persevere in spite of persecution.
In 2 Corinthians 7:1, reverence for the Lord motivates our growth in holiness. Just as the Old Testament emphasized the fear of the Lord as a moral quality (respecting God enough to live according to his word and his moral expectations), the apostle Paul repeats that same emphasis by telling us to pursue holiness by the power of the Holy Spirit.
In Philippians 2:12-13, Paul tells believers to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,” since God is “working in you” (or it could be translated “among you” — the “you” is plural in Greek, referring to the whole church community). At first blush, it could sound like Paul is telling us to be afraid of a demanding God looking over our shoulders, trying to catch us slipping up.
But when we look at the way Paul uses the phrase “fear and trembling” elsewhere, we find that he uses the phrase idiomatically to describe having a humble and respectful attitude (1 Corinthians 2:3; 2 Corinthians 7:15; Ephesians 6:5). Paul means for us to take seriously God’s activity of bringing his church to maturity and showing his presence through our growth in holiness. He also means we must show respect to our fellow believers as we encourage them to grow in their sanctification (notice that 2:12-13 is the practical application of the point about Christ’s ultimate humility in Philippians 2:1-11).
In 1 Peter 1:17 we’re told we should respect God as our Father and live reverently in line with his character, since he judges impartially “according to each one’s deeds.” If we’re not careful, this is another verse we could read as saying that Christians should fear that God might condemn them in the final judgment. But, like Jesus’ saying in Matthew 10:28, Peter’s emphasis is on our special relationship to God as our Father. God doesn’t judge according to social status or worldly prestige; he judges according to how people live their lives. And if we claim to be related to God through Christ, then our lives should match his holy character. Thus, “The point is that Christians are to live in an attitude of holy reverence toward the one who through Christ has begotten and redeemed them, rather than to live in terror at the thought of divine judgment.”
Love Vs. Fear?
But there’s one New Testament verse that seems to contradict the concept of fearing God. First John 4:18 says, “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.”
At first glance, this seems to pit a Christian “love of God” against an Old Testament “fear of God” (which is what some people claim this verse is teaching).
But as we’ve seen, the New Testament — and Jesus himself! — continues to affirm a healthy fear of God. How does that fit together?
I believe the best answer is that the kind of fear John speaks against is not a healthy fear of God; it’s an unhealthy dread of final judgment. First John 4:17 makes clear that final judgment is what’s in view in this context. What John is saying is that believers who are persevering in their faith do not have to be afraid of condemnation.
First John 4:18 is not ruling out the need for a healthy reverence for God. Indeed, those who are experiencing God’s perfect love for them should therefore be seeking to revere him and do what pleases him, because they love and respect him. Read on to 1 John 5:3 and you’ll see that loving God involves keeping God’s commands, just as fearing God does!
Indeed, what 1 John 4:18 has in common with the other New Testament references to fearing God is the reality that those who are persevering in faith and seeking to honor God with their lives need not fear condemnation. Or to put it another way, revere God and you don’t need to fear hell.
To illustrate how John’s point fits with Jesus’, Paul’s, and Peter’s, I would point to my marriage relationship. I don’t fear that my wife will leave me and end our relationship, because I know that she loves me, I trust her character, and we’re continuing to be devoted to each other. But that doesn’t mean I don’t show her respect, or that I ignore her requests, or that I don’t take it seriously when I make her angry!
In the same way, “fear of God” and “love for God” intersect around the fact that we won’t do certain things if we know they will hurt our relationship with him.
Thus, fear of the Lord (in the New Testament) means:
– Being truly devoted to him in our hearts.
– Having reverence for him as our awe-inspiring God.
– Obeying him – even when it’s unpopular (fear God rather than people).
– Paying attention to and heeding his word.
– Recognizing that he sees and evaluates all that we think or do.
– Avoiding things that we know will grieve him or hurt our closeness with Him.
 For example, Raymond Brown, The Epistles of John (The Anchor Bible, Vol. 30).