A few months back, Matt Morgan drew my attention to the fact that John Murray devotes a chapter to the phrases “the fear of YHWH” and “the fear of God” in his book Principles of Conduct: Aspects of Biblical Ethics. At the time, he and I both were doing some work in Proverbs and I had still been struggling to understand what kind of fear was involved in this expression.
In preparing for a couple of Sunday school classes – which I’m entitling “Gospel Centered Piety in First Peter” – I re-read Murray’s chapter. I found two quotes especially worth sharing.
First a summary of the two meanings of fear:
[T]wo meanings of ‘fear’ enter into the concept of the fear of God. There is the dread or terror of the Lord and there is the fear of reverential awe. There is the fear that consists in being afraid; it elicits anguish and terror. There is the fear of reverence; it elicits confidence and love.
Principles of Conduct, pg. 233.
In light of the summary, now a passage about the second kind of fear; the kind that redeemed Christians are to feel of God.
The fear of God which is the soul of godliness does not consist, however, in the dread which is produced by the apprehension of God’s wrath. When the reason for such dread exists, then to be destitute of it is the sign of hardened ungodliness. But the fear of God which is the basis of godliness, and in which godliness may be said to consist, is much more inclusive and determinative than the fear of God’s judgment. And we must remember that the dread of judgment will never of itself generate within us the love of God or hatred of the sin that makes us liable to his wrath. Even the infliction of wrath will not create the hatred of sin; it will incite to greater love of sin and enmity against God. Punishment has of itself no regenerating or converting power. The fear of God in which godliness consists is the fear which constrains adoration and love. It is the fear which consists in awe, reverence, honour, and worship, and all of these on the highest level of exercise. It is the reflex in our consciousness of the transcendent majesty and holiness of God. It belongs to all created rational beings and does not take its origins from sin.
Principles of Conduct, pgs. 236-37. Bold emphasis mine.
So while it is good and proper for Christians to live in the fear of the Lord, tender consciousnesses need not be terrorized by this. This isn’t the first kind of fear – dread and terror – because that kind of fear is not fitting for those who are children of a truly good and loving father. It is, however, the second kind of fear – reverence and awe – which is proper to the fact that our loving and faithful father is, after all, perfectly holy and all powerful. That he would be pleased to call me his child is truly overwhelming!