Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary

10 Jul 2023

Fearing God as Sons, Not Slaves

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The fear of the Lord is a key concept in the Bible but is often misunderstood by Christians today. There are three elements of the fear of the Lord:

1. A reverence/respect for the majesty of God

“There is none like You, Lord;
You are great, and Your name is great in might.
Who would not fear You, O King of the nations?
For it is Your due!
For among all the wise men of the nations
And in all their kingdoms,
There is none like You.” Jer 10:6-7

2. A commitment to obeying God’s Word

“Blessed is everyone who fears the Lord,
Who walks in His ways.” Ps 128:1

“If only they had such a heart in them, to fear Me and keep all My commandments always, so that it would go well with them and with their sons forever!” Dt 5:29

“Now this is the commandment, the statutes, and the judgments which the Lord your God has commanded me to teach you, so that you may do them in the land where you are going over to take possession of it, so that you, your son, and your grandson will fear the Lord your God, to keep all His statutes and His commandments which I command you, all the days of your life, and that your days may be prolonged.” Dt 6:1-2

3. A dread of displeasing our holy Father

“The fear of the Lord is to hate evil.” Prov 8:13

“And to mankind He said, ‘Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom;
And to turn away from evil is understanding.’” Job 28:28

This third element is key to understanding the difference between an unhealthy fear and a healthy fear, or what some have called a slavish fear and a filial fear. This distinction is perhaps most clearly seen in Exodus 20:

“And all the people were watching and hearing the thunder and the lightning flashes, and the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it all, they trembled and stood at a distance19 Then they said to Moses, ‘Speak to us yourself and we will listen; but do not have God speak to us, or we will die!’ However, Moses said to the people, ‘Do not be afraid; for God has come in order to test you, and in order that the fear of Him may remain with you, so that you will not sin.’” Exod 20:18-20

Moses tells Israel: “Don’t be afraid, but fear.” The Israelites were tempted to cower in terror as they beheld God’s majesty. But the fear they truly needed was one that would lead them to avoid sin.

We can see a slavish fear manifested in false religions and hypocritical service to God. It is the kind of fear the demons have as they shudder at the reality of God’s existence (Jas 2:19). It is a fear that only focuses on judgment and wants to avoid punishment.

“Now the one who had received the one talent also came up and said, ‘Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed25 And I was afraid, so I went away and hid your talent in the ground. See, you still have what is yours.’” Matt 25:24-25

But with filial fear, there is an affection that flows out of a relationship with God.

“If You, Lord, were to keep account of guilty deeds,
Lord, who could stand?
But there is forgiveness with You,
So that You may be revered.” Ps 130:3-4

“They shall be My people, and I will be their God; 39 and I will give them one heart and one way, so that they will fear Me always, for their own good and for the good of their children after them.” Jer 32:28

“If you address as Father the One who impartially judges according to each one’s work, conduct yourselves in fear during the time of your stay on earth18 knowing that you were not redeemed with perishable things like silver or gold from your futile way of life inherited from your forefathers, 19 but with precious blood, as of a lamb unblemished and spotless, the blood of Christ.” 1 Pet 1:17-18

Filial fear is not a paralyzing terror of God’s judgment but is a continual awareness of God as Father and Judge. Yes, there is a concern about displeasing God, but the concern is about bringing shame and dishonor to our Father, not that we might face God’s wrath for our wrongdoing.

As Sinclair Ferguson said:

“[Filial fear is] that indefinable mixture of reverence and pleasure, joy and awe which fills our hearts when we realize who God is and what he has done for us. It is a love for God which is so great that we would be ashamed to do anything which would displease or grieve him, and makes us happiest when we are doing what pleases him.”

Sinclair Ferguson, Grow in Grace (Edinburgh, Scotland: Banner of Truth Trust, 1989), 29.