Fearing our Heavenly Father without being Afraid of Him (1)
“And if you call on him as Father who judges impartially according to each one's deeds, conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile, knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot. He was foreknown before the foundation of the world but was made manifest in the last times for the sake of you who through him are believers in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God” (1 Peter 1:17-21).
Allow me, if I may, to speak for just a moment about my earthly father. He died in 1983 at the age of 62.
He was, in every sense of the word, my best friend. I had a remarkable relationship with him. I can say with all honesty that he and I never had an argument. Well, almost. When I returned from a summer in Lake Tahoe in 1970 with hair covering my ears and far down the back of my neck, we came pretty close to our first confrontation. But it was averted when my mother called her hairdresser over to our house who quickly clipped my long blonde locks!
Never once did I doubt my dad’s love for me. I could tell him anything. I never felt condemned or rejected by him. There was never a time when he was too busy for me. He never failed to attend every athletic event in which I participated. He affirmed me and loved me and never compared me with other boys. He always made me feel special. There was a very special bond of love between us.
But I feared my dad. I know that sounds like a contradiction, but it’s not. I feared him because I knew that he loved me too much to ignore my rebellion and sinfulness and childish immaturity. There were consequences for my actions, but I never questioned his intent or motivation or commitment to me. Discipline and intimacy were perfectly compatible in our relationship.
I also feared him in the sense that I was terrified of hurting him. The thought that my actions might cause him pain or that I might somehow disappoint him by what I said or did was more than I could bear.
I’m not so naïve as to think that everyone has had this sort of relationship with their fathers, and I can only attribute mine to the grace and mercy and kindness of God. But the relationship I had with my dad has greatly affected the relationship I have with my heavenly Father. I’ve never really struggled much to reconcile the fear of God with the reality of his love for me. Intimacy and awe have always felt perfectly compatible when it comes to my heavenly Father. But I’m probably in the minority on this point.
My guess is that many, perhaps even most, of you have a hard time swallowing what Peter says here in v. 17 of chapter 1. Look at it closely. Peter unmistakably commands us to “fear” the one whom we call “Father”. No one doubts that the “fear” in v. 17 is the fear of God (see 1 Peter 2.17).
But at first glance these two concepts appear to cancel each other out. If God is my “Father” he is, by definition, the one who protects me and provides for me and loves me and guards me and has adopted me into his family and who invites me to come to him with all my burdens and anxieties and to trust him and love him. But if all that is wrapped up in God being our “Father”, how can Peter then command us to “fear” him? Answering that is not easy because it is culturally and politically and even psychologically unpopular today to speak of the “fear” of God.
Most people aren’t even aware of how pervasive and important “fearing God” is in Scripture. Of the literally dozens of texts I could cite, there are a few that come immediately to mind. For example, as Abraham was about to slay Isaac, God said: “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me” (Gen. 22:12).
When Satan stood before God, the Lord said to him: “Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil?” (Job 1:8). We’re all familiar with the declaration in Proverbs that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (Prov. 1:7a).
The New Testament is also familiar with this truth, as Peter, for example, issues this command to his readers: “Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor” (1 Peter 2:17).
What, then, does it mean for the believer to “fear” God? The most frequently heard response is that it entails reverence and awe, and that is no doubt true. By this I understand that we must live and speak and think and act with a keen and ever-present awareness that he is holy and we are not, he is powerful and we are weak, he is self-sufficient and we are utterly dependent for every breath on his goodness and grace. This is the sort of “fear” that expresses itself in trembling and amazement and an overwhelming sense of personal frailty and finitude.
This sort of fear is the antithesis of presumption, pride and self-righteousness. Yes, God is our heavenly Father and he sings over us with rapturous delight. But he is also a consuming fire (Heb. 12:28-29), in whose glorious presence both John the Apostle and the twenty-four Elders fall prostrate in humble adoration (Rev. 1:17; 4:9-10).
To fear God means to live conscious of his all-pervasive presence, conscious of our absolute, moment-by-moment dependence on him for light and life, conscious of our comprehensive responsibility to do all he has commanded, fearful of offending him, determined to obey him (Deut. 6:1-2,24; 8:6; Pss. 112:1; 119:63; Malachi 3:5), and committed to loving him (Deut. 10:12,20; 13:4).
When we look to Proverbs we discover that to fear God is to know him (Prov. 1:29; 2:4-5) and to hate evil (Prov. 8:13; 16:6). Fearing God yields confidence (Prov. 14:26) and humility (Prov. 3:7; 22:4), and contentment (Prov. 23:17).
The fear of God, then, is many things. But we now come to what it is not. It is not to be frightened of him in the sense that we live in uncertainty as to whether he might one day turn on us and lay upon us the condemnation that our sin deserves. It is not to be afraid of him in the sense that we live in doubt about his intentions or whether or not he plans on fulfilling the promises of his Word. It is not to be terrorized and paralyzed at the prospect of having our transgressions visited yet again upon us, in spite of the fact that they have been fully and finally visited on our Savior, the Lord Jesus. It is not to live in anxious dread that divine wrath will yet find us out and bring death and eternal destruction to our souls.
Why do I say this? How do I know that to fear God does not mean to be afraid of his judgment or rejection? There are many ways to prove this, but none better than Psalm 130:3-4. It’s the sort of text that is easily overlooked and ignored. Here it is:
“If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared” (Ps. 130:3-4).
On first reading, something seems terribly askew. Would it not have made more sense for the psalmist to have said: “But with you there is justice, that you may be feared”? Is it not the prospect of God exacting payment for our transgressions that evokes fear in the human soul? If God should indeed “mark iniquities” then fear seems the only appropriate response.
But the good news is that with God “there is forgiveness”! That being the case, would not all “fear” be eliminated? One would certainly think so. Yet the psalmist asserts that the result of forgiveness (perhaps even its purpose) is that we might fear God ever more fervently.
Think deeply about what is being said. With God there is forgiveness. From him proceeds the grace that provides a propitiation for our sins. He has taken every step necessary to accomplish our redemption through his Son. According to Psalm 103:10, he no longer deals with us according to our sins or repays us according to our iniquities. Indeed, our sins have been removed from us as far as the east is from the west (Ps. 103:12).
This is why the “fear” of God mentioned in this text cannot be fear of facing condemnation or fear of encountering and experiencing his righteous wrath. Do you see the psalmist’s logic? If what we find with God is forgiveness for our sins, what grounds remain for us to live in terror of his judgment or wrath? If God has wiped clean the slate of our sin and guilt, then clearly he has chosen not to “mark iniquities” and just as clearly all reason for fear is gone. Therefore, if the “fear of God” in this passage were a reference to the dread of impending destruction, forgiveness is emptied of all meaning and value.
But according to what we read in v. 4, forgiveness is the foundation for fear! The unshakeable knowledge that God will never “mark iniquities” (v. 3), which is to say, the assurance that our sins have been forever forgiven, is the reason why we fear God. There’s no escaping the force of the psalmist’s language: fearing God is the necessary fruit of forgiveness! This alone demands that fearing God entail something altogether other than being afraid of judgment.
Forgiveness, as much as any act of God, reveals his incomprehensible greatness and majesty. The infinitely transcendent God of holiness and truth has acted in grace on behalf of hell-deserving sinners. Once the reality of this is fully grasped, the only reasonable response is one of brokenness, humility, and breathtaking awe at such amazing love.
Certainly there is joy in the knowledge of our forgiveness, as well as gratitude and praise. But these are perfectly consistent with holy fear, that bone-shattering realization that it is by divine mercy alone that we are not forever consumed by divine wrath. One can simultaneously “taste” the goodness of the Lord (Ps. 34:8a) and “fear” him (Ps. 34:9a).
So, it’s on the basis of texts like Psalm 130 that we know that to fear God is not the same as being afraid of him.
But wait a minute Sam! If we are forgiven, then how is it that we will be judged impartially according to our deeds? Isn’t that what Peter says in v. 17? Isn’t that one of the reasons why we should fear God during our earthly sojourn? Yes! But the judgment here is not one to determine whether or not you will enter the kingdom of God but a judgment to determine your rewards and degree of authority in that kingdom.
We must never forget that the “judgment” which God’s children undergo is altogether different from the “judgment” that unbelievers experience. We who by grace are able to call upon God as “Father” will be judged by the same standard but not for the same purpose as non-Christians will be.
Unbelievers ought to “fear” God as they contemplate the eternal judgment that awaits them. Christians, on the other hand, “fear” God at the prospect of standing before the Lord to have his/her deeds scrutinized and recompensed. It is the fear of not pleasing the Lord. It is the fear of one’s works being assessed as “evil” (v. 10) and thus suffering the loss of that reward that would otherwise have come with obedience to the will and ways of God.
Therefore, the “fear” of the Lord is not the fear of condemnation but of less than notable commendation when our deeds are assessed on that day.
To be continued . . .