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“Blessed is everyone that fears the Lord” (Ps. 128:1). Do you really believe that? Do you believe that God’s blessing really only rests on those who fear Him?
The clear message of the Bible is that the great divide that runs down the middle of the human race is between those who fear God and those who do not. As we face tyrannical government overreach, various viruses and threats, the impotence and compromise of the modern Church, one thing is very clear: of those who name the Lord Jesus Christ, relatively few of them actually fear God. You will hear much about the love of God, serving God, the peace of God, the forgiveness of God, but churches are not known for their fear of God. But if we want the blessing of God, we must fear God.
This is what the early church was known for: “Then had the churches rest throughout all Judaea and Galilee and Samaria, and were edified; and walking in the fear of the Lord, and in the comfort of the Holy Ghost, were multiplied” (Acts 9:31).
Why Should We Fear the Lord?
John Bunyan has a wonderful little meditation on the Fear of God in which he notes three reasons why God’s presence ought to make the godly fear.
First, His presence is full of greatness and majesty and power. Often the Scriptures point to the power of God displayed in creation: the wind and the waves, floods and famines, pestilence and plague, fires and earthquakes. Modern man is blessed with relative protection from these threats, but it is really only relative protection. Despite all our attempts to control creation or at least shield ourselves from it, we cannot. Storms still rage. Floods still overrun banks. Fires still break out. And the point is that God is so much greater than all of these. He is like the sun burning with a heat we could never endure. He is like the ocean, heavy and deep and overwhelming. Imagine floating alone in the middle of the Pacific. He is like a hurricane, a mighty wind blowing with sheer joy.
Bunyan also points to how God’s presence always effects people in the Bible. Never does someone look up and casually say, “Oh, hey, it’s you, God.” No, it’s only always fear. When Jacob saw the vision of the ladder reaching up to heaven, he woke up and was afraid (Gen. 28:10-17). When Jacob wrestled the angel, he went away amazed that he was still alive (Gen. 32:30). When God appeared to Daniel, there was no strength left in him (Dan. 10:8, 16). When Isaiah saw the Lord, he was completely undone (Is. 6:5). When angels appear, they are constantly saying, do not fear, but the point is not that there is nothing to fear, it is rather that the message they bring is good news. The presence is still terrifying. Think of things that really are good but are also dreadful. Maybe it’s watching a storm from safe distance – it is both beautiful and terrifying. Or a firearm: it need not do you any harm and it may be there for your protection, but there is a natural fear of its power, of what it could do.
And this leads to the third thing that Bunyan points to: the goodness of God as the source of godly fear. The grace and mercy of God should cause Christians to fear. God says in Hosea that when He delivers Israel from exile and brings them home into their land, they shall seek the Lord and shall fear Him and His goodness (Hos. 3:5). Or Jeremiah says, “And I will cleanse them from all their iniquity, whereby they have sinned against me; and I will pardon all their iniquities, whereby they have sinned, and whereby they have transgressed against me… and they shall fear and tremble for all the goodness and for all the prosperity that I procure unto it” (Jer. 33:8-9).
Bunyan says that to receive the grace and mercy of God does not make men “light and frothy” or silly or casual, but to receive forgiveness is the “most humbling and heartbreaking sight in the world; it is fearful.”
You Cannot Worship God without Fear
Perhaps one of the most startling signs of the apostacy of the modern American church is the abomination of our worship. There is no fear of God in American evangelical worship. It is light and casual and friendly and silly and obnoxious, but it is not fearful. It does not tremble, and it does not cause anyone to tremble. It does not teach anyone to fear the Lord. And we love to have it so. We insist that it not cause anyone to fear. Come as you are. Our worship is informal, casual – anyone will feel comfortable here. Which just goes to tell you that whoever is there, God is certainly not. If God were there in His goodness, His people would tremble.
When Christians – real Christians – know that their sins are forgiven, they do rejoice, they are full of joy, but they always rejoice with trembling (Ps. 2:11). In Ezekiel 16, when God promises to forgive filthy, adulterous Israel, He does so, announcing her complete cleansing, and says, “That thou mayest remember, and be confounded, and never open thy mouth anymore because of thy shame, when I am pacified toward thee for all that thou hast done, saith the Lord God” (Ez. 16:63). When’s the last time you heard a gospel minister proclaim the forgiveness of God to that sinners might be confounded and shut their mouths?
When many Christians gather for worship, they say God’s name over and over in their stupid songs and thoughtless prayers because they do not fear God or His name. But according to the Bible, God’s people not only fear God but they fear His name: Moses says the law of God was given that God’s people might obey it, “that thou mayest fear this glorious and fearful name, THE LORD THY GOD” (Dt. 28:58). David prays, “Teach me thy way, O LORD; I will walk in thy truth: unite my heart to fear thy name” (Ps. 86:11). “But unto you that fear my name shall the Sun of righteousness arise with healing in his wings…” (Mal. 4:2).
Why is the modern evangelical church so sickly, so weak, so impotent? Because we do not fear the name of the Lord – particularly in our worship spectacles. They are more like circus shows and rock concerts and late night comedy television. There are two commandments with a severe warnings. The second and third commandments are both related to worship: those bow down to images and serve them will not be forgiven and God will visit their sin on their children to the third and fourth generations. Likewise, those who take God’s name in vain will not be held guiltless.
How will the nations learn to fear God if God’s own people do not fear God? Why does Governor Andrew Cuomo not mind blaspheming the living God on national television? Because he does not fear God. And why does he not fear God? Because the Christian Church does not fear God. God’s own people do not fear Him.
Part of the grace of salvation is the gift of godly fear, and when true Christians gather together for worship, they worship with reverence and godly fear because they know that God is still a consuming fire.
Nadab and Abihu were struck down for offering strange fire before the Lord (Lev. 10). Uzzah reached out and touched the ark so that it would not fall, and he was struck dead on the spot (1 Sam. 2). Ananias and Saphira were killed by God for lying about their offering (Acts 5). And Paul says that some were dead in Corinth for the way they were conducting themselves at the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11). Do not say that God only killed people who trifled with His worship in the Old Testament. It is true of both Old Testament and New Testament, and Hebrews says if anything, the warning is more severe in the New Testament:
“See that ye refuse not him that speaketh. For if they escaped not who refused him that spake on earth, much more shall not we escape, if we turn away from him that speaketh from heaven: Whose voice then shook the earth: but now he hath promised, saying, Yet once more I shake not the earth only, but also heaven… Wherefore we are receiving a kingdom which cannot be moved, let us have grace, whereby we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear: for our God is a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:25-26, 28-29).
Likewise, John records one of the songs sung in heaven, “Who shall not fear thee, O Lord, and glorify thy name? for thou only art holy: for all nations shall come and worship before thee; for thy judgments are made manifest” (Rev. 15:4). You cannot glorify God’s name if you do not fear Him.
You Cannot Be Saved Without the Fear of God
But some of you are wondering about the scripture that says perfect love casts out fear: “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear: because fear hath torment. He that feareth is not made perfect in love” (1 Jn. 4:18).
First of all, the fact that we have this verse alongside all of the other verses commending the fear of God in the Bible should give us pause. Whatever this verse means, it does not contradict all of the others. It cannot mean that the fear of the Lord is not the beginning of wisdom. It cannot mean that we are not to fear God.
But secondly, the verse tells us plainly what it is talking about: perfect love casts out the fear of torment, the fear of punishment. Is God out to get you? Is God hunting you down? Is God preparing particular judgments and torture for your sins? If you are in Christ, then no. Perfect love casts out that fear. But perfect love does not cast out the holiness of God, the perfection of God, the justice of God, and the fact that He might have done all of those things to you for your sins.
Maybe you’ve had a near death experience. Maybe you almost fell from a great height. Maybe you barely missed a terrible car accident or some other accident. Do you remember that feeling washing over you? Relief and terror all at the same time. The relief tells you that you’re safe – the actual fear of that calamity is cast out, but you’re still shaking: a godly fear remains. It’s a godly fear because it teaches you wisdom. The fear that remains teaches you caution, care, thoughtfulness – or least it should.
But it’s the same thing with God. When you come to realize your sins. When you see them for the rebellion and filth and shame that they are, you can only do that by seeing how good God is. You can’t know how filthy you are unless you come to see how clean God is. You can’t really understand how perverse and unjust you have been, except by looking up and beginning to comprehend how righteous and just God is.
And in that moment, you know that you deserve His wrath. You deserve to be destroyed. You deserve to suffer. You deserve to receive the pain you have dealt out. You deserve to die. And then God in His infinite mercy grasps you in midair, stumbling over the edge of the cliff heedless, determined, laughing with spite, spitting in His face, and God reaches out just as you look down and see that there is only darkness above and below and in every direction, there is nothing but pain and shame and suffering. There is no hope. And in that moment, God reaches out and He saves you.
He pulls you up. He sets you on solid ground. He washes you clean. And you are utterly confounded. It doesn’t make sense. It isn’t really just. It isn’t really fair. Because you hear the words: Christ died for you. He bled for you. He stood in your place. Your sins are forgiven. You are safe forever. And there is a glorious inheritance saved up for you. Christ paid for it all.
“Having therefore these promises, dearly beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God” (2 Cor. 7:1).
Don’t you see? Why is the modern Church so full of filthiness? Because we have not cleansed ourselves. And why not? Because have not perfected holiness in the fear of God. We have no interest in holiness. And we have no interest in holiness because we do not fear God. And we do not fear God because we do not know God.
Our churches are full of people who think they do. They have cried during worship songs. They have signed cards. They have gone forward. They’ve been baptized. They’ve raised their hand during the prayer. But they do not know God. And the reason we know they do not know God is because they have not fundamentally changed. They have not become holy. Their lives are not set apart. They have not cleansed themselves from the filthiness of the flesh and spirit.
Yes, salvation is a great gift and it is entirely free for us and all who truly believe. But it was it was not free. It is bought with a terrible price. It was bought with the terrible price of Christ’s precious blood. You do not trifle with that cost. You do not make light of that cost. “Wherefore, my beloved, as ye have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12). And remember the next verse: “For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure.” It is all grace. It is all gift, but when God gives this gift of salvation, He always gives the gift of godly fear so that we will actually turn from our sins and begin walking in holiness.
We live in a land that is clearly in need of Reformation and Revival. God has struck us with plagues and panic and oppression. And why? So that we will fear Him. We’ve been murdering our own babies for fifty years. We’ve celebrated sexual immorality and called it love. We’ve elected liars and scoundrels. Women are rebellious and unsubmissive to their husbands. And husbands are cruel and lazy and do not love their wives. And children are defiant and disobedient to their parents. And our churches are full of all of the same sins.
“But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts: and be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear” (1 Pet. 3:15). We do not have good answers because we have not sanctified the Lord God in our hearts. We do not have good answers because we do not have meekness or fear and therefore we do not really have any hope.
But the Bible says, “Blessed is everyone that fears the Lord” (Ps. 128:1). If we would have the blessing of God, we must fear the Lord. We must tremble at His Word. We must worship Him with reverence and fear. We must serve Him with godly fear. We must turn to Christ. We must call on the name of the Lord. We must ask God to teach us to fear His name, so that God’s blessing may be upon us, so that God’s people would be once more known for their fear of the Lord.
Photo by Maksim Shutov on Unsplash
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