Fear. What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of that word? Most likely, it’s something that you’re scared of — something like spiders, heights, or disease. You might have some level of fear of all these things. But why? What defines that fear? It’s the fact that you believe there is something dangerous about whatever it is that you fear. And at the same time, you most likely don’t see any redeeming factors for these things being in your life. So, starting from this baseline of what we commonly know fear to be in our lives, what does it mean when the Bible says that we should fear God?
Different types of fear
First, let’s start by looking at different types of fear that we can use for thinking about the fear of God. R.C. Sproul, the founder of Ligonier Ministries, discussed how Martin Luther distinguished between two types of fear — servile and filial. Similarly, Paul David Tripp, author of New Morning Mercies, talks about vertical and horizontal fear.
- Servile fear – This relates to what a prisoner who is being tortured would experience. There is a danger that is trying to be avoided. It also refers to a posture of servitude toward a malevolent owner.
- Filial fear – When thinking about filial fear, you might think about the fear a child has for their father. Rather than being afraid of punishment, filial fear is more closely associated with being afraid of displeasing the one who is the source of security and love.
- Horizontal fear – This fear relates to the fear of things in the world. It’s the fear of what can happen to you in this life — pain, suffering, or terror.
- Vertical fear – When we cast our eyes on the throne of God, we experience what Paul David Tripp calls vertical fear. This is the fear of a God who is bigger than you are and is in control of everything and everyone. It’s this type of fear that acknowledges and basks in the glory of who God is, what he has done, and what he is yet to do.
Some people view God through the lens of servile fear. They view him solely as a God of wrath who wants to punish them. Similarly, the horizontal fear that Tripp describes can be used by some people to say that God doesn’t love us and that he only wants to harm us through the things we fear in this life. Conversely, filial fear paints a picture of a heavenly father who longs for us to be close to him. And vertical fear describes a fear that honors a God who created us and wants us to be with him for eternity.
Having a knowledge of these types of fear allows us to start to grasp what Proverbs 9:10 (NIV) means when it says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.”
Distinguishing between earthly fear and Godly fear
When we equate earthly fear and fearing God, we lessen the power and might of God. Or as it has been said another way …
“When we expect God to balance the stress of the world, we reduce him to the world’s equal …”
Some of the things we fear in this world may have the power to hurt us or even kill us. But God is the only one that controls our eternity. Jesus makes this point clear when he says, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell (Matthew 10:28 NIV).”
But the difference between the things we fear on earth and fearing God is the redemption that God offers us. God is in opposition to and judges our sin, but he also provides a way out of the necessary payment for sin. In Jesus’ sacrifice for our sins, God makes fear and love work together.
In John 15:13 (NIV), Jesus says that “greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” We see Jesus exemplify this love on the cross when he laid down his life to take the punishment we deserve for our sins.
Nothing is lacking with God. He is worthy of our fear, but he is also worthy of our love. He isn’t a malevolent owner who wants to torture us. He is a good father who wants us to be with him forever.
How fear is described in the Bible
God is the only thing we should fear. He has the power to give life and to take it. God is the one who is, was, and is to come (Revelation 1:8). It’s when we turn from God and fear other things more than him that we put ourselves on a dangerous path. Like Proverbs 28:14 (ESV) says, “Blessed is the one who fears the Lord always, but whoever hardens his heart will fall into calamity.”
If we fear God first and foremost, we will be blessed. But if we turn away and think there is something or someone greater than God, we point our compass toward destruction.
In Philippians 2:12b-13 (ESV), the Apostle Paul says to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” Theologian John Piper points out the uniqueness of this passage because it means “the sheer awesome presence of God in our lives working for us, not against us, should produce trembling.”
Piper details how the Old Testament points to the fear of God being focused on humility, lowliness, and sensitivity of heart. The majesty of God demands respect. The New Testament shows the same God pursuing us, and that same fear out of respect is shown as a reason for not turning away from him.
“God’s grace in Christ is the refuge from God’s wrath outside Christ,” said Piper. “There is terror outside of Christ, and there is a different kind of trembling inside Christ.”
1 John 4:15-18 (NIV) summarizes how God is love and this love casts out any fear that we may have:
“Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world. 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.”
How the fear of God changes our lives
“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.” Let’s return to this passage. Now that we understand the different types of fear that exist in our lives and how the Bible describes the fear of God, we can better understand the fear of God as the beginning of wisdom. When we fear God, it unlocks a different type of wisdom in our life.
We see this when David writes the beginning of Psalm 27:
“The Lord is my light and my salvation—whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life—of whom shall I be afraid? When the wicked advance against me to devour me, it is my enemies and my foes who will stumble and fall. Though an army besiege me, my heart will not fear; though war break out against me, even then I will be confident.”
When God is the only one that we fear, it creates a confidence that other fear cannot. If we only fear the God that, in all things, “works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28),” that changes our perspective.
At the same time, we can have full confidence in the eternal life that God promises us. We don’t have to fear that God could retract that promise. Jesus makes this clear in John 10:27-30:
“My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.”
When we fear God, acknowledge our sinfulness, repent, and give our life to the only one that was ever in control of it in the first place, it frees us to live the life that he wants for us.