Podcast: Should Christians Fear God? (Michael Reeves)

This article is part of the The Crossway Podcast series.

What Does It Mean to Fear God?

In this episode, Michael Reeves discusses what the Bible is actually getting at when it commands us to “fear the Lord.” He makes the case for the difference between rightly fearing God and sinfully being afraid of him, explains why the fear of the Lord is so often paired with examples of God's gracious blessing and commands to love him in Scripture, and offers encouragement for the Christian wrestling with consistent guilt, shame, and even fear on account of their sin.

Rejoice and Tremble

Michael Reeves

This book argues from Scripture that godly fear is the opposite of being afraid of God or his punishment, as if he were a tyrant. Instead, it is the intensity of the saints’ love for, delight in, and enjoyment of all that God is.

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Topics Addressed in This Interview:

01:47 - Common Misunderstandings of the Fear of God

Matt Tully
Michael, thank you so much for joining me again on The Crossway Podcast.

Michael Reeves
Thanks for having me.

Matt Tully
I think it’s fair to say that the idea of fearing God is something that can be pretty perplexing to many Christians, not least of all because the Bible itself seems to say that we should both fear God and also not fear God. Here are a couple of examples: In 1 John 4:18 we read, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. Fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.” But then we read in places like Proverbs 9:10 that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” That’s a very well-known verse for many Christians. So before we get into the dynamic that is at play there in Scripture, have you ever personally struggled with this seeming contradiction?

Michael Reeves
Yes. Not really a contradiction but a misunderstanding. I personally felt that I struggled with a sinful fear of God as a younger Christian through misunderstanding the nature of God—who he is, what he’s like. Through failing to see his graciousness I was a bit like a young Martin Luther. Martin Luther was very blunt. He said that because he had not understood how God in pure grace and kindness justifies by his kindness alone, Luther said, I did not love, I hated the righteous god. I don’t think I would have been quite as blunt as Luther—I’m English—but I felt that sense of not really appreciating how gracious God is. I had given into a dread of God rather than the Scriptural view of a right fear, which is a happy, delighted fear. I had not got that at all as a younger Christian.

Matt Tully
That’s such an interesting dynamic there that a misunderstanding of what Scripture is actually telling and calling us to do. To fear God in the way that you’re trying to describe here can actually lead us into a sinful attitude, a sinful disposition. Is that right?

Michael Reeves
Absolutely. I think it’s made worse sometimes by the fact that Christians know this is a biblical thing. We’re called again and again and again in Scripture to fear the Lord, but they’re confused by what seems to be different messages in Scripture—you quoted 1 John 4 and then Proverbs 9. I think seeing, for example, the lack of reverence for God in worship—that sort of thing—has inclined some to say, Hang on. Let’s tone down the love language and the grace language. That’s true; but Scripture also call us to be—and what they will effectively say is—to be afraid of God, which isn’t really what Scripture is saying at all. The right fear of God that we’re called to actually stops us from being afraid of God. You see this in Exodus 20. The Israelites are at Mount Sinai and they’re trembling in dread and fear at the thunder, lightning, and thick darkness. Moses says in Exodus 20:20: “Do not fear. The Lord has come to test you that the fear of the Lord may be upon you.” This is a very strange verse: “Do not fear . . . so that the fear of the Lord may be upon you.” It’s one of those verses that gives us a little eye-opening moment to see that the fear of the Lord is not what we might expect. It’s not the same as being afraid of God and we misrepresent God if we suggest that it is.

06:17 - The Fear of God in Scripture

Matt Tully
Even that phrase—the fear of the Lord—not being the same as being afraid of God might feel very oxymoronic right now for many listeners. That might not even compute and they may be thinking, What are you saying? One approach to dealing with this that you even mentioned before is that some non-believers—and even some believers—can sometimes try to explain this dynamic (I quoted two passages, one from the New Testament and one from the Old Testament) by saying, In the Old Testament, God presented himself to his people in a pretty intense, angry, and even scary kind of way. Fear was the right response. Fear was what he was going for, that was the dominant way that he wanted us to relate to him. But now in the New Testament, God has sent Jesus and grace and kindness and love, and so we don’t need to be afraid anymore. We see so many passages in the New Testament talking about not being afraid. Obviously, some non-Christians will say that, but even Christians might sometimes fall into that way of thinking. How would you respond to that view?

Michael Reeves
I think it’s a tragic misunderstanding of both the Old Testament and the New Testament to think like that. In the Old Testament, when the Lord describes the fear that he’s looking for, it’s not being afraid of—it’s not a dread that he wants (Ex. 20:20). In fact, that dread—being afraid of God—is precisely what the devil is seeking to promote in us. The sinful fear that the devil would promote—that God does not want—is the sort of fear you see in Adam when he hid from God, or the Israelites at Mount Sinai. For example, Jacob at Bethel: he has the famous dream of the ladder to heaven (Gen. 28).

Matt Tully
A very perplexing story. I’ve always wondered what is the point of that and what is going on there?

Michael Reeves
What happens is the Lord reads out this catalog of blessings: “I will never leave you, I will never forsake you, I’ll bless you . . .” There’s not one hint of threat. It’s all blessing. Then we read: “And he was afraid and said, ‘How awesome is this place!’” (Gen. 28:17) So it’s a reaction to God’s goodness. That is also what is promised in the new covenant. The story of Jacob at Bethel is in the Old Testament, but it is a promise of what new covenant faith will be. In Jeremiah 32:40 the Lord says, “And I will put the fear of me in their hearts, that they may not turn from me.” We could think, Is that because we’ll be so scared that he’s going to punish us? Is that what he’s talking about? But then he goes on in Jeremiah 33:8–9 to catalog blessings. He talks about how he’s going to bless Jerusalem and then he says, “They shall fear and tremble because of all the good and all the prosperity I provide for it” (Jer. 33:9). So they’re trembling, not because of any threat or punishment; they’re trembling in wonder at how gracious he is. That’s what you get to see in the Old Testament. Hosea 3:5 says, “they shall come in fear to the LORD and to his goodness.” They’re not running away from him; they’re leaning towards him. This is what new covenant belief is. Fear is not just a negative Old Testament thing; it’s a positive wondering at who God is that is an essential part of the new covenant promise.

10:45 - To Fear God Is to Love God

Matt Tully
That’s such an interesting dynamic because it almost sounds like you're redefining the word fear. We have a conception of what a sinful fear is—dread of God and of punishment because of our sin or because of our rebellion. Maybe one question that people might have is, Is fear the right word to describe what you’re getting at? If we’re talking about something that is a response to God’s blessing, why would we call it fear?

Michael Reeves
The words used for fear in the Old and New Testaments, particularly in the Old Testament in the Hebrew, are very physical words. One of them in particular is very closely associated with the idea of physical trembling. The idea of fear is capturing the fact that you are physically weakened—you go weak-kneed when you fear. You go weak-kneed for two reasons: when you’re a soldier under fire and you’re terrified for your life; or, you can go weak-kneed when you’re a bridegroom and you’ve just seen your beloved walk up the aisle towards you. I think the alternative words we turn to—like awe and reverence and respect—I understand why people do that because it’s trying to say, Fear seems a negative thing to us. It’s not a negative thing, so let’s repackage it as awe, respect, or reverence. Those are right words, but I think they’re a bit too gray, a bit too weak to really capture what the Bible is talking about with fear. When the Bible is talking about fear, it’s saying it can be a negative thing.

Matt Tully
It’s the same word?

Michael Reeves
It’s exactly the same word. It can be a sinful fear—you’re dreading either an enemy coming or you dread God because you hate the thought of God judging you. But a right fear—the sort of fear we’re called to—is not that, but it’s equally physical. It is that I tremble in wonder at who he is. You get to see, then, how fear is so closely linked to both love and joy in Scripture. There are a number of times you see fear paralleled with love in Scripture. In Deuteronomy 6 when Moses is introducing the law he says to teach these laws to your children that they may fear the Lord. What do you mean, Moses? “The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the Lord your God . . .” So fear and love are right in parallel there. Fear and joy equally work in parallel. Nehemiah 1:11 says, “O Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of your servant, and to the prayer of your servants who delight to fear your name.” I think there are two lovely statements that are saying the same thing that show us what’s being spoken of with fear. One is at the end of Ecclesiastes 12 where we read, “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.” To fear God is the whole duty of man. The second statement is, of course, Question 1 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism: What is the chief end of man? The chief end of man is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever. It’s saying the same thing as the end of Ecclesiastes—to glorify God and enjoy him forever is to fear him is the whole duty of man. So really, fear is being specific about what sort of love and joy we have for God. We can say I love God, but I love coffee and I love chocolate, and I can think of those as the same thing. But my love for something is different according to the object. I love a coffee. I love God. But I mean different things by those. Fear helps specify that. With my love for God it is a trembling, wondering love. Not just a Oh, that’s quite nice like I think of with a coffee. It’s not just the joy of a chocolate rush when you get sugar in the bloodstream. The joy is a far richer thing with the joy that we find in so magnificent a Lord and Savior. So joy, really, is specifying what sort of love and what sort of joy we have in this God. The fear of God is the proper love for God.

Matt Tully
That is so counterintuitive for our culture. We would tend to put love on one side and fear on the other. Maybe we would say, Yeah, Christians need to have both, but they balance each other out. As opposed to a fearful love of God, which seems to be what you’re suggesting Scripture calls us to.

Michael Reeves
Absolutely. When fear is spoken of it’s often, God is gracious to us. He’s a kind Savior, so we love him. But also remember that he’s great and transcendent and magnificent; therefore, you fear him. I think that’s unbalanced. Yes, absolutely we fear and tremble in awe at the magnificence and the transcendent wonder and the omnipotence and power of our great God; but actually, that’s not the deepest level of the right fear of God to which we’re called. The deepest level is not that we’re trembling before a Creator who is mighty. The deeper level of our fear for God is sharing Jesus’s own filial fear. A wonderful moment in Isaiah 11 happens where Isaiah is describing the Spirit-anointed Messiah and he says that he’ll be filled with the Spirit of the fear of the Lord, and his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord (Isa. 11:3). We’re told in Luke 2 that as a boy Jesus grew in wisdom. You cannot grow in wisdom without growing in fear because the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. So Jesus himself, the Son of God, who had no sin in him, no dread of God, no fear of punishment, he delighted in the fear of the Lord. And that’s what we’re brought into as believers. We get to share Jesus’s own fearful delight in his Father.

18:30 - Living in a Culture of Fear

Matt Tully
That’s fascinating. I’ve never thought of that before—the thought that Jesus himself feared the Lord in the sense that you’re describing. It does cause us to take a step back and question whether or not we’re understanding this correctly. One of the things that you mention in your book is that although our modern world is maybe more safety-conscious than ever before—we’re very concerned with being up on our vaccines, wearing our seat belts, and promoting regulations that keep things working in a very safe way—but nevertheless, we live in this culture of fear, as you say. Explain what you mean by that—this culture of fear that we live in—and how do you think that might influence how we even view this topic of fear generally, even as it comes to how we fear God?

Michael Reeves
I almost feel I hardly need to say anything because amidst a pandemic, we are in a culture of spiraling anxiety. I use the word anxiety there because fear usually has a very definite object. When you fear something, there’s a thing that’s on your mind. But anxiety is a more free-floating thing, and I think that’s what we’re surrounded by. We’re in a culture where anxiety is in the air—you latch onto objects to fear very quickly. One minute you fear knife crime; you’re walking down the street and you fear being mugged. The next moment, you fear your children being kidnapped. You fear losing your job. We have become a culture more and more susceptible to anxiety. The more health and safety we seem to have doesn’t seem to make us more relaxed at all. We triple-check our doors even more it seems. I think the reason for that is that we’ve lost the proper fear of God as our object. Therefore, without knowing God as the One who we can fear, that fear eclipses all other things. We’re finding that other things take God’s place. Sometimes it’s good things that take God’s place, but those things assume a divine ultimacy in our minds. For example, the health of our kids. That’s a good thing, but it can assume a divine ultimacy in our minds such that I’m constantly worried about it, I’m constantly trembling about these things. The fear of God is the solution to our culture’s anxiety. I think the reason that we’re so anxious is that we lost the fear of God; but because we lost the fear of God and we’re so anxious, we don’t want to see the fear of God as the solution to our problem. But Scripture presents the fear of God as the only fear that imparts strength.

Matt Tully
As we’ve just discussed, despite this culture of fear that we live in—it seems like this is almost paradoxical in itself—it seems like culturally it’s out of step to talk about fearing God in any sense. Even within Christian circles there’s such an emphasis on God’s love and on his delight in us. Is it purely a misunderstanding of the fear of the Lord that’s driving a resistance to that understanding of the fear of God (even among Christians) or do you think it actually can be a problem that people so over emphasize God’s love and his joy in us that we lose something of the seriousness of who he is and how great he is?

Michael Reeves
You mentioned before how we can think that we love God because of his grace, but we also fear him for his magnificence and how that’s imbalanced. A right fear of God is the wondering response to who God is in all of his perfections. Like Jeremiah 33, we fear him because of all the prosperity he gives us. We fear him because of his grace. We fear him because of his righteousness. In all these ways—his magnificence, his humility, his compassion, his wrath—in all these ways, these are the things that we fear him in. He is to be feared for all that he is. He is to be wondered at, enjoyed, and loved in that deep, heart-affecting way such that we ultimately tremble before him. Now we only tremble in part because we fear in part. But our future is that our joyful, filial fear of God will be unconfined, just as the sinful fears of unbelievers will be unconfined one day. Part of the problem, I think, is that people misunderstand God, and so we have what you might call a dread of holiness. I think here of C. S. Lewis’s story in The Great Divorce where the ghosts go to the heavenly meadow and they see the solid people of heaven. In the lovely, sunny brightness of this heavenly meadow with these solid, real, alive, good, kind people, they fear; they dread. That’s a problem for sinners. Fear is a negative thing, in part, because we misunderstand God and because we don’t want to let go of our dignity. So we fear the joyful freedom that a wondering at God will have, a wondering at all that he is.

Matt Tully
In Matthew 10:28 Jesus is speaking to his disciples and talking to them about this broad topic of anxiety and about worrying about tomorrow. He offers this really interesting response and encouragement to them not to worry. He says, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him”—and I think the implication is God—“who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” It seems like we have this tricky thing where he’s trying to encourage his people not to fear the anxieties of this world by fearing the punishment that God himself could mete out on us. How do you understand that verse in light of what you’re saying?

Michael Reeves
I think that fear that he’s talking about is part of that overall fear of God that you get to see in passages like Isaiah 8:11–13. You see Isaiah saying “Do not fear what they fear, nor be in dread. But the LORD of hosts, him you shall honor as holy. Let him be your fear, and let him be your dread.” What Isaiah seems to be saying there is when you fear God, that fear of him will eclipse other fears. That’s why I think this topic is so important for today in this anxious world. When Christians are so blown about by their anxieties, this is the time we need to have a right fear of God because when you fear God then God looms large in your perspective and people don’t. Therefore, you can have the boldness to seek to please him and not simply do whatever people ask you to do. When God is great in your perspective, when you see that he’s a kind Father steering all of creation, then you can say, I don’t know how my prayer for my family’s safety is going to be answered, but I do know I have a kind Father who is in control of all things and not a hair can fall from their heads without his nod. So the fear of God is the antidote to our cultural anxieties and fearful running from one problem to another.

27:30 - Practical Encouragement for Those Feeling Shame and Guilt

Matt Tully
What would you say to the Christian listening right now who, if they’re honest, would have to say that he or she lives with a near constant sense of anxiety or fear or guilt related to God in how he feels about them? Maybe there’s a sin from the past that still haunts them, or maybe there’s even an ongoing struggle with sin in the present that makes them feel afraid of God—of what he might do to them, of what he might not do for them. What would you say to that person?

Michael Reeves
I’d say the fear of God grows best in the soil of the gospel. If you would grow in the fear of God—which will give you grace and knowledge of God, which will give you wisdom to get through life, which will cure your anxieties—if you grow in that, press into the gospel. Read Scripture. Read good books that will take you further into the gospel. If you’re constantly dreading what problems could befall you in life, almost certainly you’ve not got a big enough picture of who God our Father is in his sovereign care of creation. If you are worried about some sin that you think is unforgiven, then here’s really the heart of the gospel to press into: go to the cross and see what Christ has done to cover all our sins. It’s at the cross you get to see that because the Son of God has given himself, there is no need for you to top up what he’s done. His blood is sufficient. John Bunyan, the Puritan who wrote Pilgrim’s Progress, wrote some wonderful material on the fear of God. He said something along these lines: When God visits you with forgiveness of sins, you will be forgiven; but you will sense your sin more. But this forgiveness at the sight of the cross will make you both rejoice and tremble. O, the blessed confusion that will cover your face! That’s what we get at the cross. At the cross, we get to see, How great is my sin that Jesus died! It’s the only solution for sin. My sin is great and I feel freshly broken at how great my sin is. But, how magnificent is his forgiveness and his salvation! It’s there at the cross that you feel the depths of your sin and you feel the magnificence of his compassion and grace and forgiveness. It’s there particularly at the cross that you see the deepest heart of God. There you’ll grow in the fear of God. There you’ll see how he cares, how he loves, how he adopts to himself failures who he will then care for with a paternal, loving, ongoing security. It’s the gospel. The gospel is the heart of growing in this anxiety-relieving fear of God.

Matt Tully
That’s such an encouraging word. What would you say to a different type of Christian listening right now who, if they were being honest, doesn’t ever really worry about how God feels about them, even in the midst of their sin. Maybe they don’t feel that sadness, regret, or anxiety when it comes to sin. This is a person who is pretty quick to think to himself, God’s grace is sufficient. What would you say to that?

Michael Reeves
I think it’s the same answer actually. Once again, if you can feel like that—if you can feel cold about God, bored about God, or simply feel cozy in his presence without trembling in wonder about who he is—I think you’ve got a very short-sighted view of the gospel. You’ve forgotten that your smallest sin takes the blood of Christ to atone for. It’s not a small issue at all. If you think, Yes, I’ve sinned, but I’m forgiven so that’s all fine, your view of sin has become horribly small and you need to go again to the cross to realize your sin is an eternal treachery and Christ is an even more glorious Savior. There again at the cross you’ll see the seriousness of the problem. It’s not to be thought of casually, but you’ll also see he is a more magnificent Savior than you remembered. Don’t think casually or blandly of him. You can’t just think, Yes, I’m forgiven. If you’re not thinking, I must tremble in wonder at him, you’ve lost sight of who he is. You need to press into the gospel more so that you rejoice and tremble.

Matt Tully
It makes me think of Peter’s words in 1 Peter 1:17: “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.” It’s bringing those things together: Christ’s precious blood with the fear of the Lord.

Michael Reeves
Absolutely. The blood of Christ is the most fertile soil in which this happy, wonderful, trembling at who God is can grow.


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