In this new series from the Union School of Theology in Oxford, Michael Reeves, president and professor of theology at Union School of Theology, has written the first installation(s) on fearing the Lord. Each volume will have two versions: a full volume (aimed at church leaders) and a concise one (aimed at congregations). Rejoice and Tremble is the full version, and What Does it Mean to Fear the Lord? is the concise version.
As kids we love scaring each other, yet worry about the monsters under our bed. We watch scary movies but dread the onslaught of work, bills, feeling up to the task or just in over our heads. When we come to the Bible we can be equally confused. Jesus has come to rescue us from fear (1 Jn 4:18), yet we are also called to fear God (Prov 1:7; 9:10; Ps 86:11; Job 1:8; Luke 18:2). But should we be afraid of God? Should we walk around under a dark cloud of doom and gloom?
As Reeves puts forth in chapter one, “the fear of the Lord… really does not mean being afraid of God.” In Isaiah 11:1–3, even the Messiah’s “delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.” If the Messiah doesn’t want to miss out on fearing the Lord, maybe we shouldn’t either. How can the “fear” also be a “delight”? One problem is that we live in a culture of fear. The 24/7 news is 25/8 fear. Weather. Politics. Kidnappings. Terrorism. Fear rhetoric. Images from across the world. Online bullying. Reeves writes,
There may be something to this. We certainly are free to want more, have the chance to own more, and often feel the right to enjoy more. And the more you want something, the more you fear its loss. When your culture is hedonistic, your religion therapeutic, and your goal a feeling of personal well-being, fear will be the ever-present headache. For all that, though, Furedi argues that the “paradox of a safe society” actually has deeper roots. It is, he maintains, moral confusion in society that has led to an inability to deal with fear, a rise in anxiety, and so an increase in the number of protective fences erected around us.
So, we are anxious not because we are morally confused, but because the culture has lost “God as the proper object of human fear.” Saying this is a blow to atheism, “for atheism promised exactly the opposite. Atheism sold the idea that if you liberate people from belief in God, that will liberate them from fear.”
Chapter two covers sinful fear, the first of different kinds of fear that the Bible lays out.
Fear also has a tendency to create a groove in our minds: the more we fear something, the more we become engrossed with it and can’t let it go. In Exodus 20:18-20, Moses differentiates between being afraid of God and fearing God. Sinful fear is a fear of God that flows from sin. Sinners who stand before God with no hope of Christ should and will be afraid of God. This fear comes from misunderstanding God, seeing him as a cruel tyrant bent on controlling and torturing his subjects. In stead of trusting in Christ, people will trust in their own efforts to be good enough.
The rest of the book provides the cure to Christians who has this unhealthy fear of God, with chapter three presenting us a picture of the right kind of fear. Fear can drive us to Christ, but once we meet Christ and are relieved by his grace, we fear God in a different way. Jeremiah 33:8–9 tells us that this fear comes as a result of all the good God does for us in the new covenant. As well, Psalm 145:19–20 make a parallel between those who fear the Lord and those who love him. True fear of God “is the right response to God’s full-orbed revelation of himself in all his grace and glory.”
Chapters four and five are divided according to the first two books of Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion—(1) The Knowledge of God the Creator, and (2) The Knowledge of God the Redeemer in Christ.
We need to know God as our Creator, who causes the mountains to quake and melt, who holds the universe in the palm of his hand, who makes the earth his footstool. But to know him only as our Creator is terrifying. He is immortal and sees all. He is all-knowing and all-powerful. What will he do to us who are evil?
But to those who seem him as their Redeemer, we can rejoice in his grandeur knowing that in his majestic grace he has rescued us from our sinful selves and created us anew. Chapter 5 looks at who this Redeemer is—our eternal Father. The Father is the eternal Father because he has been a Father from eternity past and always will be a Father. And for there to be an eternal Father, there must be an eternal Son.
Christians, who are brought by the Son not merely to be accepted creatures before the great Judge but also to be beloved, adopted, and adoring children before their heavenly Father, can fear their Father rightly as they see his greatness and they love him. We fear offending him, and we depend wholly upon him. We fear that our sins might part us from the warmth of enjoyed communion with God.
This chapter may sound like a “how to” chapter, but Reeves is careful not to take our focus off from “the Fear” himself and onto our actions, steps, and habits. A renewed heart of what we need. The one who fears the Lord delights in his commands! This drives our behavior.
The fear of God “stops us from thinking that we are made for either passionless performance or a detached knowledge of abstract truths.” We were made to know God and his beauty in a way that remakes us from inside out. “Entering the life of Christ involves a transformation of our very affections, so that we begin actually to despise—and not merely renounce—the sins we once cherished, and treasure the God we once abhorred.”
7 The Awesome Church
Chapter seven moves our focus to how we relate to people, but we still need to keep our eyes on God. As we approach the God of glory, we should grow in humility. Rather than thinking less about ourselves or about ourselves less, we marvel at God. Turning inward and becoming more self-conscious has caused us to be more vulnerable and thin-skinned, leading to more people-pleasing, which never relieves our fears.
As the Lord advised Isaiah: “Do not call conspiracy all that this people calls conspiracy, and 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” (Isa. 8:12–13).
The fear of the Lord helps us to be both thick-skinned and gentle. Lion-like and lamb-like. “Led by the Spirit into conformity with Christ, the church begins to exhibit to the world fearsome divine qualities of holiness, blessedness, happiness, wholeness, and beauty.”
8 Eternal Ecstasy
Chapter eight concludes by explaining how we will live forever in ecstasy with God, and how fearing him is a good thing.
This is a great series, and Reeves has given an excellent look at what it means to fear the Lord. Some have commented that this book has far too many quotes from church fathers, Reformation theologians, and Puritans, but I don’t believe that to be the case. There are many, but most are easy enough to read (and just change the thou’s and thine’s to you and your). I highly recommend this book for teachers, pastors, and laypeople.
- Series: Union
- Author: Michael Reeves
- Paperback: 192 pages
- Publisher: Crossway (January 26, 2021)
Disclosure: I received this book free from Crossway. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_03/16cfr255_03.html.