This is an important question. You need to have a good answer to this question. Why? Because your answer reveals much about your faith and security. It reveals whether you are walking in grace or under condemnation.
For instance, if you think God is judging your behavior to see whether you merit his unmerited favor, you’re basically saying, “I don’t trust Jesus to finish what he started. Sure, I thank God for grace, but now I have to prove that I was a worthy investment.” Those who think like this fear God’s displeasure, and rightly so. After all, why would God be pleased with anyone who says, “I don’t trust Jesus”?
I’ve had people tell me, “I walk in the love and the fear of God,” by which they mean, “God is scary and will only accept me if I endure and overcome and obey and do all the other things the Bible says.” Or they say, “God qualifies me, but I can disqualify myself through sin, doubt, or insufficient repentance. A holy fear of a bookkeeping God keeps me on the straight and narrow.”
Statements like these sound pious but they’re faithless. They belie a confidence in the flesh that insults the spirit of grace.
This is not the time to get into all those great scriptures about abiding, endurance, and obedience – I’ll get to those later. For now, let me echo something John said: fear and love don’t mix:
There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. (1 John 4:18)
If you fear the punishment or chastisement of God, then love has not had it’s perfect work in you. Look again to the cross. See the finished work. If God loved you and did all that for you while you were a sinner, what won’t he do for you now that you have come home? God is for you, not against you.
Of course, not every Christian is afraid of God. If you count yourself among the fearless, let me ask you this question: What is the fear of the Lord?
If you are like me, you’ll probably say, “To fear God is to worship him. It’s to give him the reverence and honor due his name.” This sort of fear has nothing to do with pain and punishment but is a proper response to a God who is holy, righteous, awesome, and good.
I’m not saying that God isn’t scary and that his enemies shouldn’t be afraid. But if you’re not his enemy then you have nothing to fear. (See Luke 12:32, Rom 8:15, and Rev 1:17 if you need proof.) If you know God as your heavenly father, then understand that the fear of Lord is not cowering before his smiting hand; it’s trembling before his eternal goodness.
“To fear God is to worship him”
Perhaps you’ve heard people say this, but do you know where this idea comes from? It comes from Jesus. Remember how he quoted scripture to silence the devil in the wilderness? Well let’s compare what Jesus said with the actual scripture he quoted. See if you can spot the difference:
What Jesus said: “It is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.” (Mat 4:10)
The original text: “Fear the Lord your God and serve him only.” (Deu 6:13)
Did you spot the difference? Moses said, “Fear God,” which Jesus interpreted as, “Worship him.” (I am grateful to Joseph Prince for pointing this out in his book, Unmerited Favor.) Whenever you read an exhortation to “fear the Lord” in the Bible, you can rightly interpret it as “worship the Lord.” Jesus gives you permission.
“But Paul, ‘through the fear of the Lord, men depart from evil.’ It’s only the fear of punishment that stops people from sinning.”
Hey, that’s great advice when dealing with three-year olds – or stubborn Israelites. The fear of punishment can be a great motivator. It was used during the old covenant to keep people in line. Back then, if you didn’t keep the rules, you got whacked. This is why that covenant is known as a death-dealing ministry (2 Cor 3:7). Its purpose is to kill you – or at least kill your confidence in your own abilities so that you might see your need for Jesus (Gal 3:24).
But the good news is that in Christ you have died (Col 3:3). You don’t need to be killed any more. Your old self is in the grave. (Thank God for that!) Now that you have been raised with Christ you are free to live loved and live fearlessly.
Fear and love don’t mix
Fear has no place in a healthy, loving relationship. It’s important that you get this. You can’t balance fear and love. They are like light and dark. You cannot have a part of your heart shouting, “I love you Lord” while another part whispers, “but I’m afraid of you.” Why not? Because you will never give yourself wholly to someone you’re afraid of.
Your heavenly Father loves you more than you know. It grieves him when you hold back because you are uncertain of his love. And it breaks his heart when you shrink back because you think he’s going to hit you. Maybe your natural father did that but your heavenly Father never will. He loves you so much he died for you and now he lives for you. He longs for you to receive his undiluted love.
If you ever hear a sermon or a message that leaves you fearful and uncertain of the Father’s love, reject it! The words may be from the Bible, but the spirit behind it is not from the Lord. God has not given us a spirit of fear and intimidation (2 Tim 1:7). Rather, he has poured his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit (Rom 5:5). The Holy Spirit will always seek to remind you that you are God’s dearly loved child.
“Sure, Paul, I get that. I know God loves everyone.”
Not just everyone; He loves you. You need to make this personal. You need to see yourself as the apple of your Father’s eye.
I encourage you to get into the habit of agreeing with the Holy Spirit. Tell yourself every day, “God loves me and there’s nothing I can do to make him love me any more or any less.” And as the love of God roots and buds in your heart, it will drive out fear. The oft-repeated phrase “Fear not” will become real to you. You won’t fear failure, you won’t fear men, you won’t fear death, and you certainly won’t fear your loving Father.
Unbelievers fear, but the sons of God are fearless. The wicked flee when none pursue but the righteous are as bold as a lion.
But from everlasting to everlasting the Lord’s love is with those who fear him. (Psa 103:17)
Only those who are secure in the everlasting love of the Lord know what it is to truly fear the Lord. It is to see him as he truly is and respond with awe-struck adoration. It is to tremble in his presence knowing he is surely good, he is surely supreme, and he surely loves me.