In the 1920s, there was a popular promoter of liberal Christianity in New York City, pastor of Riverside Church, formerly pastor of a Presbyterian Church in NYCity (Fosdick 2009). He was Harry Emerson Fosdick , a theologically liberal Baptist. Even though he remained committed to liberalism, he was open enough to admit what his new kind of theology was doing to our understanding of the nature of God. He wrote:
Jonathan Edwards’ Enfield sermon [“Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”] pictured sinners held over the blazing abyss of hell in the hands of a wrathful deity who at any moment was likely to let go, and so terrific was that discourse in its delivery that women fainted and strong men clung in agony to the pillars of the church. [Fosdick stated], Obviously, we do not believe in that kind of God any more, and as always in reaction we swing to the opposite extreme, so in the theology of these recent years we have taught a very mild, [benign] sort of deity. . . Indeed, the god of the new theology [he was speaking of liberalism] has not seemed to care acutely, about sin; certainly he has not been warranted to punish heavily; he has been an indulgent parent and when we have sinned, a polite “Excuse me” has seemed more than adequate to make amends (Fosdick 1922, pp. 173-174).
Fosdick was right on target with some of that content. He saw that liberalism leads to an anaemic, warped view of God – but he continued to promote liberal Christianity.
One of today’s most influential evangelical expositors of the Word of God, John MacArthur Jr. responded to Fosdick’s comments. MacArthur said: “The simple fact is that we cannot appreciate God’s love until we have learned to fear Him. We cannot know His love apart from some knowledge of His wrath. We cannot study the kindness of God without also encountering His severity. And if the church of our generations does not regain a healthy balance soon, the rich biblical truth of divine love is likely to be obscured behind what is essentially a liberal, humanistic concept” (MacArthur Jr. 2008].
Please think on this with me : Is what you believe about God the most important thing about you! Yes or No?
With the emergence of the seeker-sensitive approach in many churches, there is a dumbing down of a thorough understanding of the nature of God. There is an upsurge in interest in the love of God and self-esteem, but what about such doctrines as hell, the anger of God, and the fear of God?
The title of my article is, “God says you receive blessings through the fear of God.” It is straight from the Bible: “Blessed are those who fear the LORD” (Psalm 112:1 TNIV).
It’s a view of God that is a long way from our lips today in the church. This hardly goes along with rock and roll Christianity that wants to draw in outsiders with a softly, softly kind of Christianity. We may want to turn our backs on this kind of God and run from him. But this is at the core of true Christianity.
Psalm 112 begins with, “Praise the Lord. Blessed are those who fear the LORD” (NIV). For what are we to praise the Lord? This should be the true state of every Christian believer.
I. THE STATE OF THE TRUE BELIEVER (Ps. 112:1)
“Blessed are those who fear the LORD”. The truly godly person is one who fears the Lord. This is a radically different relationship than God being your daddy or mate. Some people have told me that when we pray to Abba Father, we are praying to one who is like a daddy or mate.
If you are ever going to be blessed, you must be one who fears the Lord.
1.1 What does it mean to “fear the Lord.”
Some of the old time theologians used to speak of the “terror of the Lord.” (Baxter 1863, p. 188). However, the King James Version and the modern versions I checked (NIV, NASB, RSV, NRSV, and ESV) speak of blessings coming to those who fear the Lord.
When we want to understand any biblical teaching, we need to compare Scripture with Scripture. This is a basic rule of biblical interpretation. Many of us get into trouble with interpretation when we take just one verse in isolation.
So, what does it mean to “fear the Lord.” Let’s look at . . .
1.1.1 Isaiah 8:13
“The Lord Almighty is the one you are to regard as holy, he is the one you are to fear, he is the one you are to dread” (NIV).
When we fear people it is very different from the fear of Jehovah.
When we fear people, we fear their power to hurt us:
hurt our reputation,
damage our property,
hurt those we love,
hurt us physically if they are more powerful,
we may fear the power of the government over us to tax us, punish us when we break the law, take away our freedom, etc.
On the human level, we may have sound reasons for a healthy fear of people and government
Jesus said to Pilate: “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above” (John 19:10).
Human beings are absolutely powerless against God. God can shatter any plans they have against you. God could strike them dead at any moment.
Fear of human beings may cause us to do many things, even ungodly things.
The fear of human beings is condemned in Scripture.3 Just one example, I Peter 3:13-16: “Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good? But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. `Do not fear what they fear; do not be frightened. But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. “
Let’s return to Isa. 8:13, “The Lord Almighty is the one you are to regard as holy.” In contrast to the fear of human beings, the fear of God, according to Isa. 8:13, is based on two convictions:
Firstly, He is “the Lord Almighty.” We fear him because of his power.
Never forget this: Human beings can only injure you as far as temporal things are concerned. The most human beings can do to you is “kill your body.” God’s powers go beyond the grave.
As Jesus put it: “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” (Matt. 10:28).
We fear him because of his might.
1.1.2 Isa. 8:13 emphasises
We fear God because of His absolute holiness.
“The Lord Almighty is the one you are to regard as holy.”
a. What does “holy” mean? (based on Sproul 1992, chs. 16, 17)
We mostly think of the purity and righteousness of God, but that is not the primary meaning of holiness. It is more than a moral or ethical quality.
b. Holy has two distinct meanings:
(1) Its primary meaning is: “apartness” or “otherness.”
“Holy” comes from an old word that meant “to cut” or “to separate.” To put it into contemporary language, we could say He is “a cut above something.”
When we say that God is holy we are saying, by nature, there is a profound difference between God and all creatures. We understand . . .
(a) God’s transcendent majesty;
(b) His absolute superiority;
(c) Therefore, He is worthy of our:
reverence or fear
He is completely “other.” He is different from us in his glory–radically different. R. C. Sproul put it beautifully:
“When the Bible calls God holy it means primarily that God is transcendentally separate. He is so far above and beyond us that He seems almost totally foreign to us. To be holy is to be `other,’ to be different in a special way” (Sproul 1985, pp. 54-55).
When the angels were calling to one another in Isa. 6:3, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory,” they were not saying primarily “pure, pure, pure is the Lord Almighty,” but “wholly other, transcendent One, absolutely superior, is the Lord Almighty.”
The secondary meaning of holy relates to God’s pure and righteous actions.
God does what is correct. He never does what is wrong. He doesn’t have a sinful nature to tempt him to evil. God always acts in a righteous way because his nature is holy. We find that difficult to comprehend–somebody who is absolutely just and correct in everything he does. But that’s our God.
Thanks to God revealing himself through the Bible, we know and can say that:
- internally (by nature), God is righteous. Therefore,
- externally, his actions are righteous.
Because God is holy, He is both great and good. There is no evil mixed with His goodness.
Why then, according to Isa. 8:13 are we to “fear” or “dread” this Lord?
This is the God of the universe who reveals Himself through the Bible and through creation. The Scriptures tell us this about God: “How awesome is the Lord Most High, the great King over all the earth” (Ps. 47:2).
Politicians may legislate the killing of human beings through voluntary, active euthanasia, through abortion, but it is the Lord Most High who is King over all the earth. He is the one who judges individuals and nations. Australians may think they can thumb their noses at almighty God, but God’s law is absolute. We are finally accountable to this awesome God. The superior, transcendent One.
When the Israelites were driving out the Canaanites from the Promised Land, the Bible says:
“Do not be terrified by them, for the Lord your God, who is among you, is a great and awesome God” (Deut. 7:21);
Again in Deuteronomy: “The Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow. . . Fear the Lord your God and serve Him” (Deut. 10:17-20).
What does it mean to fear God? Let’s compare another Scripture! Job gives us a summary of what it means to fear the Lord:
2. Job 23:13-17
This is the One whom he fears:
2.1 “He stands alone” (v. 13, NIV)
“He is unique” (NASB). Literally: “For he is in one” (Spence & Exell n.d., p. 397). It speaks of the unity of God, the One true God. As Deut. 6:4 puts it: “Hear. O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.”
Job does not have to answer to many gods, just the One true God. Thanks to later revelation we know that this one God is in three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, each of whom are God. Not polytheism (many gods) as in Mormonism (Wright n.d.). The three persons in the one Godhead act totally in one accord. They are one.
He not only stands alone, but:
2.2 “Who can oppose him?” (Job 23:13)
Literally, “who can turn him?” As James 1:17 says of God the Father “who does not change like shifting shadows.”
For Job, there was the realisation that nothing could change God’s resolve to treat Job the way God did by afflicting him. We need to understand this. The Almighty God we serve is, as B. B. Warfield put it, “a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in His being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth; incomparable in all that He is” (Warfield 1970). This means that God’s laws for us, this world, including the ungodly, never, ever change.
No matter how much the leaders and ordinary people of this country thumb their noses at God, scoff at His laws, this world is heading towards God’s conclusion, based on His unchanging person.
Sinners don’t get away with their sin.
Nations that reject God’s laws will suffer the consequences.
God’s Law is king. It is a foolish government that wants to establish laws that contradict the law of God. God’s law will always be king. We, personally, and nations, are accountable to God. We may not see the consequences in this life. But God’s unchanging consequences will be experienced.
There is no circumstance anywhere in the world or in your life or mine that can affect this absolutely perfect God. He is “the same yesterday, and today and forever.”
I ask you: “Who can oppose him?” NOBODY!
To Job, God emphasises:
2.3 “He does whatever he pleases” (v. 13)
Literally: “And his soul desires, and he does.” (Warfield 1970, p. 398). This sounds rather harsh, but God does what is absolutely best for this world and us. There is no favouritism with him. He always acts according to his perfect righteous nature.
Surely we see this all around us in the moral world. God has told us that sexual relations are reserved for marriage. People reject that and we have sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV, devastating our world.
God says it is one man for one woman for life in the covenant of marriage. We break it and we are reaping the consequences of shattered relationships, adults and children who are full of hate and are devastated.
God does whatever he pleases, but it is totally good, holy and just. We must understand what this meant in Job’s life in Job 1:8:
There is no one on earth like Job;
He is blameless and upright;
He is a man who fears God and shuns evil.
God gave Satan permission to:
slaughter Job’s servants;
his animals were destroyed;
his sons and daughters were all killed;
[“in all this, Job did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing” (1:22).]
But there is more:
“Satan… afflicted Job with painful sores from the soles of his feet to the top of his head” (2:7).
Then Job’s “wife said to him, `Are you still holding on to your integrity? Curse God and die!'” (2:9). Imagine a wife like that! “Curse God and die.” But there is still more.
His three friends then came to try to comfort him, but they wanted to blame him for bringing this on himself.
But in the end, Job 42:10 & 12 states: “The Lord made him prosperous again and gave him twice as much as he had before… The Lord blessed the latter part of Job’s life more than the first.”
But God made it very clear to Job that God does whatever God pleases in Job’slife. By application, whatever takes place in our lives is what God has sovereignly ordered for us in his goodness, holiness and righteousness.
I trust that you can conclude with Job at the end of his life. He says to the Lord, “I know that you can do all things; no plan of yours can be thwarted” (42:2).
3 Job’s view on his situation
3.1 Job 23:14
“He carries out his decree against me, and many such plans he still has in store.”
That is: God will do what he has planned for Job. From the human perspective, it does not look very nice. But this is God’s perfect will for Job. Perhaps Job was thinking that God had many more doses of affliction for him.
What is Job’s response to this God?
3.2 Job 23: 15-17
“I am terrified before him”;
“I fear him”;
“God has made [his] heart faint”;
“The Almighty has terrified [him]”;
This last verb, “terrified” (“dismayed”, NASB) is a very strong one and means that God “has filled [Job] with horror and consternation.” (Spence & Exell n.d. Vol. 7, p. 393).
The thought of an all-powerful God who does not change, and puts into action what he decrees against Job, caused Job to have inward fear, confusion, terror, dismay.
The effect on Job as he meditated on God’s character as an all-wise, irresistibly powerful, moral Governor, who does whatever he pleases according to His will, is not something that people think very seriously about these days.
I am convinced that we don’t understand our weakness and insufficiency until we truly have contact with God. Until we begin to understand God as he is.
When faced with God’s holiness, Isaiah saw himself: “Woe is me!” he cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty” (Isa. 6:5).
When Job contemplated God, he said, “Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes” (Job. 42:6).
Since this is the true fear of God by one who is godly, what should the fear be for those who are rebels against God, those who have no peace with God, and on whom the wrath of God will be poured out in hell forever and ever?
Paul, the apostle, saw this very clearly when he said in 2 Cor. 5:11, “Since, then, we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade men.”
Many Christian people are puzzled. They don’t understand why, in God’s sovereignty, they receive difficulties, affliction, even death, from God. Why are they treated with such severity?
Most of us have never experienced what Job went through. But he came through it with a fresh understanding of who God is. Too often our knowledge of God’s plan is imperfect. Our understanding of God is deficient. This causes us to think that God is against us. Like Job we don’t have genuine trust in God.
Rather than impeach God’s unchanging love towards his faithful followers and charge God with being an enemy of believers, we need to understand the nature of God.
Let me touch on two other Scriptures, briefly, to help us get a handle on what it means to “fear the Lord.”
3.3 Psalm 111:10
“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” (same as Prov. 9:10; similar to Prov. 1:7, “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.”)
How can the “fear of the Lord” be the beginning of “wisdom” or “knowledge.”
Does this mean that if you study science, agriculture, medicine, teaching, without a knowledge of God, you do not have any knowledge? That’s certainly not what it states.
It means that “the initial step or starting-point” for anybody who wants to gain true wisdom is the “fear of the Lord.” No matter what human knowledge you attain, if you do not have the knowledge of God as your foundation, your framework is faulty. If you want to advance in knowledge and wisdom, you must have a holy fear of God (Spence & Exell n.d., vol. 9, pp. 5-6).
One other verse gives us another view of what it means to fear the Lord.
3.4 Proverbs 8:13
“To fear the Lord is to hate evil.” This is the reverse side of what I’ve been saying. When you know that your sin is forgiven, you can truly hate evil.
Prov. 8:13 tells what evil the true believer is to hate: “pride and arrogance, evil behavior and perverse speech.”
Since God is holy, to reverentially fear Him means that we adore God’s character, his goodness. It should be natural then that we revolt against that which is opposite to God—evil.
When we fear God, we need to hunger and thirst after his righteousness. We must have a passion to be Christ-like in our thoughts, actions and attitudes towards people.
This makes evil look hideous, detestable, abhorrent. We must resist any evil desires or actions. We must loathe evil from the bottom of our hearts.
Yes, we practise morality because we fear God the Judge who will punish us for doing wrong. But it is far more than that. We love goodness and hate evil for God’s sake.
What is the fear of the Lord? Caleb Rosado summarises it precisely:
“It means . . . to quake or tremble in the presence of a Being so holy, so morally superior, so removed from evil, that in his presence, human boasting, human pride, human arrogance vanish as we bow in speechless humility, reverence, and adoration of the One beyond understanding” (1994, p. 24).
How can we learn to fear God?\
5.1 Firstly, Seek him.
It will not fall into your lap. It comes through perseverance and diligence in prayer in his presence..
Ps. 27:8, “My heart says of you, `Seek his face! Your face, Lord, I will seek.”
Ps. 105:4, “Look to the Lord and his strength; seek his face always.”
If you will seek God,
5.2 Secondly, He will teach you to fear him.
Ps. 34:9 & 11, “Fear the Lord, you his saints, for those who fear him lack nothing. . . Come, my children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the Lord.”
God teaches us to fear Him through his Word and in prayer.
If you will feed your mind on who God is and his past dealings with the people of God through the Scriptures, you will learn how to fear the Lord. You will quickly see how Jehovah blessed the obedient.
We read in Deut. 31:12-13: “Assemble the people—men, women and children, and the aliens living in your towns—so they can listen and learn to fear the LORD your God and follow carefully all the words of this law. Their children, who do not know this law, must hear it and learn to fear the LORD your God as long as you live in the land you are crossing the Jordan to possess.”
By application, we must teach the people, adults and children, to fear the Lord our God and to put into action his words. How do you come to fear the Lord?
Seek Him and He will teach you.
5.3 Psalm 86:11
“Teach me your way, O Lord, and I will walk in your truth; give me an undivided heart, that I may fear your name.”
You must want to seek God with “an undivided heart.” Believers, if you truly want to fear God, you have to seek him with all your heart. Wholeheartedly! No distractions.
God does not give his fear to those who are spiritually lazy.
The fear of the Lord was the secret of the early church.
When Ananias and Sapphira dropped dead in judgment because they lied to God (they trampled on the holy), Acts 5:11 says, “Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events.”
The contemporary, user-friendly, meeting felt-needs, church seems to be the opposite of one that fears the Lord. John MacArthur says that today’s church wants to “portray [God] as fun, jovial, easygoing, lenient, and even permissive. . . Sinners hear nothing of divine wrath” (MacArthur 1993, p. 63).
Is it going to take a modern day Ananias and Sapphira to get the church back to an awesome fear of God?
God promises blessings on Christian believers through fearing God. Will you seek Him for this holy fear of God? God promises blessings through fearing!
A W Tozer wrote in The Knowledge of the Holy:
“When the psalmist saw the transgression of the wicked his heart told him how it could be. ‘There is no fear of God before his eyes,’ he explained, and in so saying revealed to us the psychology of sin. When men no longer fear God, they transgress His laws without hesitation. The fear of consequences is no deterrent when the fear of God is gone. In olden days men of faith were said to ‘walk in the fear of God’ and to ‘serve the Lord with fear.’ However intimate their communion with God, however bold their prayers, at the base of their religious life was the conception of God as awesome and dreadful….
“Wherever God appeared to men in the Bible times the results were the same – an overwhelming sense of terror and dismay, a wrenching sensation of sinfulness and guilt. When God spoke, Abram stretched himself upon the ground to listen. When Moses saw the Lord in the burning bush he hid his face in fear to look upon God. Isaiah’s vision of God wrung from him the cry, ‘Woe is me!’ and the confession, ‘I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips” (Tozer 1965, p. 77).
Baxter, R. 1863 (reprinted 1981) The Practical Works of Richard Baxter: Select Treatises. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, reprinted 1981 (from 1863 edition).
Fosdick, H. E. 1922, Christianity and Progress, Revell, New York, (emphasis added), in John MacArthur Jr., “The Goodness and the Severity of God,” Bible Bulletin Board, available from: http://www.biblebb.com/files/mac/love.htm [7 January 2008].
Fosdick, H. E. 2008, “Harry Emerson Foscick”, Wikipedia, available from:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harry_Emerson_Fosdick [10 January 2008].
MacArthur Jr. J. F. 1993,, Ashamed of the Gospel. Westchester, Illinois: Crossway Books.
MacArthur Jr., J. 2008, “The Goodness and the Severity of God,” Bible BulletinBoard, available from: http://www.biblebb.com/files/mac/love.htm [7 January 2008].
Rosado, C 1994, “America the Brutal,” Christianity Today, August 15, p. 24.
Spence, H. D. M. & Exell (eds.), n.d.,Pulpit Commentary, Vol. 7. Grand Rapids,Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
Sproul, R. C. 1985, The Holiness of God. Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.
Sproul, R. C. 1992, Essential Truths of the Christian Faith. Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.
Warfield, B. B. 1970 (ed. John E. Meeter), “A Brief and Untechnical Statement of the Reformed Faith,” available from: http://www.reformed.org/calvinism/index.html?mainframe=/calvinism/warfield_reformed_theology.html [10 January 2009].
Wright, D. A. n.d., “Mormonism: Monotheistic or Polytheistic?” Sword & Spirit,available from: http://www.swordandspirit.com/LIBRARY/texts/mono_poly.php [10 January 2008].