The joy of fearing God

An introduction with a personal testimony

It feels rather strange to be up here talking, especially when I really consider myself as a listener rather than a talker. I joke with Michael my husband that the number of words women speak in one day, compared to men is substantially larger. However in our house it is the complete opposite. But really I am up here because I do recognise the Lord’s nudges and I know better, at least I hope I do, than to ignore them.

The initial topic for this talk was ‘Gratitude’, Now I am sure this will be a great topic to cover one day but it just didn’t feel right for this talk. Our first planning meeting was at a particular time when the Lord's hand was coming down quite heavy on me and to be honest I was feeling quite crushed, and more than a little fearful that the Lord was placing His finger directly on an area of my life and heart that was quite well buried. It has definitely been a pattern of the way God has been working in my life the last nine years and I have felt a stronger fear and trembling these last few years than at any other time in my Christian walk. So, back to the meeting. We prayed for the Lord’s leading and I’m not quite sure how it happened but the topic that was ‘Gratitude’ at the beginning of the meeting became ‘ The joy of fearing God’ by the end. And so we were left in no doubt that this is what the Lord wants us to be learning about right now.

There are over 300 mentions of godly fear in the Bible and upon studying this topic it is clear that if you don’t have victory over patterns sin in your life you may not have a godly fear: 

  • If you are discontent or envious of the world then you may not have a godly fear.
  • If you do not have an assurance of salvation then you may not have a godly fear.
  • If you are lacking in wisdom and knowledge then you may not have a godly fear.
  • If you have idols on the throne of your heart, then you may not have a godly fear.
  • If you don’t feel the Lord’s presence and blessing in your life you may not have a godly fear. 

I would like us to consider where godly fear comes from, should we fear God, should we seek to have a godly fear, is it a positive thing to cultivate on a daily basis and how do we cultivate it in our lives? We can cover all of these in three main points:

  1. The source of godly fear
  2. The necessity of godly fear
  3. Cultivating a godly fear

1. The source of godly fear

Most of us are familiar with: Proverbs 1:7

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge;
fools despise wisdom and instruction. (ESV)

This verse says that the fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge - the beginning. Unless we fear the LORD we have not even attained to the very first rung of knowledge, we have not begun to know anything. Of course, this is not talking about knowledge of science, mathematics, politics or astronomy. It is talking about the truth of who God really is and who we really are. True reality. Without fear, we have not even begun to know or understand anything about God's attributes or our sinfulness. We would be living in the darkness of ongoing ignorance. We have only to look at the world around us to see this outworked. Mankind on the whole not only doesn’t fear God, he neither knows or acknowledges him as his creator.

Most people live with the thinking that the universe and all that is in it is a product of time and chance. The Bible clearly teaches that it is the fool that says in his heart, there is no God (Psalm 14:1). If people do believe in some sort of God, it is not the God revealed in scripture. People think that they are intrinsically good and sometimes do harmless bad things. The God they believe in is one who is on their side, who would welcome them into heaven with arms held open, he would know they have a good heart. The is the knowledge that comes out of not fearing God, it is no knowledge at all. For believers sitting here today, we can clearly remember how we lived before we were born again - totally ignorant of our standing before a holy God. Living in and loving the sin in our lives, not caring that we were offending our creator. Perhaps even fearlessly shaking our fists at God thinking what we would say to him if we had the opportunity to stand before him.

So what needs to happen in a person's life in order to have knowledge and understanding that comes from fearing God?

If we turn to Jeremiah 32:38-40 we read:

And they shall be my people, and I will be their God. I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear me forever, for their own good and the good of their children after them. I will make with them an everlasting covenant, that I will not turn away from doing good to them. And I will put the fear of me in their hearts, that they may not turn from me. (ESV)

This is a promise made by God that He will save a people for Himself and that He personally will put the fear of Him into their hearts through a new covenant. The new covenant is the covenant fulfilled in Jesus by the shedding of His blood on the cross as He died for the sins of His people. So no one rightly and truly fears God unless he has come to put his trust in the finished work of Jesus on the cross. When that takes place in our life, our eyes are opened and we see God as He truly is. So we know that without a new heart we cannot of our own accord change how we feel about God. We cannot in our unsaved state just decide to fear God.

It is only through true salvation that we come to a true knowledge of who God is. We begin to see something of the true attributes of God, that He is immensely powerful, that He is in control of the far reaches of the universe yet holding together the smallest of atoms. That He has a fearfully intimate knowledge of every detail of our lives and that He knows our hearts more thoroughly than we ourselves know it. He knows when we sit and when we rise. He perceives our thoughts, He is acquainted with all our ways. He knows every word on your tongue. There is nowhere we can go where He cannot see us. He formed us in our inward parts, He fearfully and wonderfully made us. He knew us before we were formed. He formed our days before there was yet none. He put His image on us. He has a plan for our life. Past present and future lies in the palm of His hand. He is working out His plan to perfection in the world and He is the Judge who will bring every person to account. Every knee will one day bow and every tongue will confess that he is LORD. We realise we have sinned against this God, we have turned away from Him and broke. his laws but He has made a way for us to know Him through the only way of salvation that God has provided, which is through His Son the Lord Jesus Christ.

This is the beginning of knowledge that comes from the fear of God, which comes from salvation through the new covenant instituted by the blood of Jesus in His death and resurrection.

So now we have come to know who God is through salvation and our hearts fear at the revelation of who God is. Are we to now stop fearing Him because we are His child? Or because our sins are forgiven and we are no longer His enemies? I’m sure you have heard people say “I’m not an Old Testament believer, I’m a New Testament believer and I no longer need to fear God as He is a God of love and forgiveness. This leads us into our next point.

2. The necessity of godly fear

Scottish theologian John Murray said: 

‘The fear of the LORD is the soil of godliness’

If we desire to grow in holiness and Christlikeness, the fear of God is the ground this holiness will grow in. New Testament verses include. 

2 Corinthians 7:1

Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God. (ESV)

Philippians 2:12

Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, (ESV) 

These are verses directly linking the putting away of sin and growing in godliness to fearing God. How does fearing God bring holiness about?

It is helpful to point out again what this fear is and what it is not. The fear that leads to holiness is not the fear born out of God’s judgement and wrath, since as believers we have been delivered from that. Of course He is fearful because of His justice, holiness, sovereignty and power. We need only to consider John, the disciple who walked closely with Jesus on earth, who was the disciple whom Jesus loved. He was a New Testament believer. But on being brought into the presence of the glorified Christ fell down as though dead, as recorded in Revelation. Or Isaiah, who in the presence of God exclaimed, ‘Woe is me for I am lost’. The verses always hold a particular interest for us don’t they, we cannot help but put ourselves in their shoes and realise that we would respond in exactly the same way.

So there is terrifying fear in God’s presence, but it is the following verses that wonderfully captures what it is about the fear of God that produces holiness. After John falls down, the LORD says to him, ‘Fear not, I am the first and the last and the living One. I died and behold I am alive forever more and I have the keys of death and Hades’. To Isaiah He said (as the seraphim touched the coal on his mouth) - ‘Behold, this has touched your lips, your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for’. On both accounts the Lord tells us that has made a way of atonement for our sinfulness and sin.

So why is there a link between forgiveness and fear?

In Psalm 130 the connection between fear and forgiveness is beautifully presented. David is contemplating who could stand before God if He marked their iniquities, and then he says, ‘...but there is forgiveness with you that you may be feared’. When we consider God’s forgiveness of our sin and how He accomplished it - the unsearchable wisdom and wonder of God becoming man to walk among us. Jesus, the creator of everything - the radiance of the glory of God who led the sinless life that we never could. Who in every respect was tempted as we are, yet without yielding to that temptation. And then we see intimations of the horror he had to go through at the cross in his prayer in the garden of Gethsemane when the full import of what it meant for Him, the holy one to become sin and take on the full and unrestrained wrath of His beloved Father. It is the fear of who God is and our utter depravity revealed in the measures He had to take in order to forgive our sins, that He would not even spare His own Son to accomplish this.

Frederick Leahy says:

If the darkness through which the Saviour passed was so dreadful, how great must be the darkness of the sin he bore. This, says Calvin should excite in us deeper horror at our sins. Those who live and die in unforgiven sin, live and die in darkness. There is no light for anyone except in Christ.

To be conscious that we have been saved at a tremendous cost, to realise that God hates sin in our lives, will cause us to examine our lives and our hearts continuously before God. Passages such as - work out your salvation with fear and trembling, how shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation, not everyone who says to me Lord Lord will enter the kingdom of heaven, whom the Lord loves He disciplines.

These verses are not verses that do not put fear in our hearts - they do, they should, because they should be galvanizing us to pursue holiness, to be brutal with sin. As RC Sproul puts it - to put a herculean effort into our Christian walk. Strive to enter through the narrow door for many I tell you will seek to enter but will not be able.

To quote John Piper:

“In our sanctification, when we act in obedience and put our sin to death, it is God himself who is working in us. The omnipotent, sovereign King of the universe is personally acting in our souls by his Spirit to bring obedience into action. We are acting a miracle. We should indeed fear and tremble in our obedience, but not because we’re shaking before the wrath of an angry, unappeasable God — we fear and tremble because this God chooses to work in us to make us like him” 

We are saved by faith so that God may be feared. Feared so that we produce a life that will come to a time when we hear those words, ‘Well done good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your Master’. 

3. Cultivating a godly fear

It is true that the fear of God in our hearts is a promised blessing, so is it necessary for us to do anything? Can we just sit back and relax, knowing that God will do this work. Well, no, because that is not how the Lord works.

To quote Albert Martin:

What God declares to be His work in us is to be the focus of our conscious labours and endeavours.

So we need to have a life that is disciplined to maintain the guidelines that God has given us to develop and increase the fear of God. Not by self effort alone but because God is working in us to will and to do His good pleasure. Perhaps you find the passage, “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” perplexing? What does that work out mean? Well part of it is putting practises of obedience in place that will lead to holiness.

It is worthwhile to consider that often in scripture the very thing that God works in us, He also tells us to put on. For example the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, long suffering etc. But in other parts of scripture we are told to put on love and also to rejoice, it is the same with fear. The Lord puts the fear of Him in us but we are also to seek to fear Him.

Time to get practical. It is clear that we have to cultivate this godly fear in our lives. How do we do this?

8 Ways to cultivate godly fear:

  1. Feed your mind on scripture
  2. Meditate on God's forgiveness
  3. Meditate on the greatness of God
  4. Listen to strong biblical preaching
  5. Be aware of God’s presence
  6. Think on your obligation to God
  7. Spend time with people that fear God
  8. Fervent prayer

1. Feed your mind on scripture 

Feed your mind on scripture because there is an inseparable relationship between the special revelation God has made in scripture and the fear of God. It is a daily necessity that you expose yourself to the scriptures as much as possible.

To quote Albert Martin again:

‘If you and I are to be moved out of the path of godliness, we must first abandon, to some degree the fear of God. Often the first step to abandoning His fear is cutting corners on either our private or public exposure to the word of God’. 

Falling away from time in scripture is subtle. Cutting corners because of busy lifestyles, work and family commitments, hobbies, personal goals, social media will end in falling away from a pattern of bible reading all together. This leads to a tragic break down in your Christian walk. Then when temptation arrives, and it will, the fear of God will not be there, and you will succumb as spiritual realities will be very distant.

Building a habit in this area is paramount to being successful in maintaining a daily time and routine in the word for God.

2. Meditate on God's forgiveness 

We need to continually feed our souls with the reality of the forgiveness of God. When we know our sin and continually realise that our great God, holy and just and omniscient as He is, actually forgives sins, that all of His glorious attributes have been fully engaged to grant me a just pardon and full acceptance, how can we help but fear him. The measure to which the fact and wonder of forgiving grace sinks into your soul and will be the measure of the fear of God.

3. Meditate on the greatness of God

Focus on those attributes that point to God’s greatness.  Our minds are small and feeble and we will naturally diminish who God is.  The truth is, our highest thoughts are nowhere near accurate. We can turn to passages that help us understand God’s majesty and immensity such as Isaiah 40:

It is He who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to dwell in; who brings princes to nothing, and makes the rulers of the earth as emptiness. 

That passage scares me - He spreads the Universe like a tent to dwell in - my mind can scarcely get out of the milky way galaxy before meltdown - the LORD is immense.  If we know God as He reveals himself in scripture, and do not limit him to our own lofty thoughts, we can only but fear Him.

4. Listen to strong biblical preaching 

Be sure to put yourself under preachers who have majestic views of God and a godly fear.  I love to listen to preachers like R.C. Sproul or Paul Washer because they don’t mince their words when they preach.  There is an urgency and a trembling in their preaching which will stir you up to desire their kind of walk with the Lord.

5. Be aware of God’s presence 

Proverbs 23:17 says

Let your heart not envy sinners, but continue in the fear of the Lord all the day. 

As we go through the whole day - when we wake up, when we go to work or school, when chatting to friends, watching TV, surfing the web, are we guarding ourselves against desiring what the world offers?  This verse says fear the Lord all the day long. David says in Psalm 16:8, I have set the Lord always before me. In every situation we need to place God before us. In every situation we are in the presence of God.  We need to constantly remind ourselves that God can hear what we are saying, what we look at online, how much time we spend on frivolous things, those second lustful glances or lustful thoughts. We need to be honest with ourselves that God sees and it grieves Him.

6. Think on your obligation to God 

God did not just save us from His eternal wrath.  He saved us for a wonderful purpose. We are saved to be holy and blameless in His sight.  We are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for His own possession, that we may proclaim the excellencies of Him who called us out of darkness into His marvellous light.  How do we do that if we do not live with a sense of obligation to be holy. 

7. Spend time with people that fear God 

1 Corinthians 5:9–10

I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. (ESV)

Where you have the opportunity to, do you choose to spend time with people who have a godly fear?  Psalm 119:63 says

I am a companion of all who fear you and of those who keep your precepts

The obvious reason for this is we are greatly influenced by those who we spend our time with.  If we have particular idols or sins in our life, the last people we want to be around are God-fearing people.  We want to be around the people who make us feel ok with the sin and the idols in our life, perhaps we even spend more time with people who have the very same idols, after all, they are not going to point them out to you.  The same principle goes for living a life desirous to fear God, we will need to be around people who can show us what that means outworked and who can encourage and come alongside us in our walk.

8. Fervent Prayer 

God has said to us, ask and it will be given to you, or to put it negatively you do not have because you do not ask. This is most certainly talking about things that are in line with God's will. By now it is abundantly clear that a godly fear is God's will for our lives. So, we can boldly pray for God to give us this godly fear and have full assurance that He will answer this prayer. David prays with these words, unite my heart to fear your name. There is a lot at stake in our Christian walk as we have seen if we do not have a godly fear, so let us not stop praying for this, let us wrestle with the Lord until He answers us.  

And to conclude:

Proverbs 19:23

The fear of the LORD leads to life, and whoever has it rests satisfied; he will not be visited by harm. (ESV

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