The Fear of the Lord

[This article was taken from our book “The Christian’s Hope: The Anchor of the Soul.”]


The phrase “the fear of the Lord” is familiar to almost every Christian. This is understandable because the phrase occurs almost 100 times from Genesis to Revelation. [1] In spite of the pervasiveness of the concept, however, the average Christian cannot seem to grasp what the fear of God is. [2] The reason is simple—too many churchgoers cannot think of any reason to be afraid of God. They are taught that He is loving, forgiving, merciful, and gracious. Therefore, “God” and “fear” are two words that just do not seem to go together, at least not in modern theology. Nevertheless, the phrase is used throughout the entire Bible. What is the Bible saying? While it is true that God is a God of love and mercy, He is also a God of justice. On Judgment Day, He will give every person what he or she deserves. Like a father who disciplines his children even though it breaks his heart, so God will judge each person. Sadly, the unsaved will not pass muster at all and will be thrown into the lake of fire and burned up. [3] Those who are saved will be granted everlasting life (a wonderful gift in itself!), but of those, the ones who lived selfishly “will suffer loss” and may enter the Kingdom with little or nothing (1 Cor. 3:13–15).

In Scripture, the fear of God is often shown to be the motivation for obedience. Parents understand this concept. As much as parents want their children to obey out of love and common decency, most parents are aware that children often obey because of their fear of consequences. So too, the fear of God, meaning the fear of His judgment, can be the reason why a person stops sinning or walks away from sin before getting involved. One of the malefactors hanging on the cross next to Jesus understood this very well. He spoke up when the other malefactor being crucified hurled insults at Jesus. Realizing that his life was coming to an end and that the Judgment loomed ahead, he called out to his fellow malefactor, “Don’t you fear God?” (Luke 23:40). The malefactor, though not a good man by any standard, realized that insulting God’s Son would only bring wrath at the Judgment, and he humbly asked to be “remembered” when Christ came into his Kingdom. With some of the most comforting words ever spoken to a dying man, Jesus assured the malefactor that he would one day indeed be with Christ in the Kingdom, Paradise. [4]

Does it really make sense that God will ignore disobedience that has not been confessed and forgiven? Hebrews has more to say about God’s Judgment.

Hebrews 10:26, 27, and 31
(26) If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left,
(27) but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God.
(31) It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. [5]

These verses seem so harsh, so hard, and so unloving that they can be unpleasant to read. Yet they were inspired by a loving God and are as much a part of Scripture as the verses that say, “God is love.” God is love, which is why He will give each person what he or she deserves. He will not “play favorites.” Nor will He devalue the good deeds of those who struggled and endured in the faith by giving the same reward to those who did not endure. These emphatic words are given by a loving God to warn people to take their lives seriously and to take obedience seriously. For the person who is undecided about whether or not to obey God, the fear of God can “tip the scales” towards obedience.

Jay Carty, the founder of Yes! Ministries, teaches about the value of obedience and the consequences of sin. Occasionally, people tell him they do not want to hear about the “fear of God.” This is his reply:

You may be saying, “Jay, I want to hear about the love of God. Don’t preach the fear of God to me.” Listen carefully. I spend half my time on the road, and there’s been an occasion or two when it’s just been a solid dose of the fear of God that’s kept my nose clean. I have even gotten to the point of being willing to disobey God, but I was afraid of the consequences. [6]

Jay Carty understands what experience teaches so clearly: sometimes it is the fear of God that motivates us to “keep our noses clean.” Scripture does make it clear that it is God’s primary desire for us to respond to his kindness.

Romans 2:4
Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, tolerance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness leads you toward repentance?

Although God’s desire is that everyone would obey Him because of His kindness, gentleness, and love, the fact is that the fear of God is an important motivator in most people’s lives because of man’s fallen nature.

Jesus taught that the fear of God would help people overcome the fear of man:

Luke 12:4 and 5
(4) I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more.
(5) But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him [God] who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into hell [Gehenna]. Yes, I tell you, fear him. [7]

The wise Christian realizes that it’s not just the love of God or the fear of God’s judgment that keeps us from sinning. Romans 6 and 7 describe the tyrannical rule of sin over the lives of those who do not live according to the standard of God’s Word. Romans 6:16 and 17 go so far as to use the phrase “slaves to sin.” Anyone who has been in the world for any time knows people who have gotten caught up in the snare of sinful behavior (2 Tim. 2:26). However, the recognition that there is going to be an accounting for sin for which one has not repented helps to anchor the Christian’s commitment to holiness in this present life.

Another section of Scripture, the “conclusion” to Ecclesiastes, links the fear of the Lord and obedience in this life to the coming Judgment:

Ecclesiastes 12:13 and 14
(13) Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.
(14) For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil.

God’s “conclusion” is certainly valid: fear Him and keep His commandments.


[1] The exact wording differs. Phrases include, “the fear of God,” “the fear of the Lord,” “fear God,” “fear Him,” “fear His name,” etc.
[2] It is frequently taught that the word “fear” really means “respect” or “awe.” This is accurate in some verses, but it would be a mistake to think that “respect” and “awe” can be applied in every case. It is very clear from a study of the Hebrew and Greek vocabulary and from an examination of the contexts of its occurrences, that “fear,” as it is commonly understood, is frequently the intended meaning. Bromiley, op. cit., Bible Encyclopedia, Vol. 2, pp. 288–292 and Marshal, op. cit., New Bible Dictionary, p. 365.
[3] See Appendix C. Biblically, the word “saved” refers to any person from any administration who is granted everlasting life.
[4] The malefactor did not go to Paradise that day, because Paradise, the Kingdom, was not set up then and it is still not set up. When it is, the malefactor will enter it at the Resurrection of the Just. See our book, op. cit., Is There Death After Life?, p. 91.
[5] Note that verse 27 says the “raging fire that will consume the enemies of God.” As it states in 1 Corinthians 3:10–17, the “fire” will not consume disobedient Christians, because they are not the enemies of God (Rom. 8:37–39), but it will test the quality of their works. If a believer’s work does not “pass muster,” it (the work) will be burned up and the believer will suffer loss (of rewards). The believer will be saved, but only “as one escaping through the flames” (1 Cor. 3:15). The “enemies of God” who will be consumed in the fire are people who were not saved, the Devil, and demons (Matt. 25:41–46; Rev. 20:10 and 15).
[6] Jay Carty, Counterattack, Taking Back Ground Lost to Sin (Multnomah, Portland, OR, 1988), p. 114.
[7] Jesus was speaking to “a crowd of many thousands” (Luke 12:1), and no doubt many of them were unsaved. Furthermore, this speech took place before the Day of Pentecost when the Christian Church started. No Christian should use this verse to teach that God might throw Christians into Gehenna if they sin.

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