We Serve an Awesome God
A few years ago I found myself seated on the edge of my spiritual curiosity. I had the privilege of sitting around a breakfast table with a group of prayer leaders, including Henry Blackaby, author of Experiencing God.
During the time we were together, Dr. Blackaby talked about revival and noted that during every great spiritual awakening in the past, a previously forgotten biblical truth or principle was rediscovered.
I pointedly asked Dr. Blackaby what biblical principle he believed most needed rediscovering in our day. Without the least hesitation, he replied, “The fear of God.” What is a biblical fear of God and how should our fear of Him affect our lives? In the Bible, we see two types of fear expressed toward God.
Quaking In The Presence Of an Awesome God
The first type of fear of God produces a physical sensation of quaking and trembling or a deathlike state when God manifests His presence. John “fell at his [Jesus’] feet as dead” (Rev. 1:17). Daniel couldn’t even speak because no strength or breath remained in him (see Dan. 10:17).
When God came to make a covenant with Abraham, “a horror of great darkness fell upon” the patriarch (Gen. 15:12). Often in Scripture, we see that the manifestation of God’s glory created an overwhelming sense of terror and dread among those who witnessed it.
The Bible usually is referring to another kind of fear, however, when it speaks of fearing God.
A Rational, Premeditated Conclusion
Interestingly, the second type of fear in the Bible is different in significant ways from the first. The first is always an emotion accompanied by physical manifestations, an emotion that comes in response to God’s presence having been manifested.
The second is a rational, thought out, the calculated conclusion based on facts about God with regard to one’s accountability to Him. In Exodus 20:18-20 we find that God had come down on Mount Sinai. Thunder and lightning engulfed the top of the mountain, and smoke abounded.
The people were terrified; they shook with fear and begged Moses to ask God not to speak to them lest they die. Moses made a very interesting statement in verse 20. He said, “Fear not: for God is come to prove you, and that his fear may be before your faces, that ye sin not.”
Did you notice the irony? Moses said, in effect, “Don’t be afraid, because God has come to make you afraid!” How can this be? Moses’ first commandment not to fear addressed the people’s emotional fear, the first type we mentioned.
Moses went on, however, to state that the reason God manifested Himself in such a terrible display of power was so the people might understand His holiness and learn not to sin. After He withdrew to heaven and they no longer felt fear, God wanted the people to rationally conclude that a God so holy would require accountability.
That way, when they were tempted in the future to sin, they would be less likely to give in. This fear is the second type of fear we mentioned.
A Deterrent to Sin
The command to fear God most often is used as a deterrent to sin. God wanted the Israelites to know that they did not have to fear that He harbored ill will toward them; He did not secretly hope the people would sin so He gleefully could destroy them.
However, having seen the greatness and holiness of God’s presence manifested among them, the people of Israel should have known that when God drew a line, it was not to be crossed. The Lord sought to indelibly impress on the minds of the people that the consequences of crossing such a line called for a genuine fear—a fear that would help them to obey.
Sadly, the people ignored the warning and wasted away for 40 years in the desert. If only they had learned the lesson to fear God and not test Him! The fear that is a deterrent to sin is the type of fear David should have felt before he had Uriah killed to cover up his own adultery (see 2 Sam. 11:1–12:14).
This type of fear would have spared Ananias and Sapphira from being struck dead by God (see Acts 5:1-11). This is the kind of fear Paul encouraged Gentiles to have so they wouldn’t be arrogant toward the Jews. If God did not spare them, Paul wrote to the Gentiles, He would not spare them, either (see Rom. 11:21).
Such fear obviously is positive and constructive. It does not deny or ignore God’s love but rather teaches us not to presume upon it.
How an Improper Understanding is Affecting Christians Today
Have you ever heard a statement like this? Fearing God means that you have an awe or reverence, a sense of wonder and deep respect for God, but you’re certainly not supposed to be afraid of God. Such statements have an element of truth in them, but they are misleading.
Why? Because they lead us to believe that a biblical fear of God does not include being afraid of Him, even to a small degree. Consider the meaning of the word awe in the italicized statement above.
While we understand that the one making the statement believes that a person should revere God, respect God, and even be overwhelmed by His greatness, we also understand that the speaker believes a person is “certainly not supposed to be afraid of God.”
Definitions of the word awe, however, reflect that this word means more than wonder and amazement; it also means terror and dread. A biblical fear of God includes, but is not limited to, the emotion of fear.
Should Christians be afraid God will withdraw His love, ignore the cross, and violate His covenant and His promise to forgive sins? No. (See 1 John 4:14-18.) However, the fear that affirms that God requires accountability for sin, even from the Christian, is legitimate, for God is holy.
This fact does not mean that we are to relate to God only on the basis of fear, rewards, and punishments; nor does it mean that a proper obedience to God is mechanical and cold. Because God is a personal God, obeying Him has more benefits than the benefit of escaping punishment (see John 4:21,23).
Still, biblical fear of God recognizes God’s absolute holiness—and God’s hatred of sin. Biblical fear of God also recognizes accountability to God, and it refuses to treat Him casually. Increasingly the lifestyles of Christians offer no contrast to the lifestyles of people who never attend church.
Apparently Christians are viewing God’s grace as a license to sin. Why is this happening? I believe that American Christianity has emphasized the love, mercy, forgiveness, and grace of God to the exclusion of His holiness, our accountability to Him, and the fear He deserves.
I don’t disagree with what the Bible teaches about the tender and loving side of God, but we’ve stressed those truths for so long with-out emphasizing God’s holiness and wrath that many people today—Christians and non-Christians alike—live with a “cream puff” concept of God.
They treat God casually; they believe that they can sin when they want to, that they can confess their sins whenever they desire, and that God is obligated not only to forgive but also to keep them from suffering any consequences.
The Bible teaches otherwise, and devout Christian leaders throughout history also have taught otherwise. (Read the excerpt from Jonathan Edwards’s sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” on page 139.) Teaching the love and mercy of God while ignoring His holiness is like teaching someone how to drive a car by showing the driver where the gas pedal is but not the brake.
Can a person drive a car without the brake? Sure—but not safely, not well, and not for a long time. George Barna, an expert social researcher, has studied the church and its role in American culture for many years. He wrote, “It seems that Christians are more affected by society than society is affected by Christians. Why is that?
Perhaps because more than nine out of ten born-again Christians fail to think like Jesus; they think like the rest of the world, so they naturally behave like the citizens of this world, too. They are not the salt and light that Jesus commands us to be because they lack the personal commitment and depth of faith that makes them truly changed, God-driven beings.”1
Could it be that the vast majority of American Christians also lack a biblical fear of God? Yes! And Barna apparently would readily agree.
Nearly ten years before he wrote the above statements, he penned these words: “Having never truly experienced the full awesomeness of God, nor having understood how His principles could shape our lives and enhance our earthly experience, we [American Christians] instead substitute our own decisions for His, our own fluid standards for His permanent dictates, our own dreams and desires for His vision and plan.”2
Please don’t misunderstand what I am saying. I do not believe a Christian can lose his or her salvation. However, even for the Christian, the pleasures of a sinful lifestyle are not worth the consequences, both potential and certain, of disregarding and disobeying a holy God. Those who intentionally and willfully continue sinning need to understand that God will not give them a pass.
Because they are accountable to God, their sins will bring consequences that are much more terrible than sin is pleasurable. Those who are aware of the holiness of God, however, are more likely to be aware of their accountability to Him and are thus less likely to sin.
Being afraid of God is a good thing if our fear is based on biblical teachings. God is loving, but He also is holy. We are accountable to Him. Biblical fear of God is one of the wonderful deterrents He has given us to help keep us from sinning and to help us live holy lives.
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1George Barna, Think Like Jesus, (Nashville: Integrity Publishers, 1993), 27.
2George Barna, Virtual America (Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 1994), 147.
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