A growing but troubling trend in the church today is the movement away from teaching believers to fear the Lord. I was reminded of this recently when a respected pastor informed his congregation that to properly fulfill God’s purpose in life they needed a perspective adjustment. Specifically, they needed to view God through the lens of love rather than fear. Only then could they enjoy His presence; only then could they fully comprehend and follow Him.
On the one hand, I understand this perspective. Many pastors grew up in churches that emphasized the fear of the Lord to the exclusion of His love. Their ministers taught the wrath of God, the terrible day of the Lord, and pounded on the existence and dangers of hell. Irrespective of the text on any given Sunday, the pulpit would intertwine these themes into the message. Many of the youth in these churches eventually learned the existence of God’s love, mercy and grace elsewhere and it resonated with them.
Fast forward a couple decades and some of these youth have become the pastors, leaders, speakers, and teachers of today’s church. In an effort to avoid falling into the same trap their ministers did, today’s pastors often ignore wrath, hell, and the fear of the Lord altogether. But emphasizing the love of the Lord to the exclusion of His judgment is dangerous. Such a narrow and incomplete view of God produces Christian lifestyles and attitudes that often mirror those exhibited in secular society.
Absent a reason to fear God our motivation to obey Him often diminishes. Moreover, God’s forgiveness, mercy, and compassion are unnecessary if His wrath does not exist. An accurate and healthy understanding of God, then, recognizes that each of these attributes represent His character.
The early church understood this truth. In Acts we learn that “the churches throughout all Judea, Galilee, and Samaria had peace and were edified. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, they were multiplied” (Acts 9:31, NKJV). These churches experienced considerable growth because they walked in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit. They didn’t stress one characteristic of God over another. Instead, they held a complete view of God, which included both His compassion and His judgment. A healthy view of God always incorporates fear and love.
Some readers may wonder what value exists in teaching the fear of the Lord. Others argue that such instruction turns people away from God. To attract modern society, they argue, we need to abandon any talk of fear, wrath, or judgment. But without an appropriate fear of God and respect for His standard of holiness, people and cultures adopt sinful lifestyles without concern for eternal consequences.
The prophet Malachi tells us that God brings judgment, “Because the people do not fear the Lord of hosts” (Malachi 3:5). Absent a suitable fear of God, we enter into sin lightly until it becomes an established habit. The writer of Proverbs describes the anecdote for such behavior like this: “By the fear of the Lord one departs from evil” (Proverbs 16:6, NKJV).
In Revelation, the apostle John uses the following language to summarize the everlasting gospel, “Fear God, give Him glory … and worship Him,” (Revelation 14:6-7). While mercy and forgiveness represent critical components of the gospel, no need for either exists without judgment and wrath. A vibrant understanding of our need for God’s love and compassion begins with a proper fear of God. They go hand-in-hand.
And recall King Solomon. He invested considerable resources, energy, and time pursuing every action, thought, and philosophy to discover the meaning of life. He distills his findings into the following wisdom: “Here is the conclusion of the whole matter; Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is the whole duty of man” (Ecclesiastes 12:13, NKJV). The essence of our purpose is to know God, and that includes a healthy fear of Him; doing so reflects reverence and recognition of His greatness.
Solomon spoke from experience. Early in life He possessed a healthy fear of God and conducted His affairs accordingly. But as that fear diminished His obedience waned and He began committing a variety of abominations that led to his downfall.
Other benefits from fearing the Lord include the development of wisdom (see Psalms 111:10; Proverbs 1:7, 9:10), God’s blessing (Psalm 112:1; 128:1,4), and an understanding of the mysteries of God (Psalm 25:14). In fact, societies that teach and embrace a healthy fear of God experience renewal and restoration. That is an outcome sorely needed in America today. In closing, I encourage Christian leaders to reinstate a healthy fear of the Lord into their sermons and for churchgoers to embrace that message. It is one that has the power to transform our nation.