C. I. Scofield once called the fear of God “a phrase of Old Testament piety.” And so indeed it was. However, the fear of God is not a phrase of Old Testament piety only, for the right fear of God is, quite explicitly, a blessing of the new covenant. Speaking of the new covenant, the Lord promised through Jeremiah:
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. (Jer. 32:38–40)
In Jeremiah 33, the Lord goes on to explain the nature of this new covenant fear in words so striking they overturn all our expectations. He promises:
I will cleanse them from all the guilt of their sin against me, and I will forgive all the guilt of their sin and rebellion against me. And this city shall be to me a name of joy, a praise and a glory before all the nations of the earth who shall hear of all the good that I do for them. They shall fear and tremble because of all the good and all the prosperity I provide for it. (vv. 8–9)
This is not a fear of punishment—of what God might do if his people turn away from him. Quite the opposite: in Jeremiah 33, the Lord reels off a catalog of pure blessing. He will cleanse them, forgive them, and do great good for them. And they fear and tremble precisely because of all the good he does for them.
Here is not a fear that stands on the flip side of the grace and goodness of God. It is the sort of fear Hosea describes when he prophesies how “the children of Israel shall return and seek the Lord their God, and David their king, and they shall come in fear to the Lord and to his goodness in the latter days” (Hos. 3:5). It is a fear “to the Lord and to his goodness.” It is a fear that, as Charles Spurgeon put it, “leans toward the Lord” because of his very goodness.
Clearly, the fear of God is not at all what we, with our culture’s allergic reaction to the very concept of fear, might expect. Instead, we can say with Spurgeon that this is the “sort of fear which has in it the very essence of love, and without which there would be no joy even in the presence of God.” In fact, the closer we look, the closer fear of God and love of God appear.
The living God is infinitely perfect and quintessentially, overwhelmingly beautiful in every way: his righteousness, his graciousness, his majesty, his mercy, his all. And so we do not love him aright if our love is not a trembling, overwhelmed, and fearful love. In a sense, then, the trembling “fear of God” is a way of speaking about the intensity of the saints’ love for and enjoyment of all that God is.
The right fear of God is not the flip side to our love for God. Right fear does not stand in tension with love for God. Right fear falls on its face before the Lord, but falls leaning “toward the Lord.” It is not as if love draws near and fear distances. Nor is this fear of God one side of our reaction to God. It is not simply that we love God for his graciousness and fear him for his majesty. That would be a lopsided fear of God. We also love him in his holiness and tremble at the marvelousness of his mercy. True fear of God is true love for God defined: it is the right response to God’s full-orbed revelation of himself in all his grace and glory.
Evidently, the fear that Christ himself has (Isa. 11:1–3), and shares with us, is the opposite of being afraid of God. Godly fear casts out being afraid. But neither is it a cool, passionless regard of God. Time and again we have seen in Scripture that believers who have a godly fear tremble before God. Overwhelmed by his goodness and majesty and holiness and grace and righteousness—by all that God is—the faithful tremble.
The biblical theme of the fear of God helps us to see the sort of love toward God that is fitting. It shows us that God does not want passionless performance or a vague preference for him. To encounter the living, holy, and all-gracious God truly means that we cannot contain ourselves. He is not a truth to be known unaffectedly, or a good to be received listlessly. Seen clearly, the dazzling beauty and splendor of God must cause our hearts to quake.
Content adapted from Rejoice and Tremble by Michael Reeves ©2021. Used by permission of Crossway.
Michael Reeves is President and Professor of Theology at Union. He is the author of The Good God: Enjoying Father, Son and Holy Spirit and Rejoice and Tremble: The Surprising Good News of the Fear of the Lord.