The Word Fear Defined
Fear is either expressive of reverence or terror. Fear as terror is generally expressed by the Hebrew words magor, and pacadh, and by the Greek word phobos. Fear as being reverence is denominated in Hebrew as yirah, and in Greek as eulabeia. However, these words are occasionally also used without this distinction.
Fear issues forth from love—either for ourselves or for God. Self-love engenders fear when something occurs which could deprive us of something good or whereby some evil could befall us. We fear deprivation, or the evil itself, and whatever or whoever would deprive us of that which is good, or whereby evil could be inflicted upon us.
God has created self-love in man and wills that we make use of it. The law requires that we love our neighbor as ourselves (Mat 22:39). It is therefore not sinful to fear deprivation and evil. This fear was inherent in Adam’s nature prior to the fall, even though there was no occasion for this fear to arise in him. The Lord Jesus also had such fear (cf. Mat 26:37; Heb 5:7). One may indeed be fearful of death and other discomforts, and thus also of wild animals and evil men.
This fear becomes evil, however, if it begets the use of evil means—either to preserve or acquire that which is good, or to avoid evil. This is true if we fear man more than God and, in neglecting both the fear of God and obedience toward His commandments, we seek to get man on our side in sinful ways. We then give no heed as to whether we displease God; as long as we can please men in order that they will do us no evil, but good. “Do not fear not those who kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Mat 10:28).
Since we must have love for ourselves, and fear issues forth therefrom, we must have more fear for evil which relates to the soul than to the body. Since, the soul’s well or woe is dependent upon God, we must be fearful out of love for our own salvation, and must fear God’s judgments. “My flesh trembles for fear of You; and I am afraid of Your judgments” (Psalm 119:120). An unconverted person must also, by fear for the eternal wrath of God, be persuaded to believe (2 Cor. 5:11). A converted person must, for fear of spiritual harm, stir himself up to be earnest. “Let us therefore fear, lest, a promise being left us of entering into His rest, any of you should seem to come short of it” (Heb 4:1).
The Definition and Nature of Filial (godly) Fear
Filial fear is a holy inclination of the heart, generated by God in the hearts of His children, whereby they, out of reverence for God, take careful pains not to displease God, and earnestly endeavor to please Him in all things. It is a motion of the heart. The noble soul is gifted with emotions, and dependent upon what the objects are, is moved to either joy or sorrow, love or hatred, fear or fearlessness. As far as the fear of God is concerned, man is insensitive, hard, and without emotion. “There is no fear of God before their eyes” (Romans 3:18). In regeneration, however, the heart of stone is removed and a heart of flesh is received, which is soft and pliable, and is very readily moved upon beholding God, dependent upon the measure in which God reveals Himself to the soul. If God is perceived as being majestic, a motion immediately arises within their soul—a motion which is befitting to the creature, in respect to God.
It is a holy motion. Since an unconverted person is in essence nothing but sin, also all that proceeds from him is distorted. The ability to fear is directed toward an erroneous object and is exercised in a disorderly fashion. Believers, however, having been sanctified in principle, are also sanctified as far as their inner motions are concerned. Their fear has a proper object and consequently functions in a holy manner, that is, in faith and love. They are devout and fear God (Act 10:2).
God generates this holy motion. By nature man is totally unfit for any good work. He finds no delight in God and has no desire to fear the Lord. He may be terrified of God, but he cannot fear Him rightly. However, God enables His own people to fear Him. “I will put My fear in their hearts, that they shall not depart from Me” (Jer. 32:40).
The Holy Spirit is therefore called “the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord” (Isaiah 11:2).
This filial fear is found in the hearts of God’s children. The heart is the seat of all motions—evil as well as good. God has enclosed this precious gift in the hearts of His children, and all the motions relative to fear proceed from the heart. Their fear neither consists in talk, refraining from evil and doing good, nor in the appearance of fear—but rather in truth. The heart, intellect, will, and affections are involved here, and the heart brings forth various deeds which manifest the fear of God. Only God’s children truly fear the Lord, and therefore those who have this virtue are called God-fearing people. “…the same man was just and devout” (Luke 2:25); “…devout men” (Acts 2:5); “And devout men carried Stephen to his burial” (Act 8:2).
Filial fear is engendered by reverence for God. God is the object of this fear. “O fear the Lord, you His saints” (Psalm 34:9). God is eminent, glorious, and majestic within Himself—even if there were no creatures. “Yours, O Lord, is the greatness, and the power, and the glory, and the victory, and the majesty” (1 Chr. 29:11). Hereby God is awe-inspiring in and of Himself. With the advent of intelligent creatures who observe the brilliance of His glory, it cannot but be that they have reverence for Him, who is both infinite and majestic.
A natural man does not know God. Therefore he may be fearful of His judgments, for calamities, and sometimes may acknowledge God to be solemn (although he generally does not progress this far), but he cannot have reverence for Him. That is the privilege and blessedness of believers. A sinful person cannot tolerate God’s majesty. He would flee in terror from God, for He is to him a consuming fire. However, in Christ—God is a reconciled Father to His children, and therefore they simultaneously love and revere Him. “Serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice with trembling” (Psalm 2:11).