Following Christ With Trembling
May 2, 2011 - John Newton, the beloved hymn writer, was also perhaps the wisest pastor in 18th-century England. His wisdom appears in some unanticipated contexts. One of those is his well-known hymn “Amazing Grace”: ’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear/And grace my fears relieved.
Truly, the beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord!—Proverbs 1:7 (ESV)
by Sinclair Ferguson
There is a fear produced in our hearts by God’s grace—it is what the Bible calls “the fear of the Lord.” The grace that produces this fear drives away all our other fears. Sometimes, sadly, we are so riddled with fears that what we most fear is “the fear of God”! How marvelous to discover that “With you there is forgiveness—that you may be feared” (Psalm 130:4, emphasis added).
Most people may think that the fear of God is only referenced in the Old Testament. But God has not changed since the days of the Old Testament! In fact, the New Testament also stresses how important the fear of God is. Jesus, Peter and Paul all spoke about fearing God (Luke 12:5, Ephesians 5:21, 1 Peter 2:17). Let’s not be too frightened to ask the question, “What is the fear of the Lord?”
Simply put, to fear God means I am one of His children who, out of reverence for my Heavenly Father and His holiness, wants to know that His face is turned toward me in love and that He is smiling on me. I want to do nothing that offends Him or causes me to be under His frown.
That is what our forefathers called “filial fear.” Filial refers to the relationship of a child to his or her parents. This is produced not by a cringing terror of judgment but by the tender love of the Lord. It is knowing that the Holy One has given His only Son for sinners such as I and “causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.” I tremble before the costliness and passion of His love for me.
This is wonderfully expressed by another hymn writer, F.W. Faber: Oh Thou art greatly to be feared/Thou art so prompt to bless/The dread to miss such love as thine/Makes fear but love’s excess/They love Thee little, if at all/Who do not fear Thee much/If love is Thine attraction, Lord/Fear is Thy very touch.
True, there is a kind of fear that is a fear of judgment. But that is not the relationship the child of God has with the Heavenly Father! Rather, filial fear is the increasing awareness of how much we are loved, coupled with the knowledge that the Lord will not leave us unchanged—His love must possess every part of us! Such filial fear transforms our lives in several obvious ways:
Filial fear keeps us from sinning. Are you the kind of Bible reader who looks at the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20 and stops at verse 17? Read on to verse 20! “Moses said to the people, ‘Do not fear, for God has come to test you, that the fear of him may be before you, that you may not sin.’” Isn’t that a remarkable statement? Don’t fear, but fear! The result? We want to live under our Father’s smile; we would do nothing to grieve Him.
Moses had recorded a wonderful illustration of this earlier in Exodus when Pharaoh commanded the Hebrew midwives to kill all newborn male babies. Exodus 1:17 says: “But the midwives feared God and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but let the male children live.” (See another wonderful example in Nehemiah 5:15.)Filial fear is a hallmark of spiritual growth. Paul tells the Philippians to “work out” their salvation “in fear and trembling” because they know that God is working in their lives to fulfill His purposes both for them and through them (Philippians 2:12-13). What God has done for us in Christ creates filial fear. But He is also working in us by His Holy Spirit! That is an amazing reality—for through the Spirit the Lord dwells and works in our hearts. Christ Himself dwells in me as the hope—the guarantee and assurance—of the glory that is to come (Colossians 1:27).
That makes me sing: O how I fear Thee living God, with deepest, tenderest, fears/And worship Thee with trembling hope, and penitential tears.
Filial fear also transforms our worship. We “serve the Lord with fear” and “rejoice with trembling”! (Psalm 2:11). Then in Acts 9:31—“So the church … had peace and was being built up. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it multiplied.” In 2 Corinthians 5:11 and 14, early church believers learned that filial fear coupled with a knowledge of the love of Christ creates a church that is marked by glorious worship and evangelistic fruitfulness. (Look up Acts 2:43, 5:5-11 and 19:17 for more surprises.)
How much we need this to be true again in our churches today, as Paul longed for it to be in Corinth (1 Corinthians 14:25). For when there is real filial fear in our hearts, outsiders as well as insiders bow down and recognize that God is among us. That, in essence, is what happens in revival.
Since we gave an 18th-century pastor, John Newton, the first word, perhaps we can give a 17th-century pastor, John Flavel, the last word: The carnal person fears man, not God/The strong Christian fears God, not man/The weak Christian fears man too much, and God too little.
Truly, the beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord! (Proverbs 1:7).
Sinclair Ferguson is senior minister at First Presbyterian Church in Columbia, S.C. He is distinguished visiting professor of systematic theology at Redeemer Seminary in Dallas. He will teach at The Cove Sept. 1-3 on “A Single Glorious Family.”
*Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, ©2011 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.