Vital Godliness: A Treatise on Experimental and Practical Piety – THE FEAR OF GOD
By William S. Plumer
God’s word clearly teaches that there is a fear which is consistent with true religion. Once the Scriptures assert that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge,” Proverbs 1:7; and twice they say that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Psalm 111:10, and Proverbs 9:10. There is no higher wisdom than to fear God, as there is no true wisdom until he is feared. The fear of God is both alpha and omega in wisdom. “The very first, and indeed the principal thing, to be instilled into all men’s minds, is a biblical sense of the divine Majesty, and a solemn regard towards him.” With the foregoing well agrees the prophet Isaiah: “The fear of the Lord is his treasure.” Isa. 33:6. It is the more important to dwell upon this grace, as it seems not to be much spoken of. Very seldom is it a subject of pulpit discourse; rarely do we find it treated of at length in modern books; yet the Bible is full of it. Not only the Old Testament, but the New also, insists upon reverence and godly fear as essential ingredients of Christian character.
Perhaps one reason why so little is said of it is, that many minds are confused respecting its qualities. It will therefore be wise to seek to understand its nature, and the difference between it and all those kinds of fear which are spurious. Godly fear does not at all consist in servility and guilty dismay, nor in mere dread and terror. This kind of fear is neither holy nor useful. Indeed it sadly perverts men, and fits them for a life of sin. “Fear, if it has not the light of a true understanding concerning God wherewith to be moderated, breeds superstition,” says Hooker.
Godly fear consists with love. This is so true, that the more we fear God, the more we love him; and the more we love him, the more do we fear him. Godly fear is not a destroyer, but a regulator of other graces. Without it faith might become presumptuous, hope might lose its sobriety, love might degenerate into fondness or sentimentality, and joy might become giddy. But where the heart is full of godly fear, all these unhappy results are avoided. So far from agitating, it calms and quiets the mind. It seems to give both gravity and cheerfulness. It moderates without depressing; it animates without intoxicating. It is good ballasts to the ship in her passage through tempestuous seas.
This fear is a fruit of God’s bounty. It is gracious. “Let us have grace, whereby we may serve God acceptably, with reverence and godly fear.” Without an interest in God’s favor, we can never make so excellent an attainment.
Godly fear is a saving grace. It is declared to be a part of true religion in all dispensations. “They shall fear you as long as the sun and moon endure, throughout all generations.” Psalm 72:5. So that religion without love is not more spurious than religion without godly fear.
One of the most striking features of synagogue worship for centuries past has been an evident lack of profound reverence for God in the entire manner of conducting the religious services of the Jews. The basis of this fear is found in the nature, word, and works of God. Jehovah is “the great and dreadful God.” We must gain a knowledge of him. “As the justice of God and his anger must be apprehended before he can be feared slavishly, so the majesty of God and his goodness must be understood before he can be feared filially. Who can stand in awe of a majesty he is ignorant of? Men, knowing not God’s nature, have often presumed so much upon his mercy, that they have been destroyed by his justice.”
Any right thoughts of God’s amazing purity of nature will surely beget a pious fear of him. Because he is “glorious in holiness—he is fearful in praises.” “As the approach of a grave and serious man makes children hasten their trifles out of the way; so would the consideration of this attribute make us cast away our idols, and our ridiculous thoughts and designs.” And not only God’s majesty and holiness, but also his love and mercy beget a great fear of him. So says the Psalmist, “There is forgiveness with you, that you may be feared.” Psalm 130:4. So says Paul, “We receiving a kingdom, let us have grace, whereby we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear.” Heb. 12:28. The same is true of God’s power and government. “You are great, and your name is great in might; who would not fear you, O King of nations?” Jer. 10:6, 7. Jesus Christ told us to fear him who had power to cast into hell. Luke 12:5. In like manner, to fear and tremble at God’s word is an effect produced on the heart of all the pious. So the Scriptures teach; so God’s people experience.
And how often does God awaken sentiments of fear, not only by exhibitions of his wrath and displays of his power, but by marvelous acts of his grace and mercy towards the rebellious and perishing. Psalm 40:3; Acts 2:43. There are some remarkable examples of the fear of God recorded in Scripture. One is that of Moses, mentioned in Heb. 12:21, where it is said that the giving of the law on mount Sinai produced the deepest awe and even terror. “So terrible was the sight, that Moses said, I exceedingly fear and quake.” A similar record is made by Isaiah: “In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a high and lofty throne, and His robe filled the temple. Seraphim were standing above Him; each one had six wings: with two he covered his face, with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another: Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; His glory fills the whole earth. The foundations of the doorways shook at the sound of their voices, and the temple was filled with smoke. Then I said: Woe is me, for I am ruined, because I am a man of unclean lips and live among a people of unclean lips, and because my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.” (Isaiah 6:1-5)
A still more remarkable effect, if possible, was produced on the prophet Habakkuk by an unusual display of God’s glory. The song reads thus: “His splendor covers the heavens, and the earth is full of His praise. His brilliance is like light; rays are flashing from His hand. This is where His power is hidden. Plague goes before Him, and pestilence follows in His steps. He stands and shakes the earth; He looks and startles the nations. The age-old mountains break apart; the ancient hills sink down. His pathways are ancient. I see the tents of Cushan in distress; the tent curtains of the land of Midian tremble. Are You angry at the rivers, Lord? Is Your wrath against the rivers? Or is Your rage against the sea when You ride on Your horses, Your victorious chariot? You took the sheath from Your bow; the arrows are ready to be used with an oath. You split the earth with rivers. The mountains see You and shudder; a downpour of water sweeps by. The deep roars with its voice and lifts its waves high. Sun and moon stand still in their lofty residence, at the flash of Your flying arrows, at the brightness of Your shining spear. You march across the earth with indignation; You trample down the nations in wrath. You come out to save Your people, to save Your anointed. You crush the leader of the house of the wicked and strip him from foot to neck. You pierce his head with his own spears; his warriors storm out to scatter us, gloating as if ready to secretly devour the weak. You tread the sea with Your horses, stirring up the great waters. I heard, and I trembled within; my lips quivered at the sound. Rottenness entered my bones; I trembled where I stood.” (Habakkuk 3:3-16)
A reason given by Paul for serving God with reverence and godly fear, is that he “is a consuming fire.” Heb. 12:28, 29. A very high degree of holy fear is therefore well founded. There is cause for adoring reverence for the heavenly Majesty. Although there is not much said in modern writers respecting the fear of God, yet it is different with those who lived long ago. Thus says Hall, “There is a trembling that may consist with joy. Trembling is an effect of fear, but the fear which we must cherish is reverential, not slavish, not distrustful. I will so distrust myself, that I may be steadfastly confident in the God of my salvation. I will so tremble before the glorious majesty of my God, that I may not abate anything of the joy of his never-failing mercy.”
So also Hopkins on the first commandment says, “Certainly we cannot have the Lord for our God unless we supremely fear and reverence him. Yes, as the love, so the fear of God is made the sum of all the commandments, and indeed the substance of all religion; for, although it be but one particular branch and member of that worship and service which we owe to God, yet it is such a remarkable one, and has such a mighty influence upon all the rest, that oftentimes in Scripture it is put for the whole.”
How clearly too does John Bunyan describe this virtue in his account of Mr. Fearing. As he says, “No fears, no grace. Though there is not always grace where there is the fear of hell, yet to be sure there is no grace where there is no fear of God.” Where this fear of God is genuine, it is not an occasional exercise, but an abiding principle. “Be in the fear of the Lord all the day long.” Proverbs 23:17. “Happy is the man who fears always.” Proverbs 28:14. “Rejoice with trembling.” Psalm 2:11. “Pass the time of your sojourning here in fear.” 1 Pet. 1:17. We are to “perfect holiness in the fear of God.” 2 Cor. 7:1. We are to work out our “salvation with fear and trembling.” Phil. 2:12. When the Holy Spirit rested on Christ, it “made him of quick understanding in the fear of the Lord.” Isa. 11:2, 3. So that it is clear that there is, there can be no genuine piety—without the fear of God.
Someone may ask how these views agree with the statement of John, that “there is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear has torment. He who fears is not made perfect in love.” 1 John 4:18. The proper answer is, that John is here speaking of servile fear, which, as he says, “has torment;” whereas we are speaking of a fear which has no torment.
John Newton says, “The Lord bids me ‘fear not’—and at the same time he says, ‘Happy is the man who fears always.’ How to fear and not to fear at the same time is, I believe, one branch of that secret of the Lord which none can understand but by the teaching of his Spirit. When I think of my heart, of the world, of the powers of darkness—what cause of continual fear! I am on an enemy’s ground, and cannot move a step but some snare is spread for my feet. But when I think of the person, grace, power, care, and faithfulness of my Savior, why may I not say—I will trust and not be afraid, for the Lord Almighty is with us, the God of Jacob is our refuge. I wish to be delivered from anxious and unbelieving fear, which weakens the hands and disquiets the heart. I wish to increase in a humble jealousy and distrust of myself and of everything about me.”
Charnock says, “Men are apt to fear a just recompense for an injury done to another; and fear is the mother of hatred. God being man’s superior, and wronged by him, there follows necessarily a slavish fear of him and his power; and such a fear makes wrathful and embittered thoughts of God, while he considers God armed with an unconquerable and irresistible power to punish him.” But the fear which arises from just views of the whole of God’s character produces very different effects, and is in fact very different in its nature.
The benefits of godly fear are many and of great value. It is the best preservative against sinful and dangerous alliances with the wicked. “do not fear what they fear, nor be in dread. But the Lord Almighty—him you shall regard as holy. Let him be your fear, and let him be your dread.” Isa. 8:12, 13. How many wicked alliances are formed; and for no other reason than that men are led into them through a lack of sterling religious principle. The consequence is, misery forever. From how many distressing entanglements men would be rescued by the fear of the Lord. It also drives away that fear of man. which brings a snare. Christ says, “Be not afraid of them that kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do. But I will forewarn you whom you shall fear: Fear Him, who, after he has killed, has power to cast into hell; yes, I say unto you, Fear him.” Luke 12:4, 5. Christ himself proposes the fear of God as the great remedy for the fear of man. Nor is there any other that is found adequate. But this is enough.
How justly does God rebuke that fear of man: “Have you forgotten the Lord who made you, who stretched out the heavens and laid the earth’s foundations? Why should you live in constant fear of the fury of those who oppress you, of those who are ready to destroy you? Their fury can no longer touch you.” Isa. 51:12. It is not possible for us to fear God too much, or man too little. And so surely as we have just conceptions of the eternal power and majesty of God, we shall have no tormenting fear of the puny arm of mortals.
The fear of the Lord inspires confidence and boldness in a righteous cause. That this is experienced by all God’s people, has been illustrated in a thousand striking cases in history, and is clearly declared in Scripture. “In the fear of the Lord is strong confidence, and his children shall have a place of refuge.” Proverbs 14:26. The fear of God is the great preservative against sin. Nothing could be more important than this. “Keep yourself out of sin, and fear nothing.” If we can resist all temptations to sin, and be pure from iniquity, nothing can harm us. This may be done by a proper fear of God. “The fear of the Lord is a fountain of life, to depart from the snares of death.” Proverbs 14:27.
The care of godly men in all ages has been against sin. And as their spiritual enemies are very many and insidious, they have learned to be much afraid of that which in others awakens no apprehension. They are cautious about little sins, and their cry is, “Catch the foxes, the little foxes that spoil the vines; for our vines have tender grapes.” Song 2:15. In ancient vineyards a tower was erected, and a watch set there for birds, foxes, and thieves—the three great enemies of the vintage. Birds always, and thieves sometimes, approached vineyards in the daytime; but foxes commonly came at night. Larger foxes preyed much on poultry and on smaller animals, but the young foxes that ventured abroad resorted much to the vineyards. This they did both day and night. They were numerous, cunning, greedy, and destructive. If there were many of them, they ruined the vintage. They did their work slyly. Great vigilance was therefore requisite. Some suppose that in the passage just quoted, “tender grapes” represent young converts. The truth is that all Christians, and especially those who have but little knowledge of the deceitfulness of sin and of the doctrines of Scripture, should be ever on their guard.
But why should we give good heed to little things in the Christian life? It is a fair question; let it be answered. Many things which seem to us little are followed by the greatest consequences. One spark of fire has kindled a flame that burned down a city. A word has often shaped the course of an empire, or determined the destiny of a soul. Until we see the end of a thing, we cannot tell whether it is to be great or small in its effects. On earth we see the end of nothing in moral causes. They are mighty. They take hold on eternity. Their sweep is everlasting. Their effects are much more certain than those of natural causes. They work incessantly. Our greatest rivers have their rise in little springs whose streams are often buried under leaves and shrubs. The causes now at work in forming men’s character seem contemptible to many. But a leak, though not larger than a straw, will sooner or later sink a ship. The smallest opening made by a mole in the bank of a canal, will of itself grow to a waste of all its waters. One weak link in a chain, causes the vessel to drift on the rocks. One of the most heroic deeds ever performed was suggested by the perseverance of the ant. A little white powder or a drop of some poisons is fatal to human life. A scratch has brought on inflammation that ended in death. A glance of the eye has led to crimes that will not be forgotten while eternity endures. A sentence has subverted the labors and schemes of a lifetime. The greater part of human life is made up of acts that do not seem great in themselves, but the whole series completes the character. What is lighter than a word? Yet for every idle word that men shall speak they shall give account to God. What is quicker than thought? Yet as a man thinks in his heart, so is he. As “sands form the mountains, and minutes make the year,” and as syllables compose the web of the greatest speeches, so many comparatively trivial acts determine the character.
One harsh word now, another an hour hence, and so on, will prove a man a churl. A few irreverent words scattered along through a day mark a man as profane. One stealthy act of pilfering proves a man a thief. He who would not be convicted of grand larceny, must avoid petty larceny. He who would not defile his soul with perjury, must shun lying. He who would not be found a liar, must beware of evasiveness. The sum of human character is made up of many apparently small things. Every great stream is fed by many lesser ones.
But what are the “little foxes?” One says they are worldly thoughts. This is true. Another says they are wrong opinions. This is as true. Another, no less wisely, says they are our hidden corruptions, our sinful appetites and passions—which destroy our graces and comforts, quash good motions, and crush good beginnings. When men fear not little sins—they will soon fall into presumptuous iniquities. When they are not conscientious about minor duties, they will soon fail in weightier matters. He who cannot walk well, cannot run well. Envy is the forerunner of murder, and naturally leads to it. Covetousness is the fountain of all theft. As a grain of sand will fret a sound eye and make it weep—so the least sin perceived will tenderly affect a good conscience. We must take and destroy these little foxes by a right use of the word of God. The Scripture is clear. It is pure. By it are all God’s servants warned. We must watch day and night. We must pray frequently and fervently. We must have the Holy Spirit dwelling in us. We must make constant application to the blood of cleansing. Above all, we must be in the fear of the Lord all the day long. Blessed is the man who avoids little sins and minds little duties; in the great events of life he shall not be covered with dishonor. His heart is right. God is with him. Christ will never forsake him. “The fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever.”
Another benefit flowing from the fear of the Lord is freedom from worldly anxiety. In the passage quoted from Habakkuk we saw how wonderfully the fear of God took possession of the prophet. In the words immediately following he gives us, that triumphant song: “Even though the fig trees have no fruit and no grapes grow on the vines, even though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no grain, even though the sheep all die and the cattle stalls are empty, I will still be joyful and glad, because the Lord God is my savior. The Sovereign Lord gives me strength. He makes me sure-footed as a deer and keeps me safe on the mountains.” (Habakkuk 3:17-19)
Thus the greatest degree of holy trembling was followed by the highest degree of freedom from carking care about temporal affairs. All this is according to the promise, “The fear of the Lord leads to life, then contentment; he rests and will not be touched by trouble.” Proverbs 19:23. The fear of God also quiets the afflicted soul, and hushes all its agitations on the bosom of the Eternal. Thus David speaks: “O God, you have rejected us, broken our defenses; you have been angry; oh, restore us. You have made the land to quake; you have torn it open; repair its breaches, for it totters. You have made your people see hard things; you have given us wine to drink that made us stagger. You have set up a banner for those who fear you, that they may flee to it from the bow. (Psalm 60:1-4)
The fear of the Lord also leads to communion with God. This is abundantly taught in Scripture. “The secret of the Lord is with those who fear him; and he will show them his covenant.” Psalm 25:14. Again, “The Lord takes pleasure in those who fear him, in those who hope in his mercy.” Psalm 147:11.
The cultivation of the fear of the Lord is the best means we can use to promote and retain revivals of genuine religion. Thus Luke, describing the state of the early church, says, “Then had the churches rest throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria, and were edified; and walking in the fear of the Lord, and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, were multiplied.” Acts 9:31. On the other hand, if religion be not revived, if the love of many wax cold, and wickedness abound, here is the way to avoid guilt and to please God. The prophet Malachi lived in times of unusual and dreadful apostasy and sin, when men called the proud happy, when they that wrought wickedness were set up, when those who tempted God were even delivered. Yet he says, “Then those who feared the Lord spoke often one to another; and the Lord hearkened, and heard it, and a book of remembrance was written before him for those who feared the Lord, and who thought upon his name. And they shall be mine, says the Lord Almighty, in that day when I make up my jewels; and I will spare them as a man spares his own son that serves him.” Mal. 3:16, 17.
In fine, without the fear of the Lord no service is acceptable, however decent, however costly, however painful. But with the fear of God, any commanded service is pleasing to God, however poor our offering may otherwise be. “Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter—Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.”