We get scared and anxious about many things in this life. Maybe you don’t know how you’ll pay the bills. Maybe your son is rebellious, and you’re worried about the state of his soul. Maybe you can’t seem to please those few people. Maybe your loved one is really sick. Maybe Russia will invade Ukraine and start WWIII. The fear and anxiety list gets pretty long when you start thinking about all the threatening possibilities around you. Sometimes we get so scared and anxious about life that we forget to fear God. Scripture teaches that we ought not to fear or grow anxious about the circumstances of our lives but that we ought to fear God. Could the answer to our fear and anxiety in the circumstances of life be connected to our fear of God? I think so.
Consider the uncomplicated words of the Apostle Peter in 1 Peter 2:17, “Fear God.” That’s to the point. Fear God. Peter used the Greek word phobeō which has a range of meanings, but here I think Peter means to revere God, admire God, be in awe of God, and also to be afraid of God like a child is afraid of his loving father’s disfavor and discipline. Perhaps we could call it, as Martin Luther did, a filial fear (not a servile fear) or a fear of transgressing the holiness of our Almighty Father whom we love. North Korea launching missiles is scary, but we need not fear North Korea; we ought to fear our holy Father.
Now, to be clear, fearing God is not contrary to loving God as if fear and love are divisible. You cannot love God without fearing God, and you cannot fear God without loving God, at least not in the way Scripture commands us to love and fear God. Notice how Scripture connects affectionate relationship with God with fearing God. Psalm 25:14 says, “The friendship of the Lord is for those who fear him, and he makes known to them his covenant.” Psalm 33:18–19 says, “Behold, the eye of the Lord is on those who fear him, on those who hope in his steadfast love, that he may deliver their soul from death and keep them alive in famine.” Wow. What comfort we have in fearing God. Psalm 34 promises that those who fear God “have no lack” (v. 9). Psalm 103 is a beautiful song that unites God’s steadfast love and compassion with fearing God:
For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us. As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him. . . . But the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him, and his righteousness to children’s children, to those who keep his covenant and remember to do his commandments. (vv. 11-13, 17)
We must fear God for in fearing God we are assured of His friendship, covenant love, compassion, and Fatherly favor. We ought to fear doing anything that warrants His Fatherly displeasure.
But be careful. Part of a Biblical fear of God is fearing God’s holiness, judgment, wrath, and justice. And this is getting us to the point I want to make. In Luke 12, Jesus provided comfort to his listeners in a counterintuitive way. He began, “I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do” (v. 4). Okay. Physical death can be scary. Having someone kill you is frightening. Jesus knows this, so he comforts his friends. We are not to fear being killed. Why not? Because even if someone hates us by killing us, he cannot separate us from the love of God and eternal life in Christ (Rom. 8:35-39).
Jesus doesn’t want us to fear men or the physical harm men can bring upon us. However, Jesus does want us to fear God. Jesus continued, “But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him” (v. 5)! That’s interesting, isn’t it? Jesus comforted his friends by telling them to fear God who can kill them and cast them into hell. This kind of fear is healthy; Jesus in fact commands it. Fearing God in the right way (filial fear) is the antidote to fearing men. True comfort is found in fearing God.
So I ask you. Considering all the threatening possibilities around you, the things that induce anxiety, with those real fears in mind, do you fear the holiness, righteousness, and judgment of God much more? Do you want to avoid God’s judgment against you? Do you realize how great your sin is and how much you deserve hell? Do you believe that it would be fair, right, and good for God to punish you to the full extent of His holy law? Does the thought of offending God and coming under His condemnation terrify you? I believe that as Christians we ought to answer yes. I think we should fear God in the way Scripture commands. And at the same time, I think we must draw comfort and assurance for our souls that because of Jesus Christ, the true and righteous man who is also true God, we need not fear God’s judgment. In one sense we fear God’s judgment; in another sense, we do not fear God’s judgment. Do you understand?
Brothers and sisters, we have been spared from God’s judgment because of our great mediator and deliverer Jesus Christ. Heidelberg 16 asks, “Why must He be true and righteous man?” It answers:
He must be a true man because the justice of God requires that the same human nature which has sinned should pay for sin. He must be righteous man because one who himself is a sinner cannot pay for others.
You need a mediator, a deliverer, a go-between to represent you because you are a sinner deserving of God’s judgment. And who that mediator and deliverer is for you is all-important. Jesus Christ is true and righteous man and uniquely qualified to save you. No animal can pay for your human sins; a human must pay for them. No sinful human can pay for your sins; only a righteous human can pay for them. Jesus Christ identifies with you in your humanness.
Our comfort is found in the truth that Jesus Christ was “conceived by the Holy Spirit” and “born of the virgin Mary.” Jesus took on Mary’s flesh and is true human. Jesus was conceived by God the Holy Spirit so he does not have a sinful nature and is indeed God himself in human flesh (HC 17). There is no other mediator or deliverer to be found; Jesus alone, the person with a true human and a true divine nature, is your redemption (HC 18).
Dear ones, because you are united to Christ by grace alone through faith alone, Jesus Christ is your mediator. He has reconciled you to God so that you need not fear coming under God’s righteous judgment; instead, you can be at peace in your soul. You are justified. You are counted righteous. You are accepted and loved by God because the merits of Christ alone are imputed to you by true faith. These realities provide you the gospel comfort to rightly fear God and to be much less fearful and anxious about the circumstances around you. If the worst happens in this life, you can endure with strength, comfort, peace, and joy because you have a true and righteous and human and divine mediator and deliverer. Jesus is your human and divine mediator and deliverer in the midst of your fears and anxiety, and that is comfort for your soul.
Quotes from the Heidelberg Catechism are taken from Zacharias Ursinus & Jonathan Shirk, The Heidelberg Catechism (Manheim: Small Town Theologian, 2021).
Scripture quotations are from the ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved. May not copy or download more than 500 consecutive verses of the ESV Bible or more than one half of any book of the ESV Bible.