My flesh trembleth for fear of thee; and I am afraid of thy judgments (Psalm 119:120).Wherefore, my beloved, as ye have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12).There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear: because fear hath torment. He that feareth is not made perfect in love (I John 4:18).
The question sent in to us in connection with these texts is: How do we harmonize these verses with respect to "fear?"
The question arises out of the fact that the Scriptures in these passages (and many more could be added) seem to speak of fear in a contradictory way. Paul tells the Philippians to work out their salvation with fear, but John insists there is no fear in love, that, in fact, perfect love casts out fear, and that fear is torment. On the one hand, the believer is urged to fear it; on the other hand he is warned against fear.
Both the Hebrew and the Greek use an identical word for "fear," although it has two distinct meanings in Scripture. (I ought to mention in parentheses that the Hebrew has many different words for "fear," but the word most frequently used has the same two meanings as the Greek.)
One meaning is "dread" or "terror." This is the way it is most commonly used among us. If I fear something, I am in terror of it.
The other meaning can best be translated by words such as "reverence, respect, and awe." I myself prefer the word "awe" and think this meaning comes closest to the Biblical idea.
In Psalm 119:120 the Scriptures are clear on the fact that the term means "terror" or "dread." That this is true is clear first of all from the fact that the Psalmist sings of his "flesh" trembling for fear. Our flesh is our nature from the viewpoint of the sin and weakness which characterizes it. That our flesh should tremble for fear of God is understandable because God is a holy and righteous God who hates sin and punishes it severely in this life and in the life to come. Our flesh dreads God!
But, in the second place, it is clear that Psalm 119:120 means dread because the verse is an example of Hebrew parallelism in which the first and second parts of the verse explain each other. The second part reads, "I am afraid of thy judgments." One can easily see how the two parts develop each other more fully.
In the NT the same idea is found in I John 4:18. When the apostle speaks here of love, he refers to God’s love for us, not our love for God. If we know the love of God for us, we need never be afraid of Him. Nor can we be afraid of Him. How can we dread coming into the presence of one who loves us? Love casts out fear. If, on the other hand, we do not know the love of God, then we are afraid of Him because we are, in ourselves, sinners who will surely receive our just punishment for sin. Fear torments us for the fires of hell lick about our feet even while we are here in the world, only to consume us after death. But when the love of God, revealed in the cross of Jesus Christ, is shed abroad within our hearts, then that love casts out fear.
But Philippians 2:12 speaks of fear as a necessary virtue in the working out of our salvation because he refers to fear as reverence or awe. Both words (reverence and awe) fit beautifully here. We work out the salvation God has graciously given to us. We do this with reverence because we do this before God’s face as an act of worship of the Most High. And we work out our salvation with awe because we are filled with awe at the greatness of our God who has given us such a glorious salvation.
Because Scripture uses the same word with such diverse meanings, there must be a relationship between the two meanings. I find this relationship to lie in the following ideas.
Because we know that we justly deserve God’s most terrible judgments and punishments for our sin, we stand before Him in reverence and awe. We marvel that He has, out of mere grace and without any merit on our part, made us the objects of His love and given us Christ, His own Son, to make us His people. As we ponder what blessings are ours because of His love, that reverence and awe increase.
If we should be involved in a plot to kill the queen, only to be caught and found guilty, we would be filled with terror as we are dragged into her presence; but if our queen not only pardoned us but also made us an heir to the throne, we would be in awe of such unmerited kindness and we would be unable to speak of the queen with anything but reverence. God has done infinitely greater than that for us.
The second relation between the two meanings of the term is this: Even when saved from our sins and in awe at the greatness of God’s mercy towards us, a certain dread remains in our hearts. Even saints, when confronted with God’s holiness felt a certain terror (cf. Isa. 6). That terror properly manifests itself in reverence and awe. Fear is, therefore, to be so afraid of offending God by our sins, after He has done so much for us, that we are careful to obey Him in all we do. This is why "the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom." Thus we "do his commandments" and sing his "praise" (Ps. 111:10).
- Volume: 9
- Issue: 3
Prof. Herman Hanko (Wife: Wilma)
Ordained: October 1955
Pastorates: Hope, Walker, MI - 1955; Doon, IA - 1963; Professor to the Protestant Reformed Seminary - 1965
Emeritus: 2001Website: www.sermonaudio.com/search.asp?speakeronly=true&currsection=sermonsspeaker&keyword=Prof._Herman_Hanko
Address725 Baldwin Dr. B-25
State or ProvinceMI