The Fear of the Lord
by Ray Ortlund
“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom” (Prov. 9:10). If that is so, and it is, then the fear of the Lord is never to be feared. This fear is not a barrier to growth but a breakthrough to growth and eternal fulfillment. But the word fear needs clarification, doesn’t it? After all, doesn’t the Bible say, “Perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18)? Yes. So, there must be two kinds of fear.
One kind of fear is the fear that shrinks from the Lord in dread, that cowers from Him and turns away from Him in terror, as if He were our problem. That kind of fear is pagan, not Christian. It has nothing to do with glorifying and enjoying God. It is suspicion and resentment toward God. The gospel does not create this fear in our hearts. The gospel shows us the glory of God’s grace in Christ, and lifts us up, assured and fearless, to face life boldly as men and women of eternal destiny.
If you are not in Christ, you fear the Lord in all the wrong ways, and you don’t fear Him enough. The Bible tells you that you are facing “a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries” (Heb. 10:27). If you are not in Christ, you are God’s adversary, headed toward judgment, and you fully deserve it. But He is freely offering you Christ as your shelter.
You need shelter for many reasons. Here’s just one: without Christ, you are all you have. Arthur Allen Leff of Yale Law School, a brilliant unbeliever, put it bluntly: “It looks as if we are all we have. Given what we know about ourselves, and each other, this is an extraordinarily unappetizing prospect; looking around the world, it appears that, if all men are brothers, the ruling model is Cain and Abel. Neither reason, nor love, nor even terror, seems to have worked to make us ‘good,’ and worse than that, there is no reason why anything should.” If you are not in Christ, you are all you have. That is something to fear. But Christ is a shelter for people who are in deeper trouble than they even know. Turn to Him. Turn to Him now. He will receive you.
Here is the other kind of fear: “The fear of the Lord [as] the beginning of wisdom” (Prov. 9:10). This is a new attitude of openness to God, created by His love. If you are in Christ, His perfect love is casting out your fear of judgment. The Bible says, “Fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:18-19). The punishment fell on our Substitute at the cross. We have received Him with the empty hands of faith. We are under God’s love now. The gospel frees us from the fear that God will, in the end, condemn us anyway. Nothing will ever separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom. 8:38–39).
We believe that, and we love Him.
So, we fear the Lord in a new way. We fear that we might grieve the One who loves us so. This wholesome fear, the Bible says, is a teachable humility (Prov. 15:33). It is total openness to doing God’s will (Gen. 22:12). It is repentance, turning away from evil (Job 28:28). It translates into simple, practical obedience to God’s Word.
The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man (Eccl. 12:13).
The fear of the Lord is another way of describing trust in the Lord. But the word fear adds connotations of reverence and awe. The fear of the Lord is the opposite of a glib shallowness. This humility doesn’t mind total dependence on the Lord. In fact, the fear of the Lord is psychologically compatible with “the comfort of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 9:31). It is a new sense of reality with the living God (Acts 2:43; 5:11; 19:17), rescuing us from a merely theoretical faith. This fear is sweet, keeping us close to the Lord.
The fear of the Lord gains in appeal as we agree with C.S. Lewis that “in God you come up against something which is in every respect immeasurably superior to yourself.” If we think we can live a single day of our lives without staying low before the Lord, yielding to His superior wisdom and drawing upon His endless provision moment by moment, we are deceiving ourselves, no matter how brilliant we may be.
But as soon as we accept that we are not the measure but the measured, we are not the givers but the recipients, and that Jesus Christ is the universe’s greatest expert in all things human, we embark on a wonderful new journey. We are free to grow and change.
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of this wisdom.