Proverbs 1:7 states that “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (knowledge)”. In almost all discussions in church classes about this verse it becomes clear that people have been taught that the word fear means “reverential respect.” I beg to disagree. In Matthew 10:28 Jesus said, “Don’t be afraid of those who want to kill your body; they cannot touch your soul. Fear only God, who can destroy both soul and body in hell”. If the people being addressed were believers, it might be appropriate to use the reverential respect meaning. For an unbeliever, a fear (terror) of a holy God who judges righteously would be the beginning of wisdom. If a person has no fear of ultimate judgment, why would they contemplate salvation? If hell is not a real option, a consequence of not allowing Jesus to be the Lord of one’s life, why worry about an afterlife? The Bible uses the word fear (with reference to God) over 300 times. In quite the majority of those uses, fear means “to be terrified.” The lack of fearing God (according to Romans 3:18) is one of mankind’s chief sins.
For believers, we are told in 1 John 4:18 that “perfect love casts out fear.” How many of us love perfectly? And if fear is just reverential respect, why would perfect love cast it out? William Eisenhower wrote an article for Christianity Today about fearing God. One sentence of his article stands out: “Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, but love from the Lord is its completion.” We are to fear God’s holiness. We get to experience His mercy and grace. I can go boldly into His presence and obtain mercy from Him, not punishment because of my relationship with His Son. I never presume upon it, though. There are times when He withholds complete mercy. Moses is not allowed into the Promised Land. Ananais and Sapphira are struck dead. So is Uzziah. Believers in Corinth also are put in the grave early. Some mercy is still granted – their soul’s security is still guaranteed. Grace is given in that they did not deserve to enter into His presence. I promise you, though, the early church and the Israelites in the desert feared God with more than reverential respect.
It could be that in many churches our people have lost the fear of serving a holy God and that is why the church looks and feels just like the world. It could be the reason so many churches are powerless and have lost their witness. Without a wholesome fear of God, people will not repent of their sins, and repentance is necessary for the remission of sin. I fear God. I don’t serve Him out of fear, I do it out of gratitude for the salvation He has wrought in my heart, but I also fear Him. He is a God who expects holiness and who has high standards of conduct for His people. He also provides His Spirit to direct and guide and empower us to accomplish His will in His way. I believe that we need to teach that it is proper to fear a God who can destroy both body and soul in hell. It will wake up a lost and dying world and keep those awake from presumptuous sins.