First John 4:18 is a beautiful passage. Speaking of the Day of the Lord, John writes: ‘There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.’ By themselves, John’s words capture an important truth: for those who have trusted Christ, there is confidence to approach God with boldness (Heb 4:14-16); we are no longer mean servants, we are cherished friends (John 15:15) and beloved children (Gal 4:4-6).
However, like with every verse in the Bible, when 1 John 4:18 is taken as the singular and definitive word on fear, it necessarily misrepresents the whole counsel of God. God has far more to say to us about fear, love, and worship than that God’s love merely casts out fear. Let me suggest four truths about the fear of the Lord.
First, the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.
As Proverbs 1:7 indicates, wisdom begins when we fear God. But what does that mean? A brief survey of the idea shows how the man who fears the Lord serves him (Deut 6:13; 10:20), obeys his commandments (Deut 31:13), stands in awe of him (Ps 33:8), hates evil (Prov 8:13), and sacrifices his treasures for him (Gen 22:12). Additionally, those who fear the Lord love the word of God, which is even called the “fear of God” (Ps 19:9).
Second, the fear of the Lord combines a dreadful terror with a delivered gratefulness.
Just as God’s character is kind and severe (Rom 11:22), just and gracious (Exod 34:6–7), so too the fear of the Lord unites terror at God’s right to destroy sinners while concurrently rejoicing in God’s gracious deliverance. To put it graphically (and crudely): the Fear of the Lord = Dreadful Fear + Delivered Gratitude.
In action, the sailors in Jonah 1 illustrate how terror and dread coupled with God’s gracious salvation results in a holy fear that honors God. When God’s terrible storm threatens to kill these men, they are “terrified” (v. 10). Yet, after God saves them, verse 16 says, “they feared the LORD exceedingly, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows.” While the story is silent about the sailor’s “salvation,” the movement from terror to godly fear by means of ‘saving’ grace does portray the fear of the Lord. Just the same, all those who know the Lord know that grace does not eliminate fear, it purifies it and employs it in service to our beloved Lord.
Third, the fear of the Lord is a New Testament idea.
While the majority of references to fearing the Lord occur in the OT, the NT also speaks of fearing the Lord. For instance, Paul encourages servants to obey their masters because of their fear of the Lord (Col 3:23). In a parallel passage, he says that Christians ought to submit one to another out of fear for Christ (Eph 5:21). Moreover, Christ tells us to jettison the fear of man by fearing God more (Matt 10:28); and Paul explains that he evangelizes because of a great fear for the Lord (2 Cor 5:11).
It is in this NT context, that we must read 1 John 4:18. While the Christian should not fear the world and the devil, the opinions of others (Gal 1:10), even death itself, we should have a genuine fear of the Lord.
Fourth, the fear of the Lord is a New Covenant gift.
While both testaments speak of fearing the Lord, there is a significant difference. Under the old covenant, fearing the Lord was a command of the Law. All the blessings were premised on Israel’s ability to fear God (see Ps 25:14; 115:3; Prov 19:23). However, in the new covenant, God gives what he demands. Listen to the promise of Jeremiah 32:40: “I will make with them an everlasting covenant, that I will not turn away from doing good to them. And I will put the fear of me in their hearts, that they may not turn from me.”
In the new covenant, God gives his people hearts to fear the Lord. He secures for his people all the promises Israel missed because of their inability to fear the Lord. Hence, the fear of the Lord is not something relegated to the OT, it is the mark of every Christian.
In Christ, new covenant believers will not live a life of worry and dread—that is the point of 1 John 4:18. Rather, fearing the Lord, we strive to worship, obey, and serve our God for fear of grieving the one whom we love (Eph 4:30). In other words, what God commanded Israel to do, we are now able to do because of God’s Spirit. As Deuteronomy 10:12 says, “What does the LORD your God require of you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul.”
In the end, we must say with John that God’s love casts out fear because God in his love plants fear for him in our hearts. Wonderfully, when we fear God, we have nothing else to fear (Exod 20:20). In this way fear is not something we should escape or mitigate; rather, by the Spirit we should press into the word of God to fear him, love him, obey him, and worship him with confident fear and trembling confidence.
On this Lord’s day, let us marvel at God’s fatherly love and fear him as our holy Lord.
Soli Deo Gloria, dss