A Phobia of Fearing God

Reformation Diaries

A Phobia of Fearing God

June 10 , 2008

by Bo White

The teacher in Ecclesiastes, after a tour of our material existence, writes, “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man” (Eccles. 12:13, ESV). Frankly, this doesn’t seem to be a common theme from pulpits around our country and it certainly isn’t the theme of the worship songs streaming on the contemporary Christian music scene. In fact, the whole idea of fearing God seems to be lost in many respects. The logic goes something like this: God is a loving God and Jesus tells us over and again to not be afraid and when we address God, we should say “Our Father in heaven” (Matt. 6:9). Therefore, let’s talk to God, draw near to God, and even invite God into our “family” meetings where the children of God gather to feel his presence. And while much of this is true, it’s only a half-truth. And half-truths are worth very little.

John Bunyan writes, “The presence of a king is dreadful to his subjects, even if he carries himself ever so condescendingly. If then there is so much glory and dread in the presence of a king, what fear and dread must there be in the presence of an eternal God!”[1] Kings invite their subjects into their presence; the subjects never invite the king. I was in a worship service recently where the pastor began with these words: “We invite you God to come and be here with us.” I couldn’t help but think that instead of proclaiming the beginning of worship, the pastor was actually proclaiming the end of it. Why would I kneel before someone I had the power to invite over to our little church building? What awe is there in a deity that needs an invitation?

The concern churches have of creating a community that is grace-centered and characterized by sincere love has lead to a God who is increasingly more familial than majestic. In a very real sense, we believers seem to be afraid to fear God. Now, I am phobic in my fear of snakes. I don’t like them; and so I run from them because inwardly I feel threatened, insecure, and simply do not want to find out if a specific snake is a friend or foe. There isn’t much logic to it, which is why it’s a phobia. It’s unreasonable for me, in many respects, to fear snakes, simply because most of them can do me no harm. I frankly don’t like them and oftentimes it’s for no good reason.

But God created all things by the power of his word. God sustains all things by his word. At the word of God, every living thing in the universe came into existence. The wind and the waves obey the words of Jesus (see Mark 4). Let the truth of the power of the word of God sink a moment into your mind and heart. You can scream your lungs out at a thunderstorm and that will affect absolutely nothing. But the still small voice of God can make it rain for forty days and forty nights. God is, in a word, awesome.

Bunyan puts it this way, “For if God shall come to you, indeed, and visit you with the forgiveness of sins, that visit will remove the guilt, but increase the sense of your filth—and the sense of this, that God has forgiven a filthy sinner, will make you both rejoice and tremble.”[2] Notice that Bunyan doesn’t leave us with an either/or option. When God forgives us through grace alone on the merit of Christ alone, we indeed rejoice and we also tremble. Jesus is both Son of God and King of Kings. By our union with Christ, we are both adopted children of God as well as servants of the Almighty King. We are not only sons who can rejoice in being near to God, nor are we simply servants who are subjects to a loving King. We are inseparably both sons and servants.

In Luke 15, the famous parable of the Lost Son ends with not only a royal banquet scene but with the prodigal understanding that he longs simply to serve in his loving Father’s house. The tension the follower of Christ lives with then is that through Jesus our sins have been eternally paid for and there is now no sacrifice needed. Jesus paid it all. Yet Jesus invites us to live in a kingdom, not the Democratic Republic of God. We are forgiven and free, but we have no vote. God alone is sovereign.

During the 1770s, lining the streets of Boston were signs that read: “We serve no sovereign here.” My concern is that these same signs unwittingly hang today in some church buildings because there is no awe, no willingness to bow a knee, and no authentic reverence or fear of God. We don’t want a sovereign God who can do whatever he ordains or pleases. We want a serving God who will do whatever we want. And this is revealed with our current obsession, as Christians, to be relevant.

Let’s be clear. Jesus is the exact representation of God (see Heb.1:3), so Jesus is a revelation. So many churches though plead for Jesus to be relevant more than a revelation. And in being relevant, the fear of God is gone. And when the fear of God is missing, then believers will turn to slick marketing, trendy music, and emotional highs rather than to the Jesus who can calm storms and walk out of his own grave. The longer the church strives to become relevant, the longer there is a phobia for fearing God, and the longer the wait will be for renewal and reformation. “You see, all true reformation and genuine spiritual renewal comes from Christ alone. True reformation is not worked up by human effort. The last church in the world to be visited by spiritual renewal will be the church which thinks it can produce it.”[3] After all, if God is sovereign, then he will initiate the movement of his Spirit, not the other way round.

So, yes, on the one hand, let’s draw near to God because “no one has sins forgiven, no one goes to heaven, no one has peace until there is faith in Jesus Christ.”[4] But, on the other hand, let’s be crystal clear: “No one comes to me [Jesus] unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44). The fact that God has drawn us near to him should leave us not only free of all chains with a peace that passes understanding, but also on our knees saying, “I know you love me. What’s next? I am at your service.

Bo White, a graduate of Covenant Theological Seminary, is a teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church in America. He currently attends New Valley Church in Phoenix, Arizona, and is chief messaging officer of Food for the Hungry, an international organization committed to a gospel-centered approach to ending poverty worldwide.

[1] John Bunyan, The Fear of God (Morgan, PA: reprinted by Soli Deo Gloria, 1999), 6.

[2] Bunyan, 9.

[3] Robert Reymond, The God Centered Preacher (Glasgow:  Christian Focus Publications, 2003), 185.

[4] R. Kent Hughes, Sought by Grace (Chicago: Moody, 2002), 78.


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