The authors–both the human authors and the Spirit who inspired the Scriptures–are not hesitant to speak of the “fear of God.” Whether in Old Testament or New Testament contexts, there is a place to think of the fear of God. It seems that rightly grasping both the idea of the fear of God and living appropriately in the fear of God would be spiritually healthy.
Peter speaks of this idea as he continues to unpack his basic Gospel call found in the first part of his epistle:
If you address as Father the One who impartially judges according to each one’s work, conduct yourselves in fear during the time of your stay on earth; knowing that you were not redeemed with perishable things like silver or gold from your futile way of life inherited from your forefathers, but with precious blood, as of a lamb unblemished and spotless, the blood of Christ. ~ 1 Peter 1:17–19
I have heard these words of Peter’s used to call for a holy fear before God “who . . . judges” because we will all one day stand before Him and be judged for how we lived “during the time of [our] stay on earth.” That idea, surely, would stir a fearful dread in any heart–the hanging-one’s-head-down fear of being the object of God’s displeasure because of the meagerness or sinfulness of our choices and our behavior.
But if this were what Peter had in mind, he would have written something like:
If you address as Father the One who impartially judges according to each one’s work, conduct yourselves in fear during the time of your stay on earth; knowing that you will answer to Him for every word spoken and every deed done–good or bad–and your acceptance before Him will be based on how well you get your act together!
But I am not convinced that is what Peter has in mind. Look back at the earlier part of this chapter. Peter told his readers they are those who had been born again to a living hope through God’s mercy; they had been destined for an imperishable and undefiled inheritance; they were being perpetually kept and guarded by God’s own power to bring them to His intended end for them. Such language hardly leads to the idea: But of course you should be terrified at the prospect of falling under the judgement of God because this salvation you enjoy is only yours provisionally based on your behavior!
Peter does offer a reason why we should conduct ourselves in fear, but the reason is anchored in our past and not in our future. He writes: “Conduct yourselves in fear . . . knowing that you were not redeemed with perishable things like silver or gold from your futile way of life . . . but with precious blood . . . the blood of Christ.”
Those who have been awakened to faith and brought into newness of life have that new life on the basis of God’s redemptive work in and through His Son. We were ransomed–bought with a price, rescued by a death, redeemed through a great sacrifice. It is the realization of the magnitude and undeserved benevolence of the redemption that gives rise to an appropriate, holy fear. This is the fear that trembles at the idea of diminishing or denigrating of this unbelievably great gift. This is a hand-over-my-mouth humble reverence at God’s amazing grace.
Although the word Peter used for “fear” does, at times, carry the sense of dread or terror, there are contexts where that sense is not what is being conveyed. In Matthew 28:8, the women who had gone to visit the tomb of Jesus (which was found to be empty) and who had encountered an angel who announced to them the truth that Jesus had risen “left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy and ran to report it to His disciples.” This was not a fear of terror, but a holy awe of amazement. When Jesus raised a paralyzed man from his bed and sent him out walking, Luke tells us that the people assembled “were all struck with astonishment and began glorifying God; and they were filled with fear, saying, ‘We have never seen remarkable things today'” (Luke 5:26).
This is the “fear” for the redeemed. That humbling reverent deference that trembles at the thought of overlooking the great thing God has done, that recoils at the prospect of in any way diminishing the astonishing and remarkable redemption we have been brought into. We are called to live in the fear of awe, the fear of amazement, the fear of astonishment–this glorious good fear that we have been the recipients of such a great redemption.