Introduction

Perhaps you’ve heard, as I have, that to fear God means we’re to be in awe of God and reverence him.  Certainly we should be in awe of God and reverence him.  But is that what Scripture means when it says to fear him? 

Examining the issue, “Should Christians Fear God?,” is not beating the wind – a futile exercise without purpose.  Instead, for many it may be a watershed issue in their Christian lives.  Because many teachings and doctrines within our churches today portray God only as all loving, many assume there is no reason to fear Him.  

For example, it has been said in my presence on multiple occasions that, “There is nothing we can do that will cause God to love us less and nothing we can do to cause God to love us more.”  If that statement is true, it would seem fruitless to investigate whether the Christian should fear God.  The answer would be, “Of course not.  God loves us no matter what.” 

But, what if that is not so?  What if the idea that “God loves us no matter what” is entirely wrong and unscriptural?   What if sinful, disobedient behavior will cause people to be cast forever into the lake of fire?  Perhaps then we should consider carefully what it means to fear God. 

First let us examine the question of whether anything we can do will cause God to love us more or to love us less. 

Can We Cause God To Love Us Less?

One of the best known verses in all Christendom is John 3:16:  “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”[1]  In that verse Jesus revealed to us God’s great love that caused him to give his only begotten son so that all those who believe in him can have eternal life. 

But, only 20 verses later at John 3:36 we read, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him.” 

There does seem to be something we can do that will cause God to love us less.  If we reject his Son, his wrath remains on us.  Doesn’t that sound as if his love is less than if we had not rejected his Son? 

In John 3:16 we read of God’s great love; in John 3:36 we read of God’s wrath.  Did you notice something special about God’s wrath in verse 36?  It says it “remains on him.”  That sounds like God’s wrath was on each of us at the outset of our lives (or after we came to an age of accountability), and God’s wrath is only removed from those who believe in his Son.  

Paul corroborates that truth: 

As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, 2 in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient.  3 All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath (Ephesians 2:1). 

Pre-Christ we were all by nature objects of God’s wrath.  Trhere is something we can do which will cause God to love us less.  We can reject his Son. 

God Loves and God Hates

For those who only think that God loves everyone, they would do well to study Scripture more care-fully.  Does Scripture say God that loves everyone?  Does God hate anyone?  Consider Psalm 5:4-6: 

4 You are not a God who takes pleasure in evil; with you the wicked cannot dwell. 

5 The arrogant cannot stand in your presence; you hate all who do wrong.

6 You destroy those who tell lies; bloodthirsty and deceitful men the LORD abhors.  

God hates all who do wrong.  Notice here that it is the people who do wrong that God hates.  “God hates the sin, but loves the sinner,” is a saying many Christians fondly quote today, but it cannot be supported by Scripture.  Following are additional examples. 

Even when speaking of Israel, whom God loved by reason of the patriarchs, consider what God said to them: 

“Because of all their wickedness in Gilgal, I hated them there.

Because of their sinful deeds, I will drive them out of my house.

I will no longer love them; all their leaders are rebellious (Hosea 15:9). 

Apparently the Israelites were able to cause God to love them less because of their wickedness.  God said, “I will no longer love them.”  It is because of their wickedness that God hates certain men.  Scripture reinforces that again: 

The LORD examines the righteous, but the wicked and those who love violence his soul hates (Psalm 11:5). 

Again, God is specifying people that his soul hates.  Consistent with the rest of Scripture, he reveals what will happen to those who are wicked and those who are righteous: 

On the wicked he will rain fiery coals and burning sulfur; a scorching wind will be their lot (Psalm 11:6).

Isn’t that a description of hell?  Isn’t the following a description of heaven?

For the LORD is righteous, he loves justice; upright men will see his face (Psalm 11:7). 

Why does our righteous God hate all who do wrong?  God hates sin and wickedness.   Psalm 45:7 tells us about God:  “You love righteousness and hate wickedness.”  And Psalm 101:3-4 states:  “The deeds of faithless men I hate; they will not cling to me.  Men of perverse heart shall be far from me; I will have nothing to do with evil.”  Proverbs 8:13 confirms God’s attitude:  “I hate pride and arrogance, evil behavior and perverse speech

Scripture provides us the perfect example.  Paul wrote about God’s attitude toward Esau and Jacob:

 Yet, before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad—in order that God’s purpose in election might stand:  12 not by works but by him who calls—she was told, “The older will serve the younger.”  13 Just as it is written: “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated” (Romans 9:11-13.  See also Malachi 1:2-3).

How could God love Jacob and hate Esau before the twins were born, before they had done anything to incur God’s wrath or love?  That is answered by Peter:  “To God’s elect, strangers in the world, . . . 2 who have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father” (1 Peter 1:1-2).  We know that though Jacob began as a scheming fellow, he became a godly man who wrestled with God, whose name was changed to Israel, and who is the father of the Israelites.  God foreknew what Jacob would become and loved him.  On the other hand, Esau spurned his birthright, selling it to Jacob for a bowl of porridge when he was hungry.  Esau became a man who had no relationship with God (at least Scripture records no positive action or relationship on his part).  In God’s foreknowledge, he hated Esau before he was born, knowing that he would reject his God-given birthright and become a godless man.

If we are to abide in what Scripture says, we find the saying faulty that God loves us no matter what we do.  Instead of God loving us no matter what we do, God hates all who are wicked and his wrath remains on those who reject his Son!

Can We Cause God To Love Us More?

Now let’s look at the other side of that statement.  Is there something we can do which will cause God to love us, or to love us more? 

Let’s look first at an Old Testament truth: 

God loves those who love him (Proverbs 8:17). 

What did it mean to “love” God in the Old Testament era?  That is answered in a footnote in the New International Study Bible to Exodus 20:6: 

In the treaty language of the ancient Near East the “love” owed to the great king was a conventional term for total allegiance and implicit trust expressing itself in obedient service. 

Let’s examine Jesus’ teachings at John 14:21 to see the New Testament equivalent of that.  There Jesus said:  “Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me. He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love him and show myself to him.”   

From that it would appear that if we have Jesus’ commands and obey them, we are those who love Jesus.  If we love Jesus, God the Father will love us and Jesus also will love us.  Thus, loving and obeying Jesus is something that will cause God to love us (or to love us more).  The verse does not say “more”.  It only says God and Jesus will love those who love Jesus – those who have Jesus’ commands and obey them. 

By implication the verse also says that those who do not love Jesus and obey his commands are not loved by God the Father and Jesus.  We can rightly assume that anyone who truly believes in Jesus loves him.  Those who do not love Jesus do not believe in him; they reject him.  We’ve seen that God’s wrath remains on such people.  Further, such people will be those who do wrong – the worst wrong is rejecting Jesus; God hates all who do wrong. 

Lest anyone claim John 14:21 is an aberration, not corroborated elsewhere, Jesus explained it again in verses 23 and 24: 

Jesus replied, “If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.  He who does not love me will not obey my teaching. These words you hear are not my own; they belong to the Father who sent me. 

In verse 23, Jesus first states what will occur if we truly love him – we will obey his teaching.  Then he states that God the Father will love those who love and obey him.  Then Jesus adds another essential ingredient of salvation:  For those who love and obey his teaching, “we (God the Father and Jesus) will come to him and make our home with him.”  How do they do that?  It is through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit that occurs in all true believers. 

Jesus corroborated the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in John 14:15-17:  

“If you love me, you will obey what I command.  And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever —the Spirit of truth

Again Jesus corroborates the connection between loving him and obedience.  If we love him we will obey what he commands.  If we do, he will respond by asking the Father to give us the Holy Spirit.  That is when we become “born again.”  That is also when God loves us and becomes our Father (see Matthew 23:9). 

All this is part of the mystery of salvation.  For those who love and obey Jesus, they are given the Holy Spirit.  Can we have salvation unless we are indwelled by the Holy Spirit and are born again?  Paul taught us, “ . . . if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ” (Romans 8:9).   When someone receives the Holy Spirit, he is born again (of God and God becomes his Father).  Jesus told Nicodemus, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again” (John 3:3). 

It is overwhelmingly clear, isn’t it?  If we believe in Jesus, we will love him.  If we love Jesus, we will obey him.  Then we have done that which causes God to love us!  Then God will give us the Holy Spirit through whom he and Jesus will come and dwell with us and God becomes our Father. 

What Does Scripture Say About Fearing God?

Having proved the falsity of the statement that there is nothing we can do to cause God to love us more and nothing we can do to have him love us less, we are now prepared to examine what it means to “fear” God. 

At Isaiah 8:13-14, God spoke to Isaiah saying, 

“The LORD Almighty is the one you are to regard as holy, he is the one you are to fear, he is the one you are to dread, and he will be a sanctuary; but for both houses of Israel he will be a stone that causes men to stumble and a rock that makes them fall.” 

That sounds like a lot more than just reverence and awe, doesn’t it?  There is something about the word “dread” that almost makes me shudder.  It would appear from the statement that our fear and dread of God may arise from regarding him as holy. 

As one would expect, if this is an important subject Jesus would speak to it.  He did and clearly answered our question.  He said: 

“I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more.  But I will show you whom you should fear:  Fear him who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into hell.  Yes, I tell you, fear him (Luke 12:4-5). 

Would a person normally be afraid of someone who would kill us?  Likely so.  It is the most natural emotion, probably instilled in us by God to promote our survival.  At the most basic level such fear would cause us to run or fight.  But Jesus said not to be afraid of those who kill the body.  Jesus said to fear someone far greater, someone who has the power to throw us into hell.  He emphasized it, saying, “Yes, I tell you, fear him.” 

Who is it that has the power to throw us into hell?  It is only God.  For those without a saving faith, that will happen at the great white throne judgment: 

Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. Earth and sky fled from his presence, and there was no place for them.  12 And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books.  13 The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what he had done.  14 Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death.  15 If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire (Revelation 20:11). 

Isn’t it strange that so many people seem to have it backwards?  They seem fearful of those who will kill the body, but seem to have no fear of God. 

Ultimately we are raised to eternal life or condemned to hell because of our faith or our unbelief.  Paul warned the Gentiles of the need to persevere in the faith, using the examples of the Jews who had been broken off because of unbelief.  He warned that the same could happen to them: 

You will say then, “Branches were broken off so that I could be grafted in.” Granted. But they were broken off because of unbelief, and you stand by faith.  Do not be arrogant, but be afraid.   For if God did not spare the natural branches, he will not spare you either (Romans 11:19-21). 

In an age of false doctrines and false claims about salvation, Paul warned the Philippian believers: 

Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, . . . (Philippians 2:12). 

Why would they work out their salvation with fear and trembling?  If they were careless, if they did not obey the true gospel, they could have believed in vain (see 1 Corinthians 15:1-2) and be condemned to hell.  Today, with the proliferation of false doctrines, wouldn’t there be an even greater need for us to approach our salvation with fear and trembling?

Judged According to What We Have Done

There seems to be a pervasive doctrine in western Christianity that anything beyond simple faith in Jesus as Savior is legalism.  People have told me that teaching obedience to the teachings and commands of Jesus is adding to the finished work of Jesus on the cross, or is legalism, or is a gospel of faith plus works.  Likewise, others have stretched the concept so far as to claim it is legalism to teach that Jesus must be one’s Lord in order to have salvation.  

At the great white throne judgment mentioned above in Revelation 20, verse 12 says books were opened.  Then it says, “The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books.”  As if to make sure the point was not overlooked, in verse 13 the Apostle John again stated, “ . . . each person was judged according to what he had done.” 

Is this a surprise to you?  Are you one who has been taught that we are saved by grace, through faith, and not of works, lest any man should boast (Ephesians 2:8-9), and as a result you believe that what you do, if anything, would be “works” and that those who speak of obedience and/or works associated with salvation are preaching a false gospel?   Do you remember Ephesians 2:10?  “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”  

When true believers are judged, their reward will also be based on their conduct and actions.  Jesus taught:  For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what he has done” (Matthew 16:27).  Later Jesus revealed to John, “Behold, I am coming soon!  My reward is with me, and I will give to everyone according to what he has done” (Revelation 22:12).  Paul taught:  “The man who plants and the man who waters have one purpose, and each will be rewarded according to his own labor” (1 Corinthians 3:8). 

That same Paul taught: 

6 God “will give to each person according to what he has done.”  7 To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life.  8 But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger.  9 There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile; 10 but glory, honor and peace for everyone who does good: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile.  11 For God does not show favoritism (Romans 2:6-11). 

In verse 6 we see again that God will judge us according to what we have done.  But verse 7 seems even more radical:  “To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life.”  Wow!  Doesn’t that sound like “salvation by works?”  Yes, it sounds like that because Paul is referring to what they did.  But it is NOT salvation by works as we shall later see. 

Paul continued in verse 8:  “But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger.”  In verse 9, “trouble and distress for every human being who does evil . . . glory, honor and peace for everyone who does good.”  These also refer to works, don’t they?  But self-seeking, rejecting truth, following evil, and doing evil are negative works that, according to Paul, will earn God’s condemnation and judgment for those who practice them.  Did you notice the inclusiveness in verse 9?  It says “for every human being.”  Does that exclude those who profess faith?  

Paul makes the point again in Romans 8:12-14, giving us more insight into what “according to what he has done” may mean. 

12 Therefore, brothers, we have an obligation—but it is not to the sinful nature, to live according to it.  13 For if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live, 14 because those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. 

Paul assures us that if at the judgment “according to what one has done” one is judged to have been living according the sinful nature, that person will die [be condemned by God], but if one has been living according to the Spirit that person will live [have eternal life].  

You may be saying, “Surely this does not pertain to Christians or the church!”  Sadly, it does pertain to professing Christians.  Paul was writing to the Christians in Rome.  Likewise, consider Jesus’ warning to the Church at Thyatira: 

20 Nevertheless, I have this against you: You tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess. By her teaching she misleads my servants into sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols.  21 I have given her time to repent of her immorality, but she is unwilling.  22 So I will cast her on a bed of suffering, and I will make those who commit adultery with her suffer intensely, unless they repent of her ways.  23 I will strike her children dead. Then all the churches will know that I am he who searches hearts and minds, and I will repay each of you according to your deeds (Revelation 2:20-23).  

Jesus makes plain that those who follow Jezebel, who commit adultery with her, and are her “children,” will be repaid according to their evil deeds. 

Paul gave us insight into what the people Jesus purified for himself are eager to do: 

[Jesus]; who gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself a people for His own possession, zealous for good deeds (Titus 2:14, NAS).

Incredible, isn’t it, that purported Christians claim we should not try to be obedient or do good deeds as that is faith + works, adding to the finished work of Christ on the cross, and/or legalism.  Yet Jesus seeks a people for His own possession who are zealous for good deeds

As we have seen, good works are desired by God.  What if obedience and good works are essential evidence of a saving faith?  Who, do you suppose, would be trying to undermine God’s requirements for salvation – a living faith evidenced by obedience and good works?   Who are the people serving who claim obedience and good works are legalism, faith + works, or adding to the finished work of Christ on the cross?  It surely isn’t the Lord, is it?

If Jesus is seeking people zealous for good deeds, then to whom do the people belong who decry good deeds?  James says:  “Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins” (James 4:16).  It would appear that those people who are claiming that Christians shouldn’t seek to either obey or do good works are causing others to sin – by not doing the good they ought to do!  

It is inescapable that these teachings pertain to Christians.  All who are true believers are subject to the teachings and commands of Jesus, as He Himself declared (see Matt. 28:20).  Can it be otherwise, that the very church of which the Lord Jesus is the head should not be subject to his teachings and commands?  We will be repaid one day according to our deeds. 

Even in the Old Testament, God’s rule was the same:  “‘I the LORD have spoken.  The time has come for me to act.  I will not hold back; I will not have pity, nor will I relent.  You will be judged according to your conduct and your actions, declares the Sovereign LORD’” (Ezekiel 24:14).

The Sheep and the Goats!

Jesus told a parable which illustrates in part what we have been talking about – judgment and reward according to one’s deeds.  Consider Jesus’ words at Matthew 25:31-46: 

31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory.  32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.  33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.  35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink?  38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you?  39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

40 “The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’

41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.  42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink,  43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

45 “He will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” 

This parable speaks of what was done and what was not done.  It leaves little to the imagination or to speculation.  The righteous, those who did the acts of kindness to their brothers, were obedient to Jesus’ command to love one another, and were blessed by God the Father, given their inheritance and entrance into the Lord’s Kingdom. 

But those who were disobedient, who did not do those acts demonstrating their love for one another as commanded by Jesus, were cursed and delivered to the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 

Note that the people condemned were not said to be evildoers in the sense of living after the flesh in sexual immorality, impurity, idolatry, witchcraft, etc.  They were evildoers, however, in that they were disobedient to Jesus’ teaching to love one another as he loved them.  Again we see the application of James’ teaching:  “Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins” (James 4:16).  

Note also that not once in that parable is the word “faith” found.  Does that mean that Jesus himself taught “another Gospel,” one of works and not faith?  Of course not!  Let’s consider that issue next.

By Grace, Through Faith

If we are saved by grace, through faith, why would our salvation be judged “according to what we have done” (or not done, as in the preceding parable)?   Is it possible to reconcile being judged according to what we have done – our conduct and actions – and being saved by grace through faith? 

Yes, it is perfectly possible, but much of the church seems to have lost its way at this very point.  The problem lies in the popular definition of the word “faith.”  Some churches seem to claim that saving faith is only mental assent – agreement that Jesus lived, died, and rose again from the dead.  Some claim that if we accept or receive or believe in Jesus as Savior we will have eternal life.  Others claim that if one believes that Jesus died on the cross for one’s sins that is sufficient for salvation.  Still others think that if we strongly believe that Jesus exists, that is sufficient faith.  None of those claims are found in Scripture.  

Scripture says a saving faith is much more.  As we have seen earlier, we saw that God and Jesus love those who love Jesus (John 14:21, 23).  Those who love Jesus obey his teachings and commands (John 14:15, 21, 23).  Jesus asks the Father to give those who love him and who commit to obey his teachings and commands (at the moment of true salvation) the Holy Spirit, and they are born again (John 14:16).  Scripture requires those who would be saved to receive Jesus as their Lord (see Romans 10:9-10, 13, Acts 16:31, Acts 20:21, 2 Corinthians 4:5, 1 Peter 3:15, Colossians 2:6-7, Acts 10:36, Acts 5:14, 9:42, 11:21, 16:15, 18:8).  Obedience to Jesus’ teachings and commands is the natural and necessary evidence of our love for him as we receive him as our Lord (see Romans 1:5, 16:26, 1 John 5:3, Luke 6:46, John 14:15, 21, 23, Hebrews 5:9, Matthew 28:20).   

A saving faith is faith in Christ Jesus as our LORD, which is proved by our obedience to his teachings and commands, by the evidence of the fruit of the Spirit in our lives, and by doing those works that God prepared in advance for us to do.

What We Do is Evidence of What We Believe

We will be judged according to what we have done because what we have done shows what we really believe.  Jesus said this about love for him:  “If you love me, you will obey me” (John 14:15).  Obedience is the evidence of our love.  The Apostle John gave us two examples of obedience as evidence of love:   

This is how we know that we love the children of God: by loving God and carrying out his commands.  This is love for God: to obey his commands (1 John 5:2-3). 

The evidence of loving the children of God is loving God and carrying out his commands.  The evidence of love for God is obedience to his commands. 

James said the same about deeds being the evidence of faith: 

14 What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him?  15 Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food.  16 If one of you says to him, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it?  17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead (James 2:14-17). 

According to James, deeds are the evidence of a living faith.  Faith by itself – just professed faith – without deeds is dead.   That is exactly what the parable of the sheep and the goats showed.  The people condemned apparently believed they would be saved but they had no evidence of having believed.  They had not shown love to one another as Jesus commanded. 

Those people that are taught that there must not be deeds (or works or obedience) for fear they will be adding works to faith or that they will be practicing legalism have been taught a dead faith.  James concludes:  “Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do” (James 2:18).  What I do proves what I believe.  

This principle has been true throughout Scripture.  Abraham is called the father of those who have faith.  God promised Abraham he would have countless descendants through Isaac. Nevertheless, God commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac, as an offering to the Lord.  The next morning Abraham left to obey God – to sacrifice his son Isaac.  Abraham displayed his faith to his servants as he and Isaac left them to go up the mountain when he said, “We will worship and then we will come back to you” (Genesis 22:4).  As you know from the story, Abraham built an altar, arranged the wood on it, bound Isaac and laid him on the altar.  When Abraham raised the knife to kill Isaac God intervened by saying:  “Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him.  Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son” (Genesis 22:12).  Abraham proved (gave evidence of) his faith in God by his obedience to God’s command to sacrifice Isaac.  God said he knew Abraham feared him because of his act of obedience.  

Salvation by grace, through faith (Ephesians 2:8), is reconciled with obedience (Matthew 7:21), fruit (John 15:1-8) and works (Ephesians 2:10).  Obedience, fruit and works are the evidence of a living, saving faith.  We are saved by grace through a faith that works. 

Paul corroborated that as he began his letter to the Romans:  “Through him and for his name’s sake, we received grace and apostleship to call people from among all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith” (Romans 1:5).

Why Should We Fear God?

Paul gave us a principal reason to fear God: 

10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad. 11 Since, then, we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade men (2 Corinthians 5:10-11). 

It is because God is righteous and holy that we should fear God.  Jesus emphasized God’s power to punish as the reason to fear God: “Fear him who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into hell” (Luke 12:5).  We should fear God because of the punishment that will result from God’s righteous judgment.  It is almost impossible for the mind to conceive of the horror of an eternity in hell.  That is the judgment that awaits the evildoer. 

Note that Paul included himself – “we all must appear.”  Again he said, “that each one may receive what is due him.”  Are there still professing Christians who think that because of their claim of faith they will be excluded from that judgment seat of Christ? 

Scripture says much more about why we should fear God.  Many of us are likely familiar with the proverb:  “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding” (Proverbs 9:10).  Isn’t it becoming obvious why fear of a righteous God is the beginning of wisdom?   In God’s discourse with Job, God said:  “The fear of the Lord—that is wisdom, and to shun evil is understanding” (Job 28:28). 

Because doing evil invokes God’s wrath and righteous judgment, consider the purpose of fearing God from the following verses:  Through love and faithfulness sin is atoned for; through the fear of the LORD a man avoids evil (Proverbs 16:6).  Moses taught the same lesson:  “Do not be afraid. God has come to test you, so that the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning” (Exodus 20:20).  Paul taught, “Therefore, having these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all defilement of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God” (2 Corinthians 7:1, NAS).  

Salvation was also linked to fearing God:  The fear of the LORD is a fountain of life, turning a man from the snares of death (Proverbs 14:27).  The fear of the Lord leads to life, so that one may sleep satisfied, untouched by evil (Proverbs 19:23, NAS).   

The prophet Isaiah told us the key to receiving blessings from God: 

The LORD is exalted, for he dwells on high; he will fill Zion with justice and righteousness.  He will be the sure foundation for your times, a rich store of salvation and wisdom and knowledge; the fear of the LORD is the key to this treasure (Isaiah 33:5-6). 

In Ecclesiastes Solomon recited over and over his conclusion that everything is meaningless.  He was a man who had the wealth and opportunity to sample everything.  His conclusion was: 

Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter:  Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.  For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14). 

Solomon also told us how to seek to understand the fear of the Lord: 

My son, if you accept my words and store up my commands within you, turning your ear to wisdom and applying your heart to understanding, and if you call out for insight and cry aloud for understanding, and if you look for it as for silver and search for it as for hidden treasure, then you will understand the fear of the LORD and find the knowledge of God (Proverbs 2:1-5). 

Solomon taught us there are physical benefits to those who fear the Lord: 

Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the LORD and shun evil.  This will bring health to your body and nourishment to your bones (Proverbs 3:7). 

The fear of the Lord prolongs life, but the years of the wicked will be shortened (Proverbs 10:27, NAS). 

Finally Solomon gives us a warning, a command, and a promise:

   Do not let your heart envy sinners, but live in the fear    of the Lord always

Surely there is a future, and your hope will not be cut off (Proverbs 23:17-18, NAS).

King David Taught the Fear of the Lord 

Come, my children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the LORD.  Whoever of you loves life and desires to see many good days, keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking lies.  Turn from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it (Psalm 34:11-14).   

David tells us how to fear the Lord.  Note that he expresses it in terms of what we do!  He enjoins us to keep our tongue from evil, to turn from evil, to not speak lies, but rather to do good, to seek peace and pursue it.  David continues: 

The eyes of the LORD are on the righteous and his ears are attentive to their cry; the face of the LORD is against those who do evil, to cut off the memory of them from the earth (Psalm 34:15-16). 

Again we see contrasted the righteous and those who do evil.  The righteous are blessed of God and he is attentive to their cry.  They need not fear God’s wrath.  Not so the evildoers; God is against them.

What Evil Actions Cause God’s Wrath and Judgment?

We’ve seen that all people, Christian and non-Christian, will be judged according to what they have done.  Because God, in his wrath, will throw evildoers into hell – the lake of fire, we should carefully examine what causes God’s wrath against mankind. 

For this subject we will examine principally the writings of the Apostle Paul who wrote extensively on human behavior that invokes God’s wrath.  He said at Romans 1:18-19: 

The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them.

Here Paul speaks about the wrath of God against godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness.  This includes rejecting the Son (see John 3:36). 

At Romans 2:5, Paul states:  “But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed. 

Paul becomes more specific in his letter to the Ephesians: 

For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person—such a man is an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.  6 Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient (Ephesians 5:5-6). 

This time Paul says that the immoral, impure, or greedy person and those who are disobedient will incur God’s wrath.  Paul recites to the Colossians an even more specific list of actions that will invoke God’s wrath: 

Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry.  6 Because of these, the wrath of God is coming (Colossians 3:5). 

Listing the same actions incurring God’s wrath as he did to the Ephesians, he added another – evil desires.  Paul’s most specific list was given to the Galatians: 

The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like.  I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God. (Galatians 5:19-21). 

Is it possible to be “saved” and yet “live like this”?  No.  Anyone who claims it is possible to be saved and “live like this” have been misled and have a false idea of what is required to be saved. Paul is writing to the Galatian church and telling them that “those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.” 

Debauchery, witchcraft, drunkenness, and orgies are obvious and flagrant sins principally done by those without knowledge of or professing faith in the Lord Jesus.  However, some of the other “acts of the sinful nature” listed by Paul are more subtle and more likely to be found among those in Christian churches.  There we may find hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy.  How can there be church splits without discord, dissensions and factions?  

Did you notice some of the acts of the sinful nature listed by Paul that are not necessarily visible?  He listed lust, evil desires, greed, selfish ambition, jealousy, hatred, and envy.  All these can exist within the heart and mind of the person who is regularly in church on Sunday.  These same people can be “surfing the net” to see one pornographic website after another.  But remember Jesus’ statement to the Church at Thyatira?  He said, “I am he who searches hearts and minds, and I will repay each of you according to your deeds” (Revelation 3:23).  Hidden sins will condemn us before a righteous God just as readily as will the open, flagrant sins.    

Most of the above scriptures do not refer to occasional, inadvertent sins.  These are forgiven upon confession and repentance (1 John 1:9).  It is continuing in sin that makes it a way of life, a continuing rebellion against the Lord and his teachings and commands.  The writer to the Hebrews tells how serious it is to deliberately continue in sin: 

If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God (Hebrews 10:26-27). 

If we deliberately continue in sin, we will be repaid according to our deeds and condemned.

Connection Between Fearing the Lord and Righteousness

God, through his servants, said: 

“To fear the LORD is to hate evil; I hate pride and arrogance, evil behavior and perverse speech” (Proverbs 8:13). 

Through love and faithfulness sin is atoned for; through the fear of the LORD a man avoids evil (Proverbs 16:6). 

“Do not be afraid. God has come to test you, so that the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning” (Exodus 20:20). 

“Therefore, having these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all defilement of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God” (2 Corinthians 7:1, NAS).  

“The fear of the Lord—that is wisdom, and to shun evil is understanding” (Job 28:28). 

God takes the matter of sinning very seriously.  Jesus taught about this with examples we find ghastly in our culture when he said: 

“Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to sin!  Such things must come, but woe to the man through whom they come!   If your hand or your foot causes you to sin cut it off and throw it away.  It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fireAnd if your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away.  It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell” (Matthew 18:7-9). 

Jesus made the point that sinning was such a serious matter that we should prefer being maimed than to continue in sin which will result in being thrown into the fire of hell. 

Jesus warned about hell repeatedly.  He spoke more about it than any other person recorded in Scripture.  In the warning above, he was speaking to the Jews of Israel, who considered themselves God’s chosen race.  Yet Jesus warned them about hell fire if they continued in sin.  

It is becoming very clear, isn’t it?  Scripture says we will be judged according to what we have done.  If we do those acts of the sinful nature Paul listed above we will incur God’s wrath; we will suffer his judgment; we will be thrown into the lake of fire.  To continue in sin reveals a heart attitude that has rejected God’s provision for salvation through the Lord Jesus and that has rebelled against his teachings and commands.  Just as obedience, fruit, and works are evidence of a saving faith, so following evil is evidence of rejection of God’s Son and his provision for salvation.

The Beginning of Wisdom

Based on what we’ve learned, what would be the wisest thing we could learn that would affect our eternal future?  Wouldn’t it be to understand that a holy, righteous God will judge us (or reward us) according to what we have done?  To learn that would be true wisdom.  Is it any wonder Scripture says:  “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding”? (Proverbs 9:10).   

There are false teachings that claim Christians are not subject to such warnings.  For those who are victims of such teaching, they will not believe the transparent conclusions of this study.  They will continue to believe that their simple faith in Christ as Savior will save them and they will not fear God. 

For those of us who revere and honor God’s word, we know that when God says repeatedly that we will be judged according to what we have done, he means what he says.  We also know that if we choose evil behavior instead of righteousness we will be cast into the lake of fire.  Surely we must fear our God who will not depart from his word.  Just as the scriptures above have stated, we should be highly motivated to live out our faith in our Lord Jesus, knowing that in the books of heaven all our deeds (and thoughts and attitudes) are being recorded.  

Finally, our works, our obedience, and the fruit we bear for God are not so we can earn salvation.  Our salvation is by grace, through faith in Christ Jesus as our Lord.  As the reformers were fond of saying, we are saved by faith alone but a faith that saves is never alone. Our works, our obedience, and the fruit we show to the world are evidence to God, to ourselves, and to others that we have a living, saving faith in our Lord Jesus.  

Fear of God motivates us to be strong and persevere in the faith.  In the face of terrible persecutions many of our ancestors in the faith refused to deny the faith.  They feared God more than they feared the loss of their lives or the pain, suffering, and torture of persecution.  

Fear of God motivates us to avoid evil and live obedient, righteous and holy lives before God and man.  For those who live obedient, righteous and holy lives there is no fear when they are judged “according to what they have done.” 


Footnote


[1] Scriptures are taken from The New International Version, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House) 1984 unless otherwise indicated.