This entire series is my 30-paged bachelor thesis I submitted to the theology department at Concordia University-Ann Arbor—a higher Lutheran education university—as part of the requirement to graduate from the Pre-Seminary programme. It has been reformatted to fit this blog.
Separated from God, we exercise Adamic fear as fear of God’s wrath. As we move into a relationship with God by faith, we begin to exercise Mosaic fear—fear of disobedience to God’s Law. In these two fears, there is no hope, since the former does not believe in God and the latter is ultimately a reliance on works. Thus, out of God’s love for us, He sent His only Son to fulfil the Law on our behalf in His life, death, and resurrection. As Lord, Christ justifies us in His blood, moving us into a filial relationship with God, fearing God as dear children rather than enemies. Through the threefold use of the Law, the Law reveals and restrains our sin and guides us how to live holy lives, which brings about contrition for disobeying God. This contrition—this godly sorrow—is the filial fear that leads us to repentance, which is a reliance on what Christ our Lord has done for us in our justification. Central to the fear of the Lord is wisdom in the Old Testament, particularly with its Hebraic understanding of the fear of the Lord as filial fear.
The fear of the Lord is rooted in Proverbs 9:10, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom.” That is, we receive wisdom through the fear of the Lord. Yet what is wisdom’s relation to filial fear? We have seen that the fear of God is certainly to fear His wrath (Adamic fear) as a result of being alienated from God. “More often, however, [the fear of the Lord] denotes a positive, filial relationship to God through faith that causes a person to want to please the heavenly Father ([Proverbs] 8:13). God, who bestows blessings for temporal and eternal life and leads people to wisdom, initiates this positive relationship. The objective saving relationship with God is established by Christ, the Wisdom of God (Prv 8:1-36; 1 Cor 1:24, 30” (Steinmann, Proverbs, 28). The Old Testament understanding of fearing God is one of a filial relationship when God “established this relationship with his people when he called their ancestor Abraham… and when he delivered them from Egypt and graciously promised to be their God” (Steinmann, 28). In other words, fear of God in the Old Testament is understood as being filial fear because God brought His people into relationship with Him through His redemptive work of the exodus, whose people seek to please (love) God because of their trust in Him. In the same way, we exercise filial fear today through His redemptive work in the Gospel, seeking to love God in repentance because of our trust in the Gospel—Jesus Christ on the cross. Following God’s redemptive work of bringing His people into relationship with Him is God’s act of leading His people to wisdom.
God’s wisdom is deeply connected to the act of repentance which our filial fear actuates. John Barry points to Job 1:1 where we see evidence of the practicality of the fear of the Lord, which describes Job as “one who feared God and turned away from evil” (Barry, “Themes and Theology”). Practically, then, it appears Job, as one who feared God, lived in a constant state of repentance. Both the Hebraic (Holladay, 362-363) and Greek (Danker, 230) understandings of repentance is to turn away from former acts of behaviour. On this, C.F. Keil and F. Delitzsch comment, “Fearing God, and consequently being actuated by the fear of God, which is the beginning of wisdom,” enables one to eschew evil since it is against God (Keil & Delizsch, 270). In other words, God’s wisdom—actuated by filial fear—leads us to repentance. As a result, this filial fear reorients our fear to trust in God as it is undergirded by His promise in the justification of Christ.
For Qoheleth, the סוֹף דָּבָר (sōph davar)—the end of the matter—is, “Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is the whole duty of man” (Ecclesiastes 12:13). Luther comments on this verse, “That is, this is the summary of it all: Fear and worship God and keep Him in view; thus you will observe everything that I have set forth in this book. For unless someone fears God, he will not be able to observe any of these things” (Luther, Ecclesiastes, 186). The end of the matter is to exercise our filial fear of God whose gifted wisdom leads us to repentance, thus reorienting our fear to love and trust God.
The wisdom of God, then, is filial fear. God, who has entered us into a filial relationship with Him through His redemptive work in Christ and imparts His wisdom to us that leads us to repent out of our love for Him, which is deeply rooted in our trust in Christ. John the Baptiser proclaimed, “Bear fruits in keeping with repentance” (Luke 3:8). Returning to the Lutheran Confessions, it says:
Repentance consists of two parts: one is contrition or the terrors that strike the conscience when sin is recognized; the other is faith, which is brought to life by the gospel or absolution. This faith believes that sins are forgiven on account of Christ, consoles the conscience, and liberates it from terrors. Thereupon good works, which are the fruit of repentance, should follow. (Kolb, 45, AC XII 5-6)
Later in the Apology, it confesses similarly, “Throughout life good fruits (good works) ought to follow repentance (that is, conversion or regeneration)” (Kolb, 209, Ap XII 131). Herein is described our filial fear. The Christian appropriately feels terror because of his sin, yet the grace of God reshapes the terror through Christ and comforts his heart and gives him peace because God is Father, not tyrant. Through our filial fear, God gives us the wisdom to know how to love Him through repentance as He guides us in His wisdom to bear the fruits of repentance. Indeed, perfect love casts out fear (1 John 4:18).
I have discussed at length what it means to fear God in the context of one’s filial relationship to God in Christ. Yet more research can be done on the “fear not” formula that appears throughout Scripture. I briefly mentioned this in the types of fear section, but further study can certainly be done on God’s command to “fear not.” Theologian F. Scott Spencer, for example, discusses this at length. For example, in Luke 12:4-7 Christ gives the command not to fear the one who can kill the body, but to fear the one who has authority to cast into Hell. Immediately afterwards, He says to fear not, comparing God’s people to sparrows whom God takes care of. According to Spencer, Christ was making a theological argument rather than an emotional one, who “begins with ‘God’s’ comforting watchful care over sparrows (12:6) and ends with the ‘Father’s’ reassuring benevolence toward his ‘flock’ (12:32) as definitive reasons ‘not to be afraid’ (12:7, 32)” (F. Scott Spencer, 234). This is because, in Spencer’s understanding of the fear of the Lord, Christians love God not because they fear His wrath but because they revere His almighty sovereignty and rejoice in His steadfast love (Spencer, 230). So with an understanding of how the Christian fears God, further study can be done on why God conversely commands the Christian not to fear.
I have shown the practise of God’s wisdom in repentance, which is to be done at the individual level. However, more research can also be done on what this looks like in the Church community. A community of faith that exercises the threefold wisdom of God is the remedy to the culture of fear we live in. It begins at the individual level, which I have argued here. Now, what does this look like in God’s Church? How can the pastor not only teach, but also inspire His congregation to practise this threefold wisdom of repentance while also doing it with them? This is the type of fear that actuates God’s wisdom—fear as a positive disposition where one loves God in repentance through trust in His promise of justification in Christ on the cross.
Properly understanding the fear of the Lord is vital to our faith as American Christians because as Americans who live in a culture of fear, we fear many threats, both real and perceived, and thus endeavour to preclude fear from everything in life. While American society seeks to eliminate fear from every relationship, as Lutherans in catechism class we regularly read the command to fear God as well as Luther’s explanation of the commandments to fear and love God through trusting Him. In American society, fear and love seem incompatible; yet in Scripture and Luther’s understanding, fear and love are complementary in the person’s relationship with God. Whereas Americans view fear as feelings they have, Luther and the Bible describe fear as being relational—as a disposition toward God. Christians are to understand the fear of the Lord in light of Christ—that is, filial fear. As we have seen, Christ as Lord moves us from our sinful condition of alienation (Adamic fear) to the same filial relationship He has with the Father through the cross. This justification we receive by faith in Christ is the filial condition in which we exercise filial fear.
What filial fear looks like in practise is the state of repentance, which we enact because of the wisdom God imparts to us since we fear Him (filial fear). Because of our filial relationship with God—our justification—Christ reorients our fear to love and trust in Him. While we may fear God’s just punishment of our sins, we have a father-child—a filial—relationship with God who, in this relationship, gives us the wisdom to show our love for Him through repentance as a result of our justification in Christ, which is the promise of God we trust in. As we struggle with sin and fear in this life, we can daily look to the cross as we rely on Christ to daily reorient our fear to love and trust in Him because of what He has done for us. Without the justification of our Lord, we are left to wallow in our terror, and we would have no hope. Instead, as we look upon the blood-stained cross we see the Lamb of God sacrificed on our behalf, whose blood covers our sins and makes us children of God who rely on the steadfast love of the Father.
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