Is 1 John 4: 18 proof that Christians ought not to fear God?
That the OT saints feared God is apparent from many passages. Furthermore, the proof that they feared God is seen in their obedience to what God had said. We see this very clearly when God told Abraham to offer up Isaac as a burnt offering, and Abraham bowed himself to the divine will. In recognition of this, Jehovah declared that “now I know that thou fearest God” (Gen. 22: 12). Abraham’s fear was seen in his obedience. This principle does not change. It is not a coincidence then that those who dismiss the notion of fearing God out of hand are very often the same people who have the least respect for the Scriptures––the record of what God has said.
The argument goes, however, that with the revelation of divine love, the Christian should not be marked by a fear of God. Many have taken the new ‘light’ on, and today Christian ‘worship’ is often marked by an over–familiar and disrespectful attitude. A statement in John’s epistle is usually turned to as supporting evidence: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has torment, and he that fears has not been made perfect in love” (1 John 4: 18). However, the theory immediately runs into difficulty as other NT passages clearly teach that the Christian is to fear God. Paul tells the Corinthian saints to purify themselves “from every pollution of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in God’s fear” (2 Cor. 7: 1) and Peter tells us to “shew honour to all, love the brotherhood, fear God, honour the king” (1 Peter 2: 17).
Closer examination of 1 John 4: 18 reveals that it is set in the context of “boldness in the day of judgment” (v17). For the unconverted, that day is a day of dread and fear: “For we must all be manifested before the judgment–seat of the Christ ... Knowing therefore the terror of the Lord we persuade men” (2 Cor. 5: 10, 11). For the believer, however, there is no fear in the day of judgment because he cannot meet God as judge. We have this on the authority of Christ Himself: “Verily, verily, I say unto you, that he that hears my word, and believes him that has sent me, has life eternal, and does not come into judgment, but is passed out of death into life” (John 5: 24). We know God as Father, not judge. If I do torment myself about the day of judgment it is because I have not “been made perfect in love” (1 John 4: 18)––I do not have settled peace with God.
Again, when Paul tells the Roman saints that “ye have not received a spirit of bondage again for fear, but ye have received a spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father” (Rom. 8: 15), the fear is the fear of divine retribution. Under the bondage of the law, man can only fail, and thereby come under the displeasure of a holy God. By contrast, Christians have received a “spirit of adoption” that brings us into a relationship with God as Father.
So what is the fear of God? The Greek word used in the NT for fear is phobos from which the English word phobia is derived. Its original meaning is to flee or take flight. By NT times it was used for any kind of terror. Thus when the disciples saw the Lord walking on the water at night, they thought they saw a ghost and “cried out through fear (phobos)” (Matt. 14: 26). As professing Christians, we are to be marked by a phobos of both Christ (see Eph. 5: 21) and of the Father (see 1 Pet. 1: 17). Modern theology will not accept this. So does this mean that we are to be terrified of God? No, but there is to be a fear on account of who He is. This is not the fear of judgment or retribution, but reverential fear––a fast–dying concept in the West. John leaned on the bosom of Christ (see John 13: 23), but he also fell at His feet as dead (see Rev. 1: 17). Both sides are true: there is intimacy, and there is also reverence, but an intimacy without reverence is not part of the “faith once delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). We are sons as well as servants, but we should never forget that we will always be creatures.
All this has some very practical implications. When Paul said that “I bow my knees to the Father [of our Lord Jesus Christ]” (Eph. 3: 14) was he just using poetic language? Not at all. Rather, he was indicating that he prostrated Himself in the presence of God. Thus when we pray we ought, at the very least, to bow our heads––to take up a physical position that is reverential. Again, where in the NT do we find Christians addressing Jesus merely as Jesus? The answer is nowhere. He has the title Lord and out of respect for His person we ought to use it. “The fear of Jehovah is the beginning of wisdom” (Prov. 9: 10).