Question Box: Should we fear God if there is no fear in love?

Question or Topic Scripture
Should we fear God if there is no fear in love? I John 4:18

There are several places in scripture where we are instructed to both love and to fear God, and yet we are also told in I John 4:18: "There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear: because fear hath torment. He that feareth is not made perfect in love". Is this a contradiction?


We all appreciate that the word of God is the truth. In our respect for that word we know that it does not contradict itself. When we encounter verses that may appear to be in conflict, we are committed to search for a better understanding.

Whenever this particular conflict is discussed, the usual approach is to look into the meanings of the words that are involved. When analyzing the word "fear", we find that, in both the Hebrew and the Greek, there are different original words involved. It is generally accepted that of the many words that are translated "fear", there are basically two main thoughts presented. The first is that fear means "terror" or "fright" (This concept of fear is consistent with our understanding and use of the word today). The second is that of "respect" or of "reverence" and "awe". Modern man is not likely to identify these meanings with the word fear.

Using these two concepts of the word "fear" in scripture, and by applying them in a general way, we are usually able satisfy our need for understanding. We prefer to interpret those verses that concern the "fear of God" to mean that we should have deep respect and reverence for him. Because we choose to define our relationship to God as being based on our love for him, and his love for us, then it is foreign for us to think that we might be terrified in his presence. We prefer to associate terror with our fear for things in this life.

Unfortunately, this approach only works if we ignore the actual meanings for many of the original words. To do this effectively, we must pick and choose those examples of fear that support our desired understanding of the subject. This method is usually referred to as inductive reasoning. When we look at all of the facts, we find that this type of private interpretation is unable to offer a consistent explanation for all of the related questions. What do we do with many of those verses that exhort us to have a terror fear in things relating to our salvation? In all of the following verses, the word fear is translated from the Greek phobos {fob'-os}, which means (to be put in fear); alarm or fright; to be afraid, to exceedingly fear, or in terror:

  1. I Peter 1:17
  2. And if ye call on the Father, who without respect of persons judgeth according to every man's work, pass the time of your sojourning here in fear:
  1. I Peter 2:17
  2. Honour all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honour the king.
  1. Revelation 19:5
  2. And a voice came out of the throne, saying, Praise our God, all ye his servants, and ye that fear him, both small and great.

These verses suggest that a "terror fear" of God is a significant part of our relationship to the Creator. This same word phobos is also used in the verse in question: "There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear: because fear hath torment. He that feareth is not made perfect in love" (I John 4:18).

Are we being asked to have fear, and then being told that it is an undesirable characteristic? Before we can understand this concern, we need to consider some additional evidence. We will look at another example that uses the same Greek word. This is found in a familiar verse from Phillipians 2:12: "Wherefore, my beloved, as ye have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling". In fairness to both the translation and the context in this case, we can only conclude that while we are in the process of working out our salvation, we should maintain a very healthy "terror fear" of God.

This same conclusion is substantiated in other places. For example, in Hebrews 10 we read:

  1. Hebrews 10:26-27,31
  2. For if we sin wilfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins,
  3. But a certain fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation, which shall devour the adversaries.
  4. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.

Our impending judgment will certainly be contemplated in terror, if we have been unfaithful in our walk.

Our understanding and appreciation of a real fear of God is further complicated by the fact that we live in a world today that can be compared with the conditions spoken of in Romans 3. We read that "there is no fear of God before their eyes" (Romans 3:18). This also is an age of irreverence. There is no respect for any authority, including that of God or parents. The Christian world, in believing the delusion of the trinity, have placed God on the same level as Christ, and Christ on their own level as a friend and a good buddy. We are concerned that some of these same philosophies of intimacy with the Creator are creeping into the household.

As servants, we understand that the "fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom" (Psalm 111:10). This fear should be reserved for God and not man. We are told plainly to "fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell" (Matthew 10:28). It is unfortunate that in our world today, man has neither respect, nor terror for the creator. They do live in terror of the natural things associated with man and mortality. Even as it has been prophesied by the Christ, - "Men's hearts failing them for fear, and for looking after those things which are coming on the earth" (Luke 21:26).

For our own stability in this difficult age, we must learn to fear God and not man. Then we will be on the path to understanding the relationship between "terror fear" and "reverential fear". We may try too hard to keep these two concepts of fear separated, but there is really nothing wrong with considering that they often work well together. If we have great reverence for the Creator, then there will be a degree of terror associated with being in his presence. Especially when we realize that it is by his grace alone that we have any hope of salvation.

If there is to be a transition between these two meanings, the verse in our question reveals that it is only to be found by love. It is only through "perfect love" that we may have "boldness (assurance) in the day of judgment" (I John 4:17). Our love therefore, must be complete or fulfilled, before we can hope to make the transition from terror to reverence.

How many of us will ever reach this point of perfection? This "perfect love" where we will have enough unselfish love for God (and for our neighbor), so that we will have an assurance that he will provide us with a crown of righteousness? From a practical standpoint, we live our entire lives in the process of development, striving for this perfection of our faith. We reach out to obtain that "agape" love, but it may well allude us until the day that we have been extended a measure of grace at the judgment.

Before we can ever expect to cast out fear through perfect love, we must first learn to fear. When we have been able to demonstrate the fear of God in our lives. When we have understood that we will always remain on a level that is inferior and one that will demand respect. When we have learned to love God enough and to forsake self enough. Only then can we hope that we will not be terrified by whatever prospect he may decree for us in accordance to his will. Until we reach that level of perfection we are told, "let us have grace, whereby we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear: For our God is a consuming fire" (Hebrews 12:28-29).

We are taught that we should be followers of Christ. One of the characteristics that he displayed was prophetically described in Isaiah 11 as the fear of the Lord.

  1. Isaiah 11:2-3
  2. And the spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD;
  3. And shall make him of quick understanding in the fear of the LORD: and he shall not judge after the sight of his eyes, neither reprove after the hearing of his ears.

This man who was respected as our "Master and Lord", knew enough to maintain a "dreadful and exceeding fear" of his heavenly Father during his probation. We are definitely a big step below him in both stature and status, and therefore we do well to heed these words: "Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man" (Ecclesiastes 12:13).


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