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Ask the Pastor

† Theological musings and answers to selected questions by a confessional Lutheran pastor.

23 March 2006

Fear or Love?

Q: The Bible tells us to fear God and keep His commandments; it goes on to tell us to love God and keep His Commandments. The Bible also says “There is no fear in love. (1 John 4:18)” Should we fear or love?

A: Both fear and love are part of our relationship with God. Fear, in a religious context, means more than emotional terror or dread. It also includes great respect and awe. As I child, I feared my father, but not only because he could punish me. He was bigger, older, wiser, faster, and so many other things than I was. Yet this fear did not exclude love, rather they went hand-in-hand with each other. When I did wrong, the terror of punishment was foremost. However, I also knew that Dad would use his strength, wisdom, and other abilities to protect and defend me, to put food on our table, and to keep scary things away. Thus, I deeply loved him.

How much more can such things be said and thought about our Father in heaven! Surely, as sinful creatures, we should dread God’s presence, His holiness, His might. No person who has lived, save Adam and Eve before the Fall and Jesus Christ throughout His never-ending life, can look upon God and live because of the impurity of our sin. God judges and pours out His wrath. Yet He is also the God who is strong to save, who commits Himself to people, and who will never leave nor forsake His children.

As you note, Scripture gives both fear and love as proper reasons for following God“s Word. Deuteronomy includes passages mentioning each. “So you shall keep the commandments of the Lord your God by walking in his ways and by fearing him, (8:6)” is one of the verses mentioning fear. Meanwhile, in 11:1, we read, “You shall therefore love the Lord your God and keep his charge, his statutes, his rules, and his commandments always.”

Ten CommandmentsIn the Small Catechism, Martin Luther paired “fear” with “love” in each explanation of the Ten Commandments. With the First, “You shall have no other gods,” the Catechism says, “We should fear, love, and trust in God above all things.” The beginning of the explanation of each of the next nine is constant: “We should fear and love God so that ....”

The Catechism continues the explanation for the keeping of each commandment: God commands us to do no bad and, out of loving response to God’s love, to seek to find a positive way of acting. For example, under “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor,” we read, “We should fear and love God so that we do not tell lies about our neighbor, betray him, slander him, or hurt his reputation, but defend him, speak well of him, and explain everything in the kindest way.”

In other words, the sinner fears the wrath of God while the saint loves His presence and wants to be with Him all the time. Since each Christian is both saint and sinner (simil iustus et peccator), both fear and love are part of our relationship with God. Remember that the Bible also that “perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.” As we grow closer to God, we pray that our terror of His wrath would be taken away. However, completion of this perfection will happen only in eternity.

Even in the bliss of heaven, there may be a certain degree of “fear.” However, it will not be because of terror over sin, but as part of only an absolute and righteous awe because of God’s holiness, His power, and His abiding love.

Scripture quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version™, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles.

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Walter Snyder is the pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Emma, Missouri and coauthor of the book What Do Lutherans Believe.

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