How Could Forgiveness Possibly Lead to Fear?

Psalm 130:4 is one of those verses that makes your eyes screech to a halt on the page: “But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared.”

It sounds all wrong. “But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be loved” would make sense. So would “But with you there is judgment, that you may be feared.”

But that’s not what it says.

Stranger still is the fact that the psalmist just doesn’t look afraid of God. Quite the opposite. Right after verse 4 he goes on to write of how his soul “waits for the LORD more than watchmen wait for the morning” (vv. 5–6). He’s full of the fact that “with the LORD there is steadfast love and plentiful redemption” (v. 7).

That’s because the fear of God, which Scripture commends and which the gospel produces, is actually the opposite of being afraid of him. See, for example, Exodus 20, where the people of Israel gather at Mount Sinai:

Now when all the people saw the thunder and the flashes of lightning and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking, the people were afraid and trembled, and they stood far off and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die.” Moses said to the people, “Do not fear, for God has come to test you, that the fear of him may be before you, that you may not sin.” (Ex. 20:18–20)

Moses here sets out a contrast between being afraid of God and fearing God: those who have the fear of him will not be afraid of him.

New Covenant Fear

C. I. Scofield once called the fear of God “a phrase of Old Testament piety.” And indeed it was. Yet the fear of God isn’t a phrase of Old Testament piety, for the right fear of God is, quite explicitly, a blessing of the new covenant. Speaking of this new covenant, the Lord promised through Jeremiah:

I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear me forever, for their own good and the good of their children after them. I will make with them an everlasting covenant, that I will not turn away from doing good to them. And I will put the fear of me in their hearts, that they may not turn from me. (Jer. 32:39–40)

In Jeremiah 33, the Lord goes on to explain the nature of this new covenant fear in words so striking they overturn all our expectations. He promises:

I will cleanse them from all the guilt of their sin against me, and I will forgive all the guilt of their sin and rebellion against me. And this city shall be to me a name of joy, a praise and a glory before all the nations of the earth who shall hear of all the good that I do for them. They shall fear and tremble because of all the good and all the prosperity I provide for it. (Jer. 33:8–9)

Those who have the fear of him will not be afraid of him.

This isn’t a fear of punishment—of what God might do if his people turn away from him. Quite the opposite: in Jeremiah 33, the Lord reeled off a catalogue of pure blessing. He would cleanse them, forgive them, and do great good for them. And they fear and tremble precisely because of all the good he does for them.

This isn’t a fear that stands on the flipside of God’s goodness and grace. It’s the sort of fear Hosea describes when he prophesies how “the children of Israel shall return and seek the LORD their God, and David their king, and they shall come in fear to the LORD and to his goodness in the latter days” (Hos. 3:5). It’s a fear “to the LORD and to his goodness” (cf. Acts 9:31).

Filial Fear

This is what theologians have often referred to as a “filial fear” (the fear of a son for his father), rather than a “slavish fear” (the fear of a slave for his master). In fact, it’s Jesus’s own filial fear that believers are brought to share. Jesus is the Spirit-anointed Christ, whom Isaiah prophesied would come forth from the stump of Jesse:

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 the fear of the LORD.
And his delight shall be in the fear of the LORD. (Isa. 11:1–3)

This filial fear is part of the Son’s pleasurable adoration of his Father

Notice it’s not that he loves God and has joy in God but finds, unfortunately, that to fulfill all righteousness he also must fear God. Again, quite the opposite. The Spirit who rests on him is the Spirit of the fear of the Lord—and the fear of the Lord is his delight! This filial fear is part of the Son’s pleasurable adoration of his Father; indeed, it’s the very emotional extremity of that wonder.

Forgiveness Is the Soil of Fear

What Psalm 130:4 teaches us is that forgiveness is the fertile soil for growing a right fear of God. Without God’s forgiveness we could never approach him and would never want to. Without the cross, God would be only a dreadful judge of whom we would be afraid.

Without the cross, God would be only a dreadful judge of whom we would be afraid.

It’s divine forgiveness and our justification by faith alone that turns our natural dread of God as sinners into the fearful, trembling adoration of beloved children.

“Oh! that a great God should be a good God,” wrote John Bunyan, “a good God to an unworthy, to an undeserving, and to a people that continually do what they can to provoke the eyes of his glory; this should make us tremble.”


First published 02.07.20:

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