Apostle Paul penning a letter with the overlay text "To: Timothy" and the subtext "Fear of God vs. Fear of Man."

Fear of God vs. Fear of Man

Walking out of Sunday service, have you ever felt an unmistakable tug in your soul? It’s more than just a reaction to a powerful sermon; it’s the realization that God’s presence demands a response. This is where we begin to understand the pivotal difference between the Fear of God and the Fear of Man. One is a gateway to wisdom, a necessary heartbeat in the life of every believer, where the other can quietly lead us away from our intended path, trading divine truth for human approval.

In our Gospel-Centered Life series, we’ve explored how the gospel shapes our everyday living, steering us towards authenticity and away from the superficial. In the same vein, we’ll explore the Fear of God—not as a paralyzing terror, but as the beginning of wisdom, a wellspring of life that nurtures our relationship with the Father. It’s about respect, honor, and love, leading us to obedience and the fullness of life that Christ promises.

For those yet to embrace faith in Christ, the Fear of God confronts with a stark reality of divine justice and the beauty of grace awaiting at the threshold of belief. For believers, this fear is about maintaining a posture of humility and dependency on God, recognizing His majesty and His mercy.

Turning our gaze away from the divine to the mortal, we’ll also tackle the Fear of Man. Through the wisdom of Scripture and the experiences of believers throughout history, we will uncover how this misplaced fear can distort our calling and inhibit our witness.

Our journey is not to instill a spirit of fear, but to ignite a conversation about where our reverence truly belongs and how it shapes the contours of our daily walk with God. Let’s begin this exploration, inviting the Spirit to guide us into all truth, revealing the power of God’s perfect love that casts out all fear.

The Fear of God: The Beginning of Wisdom

Let’s journey back to a time when pulpits thundered and the very air trembled with the weight of eternity. Here, a preacher like Jonathan Edwards stands, not with a message of cozy spirituality, but with a stark awakening, his words a piercing call to the slumbering conscience of every man, woman, and child.

Picture the scene: Edwards’ voice rises and falls with the cadence of urgency, painting a vivid, almost unbearable image of God’s majesty and righteousness. This is no abstract deity; this is the Holy One of Scripture, whose righteous fury against sin is as undeniable as His existence, whose justice is as unassailable as the mountains. The Fear of God he describes grips the heart like cold hands, a stark reminder that we live on borrowed breath, at the mercy of a God who is as tender as He is terrifying.

The congregation sits on the edge of their wooden pews, the reality of their sin laid bare before them, the abyss of God’s judgment yawning wide. Edwards speaks of a God who holds the sinner over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider or some loathsome insect over the fire. The sinner, held by the slenderest thread, which is the patience of God—a thread that could snap at any moment, plunging the soul into the eternal torments of divine wrath.

This Fear of God, Edwards imparts, should not just be an academic concept but a palpable, gripping force that shakes us from apathy. It’s the kind of fear that sends shivers down the spine and beckons tears from the hardest of eyes. It’s the fear that compels a desperate searching for salvation, that turns the soul inside out in its hunger for redemption.

This is the call to awaken from the delusion of safety and the pride of morality. For without Christ, all stand on the precipice of destruction, teetering over a chasm that no work of hands or sweetness of tongue can bridge. Edwards’ sermon is a spiritual earthquake, meant to unsettle, to disrupt, to drive one to their knees in recognition of their utter need for a Savior.

For the readers of today, this illustration is not mere history—it is a vivid, resounding alarm that still echoes. Let it stir you. Let it move you from complacency to an acute awareness of the gravity of standing before a God who is just, whose love is offered as the only balm for the soul’s dread. Let the Fear of God be the beginning of wisdom for you, a wisdom that starts with trembling and ends with the embrace of a God who saves.

Biblical Foundation:

Within the ancient proverbs of Scripture lies a thread of wisdom, a golden seam that runs through the fabric of faith: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 9:10). This is not a trembling dread of a capricious deity, but a profound reverence for the Creator, an awe at His unfathomable power and unblemished holiness. The Bible paints a picture of God as a father who commands respect, whose divine authority is matched only by His immeasurable love.

This Fear of God is more than an emotional response; it is a posture of the heart that recognizes our place before the Almighty. It’s a fear that is a fountain of life, turning one away from the snares of death (Proverbs 14:27). It’s the acknowledgment of our transgressions and the understanding that apart from divine grace, we are adrift in a sea of our own iniquity.

In the Hebrew narrative, it is this fear that led the Ninevites, under the proclamation of Jonah, to repentance—a city-wide turning from sin as the reality of God’s impending judgment sank in. In the New Testament, the Philippian jailer, struck by the power of God during an earthquake, falls before Paul and Silas, inquiring, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30). Here, the fear of God prompts the most important question a soul can ask.

Application Today:

To the reader who has not yet turned the page of faith, let the Fear of God be your compass. In a world that often scoffs at the notion of reverence, consider it instead as the first step towards a life that truly understands. This fear is not meant to paralyze, but to catalyze—a guiding force that propels you towards the realization of your need for a Savior.

Contemplate the universe, its vastness, its beauty, its mystery, and know that the One who fashioned it holds your life in His hands. Understand that this reverential fear is the cornerstone of wisdom because it places you in the correct relationship with God—not as a distant observer of your life but as the sovereign Lord of it.

Let the Fear of God draw you out of indifference into a pursuit of knowledge, of truth, of salvation. It is the threshold of the door that leads to eternal life—a life of wisdom, joy, and the peace that transcends all understanding. This is the call of the eternal gospel, as alive today as it was when the ancients penned their sacred texts: Fear God and give Him glory, for the hour of His judgment has come, and worship Him who made heaven and earth, the sea and springs of water (Revelation 14:7).

Transformation Through Fear

The journey into the Fear of God begins at the precipice of conviction for the non-Christian. It is here that the stark realization of God’s holy justice confronts the soul, leading to a humility that acknowledges personal sin and the dire consequences that it merits. This initial fear is a trembling before the just Judge of all, an acknowledgment of the rightful wrath that sin incurs.

However, this fear is not the destination, but the path to the foot of the cross, where the narrative of fear is rewritten. For the non-Christian, the Fear of God brings about a profound humility and a contrite spirit—a recognition of one’s need for a Savior. This turning point is crucial, as it directs the seeking heart away from the despair of judgment to the hope found in Christ Jesus.

Upon embracing the gospel, the believer’s fear is transformed. The once terrifying specter of divine wrath becomes the ground for marveling at the depth of divine mercy. The fear of punishment, which once drove the sinner to Christ, is absorbed by the overwhelming revelation of grace. In Christ, the judgment the believer once feared has been borne by the Savior on the cross, and the fear of eternal separation from God is replaced with the assurance of eternal communion with Him.

For the believer, then, the Fear of God is redefined. It becomes a reverential awe and worship, a perpetual state of wonder at the enormity of God’s sacrifice and the breadth of His love. This is a fear that delights in the knowledge that God is both awesome in majesty and intimate in mercy.

In practical terms, this reverence impacts the Christian’s daily walk with God. It engenders a spirit of obedience that flows from gratitude rather than obligation, and it cultivates a trust in God’s goodness and sovereignty that liberates from the anxieties of life. The fear that once whispered condemnation now sings of redemption.

This transformed fear is a sustaining force for the Christian, fostering a relationship with God characterized by a love that casts out the old fear of judgment. It moves the believer to serve God with a joyful reverence, to engage with His word with a trembling excitement, and to approach His throne of grace with a bold humility that knows both the terror of His holiness and the tenderness of His paternal care.

In the Christian life, the Fear of God is a holy awe that undergirds faith, hope, and love. It is a perpetual reminder of where we have come from and the grace that holds us secure. It ensures that the Christian never forgets the cost of their salvation and yet lives in the freedom purchased at such a high price. This fear does not paralyze; it propels the believer into deeper levels of trust and into the heights of worship that the redeemed heart was created to enjoy.

Biblical Encouragement

The Fear of God for the believer is infused with encouragement, particularly as seen in the New Testament. In Philippians 2:12-13, believers are exhorted to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” This directive could be misunderstood as a directive to live in a state of anxiety over one’s status before God. However, a closer examination reveals a profound truth about the nature of God’s work within us.

This fear and trembling is not about dread of punishment, but a profound respect for the sanctifying process that God orchestrates in the believer’s heart. It is a recognition of the divine operation within us—the awesome responsibility and privilege of cooperating with God’s Spirit in the transformative journey of becoming more like Christ. The ‘fear’ here speaks to the seriousness with which we should approach this cooperative process, acknowledging the sovereignty and holiness of God even in our sanctification.

The latter part of the passage provides the comfort: “for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.” Here, believers find the source of their encouragement. It is God Himself who is at work within them, enabling both the desire and the execution of His good pleasure. This realization casts a different light on the concept of fear—it is about living in a state of awe at the continual realization that the omnipotent God is actively working within our mortal lives.

Believers are, therefore, encouraged to embrace a life lived in the Fear of God, which acknowledges His immediate and intimate involvement in our spiritual growth. It is an awe-filled recognition of our dependence upon God for not only the inception of our faith but its continuation and culmination. This type of fear leads to a life marked by a godly caution and care in how we live, motivated by the knowledge that our lives are the canvas on which God’s Spirit is at work to produce the image of Christ.

In practice, this means that the Christian life is one of holy carefulness, not care-freeness, though it is by no means devoid of joy or freedom. On the contrary, it is a carefulness borne out of love and reverence, not of dread and compulsion. It brings a solemn joy and a reverence that inspires rather than hinders, that elevates rather than oppresses. It’s an encouragement to embrace the mystery of God working within us, transforming us day by day, decision by decision, into His likeness—a journey and work that, rightly understood, should indeed be approached with a sense of holy fear and joyful trembling.

Living the Contrast

The Christian walk is often a stark contrast between two opposing fears: the Fear of God and the fear of man. Scripture provides us with clear illustrations of this dichotomy and its implications for our lives.

A life lived in the Fear of God is characterized by a profound sense of accountability to our Creator. It prioritizes His will above all else, as exemplified in the actions of the apostles in the book of Acts. When commanded by the authorities not to speak in the name of Jesus, Peter and John replied, “We must obey God rather than human beings!” (Acts 5:29). Their allegiance to God superseded their fear of persecution, imprisonment, or even death. This Fear of God produced boldness, integrity, and a steadfast commitment to the mission they had received from Christ.

In contrast, the fear of man is illustrated in the Gospels by the figure of Pontius Pilate. Despite his own convictions about Jesus’ innocence, Pilate yielded to the cries of the crowd demanding crucifixion. His decision was swayed by a fear of losing favor with the people and possibly with Roman authorities. This fear led to a miscarriage of justice and, ultimately, to the wrongful condemnation of Jesus.

Jesus Himself taught on this matter, saying, “I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him.” (Luke 12:4-5). The starkness of this teaching lies in its clear directive to place the Fear of God above all earthly fears, for God’s authority surpasses all human power.

The fear of man can often manifest as peer pressure, the desire for approval, or the avoidance of conflict or rejection. It may lead to compromise, silence when there should be declaration, and inaction when action is demanded. This fear ensnares and entangles, leading to spiritual paralysis and the stunting of growth.

Conversely, the Fear of God liberates. It provides the perspective needed to make decisions that are eternally significant rather than temporally convenient. It leads to freedom from the ever-changing opinions of others and anchors the soul in the immutable character of God.

For the believer, then, living in the Fear of God is not a burden but a beacon that guides through the tumultuous seas of human opinion and approval. It is a call to live authentically, courageously, and with a clear sense of purpose and direction, undeterred by the changing tides of human favor. This way of life is not only pleasing to God but is ultimately the path to true and lasting freedom.

Understanding and overcoming the fear of man is critical for a life rooted in spiritual authenticity and obedience to God. Scripture warns us clearly about the dangers of this kind of fear: Proverbs 29:25 states that “the fear of man lays a snare, but whoever trusts in the Lord is safe.” This proverb succinctly captures the trap that the fear of man represents—a diversion from the divine path and an entanglement in the ephemeral opinions of others.

The Bible instructs us to focus our lives on seeking God’s approval above human commendation. Galatians 1:10 challenges this notion directly with the apostle Paul’s words: “For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.” Here, Paul distills the essence of Christian service: a life lived not for the applause of the crowd but for the glory of the Lord.

By maintaining an acute awareness of God’s all-encompassing presence, we are reminded that we perform our life’s work before an audience of One. The knowledge that God sees all can tip the balance away from the fickle approval of people.

Ephesians 2:10 teaches us that we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for good works. This profound truth about our identity provides a sturdy shield against the weight of public opinion, giving precedence to God’s perspective over that of our fellow humans.

The writer of Hebrews also highlights the value of the believing community in fostering spiritual resilience. Hebrews 10:24-25 encourages us not to give up meeting together but to encourage one another—and all the more as we see the Day approaching. In a community that fears God above all, we find strength and encouragement to value His opinion foremost.

By holding fast to these biblical principles, we steer clear of the fear of man. This is not a journey made alone; it’s a collective endeavor of the faith community to support one another in focusing on the ultimate audience—God Himself. The fear of God, characterized in the Bible not as a paralyzing terror but as the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 9:10), guides us to a place of reverence and awe. In this holy fear, we find the liberty and joy of a life anchored not in the shifting sands of human approval but in the enduring pleasure of the Lord.

Living for an Audience of One

In a world bustling with the noise of countless opinions, the call to live for an audience of One cuts through the cacophony, beckoning us to a singular focus—God’s approval. This challenge is not simply rhetorical; it is a clarion call to reorient our hearts and minds toward divine commendation rather than human praise.

Practical steps can help us in this pivot. To begin, immersion in Scripture realigns our perspective. Regularly engaging with God’s Word fortifies us against the temptation to seek human approval. For instance, Colossians 3:23 exhorts, “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men.” This scripture anchors our daily endeavors in the pursuit of God’s pleasure, not people’s.

Another step is fostering a life of prayer. In the quiet sanctuary of prayer, we tune out the world and tune into God’s voice. It is here, in the stillness before God, that we find the strength to prioritize His will over human recognition.

Moreover, accountability within the body of Christ serves as a guardrail. Sharing our journey with trusted fellow believers who can speak truth into our lives helps us maintain our course. As Proverbs 27:17 puts it, “Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another.” These relationships, centered around mutual edification, can redirect us when we stray toward the temptation of people-pleasing.

Lastly, the practice of spiritual disciplines—such as fasting, solitude, and simplicity—can strip away the layers of ego and pride that crave human applause. In their place, we cultivate humility and a genuine desire to live righteously for God’s eyes alone.

Living for an audience of One is not a passive stance; it’s an active pursuit. It requires conscious decisions each day to eschew the fleeting satisfaction of human accolades and seek the enduring joy of God’s “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:23). This is the life that resounds with eternal significance, a melody played for the most attentive and loving Listener of all.

Scriptural Exhortation

The Bible is rich with passages that contrast the fleeting and often deceptive approval of man with the enduring and truthful commendation of God. Jesus Himself provides a powerful exhortation in Matthew 10:28: “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” This stark reminder recalibrates our sense of awe and reverence, steering us away from the shortsighted fear of human power and towards the profound recognition of God’s ultimate authority.

Further reinforcement of this principle is found in the accounts of biblical figures who chose to fear God over man, often at great personal cost. Daniel, for example, opted for the lions’ den rather than compromising his devotion to God (Daniel 6). His unwavering trust in God’s deliverance exemplifies the blessings of fearing the Lord—peace in the face of peril and deliverance against the odds.

The Psalms, too, are peppered with assurances for those who fear the Lord. Psalm 112:1 proclaims, “Blessed is the man who fears the Lord, who greatly delights in his commandments!” The blessings here are not just spiritual but span the breadth of life’s experiences.

The writers of the New Testament carry forward this theme. The Apostle Paul, in Acts 5:29, boldly declares, “We must obey God rather than men,” signaling a paradigm of allegiance that reverberates through the ages. His life—marked by persecution, shipwrecks, and eventual martyrdom—stands as a testament to the triumph of divine fidelity over human opposition.

Scripture, therefore, not only exhorts us but also equips us with vivid illustrations of the blessings inherent in fearing God rather than man. These stories and teachings form a mosaic that, when taken together, presents a compelling picture of the true freedom and joy found in living under God’s sovereign care.

Embracing Awe Over Anxiety

In the journey of faith, discerning and embracing the Fear of God over the Fear of Man is not a mere theological exercise—it is a matter of spiritual life and vitality. The Fear of God stands as the bedrock of wisdom, a foundation that undergirds a life of purpose, reverence, and divine security. In contrast, the Fear of Man is a mirage that entices with the promise of comfort and acceptance but ultimately binds the soul in chains of spiritual timidity and unrest.

As we draw this discussion to a close, let us reiterate the profound truth that the Fear of God is synonymous with life itself. It is a wellspring of wisdom, a guidepost to eternal truth, and the gateway to a relationship anchored in the awe of an almighty God. This sacred fear does not paralyze but empowers; it does not confine but liberates, guiding us into the fullness of life as intended by our Creator.

Conversely, the Fear of Man ensnares and diminishes, restricting our spiritual horizons and tethering us to the whims of creation rather than the Creator. It is a fear that skews our perspective, leading us to elevate the temporal over the eternal and the finite over the infinite.

In light of these reflections, let us take a moment to examine our own hearts. Where have our allegiances been placed? Are our lives a testament to the reverential fear that honors God, or have we been swayed by the shifting sands of human approval? The call is clear, and the choice is ours to make. May we align ourselves with the eternal wisdom of Scripture, choosing to live in the awe-inspiring fear that honors the Creator and Sustainer of all. Let us step into the freedom and security that is found only in Him.

Sermon & Sandwiches

Reflecting on a sermon can help to internalize its message and apply its truths to our lives. Discussing it with someone else can further enrich our understanding and encourage spiritual growth in community.

Conversation Starters:

  • How did the sermon challenge your current understanding of fearing God? In what ways might this kind of fear deepen your relationship with Him?
  • What does ‘fearing God’ look like in your daily life? Can you share a time when this kind of fear felt more like awe and reverence rather than dread?
  • The idea of fearing man is quite pervasive in our culture. How do you recognize when you’re falling into that trap, and how does it impact your decisions?
  • In what situations do you find it most difficult to prioritize God’s opinion over the opinions of others?
  • How does the gospel reshape our understanding of fear and how we respond to God compared to our natural inclinations?
  • Discuss a moment when you chose to act out of the fear of God rather than the fear of man. What was the outcome, and how did it affect your faith journey?
  • Can we think of practical ways to remind ourselves daily that God’s approval is what matters most?
  • How does the assurance of Christ’s love and sacrifice impact your response to God’s holiness and justice?
  • Reflect on the phrase “fearing God leads to life.” How does this resonate with the message of the gospel for you?
  • Let’s share insights on how the Fear of God has a liberating effect on our lives, especially when compared to the constraints of fearing man.

The Daily Devotion

Monday: Embracing the Majesty of God

  • Scripture: Proverbs 9:10 – “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.”
  • Reflection: Consider what it means that the starting point of wisdom is a proper understanding and reverence of God’s character. Reflect on how the gospel reveals both the holiness of God and His loving provision for sinners through Christ.
  • Prayer Focus: Ask God to reveal more of His majesty and holiness to you, and to help you understand how the gospel is the ultimate demonstration of His love and righteousness.

Tuesday: The High Cost of Man’s Approval

  • Scripture: Galatians 1:10 – “For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.”
  • Reflection: Ponder the implications of seeking approval from others rather than from God. Reflect on how Christ’s sacrificial love frees us to live for an audience of One.
  • Prayer Focus: Pray for the strength to seek God’s approval above all else and for the discernment to recognize when the desire for human approval is influencing your choices.

Wednesday: The Transformative Power of Godly Fear

  • Scripture: 2 Corinthians 7:1 – “Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God.”
  • Reflection: Meditate on the promises of God you’ve received through Christ, and how the fear of the Lord is not about punishment, but about living in light of His promises and our identity in Jesus.
  • Prayer Focus: Ask for a heart that desires holiness as a response to God’s grace, and for the fear of God to be a guiding and transformative influence in your life.

Thursday: The Freedom of Divine Wisdom

  • Scripture: James 3:17 – “But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere.”
  • Reflection: Contemplate how the wisdom that comes from fearing God is inherently linked to the attributes of God Himself, and how this wisdom is manifested in the life of a believer who is rooted in the gospel.
  • Prayer Focus: Seek God’s wisdom in your daily walk and pray for the grace to display these heavenly attributes in your interactions with others, as an outflow of the gospel at work in your life.

Friday: Living in Awe of God’s Salvation

  • Scripture: Ephesians 2:8-9 – “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”
  • Reflection: Reflect on how a proper fear of God leads us to a greater appreciation for His grace in salvation. Think about how understanding and fearing God correctly shapes our faith and gratitude.
  • Prayer Focus: Give thanks for the salvation that is yours through faith in Christ alone, and pray that your life would be a testament to the awe and wonder you have because of what Jesus has done for you.