Love God. Fear God

Mon, 26/08/2019 - 10:30 -- James Oakley

There are lots of ways the New Testament is different from the Old. That's why it's called "New". A testament is another word for "covenant", and the book of Hebrews describes this by repeating the adjective "better".

But there are also lots of ways that the New Testament simply builds on the Old, transforming it, fulfilling it, colouring it in, but not replacing it. In fact, this is so much so, that when we read the Old Testament we rarely have to ask: "What is the complete contrast for us?", but far more often ask "What do the lessons here look like for us today?"

One disjunction I often hear is that the Old Testament commanded people to fear God; the New Testament commands people to love God.

But is that right? Well, there are lots of things to say in reply.

  • "Fear" does not mean "be frightened of", but more "respect", "hold in highest regard", "care more what he thinks than anything else"
  • At the same time, replacing the word "fear" with "respect" does lose something. The word "fear" is not a dead metaphor. It carries real freight, and there is an element of fearfulness before the presence of the Living God that is right and proper.
  • "The fear of the Lord" is a widespread virtue, not least as being lesson 1.01 in the school of wise living (Proverbs 1:7).
  • Fearing God is not just an Old Testament way of life. Far from it. You may like to look at Acts 9:31; 2 Corinthians 5:11; Philippians 2:12; 1 Peter 1:17; 1 Peter 2:17; 1 Peter 2:18; Jude 1:23; Revelation 14:7; Revelation 15:4; Revelation 19:5.
  • Some of those references allude to Old Testament texts, giving us not just continuity of terminology but explicit continuity from Old Testament to New.
  • Indeed, according to the New Testament, a failure to fear God is at the root of human sin (Romans 3:18).
  • Having said which, there is a kind of fear from which the gospel rightly liberates us (Romans 8:15; Hebrews 2:15; 1 John 4:18).
  • But, given all the other references to "fear" above, the fear from which we are liberated cannot be the fear that the Old Testament commands and cajoles, but something else.

With those general comments out of the way, I was struck reading Deuteronomy 6, the context of the shema. I'll quote Deuteronomy 6:1-5, with ellipses, so you can see the point clearly:

These are the commands, decrees and laws the Lord your God directed me to teach you … so that you, your children and their children after them may fear the Lord your God as long as you live by keeping all his decrees and commands that I give you. … Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.

We need, not only to reject a disjunction between Old and New Testaments, but also between fear and love. God's commands are given with the purpose that his people may fear him. Command number 1, to this end, is to love him. If you wish to fear God, you must love him.

Not from this text, but we could make the converse point too. If you wish to love God, you must fear him, otherwise the "God" you love is not the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ but some tamed and domesticated invention.

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