Rejoice & Tremble: The Surprising Good News of the Fear of the Lord by Michael Reeves
A Book Review
This article was first published in French at TPSG.
The fear of the Lord is an often neglected teaching in our modern era. We mistakenly assume that the opposite of love is fear and that we could not possibly hold both in relation to God. Michael Reeves cuts through the confusion of this paradox by taking his readers on a journey through the Bible, with the aim of helping us discover that the gospel frees us from fear at the same time that it gives us fear. To all who have wrestled with these twin concepts, this book is for you.
About the Author
Dr. Michael Reeves is president and professor of theology at Union School of Theology in the United Kingdom. My first exposure to him was through his seminal work, “Delighting in the Trinity: An Introduction to the Christian Faith.” In a simple, winsome manner, Reeves introduces his readers to the doctrine of the Trinity. And while this article is not a review of his best-known book, I highly recommend it to anyone eager to better understand and enter into deeper fellowship with our triune God.
An Era of Fear
Reeves opens his book by grounding the concept of fear in our cultural context. He argues that this generation is marked by fear. Politicians capitalize on it and educators protect students from it by creating “safe spaces” to shelter them from opposing viewpoints or criticism. Increasing levels of anxiety, rather than leading people to turn to God for answers, have led us to medicalize fear. Drawing inspiration from the Puritan John Flavel, he contends that,
Anxiety grows best in the soil of unbelief. It withers in contact with faith. And faith is fertilized by the fear of God (p. 25).
Next, Reeves explains the difference between the fear that God desires from his people and the fear of God that is sinful. He contrasts Martin Luther’s pre-conversion fear of God that resulted in hatred with the fear of God that proved to be a comfort following his new birth. At its roots, sinful fear views God as an avenging Judge more than as a compassionate Friend and Father. And the cure is to reject the fear that causes us to run from God and to embrace instead the wonderful fear that wins us and draws us to God.
The author then discusses common terms Christians use as synonyms for the fear of the Lord: awe, respect, reverence. Reeves contends that while these are all part of what it means to fear God, they fall short of capturing the fullness of what it means to fear the Lord, according to Scripture. He proposes that a proper response to God will produce fear that is accompanied by love and joy:
For the nature of the living God means that the fear which pleases him is not a grovelling, shrinking fear. He is no tyrant. It is an ecstasy of love and joy that senses how overwhelmingly kind and magnificent, good and true God is, and that therefore leans on him in staggered praise and faith (p. 67).
Fearing the Creator vs. Fearing the Father
Drawing from John Calvin’s distinction between the knowledge of God as Creator and the knowledge of God as Redeemer in his Institutes, Reeves makes a similar distinction between the fear of God the Creator and the fear of God the Redeemer in Christ. The former cannot produce joy without the latter. For the contemplation of creation alone reveals the power of the Creator, resulting in awe, wonder, and dread. But only contemplation of the Redeemer can free us from such terror and lead us to godly filial fear and joy in our Creator.
If God’s essential identity is to be the Creator, the ruler, then he needs a creation to rule in order to be who he is. But God existed for eternity before he ever created, and he existed with complete self-sufficiency, depending on nothing to be who he is… And that being the case, argued Athanasius, we cannot come to a true knowledge of who God is in himself simply by looking at him as Creator. We must listen to how he has revealed himself—and he has revealed himself in his Son, making known that revelation in all the Scriptures. Our most basic definition of who God is flows from the Son who reveals him… Through the Son we see behind creation into the eternal and essential identity of God. It is as if, through Christ, we step inside the front door of God’s home to see who he is behind what he does (p. 93).
Filial Fear Rooted in Justification
At the heart of filial fear is a proper understanding of justification. Aquinas taught that filial fear involved fear of being separated from God and losing our salvation. The Reformers, however, taught that the believer can only fully embrace the fear and love of the Father when he is gripped by the fear of losing not his salvation, but rather of losing intimate communion with him. And this is a fear of God that the Son himself shares with us (Isa. 11:1-3):
The filial fear the Son shares with us is quite different from the sinner’s dread of God and dread of punishment. It is an adoration of God that dreads sin itself, not just its punishment, for it has come to treasure God and so loathe all that is ungodly. As Calvin put it, the “pious mind” “restrains itself from sinning, not out of dread of punishment alone; but, because it loves and reveres God as Father, it worships and adores him as Lord. Even if there were no hell, it would still shudder at offending him alone.”(p. 103)
Seek the Fear of the Lord
“Rejoice and Tremble” was a pleasure for me to read. It ministered to me most by bringing clarity to a subject I have always embraced, but which I haven’t always clearly understood. It reminded me of the love and joy we find in Christ when we pursue a proper fear of the Lord. If you want to learn more about the fear of the Lord and how to cultivate it in your life, I recommend this book without reservation. You’ll find it here in Canada and here in the U.S.