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THE TRUE CHARACTER OF THE FEAR OF GOD.
INOW come, in the next place, to treat of the grace of ear more immediately intended in the text, which I call a lasting godly fear. And first, by way of explication, by which I shall show, I. How by the Scripture it is described.
II. I shall show you what this fear flows from.
I. For the first of these, - How by the Scripture this fear is described; and that, 1. More generally. 2. More particularly. 1. More generally. It is called a grace, that is, a sweet and blessed work of the Spirit of grace, as he is given to the elect. Hence the apostle says, “Let us have grace, whereby we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear,” Hebrews 12:28; for as that fear that brings bondage is wrought in the soul by the Spirit, as a Spirit of bondage; so this fear, which is a fear that we have while we are in the liberty of sons, is wrought by him as he manifesteth to us our liberty. “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty,” 2 Corinthians 3:17; that is, where he is a Spirit of adoption, setting the soul free from that bondage under which it was held by the same Spirit, while he wrought as a Spirit of bondage. Hence, as he is called a Spirit working bondage to fear, so he, as the Spirit of the Son, and of adoption, is called “The Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord,” Isaiah 11:2. Because it is that Spirit of grace that is the author, animator, and maintainer of our filial fear, or of that fear that is son-like, and that subjecteth the elect unto God, his word, and ways; unto him, his word, and ways, as a Father.
This fear is called also “the fear of God,” not as that which is ungodly is, nor yet as that may be, which is wrought by the Spirit as a Spirit of bondage; but by way of eminency, namely, as a dispensation of the grace of the gospel, and as a fruit of eternal love. “I will put my fear in their hearts, that they shall not depart from me,” Jeremiah 32:40.
This fear of God is called “God’s treasure,” for it is one of his choice jewels, it is one of the rarities of heaven; “The fear of the Lord is his treasure,” Isaiah 33:6. And it may well go under such a title, for as treasure, so the fear of the Lord, is not found in every corner. It is said, “All men have not faith,” 2 Thessalonians 3:2; because that also is more precious than gold, the same is said about this fear. “There is no fear of God before their eyes,” Romans 3:18; that is, the greatest part of men are utterly destitute of this goodly jewel, this treasure, the fear of the Lord. Poor vagrants, when they come straggling to a lord’s house, may perhaps obtain some scraps and fragments, they may also obtain old shoes, and some sorry cast-off rags, but they get not any of his jewels; they may not touch his choicest treasure; that is kept for the children, and those that shall be his heirs. We may say the same also of this blessed grace of fear, which is here called God’s treasure. It is only bestowed upon the elect, the heirs of children of the promise; all others are destitute of it, and so continue to death and judgment.
This grace of fear is that which makes men excel, and go beyond all men in the account of God; it is that which beautifies a man, and prefers him above all other. “Hast thou,” said God to Satan, “considered my servant Job, that there is none like him in the earth, a perfect and an upright man, one that feareth God, and escheweth evil?” Job 1:8.
Mind it, there is none like him, none like him in the earth. I suppose it is meant either in those parts, or else he was the man that abounded in the fear of the Lord; none like him to fear the Lord: he excelled others with respect to his reverencing of God, bowing before him, and sincerely complying with his will, and therefore is counted the excellent man. It is not the knowledge of the will of God, but our sincerely complying therewith, that proveth we fear the Lord; and it is our so doing that putteth upon us the note of excelling; hereby appears our perfection, herein is manifest our uprightness. A perfect an upright man is one that feareth God, and that because he escheweth evil.
Therefore this grace of fear is that without which no part or piece of service which we do to God, can be accepted of him. It is, as I may call it, “the salt of the covenant,” Leviticus 2:13, which seasoneth the heart, and therefore must not be lacking there; it is also that which salteth or seasoneth all our doings, and therefore must not be lacking in any of them.
I take this grace of fear, to be that which softeneth the heart, and that makes it stand in awe both of the mercies and judgments of God. This is that which retaineth in the heart that due dread and reverence of the heavenly Majesty that is meet should both be in, and kept in the heat of poor sinners.
Wherefore when David described this fear, in the exercise of it, he calls it an awe of God. “Stand in awe, and sin not,” Psalm 4:4; and again, “My heart standeth in awe of thy word,” <19B9161> Psalm 119:161; and again, “Let all the earth fear the Lord: let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him,” Psalm 33:8.
This is that, therefore, that is, as I said before, so excellent a thing in the eyes of God, namely, a grace of the Spirit, the fear of God, his treasure, the salt of the covenant, that which makes men excel all others: for it is that which makes the sinner to stand in awe of God, which posture is the most comely thing in us, throughout all ages. But, 2. More particularly. This grace is called, the “beginning of knowledge,” Proverbs 1:7, because by the first gracious discovery of God to the soul, this grace is begot; and again, because the first time that the soul doth apprehend God in Christ to be good unto it, this grace is animated, by which the soul is put into a holy awe of God, which causeth it with reverence and due attention to hearken to him, and tremble before him. It is also by virtue of this fear that the soul doth inquire yet more after the blessed knowledge of God. This is the more evident, because, where this fear of God is wanting, or where the discovery of God is not attended with it, the heart still abides rebellious, obstinate, and unwilling to know more, that it might comply therewith; nay, for want of it, such sinners say unto God, “Depart from us; for we desire not the knowledge of thy ways,” Job 21:14.
This fear is called, “the beginning of wisdom,” <19B110> Psalm 111:10, because then, and not till then, a man begins to be truly spiritually wise: what wisdom is there where the fear of God is not? Therefore, the fools are described thus: “For that they hated knowledge, and did not choose the fear of the Lord,” Proverbs 1:29.
The word of God is the fountain of knowledge, into which a man will not with godly reverence look, until he is endued with the fear of the Lord; therefore it is rightly called “the beginning of wisdom: but fools despise wisdom and instruction,” Proverbs 1:7. It is, therefore, this fear of the Lord that makes a man wise for his soul, for life, and for another world. It is this that teacheth him, how he should escape those spiritual and eternal ruins that the fool is overtaken with, and swallowed up of for ever. A man void of this fear of God, wherever he is wise, or in whatever he excels, yet about the matters of his soul there is none more foolish than himself; for through the want of the fear of the Lord, he leaves the best things at sixes and sevens, and only pursueth with all his heart those that will leave him in the snare when he dies.
This fear of the Lord is to hate evil; to hate sin and vanity. Sin and vanity are the sweet morsels of the fool, and such which the carnal appetite of the flesh runs after; and it is only the virtue that is in the fear of the Lord, that makes the sinner have an antipathy against it. “By the fear of the Lord men depart from evil,” Proverbs 16:6. That is, men shun, separate themselves from, and eschew it in its appearances. Wherefore it is plain, that those that love evil, are not possessed with the fear of God.
There is a generation that will pursue evil, that will take it in, nourish it, lay it up in their hearts, hide it, and plead for it, and rejoice to do it; these cannot have in them the fear of the Lord, for that is to hate it, and to make men depart from it. Where the fear of God and sin are, it will be with the soul as it was with Israel, when Amri and Tibni strove to reign among them both at once; one of them must be put to death; they cannot live together: sin must down, for the fear of the Lord begetteth in the soul a hatred against it, an abhorrence of it; therefore sin must die, that is, as to the affections and lusts of it; for, as Solomon says in another case, “Where no wood is, there the fire goeth out,” Proverbs 26:20. So we may say, where there is a hatred of sin, and where men depart from it, there it loseth much of its power, waxeth feeble and decayeth. Therefore, Solomon saith again, “Fear the Lord, and depart from evil,” Proverbs 3:7; as if he had said, Fear the Lord, and it will follow, that you shall depart from evil: departing from evil, is a natural consequence, a proper effect of the fear of the Lord. “By the fear of the Lord men depart from evil;” that is, in their judgment, will, mind, and affections; not, that by the fear of the Lord, sin is annihilated, or has lost its being in the soul; there still will be those Canaanites, but they are hated, loathed, abominated, fought against, prayed against, watched against, strove against, and mortified in the soul.
It is a fountain, or spring, which so continually supplies the soul with variety of considerations of sin, of God, of death, and life eternal, as to keep the soul in continual exercise of virtue, and in holy contemplation. It is a fountain of life; every operation thereof, every act and exercise thereof, hath a true and natural tendency to spiritual and eternal felicity. Wherefore the wise man saith, in another place, “The fear of the Lord tendeth to life; and he that hath it shall abide satisfied; he shall not be visited with evil,” Proverbs 19:23.
It tendeth to life even as of nature; everything hath a tendency to that which is most natural to itself, the fire to burn, the water to wet, the stone to fall, the sun to shine, and sin to defile. Thus I say, the fear of the Lord tendeth to life; the nature of it is to put the soul upon fearing of God, of closing with Christ, and of walking humbly before him.
It is “a fountain of life, to depart from the snares of death.” What are the snares of death but sin, the wiles of the devil, etc. From which the fear of God hath a natural tendency to deliver thee, and to keep thee in the way that tendeth to life.
This fear of the Lord is called “the instruction of wisdom,” Proverbs 15:33. You heard before that it is the beginning of wisdom; but here you find it called the instruction of wisdom: for indeed it is not only that which makes a man begin to be wise, but to improve, and make advantage of all those helps and means to life, which God hath afforded to that end; that is, both to his own, and his neighbors’ salvation also. It is the instruction of wisdom; it will make a man capable to use all his natural parts, all his natural wisdom to God’s glory, and his own good. There lieth, even in many natural things, that, into which if we were instructed, would yield us a great deal of help to the understanding of spiritual matters; for in wisdom has God made all the world; nor is there anything that God has made, whether in heaven above, or on earth beneath, but there is couched some spiritual mystery in it. The which men think of no more than they do the ground they tread on, or than the stones that are under their feet, and all because they have not this fear of the Lord, for had they that, it would teach them to think, even from that knowledge of God, that hath by the fear of him been put into their hearts, that he being so great and so good, there must needs be abundance of wisdom in the things he hath made: that fear would also endeavor to find out what that wisdom is, yea, and give to the soul the instruction of it.
In that it is called the instruction of wisdom, it intimates to us, that its tendency is to keep all even, and in good order in the soul. When Job perceived that his friends did not deal with him in an even spirit and orderly manner, he said that they forsook the fear of the Almighty, Job 6:14.
For, this fear keeps a man, even in his words and judgment of things. It may be compared to the ballast of the ship, and to the poise of the balance of the scales, it keeps all even, and also makes us steer our course right with respect to the things that pertain to God and man.
This fear, this grace of fear, this son-like fear of God, flows from the distinguishing love of God to his elect. “I will be their God,” saith he, “and I will put my fear in their hearts.” None other obtain it but those that are enclosed and bound up in that bundle. Therefore, in the same place, they are said to be those that are wrapped up in the eternal or everlasting covenant of God, and so designed to be the people that should be blessed with this fear. “I will make an everlasting covenant with them,” saith God, “that I will not turn away from them, to do them good; but I will put my fear in their hearts, that they shall not depart from me,” Jeremiah 32:40.
This covenant declares unto men that God hath, in his heart, distinguishing love for some of the children of men; for he saith he will be their God, that he will not leave them, nor yet suffer them to depart finally from him. Into these men’s hearts he doth put fear, this blessed grace, and this rare and effectual sign of his love, and of their eternal salvation.
This fear flows from a new heart. This fear is not in men by nature: the fear of devils they may have, as also an ungodly fear of God; but this fear is not in any, but where there dwelleth a new heart, which is another fruit and effect of this everlasting covenant, and of this distinguishing love of God. “A new heart also will I give you,” Ezekiel 36:26. A new heart, what is that? why, the prophet Jeremiah saith, in another place, “A heart to fear me,” Jeremiah 32:39, a circumcised one, a sanctified one.
So then, until a man receive a heart from God, a heart from heaven, a new heart, he has not this fear of God in him. Men do not “put new wine into old bottles: else the bottles break, and the wine runneth out, and the bottles perish: but they put new wine into new bottles, and both are preserved,” Matthew 9:17.
This fear of God must not be, cannot be found in old hearts: old hearts are not bottles out of which this fear of God proceeds; but it is from a honest and good heart, from a new one, from such an one that is also an effect of the everlasting covenant, and love of God to men. “I will give them a heart to fear me;” there must in all actions be heart, and without heart no action is good; nor can there be faith, love, or fear, from every kind of heart; these must flow from such an one, whose nature is to produce and bring forth such fruit; “For of thorns men do not gather figs, nor of a bramble bush gather they grapes,” Luke 6:44; so from a corrupt heart there cannot proceed such fruit as the fear of God, as to believe in God, and love God.
The heart naturally is “deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked,” how then should there flow from such a one the fear of God? It cannot be. he therefore that hath not received, at the hands of God, a new heart, cannot fear the Lord.
This fear of God flows from an impression, a sound impression that the word of God maketh on our souls; for without an impress of the word, there is no fear of God. Hence it is said, that God gave to Israel good laws, statutes, and judgments, that they might learn them, and in learning them, learn to fear the Lord their God, Deuteronomy 4:8. Therefore saith God, in another place, “Gather the people together, men, and women, and children, and thy stranger that is within thy gates, that they may hear, and that they may learn, and fear the Lord your God,” Deuteronomy 31:12.
For as a man drinketh good doctrine into his soul, so he feareth God. If he drinks it in much, he feareth him greatly; if he drink sit in but little, he feareth him but little; if he drinks it not in at all, he feareth him not at all.
This, therefore, teacheth us how to judge who feareth the Lord; they are those that learn, and that stand in awe of the word: those fear God that have, by the holy word of God, the very form of itself engraven upon the face of their souls. But, on the contrary, those fear not God that do not love good doctrine, that give not place to the wholesome truths of the God of heaven revealed in his testament, to take place in their souls, but rather despise it, and the true professors of it. For, as I said before, this fear of God flows from a sound impression that the word of God maketh upon the soul; and, therefore, this godly fear floweth from faith, for where the word maketh sound impression on the soul, by that impression is faith begotten, whence also this fear doth flow. Therefore, the right hearing of the word is called “the hearing of faith,” Galatians 3:2. Hence it is said again; “by faith Noah, being warned of God of things not seen as yet, moved with fear, prepared an ark to the saving of his house; by the which he condemned the world, and became heir of the righteousness which is by faith,” Hebrews 11:7.
The word, the warning that he had from God of things not seen as yet, wrought, through faith therein, that fear of God in his heart, that made him prepare against unseen dangers, and that he might be an inheritor of unseen happiness.
Where, therefore, there is not faith in the word of God, there can be none of this fear: and where the word doth not make sound impression on the soul, there can be none of this faith. So that as vices hang together, and have the links of a chain, dependant one upon another, even so the graces of the Spirit also are the fruits of one another, and have such dependence on each other, that the one cannot be without the other. No faith, no fear of God; devils’ faith, devils’ fear; saints’ faith, saints’ fear.
This godly fear also floweth from sound repentance for and from sin; godly sorrow worketh repentance, and godly repentance produceth this fear. “For behold,” says Paul, “this selfsame thing, that ye sorrowed after a godly sort, what carefulness it wrought in you, yea, what clearing of yourselves, yea, what indignation, yea, what fear,” 2 Corinthians 7:11.
Sinner, do not deceive thyself; if thou art a stranger to sound repentance, which standeth in sorrow and shame before God for sin, as also in turning from it, thou hast no fear of God; I mean none of this godly fear, for that is the fruit of, and floweth from sound repentance.
This godly fear also flows from a sense of the love and kindness of God to the soul. Where there is no sense or hope of the kindness and mercy of God by Jesus Christ, there can be none of this fear, but rather wrath and despair, which produceth that fear that is either devilish, or else that which is only wrought in us by the Spirit as a Spirit of bondage; wherefore the godly fear that now I treat of, floweth from some sense or hope of mercy from God by Jesus Christ. “If thou, Lord,” said David, “shouldest mark iniquities, O Lord, who shall stand? but there is forgiveness with thee, that thou mayest be feared,” <19D003> Psalm 130:3,4. “There is forgiveness with thee.” This the soul has sense of an hope in, and therefore feareth God. Indeed, nothing can lay a stronger obligation upon the heart to fear God, than sense of, or hope in mercy. This begetteth true tenderness of heart, true godly softness of spirit; this truly endeareth the affections to God; and in this true tenderness, softness, and endearedness of affection to God, lieth the very essence of this fear of the Lord, as is manifest by the fruit of this fear when we shall come to speak of it.
This fear of God flows from a due consideration of the judgments of God, that are to be executed in the world, yea upon professors too: yea, further, God’s people themselves, I mean, as to themselves, have such a consideration of his judgments towards them, as to produce this godly fear.
When God’s judgments are in the earth, they effect the fear of his name in the hearts of his own people. “My flesh trembleth for fear of thee,” said David; “and I am afraid of thy judgments,” <19B9120> Psalm 119:120.
When God smote Uzza, “David was afraid of God that day,” Chronicles 13:12. Indeed, many regard not the works of the Lord, nor take notice of the operation of his hands, and such cannot fear the Lord. But others observe and regard, and wisely consider of his doings, and of the judgments that he executeth, and that makes them fear the Lord.
This God himself suggesteth as a means to make us fear him. Hence he commanded the false prophet to be stoned, “that all Israel might hear and fear.” Hence also he commanded that the rebellious son should be stoned, “that all Israel might hear and fear.” The false witness was also to have the same judgment of God executed upon him, “that all Israel might hear and fear.” The man also that did aught presumptuously was to die, “that all Israel might hear and fear,” Deuteronomy 13:11; Deuteronomy 21:21; Deuteronomy 17:13; Deuteronomy 19:20.
There is a natural tendency in judgments, as judgments, to beget a fear of God in the heart of man as man: but when the observation of the judgments of God is made by him that hath a principle of true grace in his soul, that observation being made, I say, by a gracious heart, produceth a fear of God in the soul, of its own nature, namely, a gracious or godly fear of God.
This godly fear also flows from a godly remembrance of our former distresses, when we were distressed with our first fears; for though our first fears were begotten in us by the Spirit’s working as a Spirit of bondage, and so are not always to be entertained as such, yet even that fear leaveth in us, and upon our spirits, that sense and relish of our first awakenings and dread, as also occasions and produces this godly fear. “Take heed to thyself,” said God, “and keep thy soul diligently, lest thou forget the things which thine eyes have seen, and lest they depart from thy heart all the days of thy life: but teach them thy sons, and thy sons’ sons,” Deuteronomy 4:9.
But what were the things that their eyes had seen, that would so condemn them, should they be forgotten? The answer is, the things which they saw at Horeb; namely, the fire, the smoke, the darkness, the earthquake, and their first awakenings by the law, by which they were to remember this especially. “Specially,” saith he, “the day that thou stoodest before the Lord thy God in Horeb, when the Lord said unto me, Gather me the people together, and I will make them hear my words, that they may learn to fear me all the days that they shall live upon the earth,” Deuteronomy 4:10.
This godly fear flows from our receiving an answer of prayer, when we supplicated for mercy at the hand of God. See the proof for this. “If there be in the land famine, if there be pestilence, blasting, mildew, locust, or if there be caterpillar; if their enemy besiege them in the land of their cities; whatsoever plague, whatsoever sickness there be; what prayer and supplication soever be made by any man, or by all thy people Israel, which shall know every man the plague of his own heart, and spread forth his hands toward this house: then hear thou in heaven thy dwelling-place, and forgive, and do, and give to every man according to his ways, whose heart thou knowest; (for thou, even thou only, knowest the hearts of all the children of men); that they may fear thee all the days that they live in the land which thou gavest unto our fathers,” 1 Kings 8:37-40.
This grace of fear also flows from a blessed conviction of the all-seeing eye of God; that is, from a belief that he certainly knoweth the heart, and seeth every one of the turnings and returnings thereof, this is intimated in the text last mentioned. “Whose heart thou knowest; that they may fear thee;” namely, so many of them as be, or shall be convinced of this. Indeed, without this conviction, this godly fear cannot be in us; the want of this conviction made the Pharisees such hypocrites. “Ye are they,” said Christ, “which justify yourselves before men; but God knoweth your hearts,” Luke 16:15. The Pharisees were not aware of this, therefore they so much preferred themselves before those that by far were better than themselves; and it is for want of this conviction that men go on in such secret sins as they do, so much without fear either of God or his judgments.
This grace of fear also flows from a sense of the impartial judgment of God upon men according to their works. This also is manifest from the text mentioned before: “And give to every man according to his ways,” or works, “that they may fear thee.” This is also manifest by that passage of Peter; “And if ye call on the Father, who without respect of persons judgeth according to every man’s work, pass the time of your sojourning here in fear,” 1 Peter 1:17.
Thus you see what a weighty and great grace this grace of the holy fear of God is, and how all the graces of the Holy Ghost yield mutually their help and strength to the nourishment and life of it; and also how it flows from them all, and hath a dependence upon every one of them, for its due working in the heart of him that hath it. And thus much to shew you from whence it flows.