Rejoice and Tremble: The Surprising Good News of the Fear of the Lord | Written by Michael Reeves (Crossway, 2021, 176 Pages).
It was with some fear and trepidation that I opened this book. I was afraid the author would say what I have heard all my life, that “the fear of the Lord” is not really “fear,” but respect, awe, or reverence. Not only has that always sounded like a watered-down explanation, it rarely fits the biblical context where people were often afraid of God. I was hoping that Reeves would tell us the blunt truth, that fearing God means being scared out of your wits. Instead, he did something much better: his book changed my mind. I walked away with a new desire to cultivate a godly fear, an intensely worshipful response to the greatness and grace of God.
If people have been domesticating God to make Him non-threatening, the result has not been freedom from anxiety. Our contemporary culture is more fear-driven than ever. We are apt to be paralysed by foolish fears while missing out on the genuine joy that accompanies godly fear. Reeves helps you see that the Bible has two kinds of fear of God: a sinful dread of being exposed by God, and a godly fear that increases your love for God. Sometimes both fears appear in the same passage. In Exodus 20:20 Moses tells the Israelites, “Do not fear, for God has come to test you, that the fear of him may be before you, that you may not sin.” The same word is describing two very different responses to God. What sinful fear and holy fear both have in common is the physical sensation of trembling, of feeling absolutely undone. We were created to have a physical and emotional response to God, to tremble at His holiness, goodness, and undeserved favour. Reeves claims we are not loving God rightly “if our love is not a trembling, overwhelmed, and fearful love. He is not a truth to be known unaffectedly. Seen clearly, the dazzling beauty and splendour of God must cause our hearts to quake.”
Though short and easy to read, this book is peppered with insights from pastors who all have the same first name: John Calvin, John Flavel, John Bunyan, Jonathan Edwards, and John Owens. You will also hear from Charles Spurgeon. I was amazed to see how the fear of the Lord was a subject of such profound interest to so many Puritans and Reformed theologians. And I was ashamed to realize that we rarely talk about it today (except to give people false assurance that God is perfectly safe and harmless). If we only contemplate God’s power, His majesty as Creator will move us to worship, but it might also leave us afraid that He will reject us. If we contemplate God’s fatherly love, “our fear is transformed from trembling, slavish terror to trembling, filial wonder.” The gospel does not leave you with a fear of losing your salvation, it leaves you in a state of marvelling: it is so good you can hardly believe it is true!
Fear of God impacts both our worship and our sanctification. When God forgives you, it moves you to worship Him with “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.” What surprised me was learning how the fear of the Lord relates to eschatology: in eternity “both the sinful fears of unbelievers and the right fear of believers will crescendo. All fears are a foretaste. The sinful fears and dreads of unbelievers are the firstfruits of hell; the filial fears of Christians are the firstfruits of heaven.” Until that final day, we want to be about the business of knowing God and making Him known. The fear of the Lord is not merely the beginning of wisdom today, it is what we are talking about when we talk about enjoying God forever.