Another Helpful Distinction: Filial Versus Servile Fear

This distinction is essential to a sound grasp of what John Stott called “Basic Christianity.”

Because we sin believers are often tempted to discouragement and even to depression. We are tempted to think of God chiefly as a judge and to put ourselves back on a works footing—as if God’s grace was so powerless that we could fall away by our puny efforts. We are tempted to turn inward and to try to “pull ourselves up by our bootstraps.” Such a response to sin and discouragement is a trap. The path to assurance and piety does not lie inward but outward.


I was fortunate to have been raised in a two-parent family. I had a great Dad. I had what today would be considered an “old school” upbringing. Mom did most (maybe all) of the spanking but Dad made his presence felt. There was the potential of feeling Dad’s belt. When I was quite young he convinced me that it was a bad idea to lie to him. Nevertheless, I never doubted that Dad loved us, that he was completely committed to taking care of us, and that he would protect us. It never occurred to me to juxtapose discipline and love. I think all of us children knew that Dad did and said what he did because he loved us. As I grew up it was helpful to know where the boundaries were. It was helpful to be able to say, “Nope. Can’t do it. Dad will (metaphorically) kill me.” The greater fear, of course, was disappointing him.

Sonship In Hebrews 12
According to Hebrews 12, Christians, i.e., those who have received, by grace alone, through faith alone, the benefits of the covenant of grace, are motivated to sanctification not by the covenant of works (“do this and live”) but by the covenant of grace (“do this because Christ lived for you”). Christ is, in the first instance, our obedient substitute. He did for us what we would not and could not do for ourselves. By God’s free grace (sola gratia) to us sinners his perfect righteousness is credited to us and received sola fide. In the covenant of grace, however, Christ does become our pattern, in certain respects. We want always to be careful not to turn Christ into a “model believer.” That path leads right back to Pelagius. Do not be misled: Jesus is the Savior and we are the saved. Nevertheless, having observed the vitally important differences between Christ’s faith and ours, we do look to him as the “looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and cis seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb 12:2. See also 2:10). We ought not to grow weary because, unlike Jesus, in our struggle against sin we have not yet shed blood (Heb 12:3–4).

Unlike some (e.g., the Remonstrants, Richard Baxter et al), the pastor to the Jewish Christians, who were tempted to return to the types and shadows, did not put his congregation back under the covenant of works for salvation (justification, sanctification, and deliverance from the wrath to come). He quoted Proverbs 3:11–12 to show that, when we suffer for the Lord, we are not unloved but loved. We are adopted sons and as such we endure God’s fatherly discipline (Heb 12:7) because fathers discipline those whom they love (v. 8).

Ursinus On Filial Vs Servile Fear
It was in light of this passage and the whole sweep of the history of redemption, in which the Lord consistently manifested his fatherly kindness to his people, that Zacharias Ursinus (1534–83), under Heidelberg 94, distinguished between two kinds of fear: servile and filial. This distinction is essential to a sound grasp of what John Stott called “Basic Christianity.” Believers should not have a servile fear of God. Believers ought to have a filial fear of God. The difference is between the covenants of works and grace.

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