Fear and Sonship

What role does godly fear play in the life of the believer?

“When we fail to understand or believe the doctrine of adoption we live as orphans and slaves. The fear that we will exhibit will necessarily be servile or slavish fear. The heart that has come to know that the Father has loved us and has “received into the number,” and had given us “a right to all the privileges of the sons of God (WSC 34), is a heart that will fear God with that precious gift of “filial fear.”


On a prima facia reading, the Scriptures seem to give us contradictory statements about the roll of fear in the life of the believer. On the one hand we are called to fear the Lord (e.g. Lev. 25:17; Deut. 6:2; 1 Samuel 12:14; 2 Kings 17:39; Psalm 2:11; etc.) and on the other hand we are told, “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves torment. But he who fears has not been made perfect in love” (1 John 4:18). So how are we to explain the difference between the two kinds of fear that are taught in Scripture? And, what roll is fear to play in the believer rendering obedience unto God?

There are many who have insisted that the true believer, because he or she is called to “tremble at the threatenings, and embrace the promises of God” (WCF 14.2), should be one who constantly lives in fear of the wrath and judgment of God. Sinclair Ferguson has helpfully explained that many who are most zealous to uphold the force of the warnings of Scripture are also the most susceptible of failing into a “He loves me; He loves me not” kind of mentality regarding their relationship with God. “It is as if” he suggested, “they believe that God is tryinging to convince His children that they are not really His children. This is a mistake of monumental proportions. It is unthinkable that any earthly father would do such a thing to His children, and yet we allow ourselves to fall into this fatal error.” In fact, in chapter 20 of the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Divines make the the following important distinction between “slavish fear” and “childlike love” when they exposit the liberty that the children of God are called to enjoy:

The liberty which Christ hath purchased for believers under the gospel consists in their freedom from the guilt of sin, the condemning wrath of God, the curse of the moral law; and in their being delivered from this present evil world, bondage to Satan, and dominion of sin, from the evil of afflictions, the sting of death, the victory of the grave, and everlasting damnation; as also in their free access to God, and their yielding obedience unto him, not out of slavish fear, but a childlike love, and a willing mind.

The contrast between “slavish” or “servile fear” and “filial fear” is one that is not foreign to the history of Reformed thought. Consider the following exposition of 1 John 4:18 by Jonathan Edwards.

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