Several years ago I began a Bible class with the question, “It it possible to scare someone into the kingdom?” I fully expected a negative reply, but a thoughtful woman responded, “Sometimes.” I have been mulling over her answer ever since. Most of us are uncomfortable with “the fear of the Lord.” Scaring a person into the kingdom—or a believer into taking God seriously—these were the mistakes of our Puritan predecessors. Imagine putting Jonathan Edwards’s “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” on a church marquee: that would certainly not be a wise move from a marketing standpoint.

The simple fact, though, is that we get doctrine from the Bible, not from our neighbors. And Scripture’s teaching on the fear of the Lord opposes the temper of our times. Despite much-touted theories of pluralism, Americans of all stripes unite in a Ptolemaic view of the self: the universe revolves around me. Christians seem as eager as anyone to secure a central place for the ego. We place truth in orbit around self-esteem. Since teachings about the fear of the Lord require a Copernican recognition that I am not the center, they appear utterly senseless.

Yet the Bible teaches that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Pss. 111:10, et al.). We confuse the issue when we interpret fear to mean respect or reverence. The Bible connects fear with the majesty of God at least 300 times. The fact that contemporary translators so frequently use the English word “fear” would suggest that “fear” really means fear, and not merely respect or reverence. Perhaps there is something here that we would rather not hear.

The issue is even more complicated. Scripture ...

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