American culture is full of fear. Although our country is profoundly polarized, the fact of fear and its driving and entrenching power unites us. The objects of our fears differ: We may be most afraid of the proliferation of gross injustice or of the government infringing on our personal liberties. We may fear persecution or the loss of the church’s witness through compromising political allegiances. Many of us fear losing our income or, worse, losing a loved one to the pandemic or police brutality. Masks, unmasked people, the coronavirus, vaccines, becoming a hashtag, tornadoes, hurricanes, break-ins, elections—all these things spark fear for different people. We are afraid.
Into this fear, the Lord speaks a word of hope and peace again and again through Scripture: Do not be afraid! In Luke 1:74, Zechariah prophesied that Jesus’ coming meant that God’s people would be able to serve him “without fear.” And yet Scripture also commands and calls us to fear the Lord and casts that fear in a positive light, with Isaiah even calling it the Messiah’s “delight” (11:3). What are we to make of this?
Michael Reeves addresses this question with competence and clarity in his latest book, Rejoice and Tremble: The Surprising Good News of the Fear of the Lord. Reeves, who teaches at the UK’s Union School of Theology, is perhaps best known for his 2012 volume Delighting in the Trinity, which provides a much-needed introduction to the doctrine of the Trinity in accessible and even playful language. Rejoice and Tremble follows in that vein by reappropriating the wisdom of the historic church, grounded in Scripture, to explain the meaning and value of an oft-misunderstood or neglected tenet of the Christian faith.
Two kinds of fear
The key, as Reeves explains, is that there are different types of fear. One is the “sinful fear” exhibited by unbelievers that apprehends God only as Creator and trembles at the thought of his power. This kind of fear leads to terror before God, much like the multitudes in Revelation who beg the mountains to fall on them so that they might be hidden from his wrath (6:16).
The other kind of fear Reeves calls “right fear,” also traditionally known as “filial fear.” This kind of fear, Reeves argues, actually has nothing to do with being afraid. Rather, it is a love that trembles because its object, the Lord, is overwhelmingly and incomparably beautiful, holy, and glorious.
This description may remind some readers of Delighting in the Trinity, which is appropriate, since Reeves rightly identifies the Trinity as the source and logic of all faithful Christian faith and practice. In Rejoice and Tremble, Reeves explains that there are two different sources of knowledge of God. Each way of knowing leads to a different identification of God and, consequently, a different relationship to God—or, in other words, a different kind of fear. Those who know God only through creation have a sinful fear of God because they apprehend his power without an understanding of his character. In contrast, those who know God through Jesus Christ the Son have a right or filial fear because they know God as their loving Father. They tremble before the Lord not in dread or terror but in wonder-filled love.
Since Reeves argues that “right fear” actually excludes being afraid, the question naturally arises: Why call it fear? Wouldn’t awe or reverence be more apt? To this challenge, Reeves submits evidence concerning the term’s intended meaning, the precedent of Scripture’s original Hebrew language, and the weight of church tradition. His explanation highlights the intensity and passion he believes is missing from our concept of fearing God. Fear has a physicality and emotional potency to it that other words lack.
Awe and reverence are worthwhile terms, but compared to fear they can sound overly cool and distant, as though our appreciation for God were mainly cerebral. Reeves wants the church to know and experience a fear that is anything but cool and distant. The fear of the Lord is a fire in the bones! It touches the mind, but it also excites the body and stirs up our affections. The fear of the Lord is an embodied, wholehearted delight in knowing and being known by God our Father through the Son and in the Spirit.
Hearing “the fear of the Lord” frequently conjures up ideas of cool regard, sterile obedience, or fear of punishment. It might strike us as an appropriate posture in light of God’s transcendence and incomparability, but it is not particularly joy-filled or delightful. Reeves shows us how the fear of the Lord is “surprising good news,” inspiring readers to share in the Son’s own delighted fear.
The fear of the Lord is good news not only because it means knowing and delighting in God but also because it frees us from all other fears. Reeves argues that we are more afraid than ever, even though we are, by and large, safer than ever. Sinful fear causes us to spurn God and transfer our affections, hopes, and fears elsewhere. Health, wealth, relationships, and reputation are just a few of the things that take on “a divine ultimacy,” as Reeves puts it. We have more to lose than ever before, and we fear losing what we love.
Without a right fear of God, we are enslaved to what Reeves calls “cruel and pitiless idols.” But having this sort of fear reins in all other fears, for our loving Father is also the Creator, and nothing else holds divine ultimacy. In Christ, we have freedom from fear precisely through the fear of the Lord. All other fears subside and hold to their proper bounds as we rejoice and tremble before our Creator and Redeemer.
Rejoice and Tremble is an admirable work that draws on the riches of the Christian tradition and Scripture to restore the church’s understanding of the fear of the Lord. In step with the stated purpose of all Reeves’s work, the book effectively moves the reader to greater delight in God. The goal of theology is worship, and Reeves consistently writes toward that end.
This particular book is the first installment in Crossway’s new Union series, edited by Reeves. The series will explore a variety of subjects, generating two companion books on each. One, like Rejoice and Tremble, will be aimed toward church leaders, while the other (in this case, Reeves’s What Does It Mean to Fear the Lord?) will cover the same material in a more concise and accessible manner for laypeople. Rejoice and Tremble is an exciting indicator of the gift this series may be to the church’s worship and mission.
Reeves peppers Rejoice and Tremble with insightful and needed applications for ministry, preaching, and the minister’s life in general. While this highlights its primary intended audience, Reeves characteristically avoids jargon and writes in an accessible style. Some may prefer the breezy 80 pages of the companion volume, but church leaders, seminarians, and laypeople alike stand to benefit from Rejoice and Tremble.
While the ministry applications are helpful, a couple of Reeves’s other cultural touch points are troublesome, particularly his brief treatments of anxiety disorders and safe spaces. There is some value in what Reeves has to say, but these are complex and culturally weighty issues that require much more space and nuance than Reeves has allowed. At the same time, they are tangential to Reeves’s argument, and taking the space to do them justice would have derailed his treatment of the core subject. Perhaps, then, it would have been wiser to leave them out.
Rejoice and Tremble relies partly on observations of sociological phenomena and is grounded in Scripture, but those looking for sociological studies or thorough exegesis of scriptural texts should look elsewhere. Reeves’s discipline is theology, and his work shines in that regard. Rejoice and Tremble should move today’s church to greater adoration of God, as Reeves helps us recover the historic church’s wisdom concerning the fear of the Lord. In a culture wracked by fear, the fear of the Lord truly is “surprising good news.”
Emily Hazleton is a writer living in Alabama. She holds a master of divinity degree from Beeson Divinity School.
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