Can We Fear and Love God at the Same Time?
There are many who believe and preach that Christians should only love God and not fear Him. To prove their point, they would refer to 1 John 4:18, where it says, “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.”
There, they say, it is clear that if we love God, we wouldn’t fear Him, because if we fear Him, our love for Him is not perfect.
How do we explain this particular scripture, which seems to contradict other scriptures that, clearly, exhort us to fear God?
I believe that the Bible is consistent and cannot be broken (John 10:35) by any supposed inconsistency. By understanding the context of 1 John 4:18, we can appreciate better the relationship between the fear of God and the love of God.
1 John 4:18 in context
It’s puzzling how brilliant theologians can talk about “proper hermeneutics” (that is, the correct understanding or interpretation of some literature), and fail to correctly assess the proper context of certain scriptures. 1 John 4:18 is a very good example. Let’s read it again: “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear…”
First, we need to understand clearly what, in context, this “perfect love” consists of. In this fourth chapter of his letter, John writes about two components of this “perfect love.”
God’s perfect love toward us
Backing up in Verses 9 and 10, we read: “In this the love of God was manifested toward us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we [those whom God has elected for salvation in this age and are a part of God's true church] might live through Him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.”
The apostle John is here paraphrasing what that favorite “memory verse” (John 3:16) is saying: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”
Members of the Church of God are among those who have “first trusted” (hoped and believed) in Christ (Ephesians 1:12-13) and His love. [See: Predestination.] Through God’s mercy and grace in Christ, Christians have received the forgiveness of sin as they have repented and have been baptized for the remission of sins. Then they have received God’s Holy Spirit, and have the promise of everlasting life, which is their inheritance as God’s children in God’s kingdom (Acts 2:38-39; 3:19-21).
Love for the brethren
John exhorts the brethren — members of the Church of God — to love one another as a proof that they are indeed begotten of God and know God (1 John 4:7, 11). Loving the brethren — God’s Children — is also a proof that God abides in a true Christian (Verse 12), through God’s Spirit (Verse 13).
Earlier, in Chapter 3:19-12, John shows how to distinguish between the children of God and the children of the devil: “Whoever does not practice righteousness [obey God's commandments, Psalm 119:172] is not of God, nor is he who does not love his brother. For this is the message that you heard from the beginning, that we should love one another [see John 13:34-35; 15:12], not as Cain who was of the wicked one [the devil] and murdered his brother [Abel]….” [See: Are We All God's Children?]
Then in 1 John 3:15 John concludes: “Whoever hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.”
Now, back to 1 John 4:12: “No one has seen God at any time. If we love one another, God abides in us, and His love is perfected in us.” This is the “love” that Verses 17 and 18 are talking about.
It is God’s perfect love for us and us loving our brother that perfects God’s love in us!
1 John 5:2-3 gives us this test of our true love for God’s children — our brethren: “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and keep His commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments. And His commandments are not burdensome.” 1 John 2:3-5 also affirms: “Now by this we know that we know Him, if we keep His commandments. He who says, ‘I know Him,’ and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him. But whoever keeps His word, truly the love of God is perfected in him. By this we know that we are in Him. He who says he abides in Him ought himself also to walk just as He walked.”
The effect of this “perfect love”
Now notice, in Verse 17, what this perfect love accomplishes in us: “…that we may have boldness in the [Day of Judgment]; because as He is [God is love, Verse 8], so we are in this world [we would also love our brethren, as God loves us].”
What are some synonyms of “boldness?” Here’s a partial list: confidence, certainty, sureness/surety/assurance, courage, braveness/bravery, etc. What are some antonyms (or opposites) of “boldness?” To cite a few: timidity, cowardice, fear, etc. That means, if God’s love is perfected in us, we will have no such fear as John describes.
No fear — when? In the Day of Judgment!
Who are those who will have fear in the Day of Judgment — in the day that Christ will return to judge all the earth (Psalm 96:13; 98:9; Isaiah 2:4; 2 Timothy 4:1, 8)? Why, those who are still in bondage to Satan the devil and who hate the brethren of Jesus Christ! These are those who have not really and truly experienced the love of God, through Christ’s sacrifice and resurrection to atone for our sin; they are still in bondage to sin and its consequence: death.
Notice Hebrews 2:14-15, “Inasmuch then as the children [of God, Verse 13] have partaken of flesh and blood [have a physical, material existence], He [Jesus Christ] Himself likewise shared in the same [becoming flesh and blood] that through death [on the cross] He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage.”
1 John 4:18 says, “…fear [that is, the fear of God's judgment of death for sinners] involves torment.” Sins that have not been repented of and not forgiven by God result in the fear and torment of “a certain fearful expectation of judgment, and fiery indignation which will devour the adversaries” (Hebrews 10:27). That would be such a fearsome expectation that those who will fall under God’s judgment will experience so great torment that they will weep and wail, and their teeth will gnash (Matthew 13:41-42).
James 4:4 tells us that when we become “friends” with the world [by following the wicked, ungodly ways of this Satan-deceived world] we become God’s enemies or adversaries: “Adulterers and adulteresses! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Whoever therefore wants to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.”
When Christ returns, He will destroy all of God’s enemies — those human beings who oppose His rule in their lives, those who “practice lawlessness,” chief of whom is “the man of sin,” the “son of perdition,” “the lawless one,” — a great leader of false religion masquerading as “Christian” but is actually of the devil — “whom the Lord will consume with the breath of his mouth and destroy with the brightness of His [second] coming” (2 Thessalonians 2:3, 8) — together with those who come under the sway of that lawless one! [See: "Your Eyes Will Be Opened!" and "I Never Knew You!"]
1 John 3:13-14 says, “Do not marvel, my brethren, if the world hates you. [Jesus, as we can read in John 15:18-19, declared that the world will hate His true disciples just as the world hated -- and continues to hate -- Him.] We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love his brother abides in death. Whoever hates his brother is a murderer [like Cain was], and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.”
When all of mankind will, finally, have received each one his or her chance to know God’s truth and to repent of sin and receive God’s Spirit, those who deliberately choose still to live a sinful, God-defying life, will have their part in the lake of fire (Revelation 21:8; 22:15). As Romans 6:23 famously tells us, “For the wages of sin is death…”
If we have the “perfect love” of God because, in response to God’s love for us, we also love our brethren, then that perfect love will cast out any fear of death or being excluded from God’s kingdom and from receiving everlasting life. “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. We love Him because He first loved us” (1 John 4:18-19).
In sum, then, 1 John 4:18 is saying that if we have the love of Christ perfected in us as we love Christ’s brethren, at Christ’s return we will have no fear of the torment of God’s judgment on sinners — those who do not truly have the love of God in them.
This is the “fear” which the apostle John meant — not the “fear of God” as such!
Why love the brethren
It behooves the brethren, therefore, that they apply diligently in their lives God’s exhortations to love each other as Christ has loved us (John 13:34-35; 15:12, 17). And if we have been doing so, the apostle Paul encourages us to increase more and more in that love. “But concerning brotherly love you have no need that I should write to you, for you yourselves are taught by God to love one another; and indeed you do so toward all the brethren who are in Macedonia. But we urge you, brethren, that you increase more and more [in that brotherly love]” (1 Thessalonians 4:9-10).
In what the NKJV Application Study Bible subheads as “Fruitful Growth in the Faith,” the apostle Peter lists “brotherly kindness” (Greek, philadelphia) and “love” (Greek, agape) as the last two stages in the upward development or growth in our Christian faith (2 Peter 1:5-11). He warns that if we lack these things we are “shortsighted, even to blindness, and [have] forgotten that [we were] cleansed from [our] old sins” (Verse 9).
A basic way to love
Let us reflect on Jesus’ words to the Pharisee Simon, who invited Jesus to his home for a meal. The story is found in Luke 7:36-47. It gives us a great lesson on how to love the brethren — as well as how to love the world (in a different sense of “love” from that in James 4:4; this is the kind of “love” that God has for the world, as John 3:16 describes it).
The story is about a woman, known to be a prostitute, who (perhaps as custom then allowed) came to Simon’s house to wash Jesus’ feet with her tears, wipe them with her hair and anoint them with fragrant oil. Simon thought to himself that, if Jesus were a prophet, He would have known what a sinner this woman was, and according to Simon’s Pharisaical ethics, she would have somehow “defiled” Jesus’ holiness.
As God in the flesh, Jesus knew Simon’s thoughts and so He gave the parable about two servants who owed their one same master some money. One servant owed the master 500 denarii, while the other servant owed him 50 denarii [a tenth of the other's debt]. Peloubet’s Bible Dictionary remarks that a denarius (meaning, “containing ten”) was a Roman silver coin that, originally, was the value of ten asses and was worth the ordinary wage of a day’s labor in those days. Five hundred denarii would then have been worth about one and one/fourth years’ wages.
Since both debtors didn’t have the money to pay their debt, the creditor forgave or wrote off both their debts. Jesus then asked Simon who of the two debtors would love his creditor more. Simon replied, “I suppose the one whom he forgave more.” Jesus told him, “You have judged rightly.”
Jesus said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave Me no water for My feet, but she has washed My feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head. You gave Me no kiss, but this woman has not ceased to kiss My feet since the time I came in. You did not anoint My head with oil, but this woman has anointed My feet with fragrant oil. Therefore I say to you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much. But to whom little is forgiven, the same loves little” (Luke 7:44-47).
This does not mean that we should go out and commit more sins so we can be forgiven more and we can love more! Paul was falsely accused of encouraging that kind of attitude (Romans 3:8). He countered this, in Romans 6:1, “What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? Certainly not! How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it?”
If — through regular study and meditation of God’s Word and law, with the help of God’s Spirit — we let these convict us of sin in our lives, we will be daily repenting and asking for God’s forgiveness through Christ. That’s how we grow in both the knowledge and grace of Christ (2 Peter 3:18). And that grace should help us to be loving and forgiving, kind and gracious to our brethren — and to the rest of sinful mankind.
Is this perhaps a clue as to why David was such a “man after God’s own heart” (Acts 13:22; 1 Samuel 13:14)? David committed sins big time — and plenty! Besides his infamous affair with Bathsheba and his masterminding the calculated death of her husband Uriah (2 Samuel 11-12), David confessed to God his other sins which he said “were more than the hairs of my head” (Psalm 40:12). Although he delighted in God’s law, David knew when he transgressed that law, and he readily admitted it and genuinely repented of it. God forgave all his sin, and David felt so blessed (Psalm 32:1-2, 5). Although David was a man of war and was firmly opposed to the wicked, he showed great love and was forgiving to all, even to those who sought to hurt him, as King Saul did. Is it any wonder God has appointed David to be king, forever, over all Israel in God’s kingdom (Ezekiel 34:23-24; 37:24-25)?
In another parable, Jesus told about the “unforgiving servant” (Matthew 18:23-35). Here was a servant who owed his master-king ten thousand talents. The NKJV Application Study Bible places the talent at 75 pounds or 34 kilograms of either silver or gold. Whatever the value was, ten thousand talents would have been a whole lot of money in today’s currency!
This debtor had no money to pay the debt, so the king “commanded that he be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and that the payment be made. This servant therefore fell down before him, saying, ‘Master, have patience with me, and I will pay you all.’ Then the master of that servant was moved with compassion, released him, and forgave him the debt” (Verses 25-27).
Like many other people, this servant soon forgot his master’s mercy and kindness to him. When his fellow-servant who owed him a hundred denarii [surely only a small fraction of 10,000 talents] could not pay, this creditor-servant did not show mercy but sent his indebted fellow-servant to jail instead. The Master got wind of what this creditor-servant did to his fellow-servant who owed him money. The Master got angry with this servant whom he had forgiven. He called him, “You wicked servant!” Then he had that servant tormented until he would pay all that he owed (Verses 28-34).
Jesus then concluded this parable thus: “So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses” (Verse 35). Jesus taught, “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:14-15).
Echoing Christ’s words, the apostle Paul exhorted the brethren: “Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice. And be kind to one another, [be] tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32-32). “Therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, put on tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering; bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, if anyone has a complaint against another; even as Christ forgave you, so you also must do” (Colossians 3:12-13).
The apostle James warns: “For judgment is without mercy to the one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment (James 2:13).
Making our election sure
Back to 2 Peter 1:10-11, the apostle exhorts: “Therefore, brethren, be even more diligent to make your call ['calling,' KJV] and election sure, for if you do these things [the virtues listed in Verses 5-8] you will never stumble, for so an entrance will be supplied to you abundantly into the everlasting kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” What confidence and boldness this will give us! No fear or torment!
On the Day of Judgment at His return, Jesus will separate the sheep [those who make it to God's kingdom] from the goats [those who will be excluded from that kingdom but will await their day of salvation at a later time; see: Predestination]. And the sheep are those on His right hand who, in their lifetime, had shown love for the brethren of Christ through various acts of kindness as mentioned in Matthew 25. “Inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me” (Verse 40). Jesus said that His brethren — and family — are those who do the will of His Father (Matthew 12:49).
If we cannot learn, and have not learned, to get along with our brethren — Christ’s brethren — in this life, why would God give us eternal life, and rest, in His kingdom, where we will be with all of God’s brethren for all eternity? As Hebrews 4:1 says, “Therefore, since a promise remains of entering His rest, let us fear lest any of you seem to have come short of it.”
The fear of God taught by both Old Testament and New
Many Bible students have the impression that the God of the Old Testament was a wrathful, harsh and stern God who commanded — and wrought — fear of Him in the children of Israel [for example, Deuteronomy 6:13 commands, You shall fear the LORD your God and serve Him..."]. In a word, these students have supposed that the Israelites followed a “religion of fear.” [See: The Law of Christ.]
One only needs to check with a Bible concordance to see that indeed the word “fear” and related words occur almost four times more frequently in the Old Testament than in the New. Of course, the Old Testament is almost three times as long as the New. In any case, what this means is that the New Testament also teaches about “fear” — although not as much as the Old Testament does.
Ignoring this fact, many Bible students think that the New Testament is all about the love of God in Christ, and nothing about the fear of God. So untrue!
Here, then, are a few examples of Bible passages which teach the people of God in the New Testament — the Church of God, true Christians — about the fear of God:
- 1 Peter 2:17 –“Honor all people. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the king.”
- Hebrews 12:28 — “Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us have grace, by which we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear.“
- Revelation 14:6, 7 — “Fear God and give glory to Him, for the hour of His judgment has come, and worship Him who made heaven and earth, the sea and springs of water.”
The essence of the fear of God is to realize that our holy and almighty God means business when it comes to sin, for God will judge everyone according to his or her works in this life [see: God's Spirit and Obedience and Saved for God Works]. To fear God is to understand that “God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:29, quoted from Deuteronomy 4:24). That fear is a healthy kind of fear that respects, that is in awe of, and that does not take for granted the almighty power of God.
A healthy fear of God is a more elevated version of our healthy fear of mistreating or mishandling powerful things that, if not used with care, can harm or even kill us. Healthy fear keeps us from messing around with fire, electricity, high-powered firearms, poison, falling from a tall building or a cliff, nuclear energy, etc., etc. Healthy fear keeps us from doing things that would cost us our job, marriage, friendship, the trust of others, etc., etc.
One who truly fears God departs from evil (Proverbs 3:7; 16:6) and hates evil (Proverbs 8:13).
The fear of God and the love of God compatible
Both the Old Testament and the New show that the fear of God and the love of God are compatible. They go very well together! Again, it’s not a case of “either/or” but a case of “both/and.”
- Deuteronomy 10:12-13 — “And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all His ways and to love Him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments of the LORD and His statutes which I command you today for your good.”
- Exodus 20:6, 20 — “…but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments… for God has come to test you, and that His fear may be before you, so that you may not sin.”
- Matthew 22:37 – “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind” [from Deuteronomy 6:5].
- Matthew 10:28 – “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him [God] who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.”
The fear of God only the beginning of wisdom
The fear of God is not the be-all and end-all of faith and our relationship with God. The fear of God is but the beginning — and the essential element — in our proper relationship with God. That fear of God balances our human tendency to go overboard in our joy of knowing God to the point that we may become familiar with and contemptuous of God and His ways.
- Proverbs 1:7 – “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction.”
- Psalm 111:10 — “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; a good understanding have all those who do His commandments…”
- Psalm 25:12-14 — “Who is the man that fears the LORD? Him shall He teach of the way He chooses. He himself shall dwell in prosperity, and his descendants shall inherit the earth. The secret of the LORD is with those who fear Him, and He will show them His covenant.”
The essence of the fear of the Lord or the fear of God is to depart from evil, to refrain from doing wickedness. The fear of God leads us to fulfill the “Thou-shalt-not’s” of God’s law — to not do what God forbids (to make and worship idols, take God’s name in vain, work on the Sabbath, dishonor parents, commit murder, commit adultery, steal, lie and covet, etc.).
The love of God causes us to actively do good to God and to our fellowmen and God’s creation, thereby completing our wisdom and also perfecting our love. Two of the Ten Commandments have a positive command to not just avoid doing wrong but to do what is right: the 4th commandment to “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy…” and the 5th commandment to “Honor your father and your mother…”
This balanced mix of the fear of God and the love of God is well illustrated in Paul’s admonition in Ephesians 4:28 –
Let him who stole steal no longer [refrain from doing this evil act, as the 8th commandment says -- a very good thing indeed!], but rather let him labor, working with his hands what is good, that he may have something to give him who has need [even better!].
Our next-door neighbors would really appreciate us — will feel safe and secure with us – if we don’t steal their laundry that hangs on their clothesline, or any other property, on the other side of the fence. This is showing the fear of God. But our neighbors would appreciate us even more if we not only wouldn’t steal anything from them but also if we would give them some gift as a token of our love for them. Especially would this be so if our neighbors happen to be in dire need of food, clothing and other necessities in life. This is showing the love of God.
Those who do have the healthy fear of God — who have reverence and respect for His laws — thus also love Him. Romans 13:8-10 and 1 Timothy 1:5 declare that the essence of God’s law is love for God and for neighbors, especially our brethren in the Lord. As we do have that love, we will have confidence when Christ returns to judge the earth (Matthew 25:31-46). [See: "I Never Knew You!"] We will not live in torment in this life.
A lovely paradox
It is paradoxical — but lovely! — that when we truly fear God by departing from evil and love God by trusting in Him and obeying His laws, we will live confidently, boldly, courageously! To us Jesus says, “…Do not fear therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows … Do not fear, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:7, 32).
Hebrews 13:5-6 encourages us: “Let your conduct be without covetousness; be content with such things as you have. For He [God] Himself has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you’ [from Deuteronomy 31:6, 8 and Joshua 1:5]. So we may boldly say: ‘The LORD is my helper; I will not fear. What can man do to me’ [from Psalm 118:6]?”
Let’s hear God’s encouraging words to the persecuted brethren in the Church of God at Smyrna: “Do not fear any of these things which you are about to suffer. Indeed, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and you will have tribulation ten days. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit [Christ] says to the churches. He who overcomes shall not be hurt by the second death” (Revelation 2:10-11).
Someone has observed that there are 366 “Fear not” verses in the Bible — one for every day of the year, and an extra one for the “leap year.”
As we fear and love God, and love our brethren, we are being perfected in the image of Christ and in His love. [See: The Four Dimensions of Christ's Love.] That love will cast out from us any fear of the devil, demons, wicked men, and any disaster that might come upon this world. Most of all, it will cast out any fear that we will be tormented, along with incorrigible sinners, before being thrown into the “lake of fire” for the “second death” (Revelation 20:14-15).
Finally, let’s be super-encouraged by Paul’s comforting words in Romans 8:28, 35-39 –
And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose …. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? It is written [Psalm 44:22]: “For Your sake we are killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.” Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
That’s the real “No Fear Gear!” Let’s put it on with confidence!
Pedro R. Meléndez, Jr.