Conduct Yourselves in Fear

“be holy yourselves also in all your behavior; because it is written, “YOU SHALL BE HOLY, FOR I AM HOLY.” If you address as Father the One who impartially judges according to each one’s work, conduct yourselves in fear during the time of your stay on earth; knowing that you were not redeemed with perishable things like silver or gold from your futile way of life inherited from your forefathers, but with precious blood, as of a lamb unblemished and spotless, the blood of Christ.” {1Pe 1:15b-19 NASB}

What it means to “fear God” may be the most under talked about misnomer of the Christian life. In most Christian circles, the notion of “having a healthy respect” for God is often used interchangeably with “fearing God”. Most teach that God is nothing to be feared when we are Christians and this is primarily due to the truth that we have been justified by Christ’s death in the cross and that there can now never be a distance or a gulf between the regenerate believer and God.

However, I think a simple word study and some exegesis will turn this idea on its head. Ironically such work will demonstrate to us that it is precisely BECAUSE we have been redeemed at such a high cost that we ought to conduct ourselves with an attitude of fear -even terror- of God in our every day Christian life.


Our text in First Peter 1:17 is a command (an imperative) given to the “aliens and strangers” by Peter; and the argument in support of the command.  The imperative we see here is “conduct“.  The thrust of our study is the way in which we are to “conduct ourselves”, which is “in fear”.  It’s this prepositional phrase where much of the misunderstanding.

The original language, however, could not make it any clearer.  The word is φόβος (phobos) from which we get the English word Phobia, and it really does mean “fear, dread, terror” and “reverential fear” according to Vine.  In fact, I think Vine hits it on the head with his attribution of “reverential fear” to our passage:

“God, as a controlling motive of the life, in matters spiritual and moral, not a mere “fear” of His power and righteous retribution, but a wholesome dread of displeasing Him.” – Vine’s Expository Dictionary

Phobos is the same word used in Matt 14:26:

And in the fourth watch of the night He came to them, walking on the sea. When the disciples saw Him walking on the sea, they were terrified, and said, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. {Mat 14:25-26 NASB}

It was also used in Acts 5 when Luke tells us of Ananias:

And as he heard these words, Ananias fell down and breathed his last; and great fear came over all who heard of it. {Act 5:5 NASB}

The disciples did not cry out in “a healthy respect”.  All who heard of Ananias did not have “a healthy respect” come over them.  The disciples were terrified.  The church who saw Ananias die were frightened.  Peter is calling us in 1 Peter 1:17 to be downright afraid of God, not merely to tip our caps to Him and give Him His portion.

Many, at this point, will begin to point out that our fear has gone away when Christ took our sin and imputed to us His righteousness.  In a sense, that is a correct viewpoint.  Our fear of DEATH, SIN, and JUDGEMENT is done away with because of the cross.  Jesus paid our debt, and the Father made a legal transaction to purchase us.  We belong to Him and we’ve been imputed the righteousness of Christ.  We really do have nothing to fear  IN THE SENSE of facing judgement or and eternity in Hell.  Bank on it!

But… that doesn’t mean our lives are entirely fearless.  God is still sovereign, His standards do not disappear in our justification, and as the the previous few verses to our passage (1 Pet 1:15b-16) make clear, God is still a God of holiness.  Moreover, while the old means given to the Jews (“the blood of bulls and goats”) have “gone away and behold all things have become new” (2 Co 5:17), the standards of God have not gone away, nor have His desires and purpose in salvation of His people.

phobosGod is, always has been,  always will be, in all times and in every place, holy.  Holiness means to be set apart, to be different.  A holy God is not a God that is the likeness of some earthly thing.  A holy God is not a God that takes pleasure in common and base things.  A holy God is a God that is, in every way, different.  A holy God is a God “who according to His great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to obtain an inheritance which is imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away, reserved in heaven for you, who are protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.” {1Pe 1:3-5 NASB}

This amazing God has always called His elect to holiness.  He tells His people here in 1 Peter “YOU SHALL BE HOLY, FOR I AM HOLY.” {1Pe 1:16 NASB}   This isn’t the first time His people have heard this.  The call to holiness is a theme throughout the Old Testament.  In Leviticus, as God codified the law for His people, He repeated this exact command.

“Speak to all the congregation of the sons of Israel and say to them, ‘You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy. {Lev 19:2 NASB}
‘Thus you are to be holy to Me, for I the LORD am holy; and I have set you apart from the peoples to be Mine. {Lev 20:26 NASB}
‘You shall consecrate him, therefore, for he offers the food of your God; he shall be holy to you; for I the LORD, who sanctifies you, am holy. {Lev 21:8 NASB}

God is concerned with the holiness of His people.  As the prophets have often taught us, He is made angry by the repeated sin and debauchery of a people called by Him.  Just like the prophets before him, Peter is calling the elect to holiness, and to remember that God is the judge of all the earth.  With that call comes the danger of disobedience, and just as God judged those in the Old Covenant, He will also judge those in the New.  Such judgement comes with the call to holiness.  Note also that Peter is clear that God “impartially judges according to each one’s work”.  Each one isn’t an indication of the non-elect, but each person, elect or not.  God may have justified the believer, He may have saved them from the ultimate judgement, but He still assesses each one’s life and disciplines and rewards accordingly.  No one is immune.

Others who do not accept the definition of being terrified of God claim that it is impossible for them to love a God of whom they are frightened.  They say that they need a God that loves and accepts them, that makes them feel comfortable.  To them it must be said that such a God is a worthless idol, and we must draw upon two points.

First, we cannot presume to dictate to God the terms by which we will worship and serve Him.  We are repeatedly compared to slaves in Scripture.  Jesus is our Lord, not our pal or a salesman attempting to secure a regular payment from us.  Moreover God takes how He is worshiped very seriously, just ask Nadab and Abihu.  Instead of determining the terms by which we’ll worship God, we must instead come to Him on His terms, whatever they may be.

Second, we must point out that we don’t approach God on our own anyway.  The Christian is not saved because he/she is convinced God is worthy of worship.  Rather, Peter illuminates the reason we serve God to begin with in verses 18-19:

knowing that you were not redeemed with perishable things like silver or gold from your futile way of life inherited from your forefathers, but with precious blood, as of a lamb unblemished and spotless, the blood of Christ. {1Pe 1:18-19 NASB}

God bought us, and our price was costly even to Him.  There was nothing earthly or base that could redeem us, but instead the only means by which we could be brought from the pit of sin and into His marvelous light was through the blood of the precious Lamb of God.  Therefore, since salvation is entirely of God and not at all of us, our requirements for worshiping God are utterly meaningless.  Truly, our only hope is in the one to Whom we ought to conduct ourselves in fear.  The only chance we have to be saved lies in the One who deservedly judges each one according to his works.  He may not meet our standards, but our standard don’t matter.

Now, while all of what I said is true, it is not the whole truth.  Peter hints at the other side of this coin when he says “if you address as Father…”.  With equal passion and strength it must be said that God is not ONLY our judge, but also the one who loves us with an “everlasting love” (Jer 31:3), is “with us always” (Mat 28:20), and “will never forsake you” (Heb 13:5).  Believer, know that this same judge of the world who has every right to crush you and every capability of doing so at any moment LOVES you with the greatest and most perfect love ever conceived.  He has “predestined us to adoption” (Eph 1:5), not to destruction.  It is right and good to call this fearful judge “Father”.  We are truly His children.  There’s nothing wrong with having that kind of relationship with God.

But, we can never relegate our reverence for God to a mere “healthy respect”.  Rather, we must utterly fear Him remembering who He is, and praise Him for His mercy and grace to us whom He loves forever and will relent from destruction.

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