Forgiveness and Fear: Companions, Not Opposites

Often, we think of fear and love as opposite sides of a spectrum. It reminds me of reading Machiavelli in college. Even all these years later, I remember him advising that though it’s better for a prince to be both feared and loved, if he must chose one it should be fear. I looked up that quote again while working on this post, and I’d like to share part of it with you. It comes from The Prince, Machiavelli’s advice for ruling, which he dedicated to Lorenzo di Piero de’ Medici in 1532.

Upon this a question arises: whether it be better to be loved than feared or feared than loved? It may be answered that one should wish to be both, but, because it is difficult to unite them in one person, is much safer to be feared than loved, when, of the two, either must be dispensed with. Because this is to be asserted in general of men, that they are ungrateful, fickle, false, cowardly, covetous, and as long as you succeed they are yours entirely; they will offer you their blood, property, life and children, as is said above, when the need is far distant; but when it approaches they turn against you. … and men have less scruple in offending one who is beloved than one who is feared, for love is preserved by the link of obligation which, owing to the baseness of men, is broken at every opportunity for their advantage; but fear preserves you by a dread of punishment which never fails.

The Prince: Chapter 17 by Niccolo Machiavelli

It’s a rather bleak view of human nature. We might not like it, but I suspect some of us are nodding our heads in agreement. An individual person might be honorable enough to stay loyal to a beloved ruler or friend, but people in general likely would turn on a leader they didn’t fear if he needed their aid. To human reasoning, Machiavelli’s advice makes a lot of sense even if we’d rather it didn’t.

God takes a very different view. He risks loving even though it would be very easy for Him to only relate to us through fear of a dreadful punishment. And throughout human history, a lot of people proved Machiavelli’s point right—they did take advantage of God’s mercy and run away from Him when things were going well for them, only turning back when they needed His help or He did something shocking. We learn a lot about how God felt during these cycles of faith and disobedience in ancient Israel’s history when reading prophets like Isaiah and Hosea. It hurt God and angered Him that His people were so fickle but rather than changing His character, He leaned even more into making sure He was both feared and loved. Ultimately, while He deserves fear and honor as our Lord, Master, and Creator, He chooses to relate to us primarily through a love that ought to inspire awe.

Image of a man reading a Bible overlaid with text from Ephesians 1:7, NET version:  “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our offenses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us in all wisdom and insight.”
Image by Creative Clicks Photography from Lightstock

You Forgive, and So We Fear

I didn’t actually start this study intending to talk about Machiavelli. It was originally inspired by reading one little verse in Psalm 130 as part of the Dec. 16 reading in Chris Tiegreen’s OneYear Worship the King Devotional. It’s a short psalm so I’ll quote the whole thing here, but the part we’ll focus on is verse 4.

Out of the depths I have cried to you, Yahweh.
Lord, hear my voice.
    Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my petitions.
If you, Yah, kept a record of sins,
    Lord, who could stand?
But there is forgiveness with you,
    therefore you are feared.
I wait for Yahweh.
    My soul waits.
    I hope in his word.
My soul longs for the Lord more than watchmen long for the morning,
    more than watchmen for the morning.
Israel, hope in Yahweh,
    for there is loving kindness with Yahweh.
    Abundant redemption is with him.
He will redeem Israel from all their sins.

Psalm 130, WEB

I’m sure I’ve read this dozens of times before, but this time the wording for verse 4 really jumped out at me. “There is forgiveness with you, therefore you are feared” shows a causal link between forgiveness and fear. In other words, because God offers forgiveness, we fear Him. Here are a few other translations:

  • “But with you is forgiveness, so that you may be feared.” (LEB)
  • “But you are willing to forgive, so that you might be honored.” (NET)
  • “For with You there is forgiveness, so You may be revered.” (TLV)

It seems odd at first that God forgiving us would make us fear Him, but the more I meditate on this the more it makes sense. Why do we need forgiveness? Because “the compensation due sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23, LEB). If God was only interested in justice, then we’d be dead. But He decided to do something else—Jesus died in our place and, as the lawgiver and judge, God accepts that substitutionary sacrifice and pardons us. He is the one with our fate in His hands, and yet He chooses to forgive. When we start trying to wrap our minds around what He’s done to give us our lives, we can’t help but tremble in fear, awe, and reverence.

Image of hands clasped on a Bible overlaid with text from Psalm 130:3-4, NET version: "If you, O Lord, were to keep track of sins, O Lord, who could stand before you? But you are willing to forgive, so that you might be honored."
Image by Jantanee from Lightstock

Fear, Awe, Righteousness, and Worship

Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown’s commentary on this verse in Psalm 130 points out that “pardon produces filial fear and love. … the sense of forgiveness, so far from producing licentiousness, produces holiness” (MySword app, JFB module, commentary on Psalms 130:4). Similarly, Barnes’s commentary says, “The offender is so pardoned that he is disposed to worship and honor God, for God has revealed himself as one who forgives sin, in order that the sinner may be encouraged to come to him, and be his true worshipper” (MySword app, Barnes module, commentary on Psalms 130:4). When God forgives us, we’re not supposed to take that as license to go out and do sinful things that would require more forgiveness. We’re supposed to recognize that forgiveness is a big deal, and take seriously what God chose to do for us. Our reaction should involve awe, reverence, worship, and honor for the God who saves our lives.

It’s also important that we don’t make the mistake of thinking “fear” here ought to be understood only as honor or reverence. While the concepts of fear and reverence are distinct in English, they aren’t so separated in Hebrew. Biblical uses of the word yare fall “into five general categories: 1) the emotion of fear, 2) the intellectual anticipation of evil without emphasis on the emotional reaction, 3) reverence or awe, 4) righteous behavior or piety, and 5) formal religious worship” (Harris, Archer, and Waltke, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, entry 907). Translators figure out which of those meanings to emphasize based on context, but we need to remember people hearing or reading this word originally would have had all five of those connections in mind even when one was the primary meaning.

Our respect for God includes a certain amount of fearful emotion simply because we have a proper view of His power and importance. If you don’t think, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God,” then you don’t really understand Him (Heb. 10:31, WEB). But if fear is the only thing you feel, then you don’t understand the truth that “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 16, WEB). We need both fear and love for our wonderful God who seeks a deep, lasting relationship with us. And understanding/appreciating forgiveness seems key to deepening that relationship.

The Depth of God’s Forgiveness

Image of a woman worshiping with the blog's title text and the words "Forgiveness is the result of a great victory over sin and death. It demonstrates both God's fearsome power and His amazing love."
Image by PhotoGranary from Lightstock

Forgiveness is too large a topic to fully cover in the concluding section for a single blog post. But we can look at how the early church talked about forgiveness and see the emphasis they placed on it. In Acts, we see that the forgiveness of sins through Jesus Christ was a central part of the gospel message preached (Acts 2:37-39; 5:30-31; 10:40-43; 13:35-39). We learn even more about how the apostles saw forgiveness in Paul’s letter to the Colossians.

giving thanks to the Father who has qualified you to share in the saints’ inheritance in the light. He delivered us from the power of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. …

For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in the Son and through him to reconcile all things to himself by making peace through the blood of his cross—through him, whether things on earth or things in heaven. And you were at one time strangers and enemies in your minds as expressed through your evil deeds, but now he has reconciled you by his physical body through death to present you holy, without blemish, and blameless before him— if indeed you remain in the faith, established and firm, without shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard. …

And even though you were dead in your transgressions and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, he nevertheless made you alive with him, having forgiven all your transgressions. He has destroyed what was against us, a certificate of indebtedness expressed in decrees opposed to us. He has taken it away by nailing it to the cross. 

Colossians 1:12-14, 19-23, 2:13-14, NET

If you skimmed that last quote (as I often skim parts of articles when I’m reading), you might want to go back and read it again more slowly. Look at what Paul says is involved in forgiveness. When God forgives us, He’s taking us out of a kingdom of darkness and turning strangers and enemies into family. Forgiveness is the result of a great victory over sin and death. It demonstrates both God’s power and His love.

Featured image by Temi Coker from Lightstock

3 thoughts on “Forgiveness and Fear: Companions, Not Opposites

  • There’s a certain verse that causes confusion that “perfect love casts out fear” so by what you’re saying having fear of God is actually having deep reverence for Him knowing He’s the ultimate authority and source of life which is humbling and not meant to cause terror?


    • Even though I only really talked about the Hebrew words in this post, the Greek word phobos has the same dual meaning. “Fear” can mean terror of something scary (Matt. 14:26, Luke 21:26, John 7:13) and/or reverence for something awe-inspiring (Luke 5:26; 7:16). In both Old and New Testament, “the fear of the Lord” is a good thing (Rom. 3:18; 2 Cor. 5:11; 7:1; Eph. 5:21).

      John says, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment” (1 John 4:18, NET). I think it’s important here to notice that he does not say “there is no fear of the Lord in love.” He’d probably be horrified if people read it that way. When we love God, we still have a deep reverence and respect for Him. But as Paul said in Romans, “you didn’t receive the spirit of bondage again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’” (Rom 8:15).

      I think John is talking about “perfect love” casting out fear of punishment and the terror of worrying that we’re not good enough. We still have “fear of the Lord” in the sense of awe, reverence, and respect for Him, including the acknowledgement that He can be terrifying if He chooses.


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