Over the past few days I’ve been reviewing how the word “fear” (Greek phobos) is used in the New Testament to make sure my memory about it was correct. The reason for this exercise was because I’ve heard a couple of people use 1 Jn 4:18 (“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.”) as a proof text for condemning the current fear of Muslims that is so prevalent in the U.S. What I discovered is that while my memory was correct, I had forgotten how profound a reversal this verse (along with Paul in Romans 8) offers up.
Fearing God is normative. It is a major theme in the incarnation story. To offer one example, when the birth of John the Baptist was foretold to Zacharias, “fear fell upon him” (Lk 1:12). It is also a big part of Jesus’ life. The disciples were seized with fear after Jesus calmed the sea (Mk 4:41). After another miracle, “Fear seized them all; and they glorified God, saying, ‘A great prophet has arisen among us!’” (Lk 7:16). Notice that in this instance – and this is a common theme in the Gospels – a natural response to fear is to worship God. The two seem to go hand in hand.
This connection between fear and God continues right into the Church age. For the Church, fear of God is a tool of discipline. “As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear” (1 Tim. 5:20 RSV). That pattern began (in Luke’s telling of the story, anyway) with the judgment of Annanias and Saphira. After they died, “great fear came upon the whole church, and upon all who heard of these things” (Acts 5:11).
In short, fear (phobos, powerful fear; possibly a better translation would be “terror”) is our normative relation to God. And this makes sense. He is our Creator and Sustainer. God is holy. Anyone who sees God will certainly die, according to the Old Testament, because sin cannot look upon such holiness. As sinful people it would be unnatural and wrong for us not to be terrified of our Creator and Sustainer in our state of being controlled by sin and death.
It is into this context that both Paul and John turn fear on its head.
For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the spirit of sonship. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. (Rom 8:15ff)
John takes Paul’s sentiment to a more profound level in 1 John. “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” This verse is a restatement of one of the great truths of John (that stretches across the Gospel, the Epistles, and the Apocalypse). Just as there is a coninherence between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit that is at the very heart of the life of the Holy Trinity, so there is a potential coinherence between God and the believer that can be completed through love. As God dwells in us and as we accept his transformation within us, we begin to dwell in God. This action of each dwelling in the other results in true unity not just a familial connection. This is the very thing the first epistle says in 4:16. This “cause” has an “effect” found in the next verse. “Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment.”
Judgment should instill fear in us. No one wants to go before the judge. But as we enter into unity with Christ, a miracle occurs and fear is driven out by divine boldness. Even though God is our Creator, Ruler, and Judge, true believers can approach the judgment seat with boldnesss. This is the point of v. 18. “There is no fear [of judgment] in love, but perfect [or complete – the Greek word is telios] love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection [telios] in love.
I have great sympathy for the contention that we should be far more afraid of our own fear than we should be of the terrorists. As Churchill famously said, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” But don’t drag 1 Jn 4:18 into this particular argument, this verse has very specifically to do with our relationship to God, and how, as we enter into union with God and God’s love flows directly into our deep heart to deify it, the normative fear that we have of God is banished by a bold, living love. Thanks be to God.