An imaginary discussion with Sinclair Ferguson (SF) on what it means to fear God, taken directly from his book Grow in Grace, pp. 27-29:
In what way does the Bible talk about fearing God?
SF: The Bible recognizes both ‘servile fear’ and ‘filial fear.’ There is the fear which the slave would feel towards a harsh and unyielding master [servile] and the loving fear which a child feels towards his father [filial].
Who experiences these fears?
SF: Servile fear is the kind of fear which people often know before they become Christians. It is a sense of terror of God. Filial fear (from the Latin filius, a son) should be the experience of every child of God.
When we think of fearing God, where do we go wrong?
SF: The mistake we often make in thinking about fear is to imagine that all fear is servile fear. If we can avoid that mistake, discover the meaning of filial fear and grow in the experience of it, new strength will inevitably come into our Christian living.
Did Jesus ever experience this filial fear of God the Father?
SF: A Jesus who feared God sounds unfamiliar to us. A Jesus who trusted God, who loved God–yes! But do we not hesitate to say or even to think that Jesus feared God?….Yet the equation seems undeniable. Jesus grew in wisdom. Wisdom means learning to fear God. If Jesus grew in wisdom he must have grown also in the fear of God.
Why is it that one rarely hears about Christians fearing God? “Fearing God” certainly doesn’t sound like a book title that would sell well.
SF: …often the deepest reason for our distaste and dislike of the idea of the fear of God is that servile fear lurks within our own hearts even after we have become Christians. Sometimes it may haunt a true Christian throughout the whole of his spiritual life. We may spend years trying to hide from the fact that hidden within our own lives is a spirit of servile fear which we have never properly faced and from which we have never been fully delivered.
Provide a working definition of filial fear.
SF: It is that indefinable mixture of reverence and pleasure, joy and awe which fills our hearts when we realize who God is and what he has done for us. It is a love for God which is so great that we would be ashamed to do anything which displease or grieve him, and makes us happiest when we are doing what pleases him.
So how can someone move beyond servile to filial fear of God?
SF: We must learn that the only means of deliverance lies in our growth of filial fear. It takes filial fear to destroy servile fear!
Part 2: The source and effects of filial fear.