Holy Fear of the Lord: Necessary for Salvation

But I will shew you whom you shall fear: fear ye him, who after he hath killed, hath power to cast into hell. Yea, I say to you, fear him (Luke 12:5; Matthew 10:28)).

There is no theme more often repeated in the Old Testament than holy fear of the Lord. Hundreds of verses from the inspired prophets exhort this salutary reverence due to the Creator by His rational creatures. Below are verses I find particularly inspiring because of their equating of fear of God with virtue.

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Psalm 110:10 and Proverbs 1:7 Ecclesiasticus 1:16, and again, Proverbs 9:10).

The fear of the Lord is holy (Psalm 18:10).
The fear of the Lord hateth evil (Proverbs 8:13).
The fear of the Lord is confidence of strength (Proverbs 14:6).
The fear of the Lord is a fountain of life (Proverbs 14:27).
The fear of the Lord is unto life (Proverbs 19:23).
The fruit of humility is the fear of the Lord (Proverbs 22:4).
The fear of the Lord shall delight the heart, and shall give joy, and gladness, and length of days. (Ecclesiasticus 1:12).
The fear of the Lord is the religiousness of knowledge (Ecclesiasticus 1:17).
The fear of the Lord driveth out sin (Ecclesiasticus 1:27).
Behold the eyes of the Lord are on them that fear him: and on them that hope in his mercy. (Psalm 32:18).
The angel of the Lord shall encamp round about them that fear him: and shall deliver them (Psalm 33:8).
The fear of God is the beginning of his love (Ecclesiasticus 25:16).
But the mercy of the Lord is from eternity and unto eternity upon them that fear him (Psalm 102:17).

This last quoted verse from Psalm 102 is quoted by Our Lady in her Magnificat: “And his mercy is from generation unto generations, to them that fear him” (Luke 1:50).

With this verse the Blessed Mary turns from the “great things” God has done for her to those mercies God has given and will give more abundantly to the whole world. This second part of the Magnificat is filled with prophetic analogies.

The reign of mercy, the kingdom of God upon earth, established by the Christ, would endure in the Catholic Church for all generations. All those who fear God in this “house of Jacob” would receive the balm of His mercy. His throne is the tabernacle of our Churches, wherein the King of kings humbles Himself so that He may be approachable by all His faithful members. There is no thunder issuing from this royal cathedra, nothing that would make one afraid to approach. This, our tabernacle, is the Mercy Seat that sat on top of the Ark of the Covenant, sprinkled not with the blood of a heifer, but with the blood of the Lamb of God. “Let us go therefore with confidence,” St. Paul writes to the Hebrews, “to the throne of grace; that we may obtain mercy, and find grace in seasonable aid” (4:16). It is in the Blessed Eucharist, and especially in Holy Communion, that Christ applies and pledges His mercy to us Incarnationally. In this Great Sacrament we “Behold [and receive] this heart that has loved man so much and is loved so little in return.”

What is this “fear of the Lord” that Mary lauds? It is, says the Psalmist, “the beginning of wisdom” (110:10). There is no virtue more often praised in the Bible, especially in the wisdom books, than the fear of the Lord. It is a dominant theme, with over two hundred verses applauding its importance as the foundation of true virtue. This one truth alone, namely, the equating of the gift of wisdom, in its very beginning, and fear of God, is repeated four times in the Old Testament. A few lesser known verses from Ecclesiasticus are well worth savoring:

“How great is he that findeth wisdom and knowledge! but there is none above him that feareth the Lord” (25:13), “He that feareth the Lord shall tremble at nothing, and shall not be afraid for he is his hope,” (34:16), “The fear of God is the beginning of his love” (25:16), and from the Psalms, “O how great is the multitude of thy sweetness, O Lord, which thou hast hidden for them that fear thee” (30:20).

Although scores of New Testament passages could be quoted, St. Paul’s exhortation to the Ephesians to “[be] subject to one another in the fear of Christ” (5:21), is sufficient to demonstrate the compatibility of a filial fear of God with a love of God. Nevertheless, Saint John the Apostle writes that “Fear is not in charity: but perfect charity casteth out fear, because fear hath pain. And he that feareth, is not perfected in charity. Let us, therefore, love God, for he hath first loved us” (1 John 4:18-19). This kind of fear, however, which St. John finds unworthy of a perfected man of Christ, is servile fear. 1

It is the fear of punishment to come, as the Apostle states in the verse immediately preceding this one. He would have it that all the faithful, who live in the love of God, have confidence and not dread punishment. This is the man who fears as a devoted son, filially, lest by sinning he lose the love of so good a Father.

Our Lady is not making any distinctions concerning the fear of the Lord in her Magnificat. She is praising the virtue as a salutary thing in itself. Whether it be servile or filial, the mercy of God will be upon those who fear Him. She who had received so much love from God, full of grace as she always was, could fear God only in the filial sense as His perfect daughter.

Lastly, consider this: If the human soul of divine Our Savior was filled with the grace of the Holy Ghost, as it certainly always was, did He, as Man, need the seven gifts of the Holy Ghost? Or, would His divinity make the gifts unnecessary for His soul, being that He, “by whom all things were made,” was co-eternal with the Father and the Third person of the Holy Trinity?

The answer is “Yes,” Jesus had in His soul all the seven gifts of the Holy Ghost, including the fear of the Lord. Isaias foretold it of the Messiah, and this fear was not superfluous in Christ; it perfected His sinless humanity:

“And there shall come forth a rod out of the root of Jesse, and a flower shall rise up out of his root. And the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him: the spirit of wisdom, and of understanding, the spirit of counsel, and of fortitude, the spirit of knowledge, and of godliness. And he shall be filled with the spirit of the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge according to the sight of the eyes, nor reprove according to the hearing of the ears. But he shall judge the poor with justice, and shall reprove with equity for the meek of the earth”(Isaias 11:1-4).

How can this be? Jesus could not sin, His human will was, and, of course, still is, hypostatically united to His Person, the eternal Son of God. So, even the filial fear that holy men have, and we all desire, which is the fear of offending so good a God and losing His grace, could not be a gift that Christ needed because His soul was in the beatific vision at all times and He could not ever lose this union.

So, then, what was the “fear of the Lord” that Isaias foretold would rest upon the “flower” and “rod” of Jesse? One might ask the same of the gift of “godliness” (or “piety” as we say in preference to the Latin word.)

Saint Thomas Aquinas, in his brilliant clarity of thought, answers both questions, after first posing objections to the true doctrine and then quoting Isaias in defense of the truth that in Christ there were all the seven gifts of the Holy Ghost:

“I answer that, As was said above (I-II, 42, 1), fear regards two objects, one of which is an evil causing terror; the other is that by whose power an evil can be inflicted, as we fear the king inasmuch as he has the power of putting to death. Now whoever can hurt would not be feared unless he had a certain greatness of might, to which resistance could not easily be offered; for what we easily repel we do not fear. And hence it is plain that no one is feared except for some pre-eminence. And in this way it is said that in Christ there was the fear of God, not indeed as it regards the evil of separation from God by fault, nor as it regards the evil of punishment for fault; but inasmuch as it regards the Divine pre-eminence, on account of which the soul of Christ, led by the Holy Spirit, was borne towards God in an act of reverence. Hence it is said (Hebrews 5:7) that in all things “he was heard for his reverence.” For Christ as man had this act of reverence towards God in a fuller sense and beyond all others. And hence Scripture attributes to Him the fulness of the fear of the Lord.” (Summa Theologica, Third Part, Question 7, Article 6 Respondeo)

1 Saint Thomas includes a third kind of fear of God which he calls “mundane fear.” It is a sinful fear. It is that of a habitual sinner who fears that God will deprive him of the object(s) of his sinful attachments.