One of God’s first acts in his newly instituted church was killing two of its members. As Ananias and his wife, Sapphira, observed the praise other Christians were receiving for selling their properties and donating the proceeds to the church, they decided to join the ranks of these generous givers. The couple likewise sold one of their properties, laid some of the proceeds at the feet of the apostles, and kept a portion for themselves (which was their prerogative—it was no sin). However, they did sin in that they lied. Though they only gave away part of the money to the church, they claimed to have donated the whole sum of it. When Peter confronted them and they persisted in their deceit, God struck Ananias and his wife dead. Luke recorded the response of the church: “And great fear came upon all who heard of it” (Acts 5:5).
I believe the church’s reaction to this couple’s demise is precisely what God was aiming for: great fear. It is dangerously easy for us to minimize God’s holy seriousness in light of his unfathomable tenderness. As we consider “how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love is” (Ephesians 3:18), we might be tempted to presume he gladly glances over unrepentant sin within his church. He guarded against this presumption when he judged the premeditated deceit of Ananias and Sapphira. God is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6-7)—but he also wants his church to be holy as he is holy (1 Peter 1:16). And one indispensable ingredient in the holiness-producing formula is a healthy fear of God.
Some might buck against that notion, citing 1 John 4:18: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.” I not only believe John’s words here; I treasure them with my whole heart! However, the fear of which he is speaking—the unwelcome kind that must be cast out by a revelation of God’s love—is not the reverential fear the New Testament repeatedly instructs us to walk in. John is talking about what could be better described in English as dread. God does not desire for us to fear him in the sense that we are tortuously afraid of him. As objects of his fatherly affection, we need not be scared he will throw us into hell with the unregenerate masses. Though vile we may sometimes be, we cannot sin our way out of his immutable, electing, and preserving love.
But alongside our confidence in his love, God wants us to remain fearfully aware of his lordship over us. When you search the New Testament using the keywords “fear of God,” there are thirteen separate occurrences where the inspired writers affirmed the fear of God as a good and necessary component of Christian living. Paul instructs believers to “bring holiness to completion in the fear of God” (2 Corinthians 7:1) and describes unbelievers as people who have “no fear of God before their eyes” (Romans 3:18). Peter simply exhorted his readers, “Fear God” (2 Peter 2:17).
God wants us to be cognizant of how serious he is about our personal holiness—and to what lengths he will go to ensure it. When the Corinthian church participated in the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner, God afflicted some of them with illness and even caused some of them to die. Was this God’s condemnation? No—it was his disciplinary judgment. Paul writes: “When we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world” (1 Corinthians 11:32). God chastises those he loves so that they may share his holiness (Hebrews 12:10)—and sometimes that chastisement can even come in the form of death.
God loves his glory and us too much to let us bring reproach upon his name and destroy our souls in unrepentant sin. If we stubbornly persist down a road that despises his glory and puts us at risk of falling away from him, he will remove us from that road by whatever means necessary. God is inconceivably tender toward us when we strive to live reverently before him—but he can also be terrifyingly severe toward us when we fail to take him seriously. It is good, healthy, and in our own best interest to fear him.