“Come, let us worship and bow down,
Let us kneel before the LORD our Maker.“
Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty!
All Thy works shall praise Thy Name, in earth, and sky, and sea;
Holy, holy, holy; merciful and mighty!
God in three Persons, blessed Trinity!
Holy, Holy, Holy
The tune Nicaea, named in honor of the 4th-century Ecumenical Council, was written in 1861 by John Dykes specifically for the hymn Holy, Holy, Holy. The hymn itself, written by Anglican vicar Reginald Heber, had been published over three decades earlier, in 1826. Penned to celebrate Trinity Day on the church calendar, Heber was inspired by the worshipful words of the four six-winged living creatures surrounding the majestic heavenly throne of God described in Revelation:
Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord God, The Almighty,
Who Was and Who Is and Who Is To Come.
That the combination Heber’s words and Dyke’s tune was recently chosen as the church’s favorite hymn* is a testimony to this preeminent, albeit often disregarded, attribute of God that most distinguishes Him. He is utterly, consummately, incomprehensibly “other.” There is in Scripture no single other attribute of God thrice repeated of Him. The repetition is as intended as every other “jot and tittle” in the Word. God expects us to know He is “holy, holy, holy.”
For the believer, our understanding of God’s holiness from His Word rightly serves as a core motivation for Christian life and worship. His holiness is the preeminent basis for the believer’s fear of God. Puritan John Bunyan, renowned author of The Pilgrim’s Progress, has rightly said in his book, The Fear of God, that “there is no duty performed by us that can by any means be accepted of God, if it not be seasoned with godly fear.”
The Fear of God
The fear of God is mentioned over 150 times in Scripture, most frequently in the Old Testament, though certainly not absent in the New. Scottish-born, Calvinist theologian John Murray said that “The fear of God is the soul of godliness.” Matthew Henry said, “The fear of God reigning in the heart is the beauty of the soul.” Reformer John Calvin notes, “The fear of God is the root and origin of all righteousness.” As the One in whom righteousness is supremely found, the Lord Jesus eminently exemplified the fear of the Lord in His incarnation. Consider Isaiah’s inspired words:
“The Spirit of the Lord will rest on Him,
The spirit of wisdom and understanding,
The spirit of counsel and strength,
The spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
And He will delight in the fear of the Lord”
What is the fear of God? The diligent, regenerate student of Scripture will recognize two types of fear of God, the fear of punishment and the fear of holiness. The first, which Martin Luther called “servile fear,” and which Bunyan terms “ungodly fear,” is that fear of the unregenerate in the face of God’s wrath. It is the fear of the slave to the harsh taskmaster. Proverbs 11:23 tells us: “the expectation of the wicked is wrath.”
The Old Testament provides striking examples of the mighty wrath of God in divine punishment for disobedience and unrighteousness, giving vivid warning about the seriousness and precision of God’s commands. Whether it is Nadab and Abihu’s offering of strange fire that would find them consumed by holy fire from heaven (Leviticus 10:1-2); God’s burning anger in striking down Uzzah for his act of irreverence (2 Samuel 6:6-7); or, God's opening the earth to swallow up rebellious Korah and his tribe (Numbers 16); the fear of God for His righteous, inviolable wrath is clear.
Yet the Old Testament is not alone in warning of the servile, or ungodly, fear of God. Paul writes to the Corinthians, “Knowing therefore the terror of the Lord, we persuade men” (2 Cor. 5:11). The apostle reiterates to the saints of Rome the words of David revealing the eternally toxic malady of the unregenerate who have suppressed truth in unrighteousness (Rom. 1:18), “There is no fear of God before their eyes” (Rom. 3:18, Ps. 36:1).
Lest we think the visible wrath of God is strictly an Old Testament phenomenon, we are given, in Acts 5, the account of Ananias and Sapphira. According to Peter, this couple had “agreed together to put the Spirit of the Lord to the test” (Acts 5:9), having “not lied to men, but to God” (Acts 5:4). Their lack of the fear of God resulted in His graphic judgment: “the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out as well” (Acts 5:9). That the swift justice of the Lord was meted out on the couple is vivid, but it also served as a most dramatic witness inducing the fear of the Lord: “And great fear came over the whole church, and over all who heard of these things” (Acts 5:11).
By Grace, Ungodly Fear Becomes Godly
The regenerate believer will understand the servile, ungodly, fear of God in light of His necessary, just, and sovereign wrath against sin. It is fundamental to our initial, Spirit-illumined apprehension of gospel truth that we stand condemned (John 3:18) before an utterly holy God who, because of our sin against Him, cannot but execute fierce and eternal justice against us. Yet because of the grace of Christ (Ephesians 2:4) in having become the propitiation for our sin (1 John 4:10, Hebrews 2:17), the servile fear of God is transformed in us, as born again new creations (John 3:3, 2 Cor. 5:17), into a different, and reverential, fear of God. Luther would call this fear of God in believers “filial fear,” that of a child to the father. Bunyan calls it a “godly fear.”
Professor Murray, in his book Principles of Conduct: Aspects of Biblical Ethics, gives a helpful view of the two fears. “There is the dread or terror of the Lord and there is the reverential awe. There is the fear that consists in being afraid; it elicits anguish and terror. There is the fear of reverence; it elicits confidence and love.”
The believer knows the former fear of the “terror of the Lord,” but lives and worships with the blessing the latter. Bunyan called “godly fear” the “grace of fear.” Murray writes, “The fear of God in which godliness consists is the fear which constrains [compels] adoration and love. It is the fear which consists in awe, reverence, honor, and worship, and of these on the highest level of exercise. It is the reflex in our consciousness of the transcendent majesty and holiness of God.”
His Holiness Leads To Our Godly Fear
As the entirety of the Christian life is, rightly, one of worship, when we come to the privilege of worship we are only properly motivated when it is offered in light of that “transcendent majesty and holiness of God.” To worship from any other motive is tantamount to offering strange fire. As John MacArthur says, “If we burst into His presence with lives unattended by repentance, confession, and cleansing by the Spirit and the Word of God, we are vulnerable to His holy indignation.”
“When we see God as holy, our instant and only reaction is to see ourselves as unholy,” says MacArthur. ” Between God’s holiness and humanity’s unholiness is a gulf. And until a person understands the holiness of God, that person can never know the depth of his or her own sin. We ought to be shaken to our roots when we see ourselves against the backdrop of God’s holiness.” It is that apprehension of God’s holiness unto wrath that rightly produces the servile fear of God in the unregenerate. The unregenerate ought fear the eternal consequences of their unrepentant sin (Matthew 10:28).
Godly Fear Produces True Worship
For the redeemed, the view of God’s holiness generates a filial, or godly, fear. Because of His astounding grace, by His act of regenerating us, our fear of wrath has become a godly fear that causes us to approach Him with affection and adoration, but not without awe and reverence of His majestic holiness. “Without such a vision of God’s holiness,” and the due, godly fear generated by it, “true worship is not possible,” says MacArthur. As Bunyan notes, “To rejoice before Him is a part of His worship; but David bids us ‘rejoice with trembling’ (Psa. 2:11).” It is this sense of godly fear, of trembling before Him, that is absent from so much of contemporary worship. “We have lost our sense of that fear,” says MacArthur, “and too many people approach God with a casual familiarity that borders on blasphemy.”
“Real worship is not giddy. It does not rush into God’s presence unprepared and insensitive to His majesty. It is not shallow, superficial, or flippant. Worship is life lived in the presence of an infinitely righteous and omnipresent God by one utterly aware of His holiness and consequently overwhelmed by his own unholiness.” John MacArthur
The principle of godly fear flows throughout Scripture as a foundation for the life and worship of the faithful. David proclaims, “Praise the Lord! How blessed is the man who fears the Lord” (Ps. 112:1), and notes that “The Lord favors those who fear Him” (Ps. 147:11). Solomon affirms that “The fear of the Lord leads to life” (Prov. 19:23). After recounting multiple Old Testament promises of God for the redeemed, the apostle Paul exhorts the Corinthians: “Therefore, having these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all defilement of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God” (2 Cor. 7:1). In a stocatto-like statement regarding Christian submission, Peter includes the simple apostolic command, “Fear God” (1 Pet. 2:17).
As we come to worship let us think rightly on the majesty and splendor of the Almighty God who, by His divine grace, employed His gospel not only to transfer us from “the domain of darkness … to the kingdom of His beloved Son” (Col. 1:13), but has also turned our ungodly, servile fear of Him to the filial, godly fear that adores, honors, and reveres Him. May we not be counted as those in whom “there is no fear of God before their eyes” (Rom. 3:18) but as those for whom a godly fear finds us worshiping our holy, holy, holy God as the Psalmist exhorts:
“Worship the LORD in the splendor of holiness;
tremble before him, all the earth!” (Psalm 96:9)
* Selected in 2019 Hymn Tournament by The Hymn Society in The United States and Canada.