Faith That Works: Perfect Love Drives Out Fear

As predicted, I caught quite a bit of criticism for taking —

(1Jo 4:18 ESV) 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.

— quite literally. After all, it’s been pointed out, the Bible tells us to fear God. And it does. Sort of.

But we have to be extremely careful not to slip into bad habits, such as the last-verse-read argument — as though your verse somehow trumps my verse just because you cited yours after I cited mine. I can cite mine again — and now I’m back on top. So there!

See how pointless that is? No, reconciling seemingly inconsistent verses is much harder than just picking the ones you like and citing them last. We have to read them much more carefully than that — to avoid reading the other guy’s verses out of the Bible.

Now, I’ve suggested that fear is for the immature, but for the mature, fear is to be, well, driven out — leaving room for both kinds of verses to be true and meaningful.


There is, of course, much more to it than that. And we begin by pointing out that New Testament Greek has far fewer words than English, and therefore Greek words often carry a much wider range of meaning than the English equivalent. And phobos is a great example of that phenomenon.

BDAG offers as possible translations fear, alarm, fright, reverence, and respect. And the dictionary gives a wide range of variants within those possible meanings.

With that in mind, seriously consider —

(Phi 2:12 ESV) Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,

In English, this sounds as though we should be terrified of God! But consider —

(Eph 6:5 ESV)  Bondservants, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ,

Does Paul tell bondservants to be terrified of their masters? Is that really his point? Should they even be afraid? Paul continues —

(Eph 6:6-8 ESV) 6 not by the way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but as bondservants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart7 rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to man,  8 knowing that whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether he is a bondservant or is free.

It’s not possible to serve your master for the sake of Christ and out of abject fear of the master at the same time!

After all,

(1Pe 3:6 ESV) Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord. And you are her children, if you do good and do not fear anything that is frightening.

We run into the same problem in such verses as —

(Eph 5:33 ESV) However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.

Here, “respects” translates φοβέω (phobeo), the verb form of phobos, and having the same range of meanings. And yet every translation I can find says “respect” or “reverence” not “fear” because, well, it’s just too awful to contemplate Paul commanding wives to fear their husbands!

But the church is the bride of Christ. And this passage makes the very same point —

(Eph 5:22 ESV)  22 Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord.

Wives are to submit to their husbands with respect. So why should they submit to the Lord with fear? Why not respect? Why do we change the meaning when the text says the meanings are parallel? Well, we don’t in Ephesians —

(Eph 5:21 ESV) submitting to one another out of reverence [=phobos] for Christ.

You see, for the same reason that phobos means respect, not fear, in Eph 5:21, it means “respect” in Eph 6:6 and any other time the scriptures are speaking of (or in parallel with) a mature Christian’s relationship to Jesus or God. Of course. We are always the bride of Christ. We are always God’s children.


What about “trembling”? As in —

(Phi 2:12 ESV) Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,

Well, consider the context —

(Phi 2:9-13 ESV)  9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name,  10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,  11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.  12 Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,  13 for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

Why am I to “fear” and “tremble”? Evidently because every knee is going to bow before God. But my knees already bow before God!! What’s so scary about that?

Or is it because God is working within me so that I’ll work out my salvation? Again, that’s already happening and I don’t find it all that scary. In fact, I count it all joy. Why should God’s “good pleasure” produce fear and trembling in his children?

But, of course, I have nothing but respect for God and Jesus! Translating phobos as “respect” would work perfectly well, even better. Indeed, the NET Bible translates “awe and reverence,” explaining —

Paul’s use of the terms in other contexts refers to “awe and reverence in the presence of God” (P. T. O’Brien, Philippians [NIGTC], 284; see discussion on 282–84). The translation “awe and reverence” was chosen to portray the attitude the believer should have toward God as they consider their behavior in light of God working through Jesus Christ (Phi 2:6-11) and in the believer’s life (Phi 2:13) to accomplish their salvation.

For example, compare —

(2Co 7:13-15 ESV) 13 Therefore we are comforted. And besides our own comfort, we rejoiced still more at the joy of Titus, because his spirit has been refreshed by you all.  14 For whatever boasts I made to him about you, I was not put to shame. But just as everything we said to you was true, so also our boasting before Titus has proved true.  15 And his affection for you is even greater, as he remembers the obedience of you all, how you received him with fear and trembling.

Should we really translate the reaction of the Corinthian church to the presence of Titus? Titus found their reaction a matter of joy and he had affection for the Corinthians. (Compare 2 Cor 8:16; 12:18.) Why would he want them to fear and tremble in his presence? But surely he’d be thrilled at their respect and if they were shaking in their excitement to have him there! But terrified? I think not.


And, yes, readers will be easily able to find examples where these words really do refer to terror and horror. But that proves nothing, because the words can also be used to refer to respect and reverence and shaking with excitement. Hence, the dictionaries cannot give the answer — we have to consider the context.

And the context of Philippians 2 is not about Christians being afraid of God. It’s about bowing before God in reverence and respect, because God is in you to help transform you into his very image “to will and to work for his good pleasure.” You don’t will and work for God’s good pleasure out of fear. You do that out of love.

Oh, and perfect love casts out fear. “Casts out” translates a word meaning to throw away, expel, or drive out. The implication is that fear — in the context of a Christian’s relationship with God — is something to be gotten rid of.

Indeed, 1 John 4:18 is a Hebraic parallel with —

(1Jo 4:17 ESV) By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world.

“Perfect love” parallels “love perfected with us.”

“Casts out fear” parallels “have confidence for the day of judgment.” Makes sense.

Now, the tough phrase is “as he is so also are we in this world.” We are in the world in the same way that God is. But that riddle was answered in —

(1Jo 4:16 ESV) So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.

God abides in love just as we abide in love. And because we abide in love, God’s love for us is perfected/fulfilled/completed in us. Therefore, we have confidence on the day of judgment. And therefore we have no fear of damnation — and no fear of God’s wrath.

And this allows us to relate to God in love and respect and reverence — trembling with excitement in his presence. Not because our love is perfect. Of course, not. But because God’s perfect love for us has found fulfillment because we are people characterized by love.

(1Jo 4:11-12 ESV) 11 Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.  12 No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
This entry was posted in Faith That Works, Grace, Romans, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to Faith That Works: Perfect Love Drives Out Fear

  1. Jerry says:

    As I stated in response to the previous post, “Perfect love casts out fear.” The word “perfect” suggests mature love. While our love is never “perfect” in the sense of being non-improvable because it is the ultimate in love, it can be perfect in the sense of being mature. I think Matthew 5:48 where we are to be perfect as our Father is perfect should be understood in light of the verses preceding it where God sends his blessings on the good and the evil. That is, we are to follow His example of loving all men, including our enemies (Matt 5:44). This is a “perfect love” in the sense of 1 John 4:18, I believe.

  2. James Neely says:

    I guess this is an area where my ignorance of Greek is good for I don’t have to reconsile all the various meanings, just use common sense. I have looked at the matter simply taking into considerations the total perspective of the English words.
    For example, I believe the Jews were filled with fear (“cut to the heart”) on the day of Pentecost; they had just recognized that they had killed God’s son. Their question to Peter was, ‘What can we do to escape the horrible punishment that awaits us?’ I believe this was akin to the motivation of my immature 2-year old (of many years ago) when he reacted from fear in being caught in some very bad transgression.
    However, as the Jews became more mature (as also in the case of the child) their motivation moves into shared fear and respect. The motivating force finally moves to love and respect as maturity increases.
    I believe this for the whole of the NT teaches this evolution, and my experience with maturing children (one of who is currentlly 62 years old) confirms it within our family.

  3. Pastor Mike says:

    “But we have to be extremely careful not to slip into bad habits, such as the last-verse-read argument — as though your verse somehow trumps my verse just because you cited yours after I cited mine. I can cite mine again — and now I’m back on top. So there!”

    This was worth the price of admission! Thanks.

  4. Price says:

    Well done… going to print this one out.. One doesn’t have to have a personal understanding of the Greek when you can google it… Being a disciple sometimes being a student… The use of the word Fear has created a theology which just isn’t a part of one’s relationship with the Father or one’s own family…

    Jay, if you ever have to preach again…do this one !! I’ll come listen.

  5. Skip says:

    All of this discussion helps us understand why the Churches of Christ have been shrinking. The purveyors of fear and works theology have driven the sheep away. Love attracts, fear scatters. Should we always fear (respect) God? Of course. Should fear be our primary motive? Of course not. Love is God’s greatest attribute (God is Love). The first and greatest commandment is to love God. The highest virtue in I Corinthians 13 is love. The number 1 fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5 is love. We are most like Jesus when we love.

    When the Churches of Christ are known for love then they will grow like never before.

  6. Alan says:

    Jay, you didn’t address what Jesus said on the subject. It’s a bit harder to make that passage fit your theory.

    Luk 12:4 “I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid [phobeō] of those who kill the body and after that can do no more.
    Luk 12:5 But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him.

    What is the natural human response to someone who threatens to kill us? Jesus is telling us that reaction is more appropriately directed toward the one who can both kill the body and destroy the soul in hell. He’s not talking about merely being impressed by that person. He’s talking about an awareness of the potential destruction that can come from that person.

    If you redefine enough words, you can make any concept in scripture just go away. But here Jesus paints a picture that makes the task much harder. It’s pretty plain to me that he’s talking about the kind of fear that motivates us to avoid the wrath of God. God will avenge himself. We don’t dare place ourselves in that category.

    Heb 10:28 Anyone who rejected the law of Moses died without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses.
    Heb 10:29 How much more severely do you think a man deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God under foot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified him, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace?
    Heb 10:30 For we know him who said, “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” and again, “The Lord will judge his people.”
    Heb 10:31 It is a dreadful [phoberos] thing to fall into the hands of the living God.

  7. Skip says:

    Alan, The key point in Hebrews 10:29 is that we will be punished for “trampling the Son of God under foot” because we despise God’s grace and forgiveness. More specifically we “insulted the Spirit of grace”. God wants us to be love and grace based which is the ultimate goal for a mature Christian, but if we reject God’s love and grace then we better fear God. This is where fear comes in but fear is not the prime motivator in scriptures. And when we are driven by love and grace the fear of punishment is gone.

  8. Alan says:

    In Luke 12:4-5 Jesus was speaking to the twelve. And he told them (with emphasis) that they should fear God. In Heb 10, the inspired writer is addressing Hebrew Christians in general, and giving them a warning about sin. These are not messages intended primarily for the lost.

    1 John 4:18 is also true and means something important. But whatever it means, it doesn’t mean that Christians don’t need the warnings from Luke 12 and Hebrews 10.

  9. Todd Collier says:

    To me the “bottom line” on this issue is very simple. God presents Himself as Father. Why attribute to Him attitudes we would not see of value in our own fathers? Discipline? Absolutely. Even to the point of disinheriting a faithless child? Sadly, yes. Is harshness and a desire to instill fear His default setting? No way.

    For the one who willingly persists in rebellion there is a great deal to fear and rightfully so. But for the child who stumbles while otherwise doing his best to follow Jesus there is the promise of Romans 5:6-11.

  10. aBasnar says:

    @ all

    Have you ever really worked? Sorry for being that rude!

    I am responsible for the outcome of our joibed efforts in our print shop. There are demanding costumers (urgent/cheap/quality) amd demanding boss(es)/sharholders (costs/costs/costs). How do I fee when I go to work? I know my abilties and qualifications. I know that a working day has 8-9 hours. I know that my employees are are more or less motivated/focussed/fallible – and me too. Do I go to work with fear and tremble?

    Yes and no. And all that know what work is all about know what I mean. Please, strive for an “down-to-eart-theology”!


  11. Jay Guin says:

    aBasnar wrote,

    I am responsible for the outcome of our joibed efforts in our print shop. There are demanding costumers (urgent/cheap/quality) amd demanding boss(es)/sharholders (costs/costs/costs). How do I fee when I go to work? I know my abilties and qualifications. I know that a working day has 8-9 hours. I know that my employees are are more or less motivated/focussed/fallible – and me too. Do I go to work with fear and tremble?

    Yes and no. And all that know what work is all about know what I mean. Please, strive for an “down-to-eart-theology”!

    I understand your point, but disagree with its appropriateness. I work for wages.

    (Rom 4:4 ESV) 4 Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due.

    (Rom 6:22-23 ESV) 22 But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life. 23 For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

    I’m persuaded that Paul’s point is that our walk with God is nothing at all like working for wages. It’s more like receiving a gift — a “free gift.” “Free gift” is a redundancy, as all gifts are free or else they’re not, you know, gifts. Paul is making a point to emphasize the freeness of eternal life in opposition to the idea that we must earn it as though earning wages.

    We are sons of God. We inherit. We receive gifts. God kills the fatted calf for us. Over and over, the metaphors speak toward how very free eternal life is.

    Does that mean we should be lazy and sorry Christians? Well, no, but the series isn’t over. But when we get done, eternal life is still going to be a free gift and not wages.

  12. Jay Guin says:


    The Hebrews passage is speaking of someone who has fallen from grace — and, yes, they should be very afraid indeed. You skipped,

    (Heb 10:26-27 ESV) 26 For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, 27 but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries.

    “Fearful” = phoberos, an adj form of phobos.

    It hardly applies to the one mature in Christ. It’s speaking of someone in exactly the opposite state.

    (Luk 12:1-12 ESV) In the meantime, when so many thousands of the people had gathered together that they were trampling one another, he began to say to his disciples first, “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy. 2 Nothing is covered up that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. 3 Therefore whatever you have said in the dark shall be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in private rooms shall be proclaimed on the housetops.

    4 “I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do. 5 But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him! 6 Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God. 7 Why, even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not; you are of more value than many sparrows.

    8 “And I tell you, everyone who acknowledges me before men, the Son of Man also will acknowledge before the angels of God, 9 but the one who denies me before men will be denied before the angels of God. 10 And everyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but the one who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven. 11 And when they bring you before the synagogues and the rulers and the authorities, do not be anxious about how you should defend yourself or what you should say, 12 for the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you ought to say.”

    In context, Luke is speaking of the Pharisees. “Will … be revealed” and “hidden that will … be known” “shall be heard in the light” and “proclaimed on the housetops” are surely references to the Judgment Day — which naturally leads to vv. 4 – 6.

    Now, consider the overall messages to his disciples. “Fear not, you are of more value than many sparrows.” “the Son of Many also will acknowledge [you] before the angels” “do not be anxious”

    These are consistently words of comfort — that God knows, cares, and will act on their behalves. Therefore, they should not fear.

    That’s the context of “fear him.” It has to fit the context or else we make Jesus contradict himself and Luke into a very poor author.

    Thus, Jesus’ rhetoric must be read as building, from the weakest to the strongest. He begins with the sad fate of the Pharisees. God is going to humiliate and destroy them. But you should not fear mere men — like the Pharisees, or the crowds, or those that they fear — because no one is fearsome when compared to God — who can destroy people in gehenna!

    So Jesus begins with an elemental Jewish command: Fear God. It appears throughout the Torah. But he continues. This same God cares about Jesus disciples. Indeed, Jesus has made them his friends (an allusion to 2Chr 20:7; Isa 41:8), like Abraham, and God cares for them and will act on their behalves just as he did for Abraham.

    As Jesus explains God’s transforming relationship with Jesus’ friends, he speaks of comfort, intimacy, and protection. Fear is the beginning but it’s not the end. It ends in forgiveness and eternal life with God.

    Rather than seeing this as a lesson on how mature Christians should live in terror of God, it’s a lesson on how Jesus takes his disciples and teaches them how to mature from the fear that the disobedient — like the Pharisees — should feel but don’t, to a stronger, more mature relationship with God as friends who are highly valued by God and therefore protected by him — disciples who should not fear because God is on their side.

  13. aBasnar says:

    I understand your point, but disagree with its appropriateness. I work for wages.

    That’s true. And what will the servants of the Lord receive when He returns as King in Glory? … They will receive according to what they have done (with what the Lord has given them), even up to the point of being left out of the Kingdom if a servant proves to be totally unworthy.

    It is not by our works that we earn our salvation. But that’s just the first step. Being reconciled with God, we are now under obligation to live according to His will and purpose. It’s not possible to say: I take the gift, but I won’t work thereafter.

    For me it was a great gift after 18 months of being unemployed to have gotten a new chance in a small company. This was grace. And I still am very grateful. But I can loose this blessing again. How? Simply by coming late regularly, by speking evil of my bosses, by doing a poor job, by showing no loyalty, … or simply by making too many stupid mistakes, by not improving.

    We are saved by grace through faith; but this faith is commitment to the King and His Kingdom. Therefore we put in all our effort to be pleasing to our Lord and master, don’t we? Because we understood that He is God and we are His servants; because w agreed on the terms of discipleship and service. The problem is – as I see it – we don’t present that in our gospel-presentation. We call everything free and without any obligation but “faith”, and all too often are more than satisfied when a person really goes down to the water. And too often that’s it.

    But there’s work to be done. There is a necessity of commitment, that regards one’s own life as a sacrifice to God.

    Is eternal life really only a gift? You quote from Romans – and I don#t like the game “last verse wins” either, Jay. But there are other texts, that need to be taken into cosideration for a balance. Take the parable of the workers in the vineyard for instance. All received the same denarius, one for a day’s work, the others for only a few hours of sweat. I think most of us do agree, that the denarius is the eternal life, because it is not dependent of our amount of work. Yet – and don’t overlook it – it is dependent on our work. Those who received the denarius were working in the vineyard. They did something!

    What we do by no means equals what god has done for us. Therefor salvation will always be a gift -. but He expects us to do what He requires from us. What does ist mean to become a slave of righteousness or of Christ? It means he HAVE to obey, there is nothing to dispute or question about it. A slave cannot choose to obey, he hast to obey.

    As a worker, I don’t choose to go to work anymore (I only chose the company where I applied for the job; and I chose to take their offer). I simply have to – or lose my job. Sometimes I like, sometiomes I don’t. But I have a job to do. In the Kingdom it is the same: We are called for a job, hired into the vineyard. Let’s call the denarius a gift – it is a gift – but we have to work for it anyway.


  14. Alexander says he works at his job with fear and trembling. If that is his response to his responsibilities, who am I to argue? But I have managed multiple businesses and presently arrange adoptive homes for abused and neglected children. My response has always been to take my responsibilities seriously, even to be troubled by things at work, but “fear and trembling” in that milieu is foreign to me. My work is not who I am. It is important, but it is not identity. If I fail in my work, I remain who I am. If I am wildly successful, I remain who I am.

    I do not respond to reward with fear and trembling, but only to Him from whom I derive my identity.

  15. aBasnar says:

    Close dead lines, machines that don’t work well, colleagues that are dreaming and bosses that by nature are sometimes a bit suspicious, every once in a while threatening to replace anyone of us … It’s not always that “bad”, Charles, but I have always worked in the printing business and the opportunities to make mistakes, to miss an imortant instruction on the job-sheet, to be late for delivery (esp. when dealing with mailings) are legion. When I say “with fear and trembling” I mean with all of this in the back of my mind: I must not tarry, I have to stay focussed, I can’t allow myself an easy approach to a working day. As leader of the production I have to keep my colleagues balancedly busy, have to deal with them sometimes like with kids in a kindergarden, am responsible for their mistakes also, … that’s my lot, Charles. And it’s a lot of a lot. Thanks to God, my mind is normally free when I go home (given I had everything under control).

    “Doing theology” comes in as a vacation time …


  16. Alan says:

    Jay wrote:

    The Hebrews passage is speaking of someone who has fallen from grace — and, yes, they should be very afraid indeed.

    Actually, it is a warning to those who have not yet fallen from grace.

    These are consistently words of comfort — that God knows, cares, and will act on their behalves. Therefore, they should not fear.

    In referring to “fear not. You are worth more than many sparrows” are you guilty of using the “last passage read” argument? He emphatically tells the twelve to fear the one who can send them to hell. Then he tells them not to fear being without food and clothing. There’s no contradiction. He’s talking about two different potential threats — one very real, and one that is not. God’s people won’t go hungry, but they might fall away — as history has repeatedly shown us. Let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall.

    The passages don’t tell us to go around in constant nervousness about our state. They are warnings not to trifle with God. He demands that we love him with *all* of our heart, soul, mind, and strength. Without holiness no one will see God. We can’t have one foot in, and one foot out. We can’t love God and love the world, or the things in the world. If we try to have it both ways, we will indeed have reason to fear our destiny. So, yes, mature Christians need that warning too. Which is why Jesus gave that warning to the twelve.

  17. Alexander, sounds like a leader/manager job. Lots of those out here.

    I think sometimes we reckon that there is some contradiction between being diligent and bearing an “easy yoke”. But these are not contradictory. Jesus said HIS yoke is easy and his burden is light. This may not seem a match to our own responsible work ethic. But we should remember that part of “work” is something we inherit from post-Edenic Adam. We easily become enamored of this because it feeds our own importance. Then, we have Jesus’ “work”, which is not intended to be of the Adamic sort.

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