I was studying this scripture: “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” -1 John 4:18 I feel like this scripture contradicts verses in the Bible that say to fear God. For example: “Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor.” -1 Peter 2:17
Another thing that confuses me here is how in the Old Testament God wills punishment on people. I can’t quite make sense of the fact that God wills punishment in a non contradictory way. I hope you can make sense of this for me, Thank you.
The command to fear God does not contradict with the biblical statement that perfect love casts out fear, although I can see how someone might think so at first glance. There is no contradiction here. The meaning of 1 John 4:18 is that if our love for God were perfect, then there would be no need to be motivated by fear. It would be helpful to provide biblical definitions for two of the words here. First of all, the word translated “perfect” is the Greek word teleon, which means complete, mature, complete, finished. In other words the mature kind of love to which we aspire will make obsolete the need to look toward God in our relationship with fear. I would use the analogy of the relationship between a child and a parent. If a child were perfectly respectful and obedient, there would be literally no need to “fear” the parent. The parent wants the relationship to be based purely on love rather than the parent holding out fear of punishment. If the relationship were perfect in love, then there would literally be no reason whatsoever for the child to fear retribution of punishment or even discipline.
Of course, such is never the case with a human child and such is never the case for us in our relationship with God. This is why “fear” of God is needed. The second Greek word used here is the one for fear. This is the word phobos. This word can mean fear as in terror—the classic English word fear, or it can mean respect or reverence. It is not clear which sense of the word phobos is being used here. Let me interpret it this way. Whether we are talking about serving and obeying God out of fear of punishment or even if we are serving Him out of reverence or respect, either way, the more perfect motivation for what we do is out of love.
Are we to fear God? Absolutely. The sense in which we are to fear God depends on where we are at with him. If we are lost, we should fear God in the sense of fearing the punishment which is coming on us. If we are saved, then we should still show him the other kind of fear. We should hold him in awe and in deepest respect—not “messing” with the God with whom we have to do. Like the writer of Proverbs 1:7 says, the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom/knowledge. All of us begin from fear. This is natural and good, but John wants us to move on to a more perfect motive, which is love.
About punishment, God does not will punishment on us. He wills that we love and respect him. His will is that we not have to be punished. God desires all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:4). This is his will. But he gives us free will because of his love for us, and he allows us to rebel and to reject his love. If we do so, then punishment comes into the picture, but this is definitely not the will of God. Excuse me for returning to the parent analogy. As a parent, I never wanted to discipline my child—never mind to punish him. This was never my will, but out of love, when rebellion pops its ugly head, I must discipline my child. The fact that God warns us about punishment does NOT mean that it is his will to punish us. Nevertheless, his justice demands retribution for evil. Punishment has to do with justice, not with love and God is a just God. Friendship with the world is enmity toward God (James 4:4) and it is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God (Hebrews 10:31). These are both true, but they do NOT contradict the statement that perfect love on our part drives out fear of God on our part.