Peter speaks to the “elect exiles” (1:1) to “conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile” (1:17). What is this fear of God? A Dutch theologian Wilhelmus a Brakel (1635-1711) gives a wonderful definition in a sermon entitled, aptly, The Fear of God:
Filial [Godly] fear is a holy inclination of the heart, generated by God in the hearts of His children, whereby they, out of reverence for God, take careful pains not to displease God, and earnestly endeavor to please Him in all things. It is a motion of the heart.
Below is an extended excerpt regarding the applications and implications of this holy fear:
You will indeed observe your deficiency in this, but you will also be able to perceive that the Lord has put the principle of His fear within you.
(1) Do you not desire that disposition of the fear of God as we have described it in the foregoing? You do not only acquiesce in this, judging it to be good and fitting, but you grieve that you have so little of it and are desirous for a greater measure of it. This is an indication that you are already a partaker of it, for the servants of God are described as such. “…Your servants, who desire to fear Your name” (Neh 1:11).
(2) Do you not perceive heartfelt intentions and initiatives to walk in the fear of the Lord? Can you find any delight in having subdued a sin and in having done some good, unless this has been done in the fear of God? And perceiving your deficiency and impotence toward that which you love, is it not frequently your earnest prayer to God—that He would fulfill His promise to you in putting His fear in your heart? Behold, there you have evidence that you have the nature of those who fear God. This was David’s prayer: “Unite my heart to fear Your name” (Psalm 86:11).
(3) Is your desire for the fear of God entirely impotent and your prayer entirely fruitless, or do you perceive the principles of it in your actions? Does not God reveal Himself to you in His majesty? Does not your heart say that the Lord is indeed worthy to be served? Are not reverential motions stirred up within you toward God? Do you not at times bow in reverence before Him? Has it not been your experience that, due to a sense of His majesty, you have cast your eyes downward, closed your eyes, and covered your face with your hands? Did not a holy trembling come upon you at times, and was it not your delight if these motions became more sensitive—yes, did it not cause you to rejoice when thinking upon this afterwards, wishing it to recur and that it would always be thus? Would you not have committed many sins, and neglected many holy things—if the fear of the Lord had not prevented you? Does not the fear of God nip many sins in the bud, and does not this motivate you to perform your duty? If these things are within you—you must be convinced of the truth, even though the measure is yet small. You will observe your disposition in Job: “I dreaded destruction from God, and for fear of his splendor I could not do such things” (Job 31:23). Such was also true for Nehemiah: “…but I did not do so—because of the fear of God” (Neh 5:15). Acknowledge therefore this received grace, and it will render you capable to read the following rebuke and exhortation, with benefit.
The fear of God is, yes, in a sense holy terror, but it shines from a reverence and awe for His holiness and our desire to conduct ourselves accordingly by His Spirit.
May God grant us a holy, godly fear by His grace and for His glory!