In 1682, John Flavel published his work, A Practical Treatise of Fear. Almost 330 years later, the fear continues to plague people. The simple fact is this: There are two kinds of people in the world – people who admit the battle with fear and those who don’t. For the people who fess up, Flavel’s writing is of tremendous help.
Reformation Heritage Books is a very helpful ministry that is devoted to reintroducing the writing ministry of the Puritans to an age that is increasingly tied to technology and postmodernism. This title is appropriately retitled, Triumphing Over Sinful Fear and comes highly recommended.
John Flavel is quick to remind readers that the ultimate remedy for fear is a healthy fear of God. This kind of fear is defines as “a gracious habit or principle planted by God in the soul, whereby the soul is kept under a holy awe of the eye of God, and from thence is inclined to perform and do what pleases him, and to shun and avoid whatever he forbids and hates.”
Flavel draws a sharp contrast between the carnal man who “fears man, not God” and the godly person who “fears God, not man.” He adds, “The weak Christian fears man too much and God too little.”
Flavel continues, “There is a fear which is the effect of sin. It springs from guilt and hurries the soul into more guilt. There is a fear which is the effect of grace. It springs from our love for God and His interest and drives the soul to Him in the way of duty. The less fear a person has, the more happiness he has – unless, of course, it is that fear which is his happiness and excellency.”
So in a few words, the Puritan divine sets himself in opposition to the world that has invented a multitude of explanations for fear. Flavel cuts through all the so-called justifications for fear and helps readers understand that sin is at the core of our struggle with fear. “Sinful fear,” he says, “will cause the best people to attempt to help themselves through sinful compromises.”
Flavel utilizes Isaiah 8:13 as his primary text which he offers as a remedy for fear. He comments, “The fear of God will swallow up the fear of man. A reverential awe and dread of God will extinguish the creature’s slavish far, as the rain puts out the fire. To sanctify the Lord of hosts is to acknowledge the glory of His sovereign power, wisdom, and faithfulness. It includes not only a verbal confession, but internal acts of trust, confidence, and entire dependence upon Him. These are our choicest respects towards God, and give Him the greatest glory.” So fearing God is the primary remedy in the battle with fear.
The Puritan preacher alerts readers to the various kinds of fear: Natural fear, sinful fear, and religious fear. Additionally, he argues that fear has several uses. Sinful fear may be utilized as a tool in the hand of God as a “scourge to punish His enemies.” Secondly, God may use sinful fear to “punish His enemies in hell.” And God may use sinful fear to “scatter wicked people, especially when they align themselves against God.”
Religious fear may be uses to “excite and confirm His promises in the way of their duty,” namely – to fear God and obey His commandments. Religious fear may be used to “preserve our conscience’s peace and purity.” And finally, religious fear may be used by God to “make us prepare for future distress.”
Next, Flavel helps readers understand the various causes of fear including ignorance, guilt, unbelief, confusion, immoderation, and Satan. The effects of sinful fear are set forth as well. These effects may include but not be limited to distraction, deception, vulnerability, cowardice, bondage, and apostasy.
Finally, Flavel unpacks several rules for combatting fear:
1. Study the Covenant of Grace
2. Consider the Misery of Sinful Fear
3. Prepare for Future Suffering
4. Commit Yourself to God
5. Mortify Your Affections to the World
6. Imitate Faithful Saints
7. Confirm Your Interest in Christ
8. Keep Your Conscience Pure
9. Record Your Experiences of God’s Faithfulness
10. Consider Christ’s Providential Kingdom
11. Subject Your Carnal Reasoning to Faith
12. Exalt the Fear of God in Your Heart
This short review only scratches the surface of John Flavel’s excellent treatment on fear. “You must exalt the fear of God in your hearts and let it gain the ascendency over all other fears.” More than anything else in the book, this is the constant theme that emerges. This is the constant theme that fear mongers must return to again and again. Then and only then, will sinners be able to triumph over sinful fear.