The Terror of the Lord
"Knowing therefore the terror of the Lord, we persuade men" (2 Cor. 5.11). What is this "terror" of the Lord?
Any idea that the Lord endeavours to frighten men into conversion by fear of the consequences of refusal is out of the question. A conversion motivated by fear is not worth anything to God. He will have His creatures' loyalty and allegiance by love and gratitude or not at all. In this respect some of the old time revivalists who tried to scare men into repentance by lurid descriptions of the fate awaiting the unregenerate were, however sincerely, grievously in error. The text must be understood in relation to the Apostle Paul's argument and in harmony with the known purpose and character of God.
The main theme of 2 Cor. 5 is that a spiritual body, adapted to the conditions of life in another world, a "house eternal in the heavens", is waiting for the believer after the termination of this life, and that this is an object of keenest anticipation to the Christian. Nevertheless we are content in this present life, labouring, whether absent from the Lord or present with Him, to be acceptable in His sight, knowing that we must ultimately appear before the Bema, the place of judgment where our Lord will review the life's work of each believer and give His verdict. It is in the knowledge of the solemnity and majesty of that "Last Assize", says Paul, that we "persuade men" — conduct our missionary work.
The word "terror" in the text is phobos which is generally used for fear or terror in the N.T. According to Thayer the word has two main meanings, (1) Fear, dread or terror in a subjective sense; (2) Reverence or respect for rank, authority or dignity. It is easy to understand how the second meaning was derived from the first in an age when respect for authority normally had an element of fear associated. The extent to which this element has to be given weight in any particular instance must depend upon the nature of the case. When Paul says "Rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil" (Rom. 13.3) the usage is terror or fear in its most elemental sense. When on the other hand Paul says "Let the wife see that she reverence her husband" (Eph. 5.33 — "reverence" here is phobos) the idea of respect is uppermost and that of fear entirely absent. Likewise 1 Pet. 2.18 "Servants, be subject to your masters with all fear" (i.e. with the respect due to their position). The injunction of Rom. 13.7 "Render to all their due, tribute to whom tribute, custom to whom custom, fear to whom fear, honour to whom honour" can only be understood as referring to the normal respect due to civil authority. In just the same fashion the numerous references to the "fear of God" in the N.T. have to be understood as referring to that respect and reverence which is due to God on account of his high authority.
The N.E.B. rendering of the passage in question is perhaps the most helpful. "We must all have our lives laid open before the tribunal of Christ; where each must receive what is due to him for his conduct in the body, good or bad. With this fear of the Lord before our eyes we address our appeal to men". It is to be noted that the softer word "fear" is substituted for "terror" in the NEB, RSV ~and RV and all modem translations. "Terror" came into the A.V. from the Geneva Bible which was the only one of the pre-A.V. versions to adopt the word some say due to the influence of John Knox, who had much to do with that version. It is probably true that "terror" was adopted in view of the close relation of the text to Paul's words regarding the judgment seat of Christ", at a time when the Last Judgment was looked upon as a day of foreboding and dread. The character of the Most High is better understood today. So far from being a stem and merciless despot He is in reality an all-wise Creator, who will by no means loose His hold of anyone of His creatures whilst any hope remains that such can be persuaded to turn from sin and serve the living God. It was with this kind of "godly fear" in his mind that the Apostle Paul went about his business of "persuading men".