How to Grow in the Fear of the Lord

How to Grow in the Fear of the Lord

A Matter of the Heart

The fear of God is the heartbeat of our new life in Christ and “the soul of godliness.”1 As such, it is not the mere sum of certain behaviors, or something we can acquire with simple self-effort. If it were, it would be an entirely superficial and infinitely less precious matter. Instead of being a consequence of any particular practices, the fear of God is a matter of the deeper orientation of a renewed heart—something that causes truly Christian behavior.

The Reformers were deeply concerned with how easily we can mistake the reality of the fear of God for an outward and hollow show. As Martin Luther put it: “To fear God is not merely to fall upon your knees. Even a godless man and a robber can do that. Likewise, when a monk trusts in his cowl and rule, this is idolatry.”2 John Calvin added, “Wherever there is great ostentation in ceremonies, sincerity of heart is rare indeed.”3 That should give us pause here. It would, for example, be all too easy (and often right) to criticize church worship that seems devoid of genuine fear of God, but then as a solution simply lay down rules demanding some external performances that mimic true fear.

Scripture presents the fear of God as primarily an internal matter of the heart’s inclinations. It describes the shape and scale of proper Christian desire. So, reads Psalm 112:1,

Blessed is the man who fears the Lord, who greatly delights in his commandments!

The one who fears the Lord, then, is not merely one who grudgingly attempts the outward action of keeping the Lord’s commandments. The one who truly fears the Lord greatly delights in God’s commandments!

In a brilliantly titled sermon on Proverbs 28:14, “The Happiness of Fearing Always,” Thomas Boston summed up how fear is a matter of our longings—our loves and hatreds:

Slavish fear dreads nothing but hell and punishment. Filial fear dreads sin itself. . . . The one is mixed with hatred of God, the other with love to him—the one looks on him as a revenging judge, the other as a holy father, to whose holiness the heart is reconciled and the soul longs to be conformed.4

In other words, fear of any sort is something that runs deeper than behavior: it is something in the very grain of the heart that drives behavior. Thus, sinful fear is not merely a matter of sinful actions: it hates God, despising him as a revenging Judge, and therefore acts sinfully. In contrast, a right fear loves God, cherishing him as a holy Father, and therefore has a sincere longing to be like him. And John Owen wrote similarly of the fear of the Lord as an internal inclination of the heart, disposing it to love him and delight in him above all: “To fear the Lord and his goodness, and to fear him for his goodness; to trust in his power and faithfulness; to obey his authority; to delight in his will and grace; to love him above all, because of his excellencies and beauty;—this is to glorify him.”5

The fear of God as a strong biblical theme thus stands as a superb theological guard dog. It stops us from thinking that we are made for either passionless performance or a detached knowledge of abstract truths. It backs us into the acknowledgment that we are made to know God in such a way that our hearts tremble at his beauty and splendor, that we are remade at the deepest level. It shows us that entering the life of Christ involves a transformation of our very affections, so that we begin actually to despise—and not merely renounce—the sins we once cherished, and treasure the God we once abhorred.

This is why singing is such an appropriate expression of a right, filial fear. “Clap your hands, all peoples!” cry the sons of Korah in Psalm 47;

Shout to God with loud songs of joy!
For the Lord, the Most High, is to be feared. (Ps. 47:1–2; see also Ps. 96:1–4)

In Exodus 15, overwhelmed by joy at the Lord’s deliverance, Moses and the people sang,

Who is like you, O Lord, among the gods?
Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome [“fearful”] in glorious deeds, doing wonders? (Ex. 15:11)

In her Magnificat, Mary “really sings sweetly about the fear of God, what sort of Lord He is,” says Luther.6 In fact, the fear of the Lord is the reason Christianity is the most song-filled of all religions. It is the reason why, from how Christians worship together to how they stream music, they are always looking to make melody about their faith. Christians instinctively want to sing to express the affection behind their words of praise, and to stir it up, knowing that words spoken flatly will not do in worship of this God. Knowing that our God rejoices over us with gladness and exults over even us with loud singing (Zeph. 3:17) makes us rejoice and exult over him in heartfelt, melodic return.

How Hearts Change

Since the fear of God is a matter of the heart’s deepest inclinations, how you think you can cultivate it will depend on how you think our hearts work. And that, said Luther, was “the real issue, the essence of the matter in dispute” at the Reformation.7

Luther’s sights in the earliest days of the Reformation were on the Aristotelian ethics that Thomas Aquinas had made so determinative for Roman Catholicism. Aristotle had claimed, “We become righteous by doing righteous deeds” (or, “we become just by doing just acts”).8 It was a self-help, fake-it-till-you-make-it message. In other words, if you work at outward righteous acts and keep doing them, you will actually become a righteous person. Aquinas therefore saw the cultivation of virtuous habits as the key to growth in holiness.

The one who truly fears the Lord greatly delights in God’s commandments!

Luther’s own experience as a monk had proved that wrong. For years he lived by the maxim “we become righteous by doing righteous deeds” and found, while doing all his outward acts of righteousness, it wasn’t making him upright in heart, full of love for the Lord. Quite the opposite. Trying to sort himself out and become righteous by his own efforts was driving him into a profoundly sinful fear and hatred of God. An outward appearance of righteousness he could achieve, but it would be nothing more than a hollow sham made of self-dependence, self-worship, and self-righteousness. Aquinas, he came to see, had failed to gauge just how deep sin goes in us, that it goes deeper down than we can ourselves reach. It is not something that can be dealt with by the behavior modification of virtuous habits. And so Luther argued in 1517, “We do not become righteous by doing righteous deeds but, having been made righteous, we do righteous deeds.”9

As Luther saw it, our sin is not merely a matter of our actions and habits. Our actions merely manifest the deeper inclinations of our hearts: whether we love or hate God. We naturally sin because we are “carrying out the desires of the body” (Eph. 2:3). We choose sin because that is what we want. We naturally love darkness (John 3:19) and so “each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death” (James 1:14–15).

Simply changing our habits, Luther saw, will not deal with those deeper, sinful inclinations. What we need is a radical renewal—not self-improvement but a profound change of heart—so that we want and love and long differently. We need hearts that freely love and are pleased with God (Ezek. 36:26–27; Mark 7:14–23; John 3:3). “How shall a work please God if it proceeds from a reluctant and resisting heart?” asked Luther.

To fulfil the law, however, is to do its works with pleasure and love. . . . This pleasure and love for the law is put into the heart by the Holy Spirit. . . . But the Holy Spirit is not given except in, with, and by faith in Jesus Christ. . . . Faith, moreover, comes only through God’s Word or gospel, which preaches Christ.10

That is to say, only the Holy Spirit can bring about the fundamental change in our disposition that we need, and he does this through the gospel, which preaches Christ. Only the preaching of Christ can turn a heart truly to desire righteousness and fear God with loving, trembling, filial adoration. And it is not that the Spirit does that work once only, when we are born again, leaving us from then on to sweat out our sanctification by pure self-exertion. It is always the gospel that does the deepest plow work in our hearts.


  1. John Murray, Principles of Conduct: Aspects of Biblical Ethics (London: Tyndale, 1957), 229, my emphasis.
  2. Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, vol. 51, Sermons I, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann (St. Louis, MO: Concordia, 1999), 139.
  3. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2011), 1.2.2.
  4. Thomas Boston, The Whole Works of the Late Reverend Thomas Boston of Ettrick, ed. Samuel McMillan, vol. 3 (Aberdeen: George and Robert King, 1848), 6.
  5. John Owen, “An Exposition upon Psalm 130,” in Temptation and Sin, vol. 6 of The Works of John Owen, ed. William H. Goold (repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1967), 484.
  6. Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, vol. 21, The Sermon on the Mount and the Magnificat, 298.
  7. Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, vol. 33, Career of the Reformer III, 294.
  8. Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, trans. and intro. D. Ross, rev. J. L. Ackrill and J. O. Urmson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 29.
  9. Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, vol. 31, Career of the Reformer I, 12, my emphasis.
  10. Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, vol. 35, Word and Sacrament I, 368.

This article is adapted from Rejoice and Tremble: The Surprising Good News of the Fear of the Lord by Michael Reeves.

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