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How to Grow in This Fear

Quotes from Chapter 6

The fear of God is not a state of mind you can guarantee with five easy steps. The fear of the Lord is wisdom.

He said to mankind,
“The fear of the Lord—that is wisdom.
and to turn from evil is understanding.”

Job 28:28

Gold cannot be exchanged for it,
and silver cannot be weighed out for its price.
Wisdom cannot be valued in the gold of Ophir,
in precious onyx or lapis lazuli.
Gold and glass do not compare with it,
and articles of fine gold cannot be exchanged for it.
Coral and quartz are not worth mentioning.
The price of wisdom is beyond pearls.
Topaz from Cush cannot compare with it,
and it cannot be valued in pure gold.

Where then does wisdom come from,
and where is understanding located?
It is hidden from the eyes of every living thing
and concealed from the birds of the sky.
Abaddon and Death say,
“We have heard news of it with our ears.”
But God understands the way to wisdom,
and he knows its location.

Job 28:15–23

The right fear of the Lord is a high gift, not something easily acquired. The danger of using “how to” language is that we shift our focus from “the Fear” himself to ourselves and our activities, thereby losing all possibility of genuine filial fear. We can look at our external performance and think that our pious habits and outward displays of reverence equal the fear of God, when in fact we’re faking it and missing the vital reality.

You can’t be “good” on your own moral efforts. Mere morality is not the end of life.

C.S. Lewis 1

The fear of God is the heartbeat of our new life in Christ and “the soul of godliness.”

John Murray 2

The fear of God is a matter of the deeper orientation of a renewed heart—something that causes truly Christian behaviour.

A Matter of the Heart

The Reformers were deeply concerned with how easily we can mistake the reality of the fear of God for an outward and hollow show.

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.

Martin Luther 3

Scripture presents the fear of God as primarily an internal matter of the heart’s inclinations.

Hallelujah!
Happy is the person who fears the Lord,
taking great delight in his commands.

Psalm 112:1

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

Happy is the one who is always reverent,
but one who hardens his heart falls into trouble.

Proverbs 28:14

How happy are those whose way is blameless,
who walk according to the Lord’s instruction!
Happy are those who keep his decrees
and seek him with all their heart.

Psalm 119:1, 2

I will delight in your statutes;
I will not forget your word.

Psalm 119:16

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.

Thomas Boston 4

Fear of any sort is something that runs deeper than behaviour: it is something in the very grain of the heart that drives behaviour. 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.

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.

John Owen 5

We are made to know God in such a way that our hearts tremble at his beauty and splendour, that we are remade at the deepest level. 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 you people;
shout to God with a jubiliant cry.
For the Lord, the Most High, is awe-inspiring,
a great King over the whole earth.

Psalm 47:1, 2

Sing a new song to the Lord;
let the whole earth sing to the Lord.
Sing to the Lord, bless his name;
proclaim his salvation from day to day.
Declare his glory among the nations,
his wondrous works among all peoples.

For the Lord is great and his highly praised;
he is feared above all gods.

Psalm 96:1–4

Lord, who is like you among the gods?
Who is like you, glorious in holiness,
revered with praises, performing wonders?

Exodus 15:11

The fear of the Lord is the reason Christianity is the most song-filled of all religions. Christians instinctively want to sin 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.

How Hearts Change

For Luther, trying to sort himself out and become righteous by his own efforts was driving him into a profoundly sinful fear and hatred of God.

We do not become righteous by doing righteous deeds but, having been made righteous, we do righteous deeds.

Martin Luther 6

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.

Every good tree produces good fruit, but a bad tree produces bad fruit. A good tree can’t produce bad fruit; neither can a bad tree produce good fruit. Every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. So you’ll recognize them by their fruit.

Matthew 7:17–20

We naturally sin because we are carrying out the desires of the body.

We too all previously lived among them in our fleshly desires, carrying out the inclinations of our flesh and thoughts, and we were by nature children under wrath as the others were also.

Ephesians 2:3

This is the judgment: The light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil.

John 3:19

But each person is tempted when he is drawn away and enticed by his own evil desire. Then after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and when sin is fully grown, it gives birth to death.

James 1:14, 15

Simply changing our habits 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.

I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will remove your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will place my Spirit within you and cause you to follow my statutes and carefully observe my ordinances.

Ezekiel 36:26, 27

Summoning the crowd again, he told them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: Nothing that goes into a person from outside can defile him but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.”
When he went into the house away from the crowd, his disciples asked him about the parable. He said to them, “Are you also as lacking in understanding? Don’t you realize that nothing going into a person from the outside can defile him? For it doesn’t go into his heart but into the stomach and is eliminated” (thus he declared all foods clean). And he said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of people’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immoralities, thefts, murders, adulteries, greed, evil actions, deceit, self-indulgence, envy, slander, pride, and foolishness. All these evil things come from within and defile a person.”

Mark 7:14–23

Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, unless someone is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

John 3:3

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.

Martin Luther 7

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. It is always the gospel that does the deepest plow work in our hearts.

Holiness is nothing but the implanting, writing and realizing of the gospel in our souls.

John Owen 8

This is how you must cultivate Christ in yourself. … Faith must spring up and flow from the blood and wounds and death of Christ. If you see in these that God is so kindly disposed toward you that he even gives his own Son for you, then your heart in turn must grow sweet and disposed toward God.

Martin Luther 9

Habits, in and of themselves, do not have the ability to change us at the deepest level of our dispositions and desires. Profound renewal happens from the inside out, with heart change driving behaviour change. It cannot happen from the outside in, with behaviour change working heart change. The mere habit of going to church on a Sunday will not itself necessarily produce in us the right fear of God. Nor will reading the Bible, praying, and so on. They are means of grace: they are points of contact with the gospel, which alone has the power to transform us. It is not the mere act of going to church that does us good; it is the gospel that we hear there. It is not the habit itself that transforms but the gospel of Christ.

This is the command—the statutes and ordinances—the Lord your God has commanded me to teach you, so that you may follow them in the land you are about to enter and possess. Do this so that you may fear the Lord your God all the days of your life by keeping all his statutes and commands I am giving you, your son, and your grandson, and so that you may have a long life.

Deuteronomy 6:1, 2

When he is seated on his royal throne, he is to write a copy of this instruction for himself on a scroll in the presence of the Levitical priests. It is to remain with him, and he is to read from it all the days of his life, so that he may learn to fear the Lord his God, to observe all the words of this instruction, and to do these statutes.

Deuteronomy 17:18, 19

Moses commanded them, “At the end of every seven years, at the appointed time in the year of debt cancellation, during the Festival of Shelters, when all Israel assembles in the presence of the Lord your God at the place he chooses, you are to read this law aloud before all Israel. Gather the people—men, women, dependents, and the resident aliens within your city gates—so that they may listen and learn to fear the Lord your God and be careful to follow all the words of this law. Then their children who do not know the law will listen and learn to fear the Lord your God as long as you live in the land you are crossing the Jordan to possess.”

Deuteronomy 31:10–13

The fear of the Lord is pure,
enduring forever;
the ordinances of the Lord are reliable
and altogether righteous.

Psalm 19:9

It is through the word of God that hearts are transformed from shaking in loathing to quaking in wonder at God.

“Were You There When They Crucified My Lord? …It Causes Me to Tremble”

Scripture is profitable for our growing in the filial fear of the Lord. Everything about God is awesome, and all his works proclaim how fearful he is in all his ways.

I will speak of your splendor and glorious majesty
and your wondrous works.
They will proclaim the power of your awe-inspiring acts,
and I will declare your greatness.
They will give a testimony of your great goodness
and will joyfully sing of your righteousness.

Psalm 145:5–7

Scripture even tells us to look outside Scripture—to look around all creation—to see evidence of both God’s magnificence and his graciousness.

Lord, our Lord,
how magnificent is your name throughout the earth!

Psalm 8:9

In all the creatures, indeed, both high and low, the glory of God shines … nowhere has it shone more brightly than in the cross.

John Calvin 10

Jesus replied to them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.”

John 12:23

Nothing is so well fitted to put the fear of God, which will preserve men from offending him, into the heart, as an enlightened view of the cross of Christ. There shine spotless holiness, inflexible justice, incomprehensible wisdom, omnipotent power, holy love. None of these excellencies darken or eclipse the other, but every one of them rather gives a lustre to the rest. They mingle their beams, and shine with united eternal splendour: the just Judge, the merciful Father, the wise Governor. Nowhere does justice appear so awful, mercy so aimable, or wisdom so profound.

John Brown 11

Out of the depths I call to you, Lord!
Lord, listen to my voice;
let your ears be attentive
to my cry for help.

Lord, if you kept an account of iniquities,
Lord, who could stand?
But with you there is forgiveness,
so that you may be revered.

I wait for the Lord; I wait
and put my hope in his word.
I wait for the Lord
more than watchmen for the morning—
more than watchmen for the morning.

Israel, put your hope in the Lord.
For there is faithful love with the Lord,
and with him is redemption in abundance.
And he will redeem Israel
from all its iniquities.

Psalm 130

The fear of God in the Old Testament doth frequently express, not that gracious affection of our minds which is distinctly so called, but that whole worship of God, wherein that and all other gracious affections towards God are to be exercised. Now, the psalmist tells us that the foundation of this fear or worship, and the only motive and encouragement for sinners to engage in it and give up themselves unto it, is this, that there is forgiveness with God. Without this no sinner could fear, serve, or worship him.

John Owen 12

But with you there is forgiveness,
so that you may be revered.

Psalm 130:4

The cross is a uniquely fertile soil for the fear of God because at the cross we receive the forgiveness without which we could never approach God or want to. Without Jesus’s mediatorial work on the cross, God would be only a dreadful Judge to us.

Afterward, the people of Israel will return and seek the Lord their God and David their king. They will come with awe to the Lord and to his goodness in the last days.

Hosea 3:5

If thou fearest God, and knowest not that there is a Mediator between God and men, thou wilt never think of approaching him. God is a consuming fire, then how canst thou draw near to him apart from Christ? If thou fearest God, and knowest not of Christ’s atonement, how canst thou approach him? Without faith, it is impossible to please God, and without the blood of Jesus there is no way of access to the divine mercy-seat. If thou knowest not Christ, thou wilt never come unto God. Thy fear must link itself with the goodness of God as displayed in the person of his dear Son, or else it cannot be that seeking fear, that fear toward the Lord, of which our text speaks. It will be a fleeing fear,—a fear that will drive thee further and yet further away from God, into greater and deeper darkness,—into dire destruction,—in fact, into that pit whose bottomless abyss swallows up all hope, all rest, and all joy for ever.

Charles Spurgeon 13

Justification by faith alone is the essential foundation for a healthy Christian life, and ignorance of it is the very opposite of bliss. The truth of Christ’s work on the cross and his justification is the key to liberation from sinful fear.

The cross, by the forgiveness it brings, liberates us from sinful fear. But, far more than that, it also cultivates the most exquisitely fearful adoration of the Redeemer.

When a man really receives the pardon of all his sins, he is the man who fears the Lord. This is clearly the case, for pardon breeds love in the soul; and the more a man is forgiven, the more he loves. Where great sin has been blotted out, there comes to be great love. Well, is not love the very core of the true fear of God?

Charles Spurgeon 14

When the awesome magnitude of Christ’s forgiveness, the extent to which he has gone to atone for us, and therefore the terrible gravity of our sin become clear to us—as they do best at the cross—the right, loving reaction is so intense, it is fearful.

Forgiveness of sin is essential to true fear of God; and wherever it is enjoyed, it is the main motive which moves them to fear God, and brings them into that blessed condition.

Charles Spurgeon 15

Such weak-kneed fear is a rare jewel because it is the experience of one who is willingly dying to self.

All too easily we Christians settle for a sinful fear of God because we cannot handle the judgment of the cross on our sinfulness. It is when we accept that judgment and die to ourselves that our resisting dread of God turns to fearful adoration. The fear of God is the opposite of self-improvement, it is the fruit of a self-dying that can happen only at the foot of the cross.

In the light of the cross Christians not only thank God for his grace to us but also begin to praise him for how gracious he is, for how beautifully kind and merciful he reveals himself to be in the cross.

There is nothing in heaven or earth that can so awe the heart, as the grace of God. ‘Tis that which makes a man fear, ’tis that which makes a man tremble, ’tis that which makes a man bow and bend, and break to pieces. Nothing has that majesty, and commanding greatness in and upon the hearts of the sons of men as has the grace of God.

John Bunyan 16

The deepest and most powerful change of heart toward a true fear of God comes at the foot of the cross, where our sin and God’s judgment and grace are supremely revealed.

For if God shall come to you indeed, and visit you with the forgiveness of sins, that visit removeth the guilt, but increaseth the sense of thy filth, and the sense of this that God hath forgiven a filthy sinner, will make thee both rejoice and tremble. O, the blessed confusion that will then cover thy face.

John Bunyan 17

It is a “blessed confusion,” made of sweet tears, in which God’s grace and kindness shown to you at the cross make you weep at your wickedness. You simultaneously repent and rejoice. His mercy accentuates your wickedness, and your very wickedness accentuates his grace, leading you to a deeper and more fearfully happy adoration of the Saviour.

The heart change that happens at the cross leads us away from ourselves to wonder at the Saviour’s gracious capacity for such forgiveness. We are led from the gift to wondering at the glory of the giver, from marveling at what he has done for us to marveling at who he is in himself.

We Need Fearful, Fear-Inducing Preaching

Teach me your way, Lord,
and I will live by your truth.
Give me an undivided mind to fear your name.

Psalm 86:11

Every believer should daily read Scripture and seek out books and fellowship that will be cross-centered and God-glorifying so that he or she might grow in this delighted fear.

Fear is a state of the heart, but one we have seen in Scripture that often manifests itself physically.

The fear of God should be a key goal of all our teaching. People need the Word of God if they are to grow in this fear. Through the Scriptures they need to be given the knowledge of God the Creator, and brought beyond that to a cross-centred knowledge of God the Redeemer in Christ.

We must teach with the specific aim that people might fear the Lord.

“This is the command—the statutes and ordinances—the Lord your God has commanded me to teach you, so that you may follow them in the land you are about to enter and possess. Do this so that you may fear the Lord your God all the days of your life by keeping all his statutes and commands I am giving you, your son, and your grandson, and so that you may have a long life.”

Deuteronomy 6:1, 2

The knowledge of God we seek to instill is “not that knowledge which, content with that empty speculation, merely flits in the brain, but that which will be sound and fruitful if we duly perceive it, and if it takes root in the heart.” 18 We cannot be content simply to transmit information as we teach. There is no true knowledge of God where there is no true fear of God. Pure and real religion is precisely where faith is “joined with an earnest fear of God.” 19 The living God is so tremendously glorious in all his ways that he cannot be known without being adored.

How can the mind be aroused to taste the divine goodness without at the same time being wholly kindled to love God in return? For truly, that abundant sweetness which God has stored up for those who fear him cannot be known without at the same time powerfully moving us.

John Calvin 20

Christian preaching is not merely explaining the text. God shares knowledge of himself in order that we might be affected. Just as all theology should be doxological, so all preaching should foster sincere worship. Such heartfelt, God-fearing worship is precisely what is most essentially and practically transformative for the Christian, what is most productive of true obedience. Love for God enables true love for neighbour.

Dear friends, let us love one another, because love is from God, and everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. The one who does not love does not know God, because God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his one and only Son into the world so that we might live through him. Love consists in this: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, if God loved us in this way, we also must love one another. No one has ever seen God. If we love one another, God remains in us and his love is made complete in us. This is how we know that we remain in him and he in us: He has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and we testify that the Father has sent his Son as the world’s Saviour. Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God—God remains in him and he in God. And we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us.
God is love, and the one who remains in love remains in God, and God remains in him. In this, love is made complete with us so that we may have confidence in the day of judgment, because as he is, so also are we in this world. There is no fear in love; instead, perfect love drives out fear, because fear involves punishment. So the one who fears is not complete in love. We love because he first loved us. If anyone says, “I love God,” and yet hates his brother or sister, he is a liar. For the person who does not love his brother or sister whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And we have this command from him: The one who loves God must also love his brother and sister.

1 John 4:7–21

A theoretical knowledge of at least some Christian basics does not make one Christian; devils have that kind of knowledge.

True religion, in great part, consists in holy affections.

Jonathan Edwards 21

Our love for Christ and joy in him are meant to be not lukewarm but pulse-raising and blood-moving.


  1. C.S. Lewis, “Man or Rabbit?,” in God in the Dock (London: HarperCollins, 1979), 72.
  2. John Murray, Principles of Conduct: Aspects of Biblical Ethics (London: Tyndale, 1957), 229.
  3. 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.
  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. 31, Career of the Reformer I, 12.
  7. Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, vol. 35, Word and Sacrament I, 368.
  8. John Owen, The Holy Spirit, vol. 3 of The Works of John Owen, ed. William H. Goold (repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1966), 370–371.
  9. Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, vol. 44, The Christian in Society I, 30, 38–39.
  10. John Calvin, Commentary on the Gospel according to John, vol. 2, in Calvin’s Commentaries, trans. William Pringle (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1989), at John 13:31.
  11. John Brown, Expository Discourses on 1 Peter, vol. 1 (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1957), 472–73.
  12. Owen, “An Exposition upon Psalm 130,” 469.
  13. C.H. Spurgeon, “A Fear to Be Desired,” in The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit Sermons, 63 vols. (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1855–1917), 48:495.
  14. C.H. Spurgeon, “Forgiveness and Fear,” in The Metropolitan Tabernacle of Pulpit Sermons, 50:224.
  15. Spurgeon, “Forgiveness and Fear,” 224.
  16. John Bunyan, “The Water of Life,” in The Works of John Bunyan, 3:546–47.
  17. John Bunyan, “A Treatise on the Fear of God,” in The Works of John Bunyan, 1:440.
  18. Calvin, Institutes, 1.5.9.
  19. Calvin, Institutes, 1.2.2.
  20. Calvin, Institutes, 3.2.41.
  21. Jonathan Edwards, Religious Affections, ed. John E. Smith, vol. 2 of The Works of Jonathan Edwards (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1959), 95.

Questions

  1. What is the fear of the Lord according to Job 28:28?
  2. What is the danger of “how to” language?
  3. What causes truly Christian behaviour?
  4. What were the Reformers concerned with (page 109)?
  5. Scripture presents the fear of God as primarily what (page 109)?
  6. The one who truly fears the Lord greatly delights in what?
  7. How does Thomas Boston contrast slavish fear from filial fear (page 110)?
  8. What is an appropriate expression of a right, filial fear?
  9. Our actions manifest what?
  10. Why can’t we just self-improve? Why can’t we become righteous by doing righteous deeds? What does the world teach?
  11. What do we need?
  12. Do we only need the gospel at our conversion?
  13. If mere habits (like going to church, reading the Bible, praying, etc.) are not what produce behaviour change, what are they and why are they important?
  14. Where do we see evidences of God’s magnificence and graciousness?
  15. Where has the glory of God shone the brightest?
  16. Why is the cross a uniquely fertile soil for the fear of God?
  17. Who was Spurgeon speaking of at the end of his quote (page 119)?
  18. What is the essential foundation for a healthy Christian life?
  19. What is the key to liberation from sinful fear?
  20. What is essential to true fear of God as per Spurgeon (page 121)?
  21. As per Bunyan, what can awe our hearts the most (page 123)?
  22. What does Bunyan mean by “blessed confusion”?
  23. Do we stop at marveling at the gift or does it lead deeper?
  24. What can we practically do so we grow in this delighted fear?
  25. As we teach and share the gospel, can we be content to just transmit information?
  26. Reflection question: When you do moral or good deeds, what is your motivation? Is it to look good to others? Is it maybe to “earn” your way to heaven? Do you need to confess and ask God to help you do moral deeds out of a renewed heart with a pure motive? Do you do moral deeds to look good or try to earn your salvation or out of a renewed heart?

This article is adapted from: Rejoice & Tremble by Michael Reeves

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