The Heart’s Inclinations
The fear of God is not a state of mind you can guarantee with five easy steps. It is not something that can be acquired with simple self-effort. The fear of God is a matter of the heart.
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.”1Scripture presents the fear of God as a matter of the heart’s inclinations. 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 other words, fear runs deeper than behavior: it drives behavior. Sinful fear hates God and therefore acts sinfully. Right fear loves God and therefore has a sincere longing to be like him.
The fear of God as a biblical theme stops us from thinking that we are made for either passionless performance or a detached knowledge of abstract truths. It shows that we are made to know God in such a way that our hearts tremble at his beauty and splendor. 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;
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.
How Hearts Change
Since the fear of God is a matter of the heart, how you think you can cultivate it will depend on how you think our hearts work.
Take, for example, Martin Luther. He grew up believing that if you work at outward, righteous acts, you will actually become righteous. However, his experience soon proved that wrong. In fact, he found, 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.
As Luther saw it, our sinful actions merely manifest whether we love or hate God. Simply changing our habits will not change what we love or hate. What we need is a profound change of heart, so that we want and love differently. We need the Holy Spirit to bring about a fundamental change in us, and he does this through the gospel, which preaches Christ. Only the preaching of Christ can turn a heart to fear God with loving, trembling, filial adoration. Only then, when your heart is turned toward God, will you want to fight to turn your behavior toward him.
The cross is the most fertile soil for the fear of God. Why? First, because the cross, by the forgiveness it brings, liberates us from sinful fear. But more than that: it also cultivates the most exquisitely fearful adoration of the Redeemer. Think of the sinful woman with Jesus at the house of Simon the Pharisee: standing at Jesus’s feet, “weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head and kissed his feet and anointed them with the ointment” (Luke 7:38). At this, Jesus said to Simon:
Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little. (Luke 7:44–47)
Jesus spoke of her love, but the intense physicality of her demonstration of affection fits Scripture’s picture of fear. Hers was an intensely fearful love. Her love was so intense, it was fearful. 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.
There is another reason the cross is so fertile a soil for the fear of God. For the grace of God serves as a bread-crumb trail, leading us up from the forgiveness itself to the forgiver. In the light of the cross, Christians not only thank God for his grace to us but also begin to praise him for how beautifully kind and merciful he reveals himself to be in the cross. “Oh! that a great God should be a good God,” wrote John Bunyan, “a good God to an unworthy, to an undeserving, and to a people that continually do what they can to provoke the eyes of his glory; this should make us tremble.”2
Bunyan was insistent that the most powerful change of heart toward a true fear of God comes at the foot of the cross. With striking wisdom, Bunyan wrote of how the cross simultaneously cancels the believer’s guilt and increases our appreciation of just how vile our sinfulness is:
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.3
It is a “blessed confusion,” made of sweet tears, in which God’s kindness shown to you at the cross makes 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 Savior.
It is not just that we marvel at the forgiveness itself. Left there we could still be full of self-love, not enjoying the Savior but using him hypocritically as the one who’ll get us out of hell free. 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. His magnanimity and utter goodness undo us and fill us with a fearful and amazed adoration.
- 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.
- John Bunyan, “The Saints’ Knowledge of Christ’s Love,” in The Works of John Bunyan, ed. George Offer, 3 vols. (Glasgow: W. G. Blackie & Son, 1854; repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1991), 2:14.
- John Bunyan, “A Treatise on the Fear of God,” in The Works of John Bunyan, 1:440.
This article is adapted from What Does It Mean to Fear the Lord? by Michael Reeves.