One of the commonest errors about law relative to Christian conduct is that God no longer uses fear or laws to promote Christian conduct.
I was born and raised in a fundamentalist milieu that was at times excessive in its proliferation of rules and regulations. I recognize quite freely that this tendency, while commencing as a well-intentioned pursuit of godliness, in many instances offered fertile soil for the wickedness of self-aggrandizing Pharisaism, fear-driven authoritariainism, and the diminution of the gospel of the grace of God.
Still, I was uncomfortable when I read recently that “rules and regulations…bring about a kind of religious moralism that is very far from genuine Christianity” and, further, that such rules de facto reflect a sort of fear that is incompatible with faith.
Why was I uncomfortable? Well, because the New Testament is filled with fear-motivated rules and regulations that function as legitimate self-disciplinary tools for the promotion of true Christian godliness. Note the following:
- “Great fear” induced the early church not to lie (Acts 5:5, 11 cf. 19:17ff).
- Paul exhorts us as believers to “purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of fear for God” (2 Cor 7:1).
- Paul tells slaves to “be obedient to those who are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in the sincerity of your heart, as to Christ” (Eph 6:5).
- Paul tells his readers, “As you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12).
- The author of Hebrews tells his readers to persevere out of “fear” that they were self-deceived in their profession and might thereby miss God’s rest (Heb 4:1).
- After exhorting his readers to “be holy,” Peter offers a vital reason: “Since you call on a Father who judges each man’s work impartially, live your lives as strangers here with fear” (1 Pet 1:17).
This does not mean, of course, that our obedience is motivated by the kind of Romanist or Pharisaic expression of fear that sees the believer completing his redemption by works (see, e.g., 1 Pet 3:6; 1 John 4:18). As such, I concur most cordially with the sentiment expressed in the post linked above that gratitude for the gracious and comprehensively saving work of Christ on our behalf is a great motivation for obedience. But it doesn’t have to be an either/or situation (either fear or faith); it is a both/and situation (both fear and faith). I obey Christ out of gratitude because he is my Savior and also out of fear because he is my Creator and Judge, who sovereignly legislates what I must and must not do.
To conclude, I abhor most forcefully any suggestion that justification may be secured by law (Rom 3:20, 28; Gal 2:16; 3:2, 5, 10). However, the idea that sanctification can never be furthered by rules does not seem to follow. In fact, such an idea seems to run counter to the totality of the NT Scriptures.