Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary

12 Nov 2012

The Biggest Lie About Law?


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.

36 Responses

  1. Kevin Hunt

    Mark, thanks for your comments about Matt Olsen’s article “The Biggest Lie About Law”. I too am becoming increasingly uncomfortable with some of Matt’s views. He is sounding more and more like Chuck Swindol!

  2. Darren

    Nice balance, Mark. I am working through Proverbs, and of course, there are many positive comments about the sanctifying effects of the fear of the Lord. Unless we dismiss the OT, we must conclude that the fear of the Lord and God’s grace are not in opposition to one another.

      1. Darren


        I am impressed by your self-restraint. I guess since you studied the book you know that “A man’s pride will bring him low” (Pr 29:23). 🙂

        Besides, you already got my money and your book is on my desk.

    1. Ian

      Josh I’m not sure if I understand you correctly, but that comment seems pretty dangerous.
      It makes it seem as if you are saying that we only keep our justification through good works.

      Of course we do good works, and this is worked in us through God, were called to them, but its dangerous to hang our justification on that. I’m sure you are aware that Paul had a few choice words for the Galatians over that. I probably just misunderstood.

      1. Ian, justification is gained via faith alone, that is clear from Scripture – particularly Galatians which teaches that circumcision or ethnicity is no longer the way to gain a right relationship (justification) with God. Christ has replaced the clean laws.

        However, as Galatians 5 and 6 make extremely clear, once we are justified, we are obligated to walk in faithfulness to the covenant, to full obedience to the moral law. Else, we run the risk of being removed from the covenant. Our obedience does not earn justification, but it maintains it.

        It is exactly the same as a marriage covenant – gained via a promise or vow of faithfulness, maintained via actual faithfulness.

  3. Andrew Thompson

    Your concerns are valid, but they are imposed on the article you are referencing. The article states:

    “Fear drives us to control people with rules and regulations. These have no power to produce what pleases God but instead only bring about a kind of religious moralism that is very far from genuine Christianity.”

    The “rules and regulations” referenced are those formulated by men for the purpose of controlling people. You may have valid concerns, but how do they relate to the article?

    1. Mark Snoeberger

      Thanks for the pushback, Andrew. We might legitimately quibble about the antecedent to “these” in the original blog (whether “rules and regulations” or imposed rules and regulations, but the point that I think needs to emerge is that Tchividjian’s foundational position that undergirds the linked entry is seriously flawed. Tchividjian argues (in a manner quite reminiscent of the Keswick model) that sanctification can never be furthered by factors like fear, law, rules, etc., but only by reckoning on one’s position in Christ as expressed in the gospel.

      The NT does not limit the motivation to sanctification in this way. Biblical sanctification is motivated not only by gratitude for what Christ has done, but also by the fear of the Lord, and, frankly, by fear of ourselves. This is why sanctification is often expressed through discipline metaphors–I beat my body and bring it into submission, throw off weights and oppressing sins, put to death the deeds of the body, submit myself to every ordinance of both God and man, work out my salvation with fear and trembling, make every effort to make my calling and election sure, etc.

      Sanctification is not just about preaching the gospel to myself over and again, but participating with the Holy Spirit and using means to conform to and be transformed into the image of Christ. It’s not enough to take comfort in the fact that Christ removed my guilt; I must also expend enormous effort to extirpate the remnants of sin that continue to harass this new creature in Christ.

      For a more robust critique of Tchividjian’s model, see Kevin DeYoung’s pushback (and subsequent exchange with Tchividjian) summarized here.

    2. That Olson blog post cannot be read in isolation, either. He is well known to believe that rules and demerits are artificial. The implication of that sentence (“Fear drives us to control people with rules and regulations.”) to me, based on his previous writings, is that he believes rules and regulations exist only because we fear, which is patently false.

      Frankly, when I read the opening paragraph of Olson’s post, I have no clue what he’s talking about. Why would he think that people are uneasy in applying grace to the Christian life? It is by God’s grace that I can live above the cesspool that is the world, and strict rules in my past still help me do that today.

      It’s worth noting that Paul compares the Christian life with that of a soldier, and rules and regulations are essential for an army to even function. It sounds like Olson thinks a life of grace is a free-for-all.

  4. Fred Moritz

    Right on, Mark. After condemning man-made rules and worship, and after elaborating on Union with Christ (Col 2:16-3:4), Paul gives us a detailed set of “rules” or biblical standards of Christian conduct. They are lived out in the power of Christ.

  5. Andrew Thompson

    Thanks for your reply. The perspective you provide on the author cited by Matt is helpful and helps me better understand your reaction to his blog entry. I don’t disagree with your model of santification and I welcome the additional resources you provided. I have much to learn.

    But my concern remains: Does Tchividjian’s foundational position undergird the piece? Or is Matt quoting a though-provoking passage? Should he have placed a disclaimer on the quotation?

    I realize your connections to Northland have probably afforded you additional insights into Matt’s frame of mind. With my limited perspective, I only observe that perhaps this post wasn’t the best springboard for a warning about a recent resurgence of Keswick theology.

  6. Hi Mark:

    I’m trying to understood the following quote:

    “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.”

    Do you really believe that sanctification is furthered by rules and if so in what way? I fail to see any way that rules effectively “further” sanctification. Yes, our obedience to scriptural commands should grow as we work out our salvation with fear and trembling. Yet I don’t see how our rule keeping furthers our progressive sanctification. We don’t keep rules to further anything although we might keep more or keep them them more often as an expression of what Christ, who is our sanctification, does in our hearts.

    What you write about sanctification actually seems foreign to a NT understanding of grace. But since you said “seems” maybe you’re still working this out like the rest of us. I’m not sure we would know what further sanctified looks like since apart from outward appearances we all still have so much further to go. Do I need to follow more rules or follow them better to be further sanctified? I think not and anything to the contrary that elevates my obedience seems to run counter to the totality of the NT.


    Steve Davis

    1. Bill Combs

      Merriam-Webster defines a rule as ” a prescribed guide for conduct or action.” The NT is filled with “rules”: “Husbands, love your wives”: “Children, obey your parents.” These are commands–they are rules. You say “Yes, our obedience to scriptural commands should grow as we work out our salvation with fear and trembling.” Scriptural commands” are rules. The command for husbands to love their wives is not a suggestion; it is a rule.

      1. Hi Bill:

        I don’t have any problem with rules (okay sometimes I do). And the rules you cited are good ones. My problem is with the assertion that they further sanctification. At best it’s an awkward way of describng the role of rules.


        1. Pearson Johnson

          A simpler question to answer, as I think it is clear that Mark and Bill have laid it out in the affirmative, is, “Does obedience to the commands of Christ and the Scriptures further our sanctification?” You seem to state that we only obey more, passively, as Christ sanctifies us internally, thus sanctification is passive. Is that an accurate understanding of your statements?

        2. BE


          So, the commands of Scripture don’t help believers grow? If they do, then the problem is not the assertion that rules help further sanctification. The problem is your personal hang-up with the idea.


          1. BE

            I’m not sure what the personal attack is that you are referencing. If you would point it out I’d be happy to retract it.

            My mention of a personal hang-up was because of two things you said. First: “I don’t have any problem with rules (okay sometimes I do).” Thus, you refer to a personal hang-up you have with some rules. The second: “My problem is with the assertion that they further sanctification” Again, this points to a personal hang-up with the assertion.

            My point is that, if it is true that the commands of Scripture help believers grow, then there is nothing objectively wrong with the assertion that rules further sanctification. If there is nothing objectively wrong with the statement, we are only left with something subjectively wrong (i.e., personal hang-up).


        3. Bill Combs

          “My problem is with the assertion that they further sanctification. At best it’s an awkward way of describng the role of rules.”

          Well if the rule for husbands to love their wives does not further sanctification, what does it do? Sanctification requires our active participation or obedience. We have to have something to obey–a rule, a law, a command. One cannot be sanctified without conforming oneself to some standard which is stated in a proposition.

  7. Brothers,

    I wonder if a slightly more charitable reading of Matt’s original post would have rendered this counter-post unnecessary. It would seem also certain that when Matt says “rules and regulations…bring about a kind of religious moralism that is very far from genuine Christianity,” that he is not referring to the commands of Scripture. He is referring to extra-Biblical rules and regulations.

    So while I wouldn’t want to speak for him (and I’m sure he wouldn’t want me to either!), I feel certain that he would agree that obedience to the commands of Scripture helps believers grow. My assumption is that he is referring to the proliferation of various extra-Biblical rules and regulations that become a sort of de facto standard of measurement for sanctification.



    1. BE


      How would you interpret the phrase quoted in the original post: “Long term, sustained gospel-motivated obedience can come only from faith in what Jesus has already done, not fear of what we must do”? That doesn’t seem to fit with the idea that topic is only extra-biblical rules.


  8. So like – do you guys check your sources? Like I just got off the phone with Matt. He would be happy to answer any of these questions directly if your not sure. Here are just a few parts he’s trying to communicate:

    1. He has no issue with Biblical rules for NT believers. He would even say those do participate in sanctification -but in and of itself that kind of obedience does not lead to growth “in Christ” by itself. He would say one must respond “in faith” and that a vibrant faith inergized by the Holy Spirit (coupled with Christian obedience)results in growth. Bill and Mark, I know you guys squirm with some of that language – I think because it may at the surface sound a bit keswick – but I think you guys are talking past Matt a bit there.

    2. His main target is the use of man-made or institutional rules – or even personal rules outside of the Scripture text and a kind of “performance-based” version of Christianity that wrongly comes out of that. He would quote the passage in Galatians 3 and emphasize that one’s justification certainly does not grow out of rules or works, neither does one’s sanctification.

    I don’t think there is much difference between your views. Hey – I just called him. He loves you guys – give him a ring!

    Straight Ahead!


    Supreme “over-lord” of the Az chapter of the DBTS Alumni Association

    1. BE


      Did you check your sources by calling Dr. Snoeberger before you disagreed with him? Or did you simply address the public comments he wrote here?

      Perhaps it would be good to clarify a few things. At best, Dr. Olson did not communicate well with his blog post. According to your clarification, he was trying to make point A (man-made rules do nothing for sanctification) by quoting someone making point B (rules do nothing for sanctification). Further, he specifically downplayed the role of fear, which Snoeberger addressed with several biblical passages.

      Also, it might be good to point out that Snoeberger is not questioning Olson’s spirituality. He’s pointing out his disagreement with what he said. (Similar to what you have done in your comment.) I hope we all agree that disagreement is legitimate.


      As a FWIW, I was intrigued by your statement regarding Gal 3 (in part because of the clear teaching of the OT that rules/law were vital for sanctification, e.g., Ps 19:7-9). This may too complicated to address in a brief comment, but I wonder if that passage is not exactly making the point you/Olson are using it for. Paul was not addressing man-made regulations in Galatians 3, but God-given regulations that no longer applied after Christ’s death. Further, he is addressing those who would place their hope of salvation in their performing those God-given works (which was true OT and NT). Thus, I’m not sure Gal 3 addresses the role of man-made rules and regulations in sanctification.

  9. Dereck Muth

    I agree, Joel. It seems the point may be getting missed here. Commands clearly articulated in the Word of God are different than the kind of rules that people make up to measure Holiness. I don’t see Matt advocating a callous regard to the commands of God, instead I see a warning about making traditions equal to those biblical commands. The Colossians 2 passage mentioned above makes this very point. Self made religion and adherence to regulations is not the measure of sanctification.

    Also (and I risk much by making this analogy among so many more studied in the Scriptures than I), doesn’t Christ tell us in John 14 that obedience should be motivated by love? And doesn’t the Word of God proclaim in 1 John 4 that perfect love casts out fear?

    1. BE


      I’m sure Dr. Snoeberger or Dr. Combs could answer this better than I, but I’d just point out what Snoeberger said in speaking of being motivating by faith or fear: it’s not either/or, but both/and. Yes, we are to be motivated by love, but that does not mean love is the only valid motivation–especially since we have other Scriptures pointing to other motivations (see blog post).

      For a helpful survey of some of the motivations Scripture speaks of, see Carson’s article here:


      1. Dereck Muth


        Both/And is a very good way to say it and that is where I think Matt is coming from. Although I have not spoken to him directly I would be shocked to here that he believed obedience to the clear commands of Scripture was irrelevant in regards to growing in Grace etc.


  10. Scott Bullock

    Dr. Snoeberger, Thanks for this article. It’s just what I needed to help with my weekly Bible study here at the 93d Signal Brigade at Ft Eustis, VA. Scott

  11. Ryan

    Dan Phillips at TeamPyro picked up on this article and had a nice recommendation here
    •Dr. Mark Snoeberger, assistant professor of systematic theology at Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary, has a dandy little article targeting the biggest lie about the concept of law relative to Christian living. Deconstructing deep-sounding aphorisms can be thankless, but it’s very necessary, and Snoeberger does a good, Bibley job.

  12. Mark Snoeberger

    Many thanks to all parties for all the dialogue. I’d like to offer just a couple of summary comments as the discussion winds down. Specifically, I’d like to answer to the charge that I failed to charitably extend benefit of doubt or to infer a key qualification undergirding the blog post under review (i.e., the qualification that the “rules” in view are not biblical rules but oppressive, man-made rules reminiscent of Pharisaism):

    (1) The dialogue that has ensued both here and at Sharper Iron has proved decisively that many readers are not inferring this qualification either. Several have gone on record defending the original post by affirming that no rules (even biblical ones) can further one’s sanctification. It is evident to me that many persist yet in the idea the only alternative to Pharisaism is antinomianism. We really need to develop the excluded (and biblical) middle way between these unbiblical extremes, and I’m hopeful that this exchange has at least identified that need.

    (2) More pointedly, though, I’d like to suggest that the original post does make an extended qualification in the form of a long citation of Tullian Tchividjian, who has persisted in a strictly gospel-reflective model of sanctification that sharply minimizes the role of law, effort, and obedience—even after extended correctives by more capable thinkers cited above.

    To conclude, I agree with the sentiment that affirms that grace persists in the “new man” after he is justified. But I’d also like to assert that law has a continuing role in the sanctified life as well. The law/grace dichotomy has been reduced and simplified far too glibly by both sides of the debate. Much more work needs to be done. Thanks to all who have helped to further the discussion.

  13. Lou,

    Ah yes. My personal position under scrutiny. And who better to scrutinize then you who takes his scrutinizing seriously it seems. Better than personal hang-ups I suppose. I believe in justification and sanctification by faith and not by works. I believe as Jesus prayed that God sanctifies us by his truth. I believe that obedience to the Word of God is made possible because of the perfect obedience of Christ and our union with him. I believe that human rules are necessary but our compliance is not a measure of our sanctification nor do they further our sanctification. I believe that external extra-biblical standards of others are not binding on everyone else’s conscience. In brief that is my position.