Fear under Law

When I was in seminary a professor challenged the account of the woman taken in adultery by saying that the Pharisees would not have hesitated to pick up the first stone. Because of their adherence to the law, he said, they considered themselves to be good enough and they certainly would have been bold enough to stone the woman. But, when Jesus said for the one who is without sin to cast the first stone, they all walked away. The professor believed that indicated that the passage was a later addition to the true text.


I do not believe that I have ever met a legalist who was not afraid of the truth about themselves. In fact, I think it is why the passages that tell them to “fear God” resonate so strongly with them. The law is not only a schoolmaster; it is a harsh master, one who knows the whole truth. The law exposes sin, no matter how deeply we try to hide it. No one else may know the thoughts of a man’s mind, but – under the law – such things are known.


I have known brazen legalists, quick to accuse others and pronounce judgment. I have known insidious legalists who connive to reveal the secrets of others. I have known cruel legalists who would take pleasure in stoning others. But I have never known one who had no internal fear of God and the truth.


Most of the legalist’s boldness is not from inner strength, but from inner fear. It is an attempt to distract, to project, to point the finger at others so that the finger doesn’t point at them. But in secret they fear the exposure they bring on others. They are afraid that their lies will be revealed, that their children will somehow fall short and uncover family weaknesses, or that they will slip and others will know the truth. So they are quick to lie again, quick to reject even the ones closest to them, and quick to blame others and situations.


We all sin, but those who live under the law and refuse to see the grace and love of Jesus live in fear of judgment. They not only see sin in more places than we do, they have little hope when they do sin.


The Pharisees walked away that day because, under the conviction of the Holy Spirit through the words of Jesus, they could not risk the truth being revealed. The passage says that they walked away “one by one.” As each one realized what he would have to risk by throwing that first stone, he decided it wasn’t worth it.


Some may see things differently, of course, but it seems to me that much of the negative behavior we see and experience from legalists comes out of fear. Even their supposed pride is a desire to be bold in the face of their fears.


The law causes fear.


The good news is that we are no longer under law, those who belong to Jesus, but under grace.


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16 responses to “Fear under Law

  1. jojo

    Terrific post. Clears up a lot for me. Thank you.

  2. raswhiting

    I had a false teacher tell me that God was going to punish him because I wasn’t making his ministry joyful.

    • Kathy

      Wow!! That is BIZARRE!! It’s YOUR fault if God punishes (?) ME because my ministry is not JOYFUL??
      I’m not even sure I know what that means!! LOL And I would wager he knew those words are nonsense — but, boy oh boy, they sure do sound spiritual, don’t they? And guilt-producing!

  3. Carmen S.

    Your professor in seminary said the Pharisees adhered to the Law?

    The Lord’s contention with the Pharisees was not legalism, but rather replacing God’s Law with their own traditions which led to a disregard for the Law. Matthew 5:19: “Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whosoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” Rather than “break” ( KJV); to modify,relax (ESV), dissolve or melt is a better rendering, and this is exactly what the Pharisees did by mixing God’s Law with their own traditions ( Matthew 5:3-9). The Pharisees were really antinomians, not legalists. Christ was very concerned with antinomianism, which He also called the traditions and teachings of men. I don’t believe the word “legalism” is in the Bible, is it?

    The law is only death to those born “under the law” who we pray will be transformed and brought under the “law of liberty,” or the “law of the Spirit.” The law is the law of sin and death only to unbelievers, not believers. The only man born into the world that was not under the curse of the law was Christ because He is able to be judged by it without condemnation. Yet, He bore its curse on the cross so that He could put an end to the law of sin and death for believers.

    This frees believers to zealously pursue the law of liberty in order to please God without fear. Same law; different relationship.

    • Carmen,

      I am aware of the teaching that the Pharisees were antinomian, but I believe it is incorrect for several reasons. First, they were not against the law. They would have said that they loved the law and kept it much better than the others around them. They loved it so much that they added layers of protection to it so they wouldn’t break it accidentally. Yes, they compromised it; such is the way of those who walk according to the flesh. The law was their source of pride and accomplishment, in spite of the fact that they knew they could not really live up to its requirements. To suggest that they were against the law seems very odd to me.

      This teaching, however, is often used against those who accuse others of legalism. You are right that the term “legalism” is not in the Bible. Neither is the term “antinomian.” These are just words we use to describe the views of others from our own perspective. Those who teach grace often see those who are stuck in rules and performance as “under the law.” Those who teach that the law is still binding on believers usually accuse us of being “antinomian” or “against the law.” These accusations and labels are old and well worn.

      However, the idea that antinomianism is somehow “the teachings and traditions of men” is simply an error. The term has a historical identity from the 16th century and came into popularity in the 17th in the US. It referred to those who supposedly taught that there were no rules or guidelines for anyone who belonged to Christ, that Christians were quite right to do whatever they wanted because they were under grace. For the most part, the accusations were exaggerations, even lies. I have often felt that the attacks on grace people were based on straw men, but over the years I have heard a couple of people teach that it no longer matters what we do.

      Personally, I believe that all sin is forgiven the believer and that sin is not the primary concern of the Father for His children. That does not mean that we should go out and break the commandments or mock the law. God gave these rules, I have said many times, because He loves us. Sin hurts us and He would have us protected and happy. But there is no risk to our salvation if we sin, nor is He less loving toward us. Frankly, it’s just dumb to do these things.

      I have explained my use of the term legalist many times through this blog and I doubt that I will change it. I am sorry that it bothers some people who feel that the law should still be binding and pronounce some sort of judgment on believers. I wish they could learn the joy and freedom we have in Jesus, or at least allow others to enjoy that freedom without attacking. Paul made it very clear that believers should not live in sin. He also made it very clear that believers should no longer live under the law. We are free, covered by grace, and forever loved.

      The truth is that no one wants to be likened to the Pharisees or to be called a legalist or, for that matter, an antinomian. But we cannot just redefine these words so they no longer fit. Perhaps it would be better to ask why they seem to fit. I ask myself often if there is something in my words that can truly be construed as against the law, when that is not at all my intention or belief. I hope others will ask themselves if there is something in their words that communicates a continuing dependence on the law for acceptance with God, even true salvation, in spite of all the Scripture says against that view. Maybe the labels have the purpose of forcing us to look more carefully at ourselves.

      I hope this helps. I suspect that it will not. Let’s not get into a long debate here.


  4. Kathy

    Well, this is too deep for me!! LOL I admit, I have my times of “legalism.” I do. I can be judgmental and argumentative. Then, oftentimes convicted. Wish I could tame my tongue better.
    I have to remind myself often “Seek justice, love mercy, walk HUMBLY with your God.”
    I do know people who use scripture tor their own agendas and if you dare disagree, well, how very unspiritual are you!!!
    I don’t think I do that. But, sometimes my thoughts are less than noble.
    Sometimes I’m a Pharisee I don’t know if that makes me a legalist or an antinomian — but either way, it’s wrong.
    Good post, Pastor Dave!!! You rock!

  5. actually they initially didn’t stone her because the law specified that both persons in the act be brought to justice together. She was “caught in the very act” which means the other involved person was known to them. It was an elaborate trap set to fail if the Master went either way. Either he lets her off which would be wrong, or he condemns her in a manner not according to the law. But His wisdom was too much for them. Some speculate Christ wrote the law on the ground exposing them in their deadly intent. We don’t know, but we do know they were convicted in a way they didn’t suspect.

  6. wedje

    lovely post. one nit to pick: “the law causes fear.” If this were true, Jesus would have been not much diff than the Pharisees because he adhered to the law. I think you perhaps meant “legalism causes fear where legalism is man made adherence to rules and laws” or man’s striving to follow the law results in fearfulness? We are free, free from law, but law itself is holy, just, and good.

    • My response to this would simply be that the law is truly holy, just, and good . . . and that its purpose was to move the hearts of the people to fear. Deut is quite clear about the connection between the law and fear. But the NT teaches about the release from fear in the perfect love of Jesus.

      Would you say that Jesus was “under the law”? I would not. Because He never sinned, was sinless from the beginning, the law had no power over Him. He kept the law because it was the best way to live, not because it was in any way binding on Him. In fact, the Pharisees testified that He broke the law by their standards.

      There is no reason to fear when we live in relationship with God through Jesus. So, you are right that we can live a good moral life without fear, but I don’t think we can live “under the law” without fear.

      If the law’s purpose was to bring us to Christ, then its purpose is fulfilled when we come to Christ. From that point on, the law is simply an illustration of what life will look like as we follow Jesus. We won’t murder or steal or blaspheme. We will care for the hurting and protect the innocent. This is how Jesus will live in us. In those times when our lives cease to look like His, we should ask who or what we are following. But the motivation for right living and the means to right living are very different for those under grace and those under the law. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the law has ceased to be “the Law” for the Christian. It no longer condemns and no longer moves us to fear.

      Maybe that is a helpful perspective.

  7. Margie

    It appears legalists and narcissists have a lot in common.

    • Kathy

      LOL!! Here’s a good one:
      My husband passed away at 11:30 p.m. After the children were brought back to my home (they were staying with my sister), and hospice came and destroyed all the meds, and the funeral director came, it was 2 a.m. Then we had a thunderstorm and my dog threw up all night.
      I got to bed at 5 a.m.
      My Sister-in-law called at 9 a.m. and NEVER asked how we made it through the night, is this a good time to talk, how are we, etc., (what normal people would do). Instead, she said this about my husband’s brother:
      “Well, Johnny can’t talk to you. He’s too upset. And I have to be a submissive wife, so I knew you would understand that. YOU have to understand that HE never lost anyone so close before. He doesn’t even remember his grandparents. So HE will tell me what questions to ask you, and then I’ll ask you.” Then she proceeded to ask me about services, etc., while I heard her husband (my husband’s brother) sobbing in the background and telling her what to ask me.
      All because SHE had to be SUBMISSIVE to HIM — therefore I had to also!!

      And, of course, there was the manipulative spirituality:
      She just KNEW I would understand that SHE had to be submissive to HER husband!!!


  8. paulspassingthoughts

    I beg your pardon Dave, the word “antinomian” is in the Bible. I am sure you are aware that the Greek prefix “a” means “anti” and the second part of the word “anomia” means “law.” The word appears about 20 times in the New Testament. Why is it strange to you that the Pharisees were in fact antinomian? Christ said they were “lawless” (anomia) on the inside and outside. They were avid keepers of their own tradition, not the true law of God–your narrative is blatantly false.

    • I know that I started this. I risk it every time I mention the law. There are people dedicated to straightening out us “grace people.” As long as we come back under the law, we can have all the grace we want. But we have to do it their way.

      I don’t know Paul, but he is ripping me on his blog right now. We have had no interaction other than his comment here and I haven’t answered that yet. Although I doubt my answer will help. 😉

      Greek has an article “a-” which negates whatever follows. Thus “anomia” means “lawless” or “without law.” KJV translates it as “iniquity” most of the time, meaning wickedness. If the prefix “anti-” is used with the law, which it is not in the Scriptures, it would mean “against.” To be “anti-nomian” is to be “against the law.” The word is not used in reference to the Pharisees. The Greeks understood the difference between “a-“ and “anti-“.

      Again, this is simply the standard charge from the law folks to use against the grace folks. It isn’t new, but it isn’t Scriptural.

      Paul, you know all of this already. You are also welcome to the last word . . . on your blog.

      • Kathy

        I’m just a simple widow with 2 wonderful daughters. I don’t use words like “antinomian” and “legalist” in my every day discussions. I do, however, use “thank You” and “I praise YOU” and “teach me.”
        I don’t care much for Merriam-Webster. I do care that those who come here, myself included, get a better understanding of “love” and “grace” and “mercy.”
        To my memory, the Pharisees argued whether or not Jesus understood the law, the do’s and don’ts of the Sabbath.
        Jesus simply cared about healing the one with the shriveled hand — because He loved that man, had mercy, and bestowed grace on him.
        Good enough for me!

  9. George Smith

    Dave,you can say it so well I wish I could speak as well as you do, I am remind everyday it is because of Gods love and grace for me that I am and can be . Keep preach it hard and strong , you know as well as I do that Gods’ word does not return void or contradict itself . Very good , very well written wonder what some of those legal people feel today ,lol,lol

  10. Forrest

    Reblogged this on Tùr Làidir and commented:
    Very well written article by Dave Orrison about legalism. Legalism is a form of spiritual abuse.

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