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How to Use the Old Testament Law Properly

March 29, 2019

They want to be teachers of the law, but they do not know what they are talking about or what they so confidently affirm. We know that the law is good if one uses it properly. (1 Timothy 1:7-8)

It’s clear that there were difficulties in the church at Ephesus over some people who wanted to be teachers of the law, but Paul says “They do not know what they are talking about.”  

Some in the congregation were confused about the role of the law in the life of a Christian believer. That’s not surprising. This is a difficult issue. It comes up again and again in the New Testament letters. It has perplexed believers and churches through the centuries.  

What Paul says here in 1 Timothy is of huge importance for the church today and always: “We know that the law is good if one uses it properly.” He says two things:

               1. The law is good  

               2. You have to use it properly  

This raises a very important question: What does it mean to use the law improperly? 

Using the Law for Self-justification 

This is what the rich young ruler did.  

When Jesus recited the commandments: “Do not murder. Do not commit adultery. Do not steal. Honor your father and mother”—he responded: “All these I have kept since I was a boy” (Mark 10:19-20). After taking a superficial look at God’s law. he said, “I’m good!”  

Paul could look back on a time when he did the same thing: “As for legalistic righteousness,” he says, “I was faultless” (Philippians 3:6).  

To say: “I live a really moral life, so I must be good with God” is a terrible use of the law! 

Using the Law for Self-sanctification 

Some folks have the idea that Christ forgives you for your past sins, opens heaven for your future joy, and the middle is basically up to you to live a good life. To find out what the law says to do and do it.  

Paul says, “The law was powerless… in that it was weakened by the sinful nature…” (Romans 8:3). Here’s the problem: The law can tell you what to do. It cannot give you the power to do it. That’s the problem with all legalism and moralism.

The Gospel brings forgiveness for the past and heaven for the future, but it does not bring the law for now. It brings forgiveness for the past, heaven for the future, and the Spirit for now!

It is the Spirit who sanctifies, not the law. The law will never make you like Christ. Only the Spirit can make you like Christ. 

How Can I Avoid These Errors When Using the Law? 

That’s a huge question for every Christian and for every church. The way you answer that question will shape the character of your life and home. The way we answer that question will shape the character of the church. We know that the law is good if one uses it properly. 

Read the Old Testament Forward 

The law is a sign that points forward. It is never an end in itself. You see this most clearly in our Lord’s teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. There is a pattern there in which Christ quotes the law and then takes it further: “You have heard that it was said… but I say to you” (Matthew 5:21, 27, 31, 33, 38, 43). 

“You have heard that it was said ‘Do not murder…’ but I tell you—Do not be angry with your brother” (v. 21-22).  

“You have heard that it was said ‘Do not commit adultery…’ but I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (v. 27-28).  

In every case Jesus goes further than the law. The law says “Do not murder.” Jesus says, “I’m taking you further. I want you to forgive your brother in the power of the Holy Spirit.” The law says “Do not commit adultery.” Jesus says “I’m taking you further. I want you to pursue purity of heart in the power of the Holy Spirit!”

Jesus is telling us how to use the law properly!  

The key question to ask of any Old Testament command is: To what does this point me in Christ? The command about murder points me to forgiv my brother. That’s not less, it’s more. If I forgive my brother, I will not murder him. The command about adultery points to purity of heart. That’s not less, it’s more. If I have a pure heart, I will not commit adultery.

Examples of Reading the Old Testament Forward 

The principle of reading the Old Testament forward helps us to use other laws that may have a different application for us today:  

The command about circumcision points me to being a new and different person in Christ (Colossians 2:11-12). 

God’s promise to bring the Israelites into the promised land of blessing and his warnings about being driven out of the land point me to a life with Christ to gain and a hell without him to flee (Hebrews 6:7-12). [i] 

The commands about tithing point me in the direction of becoming a generous person who is committed to advancing the Gospel (2 Corinthians 8:1-15). 

The commands about the Sabbath point me to finding my rest in Christ and to rejoicing in God as I anticipate eternity to come (Hebrews 4:1-11). 

Christ Takes Us Where The Law Cannot Go 

When you use the law properly, you will soon see that Christ takes us where the law cannot go.

There is no command that says “You must lay down your life for Christ.” But believers who love Christ have laid down their lives for the Gospel in every generation.

There is no command that says “You must liquidate assets for the advance of the Gospel.” But believers who love Christ have done that in every generation. 

No command tells you “You must leave your home and your loved ones to take the Gospel to the other side of the world.” But believers who love Christ have done that in every generation.

Love takes us beyond the law. Christ’s love compels us (2 Corinthians 5:14). 

We want to make proper use of God’s law. While some churches make much of law, we want to make much of grace.  

We want to live by the power of the Holy Spirit. And, we want the love of Christ to take us further than any law.  

[This article was adapted from Pastor Colin’s sermon, “Gospel Freedom,” from his series 10 Distinctives of a Gospel-Centered Church]

[i] Calvin points out that this was always the meaning of the law and that this was clear to godly people in Old Testament times. (See Institutes of the Christian Religion, book 2 chapter 11)

Photo Credit: Unsplash

The Author
Colin Smith

Colin Smith is the senior pastor of The Orchard Evangelical Free Church in the northwest suburbs of Chicago. He has authored a number of books, including Heaven, How I Got Here and Heaven, So Near - So Far. Colin is the president and teacher for Unlocking the Bible. Follow him on Twitter.

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