There was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. (John 3:1) We have two descriptions here: ‘Pharisee’ and ‘ruler of the Jews.’ ‘Ruler of the Jews’ means that he had risen to the top in his profession. Here is a man who was highly successful...
“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.” I Timothy 1:7-8 (NIV)
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:
- The law is good
- 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 “I’ve kept all these 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). “I live a really moral life, so I must be good with God.” That 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 that in the middle it’s basically down to you to live a good life—find out what the law says 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 does not bring forgiveness for the past, heaven for the future and 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.
Christian, you are not under the law
You are not under the law, you are “under grace” (Romans 6:14). “Christ is the end of the law, so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes” (Romans 10:4).
When some people taught that Christians should be circumcised, Paul’s response was devastating “You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ, you have fallen away from grace” (Galatians 5:4). Then he said to the church “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1).
The law cannot condemn a person in Christ. It has no power over us. We are not under the law, we are “under grace” (Romans 6:14).
Christian, you cannot forget the law
a. God’s law is good
It is God’s law. How could it be anything but good? Paul says it right here “The law is good, if one uses it properly” (1 Timothy 1:8). That means we are to use it! “The law is holy and righteous and good” (Romans 7:12).
The law is good. Paul says “All Scripture is God-breathed [He is talking about the entire Old Testament] and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16).
b. God’s law remains
Jesus said “I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:18-20).
Christ calls us beyond the law—to exceed it, and He calls us to surpass the Pharisees, who were the teachers of the law. We are not to come up short of the law. And we are certainly not to make no attempt at it.
c. The Holy Spirit writes God’s law on our hearts
This is the great promise of the Gospel: “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws” (Jeremiah 31:33, Ezekiel 36:27). In Christ, we would say with David “O, how I love your law” (Psalm 119:97).
d. God gives us His Spirit for the life described in His law
Paul says that Christ died “in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit” (Romans 8:4).
Paul is speaking about our sanctification here, not our justification—our forgiveness. He does not say that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met for us because Jesus died on the cross. That’s true, but it is not what he’s talking about here.
He says that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us who live according to the Spirit. Christ died so that your life in the Spirit will become a fulfillment of the law that reflects the character of God.
There are two common errors: The first is to say that Christians are under the Old Testament law. The second is to say that Christians can forget the Old Testament law. Anyone who thinks that these things are simple hasn’t thought about it much!
If we are not under the law and we cannot forget the law, then how are we to use the law? How can we use it properly?
Why You Need the Law
1. The law restrains rebels from evil
“We also know that law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels…” (1 Timothy 1:9).
That is what we are by nature. That is why we need law. We need law in our land, we need law in our homes, and we need law in the Bible because we live in a fallen world, and by nature we are rebels.
The way that the law restrains rebels is by threatening punishment. That’s how law works: “If you do this, something bad will happen to you.” That makes the rebel think twice. Good laws will restrain rebels. They will act as a deterrent.
Parents, think about this as you establish appropriate rules in your home. When your daughter is born she’s a picture of innocence, and you need to know what you’ve got there. This wonderful gift from God will bring joy and delight to your heart, but she’s also a little rebel bent on crowning herself lord of your home and the rest of the universe.
You will need to make some rules with appropriate punishments that will carry enough weight in her little mind to restrain her from evil. That’s how an ordered family works.
That’s why we need some laws in the church. We don’t want many but we do need some. That’s why we have a constitution. Why can’t we say “We are all Christians—the only rule here is that we love one another?” Answer: There’s too much sin in all of us for that to work. We have to understand the nature of the world in which we live.
It’s very interesting that the long list of sins here relates directly to the 10 commandments:
“For those who kill their fathers or mothers” (5th command)
“For murderers” (6th commandment)
“For adulterers” (7th commandment) It is very important that Paul includes heterosexual and homosexual acts here.
“For slave traders” (8th commandment) If anyone tells you “The Bible supports slavery,” point to 1 Timothy 1:10.
“For liars and perjurers” (9th commandment)
What’s the point? Paul is surely saying that the Ten Commandments still speak powerfully into our lives and into our world today. We need them to restrain rebels.
2. The law leads sinners to Christ
“The law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith. Now that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law.” Galatians 3:24-25 (NIV)
If you take God’s law seriously, it will convince you that you are a sinner. That doesn’t come easily. Our instinct is to think that we deserve something from God: “You owe me, God!” But God uses the law to waken us up to reality. What I deserve from Him is hell.
Paul speaks of his own experience of the law: “I would not have known what sin was except through the law” (Romans 7:7). It was the 10th commandment that got him: “I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, ‘Do not covet.’ But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of covetous desire” (Romans 7:7-8). “I thought I was a very righteous person. Then I discovered that my life was all about me!”
When the law convinces you of sin, remember that God is using this to bring you to Christ. The law was “put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith” (Galatians 3:24). It is literally a “teacher,” trainer or coach to get you to Christ. That is God’s purpose when the law convinces you of sin.
You need to know that because when the law does its work in you, Satan sees an opportunity. “You see that you are a sinner,” he says. “You’re right. And there is no hope for you.”
One writer puts it this way:
“When the law strikes home to a man he stands between God and the devil. Each intends to use the terrors of the law to achieve exactly opposite goals. The devil seeks to bring man to destruction and death. God, however, wills that he should be blessed and live.” [[i]] (Paul Althaus)
The proper use of the law is to lead you to Christ. Have you come to Christ? Do you see the mercy and grace of God to you in Christ? Are you rejoicing in Christ? Let the law lead you to Christ.
3. The law points believers to a life of love
The whole of God’s law can be summed in one word: Love. The entire law is summed up in a single command: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Galatians 5:14). Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law (Romans 13:10).
When someone asked our Lord “What is the greatest commandment?” He said “Love God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength and love your neighbor as yourself. All the law and the prophets hang on these two commandments” (Mark 12:30-31, Matthew 22:40).
One thing that Christ calls us to do is to live a life of love (Ephesians 5:2). The law spells out what that means. “Living a life of love” means honoring your father and mother. It means not committing adultery. It means telling the truth. It means rejoicing in what God gives to your brother or sister without coveting what they have for yourself.
I need that instruction and so do you. We are not so wise that we know what a life of love is. Read the New Testament backwards: Use the law to spell out what Christ is calling you to pursue. Let God’s law guide you, direct you, instruct you and challenge you in what a life of love actually means.
Christ also calls you to be generous (1 Timothy 6:18). But what does that mean? Read backwards into the Old Testament. You will find that God’s people gave a tenth of their income back to the Lord. You may ask “Aren’t you just making a rule through the backdoor?” No. I’m inviting you to use the law to inform you in pursuing the generosity to which Christ calls you in the Gospel.
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 (v21-22).
“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” (v27-28).
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 forgiving 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.
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).[[ii]]
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).
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. Some churches make much of law. We want to make much of grace. We want to live by the power of the Holy Spirit. We want the love of Christ to take us further than any law.
What does this look like in practice?
Many of us have seen the Fireproof movie. It’s the story of a couple whose marriage is on the rocks. The husband makes a commitment to take a practical step each day towards rekindling their love.
There are many issues for both of them to overcome. One is pornography. The computer sits in the corner of the room. The guy watches the screen late at night on his own. His wife knows what he is doing, and she hates it. The computer in the corner of the room becomes a symbol of one more thing that divides them.
He struggles to overcome his habit, but he keeps going back. Then one day he picks up the computer, takes it outside and destroys it with a baseball bat. When his wife comes home she finds a card sitting where the computer had been. It says simply “I love you more.” The law say’s “Don’t do that!” Love says “I love you more than I love this.”
Where does that kind of love come from?
“We love because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19). Your life can change as God’s love is poured out into your heart by the Holy Spirit (Romans 5:5). His love for you will be the wellspring of your love for Him, and your love for Him will take you further than any law.
Are you making a proper use of God’s law? Do you know what it is for? God’s law is meant to restrain you from evil, lead you to Christ, and point you to a new life. This new life is lived in the power of the Spirit, and compelled by the love of Christ.
© Colin S. Smith
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[i] Paul Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966), p. 259
[ii] 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)