How to Handle God’s Law Lawfully| 1 Timothy 1:8-11
By John Fitzsimmons
Pastor, Sligo City Church
When it comes to the law of God, and indeed all of Scripture, it is important we understand what we are talking about. Many a confident assertion is made in ignorance. People talk with confidence about things they honestly know little about... Nowhere is this more wrong than when regarding God’s revelation. We don’t want it to be said of us they desire “to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make confident assertions” (V7.)
This is especially true for those who aspire to the ministry of the word. Whether it’s teaching adults, youth or children... In 2 Timothy 2:15 Pauls tells Timothy; “Do you best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.” And James in chapter 3:1 of his letter warns; “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.”
So there’s no place for second guessing or making things up as we go along. When a person teaches from the Bible they are claiming to represent God by teaching his truth, his law, his gospel, his character. They are God’s ambassadors! This is no light hearted matter... There is no higher level of responsibility. God says in Isaiah 66:2; “But this is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word.” Having this humble and contrite attitude, which trembles at God’s Word, will help us avoid making ignorant assertions. It’s the attitude we want to have as we look at how handle the Law!
Paul says V8; “Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully.” Everything that comes from God is good... Sometimes when we hear teaching about not being under law, how it’s presented makes the law out to be the bad guy. However the problem was never with the law being bad but with us being bad – the problem was us falling short of the glory of God, us turning to our own way... The law displays the character of God. It displays his holiness and concern for the poor, his heart for justice and righteousness, his desire that we love him and others. It is good and it is for our good! But like all the good things God has given it can be used rightly or wrongly. Let first look at how not to use the law.
Firstly the law cannot be used for our justification. Galatians 2:16 says; “We know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.” So clearly the law cannot be used for our justification, that is; to earn right standing with God. Mainly because we have already fallen short, and continue to fall short of its glory everyday... This is why Paul so adamantly says “by works of the law no one will be justified” -no one will be made right with God this way! Paul repeats this in Galatians 3:11 when he says “clearly no one is justified before God by the law” (NIV).
One way of testing whether or not you have truly grasped this gospel of grace is how you respond to the accusations of Satan. When he “tempts you to despair and tells you of the guilt within”, do you respond by listing your good deeds, or by crumbling because of the lack of them? I hope not. The only safe and sure response is to point away from self to Christ, to his finished work on the cross. This is the only true and sure ground we have to stand upon. “On Christ the solid Rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand.” The law no longer has the authority to accuse the children of God or to instil fear of condemnation in our hearts... We have been freed from sins guilt, not by obedience to the law, but by the precious blood of Jesus. Gal 3:13; “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us.” So the law cannot be used for our justification.
Romans 6:14 tells us “you are no longer under law, but under grace.” We love the law because grace changed our rebel hearts... but we are not under it. Galatians 5:4 NLT says; “If you are trying to make yourselves right with God by keeping the law... you have fallen away from grace.” As Christians we do not fall from grace when we do something really bad. We fall from grace when we attempt to do good to atone for the bad we have done...
Secondly the law cannot be used as our motivation for sanctification. Writing to the Galatians about life in the Spirit, Paul says Gal 5:18; “if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.” In other words, we are able to say no to sin and yes to righteousness, not as a result of keeping the law, but by the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit. In Gal 3:3 he asks; “Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit are you now being perfected by the flesh?” The Christian’s motivation from start to finish comes from being led by the Spirit not from being under the heavy burden of the law. It comes from the Spirit witnessing to our hearts that we are completely accepted by God in Christ... It comes from his empowering presence within progressively enabling us to fulfil the righteous requirements of the law.
Romans 8:3-4 says just that; “God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” See the law could not take away the condemnation that hung over us... Nor can the law change our rebel hearts – it is powerless in this sense – but the Holy Spirit can, that is the point! It matters not how much you beat yourself or others with the law of God it will not change your heart...
In Bo Giertz novel ‘The Hammer of God’ a young pastor was disillusioned at not seeing holiness and commitment in his congregation. An old woman kindly confronted him with these words: “I think you can blame yourself, Pastor. If one whips the flock with the scourge of the law instead of guiding it to the springs of living water, everything will eventually go wrong. No one can endure unlimited lashing.” This is why it is so important to use the law lawfully. To understand the true purpose and place of the law in Christianity and its relationship with the gospel! The problem in Ephesus was that those who viewed themselves as teachers in their ignorance were using the law wrongly... Paul continues:
V9-11 “Understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever ever else is contrary to sound doctrine, in accordance with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted.”
We’ve looked at how not to use the law so let’s now look at how to use it. Most commentators point out here how this list of sin’s somehow mirror the Ten Commandments... Paul is summarising the moral law. The fact Paul adds “and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine” makes it even more likely. The list Paul gives is not exhaustive but a summary, an overview. All the sins Paul lists are violations of God’s law.
I believe in these verses Paul is saying “the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless” in the same sense Jesus says; “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” inMark 2:32. The law of God is not laid down for good people – for the just or righteous – but for the ungodly and sinners. Exactly the same type of people Christ came and died for. Romans 5:6 says; “Christ died for the ungodly”. Verse 8 of the same chapter says “while we were still sinners Christ died for us.” So significantly the law and the gospel are for the same type of people – ungodly sinners. And when Jesus says to the Pharisees “no one is good but... God” inMatt 19:17 he puts us all in this category. Paul emphasises the same point when he says “no one is righteous, no, not one” (Rom 3:10). Many are self-righteous, but no one is truly righteous apart from Christ. D. L. Moody once said; "God has nothing to say to the self-righteous."
There are at least 3 right uses of the law and I hope that as we look at them the relationship between law and gospel will become clearer to us. Firstly there is the civil use of the law. God’s law exists to restrain wrongdoing and to promote right living... It exists to appeal to the human conscience and to stop it from wandering completely away from God’s righteousness. When the law of God is forgotten society gets worse, it loses all sense of right and wrong. History as well as the present proves this. We live in a time when God’s law is hardly spoken of in churches never mind society, and look how quickly moral values are slipping. Part of the churches responsibility as “a pillar and buttress of truth” in society is to uphold God’s law. In times of revival, both in Scripture and church history, there has been a rediscovery of God’s law. Proverbs 14:34 says; “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people.” For this reason we should be unashamed in affirming the value and necessity of God’s law. If we don’t who else will? The only alternative is a society full of people doing what is right in their own eyes. Is that the kind of society we want to bring our children up in? It’s for the good of our families, people and nation that we uphold God’s law. Gresham Machen’s words encourage us;
“Do not fear... Christian. The Spirit of God has not lost His power. In His own good time, He will send His messengers, even to a wicked and adulterous and careless generation. He will cause Mount Sinai to overhang and shoot forth flames. He will convict men of sin; He will break down mans pride; He will melt their stony hearts. Then, He will lead them to the Saviour of their souls.”
Secondly there is the tutorial use of the law. Galatians 3:23-26 says;
“Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith.”
The NASB puts verse 24 like this; “Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith.” The word ‘tutor’ or ‘guardian’ denotes a servant whose duty it was to take care of a child until adulthood. The guardian brought the childrento and from school and watched over their behaviour at home. In general he was more of a baby-sitter than a teacher, one of his main roles being to bring the child were they needed to go. These guardians were often strict, causing those under their care to long for the day when they would be free from them. The law likewise is a tutor which brings us to Christ. It does so by highlighting and restraining our sin, and by pointing to Christ...
Jeremiah 23:29 says; “Is not my word like fire, declares the LORD, and like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces.” This was in contrast to the false prophets that just told people what they wanted to hear... The law of God is like a fire that burn’s away all the self-righteousness within a person. It is like a hammer that pounds on the rock-hard human heart until it breaks... Luther called the Law “a big axe” used for chopping the head of the monster of self righteousness... Calvin was a bit gentler when he described the law as a mirror showing up the spots on our faces and sending us to Christ for cleansing.
It’s almost as if there are two lectures we need to attend. The first is taken by Mr Law. He teaches us we are sinners. We need to go to his class to learn our true condition, to learn about our true state and deep need, to learn about the glory, holiness and justice of God and how far we fall short of it... Mr Law is like the teacher you didn’t like in class but grew to appreciate after. He tells stuff you do not want to hear at the time, but that stuff in the end becomes the stuff that helps you greatly in life. In the same way Mr Law teaches you things you do not want to hear. He tells you you’re a sinner under the wrath of God. He shatters your self-righteousness, he makes it clear you are guilty before God, and because God is just he must punish your sin severely. He makes you feel like there is no escape. He extinguishes every last hope of saving yourself from the justice of God... Then when he knows you’re ready he leads you up the corridor to the next lecture.
The next class is taken by Mr Gospel. You walk into his class with you head hanging down, ashamed of your sin and deeply burdened by your guilt, hopeless with the thought of meeting a holy God on judgement day. Mr Gospel comes to you tenderly and puts his hand under your chin, gently lifting up your head, and begins to joyfully tell you of the abundant mercy and amazing grace of God towards sinners! He tells you of Jesus and his complete work on your behalf. He explains all Jesus went through on the cross for you, and tells you can be justified by faith in him apart from works of the law. And hope and peace flood your soul as the curse of the law is lifted from you forever...
The Third use of the law is as a rule to godly living. An eighteenth-century Scottish preacher called Ralph Erskin linked the second and third uses of the law with these words; “When once the fiery Law of God has chased me to the Gospel Road; Then back unto the holy law most kindly Gospel-grace will draw.” You seebecause of this ‘gospel-grace’ working in our hearts we learn to love and treasure the law we once hated, despised and feared. Instead of it being a curse hanging over us it becomes a source of great blessing within us. Jesus said in John 14:15; “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” As Christians we do not throw the law away, we keep it as our guide... Jesus said in Matthew 5:17-20 - READ
Our righteousness exceeds the Pharisees and scribes only because Jesus took our sins away, gave us new hearts, clothed us in his righteousness, and put his Spirit within us... Speaking of the New Covenant Jeremiah 31:33 says “For this is the covenant I will make... declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” Speaking on the same subject... Ezekiel 36:27 says; “I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey all my rules.” Sowe don’t try in our own strength to live up to the requirements of the law, rather the Spirit writes God’s law on our hearts and as he does it begins to work its way out in how we lives our lives... God has if you like fashioned the believer’s new heart in the shape of his law so that we increasingly do his will, not by natural endeavour, but as a result of the energising power of the Holy Spirit within. Paul said in Philippians 2:13 “for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”
If you want to know how a truly born again Christian ought to feel about God’s Law read Psalm 19 and 119. The law and the gospel are not on different teams, they have different functions but they are both gifts of God’s grace. Paul teaches in 1 Timothy 1:11 that the law is “in accordance with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God.” The law and the gospel are the Holy Spirits dynamic duo for changing human hearts and growing them in grace. This is why it is so important to understand how to use the law lawfully...