Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully, 9 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, 10 the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine, 11 in accordance with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted.
— 1 Timothy 1:8–11 —
In a world where the laws continue to be questioned and rewritten, one thing remains: We are a people inextricably committed to rules, laws, and legislation.
There are rule books for leadership, rulebooks for diets, rulebooks for childrearing, and rulebooks for just about anything else you might want to tackle. The trouble is that the “21 Irrefutable Laws of Leader” and the 600+ laws of the Pentateuch aim at different things. The former address the physical man and his ability to learn, grow, and improve as a (fallen) leader. The latter, God’s law, addresses the moral man and his inability to be holy and righteous before God.
This difference is too often missed. And it is often missed by Bible-believing, gospel-believing preachers. Those who “ought to know better” are the ones who preach a message of “ruled living” for 45 minutes (or less) and then tack on a gospel invitation at the end. This confuses the whole matter, even as it explains why the church is so devoid of gospel power.
Conversely, there are other “gospel-centered” preachers so committed to grace (as pardon) that they miss the place of the law in the life of Christian. Such antinomianism (lawlessness) does not rightly understand grace nor express the fruit of the gospel. Rather, it presents a half-truth (God justifies the ungodly) as the whole truth, without understanding how the law and gospel relate.
In the fulness of truth, the gospel is not opposed to the law. The good news of Christ is rooted in the way Christ fulfilled the law on our behalf, died under the law, and now writes the law on our hearts. Thus, if we are going to understanding the gospel, we must see how it relates to the law. And that’s what I want to consider here.
The Law and the Gospel
In 1 Timothy, Paul admonishes his “true child in the faith” to challenge the false teachers and false teaching in Ephesus (1:3-7). Paul knows that sound doctrine leads to sound living, and that the presence of certain false teachers will defile the believer’s conscience and corrupt the message of the gospel. Therefore, he urges Timothy to “remain” in Ephesus and to charge these “certain persons not to teach any different doctrine” (1:3).
Importantly, in addressing false teaching, the first thing Paul explains is the relationship between law and gospel. Apparently, there were “certain persons” who had “swerved” from the gospel of grace. They, instead, “devoted themselves to myths and endless genealogies” (1:4).
In response, Paul states that the law is good if it is used lawfully (v. 8). In this positive statement about the Law, Paul follows Jesus who said, “I have not come to abolish the Law and the Prophets but to fulfill them” (see Matt 5:17). Paul is consistent with what he says elsewhere, that the law is holy, righteous and good (Rom 7:12, 16). He does not deny God’s Word or render it a thing of the past. Instead, he attests to its place and calls us to consider its purpose—to expose our inability and need for grace.
Notice, he says the law is not for the just, meaning that the law is not intended as a roadmap, guidebook, or instruction manual for morally upright people. If it was, it wouldn’t find a single buyer—for all are bankrupt. There may be some who consider themselves upright, moral, or just. But in truth, there is no one without sin, and thus there is no one who ultimately profits for a list of rules.
By contrast, Paul declares God designed the law to expose sin, guilt, and moral inability. The Law was not meant to bring life; it was and is meant to open the casket of our heart and expose our moral lifelessness. The law is not meant to lead you to pastures of rest and repose; it is meant to take you to the mortuary where it pulls back the cover off of your corpse.
This is how the law is used lawfully: The light of God’s holiness confronts the lawless and disobedient with the standards of God’s perfection and the unbearable weight of knowing that we in ourselves cannot climb the mountain of the Lord and live. His air is too pure, his glory is too high, his gates are too strong, for us in our low, weak, defiled state to enter.
This Paul says to Timothy is the purpose of the law: It is meant to lead to the gospel. The goal of the law, from Mount Sinai until the present, has always been to expose man’s inability and God’s greater grace. It is meant to cause desperation, but not despair.
Paul says in verse 11 that the law which calls out the sexually immoral, homosexuals, enslavers, and liars—to name only a few—is in “accordance with the gospel of glory of the blessed God.” Paul conjoins the purpose of the law with the provision of the gospel—the message that Jesus Christ came to die for sinners.
Rightly, Paul reminds Timothy that what the law could not do, Jesus did. And what the law was never meant to do in itself—bring life—it does do by means of transporting dead sinners from the mortuary to the Garden Tomb where they might die and rise with Jesus.
The Good News of the Law
This is the good news of the law. The law has good news; it is just not found in the law by itself. Rules, principles, laws, and prohibitions are good, when they are used lawfully. Paul shows how that is done. In any place where God’s law is pronounced, we must remember that such legislation is lifeless, until it brings us to Christ.
From there, in Christ, believers are able to return to the commandments of Scripture and find wisdom and instruction there. This approach to the Law is often called the “third use of the law,” it is wonderfully it expresses how the new creation in Christ is able, by the Spirit, to grow in love and obedience. In this way, the Law does not go away when the sinner is justified. Rather, because the justified sinner is also regenerated (i.e., given new life), he is sanctified as he grows in understanding and application of God’s Law.
This transformation too is good news. In material content, the sanctification of a believer is not part of the gospel message, but sanctification of the believer in conformity to God’s Law, accomplished by God’s Word, is effect of the gospel. Wonderfully, God’s gospel does more than justify; it also enlivens and begins to form in the believer the very life of Christ, who was and is perfect in the Law.
In this way, we see the full wisdom of God. His Law both brings us to the end of ourselves (i.e., it puts us to death) and makes us wholly dependent on the mercy of Christ. And then when we have received such mercy, his mercies continue, as we begin to walk by the Spirit of Christ who comes to us in the gospel. This Spirit is the one who implants within us a desire for the Law, which he also inspired. Thus, the gospel creates not a people who have escaped the Law, but those who love the Law and say with the Psalmist.
162I rejoice at your word like one who finds great spoil.
163I hate and abhor falsehood, but I love your law.
164Seven times a day I praise you for your righteous rules.
165Great peace have those who love your law; nothing can make them stumble.
166I hope for your salvation, O Lord, and I do your commandments.
167My soul keeps your testimonies; I love them exceedingly.
— Psalm 119:62–67 —
Truly, this is full work of the law and the gospel. And when they are held together, as Scripture presents them, we find countless ways to praise God for his grace in the law and his greater grace in the gospel. To that end, may God continue to give us grace to delight in his Law, such that it results in greater thanksgiving for his law and his gospel.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds