In the preceding context (vss. 3-7), the Apostle Paul discusses how the false teachers who had arisen in Ephesus had desired to be law-teachers akin to the Jewish rabbis and thus had begun to focus their teaching on Jewish “myths and genealogies.” However, the problem was not that they desired to teach the Old Testament law, whether understood as the whole of the Old Testament canon or only the Mosaic law contained in the first five books of the Old Testament. In fact, had they simply taught the law as they should have, rather than delving into so much speculation and invention from their own imaginations, they would still have been teaching true doctrine. But, as we shall see in this post, the Apostle Paul did not what this point to be misunderstood, so he was sure to state that the law itself is good, despite their having distorted its meaning.
As we approach this particular verse, we need to remember that there are some issues or ideas that are so well known, or at least that ought to be so well known, that we sometimes assume a common knowledge when we speak about them. To take an example from current events, I could say, “We all know that someone should not really be called the ‘president elect’ until we are actually sure he has won the election.” Or, having recently celebrated Christmas, to take an example from current theological debates, I could say to our readers that, “We all know that Jesus is the Son of God and was born of the virgin Mary.” Surely we all simply take such knowledge for granted. Well, in the text before us the Apostle Paul assumed that what he was saying about the Old Testament law was common knowledge among the Ephesian believers, or, at least, that it ought to have been common knowledge based upon what he had previously taught them. Notice how he states his proposition about the law.
NKJ 1 Timothy 1:8 But [δέ] we know [Perf. Act. Ind. > οἶδα] that the law [νόμος] is good if one uses it lawfully [νομίμως] ….
Paul clearly assumed that they all should know that his statement that “the law is good if one uses it lawfully” is a true statement. Notice the way he drove the point home by making a play on words when he spoke of using the law lawfully. In this way Paul made it clear that the law must be used in a manner consistent with its purpose. The law must be used lawfully.
But what is the proper use of the law? And is there more than one proper us of the law? These are the questions we will try to answer here. We will not endeavor to start from scratch in our search for an answer, however, but will instead rely on the good work of those who have come before us. For, through the centuries, especially in Reformed circles, scholars have identified at least three uses of the law found in Scripture, and, as we shall see, these uses are intertwined.
The first use of the law is as a means to show us our sin so that we may see our need for salvation. This is often called the pedagogical use of the law because it functions in this regard like a teacher. Here are three passages that indicate this use of the law.
NKJ Romans 3:19-20 Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. 20 Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin.
NKJ Romans 7:7 What shall we say then? Is the law sin? Certainly not! On the contrary, I would not have known sin except through the law. For I would not have known covetousness unless the law had said, “You shall not covet.”
NKJ Galatians 3:19-24 What purpose then does the law serve? It was added because of transgressions, till the Seed should come to whom the promise was made; and it was appointed through angels by the hand of a mediator. 20 Now a mediator does not mediate for one only, but God is one. 21 Is the law then against the promises of God? Certainly not! For if there had been a law given which could have given life, truly righteousness would have been by the law. 22 But the Scripture has confined all under sin, that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. 23 But before faith came, we were kept under guard by the law, kept for the faith which would afterward be revealed. 24 Therefore the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith.
We have all experienced this use of the law when we were convicted of our sins and trusted in Christ for salvation, and we continue to experience this use of the law whenever we are convicted of ours sins and ask God for forgiveness.
The second use of the law is as a means to restrain evil in society. This is often called the civil use of the law because this is one way it functioned especially for the people of Israel under the Old Covenant, but it has also served as a basis for many of the laws we have in our own culture as well. Consider the following passages in this regard:
NKJ Deuteronomy 13:6-11 If your brother, the son of your mother, your son or your daughter, the wife of your bosom, or your friend who is as your own soul, secretly entices you, saying, “Let us go and serve other gods,” which you have not known, neither you nor your fathers, 7 of the gods of the people which are all around you, near to you or far off from you, from one end of the earth to the other end of the earth, 8 you shall not consent to him or listen to him, nor shall your eye pity him, nor shall you spare him or conceal him; 9 but you shall surely kill him; your hand shall be first against him to put him to death, and afterward the hand of all the people. 10 And you shall stone him with stones until he dies, because he sought to entice you away from the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage. 11 So all Israel shall hear and fear, and not again do such wickedness as this among you.
NKJ Deuteronomy 19:16-20 If a false witness rises against any man to testify against him of wrongdoing, 17 then both men in the controversy shall stand before the LORD, before the priests and the judges who serve in those days. 18 And the judges shall make careful inquiry, and indeed, if the witness is a false witness, who has testified falsely against his brother, 19 then you shall do to him as he thought to have done to his brother; so you shall put away the evil from among you. 20 And those who remain shall hear and fear, and hereafter they shall not again commit such evil among you.
These examples clearly demonstrate how the law functioned to restrain evil in Israel, but we must also remember that the moral principles of God’s law are written within the hearts of all people. As Paul said in his Epistle to the Romans:
NKJ Romans 2:14-15 … for when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do the things in the law, these, although not having the law, are a law to themselves, 15 who show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and between themselves their thoughts accusing or else excusing them ….
Indeed, this is also presupposed when, in the same epistle, Paul goes on to tell Christians how to respond to the governing authorities:
NKJ Romans 13:1-4 Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same. 4 For he is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil.
So, the law of God, which teaches us the moral principles of God, principles which we all know to some extent or other, provides a means of restraining evil, not only in individuals but also in society.
The third use of the law is as a means to show us the moral standards by which we should seek to live as Christians. This is often called the moral or normative use of the law. In fact, the moral principles found in the Mosaic Law are clearly applied to Christians in the New Testament, as the following examples indicate:
NKJ Romans 13:8-10 Owe no one anything except to love one another, for he who loves another has fulfilled the law. 9 For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not bear false witness,” “You shall not covet,” [Exod. 20:13-17] and if there is any other commandment, are all summed up in this saying, namely, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” [Lev. 19:18] 10 Love does no harm to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.
NKJ Ephesians 6:1-3 Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. 2 “Honor your father and mother,” which is the first commandment with promise: 3 “that it may be well with you and you may live long on the earth.” [Ex. 20:12]
So, we may see from these examples that most of the Ten Commandments are applied directly to Christians. But this is not all, for even other laws, laws that appeared to have been written specifically for the governing of Israel, are also applied to Christians by means of ascertaining and applying the underlying principles behind them. In order to see what I mean, let’s look at a couple of passages in which the Apostle Paul applies the moral principle behind a certain law to the Church. In both examples we will see that he is talking about the payment of ministers of the Gospel:
NKJ 1 Corinthians 9:7-11 Who ever goes to war at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat of its fruit? Or who tends a flock and does not drink of the milk of the flock? 8 Do I say these things as a mere man? Or does not the law say the same also? 9 For it is written in the law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle an ox while it treads out the grain.” [Deut. 25:4] Is it oxen God is concerned about? 10 Or does He say it altogether for our sakes? For our sakes, no doubt, this is written, that he who plows should plow in hope, and he who threshes in hope should be partaker of his hope. 11 If we have sown spiritual things for you, is it a great thing if we reap your material things?
NKJ 1 Timothy 5:17-18 Let the elders who rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in the word and doctrine. 18 For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox while it treads out the grain,” [Deut. 25:4] and, “The laborer is worthy of his wages.” [Luke 10:7]
So, we may see that there is much to be learned from every part of the Old Testament law, even if in some ways we are no longer under the law. But this leads us to the way in which Scripture also implies distinctions between different aspects of the law. Many faithful Biblical scholars over the years, particularly among the Reformed churches – whether Presbyterian or Baptist – have identified at least three aspects of the law. These overlap, of course, with the three uses of the law that we have been considering. I will take time only to offer a brief description of each, since this also pertains directly to our study.
First, there are certain ceremonial laws pertaining, for example, directly to the priesthood and the sacrificial system, and these laws no longer apply directly to us. As the author of Hebrews tells us, the law in this sense has been abrogated with the coming of our Lord Jesus and His saving work on our behalf, because “the law, having a shadow of the good things to come, and not the very image of the things, can never with these same sacrifices, which they offer continually year by year, make those who approach perfect” (Heb. 10:1). We no longer offer such sacrifices because they were temporary, having been designed by God to point to the sacrifice of Christ. Now, however, “we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all,” as the author of Hebrews puts it (Heb. 10:10, italics mine).
Elsewhere, the Apostle Paul could warn the Colossian believers in this regard, “let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths, which are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ” (Col. 2:16-17).
Second, there are certain civil laws, pertaining, for example, to circumcision (which could also be seen as ceremonial), or to certain dietary restrictions, or to the stoning of rebellious children or adulterers, etc, that no longer apply to us. To take up a couple of specific examples, our Lord Jesus set aside the dietary restrictions when He pronounced all foods clean, as Mark tells us (Mark 7:19, ESV). This point was also made quite clear to Peter in a vision recorded in Acts 10:9-16. Also, the law concerning adultery is a specific example, for in the Church we no longer put adulterers to death as the law requires (e.g. Lev. 20:10; Deut. 22:22). Instead, if they refuse to repent of their sin, we excommunicate them in accordance with our Lord Jesus’ teaching (Matt. 18:15-20).
Third, there is what we call the moral law. We saw this in our earlier look at the way the Ten Commandments apply to the Church, but we also saw that the moral principles underlying all of those other laws apply to us as well.
Thus, we have taken time to conduct a brief overview of the uses of the law and the distinct aspects of the law as it applies to the Church. And we have focused our attention primarily on the way that the Apostle Paul made use of the law, so that we can better understand his meaning here in 1 Timothy 1:8.
So then, as we conclude our study, let’s turn our attention now to what the Apostle Paul goes on to say about this in the following context.
NKJ 1 Timothy 1:8-11 But we know that the law is good if one uses it lawfully, 9 knowing this: that the law is not made for a righteous person, but for the lawless and insubordinate, for the ungodly and for sinners, for the unholy and profane, for murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers, for manslayers, 10 for fornicators, for sodomites, for kidnappers, for liars, for perjurers, and if there is any other thing that is contrary to sound doctrine, 11 according to the glorious gospel of the blessed God which was committed to my trust.
Notice that Paul highlighted many of the most egregious sins that were common in that culture, sins that the teachers in Ephesus should have been confronting in their teaching of the law, so that they could help to restrain evil in their community, so that they could help people to see their need for a Savior, and so that they themselves would constantly be reminded of the holy standard they were called to live up to as witnesses for Christ.
Notice also that Paul stressed that the proper use of the law is “according to the glorious gospel of the blessed God.” In other words, using the law lawfully means showing how it points to Christ and calls us to trust in Him. Yet the false teachers had left any proper use of the law behind and had instead given themselves over to the Jewish myths and genealogies that indulged their desire for imaginative speculation. I hope that, as a result of our brief study here, we all know the proper use of the law and will not be led astray by such misuses of it.