The Law, the Christian, and the Gospel
Passage: 1 Timothy 1:8-11
We spent the past two Sundays in vv. 3–7, and we talked at length about the obnoxious opponents Timothy had to confront in the Ephesian church. Remember that a major reason the false teachers were having such influence is because they came from within the church. People knew them and trusted them. They didn’t have a sign plastered across their forehead that said, “My Goal Is to Damn Your Soul.” No, they looked like Christians, they sort of talked like Christians, and people didn’t immediately appreciate how destructive they were. Remember as well that they claimed to base their teaching in the OT law. However, they were not teaching the Law like we study through a passage; rather, they were speculating about various myths and reading stories into the genealogical lists. Therefore, in vv. 3–7, Paul emphasizes the fact that God didn’t give us his Word to promote ourselves but to fulfill the mission of making disciples. And he didn’t give us his Word for the purpose of speculating about useless questions but for the purpose of growing genuine godliness with the characteristics of v. 5. In vv. 8–11 Paul continues to address the influence of these teachers, and in so doing, we learn a little more about them but especially about God’s positive will for us.
As you can see, I’ve entitled this message, “The Law, the Christian, and the Gospel.” I’ve decided to use PowerPoint today because this passage is a little tricky to follow, and my outline isn’t simple either. But while this is a bit of a tricky passage that isn’t as immediately applicable as many other passages, it has some significant things to say regarding the law and the gospel and regarding how we pursue godliness. I hope you will stick with me today because we are going to wrestle with some important truth this morning. I’d like to answer four questions about this text. First…
What is Paul combatting?
I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that one of the big challenges for understanding the epistles is that reading them is sort of like listening to one side of a phone conversation. To really understand what we are hearing, we have to piece together what’s being said on the other end. Doing so is pretty important for this passage, and I believe we can make three reasonable conclusions that will help us understand Paul’s point.
Accusation of Antinomianism (Gal 2:19; 3:23–26; Rom 6:14)
Antinomianism simply means “no law.” It seems that the false teachers were accusing Paul, and by extension Timothy of teaching that Christians don’t need to obey any sort of law. The Jews commonly would commonly make this charge against Paul. It was especially present in Rome, Galatia, and Colossae and probably to some extent most places where there was a Jewish presence. They would make this charge because Paul taught that the OT Law is not authoritative over the Christian (read). Christ has replaced the tutor of the Law. Romans 6:14 states that we are not under law but under grace. The Jews would twist these kinds of statements to mean that Paul was promoting lawless living. This was probably happening at Ephesus. The fact that Paul feels the need to say in v. 8 that “the Law is good,” indicates that he was being charged with saying it was not good and probably also with promoting a free lifestyle that was obviously below the “holiness” of the false teachers. But you don’t have to read Paul’s epistles very long to see that this charge was absurd because they are full of commands. And in this text, he says very clearly that the Law is not useless; instead, it is “good.” In Romans 7, Paul tells us that the Law is good because God wrote it and it teaches us some important truths when we use it appropriately. We’ll talk more in a bit about what the appropriate use is. The false teachers were accusing Paul of antinomianism, and so Paul has to defend himself against this charge. But he also had to address a couple of abuses by the false teachers.
Speculative Use of the Law
We’ve already talked at length about this issue. The false teachers were not coming to the Scriptures with the goal of finding out what God said and using them according to God’s intent. Instead, they were making up fanciful tales and inserting them into Scripture. Therefore, one of the basic points Paul is trying to make in this passage is that we need to use God’s Word the way God intended for it to be used. Notice what he says at the end of v. 8. The law must be used “lawfully.” This simply means that it must be used according to God’s intent. That means that when we study the Bible, our first goal must always be to determine what God meant to say and what significance he intended for us to take from what he said. It’s not our place to squeeze the Bible into our agenda; instead, we must mold our agenda to reflect the Bible. This ought to be obvious, and I hope we are all on board with this fact. But, people fail to use God’s Word lawfully all of the time. In our day we try to squeeze pagan psychology, science, and sociology into Scripture instead of beginning with what God said. But Paul says this is “unlawful.” We must use God’s Word the way God intended for it to be used.
Legalistic Use of the Law
Notice that v. 9 begins by saying that the law was not intended for the “righteous person.” We can assume that the false teachers said it was for the righteous. They were telling the Christians at Ephesus that they must obey the OT law in order to earn the favor of God. The reason I believe they were teaching this sort of legalism is because of what Paul says in vv. 12–16. The main point of these verses is to say that God saves sinners by grace. And Paul rehearses his own testimony of how God rescued him from an evil life as an example of the fact that salvation is by grace, not works. And so it seems that the false teachers rejected this. They were holding up the OT law and saying that you must obey it to be made right with God. And so there was a lot of confusion in the Ephesian church about the OT law’s purpose. Therefore, the main purpose of this paragraph is to address the second question in my outline…
What is the proper use of the law?
Paul addresses this question in vv. 9–10 where he says that the Law is not intended to govern the righteous but instead the unrighteous, which he describes through a lengthy list of sins. We need to acknowledge that Paul does not give a complete answer to this question in this passage. Instead, his concern is to address the issue at Ephesus. Therefore, we especially want to understand Paul’s point in our text, but we also need to incorporate some principles from other passages. I’d like to note two purposes the law was never intended to do.
The law was never intended to save (Rom 3:19–20).
We need to begin here the false teachers probably believed that obeying the law contributes at least somewhat to making it to heaven. And many people continue to assume they will be in heaven based on their own goodness. But the Scriptures say over and over that we can never be good enough to earn salvation and that even God’s inspired law could not save because sinners cannot obey it. Romans 3 is very clear that there is no hope of sinners saving themselves through the Law and that when they try to obey it, all they do is reveal the sinfulness of their hearts. Our passage also holds out no hope that the law can make someone righteous. If you think that you will be in heaven someday because of your obedience to law, understand that the Scriptures say you are wrong. You cannot be justified before God based on law.
The law is not intended to govern the Christian.
This one might raise an eyebrow for some, but Paul seems to be pretty clear when he says, “The law is not made for the righteous person.” Who is he talking about? He goes on in vv. 9–10 to contrast the righteous with those who commit all sorts of grievous sins. Therefore, the “righteous” are those who do what is right. But we know from Romans 3:10 that no one is righteous of themselves; therefore, the “righteous” are ultimately those who have been justified in Christ and who are living righteous lives because they are born again. They are Christians, not just good citizens. We saw earlier that one of the staples of Paul’s teaching is that Christians are not bound to the OT law. Instead, we live in a new era that is characterized by grace. We are saved by grace, not by works, and the new life that we have by grace inspires godliness in a way that an external standard never could. The false teachers were trying to put the church under the OT law. But Paul is very adamant that it was not designed to govern Christians. So does that mean that Paul thought the law is worthless? Not at all. Let’s talk positively about the law does.
The law reveals the character of God (Lev 11:44–45).
God states that the law revealed to Israel the nature of his holiness and what holiness looks like for his people. Last week I quoted from Matthew 22:40 where Jesus said that the whole law hangs on the commandments to love God and love people. Jesus was not saying that the other laws don’t matter; rather the other laws tells us what loving God and loving our neighbor look like. And so the law reveals who God is and what it means for man to look like him. But again, because we are sinners, the law alone could never perfectly recreated the holiness of God in us. Instead…
The law reveals man’s sinfulness (Rom 3:19–20).
The law provided mankind with a perfect standard of righteousness. We need this because we naturally assume we are pretty good when we compare ourselves to other people. But the law enables man to compare himself with God. And when we try to live up to his standard, it quickly becomes obvious that we are sinners in need of grace.
The law restrains man’s sinfulness. This is the point Paul wants to make in our text. He lists a number of egregious sins against God and our fellow man. He says that God gave the law for the kinds of people who do such things. The law prevents the wickedness of our hearts from doing all of the potential damage they are capable of doing against God and man. It restrains wickedness of our hearts by telling us what is evil, and in Israel’s case, by legislating punishment for sin. I want to emphasize that this does not mean that the law changes our hearts anymore than a chain changes the heart of an attack dog. The attack dog on a chain is still violent, but the chain keeps it from tearing everyone to shreds. Similarly, vv. 9–10 say that the law restrains the wickedness of sinners from doing all of the evil they would do otherwise.
And so Paul’s main point in vv. 9–10 is to say that God did not institute the law to speculate over myths. He didn’t even give the law to produce genuine righteousness in his people. Only supernatural grace can do that. Rather, he gave the law to curtail the wickedness of men’s hearts from doing all of the evil they would otherwise do. Paul paints a pretty dark picture of human nature. We don’t need to spend a lot of time with each of the sins in this list, but we do need to take some time to understand this list and its broader implications. My third question is…
What is the significance of the vice list?
Every commentator I read agrees that Paul intended for this list to parallel the Ten Commandments and that Paul intends to list especially wicked violations of the commands that the law is intended to prevent. The parallels aren’t as obvious at the beginning but they become more apparent further down the list. The first four commandments have to do with our relationship to God, and so Paul begins with several offenses against God.
Lawless and Insubordinate
This pair parallels the command to worship “no other gods.” God is to be supreme over our lives, and nothing reveals the wickedness of men’s hearts more than their resistance to God’s lordship. They refuse to submit to him.
Ungodly and Sinners
This pair parallels the command forbidding “carved images” or idolatry. The word translated “sinners” is commonly used to describe the Gentiles’ idolatry. God is an infinite spirit, and he hates idolatry because it makes his deity out to be so much less than it is.
Unholy and Profane
Both of these terms describe someone who does not honor that which is sacred. The second term in particular and describe someone who doesn’t even acknowledge divinity. They parallels the 3rd and 4th command. The third command forbids taking the Lord’s name in vain, and the fourth command regards keeping the Sabbath holy. God’s name is to be honored and the Sabbath is to be set apart as a holy day. But sinners often refuse to show God the reverence he deserves.
Murderers of Fathers and Mothers
With this pair the list transitions from sins against God to sins against our fellow man. It begins with maybe the worst sin a person can commit against humanity—violence against one’s parents. These terms can range from beating to actual murder. They very naturally describe a person who rebels against God’s command to “honor your father and your mother.”
This obviously parallels the command against murder.
Fornicators and Sodomites
Both of these terms have to do with sexual sins and describe egregious violations of the command against adultery. The second term is of note in our day because some Christian groups argue that the NT never forbids homosexuality, but this is clearly what Paul intends to condemn in this verse. Paul uses a compound word that combines the word for “man” and “bed.” The term for “bed” is used in Hebrews 13:4 for the marriage bed and clearly refers to the physical relationship. You just can’t read this term honestly and come to any other conclusion than that Paul assumed that homosexuality violates God’s will.
This is another interesting term in regards to the biblical ethic. It is particularly concerned with capturing another human being and forcing them into slavery. Paul implies that this is an awful violation of the command against stealing. Despite what some will say, God condemns stealing people and forcing them into slavery. There’s much more we could say, but we’ll save that for our Sunday night ethics series.
Liars and Perjurers
These terms parallel the command forbidding “false witness.” The term translated “perjury” describes breaking an oath, which of course is an evil form of lying.
Contrary to Sound Doctrine
Paul does not list a sin that is parallel to covetousness, which is interesting. It’s hard to know why. It’s possible that he saw covetousness as the root of all of these sins. Instead, he concludes the list with a summary statement. There is no end to the creative ways sinners can devise to break God’s law, but regardless of what we may do, the law is there to restrain all expressions of sin. It’s scary to imagine how wicked and violent human society would be apart from God’s common grace that restrains the wickedness of sinners. We ought to be very thankful for this function of the law. But what about Christians? The last question we need to answer is…
What ought to govern the lives of Christians?
The simple answer is the gospel. The gospel is much more than a solution to eternity in hell; it transforms all of life. I’d like to make four points about the gospel.
The gospel is God’s authoritative truth.
Paul concludes v. 11 by noting that God had committed the gospel he preached to him. It’s probably fair to assume that the false teachers held up the OT as more authoritative than Paul’s message. And so Paul reiterates the fact that the gospel is a divine stewardship that had been committed to him. We can have absolute confidence that the gospel is true and that the power of God stands behind it.
The gospel reveals the glory of God (2 Cor 4:6).
Notice that the word “glory” is translated in the NKJ as an adjective modifying gospel. But it’s better to take it as modifying God rather than gospel. I love what 2 Corinthians 4:6 says about how we see God in the gospel. The gospel opens our eyes to the wonder of who God is. It allows us to see truly the significance of his justice, righteousness, holiness, love, and grace. In so doing it turns the wicked sinners of vv. 9–10 who hate God, rebel against him, and see his law as oppressive into worshippers who love his law and want to obey it.
The gospel provides alien righteousness.
This text doesn’t mention alien righteousness, but I want to make sure we don’t miss this. The fundamental difference between the “righteous” of v. 9 and the sinners in vv. 9–10 is not that some people decide to obey God and others do not and that those who obey will earn salvation and the status of righteous. Ephesians 2:8–9 is very clear that we are saved by grace, not by works. This is because those who believe on Christ for salvation are credited with the righteousness of Christ. It’s an alien righteousness in the sense that it is not our own. It is Christ’s righteousness applied to us. One of the saddest ways that sin blinds people is that it makes them think they can earn their way to God. The false teachers apparently believed this to some extent, and most people still do today. But no one can earn a relationship with God because we can never be good enough. You can only be saved by believing on Christ and what he accomplished through his death and resurrection. If you have never done so, I hope that you will today. Don’t buy the lie that you can earn your way to God. Believe on Christ for salvation.
The gospel governs all of life for the Christian (Rom 6:14).
Notice how vv. 10 and 11 flow together. Sinful living is contrary to “sound doctrine.” And sound doctrine is according to the gospel. The idea is that godly living is rooted in the message and transforming power of the gospel. The Christian does not live a virtuous life primarily because of an external law but because God’s law has been written on his heart through the new life we receive in salvation. Notice again Romans 6:14. Life under grace does not mean that we can live without restraint. Rather it means that “sin shall not have dominion over you.” Sadly, the false teachers missed this transforming power. They were trying to create their own righteousness based on the OT law. They thought it made them superior. They missed the fact that God has provided a much better power. Grace rules in the heart of a Christian, and it drives him to pursue a far more earnest holiness than rules alone could ever produce because it begins in the heart. Christian, is the gospel having this kind of transforming effect in your life? Are you pursuing hard after righteousness because you see the glory of God? You see he God is good and his will is wise? Or have you grown a bit stale as your heart is deceived by the pull of this world? Remember today that God’s way is best and you can pursue holiness because God’s power is real. Press forward with faith, and let’s all rejoice today in the transforming power of the gospel.