The Lord's Day
June 27, 2004
I Timothy 1:6-11
“The Law in the Christian Life”
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan
If you have your Bibles, I invite you to turn with me to I Timothy, chapter one, and we’ll be looking at verses six through eleven today. We’re continuing to work through this book, which is the first of the Pastoral Epistles. It's written by an apostle who was a pastor, a missionary, and a church planter, to a young man who was a church planter and settled pastor in Ephesus. He's writing in the context of a congregation that was troubled by false teachers. We learned that in verses three and four, although Paul has not told us what that false teaching is yet. He’ll tell us today, when we get to verses six through eleven.
We also said that in this book, and in these books–I and II Timothy and Titus, together the Pastoral Epistles–we learn what church life is supposed to be like in the local congregation, because Paul is not merely giving wise advice from an aged and learned and experienced pastor to a young without as much age or experience or learning, he is giving commands on how God wants the church to be. And so, just as Paul's words were helpful to a local congregation of Christians who had gathered less than thirty years or so after Jesus had ascended on high, after His earthly ministry, life and death and resurrection, he's also giving these words to us, who live 2,000 years after that time, seeking to be faithful Christians gathered in a local congregation to do His will and to give Him glory. So let's give close attention to God's word in I Timothy, chapter one. Before we read and hear God's word proclaimed, let's look to Him in prayer and ask for His blessing.
Lord God, You have already told us through Paul that the preaching of your word is designed to establish us in real Christian love: love to God and love to fellow Christians, love to neighbor, and love to our enemy, even. Grant, then, that as we hear Your word read and preached today, our hearts’ desire would be to be transformed by that same word. And by the grace of Your Spirit, we ask that You would indeed transform us. We ask this in Jesus' name. Amen.
Hear the word of God:
“For some men, straying from these things, have turned aside to fruitless discussion, wanting to be teachers of the law, even though they do not understand either what they are saying, or the matters about which they make confident assertions. But we know that the Law is good, if one uses it lawfully, realizing the fact that the law is not made for a righteous man, but for those who are lawless and rebellious, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers and immoral men and homosexuals and kidnappers and liars and perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound teaching according to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, with which I have been entrusted.”
Amen. And thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.
In this passage, Paul is addressing the issue of the law, and especially of the law in the Christian life. And the reason is, he identifies for us, in verses six and seven, the nature of the false teaching that was troubling the Ephesian church. There were people who claimed to be expert teachers of the law, and by that they meant the Mosaic Law, especially the moral law of the Decalogue. These are not exactly like the Judaizers found elsewhere, agitating for circumcision and the ceremonial law; these are people who are teaching certain things about the moral law which contradicted Paul's preaching of the gospel. And so, Paul is warning Timothy, and the church in Ephesus, about their teaching. He is positively setting forth the proper understanding of the law; and then he is reminding us that the gospel is the measure of all teaching as to whether it is sound.
In fact, it is precisely those three things that you see in the passage before you.
(1) In verses six and seven, Paul speaks of the misunderstanding of the law that was being propagated by these false teachers.
(2) In verses eight through ten, he speaks of the true nature and function of the law; and then,
(3) In verse eleven, he reminds us that the gospel itself is the measure of sound teaching.
I want to look at those three things with you today, because Paul believes that the understanding–a right understanding–of the law is important, indeed, essential to the Christian life. Because understanding the law correctly impacts how one understands the gospel and how the gospel relates to the law in the Christian life. So let's look together at these words of instruction from Paul.
False teaching fails in the arena of true edification.
First of all, in verse six and seven, Paul tells us that we must be on guard for misunderstandings about the role of the law in the Christian life. And Paul's great point in these two verses is simply this: False teaching always fails to edify. Remember what Paul had just said in verse five? Sneak a peek, because what he says in verses six and seven is simply elaborating a point that he made in verse five. In verse five, he says that the goal of our instruction —he's saying, ‘Timothy, the goal that you and I are trying to aim for in our preaching, in our teaching, in our instruction of the people of God in the truth of Holy Scripture— the goal that we're aiming for is love from a pure heart, and a good conscience, and a sincere faith. In other words, the goal of our teaching is to edify the people of God so that they will not simply know more things, but so that their lives would be transformed so that from the inside out–from a pure heart, a heart made clean by the work of the Holy Spirit, by the regenerating work of the Lord Jesus Christ–with a good conscience and a sincere faith, they would love (they would love God, they would love one another, they would love their neighbor, they would even love their enemies) because that practical manifestation of love is…what? It is the supreme expression of the grace of the Spirit in the life of a believer. Paul says in I Corinthians thirteen that “faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” Because in heaven, faith will be no more. It will be replaced by sight. And hope will be no more, having been fulfilled. But love will go on forever.
So, love is the supreme expression of the work of the Spirit in the life of the believer. And Paul is saying to Timothy in verse five, ‘that's what we're shooting for in our teaching. We don't want our people just to be smarter; we don't want our people simply to know more things; we don't want them to simply be more discerning, although we want all three of those things. We want them to know more and understand better and be more discerning. Those are important things, because we want them to be discerning against the false teaching that is pervasive in the world. But more than that, we want to see their lives transformed so that they are edified, so that they, themselves, actively and tangibly love.’
You remember what Jesus said would be the thing that would serve as a witness to the world that we were His disciples? He says this in John 13 and following. He says that it will be the way that we love one another. Do you remember when the lawyer comes to Jesus and says, “Jesus, what's the greatest command?” And Jesus’ response is, “Love God and love your neighbor. And on these two things hang the whole of the law and the prophets.” The goal for which that prophetic teaching aimed was the creation of a people that would love God.
Well, Paul makes that point in verse five. But then he says in verse six, there are some men who claim to be teachers of the law who are straying from that very teaching. “Some men,” he says–this refers to the false teachers about which he's already warned us in verses three and four–“some men have been theologically sidetracked.’ Notice what he says: “They've turned aside to fruitless discussions.” Now, notice the contrast. The goal of our instruction, Paul says, is …what? Love! From a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. What's the result of their teaching? Fruitless discussion.
Notice the difference? Fruitfulness, love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith; fruitless — they speculate, they talk about things that they don't really understand, it doesn't edify the people of God.
It makes perfect sense, doesn't it? You can't edify the people of God unless you’re teaching the people of God the truth of God, for only the truth of God can edify the people of God. Because they don't understand the law (even though they teach about it a lot), they can't edify the people of God! And so, in verses six and seven, Paul is saying the mark of these false teachers is they’re not really edifying the people of God. They’re not turning the people of God into those who love God more, and who love one another more, and who love their neighbors faithfully in accordance with God's Word. These men, in verse seven, he says, want to be thought of as experts on the law. They want to be people that you go to, to answer hard questions. But they don't really understand the law. And Paul says they show that in both their life and their teaching. In verse seven, he says all you have to do is listen to them to know that they don't know very much about the law of God.
But furthermore, if you noticed in verse six, he even says that their lives show that they don't understand the law of God. Look at that interesting thing that he says in verse six: “For some men, straying from these things…” Well, what's the these things from which they are straying? It's what he had just said in verse five. What were they straying from? Love, from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. In other words, even in their lives, you could tell they really didn't understand the law of God. The law of God convicts us of sin. The law of God restrains us from sin. The law of God impels us to grow in grace. But they weren't. They were straying from growth in grace. They were not growing in love, as Paul said his teaching aims for.
What Paul is dealing with here is legalism, or moralism. Now it's very important for you to understand that Paul is not saying that these people are legalists in the sense that they care too much about God's law. Oftentimes, we’ll use the phrase ‘legalists’ in that way. You just care too much…you’re too nit-picky about God's law. You’re a legalist. Jesus and Paul never use the language of legalism in that way. Legalism doesn't mean caring too much about God's law. Could anybody ever care too much about God's Word? Can you imagine God rebuking somebody on the last day: “You just cared too much about My Word! That's the problem with you!” God will never say that to anyone! That's not true of anyone! Nobody has ever cared too much about God's Word. No. This legalism is a legalism that does not understand the necessity of God's grace in order that we might obey the law. This legalism says “How can a man be right with God?” “Obey the law, ” it says.
You remember back in the Gospel of Luke? Turn with me there, to Luke 18. In Luke 18:9, Jesus tells that famous story of the Pharisee and the Publican. “And He, ” Luke gives us this preface, “He told this parable to certain ones who trusted in themselves that they were righteous.” So the whole point of the parable was to disabuse this Pharisee from believing that he was righteous. He thought of himself as righteous. Then He goes on to tell the story, in verse eighteen, of a rich young ruler. And you remember what question that rich young ruler asked Jesus? “Good teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus says to him, ‘You know the commandments–keep them.’ And you know what the rich young ruler says? ‘Oh, I've already done that!’ And that's all you need to know, to know that he hadn't!
You know, if anything, he's just broken the commandment not to lie, or bear false witness! “I've done that since I was a kid. I've kept all the commandments.” You see, Jesus’ very point in saying this to him was to see whether he had discovered himself enough to know his need of forgiveness. He had not. Jesus had even tipped him off, because the man had said to Jesus “Good teacher…”, and Jesus’ first words to him were “Why do you call Me good? There is only One who is good.” God. And then “ He asks this young man, “Have you kept the commandments?” And the young man says, what? “I'm good!” That's what the young man says! Yes! “I'm good!” After Jesus had just said there's nobody good but God. It's a wonderful play on words going on there.
The point, you see, is to make it clear to that young man that the law cannot make him good. The law can restrain him from sin; the law can show him his sin; but the law, in and of itself, cannot make him good. These false teachers in Ephesus were purporting to bring a deep teaching of the law which would show the people of God how they could be good. And Paul is saying they don't understand what the law is, and they don't understand what it's for. And, consequently, they can't edify the people of God. And there's Paul's big point in verses six and seven: False teaching always fails to edify. Only the true, sound teaching of the gospel can edify the people of God.
False teaching misunderstands the nature and use of the law.
The second thing we see is in verses eight to ten. There we see the true nature and function of the law. These men who were teaching in Ephesus didn't understand the law, even though they claimed to. Now Paul says, “Let me explain to you what the law is and how it works.” False teaching, you see, misunderstands what the law is and how it works. It misunderstands the nature and the function of the law, but Christians need to know what the law is and what it's for.
And Paul begins by saying the law is good! It's so important for you to understand that Paul isn't anti-law. A lot of people read this passage and think that what Paul is saying is that the law isn't for Christians. Well, look. Every time you hear Jesus say something like He says in Matthew 22, that the greatest commandments are to love God and to love neighbors, He's simply summarizing for you the whole goal and focus of the law. He's not against the moral law of God. When Paul says that “the greatest of these is love”, he's just summarizing the law. In fact, he's about–in these verses–to summarize The Ten Commandments for us. Paul's not against the law. When Paul speaks about the law, he always speaks of it highly. Here he said it's good. In Romans 7 He says it's holy and it's spiritual.
But here's the problem: the law has to be used rightly. And these men were not using it rightly. They didn't understand it. And so Paul says in verse eight, “…we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully.” In other words, if you use the law in the way God intended the law to be used, in accordance with its nature.
Those who see the law by itself as the solution to the problem of our unrighteousness, those who think that the law itself, by our obeying of it, can make us right with God, are deluded. That is legalism. And Paul is rejecting that. You have to know what the law is for.
And so, in verses nine and ten, is, Paul basically gives you a summarization of The Ten Commandments. If you look at these series of parallel terms, the law is for (in verse nine) “the lawless and rebellious, ungodly and sinners, unholy and profane.” That covers the first four commandments. Then, notice how he picks up with the fifth commandment, “those who kill their fathers or mothers” — the ultimate expression of not honoring your father or mother–and he runs you through the ninth commandment. He doesn't outline for you the tenth commandment, but he covers nine of the ten commandments here in verses nine and ten. And he says, “Now look: why would God have needed to write down those laws and give them to the people of God through Moses, unless we were sinners and needed to be restrained from our sins?” Adam had the law written on his heart. Paul says that even as fallen human beings, we all know right from wrong, and we know that God is going to bring punishment.
So why did the law need to be written down? To restrain sin. Therefore, it can't be the answer to the problem of sin. It's there because of the problem of sin, not as the final answer to the problem of sin. The final answer to the problem of sin is the gospel! It's the person and work of Jesus Christ, in His life and death and resurrection on our behalf, and our embrace of that by faith. That's the good news that deals with sin.
But the law…no, the law is there because of the problem. It's there to restrain us from sin. Paul is speaking of what the Reformers used to call ‘the first use of the law’ here. He's not saying everything that there is to say about the law, but he's just pointing out that as these teachers come in and say, “If you want to be righteous with God, the way to righteousness is to obey these moral laws. Then you will be right with God,” Paul wants us to know that anybody who can preach that doesn't know themselves, and doesn't know the law.
You see, true biblical teaching does not mistake the nature and use of the law. The law restrains from sin; the law convicts of sin. And in the believer who has been changed by the grace of God, regenerated by the Holy Spirit, justified by God's grace, and is being sanctified by the Holy Spirit, the law serves as a guide. It shows us what true righteousness looks like. But it cannot save us. And these teachers don't understand that. And so, Paul points out here how false teaching misunderstands the nature and use of the law.
The Gospel itself is the measure of the soundness of all teaching.
And then, finally, in verse eleven, he explains to us how the gospel itself is the measure of soundness in all teaching. Look at the end of verse ten: “…and whatever else is contrary to sound teaching, according to the gospel, the glorious gospel, of the blessed God, with which I have been entrusted.” Sound, or wholesome, teaching is a word that Paul will use over and over in these Pastoral Epistles. It's a phrase that reminds us that true biblical teaching leads to spiritual health. It's sound teaching, or wholesome teaching, or healthy teaching. We’re not just teaching so that you’ll know more things, we're teaching so that you will have a healthy Christian embrace of doctrine and experience and practice. We want to edify you with the Word of God. And so he speaks of this sound teaching.
Well, what about this sound teaching? Well, he tells us that it's according to the gospel. He's saying that sound, or wholesome, teaching is always in accord with the good news that displays God's glory, because it is that message alone that reveals God in all the fullness of His blessings. Everybody knows that there is a right from wrong, no matter how much we want to deny it in our practice. No matter how we practice out of accord with that fundamental reality, there is not a human being on the planet that doesn't know that there is a right and there is a wrong, and that there is a God who is going to judge it. Now, I don't have to know every human being to know that. I have Romans, chapter one. And Romans, chapter one, tells met that: that every human being on this planet knows right from wrong, and knows that God is going to judge wrong. The gospel doesn't tell me that. The law tells me that. The image of God in me tells me that.
What the gospel tells me is not simply that there is a just God, but that there is a merciful God. And that is something that I learn only in the gospel, that there is a merciful God who will show grace to those who repent and trust in His own Son. And even though He is just in all His judgments, He will show mercy to those who flee to Jesus Christ.
The gospel, you see, is the essence of the saving good news about the person and work of Jesus Christ, especially in His death and resurrection, and what that does for our sin, and how it answers to our need in our sin, for forgiveness and for cleansing. And Paul is saying that the gospel itself is the measure of soundness in all teaching. If someone comes and says ‘obey the law and God will save you,’ Paul says that person shows that he doesn't understand the law, and he doesn't understand the gospel. But when someone comes and says ‘trust in Christ alone for salvation as He is offered in the gospel, and then live as only someone who has been freed from sin by the power of the gospel, then live in accordance with the law,’ that person understands both the gospel and the law.
Remember how Paul puts it in Ephesians? He says that you were “saved by grace through faith, and that not of yourselves, it was the gift of God.” But he goes on to say that you were “…created in Christ Jesus for good works.” You were not saved by good works, you were not saved by your law keeping, you were saved by grace, through faith, and even that faith was a gift of God. But you were created anew, you were regenerated, you were made to be a new creature–for what reason? For what purpose? So that you would do good works. How do you know what good works are? The Word of God tells you. The law of God tells you.
So it is not that the law saves you and makes you right with God, but it is that you are saved in order that you can express what you were meant to be, as the image of God, by keeping the law of God. And the gospel thus judges all teaching about the law and about the gospel. Sound, wholesome teaching is always in accord with the good news that displays God's glory, because that message alone reveals God in all the fullness of His blessedness. And Paul wants Timothy to know that. Why? Because people were confused about the law in his church. And friends, people are confused today.
Even in the Reformed community, there are intelligent people who are suggesting that we need to reinsert the law into our justification, into our being declared right with God. And the Apostle Paul is saying, anybody who says that doesn't understand the law; doesn't understand their sin; doesn't understand the gospel. Because if I am the solution to the problem of my unrighteousness, well, then, I really do have a big problem.
It's Jesus’ keeping of the law. It's Jesus’ righteousness. It's Jesus’ holiness. It's Jesus paying the penalty for my sin that makes me right for God, and frees me, then, to live in accordance with the guidance of God's law. And so, God's grace takes priority over my faithfulness. And if we don't understand that, we haven't understood yet the freeness of the mercy of God. May God grant us an understanding of that truth. Let's pray.
Our heavenly Father, a wise old Baptist minister once said that those who understand the right relationship between law and gospel are true masters of divinity, and we want to be masters of biblical truth, masters of teaching about God and His way of salvation. And more than that, we want to live in accordance with that truth. So help us to understand the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, who came to die on our behalf, who lived a perfect life in our stead, whose righteousness is imputed to us and is received by faith alone. And then, remind us that it is only in that gospel power applied by the Holy Spirit that the law ceases to be a condemning foe, and becomes a guiding friend. We ask this in Jesus' name. Amen.
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