The Law and the Lawless
“The law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners… and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine.” - 1 Timothy 1:9-10
Just as it would be wrong (and destructive) for us to use a sledgehammer to drive a picture-hanging nail into drywall, so too were the false teachers whom Timothy confronted in Ephesus mistaken to use the Torah as an endless source of speculations. The Law was not given for that purpose; rather, it has a different, lawful use in the church and in the world (1 Tim. 1:8).
Today’s passage reveals one way the Mosaic law is used properly. Paul says the Law was not given for just people but for the ungodly (vv. 9–10). This is the use of the Law to confront rebelliousness. It is not to be used, Paul is basically saying here, for vain speculations. The wickedness described in these verses is broadly equivalent to the deeds prohibited in the portion of the Ten Commandments that deals mainly with the treatment of one’s neighbor (Ex. 20:12–17). This list in 1 Timothy 1:9–10is not exhaustive but a representative sample of unchecked evil. Thus, Paul is saying that the Law was “laid down” in order to confront those (in this case, the false teachers) who specifically violate its commands as well as to warn them against their specific sinful actions that are causing discord among the body (as the general list of sins in vv. 9–10 points out).
That the Law is not for just people (v. 9) is not an absolute statement. Paul only means that the Torah does not restrain Christians the same way it does non-Christians, for believers have the Holy Spirit to keep us from evil (Rom. 8:9–10). Certainly, the Spirit speaks through the Law to reveal our sin and lead us to repent (2 Kings 22); yet the final effect does not produce fear of punishment, as in the unregenerate (see Gen. 4:1–16). Instead, the Spirit uses the Law to form in us the desire to please the Lord in holiness. God’s law, John Calvin says, is not against us like it is against non-believers. “It is not opposed to righteous persons, that is, to the godly and to those who willingly obey God.”
In Ephesus, the false teachers used the Law neither to restrain sin nor to provoke repentance. In other words, they failed to focus on the Law’s opposition to ungodliness, keeping the church from seeing its need for the life-giving gospel, instead using it in a way God never intended.
There are innumerable ways the Law is not used lawfully. Some try to find a secret code by counting letters and numbers. Some try to base a weight-loss program on the food laws in the Torah. Others read the Law’s promises to Israel apart from the New Testament and look for today’s headlines to match what it predicts or says. Do you read the Law properly? Look to it today to see where you have fallen short and repent so that you might see the truth.
Passages for Further Study
- Psalm 19:7–11
- Proverbs 29:18
- Galatians 3:15–29
- 1 John 3:4