QUESTION: What does it mean “to use the Law lawfully?”
In 1 Timothy Paul is giving instruction to his true child in the faith, Timothy, and is warning about some dangerous teachers who were leading others astray by placing too much emphasis on keeping the Law and thus giving to the Law salvific power. In response to this, Paul says,
But we know that the Law is good, if one uses it lawfully. 1 Tim. 1:8
In this study we will explore what it means to use the Law lawfully. It will be seen that the answer to this question has practical applications for our lives today.
It is obvious that using the Law correctly (“lawfully”) is important to Paul and should therefore be important to every minister of the gospel. This implies that there is a “lawful” way to use the Law and an unlawful way. (In this context, “Law” is to be understood as the commandments and ordinances and statutes given by the LORD at Mt. Sinai. The Law would include all the LORD’s moral imperatives, which are timeless and are never obsolete, and would not include the ceremonial law concerning the priesthood and concerning clean and unclean things and so on, since this portion of the Law has been obsoleted by the coming of Christ.)
Here in 1 Timothy Paul repeats what he has said elsewhere in his writings, that “the Law is good.” And in Paul’s mind the Law is, in fact, good. It is the Law that brings the knowledge of sin (Romans 3:20).It is the Law that showed Paul his own sin of coveting (Romans 7:7-10) and thus led him to repentance and faith. Paul states that “the Law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good (Romans 7:12).” And again Paul says, “I agree with the Law, confessing that the Law is good (7:16).” For Paul the Law is good, because it is most often the instrument which God uses to convict a person of their own wretchedness (Romans 7:24) and so lead them to repentance and faith.
From these texts it is crystal clear that the Law is good. What does it mean, then, for Paul to say that we must use the Law lawfully? We must understand that, while the Law is holy and righteous and good, the Law is also limited, for the Law is not salvific. As we think about human laws we see that this is true. Obedience is required and assumed; it is disobedience and violation that brings response and recompense. In the same way, the Law is the expression of God’s holiness and so violation condemns every man by presenting to man God’s holy requirements for righteousness. When used lawfully, the Law inflexibly demands absolute obedience from fallen and sinful people and thus shows man his dreadful peril before the Holy One. When used lawfully, the Law drives condemned sinners to seek for an alien righteousness, the perfect righteousness of the crucified King Jesus (2 Cor. 5:21; 1 Peter 3:18). When used lawfully the Law reveals the glory of Christ as the one who fulfilled God’s righteous demands and who also atoned for sin by His sacrificial death on the cross.
But when used unlawfully, the Law is presented as an instrument of salvation. When used unlawfully, instead of being a means of condemnation and conviction, the Law is a ladder of works up which the sinner climbs to salvation. When used unlawfully, the Law acts as a goad to demand of us more and more effort to achieve an external performance, which mere men deem to be righteous. When used unlawfully, the Law is the end of righteousness rather than the means of crying out for Christ’s righteousness (Romans 10:3-4). Thus when used unlawfully, the Law never leads the guilty to the cross where cleansing and forgiveness may be found, but instead leaves the guilty mired in their guilt while they endlessly seek to work themselves into righteousness.
And so let us use the Law lawfully.
- Let us proclaim the demands of the Law as inflexible and absolute and as impossible as they appear to convict the unbeliever of their sin and to drive the unbeliever to the cross of Christ for salvation.
- Let us use the Law to reveal remaining sin in the life of the believer to bring about confession and repentance and cleansing, so that the believer will grow in sanctification.
- Let us understand the absolute demands of the Law so that we see the glory of Christ, that He perfectly kept the entire Law and all the Law’s requirements. He is thus perfectly righteous and has earned righteousness for all those who place their faith in Him. Hallelujah, what a Savior!
SDG rmb 11/12/2017