Morning Sermon: 1 Timothy 1:8-11: The Law Is Good, If One Uses It Lawfully

Old Testament Reading: Exodus 20:1–17

“And God spoke all these words, saying, ‘I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them… [verse 7] You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain. Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God… [verse 11] For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you. You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.’” (Exodus 20:1–17, ESV)

New Testament Reading: 1 Timothy 1:8-11

“Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully, understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine, in accordance with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted.” (1 Timothy 1:8–11, ESV)


Please excuse any typos and misspellings within this manuscript. It has been published online for the benefit of the saints of Emmaus Reformed Baptist Church but without the benefit of proofreading.


In the previous passage, we learned that churches, and particularly pastors, have the responsibility to proclaim true doctrine and to insist that no different doctrine be taught within Christ’s church. The church was born of the truth and is continuously nurtured by the truth. True doctrine will produce unity and good order within the church. False doctrine will lead only to speculation and strife. We must never forget what the church is. She is “the household of God… the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15, ESV). Those who teach a different doctrine — doctrine that differs from the teaching of Paul, the other apostles, of Christ himself, and the prophets before him — are to be strictly warned to cease. The church cannot tolerate false doctrine in her midst. False doctrine is spiritual poison. In time, it will lead to spiritual sickness and even spiritual death within the church of God. 

In the passage that is before us today, we gain more insight into the kind of false teaching that was present within the church of Ephesus when Timonty began to minister there. And as we consider this passage carefully we will recognize that the false teaching in Ephesus was in some ways similar to the false teaching that threatened other congregations in the days of the early church. And not only that, we will also recognize that the kind of false teaching that threatened Ephesus still plagues the church even to this present day. 

Now please don’t misunderstand me. I am not saying that this same form of false teaching is present in the church today. In fact, Paul does not tell us enough about this form of false teaching to enable us to know exactly what it was. His objective in writing to Timothy was, among other things, to see this false teaching eradicated from the church in Ephesus. It is not surprising that he does not mention the specifics of the teaching. Timothy knew the specifics. Paul simply identifies the root problems. So, although we do not know the details of the false teaching, we do know the essence of it. And as I have said, the essence of this false teaching still plagues the church even to this present day. The details are probably different, but the essentials errors remain the same. 

Two essential errors can be identified in Paul’s letter to Timothy. The first is general, the second more specific. One, these false teachers, whoever they were, rooted their teaching in a misuse of the Holy Scriptures. And two, these false teachers, whoever they were, rooted their teaching in a misinterpretation of the law of Moses.


False Teachers Misuse The Scriptures

 First of all, let us consider the very general observation that false teachers misuse the scriptures. And when I say that they misuse the scriptures I am acknowledging that they do use the scriptures. In fact,  sometimes they use the scriptures a lot. But friends, I hope you would agree that quoting scripture, even if you quote it extensively, does not make your teaching “biblical”. Perhaps you have heard the expression, “every heretic has his prof text”? And it is certainly true. False teachers will slide into the church with a Bible in their hand, and it will probably be well worn. False teachers rarely, if ever, reject the scriptures outright. Instead, they misuse the scriptures. 

Paul’s little statement here in verse 8 is what brought this general observation to mind: “Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully”, he says. In just a moment we will come to the more specific observation that these false teachers misused the law of Moses in particular. But for now, let me say a word about the misuse of scripture in general. 

When Paul says, “Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully”, he means that the law is good provided that it is used as it was intended to be used, or according to its design. And the same may be said concerning the use of all scripture. The scriptures must be interpreted and used according to their intent.  Indeed this is what Paul urged Timothy to do as a minister of the word in his second letter to him. In 2:15 we read, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth”. Not only is a pastor to handle the word of truth, he is to handle it rightly, or correctly.

So how does a Pastor know if he is handling the word of truth rightly? Or, how does a congregation know if their Pastor is handling the word of truth rightly? 

Two things come to mind:

One, the teaching of Pastors must accord with sound doctrine. This is precisely what Paul required of Titus, saying in Titus 2:1, “But as for you, teach what accords with sound doctrine” (Titus 2:1, ESV). The teaching of Titus, and every other minister of the word, is to accord or fit with doctrine that is sound or correct. The undeniable implication of this command is that there is a doctrinal standard to which ministers of the word are to conform. Pastors are not free to invent their doctrine. Being novel and creative is celebrated in so many fields, but it should not be celebrated in the teaching ministry of the church. Pastors are called to receive the word of God and proclaim it. They are to promote and defend the faith entrusted to them. Theirs is, in part, a ministry of preservation. They are ministers, or servants, of the word, and not masters who stand over the word. 

And where is this “word of truth” or “sound doctrine” found? Well, the apostles received it from Christ verbally. The next generation of leaders within the church received it from the apostles both verbally and in written form. And in due time this word of truth was committed wholly unto writing so that today we have the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as our standard, rule, or cannon. 

This is the very first thing that our confession of faith says. Chapter 1, Paragraph 1: “The Holy Scripture is the only sufficient, certain, and infallible rule of all saving knowledge, faith, and obedience. Although the light of nature, and the works of creation and providence do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God, as to leave men inexcusable; yet they are not sufficient to give that knowledge of God and his will which is necessary unto salvation. Therefore it pleased the Lord at sundry times and in divers manners to reveal himself, and to declare that his will unto his church; and afterward for the better preserving and propagating of the truth, and for the more sure establishment and comfort of the church against the corruption of the flesh, and the malice of Satan, and of the world, to commit the same wholly unto writing; which maketh the Holy Scriptures to be most necessary, those former ways of God’s revealing his will unto his people being now ceased.” So what is the doctrinal standard to which ministers of the gospel are to conform? It is the doctrine of Christ, the apostles, and prophets as contained within Holy Scripture. 

Given that the scriptures are our authority for truth, it should not surprise that they are constantly under attack. Those who are opposed to the truth will attack the scriptures in many different ways. Some will question its absolute authority. Others will question the doctrine of inspiration, saying, this is merely the word of man, and not the word of God. Some will question its infallibility, claiming that it contains errors. And others will question its purity, claiming that it has been corrupted in the process of transmission. False teachers will attack the scriptures in these ways (and others) in order to make room for their own novel teaching. But I have noticed that many in our day will attack the scriptures by claiming that they are unclear. These will say, yes, the scriptures are our authority for truth. They are inspired and inerrant and have been faithfully preserved. But they are unclear. We cannot be dogmatic, therefore, in our doctrine. We must be open to a diversity of opinions, etc. Now, I will grant that the scriptures are not clear regarding every question that we may have. But the scriptures are clear regarding all things essential to the faith. This is the doctrine of the perspicuity or clarity of scripture, and it is beautifully stated in chapter 1, paragraph 7 of our confession, which says that “All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all; yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed and observed for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned [literate], but the unlearned [illiterate], in a due use of ordinary means, may attain to a sufficient understanding of them.” The scriptures are sufficiently clear. And consider what we would be saying about God if we deny this. We would be saying that God inspired the word so that it might be our authority for matters of faith and practice, but God wasn’t a very good communicator. We cannot quite understand what he is getting at. The denial of the doctrine of the perpetuity of scripture a lame excuse put forth by those who, for one reason or another, do not want to submit to what God has revealed in his word. 

So how does a Pastor know if he is handling the word of truth rightly? Or, how does a congregation know if their Pastor is handling the word of truth rightly? By comparing what is being taught with the doctrines clearly set forth in Holy Scripture. By the way, the creeds and confessions of the church are very helpful in this, for they provide a summary of the essential doctrines of Holy Scripture as understood by the church throughout history. These creeds and confessions are in no way authoritative, but they do summarize the teaching of Holy Scripture, and so they are of great use to the church of God and ought not to be neglected. 

Secondly, a pastor and congregations may know that the word of truth is being handled correctly if it is being interpreted according to the method of interpretation by the Psalmists, the Old Testament prophets, Christ, and his Apostles and prophets who ministered in the earliest days of the church. I will not belabor this point. I said more about it in the sermon that was preached last Sunday. But please remember that the scriptures present, not only words and stories and various doctrines but also a method of interpretation which is to be followed. In brief, we are to remember that when Jesus met with his disciples after the resurrection, “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27, ESV). And Indeed our confession is correct when it says in chapter 1 paragraph 9, “The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself; and therefore when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched by other places that speak more clearly.”

The point is this: False teachers do not often deny the scriptures, they misuse them. They carry Bibles that are well worn. They quote vast amounts of scripture to support their doctrines. And they will certainly claim to be “biblical”. Notice that those who were teaching a different doctrine in Ephesus made confident assertions and claimed to be teachers of the law (of Moses). And there are many who teach different doctrines in the church today. They do so with their Bibles wide open. They do not deny the scriptures, they misuse them. And the end result, remember, is “speculations rather than the stewardship from God that is by faith” (1 Timothy 1:4, ESV).

As I think of the misuse of scripture in our day, leading to “speculations rather than the stewardship from God that is by faith”, I cannot help but think of the way that the dispensational pre-millenialists handle the books of prophesy in the Old Testament and the New. When considering those precious books, they do not employ sound methods of interpretation — the do allow “scripture to interpret scripture” — instead they wrench those prophecies from their historical and biblical contexts, they fail to identify Christ and his kingdom as the fulfillment of them, and the end result is certainly speculation — endless and empty speculations concerning the daily news and the time of the end. How many of their predictions regarding the mark of the beast, wars and rumors of wars, nations rising up against nations, earthquakes, famines, and blood moons need to go unfulfilled before those who have devoted themselves to their teaching come to their senses and call it for what it is — a misuse of scripture leading to idle and empty “speculations rather than the stewardship from God that is by faith.” I don’t live in that world anymore, so I can only imagine what they are saying about COVID-19 and the 2020 election. 

Dear brethren, we see to it that true and sound doctrine is proclaimed within Christ’s church. The scriptures must be interpreted according to their intent — the intent of the original author, and even more importantly, the intent of the One who inspired these men to write as they did. Sometimes God revealed things through them that even they did not fully comprehend. Concerning salvation in Christ Jesus, “the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories. It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look” (1 Peter 1:10–12, ESV).


False Teachers Often Misinterpret The Law Of Moses

Having now addressed the more general observation that false teachers misuse the scriptures, let us now consider the more specific problem of false teachers misinterpreting the law of Moses. This was a problem in Ephesus. It was a very common problem in the early church. And it continues to be a common problem even today. 

And to be transparent, I can understand why it is a problem. This is a big and somewhat complex topic. How is the Christian to understand the relationship between the law of Moses and the gospel of Jesus Christ? Stated differently, what does the laws of Moses — the ten commandments along with all of the other laws recorded in Exodus through Deuteronomy given to Israel —  have to do with the Christian religion? Stated yet another way, what is the relationship between the Old Covenant and The New? Or, what is the relationship between the covenants transacted with Abraham, Moses, and David, and the New Covenant ratified in Christ’s blood? I would assume that most Christians have at some point found themselves asking questions like, how does this apply to me? or, is this law still binding on Christians today?, while reading passages of scripture in the Old Testament, particularly in Exodus through Deuteronomy. So I am somewhat sympathetic towards those who struggle to make sense of these things.

But brothers and sisters, the scriptures are not unclear. And here in 1 Timothy Paul is not concerned with the members of Christ’s church, but with those who are claiming to be teachers in Christ’s church. These were teachers who were misinterpreting the law of Moses. And if a man cannot properly convey the relationship between law and gospel, or the progression from the Old Covenant to the New, or the organic development of the promises of God in the Abrahamic, Mosaic, and David covenants leading to their fulfillment in Christ and the New Covenant ratified in his blood, then he ought not to teach in Christ’s church. For there are not tangential issues, but central to a correct understanding of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. 

It was the law of Moses that was being mishandled in the church of Ephesus. And as I have said, this was a common problem within the early church even up to this present day. So we might ask, how has the law of Moses been mishandled throughout the history of the church and to this present day? I suppose that a thorough exploration of this question would require the writing of books or volumes of books. But let me try to answer that question succinctly by presenting you with four terms. I am not claiming that my answer here is thorough, but I believe this will get us thinking in the right direction.  

How have men mishandled the law of Moses throughout the history of the church and to this present day?

First of all, let us consider legalism in all of its various forms. Legalism is the belief that man is somehow made right before God through his keep of the law. According to legalism, the law is the gospel. A person is justified, either in whole or in part, through obedience to law or good works. Legalism takes many forms, but they all share this in common. The law is viewed as a way to salvation. There were certainly legalists in the early church, and Paul often contended with them, saying things like, “You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace” (Galatians 5:4, ESV). And there are legalists in the church today. Those who believe that salvation can be lost through disobedience are really legalists, for example. They suppose that one is saved by grace at the beginning, but must maintain their salvation by obedience to the law. When all is said and done, this is not salvation by grace alone through faith alone, but salvation through law-keeping. Legalism in all of its varieties obliterates the gospel.   

Secondly, let us consider antinomianism in all of its various forms. The antinomian teaches that for the Christian there is no law. Only the law of love, or only the law of Christ. According to the antinomian, the law is incompatible with the gospel. This too is a mishandling of the law of Moses. The antinomian fails to see that love is the summary and essence of God’s moral law. True, the Christian is not under the law as a covenant of works, but God’s moral law still applies. This moral law is written on the Christian’s heart. She obeys it, not out of mere duty, but a renewed spirit. Our confession summarizes the biblical teaching on this point when it says in 19.6, “Although true believers be not under the law as a covenant of works, to be thereby justified or condemned, yet it is of great use to them as well as to others, in that as a rule of life, informing them of the will of God and their duty, it directs and binds them to walk accordingly; discovering also the sinful pollutions of their natures, hearts, and lives, so as examining themselves thereby, they may come to further conviction of, humiliation for, and hatred against, sin; together with a clearer sight of the need they have of Christ and the perfection of his obedience; it is likewise of use to the regenerate to restrain their corruptions, in that it forbids sin; and the threatenings of it serve to show what even their sins deserve, and what afflictions in this life they may expect for them, although freed from the curse and unalloyed rigour thereof. The promises of it likewise show them God’s approbation of obedience, and what blessings they may expect upon the performance thereof, though not as due to them by the law as a covenant of works; so as man’s doing good and refraining from evil, for the law encourageth to the one and deterreth from the other, is no evidence of his being under the law and not under grace.” Antinomianism is a misinterpretation of the law of Moses. It was present in the early church, and Paul often contended with this teaching. This is why he says in 1 Timothy 1:7 “the law is good”! And in Romans 7:7, “What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means!” And a little bit later in the same passage, “So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good” (Romans 7:12, ESV).

Thirdly, consider dispensationalism (in its classic and extreme form) and its teaching that for some salvation was by the works of the law, and for others, salvation is through faith in Christ. Dispensationalism is a modern teaching, but forms of it were present even in the early church as men and women struggled to correctly interpret the law. But this idea that there are two ways of salvation, one for the Jews and one for Gentiles, is completely incompatible with the clear teaching of scripture. Friends, people were saved by grace through faith even in the days of Abraham and Moses. They were to believe upon the Messiah who had not yet come as he was held out before them in promises, prophesies, types, and shadows. This is why Paul said, “What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.’ Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness, just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works: ‘Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin” (Romans 4:1–8, ESV). Dispensationalism in its various forms misinterprets the law of Moses. 

Lastly, consider Messianic-Judaism. Truthfully, I struggled to find an -ism to match the other -isms that I have presented to you. But what I have in mind here are those who teach that Christians ought to retain practices that are unique to the Old Covenant in this New Covenant era. This was a very common problem within the early church, and understanblty so. One of the most pressing questions for the apostles was, what should we require of these Gentile converts. Must they be circumcised as the male Jews were under the Old Covenant? Ought they to honor the holy days as presicriobed in the law of Moses? What should they eat? Is there to be any food off-limits for them as it was under the Old Covenant? Paul (and the other apostles) contended with this misinterpretation of the law saying things like, “For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation” (Galatians 6:15, ESV). And to those who were tempted to think that circumcision was required for salvation he said, “Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace” (Galatians 5:2–4, ESV).

Let us briefly consider what Paul says about the law  here in 1 Timothy 1:8–11. Really it is quite simple.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              

In verses 8 he says, “Now we know that the law is good…”

The words “now we know” indicate that this is common knowledge amongst the apostles and their co-workers. And the statement “the law is good” is massively importinat. When the Christian thinks of the law he is to think of something good and beneficial. 

But then Paul immediately qualifies his statement with the phrase “…if one uses it lawfully”. Stated in a different way, the law is bad if one uses it inappropriately! Sometimes Paul sounds as if he is against law. But he is not against the law, he is against the improper use of the law!

And the words “…understanding this…” indicate that Paul is about to say something crucial about the lawful use of the law. And what does it say? “The law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient…”

So here is where we must begin with the law. We must recognize that the law (now that we have fallen into sin) is not given to men who are just, but to men who are lawless and disobedient. Our view of the law must be shaped by this moist fundamental observation. What is the law for? Well, it is to be used to address moral questions, and certainly not for speculations about genealogies. The law is to be used to deal with men in their sin.

It seems to me that Paul has the whole law of Moses, or the first five books of the bible in view when he speaks of the law. After all, these false teachers were devoted to myths (presumably concerning the patriarchs), and genealogies (presumably the genealogies found in the first five books). But Pual does hone in upon the Ten Commandments in particular. 

If you pay close attention to the sins that Paul lists you will see that they are particular violations of the Ten Commandments. “Those who strike their fathers and mothers” violate the fifth. Murderers violate the sixth. Those who are sexually immoral and men who practice homosexuality violate the seventh. Enslavers or man thieves violate the eighth. Liers and perjurers violate the ninth. And then Paul does not mention covetousness but gives way to this little summary phrase instead, “and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine.”

It is rather easy to see that the second table of the law is behind Paul’s list of sins here. But the first table of the law is also present behind what Paul says in verse 9. “The law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly…” The “ungodly” are those who are godless and impious. And the first command is to “have no other Gods before me”. Secondly, Paul mentions “sinners”. Often this Greek word is used to refer to sinners in general, but sometimes it is used more specifically to refer to those who are irreligious and idolatrous. I think that is what Paul has in mind here given the pattern we see. The second commandment forbids idolatry. Thirdly, Paul mentions the “unholy”. Again, this word may be used generically, but it can also have a more specific reference to those who are impious. Christians are called to hallow God’s name or regard it as holy. Those who profane God’s name are “unholy”. The third commandment forbids taking the Lord’s name in vain. And then lastly, Paul mentions the “profane”. The fourth commandment is to honor the Sabbath day and keep it holy. Those who violate this commandment profane the Lord’s Day.   

Notice lastly that the law of Moses in general, and I think the Ten Commandments in particular, are said to be  “…in accordance with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God with which [Paul had] been entrusted.”

So the law is not the gospel. No one can be saved through the keeping of the law now that we are in sin. But the law is in accordance with the gospel. The two do belong together. They work together. Or to us the language of our confession in 19.7 “Neither are the aforementioned uses of the law contrary to the grace of the Gospel, but do sweetly comply with it, the Spirit of Christ subduing and enabling the will of man to do that freely and cheerfully which the will of God, revealed in the law, requireth to be done.”

To put it very simply, the law is not for speculation, but to deal with issues of morality. And the law is not for the righteous (for no one is righteous, no not one), but it addresses sinners in their sin. And what does the law do for sinners? Well, for those not in Christ it shows them their sin and their need for a Savior. The law sweaty complies with the gospel in that the law shows men their need for the gospel! But it is useful also for believers who continue to struggle with sin. The law helps to see the corruptions that remain. It reminds us of our need for a Savior, moving us to cling to him ever more closely. It is used by the Spirit to bring us to repentance. And does further teach us how we are to  live in this world in a way that is pleasing to God.

Friends, the law is good, provided that we use it lawfully.


Closing Prayer

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warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom,
that we may present everyone mature in Christ."
(Colossians 1:28, ESV)

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