Larry E. Wilson
Do you see God’s law as your friend or as your foe? In an age when so much Christian teaching is saturated with moralism, at first blush it seems refreshing to see a growing trend emphasizing gospel over law. Is it truly refreshing? Or is it possibly overreacting?
Notice, in 1 Timothy 1:8–11, that verse 8 insists “that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully,” while verse 11 stresses that this is “in accordance with the gospel.” In that light, let us consider three principles.
First, God’s law is good: “We know that the law is good” (v. 8). When verse 9 follows by saying “that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless,” it does not say “the law” in the original; rather, it just says “law.” You see, it’s not talking about the whole Mosaic covenant with all its regulations. It’s talking about the moral core of all those regulations; it’s talking about what we call “the moral law.” Notice how verses 9 and 10 go on to more or less walk us through the Ten Commandments.
How is God’s moral law good? It is good in at least two ways. On the one hand, God’s law reflects his character. It shows us what the holy God is like. It reveals what is important to him. It defines righteousness. On the other hand, God’s law discloses his design for us. It shows us what we—who are made in his image—are supposed to be like. It shows us how to live most healthily, happily, and harmoniously with our created purpose.
Second, 1 Timothy 1:8 says, “We know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully.” There’s a lawful way to use God’s law.
The Reformers agreed that there are three lawful “uses” of God’s moral law. First, there is a “civil use” of God’s law as a curb to restrain evil in society. Second, there is a “pedagogical use” of God’s law as a mirror to convict sinners of their guilt and drive them to Christ. Third, there is a “normative use” of God’s law as a guide to show believers how to live lives that express love for God and bring pleasure to him.
Now then, when God says that the lawful use of the law is for the lawless (v. 9), of which of these “uses” is he speaking? Surely he includes the civil use of the moral law. God’s law acts as a curb to restrain the lawless.
But don’t these words also seem to apply to the second use? God’s law acts as a mirror to convict sinners of their guilt and drive them to Christ. When the rich young ruler, for example, asked Jesus, “What must I do to have eternal life?” how did Jesus respond? Did he immediately tell him to trust him and be saved? No, he basically pointed him to the Ten Commandments. The rich young ruler needed to hear God’s diagnosis before he could see the need for God’s cure. He needed to grasp the bad news before he could appreciate the good news.
Moreover, these words also seem to embrace the third use. God’s law serves as a guide to show believers how to live lives that are pleasing to God. The law exposes and condemns sin; it causes sinners to flee to Jesus for forgiveness. But then, after they have fled to Jesus and have found forgiveness, it trains them to follow him by putting off sin and putting on righteousness. We believers still need God’s law because our remaining sin makes us prone to lawlessness.
The Heidelberg Catechism (#115) asks:
No one in this life can obey the Ten Commandments perfectly: why then does God want them preached so pointedly?
And then it gives this answer:
First, so that the longer we live the more we may come to know our sinfulness and the more eagerly look to Christ for forgiveness of sins and righteousness.
Second, so that, while praying to God for the grace of the Holy Spirit, we may never stop striving to be renewed more and more after God’s image, until after this life we reach our goal: perfection.
Third, the right use of God’s law harmonizes with the gospel: “The law is good, if one uses it lawfully ... in accordance with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God” (vv. 9, 11). When we lawfully use God’s law, it does not oppose the gospel; it accords with the gospel. God’s law and God’s gospel are not enemies; they are allies. Jerram Barrs explains why it is a pressing need for us to recover this fact for our day:
We may be sure that where the law is not deeply taught and loved, there will be little appreciation of Christ and for his work; and there will be little transformation of life and genuine discipleship. It is only as we see the righteousness that characterizes God and that he desires in us, only as we understand the full requirements of the law, that we will be deeply convicted of sin and see our need of Christ’s love. The truth is that we need to delight in the law in our inmost being and to teach this delight to others. Only this love for the law will bring utter dependence on Christ and on his grace for both our justification and our sanctification. (Delighting in the Law of the Lord, pp. 181–82)
All the while that you seek to obey God’s laws and live the Christian life, keep remembering “the gospel of the glory of the blessed God.” Keep looking to Jesus. Look back to his finished work, which has secured your free and full salvation. Look forward to his coming work, when he returns to complete and perfect your salvation. And, in the meantime, look up to his present, ongoing work by his Holy Spirit. He is sanctifying you—training you to say no to ungodliness and worldly passions and to live a self-controlled, upright, and godly life in this present age (Titus 2:11–14).
Richard Gaffin offers a helpful explanation of the relation of God’s law to the life of a believer:
Apart from the gospel and outside of Christ, the law is my enemy and condemns me. Why? Because God is my enemy and condemns me. But with the gospel and in Christ, united to him by faith, the law is no longer my enemy but my friend. Why? Because now God is no longer my enemy but my friend, and the law, his will—the law in its moral core, as reflective of his character and of concerns eternally inherent in his own person and so of what pleases him—is now my friendly guide for life in fellowship with God. (By Faith, Not by Sight, second edition, pp. 117–18)
Did you catch that? If God is your enemy, then his law is your enemy and it condemns you. But if God is your friend, then his law is your friend and it guides you.
You can’t call God’s law your friend unless you can call God your friend. So how do you become God’s friend? Because of God’s grace alone, by Jesus Christ alone, received through faith alone. If you follow Jesus in faith, then God is reconciled to you and you to him. God becomes your friend.
From then on, God’s law is your friend. Why? Only because of Jesus Christ’s merits and mediation. Jesus has fulfilled all the law’s demands for you. Jesus has satisfied all the law’s curses for you. He reconciles you to God. And he energizes and transforms you by his Holy Spirit. He makes you to become more and more like God. And the law is one of the tools he uses. That’s why the law is a friendly guide to you as a believer.
A habitual thief was converted. But the eighth commandment—“You shall not steal”—kept haunting him. Stealing had become such a deeply ingrained habit for him that he constantly had to struggle not to fall back into his old way of life. And the commandment kept condemning his impulses to return to that life: “You shall not steal.” It drove him to despair.
But one day, the eighth commandment struck him in a fresh way. He realized that—since he was now a redeemed child of God, with the Holy Spirit indwelling him—the commandment was no longer just a prohibition to him. It was at the same time a description of what the Lord was graciously causing him to become. It began to strike him as a promise: thanks to the grace of God in Christ, “you shall not steal.”
Is that how you see God’s law? God is so determined to restore you to his image that he causes all things to work together to that good end (Rom. 8:28–29). He has given you his law to guide you toward that good end. When you are sure that God is your friend by his grace in Jesus Christ, then you can also be sure that God’s law is your friend by his grace in Jesus Christ. “The law is good, if one uses it lawfully.”
The author is the pastor of Redeemer OPC in Airdrie, Alberta, Canada. New Horizons, May 2014.