I Timothy 1:8-9 “We know that the law is good if a man uses it properly. We also know that the law is not made for the righteous…”
Few people would argue with the statement, “The law is good.” The word Paul uses for “good” describes something that works the way it is supposed to. If you buy a car and it turns out to be reliable–you are not constantly bringing it in to have something fixed or adjusted or replaced–then you have purchased a “good” one. God’s law is good because he made it and it serves his purpose. It does what he wants it to do… “if a man uses it properly.”
But using it properly, keeping it in its place, letting it serve its purpose, is just the problem. Each winter, it seems, you hear of someone who is trying to heat their house by leaving the gas stove on. You can make a house warm that way, but you can also burn the house down or asphyxiate everyone inside. Sometimes you can use a pliers to turn bolt or a nut, but you can also end up stripping all the corners and making it impossible to turn anymore. So it is that many people want to reach for the law when it’s not the right tool for the job, as Paul goes on to explain.
“We also know that law is not made for the righteous…” You don’t need to make rules for people who are already doing the right thing. What would be the purpose for that? Laying down a law on those who are already good might only change their happiness to do what is right into fear. Am I in trouble? Have I failed to live up to my responsibilities? Now behaving is all about guilt and pressure.
When God called us to faith in Jesus, he forgave all our sins. He declared us righteous. He sees us as holy people, perfect saints. We still commit sins, but by God’s forgiveness they don’t count against us anymore. We are free from them. As Jesus once said, “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”
In God’s eyes, then, all Christians are “righteous,” good people. This also worked a change in us. As good people we want to do what is good. There is a new man living in me who sees things God’s way. He loves God and he loves everyone else and he is eager to show this love all the time in all he does.
It is a mistake to think that this new man can live on a diet of nothing but God’s law. “The law is not made for the righteous.” Even when the rules are preached gently, with a sense of humor, with all kinds of practical reasons why they should be kept, eventually they pile up and weigh us down, and the load becomes crushing. Happiness is replaced by fear, confidence and faith by doubt and uncertainty. Am I doing enough? The law is not made for good men. It is the wrong tool for feeding the faith of God’s children.
What is its purpose then? “We also know that the law is not made for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious; for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers, for adulterers and perverts, for slave traders and liars and perjurers–and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine that conforms to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me.” In this list Paul gives specific examples of people who are devoid of religion, the violent, the sexually immoral, the greedy, the dishonest, and anyone who opposes good Christian teaching.
Note that the law does not prevent any of these sins from existing. In our culture wars, those who claim, “You can’t legislate morality,” are correct. No law has ever eliminated a crime, though it may help to keep it in check to some degree.
But that does not mean that the law has no purpose. Regardless of which sins our nation’s laws choose to address, God’s law still enables us to identify sin and confront it. Only when people know their sins can they repent of them and receive God’s forgiveness. This is God’s purpose for his law: to prepare people to receive his grace. Since we still have a sinful nature that sins every day, we need still need his law to convict us of our sins and fill us with a hunger for grace.
But faith lives on the gospel. The law is good, but God’s forgiving grace is the right tool for maintaining faith.