Using the Law Lawfully: Meditations on 1 Timothy 1:8-11

What relationship does the law have to the gospel? For some, a misunderstanding of the law has led to a rejection of obedience. They assume–wrongfully so–that any system which demands submission, sanctification, and obedience is a law based system. Since a detailed analysis of this discussion goes beyond the scope of this post, I would encourage you to read my previous post on “Obedience: The Response to Grace.” Yet, within our continued study of Paul’s first letter to TImothy we discover some insight into the relationship between law and gospel in 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.

The Law is Good

Paul makes a concise, definitive statement about the nature of the Law: it is good. This fits with what he says about the law within Romans 7:12. Yet, this goodness is contingent on its use: “If one uses it lawfully.” This play on words seems somewhat redundant, but Paul makes the point that law itself must be used in accordance with God’s intended purpose. The individuals who were teaching different doctrines (1:3) were “desiring to be teachers of the law” (v. 7) and yet they were “without understanding either what they are saying or the things by which they make confident assertions.” That is, these false teachers were using the law (the genealogies and Jewish myths) in a way God never intended. Possibly they were using it as a means of justification as the Judaizing teachers did (Acts 15:1-2); maybe they were using it as a means of promoting their own pedigree. Either way, Paul informs them that the law “was not laid down for the just” (this may imply the idea of justification by the law) “but for the lawless and disobedient” (v. 9). That is, law’s purpose wasn’t to justify but to condemn; not to forgive but to show our need for forgiveness. Paul discusses this in more detail throughout Romans: through the law comes “knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:20) and it came “to increase the trespass” (5:20). In this way, the law was our “guardian so that we might be justified by faith” (Gal. 3:24). When viewed from this perspective, the gospel of faith doesn’t “overthrow” the law, “on the contrary, we uphold it” (Rom. 3:31).

The Law and the Gospel

Paul describes the relationship between the law and gospel as “in accordance with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God” (v. 11). That is, the law complements the gospel if used in the way it was intended. As we previously mentioned, law shows our need for the gospel: it is the bad news (although the Law itself is good as Paul says) that we are sinners under the condemnation of a Holy God (this is why Paul mentions a variety of sins that we will mention in a moment). Once we recognize this condemnation, we then can respond to the good news of the gospel in obedient faith and be saved. This is similar to what Paul says in Romans 3:19:

“Now we know that whatever the Law says it speaks to those who are under the Law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God.”

This also means that those who are saved by the gospel will no longer live within the sins mentioned (or any sin). Their renunciation of the sinful life isn’t due to the fact that they are attempting a work based salvation, but because they are living “in accordance with the gospel” and want nothing to do with behavior which is “contrary to healthy teaching” (v. 10). To claim that Christians seeking to condemn sin and live a holy life are trying to be “saved by works” isn’t fair and it isn’t scriptural.

The Gospel’s Condemnation of Sin

As mentioned, the gospel is the “good news” of salvation; technically it doesn’t condemn. Yet, what Paul shows within our text is that the gospel needs the condemnation of sin to “work.” That is, the law and gospel work together to show and provide man’s need: the Law shows man’s need for God; the gospel shows how God saves Him from condemnation.

There are a variety of sins listed, but there are two I would like to mention specifically: men who practice homosexuality and enslavers. There is a strong push within Christianity today to accept the practice of homosexuality. Many times they will use the gospel of grace as a means of justifying this sexual perversion. This reminds us of Jude’s condemnation of false teachers who “pervert the grace of God into sensuality” (Jude 4); they use the grace of God as justification for sensual lifestyles. God has made it clear, within scripture and nature, that homosexuality is a sin worthy of condemnation. Yet, Paul clarifies that he is speaking of those who “practice homosexuality”; that is, those who have actively engaged in sexual conduct and lust. Living in a world enslaved by sin, there may be Christians who struggle with same-sex attraction. These desires aren’t something they can help, but they can prevent themselves–by the grace of God–from acting out on those feelings. Just as the drunkard must fight his desire for alcohol and the fornicator must fight their desire to premarital sex, so too must the homosexual.

Paul also mentions “enslavers”; that is, those who are “kidnappers” (NKJV). These were men who kidnapped individuals from their home and sold them as slaves. Paul is correct in saying that this was condemned by the Law (Ex. 21:16). I mention this because there are those who accuse Christianity of condoning slavery; this is not the case at all. In fact, the Bible condemns–unequivocally–the dark past of American enslavement which haunts our country. Without a doubt, America stood under the judgment of God for such a horrendous act of human indecency (some even viewed the Civil War as God’s judgment on the nation for slavery). While we don’t deny that Paul commands servants to “obey their masters in everything” (Col. 3:22) this is a much different historical situation and should be considered for a proper exegesis of the text.


To summarize Paul’s message within 1 Timothy 1:8-11: Law complements the gospel of Christ by showing our need for its good news. Within the law we see our deep need for Jesus Christ. Demanding that Christians live in accordance with scripture, holy and righteous before God, isn’t enforcing a merit based salvation, but calling them to live in response to grace in humble, faith-filled obedience.

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