A Commentary by John Stott

1 Timothy. 1:3-11. b). The right use of the law.

We turn now from the wrong use of the law to its right use. The false teachers, who *want to be teachers of the law…do not know what they are talking about or what they so confidently affirm* (7, ‘about which they are so dogmatic’, REB). In contrast to their ignorance, however, Paul sets his knowledge. *We know that the law is good if one uses it properly* (8, *nominos*, ‘lawfully’). *We also know that law is made …for lawbreakers* (9, *anomois*, ‘for the lawless’). Putting together these two truths which Paul says, *we know*, we reach the striking statement that the lawful use of the law is for the lawless. All law is designed for those whose natural tendency is not to keep it but to break it. ‘Not the saint but the sinner is the law’s target.

It may be helpful to approach this question historically, for the Reformers struggled much over the true purpose of the law. Luther expressed his position in his *Lectures on Galatians* (1535). ‘The law was given for two uses,’ he wrote. The first was ‘political’ or ‘civil’; the law was a bridle ‘for the restraint of the uncivilized’. The second and ‘principal’ purpose of the law was ‘theological’ or ‘spiritual’. It is a mighty ‘hammer’ to crush the self-righteousness of human beings. For ‘it shows them their sin, so that by the recognition of sin they may be humbled, frightened, and worn down, and so may long for grace and for the Blessed Offspring [sc. Christ]’. It is in this sense that the ‘law was our schoolmaster to bring us to Christ’ (Gal.3:24, AV). Elsewhere Luther indicates that the law has a third use; we have ‘to teach the law diligently and to impress it upon the people’, although he does not emphasize this.

The Formula of Concord (1577), however, which settled Lutheran doctrine in disputed areas after Luther’s death, clearly specified in its sixth article a threefold use of the law. It is a means to the preservation of human society (Rom.13:1ff), a summons to repentance and faith (Gal.3:24) and a direction for the church (Rom.8:4; 13:8). These came to be called the *usus politicus* (to restrain evil), the *usus pedagogus* (to lead to Christ) and the *usus normativus* (to determine the conduct of believers).

Calvin agreed with these three functions of the law, but changed the order of the first two, and laid his emphasis on the third. Book II, chapter 7, of the *Institutes* is devoted to a consideration of why the law was given. First, it has a ‘punitive’ purpose, for it ‘renders us inexcusable’ and so drives us to despair. Then, ‘naked and empty-handed’, we ‘flee to his [sc. God’s] mercy, repose entirely in it, hide deep within it, and seize upon it alone for righteousness and merit’.

Secondly, the law restrains evildoers, especially ‘by fright and shame’, from daring to do what they want to do, and so protects the community. In this sense the law acts as an external deterrent, while leaving the heart unchanged.

‘The third and principal use’ of the law, indeed its ‘proper purpose’, according to Calvin, is the one which Luther somewhat neglected, namely ‘its place among believers in whose hearts the Spirit of God already lives and reigns’. The law is ‘the best instrument’ both to teach us the Lord’s will and to exhort us to do it. For ‘by frequent meditation upon it’ believers will ‘be aroused to obedience, be strengthened in it, and be drawn back from the slippery path of transgression’. Indeed it is in this ‘joyous obedience’ that authentic ‘Christian freedom’ is to be found.

Thus the law’s three functions according to Calvin are punitive (to condemn sinners and drive them to Christ), deterrent (to restrain evildoers) and specially educative (to teach and exhort believers).

To which of these three purposes was Paul referring in his first letter to Timothy? Of which of them could it be said that ‘the lawful use of the law is for the lawless? Certainly the second, relating to the restraint of evildoers. Calvin wrote: ‘The apostle seems specially to have alluded to this function of the law when he teaches “that the law is not laid down for the just but for the unjust and disobedient”… (1 Tim.1:9, 10)’. But Paul’s words seem to apply to the first and third purposes of the law as well, since the law exposes and condemns the lawless (Rom.3:20), and then, after they have fled to Christ for forgiveness, it directs them into a law-abiding life. In other words, all three functions of the law relate to lawless people, unmasking and judging them, restraining them, and correcting and directing them.

It is only because as fallen human beings we have a natural tendency to lawlessness (for ‘sin is lawlessness’, 1 Jn.3:4) that we need the law at all. The key antithesis, that the law is *not for the righteous but for lawbreakers* (9), cannot refer to those who are righteous in the sense of ‘justified’, since Paul insists elsewhere that the justified do still need the law for their sanctification (E.g. Rom.8:4; 13:8). Nor can it be taken to mean that some people exist who are so righteous that they do not need the law to guide them, but only that some people think they are. Similarly, when Jesus said, ‘I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance’ (Lk.5:32), he did not mean that there are some righteous people who do not need to be called to repentance, but only that some think they are. In a word, ‘the righteous’ in these contexts means ‘the self-righteous’.

Tomorrow: 1 Timothy. 1:3-11. b). The right use of the law (continued).

The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of 1 Timothy. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.