Correct Use of the Law in 1 Timothy

In 1 Tim 1:8 Paul says that the “law” is good if one uses it “lawfully”. He goes on to explain that the law is not for the righteous, but for sinners, and gives a list of examples of sinful lifestyles (1 Tim 1:9-11). These verses raise the interesting and controversial question of what use the “law” is to Christians. If we are the “righteous” in Christ, does that make the law completely irrelevant for us? Are any commands still binding on us in the New Covenant? Is it only to be mined for prophetic references to Christ?

I thought it would be interesting to look and see how Paul uses the law in the rest of 1 Timothy, since that would constitute a good example of what he considers “lawful” use of the law. The first difficulty is in deciding what exactly he includes in “the law”. Is this a reference to the 623 commands found in the Pentateuch (i.e. those things which are specifically ‘laws’)? Or does it refer more generally to the first five books of the Bible? Or even to the whole Old Testament? It is hard to say for sure. The false teachers in Ephesus that Paul wants Timothy to deal with consider themselves to be teachers of the law (1 Tim 1:7), and since their speciality included “genealogies” I opt for at least the whole five books of Moses being in view.

  • The first clear allusion to the “law” comes in the most confusing and contentious part of the letter. 1 Tim 2:13-14 refers to Adam and Eve. Some would say Paul uses this text to illustrate a “principle” from creation, although others argue this is merely an “example” of a woman being deceived.
  • The qualifications listed for overseers and deacons in 1 Tim 3:1-13 include several virtues that the Old Testament praises, but there doesn’t seem to be any clear link to the law.
  • 1 Tim 4:3-5 seems to allude to both the creation story, and possibly to various food restrictions in the law. Here Paul emphasises the primacy of the creation story – what God calls good is good, and no one should introduce laws against those things.
  • In 1 Tim 4:13 Timothy is urged to devote himself to the public reading of Scripture. With the New Testament not yet written, this clearly is a reference to the Old Testament. Paul firmly believes it has on-going benefit for Christians to read and meditate on.
  • 1 Tim 5:3 speaks about the church’s ministry to widows. Where did they get this idea from? Almost certainly it flows from the Old Testament’s repeated concern for the plight of widows and orphans (e.g. Ex 22:22, Deut 14:29). This is a good example of a principle from the OT law being practically applied into the life of the church.
  • Showing “honour” is a recurring theme in the latter part of 1 Timothy, so 1 Tim 5:4,8 quite possibly are intended to invoke the command to “honour” your father and mother.
  • The first unambiguous citation of an Old Testament law is in 1 Tim 5:18. Paul quotes Deut 25:4 which is a command not to muzzle an ox while it treads the grain, and then applies it to providing financial support for elders.
  • In the next verse (1 Tim 5:19), he appears to take another principle from the OT law, this time Deut 19:15, which requires two or three witnesses to establish a matter. Again, these are principles reapplied into the new context of the church.
  • The final reference I noticed was in 1 Tim 6:7, which is a possible allusion to various passages from the wisdom literature (Job 1:21; Ps 49:17; Ecc 5:15). Whether this falls under the category of “law” is debatable, but it again shows Paul drawing on the OT to back up his teaching.

Overall then, the pattern that emerges is that Paul has an intimate knowledge of the OT and draws on it regularly as a source of principles for Christian living. He doesn’t however seem to cite commands directly and demand that we keep them. When he does issue commands they tend to come from his apostolic authority instead. His position with regards to the OT “law” can probably be best summed up in his words in 2 Tim 3:16-17:

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.

Taken with the preceding verse (2 Tim 3:15), we could say that Paul sees the OT as having two great purposes. First it makes us “wise to salvation” by telling us the story of God’s plan of redemption, throughout which we see Christ prophesied and prefigured. But second, it is intensely practical. That is why Paul has no difficulty in seeing the commands as a rich store of principles, even if he doesn’t necessarily see them as having an on-going binding force on us in the New Covenant. Yes, we are under a new law, written on our hearts by the Spirit, but as we look at the law of the Old Covenant, there is much in there that points us to the unchanging character of God, and as such it is quite appropriate to use it to shape the way we live and do church.

3 thoughts on “Correct Use of the Law in 1 Timothy

  1. Mark – again a thought-provoking post. Not quite sure what you are saying exactly in the last paragraph: e.g. do “principles” carry the same wait as “commands”, and does Paul’s authority over-ride the authority of Old Testament Scripture. I would, also be interested in your thoughts on the extracts below from J.I.Packer’s Concise Theology and, in particular how (or whether?) you would differentiate your views from antinomianism. I do, of course, realise the issue of the ‘law’ is a tricky one:

    “Antinomianism, which means being “anti-law,” is a name for several views that have denied that God’s law in Scripture should directly control the Christian’s life. …

    Spirit-centered antinomianism puts such trust in the Holy Spirit’s inward prompting as to deny any need to be taught by the law how to live. Freedom from the law as a way of salvation is assumed to bring with it freedom from the law as a guide to conduct. In the first 150 years of the Reformation era this kind of antinomianism often threatened, and Paul’s insistence that a truly spiritual person acknowledges the authority of God’s Word through Christ’s apostles (1 Cor. 14:37; cf. 7:40) suggests that the Spirit-obsessed Corinthian church was in the grip of the same mind-set.

    Christ-centered antinomianism argues that God sees no sin in believers, because they are in Christ, who kept the law for them, and therefore what they actually do makes no difference, provided that they keep believing. But 1 John 1:8-2:1 (expounding 1:7) and 3:4-10 point in a different direction, showing that it is not possible to be in Christ and at the same time to embrace sin as a way of life.

    Dispensational antinomianism holds that keeping the moral law is at no stage necessary for Christians, since we live under a dispensation of grace, not of law. Romans 3:31 and 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 clearly show, however, that law-keeping is a continuing obligation for Christians. “I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law,” says Paul (1 Cor. 9:21).

    It must be stressed that the moral law, as crystallized in the Decalogue and opened up in the ethical teaching of both Testaments, is one coherent law, given to be a code of practice for God’s people in every age. In addition, repentance means resolving henceforth to seek God’s help in keeping that law. The Spirit is given to empower law-keeping and make us more and more like Christ, the archetypal law-keeper (Matt. 5:17). This law-keeping is in fact the fulfilling of our human nature, and Scripture holds out no hope of salvation for any who, whatever their profession of faith, do not seek to turn from sin to righteousness (1 Cor. 6:9-11; Rev. 21:8)”

  2. thanks Melvyn, a very thought provoking comment. I wasn’t trying to establish Paul’s view of the law overall, but just explore how he used it in Timothy. What I mean by “principle” is that he clearly (for example) saw the command about oxen to contain a principle that applied to elders.

    Of the three “antinomianisms”, the “Spirit-centred” one probably comes closest to what I hear taught in a lot of newfrontiers churches. This is sometimes called New Covenant theology, in which the OT law is completely abrogated in favour of the New Covenant law (which may contain many of the same commands as the OT law, but is essentially a new law). I have a lot of sympathy with this view, although I am more along Stott’s lines where he says that the law is not how we gain acceptance with God, but it does guide us into how we live to please God.

    The “Jesus-centred” antinomianism is also popular in some charismatic circles, and I have some grave reservations about the implications of teaching this.

    In fact I would say that there are elements of truth in all three, which is why we need a theology that embraces the full spectrum of biblical teaching, rather than just picking out a few verses that trump the rest.

  3. Mark – Thanks for your reply and, incidentally, well done on the commentary material which looks excellent.

    My views on the law would be very similar to Stott and Packer, who both – following in the steps of Calvin – emphasise the importance of the “3rd use of the law” as a guide for living the Christian life (but not as a means of justification). I think, in this respect, I can therefore legitimately claim (despite being a Reformed Arminian) to be more Reformed than others in New Frontiers who incline towards the “New Covenant Theology” view.

    My feeling is that it is in the matter of the law that New Frontiers may not be as Reformed as it thinks (as Matt Hosier suggested in his interesting article at:, and I would recommend Packer’s Concise Theology (also found in the notes of the Reformation Study Bible from R.C.Sproul) as providing a well-thought out approach to the law that avoids the traps of both legalism and antinomianism. l have found that Packer’s book provides a good summary / reference work on systematic theology. although my views on baptism and predestination would, of course, be somewhat different from his.

    All the best, melvyn

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