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.

Book Review–The Message of Romans (John Stott)

I heard the news of John Stott’s death only a couple of days after I started re-reading this Romans commentary. It was one of the first of the Bible Speaks Today series that I read, and for all the numerous things he will rightly be remembered for, I feel especially thankful for his contributions to and editorship of this series. In this volume, as with his other commentaries, John Stott models a truly evangelical approach to Scripture. He comes reverently to the Bible, believing it to be the very Word of God, eager to learn, ready to engage with difficulties of exegesis and doctrine, and most of all, expecting to encounter God through it.

A book like Romans of course is a daunting task for any Bible expositor. So many notable expositors and scholars have already tackled it in great depth. And there are many tricky theological issues it raises. What is “the righteousness of God”? What is the correct understanding of the doctrine of election? What place does the people and nation of Israel have in God’s ongoing plan? Who is the conflicted man of Romans 7? Was Junia an apostle? Whatever positions you take, you certainly can’t please all of the people all of the time in a commentary on Romans.

Stott starts with a preliminary essay, which includes several pages devoted to the New Perspective on Paul. He is to be commended on two counts for including this. First, that he pays any attention to it at all. By my reckoning, it is only the likes of Tom Wright that have really brought the NPP into the general evangelical consciousness in recent years.  Yet Stott clearly saw back in 1994 that this was going to become a debating point, and tackled it head on. Second, the way he seeks to correctly understand and fairly represent the opinions of the likes of Stendahl, Dunn and Sanders is also commendable. In some places I felt he articulated their points better than they did, such is his gift for clarity. Having said that, he does not go along with the conclusions of the NPP. I have previously blogged about John Stott’s take on the New Perspective here.

One key interpretive issue in Romans is the role and purpose of the “law”. Stott explains that “For justification we look to the cross, not the law, and for sanctification we look to the Spirit, not the law.” However, he wants to disagree with those who deny the law a place in the Christian life. “The moral law remains a revelation of God’s will which he still expects his people to ‘fulfil’ by living lives of righteousness”. He attempts to find a balance between the errors of legalism and antinomianism by saying “Legalists fear the law and are in bondage to it. Antinomians hate the law and repudiate it. Law-abiding free people love the law and fulfil it.” Do Christians have to obey the law? Yes and no … “not because the law is our master and we have to but because Christ is our husband and we want to.” The Spirit empowers us to keep the law – our freedom from the law is not freedom to disobey it.

As he ponders what the “righteousness of God” is, he notes three explanations often given. Is it (1) a divine attribute (2) a divine activity (his saving intervention), or (3) a divine achievement (the righteous status we are given)? He asks why we have to choose – “it is at one and the same time a quality, an activity and a gift”. He then expands on this to define the righteousness of God as “God’s righteous initiative in putting sinners right with himself by bestowing on them a righteousness which is not their own but his.”

He takes some time to defend the biblical concept of the “wrath of God”, from those who find this doctrine objectionable (again pre-empting a debate that has gained much momentum more recently in evangelical circles). “God’s wrath is his holy hostility to evil his refusal to condone it or come to terms with it his just judgment upon it.” The human predicament is not only sin, but God’s wrath upon sin.

Stott’s take on the identity of the conflicted man in Romans 7 is interesting. He cannot see it as a believer, since “a slave to sin” cannot be a Christian, and yet neither can he accept the unbeliever explanation. He concludes that it is a “regenerate” man, but not one who has the Holy Spirit. For Stott this leaves him with no other option than saying that the ‘I’ is an Old Testament believer. Stott of course strongly rejects the Pentecostal view of a subsequent baptism in the Spirit for a believer (as he makes clear in his comments on Rom 8:14-17), so cannot entertain the possibility that this ‘I’ could be a believer fighting sin in human strength alone without the empowering of the Spirit.

Stott has occasion to touch on subjects such as election and predestination, and while he seems to accept a Calvinist position, he prefers to refer to the concept of “antinomy” – two seemingly conflicting truths being held together – such as divine sovereignty and human responsibility. I like his suggestion that “the perseverance of the saints” should be renamed “the perseverance of God with the saints”.

As he tackles the subject of Israel, Stott is eager to underscore the importance of evangelism for all people, including the Jews. He includes a brief “manifesto of evangelism” that summarising the teaching of Romans on evangelism.

Overall, despite not necessarily agreeing with his every viewpoint, I would say this is another excellent work and valuable for anyone personally studying or teaching through Romans. There are of course the works by Douglas Moo and Tom Schreiner which I would recommend to those wanting to go into more exegetical depth, but Stott should not be underestimated and there is plenty of well argued and thought-provoking material in here to help shape your understanding of this important New Testament book.

Tsadhe–Righteousness of the Law

The key word in the Tsadhe section of Ps 119 (verses 137-144) is “righteous”. Twice God is called righteous and three times God’s laws are called right or righteous:

137 You are righteous, LORD,
   and your laws are right.
138 The statutes you have laid down are righteous;
   they are fully trustworthy.

142 Your righteousness is everlasting
   and your law is true.

144 Your statutes are always righteous;
   give me understanding that I may live.

This theme of God’s laws being righteous regularly surfaces throughout the Psalm (see also verses 7, 62, 75, 106, 123, 160, 164, 172). But while it may make sense for us to speak of God being righteous, or of a person being righteous, what does it mean to call God’s law righteous? I’ll consider two possibilities briefly:

Law as the standard of righteousness

First, we could say that the law is righteous in that it defines a standard of righteousness. It reflects the nature and character of the righteous God. This fits in with the general observation that in this Psalm, the writer more or less conflates God with his law – the things he says about God’s law are also true of God. For example, when he says he delights in God’s law, he is also delighting in God. When he says God’s law is righteous, he is saying that every word that proceeds from a righteous God must by nature be righteous.

It poses an interesting question. Is something right because God commands it, or is it commanded because it is right? Similarly, is something wrong because God forbids it, or is it forbidden because it is inherently wrong? The fact that some of the Old Testament laws have been explicitly abrogated under the new covenant suggests the former is the case. God himself is the standard of what is right. If he forbids something, then doing it is not right. If later he permits the same thing (e.g. eating pork), the moral status of that action has changed.

Law as a means of attaining righteousness?

The relationship between the law and righteousness is something that Paul reflects on at length in Romans. If the law is the standard of righteousness, does it not follow logically that law-keeping is a means of attaining righteousness?

In some places Paul seems to suggest that this might be at least a theoretical possibility. For example:

For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. (Rom 2:13)

But he goes on to make it abundantly clear that this never happens. In reality, the law simply reveals how far short we have fallen, highlighting our sin, and effectively condemning us.

For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. (Rom 3:20)

We might expect that the gospel would make us righteous by enabling us to keep the law. But that isn’t how Paul explains it. We have a righteousness that is by faith, completely disconnected from our personal success at law-keeping.

For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. (Rom 3:28)

So though we agree with the Psalmist that the law is righteous, because it is the words of the righteous God, we cannot look to it as our source of righteousness. Simon Ponsonby says that the function of the law is “SOS” – “Shows our sins” and “Shows our Saviour”. And this surely is the most valuable facet of the law of God – it points us to Christ (through the symbols and types of the ceremonial law), an it drives us to Christ (by revealing the full extent of our own shortcomings). In the New Covenant, delighting in God’s law means delighting in Christ.

For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes (Rom 10:4)

Daleth – Depression, Grace and Freedom


In Ps 119:25 the Psalmist says “I am laid low in the dust”, and then in verse 28 “My soul is weary with sorrow” (one commentator paraphrases “I have collapsed with intense sorrow”). These days we’d probably diagnose him with depression and pack him off to the doctors to get some happy pills. But for the writer of this Psalm, there is no question where he will turn first for comfort and strength – the Word of God.

25 I am laid low in the dust;
   preserve my life according to your word.

28 My soul is weary with sorrow;
   strengthen me according to your word.

Of course, I in no way want to trivialise the very real issue of depression, or glibly claim that a few hours of Bible reading will automatically fix it, but it does raise the issue of where we do we turn in times of sorrow. Part of the battle with depression is the battle for the mind (see Matt Hosier’s excellent prayer for depression), and to fight that battle effectively we must fill our minds with truth.

Grace and Truth

The reason the Psalmist turns to the Word of God when he is feeling low is that he knows that it is a source of grace and truth:

29 Keep me from deceitful ways;
   be gracious to me through your law.
30 I have chosen the way of truth;
   I have set my heart on your laws.

This is an interesting combination of terms since in John 1:17 it says that “the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” John is not denying that the law contains grace and truth, but is claiming that the fullest expression of God’s grace and truth is found in Jesus. This is why a christological approach to Scripture is so important. The Bible leads us into grace and truth as we let it point us to Christ.


The final verse in Psalm 119:25-32 (“the Daleth strophe”) is perhaps favourite in the whole Psalm, although it would appear that the translators can’t quite agree on how the second phrase should be translated. I like the NIV 1984’s “you have set my heart free” and think it fits well with the metaphor of running:

I run in the path of your commands,
   for you have set my heart free.

It is often assumed that a life of following commands must be one of drudgery, but for the Psalmist, the opposite is true. For him, it is when he is “running” in the path of God’s commands that he is free from anxiety and fear. Running in God’s way is both liberating and refreshing. I think the Psalmist would agree with the sentiment of Eric Liddell in Chariots of Fire when he says, “when I run I feel His pleasure”.

Aleph – The Blessing of the Blameless Life

Apologies for the lack of posts on this blog in recent months. Since the birth of our fifth child (Anna-Rose) in March, I have had less time than usual for reading and blogging. However, I don’t want to completely abandon the blog, so I’m going to attempt to post a series of thoughts on Psalm 119, which I have been studying recently.

Psalm 119 is of course famous for being the longest chapter in the Bible, with 176 verses – 8 for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet. The other interesting thing about this Psalm is that the dominant theme is God’s law. The word and commands of God are the Psalmist’s delight and obsession, the focal point around which his whole life revolves.

This poses something of a dilema as we try to interpret this Psalm though. Isn’t the New Covenant about grace triumphing over law? At first glance this Psalm can seem like a celebration of legalism. For example, consider the first four verses:

1 Blessed are those whose ways are blameless,
who walk according to the law of the LORD.
2 Blessed are those who keep his statutes
and seek him with all their heart—
3 they do no wrong
but follow his ways.
4 You have laid down precepts
that are to be fully obeyed.

We’re told here that there is a blessing for those who are (a) blameless, (b) wholehearted in seeking God, (c) do nothing wrong, and (d) obey every one of God’s laws fully. I don’t know about you, but that rules me out of receiving this blessing. But that’s not quite the end of the story. Verse 5 and 6 is an honest prayer from the Psalmist who knows that he is not always uncompromisingly obedient:

5 Oh, that my ways were steadfast
in obeying your decrees!
Then I would not be put to shame
when I consider all your commands.

He responds to this by making a personal resolution. He promises to (a) worship, (b) learn God’s rules and (c) obey them:

7 I will praise you with an upright heart
as I learn your righteous laws.
8 I will obey your decrees;
do not utterly forsake me.

Now we might be tempted to summarise Psalm 119:1-8 like this: “There is blessing for those who obey God, but ‘shame’ for those who don’t; therefore I will try really hard to obey and hope God doesn’t abandon me.” But that would do an injustice to the Psalmist, for reasons I will hopefully get onto if this series doesn’t come to a premature end. Suffice for now to say that for the Psalmist, obedience is primarily an expression of love not a fulfilment of a duty or an insurance policy for judgment day.

But I wonder too if there might be something prophetic about the opening section of this Psalm. In verse 8, the Psalmist prays that God won’t “forsake” him. It draws my mind to Mark 15:34, where Jesus cries out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”. The irony is that Jesus was the only one that Ps 119:1-4 truly describes. He is the only one who was completely blameless, was devoted to seeking God, did nothing whatsoever wrong, and fully obeyed every one of God’s laws. But instead of receiving blessing for it, he was put to shame and forsaken at the cross. He lived the blameless life we could not. He was forsaken in order that we might be accepted.

Psalm 119:1-4 then, is not about an unobtainable blessing, but about a blessing that has already been made available to us through God’s grace. And it does not describe a life that we are obligated but unable to live, but rather one that we are free and empowered to live by the Spirit. It is not about earning God’s favour through your blameless life, but enjoying God’s favour earned by Jesus’ blameless life.

James 1:25 The “Law of Liberty”

But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing. James 1:25

Laws forbid us from doing certain things, or command us to do things. By their very nature, therefore, they restrict our freedom to do whatever we like. So when James uses the phrase, “the law of liberty”, we might be tempted to think it is an oxymoron, a bit like saying “the chains of freedom”.

To understand this phrase, we first need to ask what “law” James is referring to. We might assume that he refers to the law of Moses, to the 10 commandments and the other rules and regulations of the Old Covenant. But commentators are broadly agreed that this is not in fact the case. Douglas Moo puts it like this:

James’s “law” does not refer to the law of Moses as such, but to the law of Moses as interpreted and supplemented by Christ.

In other words, James is referring to what we might call the “New Covenant law”, or the “law of Christ”. Elsewhere James calls it the “royal law” (James 2:8) and here in James 1:25 he calls it the “perfect law”. It is the law “written on our hearts” that Jeremiah prophesied (Jer 31:33). So the “law” essentially refers to God’s will for the way we are to live. It is as the Spirit fills us that we are given the three things we need to live according to this law:

  1. The knowledge of what God’s will for our lives is
  2. The desire to live in a way that is pleasing to God
  3. The power to overcome sin and temptation and to do God’s will

But that still doesn’t full answer the original question. How is living this way “freedom”? The answer surely is that true freedom comes when we do what we were made to do. “Freedom” to sin isn’t freedom at all – in fact, Jesus makes plain that sin leads to the very opposite of freedom – slavery (John 8:34). The question for us is are we willing to believe this? The most liberating way of life that is possible is one that gladly submits to the gracious constraints of God’s law. What seems like a straightjacket to the carnal-minded person, is glorious freedom for the God-obsessed.

Esther and Legislating Morality

This post continues a series looking at various issues raised by the book of Esther. I’d love your feedback in the comments

Esther chapter 1 ends with Xerxes passing a law that men should be rulers in their own homes (Esther 1:22) with the intention that this would make wives respect their husbands (Esther 1:20). Of course, this is highly ironic, since if wives only respect their husbands because the law says so, then they don’t really respect them at all.

Xerxes heavy-handed approach of passing a law to deal with marital conflict raises the tricky issue of what things ought to be covered by the law of the land, and what things should just be left for people to sort out amongst themselves.

There are all sorts of things that the Bible calls out as sin, but are perfectly legal in our culture. Swearing, getting drunk, and committing adultery would be examples. And on the whole, most Christians agree that while we should do what we can to discourage and minimise such things, the passing of laws against them is probably not appropriate.

Of course, there are people pushing for tighter laws in all kinds of directions. Many Christians, myself included, long to see the right to life of unborn children upheld in the law. Whilst on the other end of the spectrum, some want laws to control what opinions may not be expressed in public which could leave Christians open to prosecution for holding to biblical points of view.

And then there are issues where a mediating line might need to be drawn. I support legislation that puts limits on the way that cigarettes and pornography are promoted, for example, without necessarily wanting to campaign for a total ban.

So how do we decide what should be illegal, and what should just be disapproved of? The trend amongst many evangelicals is towards a more libertarian view of law, observing that you cannot legislate morality, since it is a problem of the heart that only the gospel can truly address. Yet no one would suggest that theft, rape or murder shouldn’t be illegal. So we all acknowledge that there is some role for law to play in restraining evil.

This is actually a topic that I am not going to offer my own position on, since I feel that I need to read and think more deeply about it first. John Stott’s “Issues Facing Christians” is the best book I have read that deals with this type of issue. So let me throw it out to you in the comments. Which sinful behaviours that are not illegal would you like to see a law against? And which should be left unlegislated for? And what are the principles involved in making such distinctions? Would an ideal society’s laws be close to or completely different from, the laws of Israel as found in the Pentateuch?