The Law and the Gospel
(1 Timothy 1.8-17)
We’re in the second week of our series on 1 Timothy, and I’m so happy this text landed when it did, because yesterday we baptized three people who have committed their lives to Christ and committed to be his and live for him. And this text explains why they did what they did.
If you remember last week, we saw that Paul is writing to his protégé Timothy, the young pastor of a church in Ephesus which Paul planted. Timothy is faced with a situation which would be uncomfortable for any pastor: certain people in his church are spreading false doctrines. And Paul told Timothy to charge those people to stop saying what they’re saying. Firstly, because it’s false—they’re saying things that simply aren’t true—and secondly, because the things they’re saying promote speculations rather than the stewardship from God that is by faith. The aim of our charge, he says, is love, that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. Every Christian’s goal should be to act out of love for our brothers and sisters and to actively work to build their faith: everything we do should be motivated by love.
And these men who are spreading these false doctrines clearly aren’t acting out of love: they are self-promoting and self-aggrandizing. V. 6: 6 Certain persons, by swerving from these, have wandered away into vain discussion, 7 desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make confident assertions. Now, what he says at the beginning of v. 7 clues us in, not so much to the content of their teaching, but at least from where they’re getting their ideas. He says that these men desire to be teachers of the law.
This “law” he’s referring to is the law of Moses, the law that God gave to his people through Moses at Mount Ararat, after the exodus from Egypt. The law of Moses had guided Jewish society ever since, and this was good: this was what God intended. But the law was given not only to guide Jewish society, but also to prepare the way for Jesus Christ who, as the representative of God’s people, would fulfill that law and bring it to completion. Which is exactly what he did. And that’s how Christianity was born: not as an entirely different religion from Judaism, but rather as the accomplishment of Judaism.
If you read the Bible, the fact that Christianity is in fact the accomplishment of the Jewish religion is quite beautiful; but it did make things tricky sometimes, because many people saw Christianity as not an accomplishment, but rather as a kind of offshoot of Judaism. In other words, they didn’t see the Jewish and Christian faiths as two steps in one singular process, but rather as two sides of the same coin. Which meant that whatever Christ did is great, but (on the flip side) the things that God established with the people of Israel was still of primary importance. They saw Jesus as a footnote to Judaism rather than its endpoint.
So these people in Ephesus are taking bits of the law of Moses and apparently sort of reappropriating them for Christians, in ways God never intended. And that’s the problem: they’re taking something God meant for good, and using it in a way that’s wrong. And that is what Paul is going to explain in today’s passage: he’s going to talk about what it looks like to use the law rightly, and where the law is meant to take God’s people.
1) The Three Uses of the Law (v. 8-11)
We’re going to do a little history lesson this morning. Often in modern Christianity we reduce the law of Moses to something bad and unhelpful: the law was works, and the gospel is grace; works are bad, grace is good; so the law is bad and the gospel is good. Besides the fact that this reduction is problematic simply because the law of Moses is still in the Christian Bible (so it must be good for something), this is not how the church has historically viewed the law of Moses.
This question of what to do with the law came to a head during the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther was the first theologian to really flesh this out. Luther said that the law was given for two reasons. The first was political, or civil, in nature. The law served as a kind of barrier—as he said, “for the restraint of the uncivilised.” And we understand this. John Stott wrote that “the reason we need speed limits is that there are so many reckless drivers on the roads… If everybody could be trusted to respect everybody else’s rights, laws to safeguard them would not be necessary.” So the law that God gave to his people was there to restrain sinful people; it was a law for the good of society.
Secondly, Luther said the law was given for theological reasons. The law is there to show us that none of us are able to obey it completely. So the law is there to tell us, in essence, “Here is the standard, and here is where you are—you can never be good enough.” As he wrote, “[The law] 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 [Christ].” (This mirrors what Paul said in his letter to the Romans.)
As to the third use of the law, as it’s called, the Formula of Concord (1577) and John Calvin took up the slack. Calvin insisted that the law was there for a third reason as well: to show the born-again children of God an image of God’s perfect character—the law is there to show us what God is like, how perfect God is, and to drive us to be like him.
So we have these three uses of the law which the Reformers laid out, and we see these things at work in what Paul says here. He starts with what Calvin called the “deterrent” use of the law: he says that the law was given, not first for those who were righteous, but for sinners, to show them what not to do. He lays out some generalities first: 8 Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully, 9 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… These are all general terms which reflect the same fact: that the law was given for those people whose hearts are inclined to unholiness, to restrain them from acting on their worst impulses.
And then he gives some specific examples of how that unholiness sometimes fleshes itself out: for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, 10 the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers… Now before some of you get uncomfortable, we’re not going to spend the rest of this sermon talking about homosexuality, because that’s not the point of this text. Paul is just giving examples of things which were probably recurrent in Ephesus at the time (and which, for the most part, are still surprisingly recurrent in Paris today). The point isn’t the acts; the point is the heart those acts reflect. The law is not given for the just, but the unjust: it is not there for people who need no restraint, but for those who will otherwise not know how to keep their sin in check—sins like violence and sexual immorality and dishonesty.
And lest we think that he’s zeroing in on these acts to make it seem like they’re somehow “worse” than others, he adds: …AND whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine, 11 in accordance with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted. This is not merely a postscript; he’s not just saying “and all the other bad stuff.” He says that the law was given to restrain whatever is not in accordance with the GOSPEL.
And here we see the second use of the law—the law was given to drive us to CHRIST, by showing us that we are all like this. If we look at this list, we have to see that we are all on the same playing field. We all have lawless and ungodly hearts, and although that inner sinfulness manifests itself in different ways for all of us, the gospel tells us that root problem of sin is exactly the same. In other words, when Paul includes homosexuality in this list, he does not include it so that we might say, “OK, yes, pride is bad; but homosexuality is SO MUCH WORSE.” No—we all see ourselves in that list, because the root of our problem is the same. Some sins are more difficult to deal with than others, some sins have greater social and personal consequences than others, but all sin reveals in us the same heart: we are all lawless, we are all ungodly, we are all sinners. Which means that we all need the same Savior.
As to the third use of the law, it was given to show us the character of God, so that we might BECOME like him. The law is given to show us, the lawless, how to be like him…and the only way we are able to become like him is THROUGH the gospel of the glory of the blessed God. We are slaves to sin until Christ sets us free, and the gospel has given us this glorious news: that Christ has done exactly that.
2) Christ Came to Save Sinners (v. 12-17)
So in order to illustrate exactly how glorious this gospel is, Paul uses his own life as an example. He says that Christ appointed him to be an apostle even though his track record made him, in many ways, the least likely choice (v. 12-13): 12 I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service, 13 though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, 14 and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.
Now there’s a phrase here that is thorny: when Paul says, I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, he is NOT saying that his ignorance excuses his sin, or that his ignorance has earned him mercy. At the time he wrote this, Paul had already written in the book of Romans that our ignorance and unbelief are not excuses before God—all of us have enough evidence of God’s existence and his goodness to make it so that when we stand before God, and he declares us guilty, we’ll know he’s right. Our just God, if he chooses to condemn us for our sin, will be giving us exactly what we deserve.
So what Paul is saying here is actually quite simple: God saved me because I needed saving. I was unbelieving! I was ignorant! I had rejected him and persecuted him and I could never have climbed out of this hole myself; I could never have saved myself. So God saved Paul because he was helpless and needed saving.
Now there are a couple of things we need to notice here. Firstly, we need to notice that Paul remembers his sin. So often today, once we come to Christ, we are told to forget what came before, to forget what we were like before and what we had done. And we are told that because of what Paul said in his letter to the Philippians: FORGETTING what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus (Philippians 3.13-14). But clearly he doesn’t mean that he has literally forgotten his sin, or never thinks about it, because that’s not what he’s doing here—his memory of how badly he needed God was vivid. He gives details: formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. Paul was a Pharisee, a religious zealot, who called Jesus a traitor to Judaism and persecuted the Christians—this guy actually murdered Christians.
And he keeps that former sin in his mind for one reason only: because the knowledge of his former sin is what makes the grace God has shown him so glorious. It’s not a big deal to be forgiven for making a small mistake, like forgetting to call someone back when you said you would; it’s a much bigger deal to be forgiven by someone you have wounded. He wants to remember his former sin in his mind because it makes the grace he has received that much more precious to him.
Here’s the second thing: Christ didn’t come just to save Paul; he came to save sinners like Paul. V. 15: The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. So often we take Paul’s words and twist them to mean something else. We look at Paul, the super-apostle, and think, Well of COURSE God saved him! Look at him! He’s the holiest man who ever lived (besides maybe Jesus). An we don’t really believe him when he says he is the foremost of sinners. And so we get discouraged, thinking that we somehow have to measure up to a certain standard of holiness before God will even consider us—like we’re auditioning for The Voice. The Son and the Spirit hit the “I Want You” buttons and their chairs swivel around to look at us, but for the Father we’re just not quite good enough, so he keeps his back turned.
Brothers and sisters, Paul is saying the exact opposite. He’s not setting himself up as a perfect standard of what a holy man is, but as the worst example of what a sinner is. He’s saying this to remind us how ugly sin is and how huge God’s grace is to cover it! Christ did not come to save the righteous. He did not come to save those who have it all together. He did not come to save those who measure up to his standard of righteousness, because we can’t! Like Paul, we need saving. Paul saw himself as the worst of sinners, and the good news is that Jesus came to save people like that. And just in case we’re tempted to doubt it, he gives it this full emphasis at the beginning of his sentence: The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance. When Jesus says you’re not too bad to come to him, that he came not for the righteous but for sinners (Matthew 9.13), you can trust him.
3) Christ Saves Sinners…To Save Other Sinners (v. 16-17)
Now to conclude this first section, Paul brings back his argument full circle, to remind Timothy of the bigger picture. He’s just said that God saved him because he was ignorant and sinful and needed saving. Now he tells Timothy a second reason why God saved him: 16 But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.
In other words, God would have been right and just to simply kill me on the spot. I deserved it, and couldn’t have blamed him of wrongdoing if he had chosen to do that. But he was patient. He didn’t give me what I deserved, because he knew what he was going to do with me. He waited for my sin to get just about as bad as it could get, so that I could later tell people, “Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners—even sinners as horrible as me.”
Now, we may not have sinned as grievously as the apostle Paul in the past; it is unlikely that anyone in this room has ever persecuted or murdered anyone for religious reasons. But ultimately, God saved us for the same reason: he saved us because he is a merciful God and we needed saving; and because he intends for us to set ourselves forth as examples of God’s grace, so that others may believe. If we have faith in Christ, if we have been forgiven of our sins, then we are literally living examples of the gospel, living images of the good news for others to see. We received mercy for this reason, that in us, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who will believe in him for eternal life. No wonder Paul concludes with a doxology! 17 To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.
4) The Law and the Gospel
We need to ask ourselves a question before we can finish: What do these two things have to do with one another? Paul started by talking about the right and wrong uses of the law, what God designed the law to do; and then he moved on to the grace God showed him in Christ. What is the link between the two? Why did he put these two things together?
The simple answer is that he put the two things together because the wrong use of the law is at the root of the challenges Timothy is facing, and the solution to his challenges is to use the law rightly, to remind his congregation of what the law is pointing to. These false teachers are taking the law and twisting it to fit their own schemes; they desire to be teachers of the law. But they clearly don’t know what they’re talking about, because they are using the law in a way which distracts people from the gospel, when in fact the law is a vehicle for the gospel. There is no dichotomy between law and grace: the law, in God’s hands, is grace for his children, for it shows us our need and drives us to the One who fulfilled the law.
Let me put it this way. If I excitedly say to any of you here, “You can see colors!,” as if it’s really good news, you’ll probably think me a bit strange. (Of COURSE I can see colors…) But have you seen those new glasses that can enable color-blind people to see proper colors? If you’ve been color-blind your whole life, and I give you a pair of these glasses, suddenly when I excitedly say to you, “You can see colors!,” you completely understand why I’m so excited for you, why this news is so good.
And then, when I stand you in front of a blank canvas and I put a paintbrush and a color pallet in your hands and I say, “Paint a rainbow for me,” you’ll finally be able to do it.
You see, the law and the gospel are partners in the work of redemption. By the law, God graciously curbs the sinner’s worst instincts, for the sinner’s good and the good of those around him. By the law, God graciously shows us our need for a Savior. By the gospel, God shows us that he has provided a Savior for us. And then he shows us his perfect character in the law (and in the teachings of Jesus which took that law even further), saying, “Now that you’re free from sin, learn to be like me—not by rigorously following the rituals of law of Moses, but by reflecting the perfect character of God we see in the law. Don’t worry, I’ll help you.” Every interaction God has ever had with his people has been grace.
So here is what God is calling you to do through this text, whether you are a believer this morning or not. First of all, don’t assume your sin is smaller than it is. You may not indulge in the kinds of sin that are punishable by law here in France; but every day, all of us do things which are not in accordance with the gospel which has been entrusted to us.
On the other hand, don’t ever assume your sin is too great for God’s grace. Paul sets himself up as a living example of this fact: even if your sin is as deep as the ocean, the grace of our Lord OVERFLOWS for us with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Imagining anything else is nothing short of idolatry—to put it bluntly, how arrogant is it to imagine that your sin is too big for the God of the universe to forgive? We are not that great, and God is not that small. No sin is too big for God’s grace to overcome. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.
And if we have received God’s grace, if he has shown us this mercy, we are living examples of the gospel. So brothers and sisters, we mustn’t ignore those around us who need the same grace. The aim of our charge is love. And whether or not we are motivated by love is as plain as the nose on our face. If we see ourselves as morally worthy, and others as morally poor, people can feel that; they can sense our disapproval and the distance that we think is between us—and so they shut down, because who wouldn’t? But if we see ourselves as morally poor needy and sinful (because we are), we’ll be amazed that God would ever give us such a gift. That thankfulness pushes us to love other people as people, and to desire to share this wonderful thing we have undeservingly received. And people can feel that too. So let us love others by letting them see us as we are: not as perfect saints who have it all together, who set the standard of acceptability by God, but as sinners who need saving as badly as anyone else, and who are living proofs that God does indeed save gloriously.