The Law is Good
Scripture: 1 Timothy 1:1-11
This morning we begin a 10-week study of Paul’s first letter to Timothy. I’m calling it “fight the good fight” based on Paul’s instruction in chapter 6. He tells Timothy to flee evil and pursue righteousness, commanding him to fight the good fight of the faith.
And in many ways, that is the theme of this letter letter. How do we, as God’s church, fight the good fight? It seemed to me a good way to begin our new year together, so let’s do it.
1 Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by command of God our Savior and of Christ Jesus our hope,
This is a letter written by the apostle Paul. He begins most of his letters in the same way, taking care to rest his own authority in the will of God. No one in the Bible claims the title of “apostle” for himself, which means there are no true apostles alive today. The Apostles were named directly by Christ Jesus, whom Paul mentions three times in the first two verses.
2 To Timothy, my true child in the faith:
Grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.
This is a standard greeting, but notice the personal touch. He calls Timothy my “true child”. In Greek, the word is legitimate. Timothy had a Gentile father and a Jewish mother, meaning the Jews would have considered him illegitimate. But Paul claims him as a son because he led Timothy to Christ.
3 As I urged you when I was going to Macedonia, remain at Ephesus so that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine, 4 nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies, which promote speculations rather than the stewardship from God that is by faith.
Paul left Timothy in Ephesus to help guide the church in his absence. Timothy already knows why Paul left him there, which means Paul expects this letter to be read by the churches. This is an open letter to Timothy. He’s telling the churches that Timothy has the authority to challenge false teaching in Paul’s name.
This is the first and most important problem in the church that Paul confronts in the letter. We don’t know exactly what these people were teaching, but the troublemakers were probably leaders in the church – maybe even elders.
What this means for Timothy is that fighting the good fight of the faith is first a battle of doctrine. Theology. What we teach in the church matters. The integrity of the church and the blessing of God depends on it.
We need to know the difference between good doctrine and bad doctrine – especially our leaders. This is why, in our denomination, pastors, elders, and deacons all require significant training and testing in Bible knowledge and theology.
We have to know the difference between good teaching and bad teaching. Failure in this has led to false religions like Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Hebrew Israelites, and many others. It has led to heresies like universalism, oneness theology, and prosperity teaching. It has also led churches and entire denominations to abandon the good things they once believed in favor of modern ideas that are contrary to Scripture.
That’s what led to the Presbyterian split 50 years ago and it’s causing a split in the Methodist church right now. Doctrine matters. Why? Because of verse 5:
5 The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.
You may be tempted to think that doctrine is a head thing, not a heart thing. And that is a risk – that theology becomes only a head thing. To pride oneself in knowledge. But for Paul, good theology is actually a heart issue. He’s saying that Christian love is impossible without it.
We can’t love God if we don’t know who God is. We aren’t capable of loving others well if we are committed to false teaching.
Here’s an example. Some Christians believe that if you have enough faith, God will heal any disease. That’s false teaching but imagine a brother or sister in Christ is dealing with a chronic illness and you believe that false teaching. You might think the disease is their fault – that they must not have enough faith. Would you love them well in that instance? No…
According to Paul, there’s a lot more at stake than we realize. Purity of heart. A clean conscience. A sincere faith. That’s a summary of what it means to be human. What we feel. What we think. What we do. What we believe matters. Our humanity falls apart when we believe the wrong things about God and His Word!
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.
This gives us a clue about the kind of false teaching going on in Ephesus. It was some kind of distortion or preoccupation with the Old Testament Law. This was a common problem in the early church. It was also the spirit of the age, almost as a form of entertainment. People loved having spiritual debates and discussions.
But it could have a very damaging effect on the Church for leaders to say things beyond or contrary to what Scripture taught – especially in the early days of the church.
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,
Paul begins here to correct this error by explaining the purpose of God’s law.
Used properly, the law is good. Used improperly, the law is dangerous. Paul spends a lot of time in his letters to the Galatians and the Romans defending this idea.
Throughout church history, we have identified three proper uses of the law from Paul’s letters. The first use of the law is a mirror – it shows us our own sinfulness and need of forgiveness. The second use of the law is civil – it has been used as a standard for protecting people from the harmful actions of others. The third use of the law is a guide – helping people who already love God to obey Him.
It’s clear that Paul has in mind the first use of the law and possibly the second. He says the law is for the lawless. It’s for sinners. And then he gives some specific examples.
for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, 10 the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers,
Look carefully at this list. More than likely your focus is on one or two of these groups of people, and we will talk specifics. But first, notice that Paul gives an example from the fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, and ninth commandments in order. Did you catch that?
The fifth commandment is to honor your father and mother and Paul gives a particularly heinous example – someone who strikes his father or mother.
The sixth commandment is do not murder.
The seventh commandment is do not commit adultery. Paul divides this one into two examples – one covering heterosexual sin and the other is very specific – men who practice homosexuality.
The eight commandment is do not steal and here Paul uses the most extreme example – stealing another human being to enslave them.
The ninth commandment is do not lie and Paul here gives two examples, private and public. Lying and perjury.
I want us to see this, because very often we will hear Christians say that all sins are the same. In one sense, that is true. All sin is destructive. All sin is evil. All sin deserves the wrath of God. All sinners, apart from the grace of God, are equally doomed.
But practically speaking, all sin is not the same in terms of immediate, real-world consequences. Some sins are more heinous than others – more destructive. For instance, Jesus taught that hating someone breaks the sixth commandment. And yet, murder is obviously far more destructive than hatred.
With that in mind, notice that Paul seeks to correct our understanding of the law by drawing a sharp contrast between what the law can and cannot do by listing these sins. He specifically mentions some of the most heinous actions a person can commit: beating your parents… murder… enslaving people… and yes, he includes homosexuality.
We should pause and focus on that one for a moment, because it’s the only one on Paul’s list that modern readers question. Everyone in our culture agrees that the other stuff is bad for society. But as you are aware, people’s opinions regarding sexual sin have shifted dramatically in the past 60 years. So, we need to talk about it.
Paul uses a word here that literally means men who lie with men. This is not a reference to male prostitution or pedophilia, as some modern interpreters have suggested in an effort to excuse homosexuality.
The Bible as a whole is very clear on God’s view of sex. According to God, there is only one healthy way for human beings to express themselves sexually – in the context of a marriage between one man and one woman. This is how God designed us. Anything else is an expression of our sinful nature – it’s not what God intends for us.
If you struggle with this, I understand the tension – because we live in a world that is, and always has been, very sexually confused. All sin feels right to us at the time and we should not be surprised that the world wants us to accept different definitions and lifestyles.
But I believe the Bible is God’s Word and I trust what He says about this. The Church needs to stand its ground on these issues. We don’t get to decide what qualifies as sin and what doesn’t.
This has always been a problem. I don’t need to remind you that some Christians once tried to defend slavery from the Bible and that was clearly wrong. It’s the very next sin Paul mentions. Likewise, it is wrong that some Christians today are trying to defend homosexuality from the Bible.
That’s kind of Paul’s point here. He’s arguing with these so-called teachers of the law by saying that the law is pretty clear about itself. We know what the law says. We know what God forbids.
And why do we have the law? Paul argues that the law exists to show us our lawlessness, such as the sins he mentions and, he continues,
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.
And this is how our text ends for today. Paul says to Timothy that good doctrine lines up with the Gospel message. That is perhaps the most important criteria for us to decide if something is good teaching or bad teaching. Does it fit with the Gospel?
And so, what I want to do is talk briefly about the relationship between the law and the gospel.
Notice that Paul sees no contradiction between the law and the gospel. The moral code of the gospel is no different from the moral code of the law. Embracing the Gospel of grace does not give us the freedom to reject God’s law. The law doesn’t become useless after we become a Christian.
There is something the law can’t do. It can’t save us. It can’t redeem us. It can’t make us righteous. And in Christ, it can no longer condemn us. In terms of salvation, the law is powerless. But in terms of moral standards, the law and the gospel speak the same language.
God takes us the way He finds us, but He never leaves us the way He found us. God worked salvation for us to make us more like Christ. And so, the law of God remains a useful tool for both the Christian and the non-Christian. For believers, it helps guide us to the life God wants for us. For believers and unbelievers, it shows us our sin and drives us towards Christ.
I want us to look quickly at what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 6. He uses a similar list of sins, but notice what he says:
9 Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, 10 nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.
None of these people go to heaven and that should make us nervous because everyone in the room falls into at least one of these groups. But look what he says next:
11 And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.
Past tense. In other words, believers are no longer defined by their sin. We are still in the struggle, but our chief reality is washed – sanctified – justified in Christ.
If we are going to fight the good fight of the faith, we must know what God’s law says and what it doesn’t say. We cannot assume for ourselves what God is OK with and what He’s not OK with. We don’t get to make that call. The world doesn’t get to decide right and wrong. That’s why we have God’s law.
Our job is listening to God’s voice, receiving His Words with humility, and where the law reveals our sin, we must repent and trust in the work of Christ to fulfill the law on our behalf. That is our only path into God’s Kingdom.
I also want to encourage you to be humble in your engagement with some of these more difficult social issues. There is a lot of confusion in the world concerning gender and sexuality. We should be patient and humble with people. But we absolutely do not have to affirm something that God does not affirm. The world says that love demands affirmation and that’s not true. We can and should love every person we meet, but love does not demand affirmation. You do not have to enter into the delusions of a broken world to show love.
We want the best for people and the best for people is what God says is true of them. Resist the lies. Fight the good fight of the faith.