How, as a believer, am I to relate to “the law” in Scriptures? The apostle Paul wrote to Timothy, “Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully” [1 Timothy 1:5]. There was, it seems, some sort of law-abuse going on in Ephesus where Timothy was a pastoral leader.
Yet to say that God’s law is “good” seems odd. Of course it’s good! God himself directed its composition. In his later letter Paul told Timothy that all Scripture—the Old Testament law included—is “breathed out by God and profitable for teaching . . . [given to equip people] for every good work” [2 Timothy 3:16-17].
So what is Paul saying in the earlier letter? It’s a key issue for him as it launches the letter and explains his concern about “[c]ertain persons” who are confidently teaching nonsense.
In this entry I want to probe Paul’s concern. One way to do this is turn his point over and notice that God’s law can be used unlawfully—as in Ephesus. But what constitutes a misuse of the law? And does that misuse have any bearing on us today?
First, though, what did Paul mean when he spoke of the law? Books and dissertations have been written on the question. Does he, for instance, mean the moral principles of the ten commandments? Does he include the more pragmatic instructions given to the nation of Israel? Is he speaking of the totality of the Hebrew Scriptures—the Old Testament—or, more specifically, of the worship requirements and ceremonies that looked to the Jerusalem temple of his day? Does he have the moralistic abuse of his own Pharisee heritage in mind, rather than the positive and important disclosures of God’s character that the law offers?
The context of the 1 Timothy text helps us when Paul goes on to say what the law is meant for: it confronts “the lawless and disobedient . . . the ungodly and sinners . . . .” And he says more. The law challenges any number of activities that are “contrary to sound doctrine”—whatever is opposed to the gospel.
With this as context let me propose that the law denotes the confrontive content of God’s revelation—of all that is written to expose and confront human evil. This sense also fits our experience of secular law-making.
Here’s what I mean. We know that laws are written to protect against abuses. If my bank, for instance, decides to build its profits with fees that seem remarkable to all non-bankers, I and many others may write to our political representatives to ask them for some laws to set out fair and reasonable boundaries on banking fees.
The problem, of course, is that the bankers don’t believe they’re doing anything wrong when they set their fees. Fees simply reflect the shared price of doing business. Fees need to be shared by everyone in order for banks to support ongoing commerce. They, in turn, may lobby the same politicians that I wrote to, asking them not to write any laws that might limit their need to profit from their banking—with their personal salary as a measure of that need.
They might even offer to help fund the politician’s next election if they feel they’re properly supported. But if I eventually discover that my lawmakers are unwilling to support me and my fellow protesters; and I also hear that my local politician has been funded in his or her election by the national coalition of bankers, I might feel like something has gone wrong with the system. I might even consider it corrupt and evil.
Theoretically we can look to another body to shelter us from such problems: to our courts. Their job is to decide who is evil and who isn’t—of assessing, in our instance, the right and wrong of having a coalition of wealthy bankers pay for the election expenses of my regional law-makers when I can’t do that myself. Certainly the judges, who don’t have any financial incentive to defend either the bankers or the politicians, will block an obvious conflict of interest. But what if the courts—or the highest court—eventually side with the bankers’ coalition?
This is where the Bible and society overlap: God will eventually judge the judges. In theory he might agree with the courts about the freedom of the bankers’ coalition to fund my local politician’s elections; and—as Bible readers will know already—he might not. What reassures me is that throughout the Bible God promises that in the end all things will be made right: evil will never prevail in the final judgment.
If this is the case—and it is—and if there are consequences to making evil choices we would expect God to give us fair warning of what constitutes evil. He does. This is what constitutes “the law”—whether we are thinking of the Decalogue, the Psalms, or any other Scriptures. All that God has moved the Bible writers to compose tells us what we can expect on the day of final judgment. We have lots of truth we can draw upon.
The lawful use of the law fits in this context. The Bible alerts us to what is right and wrong; to what is good and evil; to what is true and what is false. When we abide in God’s word we learn what is true, we discover the good, and we meet with the one who is ultimately right and righteous.
So the law is good! Yet that misses a key point. The real question in all of Paul’s writings—and in the Bible at large—is whether we want to know God’s ways. Or, once we know about them, whether we want to embrace them. Paul underscored this for one struggling church that had people in it who were speaking nonsense. He warned that those who are “perishing” are in that state “because they refused to love the truth and so be saved” [2 Thessalonians 2:10].
What defines real Christians, by contrast, is that we have been captured by God so that we love him, his word, his ways, and all the neighbors he has given us. We are those who do “love the truth” and, with that, are those who are “saved.”
For those who are among the lovers of God—and are saved—we now need to ask, how do we relate to God’s law? The answer is, we love it. It represents God’s heart and we are able to offer it to a fallen, morally confused world. But we no longer look to it for the sake of our own spiritual growth. Instead we look to God and ask him, “How can I love you more boldly; and with that, how can I love my neighbor—those whom you love already—with your kind of rich and sacrificial love?”
This is not to abandon the law as Christians but to recognize that it served its purpose by exposing our sin and in pointing us to a savior. Once we have repented—turning our formerly selfish hearts over to a selfless God who loves us—we, too, become newly selfless in love.
Paul put it this way: “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law” [Romans 13:10]. To love is to focus on persons—both divine and human persons—and not on a set of restrictions and warnings that are simply meant to protect us from each other. Laws are the guardrails to a life lived in love and never the ultimate object of that love.
Let me end by returning to the bank fee scenario. Now that I’m captured by God’s love, it is still right for me to write to my regional lawmaker because, now that I love my neighbor as I love myself, I feel compassion over their struggles—as measured by my own financial struggles. The Scriptures inform me in the process, so that with love as my motive, I can show others God’s values. It consists both in warning and in invitation.
If I’m a Christian and, with that, a leader in the bank, I now set my fees on the basis of Christ’s love—knowing that Christ’s compassion is my ultimate guide. That is not to say I give away the bank’s money—it needs to stay in business—but I seek to please God in all that I do. Greed no longer rules me. The integrity of love defines my policies.
And if I’m a politician who is a believer, I work to bring about laws that reflect Christ’s fairness and compassion—guarding the weak against the powerful who would otherwise abuse the weak. Power no longer rules me. The power of love now defines me.
And if I’m a Christian judge, I seek to bring about a justice that will please God. I will abide in his word to know his ways. I will stand for what delights him: loving kindness, justice, and righteousness.
When all this comes about we will be using the law in a lawful way. I know, of course, how utopian this sounds. Only a world captured by God’s love will live like this. But, by God’s grace, all of us who know and love Christ can start making a difference today.