Wednesday, 28 April 2021

The Law is Good if Used Lawfully

“Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully, 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, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine, in accordance with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted” (1 Timothy 1:8-11, ESV).  

The section of 1 Timothy chap. 1 marked at vv. 8-17 is an explanatory digression, as the discussion of vv. 3-7 resumes at vv. 18-20. In contrast to the mishandling of the law by certain ones just noted, Paul explains its rightful purpose and proper use.1 While the word law” [nómosis applied with some flexibility in the NT, it normally relates to the old-covenant law of Moses. Notwithstanding the occasional exception to this general observation (e.g. Rom. 2:13, 14; Gal. 3:21b), the context normally clarifies the usage.

The Goodness of the Law

Since the term “law” in v. 9 is without the article in the Greek text (cf. ASV, NASB, NET), it has been suggested that the reference here may be to law in general, not strictly the Mosaic law. However, the article is appended in v. 8 (“the law”), and God’s law, as law, is generally true of all just laws. It is “good” [kalós] but only if used “lawfully” [nomímōs]. Its goodness is “because it truly does reflect God’s will…. related to its being used properly, that is, treated as law (intended for the lawless, v. 9) and not used ‘illegitimately’ as a source for myths and endless genealogies, or for ascetic practices.”2

During the fifteen centuries the Mosaic law was in force, provisions were made for atonement and forgiveness (Lev. 4:20, 26, 31, 35; 5:13, 16, 18), salvation was attainable (1 Sam. 2:1; 2 Sam. 22:51; 1 Chron. 16:23; Psa. 3:8; etc.), and one could even be counted “blameless” (Luke 1:6; Phil. 3:6). Faith, love, and mercy were essential components (Deut. 6:4-9; 10:12-21; Mic. 6:8; Hab. 2:4; Matt. 23:23; etc.), and it was beneficial to all who submitted to it (Deut. 6:24; 10:13; cf. Psa. 78:1-7; etc.).3

Foreshadowing the atoning sacrifice of Jesus (Rom. 3:25-26; Gal. 4:4-5; Heb. 9:15, 26), persons were saved under the old Jewish covenantal law by God’s grace through faith (Rom. 4:3-16; cf. 3:25; 9:31-32), i.e., a faith that submitted to the divine will in humble obedience. Despite the fact that a number of 1st-century legalistic Jews misconstrued the law’s intended purpose (Luke 11:37-42; Rom. 2:23; 10:3), it was never meant to be a cold-hearted structure of meritorious works. While the old-covenant system was not faultless (Heb. 8:7), it successfully functioned as a temporary measure to keep faith alive until the advent of the promised Messiah and the establishment of his superior new-covenant system (cf. Gal. 3:16–4:7; Heb. 8:6-13).

The Necessity of the Law

The necessity of the law is explained with three pairs of descriptors. While they could be regarded as synonymous, the expression “lawless” [ánomos], lit. “without law,” applies here to “those who know the laws of right and wrong and break them open-eyed.”4 The “disobedient” [anupótaktos], more precisely “undisciplined,” “insubordinate,” or “rebellious,” refers to “those who will not come into subjection.”5 The word “ungodly” [asebēs] describes one who is “destitute of reverential awe towards God, impious,”6 while “sinners” [adj. hamartōlós], i.e., not free from sin or preeminently sinful, basically applies to “one who deviates from the path of virtue”;7 cp. vv. 6, 19. The ungodly are inwardly irreverent, whereas the sinful are outwardly disobedient. The terms “unholy” [anósios, cf. 2 Tim. 3:2], or “wicked” (BAGD 72), and “profane” [bébēlos, cf. 4:7; 6:20; 2 Tim. 2:16], “godless” or “irreligious” (BAGD 138), are descriptive of persons who reject sacred things. All these generically portray human rebellion against God.

The Prohibitions of the Law

More specifically, the designated sins that follow correspond to the fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, and ninth commandments of the Decalogue (Ex. 20:12-16). God did not give his law for frivolous conjecture and pointless dialogue, but as “law” it prohibits the types of transgressions now listed. Such a vice list is not uncommon and stands in stark contrast to the virtue lists of 3:1-13; 5:9-10. Similar vice lists occur in Rom. 1:26-31; 1 Cor. 5:10-11; 6:9-10; Gal. 5:19-21; 2 Tim. 3:2-4, none of which is intended to be exhaustive.

Regarding “those who strike their fathers and mothers,” two descriptive terms are employed here, patrolōas (“patricide,” or “father killer”) and mētralōas (“matricide,” or “mother killer”). Seeing that the literal sense would be included in the next expression, “murderers” (androphónos, lit. “manslayer”), parallel to the Decalogue’s sixth commandment (Ex. 20:13), it seems allusion to the fifth commandment (Ex. 20:12) is intended here, thus the unnatural treatment of mothers and fathers, applicable to those “who refuse all reverence, even all kindly treatment, to their parents”8 (cf. 5:3-16). “The words describe sons or daughters who are lost to gratitude, lost to respect and lost to shame. And it must ever be remembered that this most cruel of blows can be one, not upon the body, but upon the heart.”9 See also Prov. 28:24; Mark 7:10-13; Rom. 1:30; Eph. 6:1-3; 2 Tim. 3:2.

The “sexually immoral,” from the Greek pórnos (lit. a male prostitute), refers to anyone engaging in illicit sexual intercourse, i.e., a fornicator. The noun porneía applies to any type of illicit sexual intercourse or fornication, namely sex that is not within the context of a divinely approved marriage (cf. 1 Cor. 7:2; Heb. 13:4). More particularly, “men who practice homosexuality.” The expression here is arsenokoítai (see also 1 Cor. 6:9), a combination of arsēn (“male”) and koitē (“bed”).9 This is a sexual term descriptive of homosexual behavior (ASV, ESV, ERV, HCSB, ISB, NASB, NIV, N/KJV, NRSV, etc.), pertaining to women as well (Rom. 1:26-27).

Next is “enslavers” [andrapodistēs]. Christianity entered a world where slavery was already an established element of society and regarded as an economic necessity, though not necessarily comparable to harsher forms in other times and societies (cf. 6:1-2). The condition of slavery was typically the result of prisoners of war, criminal conviction, debt, abandoned children, or birth to a slave mother. What Paul mentions here is a more sinister means, i.e., slave-dealers, kidnappers, or those who steal and sell another’s slaves. In principle this would include all who exploit fellow humans for selfish gain. 

The itemizing concludes with “liars” (from pseústēs) and “perjurers” (from epíorkos), those who intentionally twist the truth and affirm falsehoods for their own perceived advantage (cf. John 8:44; 1 John 1:6; 2:4, 22; 4:20; Rom. 1:25; Col. 3:9; Rev. 3:9). Although a comprehensive list is not necessary to make the point, the concluding statement is all encompassing: “and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine” (cf. Rom. 1:32; Gal. 5:21; 6:1; 2 Tim. 3:5). 

The Divine Standard

The divine standard is “doctrine” (didaskalía, “teaching,” “instruction”) being “sound” [hugiaínō], a verbal for being in good health (Luke 5:31; 7:10; 3 John 2) or safe and sound (Luke 15:27), used by Paul only in his letters to Timothy and Titus with reference to what is taught and the accompanying faith (1 Tim. 1:10; 6:3; 2 Tim. 1:13; 4:3; Tit. 1:9, 13; 2:1, 2). In contrast to “the law” (vv. 7-9), misappropriated and misunderstood by the disruptors, the message advanced by the apostle and his associates is “the gospel” [tó euaggélion], lit. “the good news” or “the glad tidings.” Anything different is unsound and spiritually unhealthy (v. 3; 6:3; 2 Cor. 11:4; Gal. 1:6, 7). 

The gospel message with which Paul has been “entrusted” (verbal pisteúō, cf. vv. 1, 12; 1 Cor. 9:17; Gal. 2:7; 1 Thess. 2:4) reflects God’s “glory” [dóxa], a revelation of himself in which recipients of the message are invited to share (Rom. 5:2; 9:23; 2 Cor. 4:4, 6). “Both the Law and the gospel are against sin. Both reveal the glory of God. The gospel does not tolerate sin any more than the Law.”11 The difference is, the law condemns but cannot save, while the gospel is the power of God unto salvation (Rom. 1:16-17; 7:1–8:8; Gal. 2:16; 3:10-29).

--Kevin L. Moore


     1 Contrary to what is commonly assumed, Paul was not anti-law. He concedes faith’s reinforcement of the law (Rom. 3:31), the holiness and righteousness of the law (Rom. 7:7, 12), the spirituality of the law (Rom. 7:14), and the advantages of Judaism (Rom. 3:1-2; 9:4). Paul does not contradict himself in passages like Rom. 3:20; Gal. 2:16 and 3:11. His emphasis is consistently on the importance of understanding the law in terms of faith rather than dependence on meritorious observances (cf. Rom. 3:27-31; 9:30-32).

     2 Gordon D. Fee, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus NIBC (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1988): 45.

     3 Paul continued to be in favor of the law and its precepts with respect to those for whom it was an important part of their cultural heritage (i.e., within the context of ethnic Judaism), as long as it was not at variance with the Christian faith (cf. Acts 16:1-3; 18:18; 21:20-26; 1 Cor. 9:20; also Rom. 15:4). On the other hand, he was vehemently opposed to the enforcement of the law’s ritualistic ordinances on those for whom these practices had no relevance (i.e., non-Jewish Christians), especially if the imposition of such created division in the church and supplanted the “faith of Christ.”

     4 William Barclay, The Letters to the Philippians, Colossians and Thessalonians DBSS (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster, 1975): 37.

     5 Marvin R. Vincent, Word Studies in the NT (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1985): 4:207.

     6 Kenneth S. Wuest, Word Studies: The Pastoral Epistles in the Greek NT for the English Reader (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980): 31.

     7 Harold K. Moulton, ed. The Analytical Greek Lexicon Revised (Grand Rapids: Regency, 1978): 17.

     8 H. D. M. Spence, “The First Epistle of Paul the Apostle to Timothy,” in NT Commentary for English Readers, ed. C. J. Ellicott (London: Cassell Petter and Galpin, 1884): 3:180.

     9 W. Barclay, Timothy, Titus, and Philemon 38.

     10 The words arsēn (“male”) and koitē (“bed”) appear together six times in the LXX (Greek translation of the OT), four times referring to men lying with women (Num. 31:17, 18; Judg. 21:11, 12) and twice in reference to men lying with men (Lev. 18:22; 20:13).

     11 W. E. Vine, Exposition of the Epistles to Timothy (London: Pickering & Inglis, 1925): 14.


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