The Uses of the Law

Used lawfully, the Law is good.

Holy, Righteous, and Good (4)

But we know that the law
is good if one uses it lawfully, knowing this: that the law is not made for a righteous person, but for the lawless and insubordinate, for the ungodly and for sinners, for the unholy and profane, for murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers, for manslayers, for fornicators, for sodomites, for kidnappers, for liars, for perjurers, and if there is any other thing that is contrary to sound doctrine, according to the glorious gospel of the blessed God which was committed to my trust. 1 Timothy 1.8-11

Unlawful uses of the Law
In our text, Paul says plainly that the Law of God is good if we use it lawfully, that is, in line with the reasons God gave His Law. This suggests that there are unlawful uses to which the Law may be put, and we should make sure we understand what these are. I’ll mention three.

First, it is against the purpose of God’s Law – it is unlawful – to try to gain salvation by keeping the Law. We have been careful to make this point all along in our study of which works are the good works for which we have been redeemed and saved. This only makes sense, and for two reasons. First, all people are sinners (Rom. 3.23), and therefore, by definition, no one can ever hope to keep the Law of God like Jesus did, fulfilling all its righteous requirements, all the time, and in every situation. We do not encourage anyone to seek salvation by keeping the Law of God, but by looking to Him Who alone has kept it perfectly, and thus accomplished all the righteousness we need to find favor in the eyes of God.

Second, it is unlawful to use the Law to lord it over others, or to seek to control them by one’s position as a recognized interpreter of the Law. This is the role the priests, Pharisees, and scribes claimed in the days when Jesus came preaching the Good News of the Kingdom of God. The religious leaders of Israel had set themselves as the interpreters of God’s Law, and they looked with scorn on the people who did not know the Law as accursed (Jn. 7.49).

Third, it is unlawful not to use the Law of God as God intends. By failing to study, meditate on, learn, practice, and teach the Law of God, we deny the teaching of God Himself (Lev. 18.1-5), our Lord Jesus Christ (Matt. 5.17-19), the Holy Spirit of God (Rom. 8.5-9), and all the apostles. So we are not using the Law as God intends if we deny, neglect, ignore, or transgress it to any extent.

What does it mean, then, to use the Law lawfully?

Lawful uses
First, I might ask you to look over Paul’s list of those for whom the Law of God is intended, and who should thus learn to use it lawfully. Do you see yourself in there anywhere? Are you a completely righteous person? If not, the Law is for you. Are you a sinner? The Law is for you. Do you – if only in your heart – hate, murder, commit adultery, or do anything at any time that is “contrary to sound doctrine”? If so, then the Law is just what you need to liberate you from these evils (Jms. 1.22-25; 2.12), plop you down into the Spirit’s classroom (Ezek. 36.26, 27), and put you on course for a more consistent life of following Jesus (1 Jn. 2.1-6).

The first lawful use of the Law is to point us to Jesus for salvation (Gal. 3.24). As we look into the Law, the perfect Law of liberty and love, we realize that we cannot possibly fulfill the requirements of this holy, and righteous, and good body of instruction. But we must fulfill it, if we would be acceptable to God, Who is of holier eyes than even to look upon evil and sin. So the Law points us to Jesus, Who kept all that the Law requires us, and opens the way, through His life, death, and resurrection, into the very Presence of God. We need the Law to drive us to Jesus. The more we read and study the Law, the more it makes us look to Jesus, love Jesus, and call on the mercy and grace of Jesus to help us in our time of need. We should also use the Law in this capacity as part of our work of evangelism, for no one will be saved who does not acknowledge his sin and need of Jesus.

Second, the Law continues both to instruct us concerning the nature of sin and, in the hands of the Spirit, to convict us of sin whenever it appears in our lives (Rom. 7.7; Jn. 16.8-11). The better we understand the Law, and the more we meditate on it – as is commended in Psalm 1 – the more sensitive we will be to sin, the more alert to temptation, and more ready to confess and repent of sin and return to the Lord’s path (Ps. 119. 59, 60). The Law was our tutor to drive us to Jesus; it is our coach or mentor to keep us from allowing sin to nest in our souls. As Paul said, we won’t be able to know what sin is apart from reading and learning the Law of God (Rom. 7.7). The Law defines sin and transgression (1 Jn. 3.4), not we ourselves, nor our crowd, nor the temper of the times.

Third – and this is the emphasis in this series – the Law shows us how to live in the freedom that we have as sons and daughters of God, to tap into the mind and power of the Spirit, to follow Jesus in the path He Himself walked, and to bring the glory of God to light in works of love for God and our neighbors (Rom. 8.5-9; 1 Jn. 2.1-6; Matt. 5.13-16; Matt. 22.34-40). The Law is not intended to be exhaustive in cataloging those good works for which we have been redeemed and saved. It offers just enough in the way of abiding rules, instructive precepts, case laws and other examples, and interpretation by prophets, apostles, and the Lord Jesus Himself, so that we may be formed in heart, mind, and conscience to “read” what the Spirit is writing within us, and to do as He instructs and empowers us for the pleasure of God (Phil. 2.13).

So how can we prepare ourselves for learning and practicing the Law of God, so that we might do those good works which were beforehand prepared for us as His chosen, saved, and called people?

Using God’s Law lawfully
I’ll offer three suggestions here.

First, stop thinking that the Law is not for you – not for any of us as believers in Jesus. If you’re a sinner, and especially if you’re a saved sinner, the Law is lawful for you to use in living for Jesus and glorifying God in your life. You will not gain the benefit God intends from obeying His Law until you stop thinking about it as some onerous burden – John says it is not (1 Jn. 5.1-3) – and begin welcoming it as the path to life and the likeness of Jesus Christ (cf. 2 Cor. 3.12-18).

Second, memorize the Ten Commandments. We’re going to be looking at each of these during this series. All the rules, statutes, precepts, commandments, and testimonies of the Law of God fit under one or another of these Ten Words. If we can fix these in our souls, they will guide us in understanding and making good use of all the Law of God, so that we may enjoy the liberty and express the love that Law unlocks for us.

Finally, make reading and meditating in God’s Law part of your regular devotional life. The easiest way to do this is to read through the book of Deuteronomy slowly, reflectively, and repeatedly. Add this or some other means of internalizing the Law of God, and you will become a true student of the Spirit as He writes God’s Law on your heart day by day.

We want the benefits of God’s Law – all the fullness of life God promises is encoded in that wondrous body of divine revelation. But we will not have it unless and until we apply ourselves diligently to it as an ongoing aspect of our growing into the likeness of Jesus Christ. The Law is good when we use it lawfully, but we won’t use it lawfully unless we commit to learning it thoroughly, joyfully, and obediently.

For reflection
1.  How can we know when we’re using the Law unlawfully?

2.  Why do we need to include the Law – in some form, perhaps summarized or abbreviated – in sharing the Good News about Jesus?

3.  What will you do to improve on using the Law lawfully?

Next steps – Transformation: Set up a plan for regular reading of and meditation on the Law of God. Get started on this exciting discipline today.

T. M. Moore

One way to add reading and meditation in the Law to your daily devotional life is to download A Kingdom Catechism, which contains 135 questions and answers to help you make better lawful use of God’s Law in your daily life (click here).

For additional insight to the contemporary relevance of God’s Law, download the three studies in our Scriptorium series, “The Law of God: Miscellanies” by clicking here.

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Except as indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

T.M. Moore

T. M. Moore is principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He and his wife, Susie, make their home in Essex Junction, VT.
Books by T. M. Moore