But we know that the law is good, if a man use it lawfully; Knowing this, that the law is not made for a righteous man, but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and for sinners, for unholy and profane, for murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers, for manslayers, For whoremongers, for them that defile themselves with mankind, for men-stealers, for liars, for perjured persons, and if there be 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 Tim. 1: 8-11)
Timothy had been assigned to the church in Ephesus to combat the influence of Judaizers, who, among other things, taught that men were justified (declared righteous) by obeying the law. In opposing this false, Pharisaical view of the law, Paul knew he was open to the charge of actually being antinomian, against the law itself. Those who distorted the gospel would not hesitate to pervert Paul's teaching.
Paul here is clear in stating that the law is good if it is used lawfully. Paul had also told the Romans that the law is "holy, just, and good" (7:12). The law is good because God is good and His every word is pure and good. The law is a reflection of God's righteousness, wisdom, and truth. The law is His will and therefore necessarily authoritative.
The law is good to sinners. It brings justice to society. It brings sinners face to face with knowledge of sin (Jn. 15:22). This pronouncement of guilt is the necessary first step in the Spirit's working repentance and faith in their lives (Rom. 5: 20). The law also restrains men from sin. What grace does not do inwardly the fear of God can do outwardly.
The law is good to believers. It reveals to us the eternal will of our Heavenly Father. This restrains us from creating a false dichotomy between the will of the Father and the leading of the Spirit. The law makes us aware of God's holiness and our own sinfulness. This is the sinfulness that can lead us to the vanity of claiming the false ability to make ourselves righteous (like the Judaizers) or the equally vain attempts to devise a better standard (antinominan pietism). To believers, the law reveals the extent of Christ's righteousness and obedience.
The Judaizers saw the law as one of the externals of the Faith. In this regard they were in the tradition of the self-righteous Pharisees. They felt they could earn their own justification by works. The fact that they used a righteous standard, the law, as their object does not negate either their own concept in thinking they could merit justification or their misuse of the law. The Judaizers saw the law as a goal for men, not grace from God. It was a series of external mandates to them so they felt their purpose in the church was to force it on others as a prerequisite to the Faith. The Judaizers thus stood opposed to Paul's gospel of justification by grace through faith. Those who professed the law opposed Paul and Timothy, who exhibited the rule of the law in their lives. The Judaizers did not use the law lawfully; they used it to negate God's grace and Christ's righteousness in redemption.
Paul tells us that the law is not made for a righteous man. The antinomian might jump on this as saying the law need not be part of a righteous man's life. But Paul has in view the unlawful and burdensome use of the law, which obliged a man to achieve righteousness on his own. John Gill felt this could be translated "the law does not lie upon a righteous man."1 That is, it does not put a burden or weight on him or accuse him as it does the "lawless and disobedient" man (v. 9). The law, Paul says, is no weight or burden for the righteous, but for the unrighteous.
Paul is speaking of those declared righteous by God's grace. They have Christ's righteousness imputed to them and the law written to them to desire and delight in doing God's will. The regenerate lays hold on Christ's righteousness and seeks to live in subjection to his heavenly Father's will. Paul is excluding the use of the law as a burden of weight on a justified man because he is freed from its curse and guilt. The righteous man can delight in the law he no longer opposes. This constitutes the believer's lawful sense of duty with an eye to the glory of its Author and our gratitude and need of loving subjection to Him.
But if the law is not a weight or burden lying on the righteous, it is such to the wicked. This is an indirect accusation against Paul's critics, for he includes in his list of wickedness anything contrary to sound doctrine, one of their traits of which he warned Timothy (v. 3). The list was also a challenge to their claimed zeal for the law if they really cared for the law they would use it to oppose wickedness, not to argue in the church.
The law does act as a weight of burden on the "lawless" (those who know the law and reject it) and the "disobedient" (rebellious). The law was meant to be a terror and a condemnation to the "ungodly" (the irreligious) and "sinners" (those who cherish their rebellion). The law lies heavily on these, as it does on the "unholy" and "profane." The law lies as a curse, says Paul, on murderers, fornicators, sodomites, and liars.
Moreover, the law is for "any other thing which is contrary to sound doctrine" (v. 10). Therefore the law stands opposed to all false doctrine and stands to reveal God's will to man. Sound doctrine, also, must conform to the gospel of God. This the Judaizers failed to do. It is the glorious gospel because it reveals Christ as "the blessed and only Potentate, the King of Kings, and Lord of Lords" (6:15). It is the gospel of God to remind us that the key to our understanding of Scripture is to view it as the unified and consistent revelation of the Creator and His Christ. God's plan of salvation and His promises are glorious, but so are all His precepts. This includes the law when it is used lawfully and not to stroke the egos of the self-righteous.
1. John Gill, Gill's Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI 1980), Vol. VI, 591.