I Timothy 1:8-11 “We know that the law is good if one uses it properly. We also know that law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious; for those who kill their fathers and mothers, for murderers, for adulterers and perverts, for slave traders and liars and perjurers-and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine that conforms to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me.”
The last Tory Prime Minister once urged people to get “Back to Basics”, and now the present Labour Prime Minister, as well as the Education Secretary and the Home Secretary are all urging that morality and family values be promoted in schools. What values do teachers possess to tell others what is right and wrong? Are they not as muddled as everyone else? Sometimes I think the phrase ‘safe sex’ is the most ugly phrase to have come into the nation’s vocabulary, yet it is heard in ten thousand schools each week. What if the government should tell BBC radio and TV to start promoting ‘morality’? What an additional embarrassment that would be. How we would groan at Big Brother telling us his ideas about what is acceptable and unacceptable behaviour: Caesar doesn’t know his own right hand from his left. How can he promote morality? We Christians pray that prominent figures would live as modestly as they can, that the language in school staff-rooms be a bit more restrained, less cynical about purity and self-control, and that people in public office not rubbish Christianity. They are circumspect about an Islam which they barely know; let them regard the Christian minority too.
This new burst of concern for morality was triggered off by a couple of 12 year-old girls becoming pregnant. I read this week that a house somewhere in the British Isles is being burgled every twenty seconds. We are living in days of total ethical confusion. A young woman working in the administration of the local hospital said to me, “I don’t think there is right and wrong.” That ignorance is the reason for the soaring figures for drug taking, gambling, teenage pregnancies and petty crime. People do not think such behaviour is very wrong. Behind the statistics is a story of millions of people living lost and hurting lives.
What contribution are we Christians to make to this situation? We believe that Christians have had the calling from God to be the system’s salt and light. How do we function? We have two vital contributions to make, both mentioned in out text, God’s law (v.8), and the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ (v.11). If now I emphasise the former (the law) more than the latter it is because in our particular text more attention is addressed to the law, while in the remainder of this chapter the gospel – at some length – is going to be the theme of Paul’s words. The law of God is an indispensable support system to the individual, the family, the congregation and the society in which we live. In it are not the changing standards of one civilisation and culture but the unchanging standards of God.
1 THE LAW IS GOOD. (v.8)
“There is something which you and I know to be good,” says the apostle to Timothy. “We know that the law is good.” He has written to the Romans in Italy – far away from Ephesus – and told them the same truth, “the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good” (Roms. 7:12). He defines love for them as the actual “fulfilment of the law” (Roms.13:10). He tells the Corinthian church, “Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing. Keeping God’s commands is what counts” (I Cor. 7:19). So you will never find the New Testament rubbishing the commandments of God. Rather, it is legalism – regarding keeping the law as meritorious – and antinomianism – opposition to law – that are both evil.
A word must be said about antinomianism. I know of a Baptist minister who tried the path of antinomianism some years ago. He was persuaded to rely on the indwelling Christ and live his life without reference to the law of God. He found that whole experience an increasingly selfish and frustrating bypath. He had taken as his axiom, “Love God and do as you please.” He thought that as the schoolmaster had brought him to Christ it was no longer necessary. Weren’t God’s laws written in his heart? Didn’t he have an inner guide to direct him as to what he should or shouldn’t do? He says, “I am not proud to admit that I went to the end of that road: ‘Sunday is no holier than Tuesday, and Friday just as sacred as the Lord’s day,’ I said, and tried to live in that mentality. But it was an unreal pretense, grievous to my spirit every second. Like the liberated woman trying to deny her femininity by sneering at homemaking and the ‘compassion trap’, I found I was flying in the face of my Creator’s naturally ordained order. The Sabbath was not made just for the Old Covenant Jew, but for man.”
He goes on to say, “I had enormous trouble embracing such behaviour as parental disrespect, stealing, lying, murder, and fornication as liberating attitudes. I could not, in good conscience, retain the tithe for my own selfish end. It didn’t help saying, ‘It is all God’s, not just the tithe,’ and then do as I pleased with the whole of it.” He discovered antinomianism to be a bitter and vain delusion. He says, “I have found my rest, joy, and liberty in the right, perfect, sweet and delightful precepts of God’s holy Word … all of it.” So he came to appreciate through those frustrating years that the law is good, and antinomianism isn’t. Someone said, “What could be more ridiculous than for a subject to profess obedience to his Prince, but he will not be under any law?”
The law is given by the Creator to his own creatures, whose very breath he sustains, who live and move and have their being in him, and who one day he is going to judge. He for a long period dealt with one nation especially in one part of the middle east, the Jews, and they were given certain additional commands that applied just to them at that time and to no one else. All those temporary prescriptions are exempted from what Paul is here telling Gentile Ephesians. The law which the apostle is speaking of here is that permanent will of God that applies to all men, Jews and Gentiles alike.
Almighty God is the sovereign Ruler of this world, and he is wise, just, good and gracious. As its King he rules his creation. He supplies the needs of every living thing, blessing them richly. Their hearts of all men are in his hands and he expects certain attitudes from them, certain duties, and a life of obedience. On the Day of Judgment the nations will not be able to protest, “But we didn’t know what you expected of us!” He will say, “Didn’t I write the things of my law on your hearts?” And every mouth will be stopped. He has communicated to the whole world of mankind what his requirements are, and especially he has done this in the Bible. That is the law of Almighty God, and it is a good law which will never become redundant. There can never be any change in its spirit, in its purposes, and the principles of right and wrong which it sets forth, nor can there ever be.
There will never be a time when it is lawful to have a god before him who alone is God. There will never be a time when it will be all right to lampoon the Invisible God with the abominations of idols and image worship. There will never be a time when it will be all right to take the name of God in vain. There will never be a time when the principle set forth in the fourth commandment ought not to be kept, that is, that men rest in providence and redemption, as the gospel of Christ enables them. There will never be a time when constituted human authority may be despised without sin. There will never be a time when murder is not sin. There will never be a time when it is not sin for people to abuse the sexual powers of the human body whether they are male or female. There will never be a time when men may steal from their fellow man without sin. There will never be a time when it will be fine to bear false witness against your neighbour. And there will never be a time when the hearts of men ought not to be pure toward their fellow man, not coveting his possessions, nor lusting after his wife, or daughters.
What a happy world it would be if those commandments were being internationally honoured today. How empty the prisons would be, how safe would be the lives of the unborn, the young as they cycle along country lanes, and the elderly as they fell into senility. How contented would be our homes. There would be none of the wars that have characterised this century, no drug abuse, no epidemic of AIDS destroying many millions of Africans. We could leave our houses without burglar alarms. The law is good.
2. THERE IS AN IMPROPER USE OF THE LAW. (v.8)
“The law is good if one uses it properly” (v.8). It is possible for law to be abused. Think of those false teachers in Ephesus. What were their ambitions? Significantly, “they want to be teachers of the law” (v.7). Of course this is true of every cult and religion apart from Christianity. They all emphasise what people have to do. There are laws you must keep: times of meditation you must observe: dietary regulations which must be enforced: feast days you must maintain: submission to the leaders to be unquestioningly given: forms of evangelism to be maintained in all weathers: there are forms of dress for men – but especially for women. All religions – apart from Christianity – are religions of law. The way the promise blessedness and peace is through keeping commandments. “Do these things! Don’t eat that! Keep this day! Mediate on this mantra! Sell this literature! Obey your leaders!”
Christianity is utterly different: it is a religion of grace. It points to what the Lord Jesus Christ has achieved all by himself, and it tells the world that God’s great and free salvation may come to them when sinners have faith in the Lord Jesus and his finished work, when they cease to focus on things which they do and will look instead to Christ. The great text which silences every other religion is Romans 3:28, “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith [alone] apart from observing the law.”
So there are many improper uses of the good law. Some have absolutised the law of God, and made it the key to Christian living and sanctification. Their message is the importance of the law of God. But there was no society more theonomic than Israel. The ten commandments had been given to them as a statement of the righteousness of God and as a rule of conduct. Every child in Israel could rattle off, from one to ten, God’s commandments. Parents spoke knowingly to one another, nodding their heads as if they had discovered a profound truth, “How important it is for children to know the ten commandments.” Hypocrites! Rather how important that children lived in homes where the ten commandments were lived out and loved. It is clear that there was the same gulf then between knowing the commandments and obeying them as used to be the case in Wales. Before the Evangelical Awakening the populace were yet able to recite the ten commandments. They were still in darkness. Of course today no one knows those Ten Words. Children in Wales could once recite them in a rhyme:-
Thou shalt have no gods but me.
Before no idol bow the knee
Take not the name of God in vain.
Nor dare the Sabbath day profane.
Give both thy parents honour due
Take heed that you no murder do.
Abstain from words and deeds unclean.
Nor steal, though thou art poor and mean.
Nor make a wilful lie, nor love it.
What is thy neighbour’s do not covet.
Israel too knew the commands, but did not do them. She was rarely in the position of passing judgment on the nations that surrounded her because she herself failed to live out those laws. Only because the Lord dealt with Israel ‘for the sake of his name’ was the nation saved from total extinction. Only for his own name’s sake was the desolated land reinhabited after the Exile. By the time of the ministry of Jesus the Jewish leaders had so worked at law-keeping that it had become a fanatical preoccupation, and yet the gospels show us it was a rotten society amongst whom the Lord Jesus laboured.
It would be possible for a preacher to be so upset with the moral chaos of our day that he took the law of God and rubbed the consciences of Christians with it week by week, continually condemning the congregation. That was the method used by Girolamo Savonarola in Florence, Italy, in 1490. He preached judgment and censorship, demanding all vanities be burned in a city bonfire. He changed the town into an ascetic monastic-type community. This was but a temporary change while he was able to keep bullying the people, but before the 1490’s were over he himself was tried for heresy and executed. Such moralistic approaches – law without gospel – positively militate against the good news, reinforcing a popular misunderstanding that a Christian is merely a very strict person, so if you are immoral there is no hope for you.
There has never been a law given, even by God, that could save. There has never been a good man, not even the holiest man who has ever lived on this planet, who was saved by the way he obeyed God’s law. We sell people short by laying stress on the law to the detriment of the gospel. We are turning their eyes away from the Cross to their own lives.
3. THERE IS A PROPER USE OF THE LAW. (V.8)
“We know that the law is good if one uses it properly” (v.8). The proper use of the law is to serve the cause of the gospel. It does that in a number of ways:
i] The law defines what sin is. Who is helped by the gospel? Sinners. “Not the righteous, Sinners Jesus came to call” sings Joseph Hart. “All the fitness He requireth is to see your need of Him.” Who did Jesus come to seek and to save? Those who are lost. The good news is only good news to those who have heard the bad news. So people must realise that they are sinners, because only then will they know that they need a Saviour. Paul gives us examples of sinners in these verses. In fact he supplies us with a list, not of sins, but of sinners. “lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious; for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers, for adulterers and perverts, for slave traders and liars and perjurers – and for whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine” (vv.9 and 10).
It is not the only place where Paul makes a list of vices. You come across them in Romans 1, 1st Corinthians chapter 5 and in chapter 6, Galatians 5, II Timothy 3. Remarkably, no single sin is specifically repeated in them all. Only two sins in this list are mentioned in one of the other lists. I like lists. “Things To Do Today” is a headed piece of blank paper always on my desk and steadily filled up day after day. Men and women make shopping lists. But there are certain Christians who don’t seem to like lists of sins. The popular American writer, Chuck Swindoll, has a book entitled “Grace Awakening” in which he gets worked up about ‘legalists,’ and one of his descriptions of them are people who make lists of do’s and dont’s. The Christian church is so afraid of taboos. But even Swindoll has to say that if such a list is found in the Bible it is “to be obeyed without hesitation or question. That’s an inspired list for all of us to follow, not someone’s personal list” (p.132). That is fine: there is no avoiding the truth that lists are important: God listed out ten commandments. There is yet one factor never to forget, that if your hope of salvation is based upon keeping a list – any list – a human or a divine list – you are a lost man. The Catechism says, “No mere man since the fall is able in this life perfectly to keep the commandments of God, but doth daily break them in thought, word, and deed” (Westminster Shorter Catechism: Answer 82). But this list is useful in telling us, first of all, what sinners are. There is right and wrong, it is saying to the little girl who works in the hospital.
Notice two features in the apostle’s approach, firstly, how he follows the order of the Ten Commandments. The first three pairs cover offences against God, and the last five categories are violations of the second table of the law virtually in the order they are found in the ten commandments. Secondly, note also this, that Paul seems to have chosen extreme forms of law-breaking to emphasize just what hideous sins abound in a world that functioned without God and his commandments. So he begins by going through the general description of sinners. What are sinners? They are:-
1] “lawbreakers and rebels.” A sinner is a lawbreaker. The law says, “Thou shalt not.” And the sinner says, “Yes, I shall.” God requires that we be ‘theonomous’ but man has decided to be autonomous. Man wants to be his own law, and so he rejects and violates the law of God. A sinner is also a rebel. “We will not have this man rule over us,” cry the rebels, though Jesus is the King of love, and his throne is a throne of grace. “We will choose whom we will serve, and it won’t be you,” rebels yell. Sinners are mutineers against God the Creator.
2] “the ungodly and sinful.” Sinners are ‘ungodly’, that is, the whole movement of their lives is away from God. It is not that there is an occasional lapse here, and a slip there, but they are positively and actively irreligious. They are in battle array against God. They have set out in their lives to function without God and they defy him to do his worst. They are also ‘sinful.’ The word means missing the target. Aim is taken, but the arrow falls short. So too their lives fall short of God’s target. “Glorify me and enjoy me for ever,” says the Creator, but no one does. “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God.”
3] “the unholy and irreligious.” Sinners are ‘unholy’ that is, the very opposite of holy. There are the great absolutes of truth and life and purity. Sinners oppose all of that. The most sacred standards and sanctities of living in God’s creation are despised. Sinners are also ‘irreligious’ men. It means literally ‘polluted’ – men who soil everything they touch. They walk over everything and make it as common as dirt.
That is the sinner – the lawbreaker, the rebel, the ungodly, the sinful, the unholy, the irreligious. When the Bible says that all have sinned it is declaring that all men are in that state. There is not one solitary exception. If they are people then they are sinners in God’s sight. When Paul wants to describe the most wretched behaviour he says that they acted like men.
Then the apostle turns from the first table of the law, sinful attitudes against God the mighty Maker, to the second table, sins against man. He moves from the general disposition to the specific act. He moves from the root to the fruit.
What will a sinner do? Paul shakes his head and tells us that there is nothing he will not do. He will kill his own father or even his mother. He will become a murderer – a serial killer of young women. He will take away the life of a defenceless stranger. He will become an adulterer and think nothing of it. He will become a pervert, that is a homosexual, and still be accepted in the highest offices in the government. He will become a slave trader (we see in the Sudan today thousands of professing Christians taken, separated from their families and sold into a lifetime of slavery). He will become a liar and a perjurer, that is, he will tell lies under oath, even if he be the President of the USA. And that does not complete this little list, because Paul would add to it whatever other actions are contrary to that health-giving teaching God has given to us. There is much else, besides these specific actions, which in every way is unmentionably vile.
The law of God is made for such lawbreakers. It expresses his evaluation of their behaviour. And of course it is for lawmakers too. God looks over the shoulders of our legislators and evaluates their own judgements. If our laws are not reflecting the influence of the Christian religion they will be reflecting another system of morality, from another religion. This will not be more humane and tolerant than Christianity will it? Who will be more protective of the unborn child? Christianity or another religion? So we have seen first of all that one proper use of the law is to define what sin and sinners are.
ii] The law rouses the power of sin. There was a Greek statue outside the headmaster’s room in our grammar school, and I never touched it. I walked past it every day, but I never touched it, because we were not told, “Don’t touch the statue.” I am sure if there had been a rule announced at the beginning of each term warning boys not to touch the statue many of us would have glanced around and slyly handled it. Augustine describes in his “Confessions” how as children they lived near an orchard full of pears and, although they disliked pears, just because they were prohibited from trespassing, they often broke in and stole them. A censored book at once becomes a volume everyone must read and talk about. How provocative a rule itself can be to its breaking. Think of the second commandment – not to make any image of God or any idols – and how this has provoked the Roman church to defy it, with a display of self-justifying casuistry.
Adam and Eve enjoyed tasting all the diverse fruit from the trees of the Garden, but how often did their eyes wander and settle upon the tree of the knowledge of good and evil? There was that solitary little tree in the verdant Garden whose fruit God had forbidden them to take. What a head of resentment began to build up within them because God had discriminated and appointed this one tree as off limits for fruit-picking. They thought, “Why should he do that? What does it taste like? Is its flavour as delicious as its appearance?”
John Bunyan has depicted this situation so clearly. In “The Pilgrim’s Progress” Christian found himself in the house of a man called the Interpreter. He took Christian by the hand, “and led him into a very large parlour that was full of dust because never swept; the which, after he had reviewed it a little while, the Interpreter called for a man to sweep. Now when he began to sweep, the dust began abundantly to fly about, so that Christian had almost been choked. Then said the Interpreter to a damsel that stood by, ‘Bring hither water, and sprinkle the room’; the which when she had done, it was swept and cleaned with pleasure.
“Then said Christian, ‘What means this?’ The Interpreter answered: ‘This parlour is the heart of a man that was never sanctified by the sweet grace of the Gospel: the dust is his original sin, and inward corruptions that have defiled the whole man. He that began to sweep at first is the law; but she that brought water, and did sprinkle it, is the Gospel.
“Now, whereas thou sawest that as soon as the first began to sweep the dust did so fly about that the room could not be cleansed but that thou wast almost choked therewith; this is to show thee that the law, instead of cleansing the heart from sin doth revive, put strength into and increase it in the soul.'”
John Bunyan was a great evangelist, and he is teaching that the law shows us what sin is, but it has no power to take it away. As Milton said, “Law can discover sin, but it cannot remove sin.” The prohibitions of the law actually encourage us to defy it and take the forbidden fruit, and then, when we splutter and choke with guilt, we know good – and evil!
So a function of the law is to multiply transgressions. Someone has commented that the Old Testament church could hardly move without falling over some legal tripwire. When they ate their food, when they sowed their seed, when they made their clothes, when they went to war, when they sold, when they bore children, they were for ever falling over rules. The effect of all this was to rouse the power of sin.
iii] The law brings conviction of sin. The Lord Christ spoke of the Spirit’s work and said, “When he is come he will reprove the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment” (Jn.16:6). The Spirit’s sword that strikes at sin is the Word. “By the law is the knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:20), says Paul. “I had not known sin, except through the law: for I had not known coveting, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet” (Rom.7:7). As Al Martin says, “Paul could look at the law as a code of external conduct, and check himself out pretty well. Then he came to that tenth commandment, ‘Thou shalt not covet’. How does one covet? Not with the hands, feet, or mouth! You covet in the heart. And when he saw the spiritual intent of the law, that it touched the dispositions of the heart, suddenly that cesspool of iniquity that had been covered over with a sheet of respectability was laid bare to his own eyes and he said, ‘I saw in me, in me, all manner of concupiscence, evil desire, and the law did its killing, slaying work” (Banner of Truth, Issue no. 50, September/October 1967, p.4).
The law brings sin home to us and nails guilt to the conscience. Isaac Watts recounts his own experience like this:-
Lord, how secure my conscience was,
And felt no inward dread.
I was alive without the law,
And thought my sins were dead.
My guilt appeared but small before,
Till terribly I saw
How perfect, holy, just and pure,
Was Thine eternal law.
Then felt my soul the heavy load,
My sins revived again,
I had provoked a dreadful God,
And all my hopes were slain.
What a wonderful experience. Two personal revivals took place in Isaac Watts’ life at the same time. His sin revived, and his need of a Deliverer from sin also revived. The two resurrections worked in parallel because the Holy Spirit was regenerating and convicting and giving faith. Of course Isaac Watts’ guilt had always been there, but he had learned to clamp down on it. He had put some blinkers on, and he professed never to have noticed his behaviour. “Everybody does it!” He was blind to his true state. What an awful condition. “Lord when did we see thee hungry and did not feed thee?” will cry the goats on the day of judgment. They were blind to their selfishness. But when the law does its work, sin revives and man’s need of a Saviour revives.
Christians pray for unbelievers to feel their need of a Redeemer. Christ is not a super-psychiatrist, nor a marvellous personal guru, nor the model human being, nor a revolutionary. He is a Saviour from sin. The angel who announced his coming into the world told Joseph, “Thou shalt call his name Jesus, for he shall save his people from their sin.” When John Eliot began to serve the Indians of North America in those early years he translated into their language the ten commandments, and his first sermon to them was on the law of God. He knew that the Indians could not be saved by the Ten Commandments but the law would show them why they needed to be saved. When they knew they were lawbreakers he could tell them of a Law-Keeper who would be their substitute. A century later John Paton, the Scottish missionary to the New Hebrides, also began his ministry by teaching the cannibals of the Pacific Islands the ten commandments. How basic it all was: “it is wrong to kill and eat people.” But we in the western world in this new millennium are having to go back to such elementary ethics – purity before marriage and faithfulness within it. People will never be convinced of their need of Christ until they are convicted of their own guilt. What interest will they have in a relationship with the Redeemer until they have felt the agony of alienation from their Creator? So the law brings conviction of sin. The law is the slave who firmly escorts the young to the school of Christ. “You must go to school,” says the law wagging its finger at us, and it takes us even though we may be so unwilling to go to the place Christ is found. So, the law cant justify, but it can make people feel they do need Jesus.
iv] The law does instruct the Christian. Now this seems to go completely against our text: “we know that law is made not for the righteous” (v.9). But taking out this phrase from verse 9 and making it the final word in what the Bible says about the relationship of the Christian to the law would be as foolish as taking by itself James’ words: “a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone” (James 2:24), and claiming that that is the Bible’s last word about justification by faith.
God’s law is indeed made for the Christian; so much of the Bible consists of God’s directives as to how we should live. Why else did the Lord take his disciples to the mount and preach that sermon to them in Matthew chapters 5, 6 and 7? Was that not an exposition of the law of God? And why does Paul write his letter to the Christians in Rome and rehearse to them a number of the ten commandments in Romans 13:9ff if the law had not been made for the righteous? Most significantly he writes to these very Ephesians and he quotes to them the fifth commandment in this way: “Children honour your parents in the Lord, for this is right. ‘Honour your father and mother’ – which is the first commandment with a promise – ‘that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth'” (Ephs. 6:1&2). The apostle says, “This is right. This is the first commandment with a promise.” Not “this was right and was that commandment” – the fifth commandment still has binding authority over and the promise of life for Gentile children of Christian parents in the Lord in Ephesus or anywhere else. So, both the Lord and his apostles tell us that the law is for justified believers in Christ. Someone has said, “The idea that a Christian can be completely free from the law is an absurdity, because it would mean living without law and a life without law is a sinful life. Sin is lawlessness (I John 3:4). A life completely without law is a life totally abandoned to sin.” Let me encourage you to read some of John Newton’s letters on the right use of the law.
Notice that these words, the “law is made not for the righteous” are in a particular context. The apostle is describing preachers of heresy, and he says “they want to be teachers of the law,” (v.7). They don’t know the gospel, and yet they think they know what God wants. They come out of legalistic Judaism and they want to heap loads of legal demands on Christian people: “you really want to be blessed? You really want to know God in a deeper way? Well, here are things you have to do. Do this thing, and do that, and do the other thing which we tell you.” They are confusing believers by focusing their attention again upon the law. Here is a Christian believer who is righteous in Christ. He is going on with Jesus as his Saviour, and then he bumps into these religious people who are so excited about their great insights into how they live and please God. They then give this Christian law, and statues, and precepts, and commandments. Where must all that end? In despair. Remember that the law demands ‘personal, entire, exact, and perpetual obedience’ (Westminster Confession, 19:1). That again the context of these words, which, with a measure of hyperbole, are warning Christians about going back under the law. But the law is not made for the righteous. Lay it to the consciences of sinners until they flee to Christ for salvation.
Or we can look at this phrase like this: the Lord Jesus once said that he had not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance (Matt.9:13). What did he mean? He had not come for people who believed themselves to be perfectly OK. The Lord was talking about men who were righteous in their own eyes – the self-righteous. Who could be more self-righteous than actual teachers and evangelists of the law? They love regulations and rule books; such things are made for them. But God’s law is not made to be an adornment of the righteous, to bolster their feeling of self-worth and make them say, “I think thee Lord that I am not as other men. I fast and pray and go regularly to the Temple”. If any think that the law has been tailor-made by God just for them and they are happy to wear it then that it is a certain evidence of damnable self-righteousness. God’s law is holy and righteous, designed to reprove sinners of their sin so that they gave up any hope in their own righteousness. The child of God cannot so much as lift his head and look up to God but rather he beats his breast and cries, “God be merciful to me a sinner.” He has learned of his sin from the law, and cast himself upon the grace of Christ. The self-righteous flees to no one. Laws in his hands is simply a confirmation of his own righteousness. That was not why it was written by the finger of God on tablets of stone.
Again, when Paul says that the law was not made for the righteous he is speaking of the zeal and consecration of the righteous. The teachers of the law have no additional blessings to offer to Christians when they preach commandments to them. The law will not motivate disciples to please God more and more. The law is not the source of new blessings. It will not lift us up to planes of self-denial and cross-bearing. Ralph Erskine put it like this:-
To run, to work, the law commands;
The gospel gives me feet and hands:
The one requires that I obey;
The other does the pow’r convey.
The law tells us what is right, but supplies us with neither power, nor energy, nor strength, nor desire to do what is right. But when we survey the wondrous Cross we cry,
` Love so amazing so divine
Demands my soul my life my all.
That is our great need, to be moved anew with the blessedness of God’s great love to us.
Give me a sight O Saviour
Of Thy wondrous love to me.
Of the love that brought Thee down to earth
To die on Calvary.
It is that love that constrains us to deny ourselves and take up our cross and follow him, not the law, but the divine affection which has sought us and found us and saved us. “He loved me and gave himself for me,” Paul says in wonder. It is the assurance that the God who loved us loves us still – that certainty moves us to keep his commands. Jesus’ yoke is easy, and his burden is light. It is he who makes obedience sweet. We respond in gratitude to a growing awareness of all that he has done for us. It does not come from the law. It comes from a Person. We are not his slaves who are having to keep their master’s rules because the alternative is the whip. We are his friends moved by affection for our heavenly Friend. Of course the law of God is essential to the church – “the law is good if one uses it properly” but we know that the law was made principally for lawbreakers and rebels to be informed, aroused, convicted and driven to Christ for salvation. Christian, stand firm in the freedom with which Christ has made you free (Gals.5:1).
The last thing is this: what was Paul when he came to Ephesus? A teacher of the law? No. A preacher of “the glorious gospel of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me” (v.11). I have to end with this majestic phrase, as if it were a mere postscript. The great American preacher, Edward Payson, has a whole sermon on this text entitled, “The Gospel, Glad Tidings!” He quotes these words deliberately – “the glorious glad tidings of the blessed God,” and he asks, “What other sounds, like these, ever vibrated upon mortal ears? What other combination of words could be formed so full of meaning, of energy, of life and rapture, as this? Who but the fervent Apostle, or rather, who but the Holy Spirit, by whom he was inspired, could ever have formed such a combination?” The glorious glad tidings of the blessed God! After all these humbling thoughts about the law of God, to know there exists the most glorious good news. I would be dishonouring such words by treating it as the tail of this sermon, if it were not for the fact that Paul is going to open up this gospel in the next verses. Let me conclude:-
Paul’s message was glorious good news. The law teacher could say he had Moses. Paul could say, “I have Jesus Christ.” The law teacher could say, “I can tell you what true righteousness is.” Paul could say, “I can tell you how to be clothed with divine righteousness.” The law teacher could say, “See the beauty of the whole law.” “Yes,” Paul could say, “but see the loveliness of God’s immeasurable grace.” “See the awfulness of sin,” cried the teacher of the law. “Yes,” cried Paul, “but see the wonder of sins forgiven.” Paul had a message of good news to the chief lawbreakers of Ephesus who would but believe in Christ. They would be given a complete pardon for Jesus’ sake.
This message directly came from the blessed God. It is his glorious gospel. In its origin and revelation it was no invention of Paul. No human being could have conceived of such a concept – God so loving the world that he was determined to forgive men their sins, so he commissioned his own dear Son to go for us and our salvation. The Lord Jesus willingly comes. He fulfils the law on our behalf. He takes the curse of the broken law in his own body on the tree. We are indeed saved by the keeping of the law, but it is Christ’s keeping the law, not ourselves. His entire life was as blessed as his Father’s in all he did for us, and all we may do is to take the gifts of mercy and righteousness which he offers us.
This message comes through men. The apostle received a commission to take this message to the Gentile world and suffer for its spread. The message was a sacred trust, and Paul was faithful to his heavenly calling. He was not disobedient to the heavenly vision. This message through the apostle’s words is yours today. The joyful news of sins forgiven, hell subdued and peace with heaven.
I can understand someone rejecting an unalleviated message of law, but to spurn good and glorious news ? What folly! He who believeth not the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abideth on him.
Woe to the wretch who never felt
The inward pangs of pious grief;
But adds to all his crying guilt
The stubborn sin of unbelief.
The law condemns the rebel dead;
Under the wrath of God he lies;
He seals the curse on his own head,
And with a double vengeance dies.
Don’t reject good news. Once more I declare to you that this is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. Men and women, listen! To you, to each one of you, is the word of this salvation sent.
19th September 1999 GEOFF THOMAS