In 1 Timothy 1:8-11, the apostle Paul gives a brief defense of the nobility of the law. Very similar to what he says in Romans 7:16, the apostle writes to Timothy that the law is “good” (Gk. kalos) (v. 8). Many people today would simply have to disagree with Paul. At minimum, an increasing number of professing Christians and churches within evangelicalism are seeing the law as irrelevant. At most, they see it as detrimental. Some go so far as to boldly declare that the Old Testament is unnecessary for faith and practice. However, the majority (which has at times included myself) simply practically ignoring the Old Testament, especially the law.
All Christians are tempted to misuse the law of God. And what’s worse is that more often than not, we honestly don’t care how we are using the law, or if we even use it at all. Actually, many of our attitudes are more like, “Misuse the law? I don’t even know what the law is!” A lack of preaching from the Old Testament and the errant notion that the Old Testament is irrelevant and replaced by the New Testament has led to many churches filled with Christians who have no idea what to do with the law. The ultimate danger in this is that when you misuse the law of God you miss the gospel of God.
3 Dangers in Misusing the Law
There are three primary ways we can misuse the law of God, which can prove spiritually dangerous.
1. Trusting the law to save.
The law of God cannot save you from your sin. It exposes your sin, but it does not give life. We misuse the law when we try to base our salvation on our obedience to its demands. In itself, the law is not enough.
2. Adding to the law’s commands.
This was the error of the Pharisees. A good modern example of this is found in the “King James only” movement. Requiring people to ascribe to one particular English translation of the Bible is a form of adding to the law’s commands. When we do this kind of thing, we take God’s law and make it our own, adding to its stipulations as if we have divine authority. The law is good because it comes from God. Added demands are detrimental and legalistic because they come from us. We misuse the law when we try to recreate it in our legalistic image.
3. Missing the law’s purpose.
The above two dangers fall under this final danger. The false teachers in Ephesus were using the law to promote speculations that strew far from the intended meaning and purposes of the law. Paul says their discussions of the law were vain. Isn’t the same true in many evangelical circles today? We make broad statements like, “I hate religion, but love Jesus.” We pit the law and the gospel against one another like two raging bulls trying to impale each other. When we rightly understand the law and its intended purpose, we will see that the law is not strictly opposed to the gospel. No, the law serves the gospel, the sinner, and the Christian.
In Accordance with the Gospel
The church at Ephesus under Timothy was facing false teachers who were misusing the law. They did not understand its purpose. We know this because it was not leading them to the gospel. They were ignorant, confused, and arrogant. Misusing the law produces things such as these. Whereas a right understanding and use of the law is in “accordance with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God,” (v. 11) which produces “love that comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (v. 5). When we use the law as it was intended by God to be used, we will stand in appropriate awe of the beauty of its purposes. Yes, the beauty of the law is that though it is unable to save, it points us to the only One who can.
Mathew Gilbert is the Children’s Pastor at First Baptist Church East Bernstadt. He is the author of the forthcoming book Come to the Well: 50 Meditations to Fuel Your Joy in God (CrossBooks). Mathew lives in London, KY with his wife, Erica, and their dog, Simba. You can follow him on Twitter @Mat_Gilbert.