The Glory of the Good Law (When Used Lawfully)
The news reported that early on a Wednesday morning in August of 2003, after a long, heated debate between state lawyers and the Chief Justice of Alabama, a federal judge ordered that a granite monument declaring the Ten Commandments of the Old Testament to be officially removed from government property in the Alabama state’s judicial building located in the capital of Montgomery. The tragedy that came out of this isn’t necessarily that the state judge who originally had the monument erected in the government building lost his job. Or that the federal government got involved in something that should have been decided at the state level. Or that the expensive, 2.6 ton work of art itself was wheeled away into obscurity where apparently, to this day, it collects dust in some hidden closet. Or that 4 out of 5 people of the general public largely disapproved of the action. Or that other states and institutions have followed suit in the removal of any declaration of God’s sovereign Laws over creation, citing a breach of the U.S. Constitution. Or the fact that now, thirteen years later, most of us hardly remember this event even taking place. And who can blame us since we are daily consumed by even more disastrous and troubling actions committed by the fallen world around us.
No, while all of these are terrible enough, the real tragedy that came out of that decision was that another so-called victory had been achieved in an ever encroaching attempt to remove the knowledge of sin from the conscience of the men and women of America. Why is this such a disastrous event not only for the history of our nation specifically but also for the history of mankind in general? Let me try to explain.
The Lawful Purpose of the Good Law
Most of the time, whenever Christians think about the Law of the Old Testament, we groan…at least on the inside. The Law brings up ideas of obscure rules, overbearing regulations, harsh punishments, and most would say, just plain old, boring literature. But is this really how the Lord intended for us to feel when He included it in the canon of scripture? I don’t think so. In fact, scripture itself testifies that this is not supposed to be how we view it. Paul points this out for us in his letter to Timothy.
“But we know that the Law is good…” 1 Timothy 1:8 (NASB95)
Good? Tedious maybe. Draconian probably. But good? Yes, Paul tells us the Law is good. When you think about it, of course it has to be good since it proceeds from God. James reminds us that every good and perfect gift is “from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow.” So why do we often view it with disdain; as something both cumbersome and burdensome? Let me suggest that the problem isn’t with the Law but with our view of its intended purpose.
Paul goes on in Timothy to say that the Law is good, “if one uses it lawfully.” So he qualifies his statement about the Law being good by saying if it is used lawfully. This should tell us right away that if there is a lawful way to use it that lends itself to being good, then there is also an unlawful way to use it resulting in it being bad. In fact, I would suggest there are unlawful ways to use it. Indeed many, many ways to use it unlawfully. Instead of chasing all of those rabbit trails, emphatically pointing out all of the wrong ways to use the Law, let’s focus on the right way, the lawful way, that God intended.
The Good Tutor and the Bad Student
In another of Paul’s letters, he discusses this idea of the Law being good for creation from the perspective of it being a tutor. Interestingly, a tutor is slightly different than a teacher in that a tutor usually takes on a more personal relationship as a one-on-one trainer. But to take it a step further, a word search of the Greek word παιδαγωγός (paidagōgos) that is translated into English as tutor (NASB, NKJV) or guardian (ESV, NIV) or schoolmaster (KJV), brings up an even more interesting dynamic concerning the person who functioned as a child’s tutor in ancient times. Often, in wealthy families, a slave was employed to be a guiding companion for a child. While this child was under the care of the παιδαγωγός, he or she would be charged with the responsibility of leading that child from one place to another. When that child had come of age, then the tutor was no longer necessary and they were released from their duty. As for the responsibility of teaching, it would fall to another person. So in our modern understanding of the word, we see it as more of a teaching role, but in ancient times, a tutor was more of a function of leader or guide to get someone from point A to point B. I believe this fits the context of how Paul uses the word. So keep that in mind as we read these verses in Galatians.
“Therefore the Law has become our tutor (παιδαγωγός) to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor. For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus.” Galatians 3:24-26 (NASB95)
Why is the Law good when one uses it lawfully? Simply because it has the ability to lead us to Christ by Whom we are justified by faith. Praise be to God for the lawful use of the good Law! I would not have come to know sin if it wasn’t for the Law. And if I had not known what sin was, I would not have known that I needed a Savior. Glory to God for His merciful decision to explain to me (while I was still stuck in sin I might add), what sin was in light of the Law through His eternal word. Simply amazing.
If through the Law we are led to Christ, why do we often view the Law as something bad or even evil? Because it exposes the darkness of our sinful lives and that can be painful. But we need to keep in mind, as Romans tells us, that it is not the Law’s fault that our sin is uncomfortably exposed and we find ourselves condemned by it. No, it is our sin that is at fault. The Law just simply reveals the unrighteousness that is already there hidden in our hearts.
“But sin, taking opportunity through the commandment, produced in me coveting of every kind; for apart from the Law sin is dead. I was once alive apart from the Law; but when the commandment came, sin became alive and I died; and this commandment, which was to result in life, proved to result in death for me; for sin, taking an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me. So then, the Law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.” Romans 7:8-12 (NASB95)
Paul uses the example of coveting to prove his point. He says that unless the Lord had revealed through the Law that coveting was evil, he would never had known the difference. In fact, he states that apart from the Law he was alive, blissfully ignorant to his body of death. He was really dead, he just didn’t know any better. When the commandment came ordering him not to covet, it was then that he died because of the deception of the sin in his heart had been exposed. The commandment was good and holy and righteous and should have produced life for him but sin is deceptive and evil and cunning, like a desert viper, and it took an opportunity through the Law to kill him. The same holds true for all of us. We may think we are alive (although we are all really dead) until that moment when the darkness of our lives is exposed to God’s holy light through the lawful use of the Law and its commandments. At that point, we find ourselves awakened to the reality of our death as the Law testifies against us and as sin takes full advantage of the opportunity to kill us. Furthermore, it awakens us to the reality of our hopelessness. But God, not sin, has the last laugh, because He has taken this hostile list of decrees against us and nailed it to the cross, through His Son. In this sense then, the Law, when it is used lawfully, is good because it becomes instrumental in leading us from death to Christ who alone can raise us from the dead.
Another dynamic of the tutor that we need to unpackage though is that once the role of the tutor has been fulfilled, then there is no longer a need for that tutor. It has been released from its responsibilities. The question then becomes, do we still need this Law to be our guide? Do we as faith filled followers of Christ still need the ten commandments posted in our courthouse? Is it still relevant that we read the Pentateuch (first five books of the Old Testament containing the Law) in our daily devotions? Is it necessary for pastors to teach and preach the Law?
Yes, but I would suggest only as far as one is not complete in Christ. To understand this, let’s go back to Timothy.
“But we know that the Law is good, if one uses it lawfully, realizing the fact that law is not made for a righteous person, but for those who are lawless and rebellious, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers and immoral men and homosexuals and kidnappers and liars and perjurers , and whatever else is contrary to sound teaching…” 1 Timothy 1:8-10 (NASB95)
What does this passage have to say about the students who fall under the tutorship of the Law? What is their spiritual condition? Are they a people who are still needing to be led from point A to point B? Or have they arrived at their destination, which is Christ? Paul points out to Timothy and us that we need to recognize that the object of the Law is not necessarily the righteous but the unrighteous. It is not for the lawful person but for the unlawful and rebellious. It is not for the godly but for the ungodly and sinner. It is not for the holy but for the unholy and profane.
There is only one way mankind can be made righteous, lawful, godly, and holy. Only through faith in Jesus Christ by His blood atoning sacrifice that redeemed us from death are we translated from the domain of darkness into the kingdom of His glorious light. Apart from Him, we are left to a Law that will only leave us hopelessly, eternally condemned as sinners before a wrathful God, similar to the Israelite’s experience at Mt Sinai. Without His sacrifice there will be no remission of our sin.
At this point, it is imperative that I mention those who are busy disturbing the faith of others. I believe there are two categories of error that are prevalent today.
First, there are those who see the Law as an end unto itself. Instead of seeing the Law as the instrument by which we are led to saving faith in Christ, they see it as the goal of our spiritual lives. This often is presented in three different attitudes.
- By claiming that righteousness can be achieved apart from Christ by “keeping the Law”
- By claiming that the main purpose for Christ’s life, death, and resurrection was to enable us to “keep the works of the Law” including feasts, festivals, Sabbaths, and new moons (all of which are a shadow of the substance)
- By claiming that God’s good pleasure in us is only possible as we “keep the Law”
These are all unbiblical and unlawful uses of the Law which causes the Law to be something very, very bad for us. Only the devil would try to undermine a person’s faith in Jesus Christ by replacing His perfect work with our soiled works, yet this is what some seem to be intent on doing. By misusing the Law, they are attempting to displace the One who alone can save us. In claiming that the tutor is still leading us, they nullify the finished work of Jesus who is the substance of the Old Testament shadow that the Law pointed to. Now that the Perfect has come, let us not turn back to the imperfect.
Secondly, there are those who misuse the Law by rejecting it altogether. By trying to remove it from sight, similar to what was done in the state of Alabama and many others since, we are not benefiting our culture. Failure to acknowledge the sovereign Laws of a moral God is a society on the edge of its own chaotic failure. Imagine if we removed all of the traffic signs on the highways, what do you think would happen? Would traffic become better or worse? I think worse. I am having flashbacks to the traffic in Lima, Peru, when I was there a few years ago! It is the same thing with removing God’s sovereign commands from our land. It has now been thirteen years since this movement has really gained momentum, and it is obvious we are not better for it. Furthermore, we find ourselves in a movement of churches that have followed suit by downplaying and even ignoring the teaching of the Law out of fear of being judgmental and unloving or even irrelevant. Once again, we do not find ourselves better for it.
Only when the holy expectations of a righteous God are explained and understood can we truly find ourselves at the end of ourselves and at the beginning of an eternal relationship with our loving Creator. As Jesus said to the Jews:
“You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me; and you are unwilling to come to Me so that you may have life….Do not think that I will accuse you before the Father; the one who accuses you is Moses, in whom you have set your hope. For if you believed Moses, you would believe Me, for he wrote about Me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe My words?” John 5:39-40, 46-47 (NASB95)