Sunday, September 4, 2022

Is the Law for the Righteous?

Because of the various ways we are out of harmony with the law of God, something in us always chafes when we encounter God’s law. Sometimes people respond to God’s law as if it’s a challenge – they feel they would be able to keep it adequately, if they just try harder. Other people respond to God’s law as if it is irrelevant – they assume that because they cannot keep it, therefore they don’t have to keep it. In this updated extract from his commentary on 1 Timothy, the Puritan Anthony Burgess mainly tackles this second type of response. Burgess refers to Paul’s paradoxical statements about how the law is not made for the righteous, yet only the righteous can use the law rightly. What did Paul mean when he said that the law was not made for believers? What relationship does God’s law have to the believer? What is the role of love in the believer’s attempt to live to God’s glory?

In verses 8 and 9 of 1 Timothy 1, Paul joins together two things which seem to be contradictory. Augustine put the conundrum like this. “If the law is good when used lawfully, and none but the righteous can use it lawfully, how then is it not made for the righteous?” According to Augustine, when Paul writes like this, he is provoking the reader to find out the answer to this puzzle. Using these words, “we know” and “knowing,” Paul implies what understanding all Christians ought to have in the nature of the law.

What law does he here speak of? Some have understood it as the ceremonial law. Because of Christ’s death the ceremonial law was to be abolished, and all the ceremonies of the law were convictions of sins, and hand-writings against those who used them. But this cannot be what Paul intends, for circumcision was commanded to Abraham, a righteous man (and likewise to all the godly under the Old Testament), and the persons who are contrasted with the righteous are those who transgress the moral law. Instead we may understand it of the moral law generally.


We must not interpret the “righteous man” as someone who is absolutely righteous, but one who is righteous as to effort and as to desire. The people of God are called righteous because of the righteousness that is in them, although they are not justified by it.

Even secular writers say this much of the righteous man – he does what is righteous for love of righteousness, not for fear of punishment. Aristotle says that a righteous man would be good even supposing there was no law. Seneca and Plato said similar things. Their sayings are not altogether true, yet they have some kind of truth in them. Some of the Church Fathers said similar things. Chrysostom speaking in hyperbole said, “A righteous man does not need the law, no, not teaching or admonishing …” It is like a musician, who has his art within him – he scorns to go to look at the rules. But of course this is a hyperbolic way of speaking. What godly man does not need the Word as a light? Who does not need it as a goad? Of course in heaven the godly will not need the law, but then again they will not need the gospel, or the whole Word of God.


There are three interpretations which come very near one another, and all help to make clear what the apostle means.

1. The law is not a burden to the righteous

Some learned men lay an emphasis on the word “made.” They take Paul’s words to mean, “The law is not made to the godly as a burden, they have a love and a delight in it; it’s not like a whip to them.” The wicked wish there was no law. They say, “I wish this was not a sin!” The righteous man is more in the law then under it.

Of course this is to be understood as far as he is righteous, for in another sense the things of God are many times a burden to a godly man. Yet let us not think the works of the law [done by the godly] are in conflict with the works of the Spirit, grace and gospel. The same actions are the works of the law in respect of the object, and the works of the Spirit in respect of the efficient.

2. The law has no power to curse the righteous

The second interpretation is of the damnatory and cursing part of the law. Then the meaning would be, “The law is not made to the believer so as he should abide under the cursing and condemning power of it.” In this sense the Scriptures frequently deny that believers are under the law. It’s true that the godly deserve the curse and condemnation of the law, but they are not under the actual curse and condemnation. Note too that it does not follow that there is no law [to the believer], because it does not curse [the believer]. The law is not there to curse or condemn the righteous.

3. The law was given to expose the unrighteous

The third interpretation is, “the law was not made because of the righteous, but unrighteous.” If Adam had continued in innocence, there would not have been such solemn declaration of Moses’s law, for it would have been engraved on their hearts. Although God gave Adam a positive law, in order to test his obedience and so that he could show his homage, yet He did not give him the moral law by outward prescript (though it was given to him in another sense). This interpretation renders Paul’s phrase like the proverb, “Good laws arise from evil manners.” Or as the Roman politician Tacitus said, “Excellent laws are made because of other men’s delinquencies.” Certainly laws, in their restraining and changing power on people’s lives, are not for those who are already holy, but those who need to be made holy.


These three interpretations come very much to the same thing. There are also some parallel places of Scripture, such as Galatians 5:23 and Romans 13:3. These expressions show that that the godly, so far as they are regenerate, delight in the law of God, and it is not a terror to them.

We cannot literally say that because the godly have an ingenuous free spirit to do what is good, they do not need the law to direct or regulate them. Then it would follow as well that they did not need Scripture as a whole, or that they did not need the gospel that calls them to believe, because there is faith in their heart! Chrysostom, who spoke so hyperbolically about the law, speaks just as highly about the Scriptures themselves. “We ought to have the Word of God so engraven in our hearts that there should be no need of Scripture!”


There are two things which make it apparent that the law must needs have a directive, regulating, and informing power over the godly.

We need the law to direct us how to live to God’s glory

We cannot, for example, discern the true worship of God from superstition and idolatry except by the first and second commandment. It is true, many places in Scripture speak against false worship, but to let us know when it is a false worship, the second commandment is a special director. How do the orthodox prove that images are unlawful? how do they prove that setting up any part or means of worship which the Lord hath not commanded is unlawful? Only by the second commandment. Certainly it is the lack of exact knowledge in the breadth of this commandment that has brought in all idolatry and superstition. The decalogue is not only Moses’s ten commandments, but it’s Christ’s ten commandments – and the apostles’ ten commandments as well as Christ’s.

We need the law to discern our own sinfulness

We must compare the depth of the law and the depth of our sin together. There is a great deal more spiritual excellency and holiness commanded in the law of God, the decalogue, than we can attain. That is why we must study it and delve into it more and more. “Open mine eyes, that I may understand the wonderful things of thy law,” David prayed, though he was already godly, and his eyes were in a great measure already opened by the Spirit of God. And as there is a depth in the law, so there is a depth in our sin. There is a great deal more filth in us than we can or do discover. “Who can understand his errors? Cleanse me from secret sins” (Psalm 19). When there is such a world of filth in my carnal heart, what need there is of the spiritual and holy law, to make me see myself so polluted and abominable! The godly grow partly by discovering the pride, the deadness, the filth in their soul that they never thought of.


The practical use that we are to make of this Scripture is to pray and labor for such a free, heavenly heart that the law of God and all its precepts would not be a terror to us, but sweetness and delight. “Oh how I love thy law!” David cries. He could not express it! And again, “My soul breaketh in the longing after thy judgements.” In another place, he and Job value God’s law more than their necessary food. You do not drag a hungry or thirsty man to his bread and water! We ought to have such filial and child-like affections to God and His will that we would love and delight in His commandments, because they are His.

There is this difference between a spontaneous motion and a coerced motion: the spontaneous is done for its own sake; the coerced comes from an external principle, without the person helping it forward at all. Well, do not let praying, believing, loving God, be coerced out of you. Where faith works by love, all duties will be relished, for faith working by love overcomes all difficulties. Pray therefore that the love of God would be shed abroad in your heart.

And consider these two final things.

When the law was laid on Christ to die and suffer for you, it was not a burden or a terror to him. Think with yourself then, “If Christ had been as unwilling to die for me, as I am to pray to him, to be patient, to be holy – what would have become of my soul?” But if Christ said, to be a mediator for you, “Lo, I come to do thy will, O God, thy law is within mine heart,” how much the more should you show willingness in anything thou might do for him! You do not have as much to part with for him, as he had to for you. What is your life and wealth, compared to the glory of his God-head, which he laid aside for a while?

Sinners love lusts for lusts’ sake – they love the world because of the world. Now evil is not so much evil, as good is good. Sin is not so much sin, as God is God, and Christ is Christ. If therefore a profane man, because of his carnal heart, can love his sin, although it costs him hell, because of the sweetness in it, will not the godly heart love the things of God, because of the excellency in them?