As with any human endeavor, the great challenge is to find clear purpose. What are we doing? Why are we doing it? Once you get clarity on the endgame, then you can really build a team and make forward progress. This is true of so many things in life, including God’s plan for the local church.
So, the apostle Paul needs Timothy in Ephesus because the church there is young, unstable, and easily wavering from their purpose. That’s all laid out clearly in the early verses. In fact, the first chapter of 1 Timothy offers us one of the clearest texts in all the Bible to explain the week-after-week purpose of pastors and local churches:
The aim [the goal, the endgame] of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. (1 Timothy 1:5)
In a given city, the local church is an epicenter of love — love that springs from a purified heart, a good conscience, and a sincere faith. That means every gathering, every class, every sermon, every in-person meeting, every Zoom call, every YouTube live gathering, all our musical worship, all the times we’ve taken communion together, every program, counseling meeting, conference, retreat — all of it — aims at this result: to generate in this church a people who love because their hearts are being purified, their consciences are being cleansed, and their faith is becoming more stable and sincere.
Pulling off this glorious calling is the driving question of the Pastoral Epistles. To do it, churches come up with loads of bad ideas. And it’s the awkward calling of pastors to weed out bad ideas. And one bad idea has been put on the table in Ephesus. Someone in the church is saying, “I know how to accomplish this love! We should raise up, in the church, a team of teachers who are experts in the Mosaic law!” Paul facepalms, and then calls Pastor Timothy to remain in Ephesus to answer for the church this question: What’s the purpose of the law in the age of the gospel?
That leads to today’s text, 1 Timothy 1:8–11:
Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully, understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine, in accordance with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted.
So, what is the role of the law in the age of the gospel? Paul helps us understand this in verses 8–9. The law is for the lawless. Right off the bat we see that the law is not for the just. That’s because the law cannot justify you or me or any sinner before God. In Christ, our standing before God is not defined by our own law-keeping, “for Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (Romans 10:4).
Then the law is bad! No, it’s not; the law is good — if we use it lawfully. The law remains relevant for the unrighteous. So, Paul outlines who qualifies as unrighteous in a series of three pairs. He says the law is for
- the lawless (law ignorers),
- the disobedient (law breakers),
- the ungodly (God ignorers),
- the sinners (God rejectors),
- the unholy (holiness ignorers),
- the profane (holiness profaners).
First, notice this is not the ceremonial use of the law. The ethical use is clearly in view in this text.
Second, Paul makes it clear that sin is not something we do; sin is something we are. Sin is deep in us. We are not sinners simply because we sin. We are essentially sinners; therefore, we sin.
So, if you break laws, actively reject God, and profane holy things, the law stands over you. The law binds law-breakers. I think we all understand this. Law-breakers, God-rejectors, and holiness-profaners — people who trample divine things — are worthy of God’s justice. More striking about this list is Paul’s equal focus on the wickedness of law-ignorers, God-ignorers, and holiness-ignorers. These are people who are not high-handed God-rejectors. They are God-ignorers. They, too, are under the law.
This strikes me because driving to church on a normal, beautiful Sunday morning in Phoenix, what do you see? You see lots of motorcycles. You see a lot of trucks with trailers full of toys. You see a lot of boats. You see a lot of RVs. You see a lot of ATVs. You see a lot of jet skis. In secular America, Sunday has become a playdate for adults with expensive toys. Now obviously, you can be a Christian and have fun on Sundays and go on vacations and boat and dune buggy. But I suspect a vast majority of people we see out early on Sunday mornings gassing up their toys are living under the assumption that God is materially irrelevant to their lives.
Paul wants us to pause, look around our own city, and see this dynamic playing out. You’re going to see a lot of otherwise nice people who live as if the law, God, and holiness are simply irrelevant to life. And here’s what Paul wants us to see: the law is for them — for them. If you ignore the law, the law binds you. To turn your back on God is cosmic sedition. Even refusing to thank God is high treason worthy of judgment. That’s Romans 1.
So, sinners get two options: you can live under the law, or you can live in Christ. All people in society belong to one of those two camps: under law or in Christ.
I could preach all morning against the law-ignorers, and holiness-ignorers, and the God-ignorers of our culture. But what would be the point? The law-ignorers, and holiness-ignorers, and the God-ignorers of our culture are jet-skiing across lakes and tearing around dusty mountains right now. That’s Paul’s point: the people bound under the law don’t congregate in this room on Sundays.
To make this point even clearer, Paul launches into a vice list of sins we should never expect to find inside a local church. Verse 9: the law is also binding
- “for those who strike their fathers and mothers” — that is, for people who kill their parents;
- and more generally “for murderers”;
- and the law is also for “the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality” — fornication, adultery, and homosexual practices are all condemned by the law;
- and also “enslavers” — those who capture free people and deal them like animals.
That is condemned by the law. As Moses himself wrote in Exodus 21:16,
Whoever steals a man and sells him, and anyone found in possession of him, shall be put to death.
Period. Enslave a free man, and the law stands over you, condemning you. The law is meant to restrain cultural sin and to help protect society from widespread consequences and decades of fallout — like the long, sad effects we continue to experience in this country. God condemns enslavers. And few disgraces match the kidnapping of a free man to enslave him like a work animal, stealing away from him his most precious things in life: his home, his homeland, his possessions, his wife, his kids, and all his freedoms — millions of dollars of value all stolen away in order to profit another by a few thousand dollars. So, the law condemns enslavers. But the law is also for habitual
- and specifically, over those who lie under oath: “perjurers”;
- and the law covers all sorts of things in this blanket statement: “and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine.”
So, the moral law is blunt-force confrontation with blatant moral failures. The law is for the godless. The law calls out sin. The law imprisons God-ignorers and God-rejectors.
Paul’s point is that the law is judicial, not transformative. The law confronts the sinner; it cannot convert the sinner. But we need both. Laws are good. But life-transforming influences are really good. So, you need laws. You need police. You need courtrooms. You need prisons. Those are all good — if handled wisely. But laws, police, judges, and prisons don’t transform hearts.
Parents of teens know this dynamic. The goal of parenting teens is to have a relationship with them in which you talk about life, and help them see wisdom and foolishness and make decisions on their own that are healthy. What a great joy that is to watch a teen mature in wisdom, to see the grace of God transforming them from the inside out.
And what heartbreak it is to see an obstinate teen who chooses foolishness after foolishness after foolishness. What do they need? They require more regulations, limits, clear curfews, clearly laid out consequences. That’s an exhausting and discouraging place to be as a parent, because there’s little transformation happening. You’re left resorting to law.
So, we need both forms of parenting, but the transformative relationship is far greater.
The law confronts what is “contrary to sound doctrine” (verse 10) and is “in accordance with the gospel” (verse 11). The law confronts sin. And sound doctrine confronts sin too. Both confront sin. Even if you are in Christ, your sin will be confronted. Our sins have to be confronted, or that love — that purpose we talked about earlier — will never happen.
So, the law does not contradict the gospel or sound doctrine. It doesn’t contradict the gospel, even if its work is judicial and not transformative. So, it is perfectly right for a Christian to affirm these four things:
- Cops — stop pressing your knee into the neck of a handcuffed human made in the image of God.
- Abortionists — stop dismantling the bodies of God’s image-bearers.
- Kidnappers — stop enslaving image-bearers to use them for personal profit.
- Everyone — come to Jesus Christ to find forgiveness and life transformation.
All four positions are consistent with “sound teaching.” So, we never want to pit the law and gospel as though the law is bad and the gospel is good. No. They work in tandem, but they accomplish different things.
So, what is the law good at? Paul explains a little more fully on the purpose of the law in Galatians 3:23–26:
Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith.
The law was a prison warden over us. The law imprisons us in our guilt for our sin until Christ could arrive to free us. That is true in redemptive history, and it’s true in the story of each believer. But, as John Piper says, “if the law has done its condemning and convicting work to bring you to Christ for justification and transformation, then it is not made for you anymore. . . . The main point here [in this text] is that the law has a convicting, condemning, restraining work to do for unrighteous people” (“How to Use the Law Lawfully”).
The whole book of Galatians is devoted to making this distinction clear: either you live under the law as a slave, or you live in the gospel as a free son. If Christ set you free, don’t submit to the law as a slave. Life is no longer about appeasing the law.
So, when Christ, by the Spirit, indwells you, a work is being done in your life that the law was never powerful enough to accomplish in you, so that “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law” (Galatians 5:22–23). If your prayer is to display the fruit of the Spirit, you’re probably not plotting how to kill your parents or kidnap your neighbor Bob. Your maturity operates at a transformative level the law cannot help you with. The law can imprison you. The law can flog you. The law cannot transform you. Thus, “if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law” (Galatians 5:18).
But Paul is sounding the warning: every local church is susceptible to slipping into a law-based approach to life — legalism. “Boil Christianity into dos and don’ts.” “Appease God for our sin by trying to make up for those sins on our own.” A life of prohibitions.
So, the law is good if we know what it’s good for. The law is not transformative. It won’t change your life. The law’s work in the world is dirty. It’s confrontation. It’s restraint. It’s prohibition. It’s imprisonment. It’s condemnation. It’s about guilt, and reminders of failure. The work of the law is reminding every sinner of the many ways they have sought and failed to satisfy their own souls apart from God. The law is a warden, restraining guilty sinners, and reminding sinners of their sin, until Christ appears. We were once under the law. And if you are not a believer, that is where you’re at right now: you are under the law. All your sins and failures keep coming up in your mind. You keep replaying all your foolish decisions. That’s the work of the warden: wardens are tasked with reminding you of your personal guilt, to nudge you toward Christ.
But Paul takes a 180-degree turn from all this law talk to relish in the most incredible reality in the universe.
Something greater than the law has arrived! It’s the gospel. And this gospel is the gospel of the happy God. That’s literally what Paul says here in verse 11:
in accordance with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God . . .
“The gospel of the glory of the happy God” is a literal translation. God’s glory is essentially his happiness. As one theologian put it,
God is not made happy by making things, but rather he is happy through being all-sufficient to himself and needing nothing that he makes. (John Webster, God and the Works of God, 125)
Parents know something of this experience. It’s Father’s Day, or Mother’s Day, or your birthday — you are being celebrated — and one of your little kids brings you a wrapped present, and you open it, and it’s something you already own. Your kid went in your office and took something you already own and use, and wrapped it up as a gift. Sentimentally, that’s great. But the gift adds nothing to what you already had. That’s God’s relationship to all creation. God didn’t make Hawaii to make himself happier. Hawaii exists by the happiness of God. Fundamentally — get this — fundamentally, nothing God makes can add to his own fullness. Creation cannot make God happier.
God is entirely happy in himself, and this is true because he is entirely sovereign and self-sufficient. In 1 Timothy 6:15, Paul will celebrate God’s happiness in this letter again, and he will do so as rooted in God’s absolute sovereignty.
In the ancient world, gods were grumpy. Your job as a worshiper was to get and keep your god happy. Happy god — things go well for you. Unhappy god — your life will go badly. Into the Greco-Roman world, Paul proclaims the living God of the universe, who is essentially happy, in himself, and has always been happy. Before you and I exist, he is happy. In other words, the happiness of God does not rest on us. No! He upholds our happiness.
Whatever happiness we have in him, is a happiness he’s given us, through the Holy Spirit, for us to return to him, so that our joy in him and his glory from us is all merged together! Here’s Charles Spurgeon. Get this logic, and it will transform your life:
“The gospel of the happy God” [his translation of the text] means the gospel of the God whom we must bless in return. As being happy, he makes us happy; so we, being happy, desire to ascribe to him all the glory for our happiness.
God shares his joy with us so that we glorify him by returning that joy to him. Or as you may have more popularly heard it: God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him. This entire dynamic is rooted in one fundamental fact: God is infinitely happy in himself.
Whatever contradicts the happiness of God is confronted by God’s law. Sin grieves God because it violates his essential happiness. And ignoring God is treasonous. If you will not be happy in the happy God, you will be sorrowful in the eternal judgment called down on you by the law.
So, our affectional bandwidth gets stretched like a rubber band ready to snap. Our sin-hating, law-giving God is eternally happy as the essence of who he is. The Lawgiver is the happiest being in the universe.
We need a whole other sermon at this point. But we’re running out of time. To more fully understand the place of the law and the glory and happiness of God, we must understand the radical changes brought into history by the new covenant. The new covenant should blow our minds. If you were, like Paul, raised to engage God primarily through law-keeping, the new covenant is a revolution where everything gets thrown out of balance. Christ’s arrival means rethinking the place of the law — especially now in the church. So, we have to get deeper in Paul’s head to understand how Christ changes everything. And that means understanding the key text of 2 Corinthians 3:1–4:6.
This is one of the most important sections of the New Testament. It’s absolutely essential reading. I don’t think progress in the Christian life can make much sense without making sense of this text. And it’s one of the hardest sections of Scripture to wrap your brain around because Paul layers metaphors on top of Old Testament stories. But take time this week to read and comprehend 2 Corinthians 3:1–4:6. Here are the CliffsNotes.
It’s a story of two men. Moses with the Ten Commandments coming down from Mount Sinai — a defining moment in Old Testament history. And then a second person, the resurrected Jesus Christ of the gospel, appears. Two figures representing two covenants.
Moses descends from Sinai with two tablets of the Law after being with God. God’s glory left a residual effect, and Moses’s face shines. So, Moses hikes down the mountain with the Ten Commandments, and his face is glowing like an incandescent lightbulb. Weird. I mean it’s a great reading light, but it also freaks everyone else out. So, timid Moses, not wanting to be embarrassed, self-shrouds his face so others cannot see his face-glory (2 Corinthians 3:13). So, that will make all this less weird, right — Moses walking around with a pillowcase over his head? No, it’s still weird — but less weird.
So, Paul says, even today, if you study the Old Testament and become an expert in the law (like the apostle Paul himself), and if you cannot see past the prohibitions to behold Christ’s beauty, Moses’s pillowcase is now over your eyes. You can read the law and seek to obey all the commandments of the Bible, but if that is your confidence, Moses’s shroud is over your eyes; you’re blind to Christ.
But here’s the great news: Moses’s glory was to be outdone by a greater glory. The law is a faint lightbulb glory compared to the new, sunshine-intensity glory of Jesus Christ. So, when you treasure the worth of Jesus Christ, the veil over your eyes that blinds you to this greater glory is ripped away so that you can now behold the luminous glory of God. And this changes everything! Paul says it like this:
But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom [freedom from the law]. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit. (2 Corinthians 3:16–18)
Or as Paul says a little later:
For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” [back in creation when he lit our sun that now burns Phoenix; that same God] has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. (2 Corinthians 4:6)
The law cannot transform. But God’s happy glory does transform. How? By shining in the face of Jesus Christ. This is Christian maturity in summary. Unshrouded, we become like what we behold.
This text is very personal and practical for me. For the first 22 years of my life I was spiritually veiled. I thought obedience to the law would get me right with God. I was blind to the beauty of Christ. But at 22, that veil was flung off, and for the next 22 years I have been given the greatest gift any human could ever get: to behold the beauty of Jesus Christ.
The law is a ministry of death; the gospel is a ministry of life. Moses’s ministry is a ministry of slavery and condemnation; the gospel is a ministry of liberation.
Those two aims are not antithetical. They work in tandem. Thus, the law remains relevant today — if you know what the law is for.
And once you see that the gospel originates from within the all-sufficient happiness of God, once you behold God’s glory shining in the face of Jesus Christ, the law’s judicial work over you is finished. The warden’s work is done. We step out of the prison of guilt and eternal damnation into the sunlight of a more potent glory, a glory working inside of us a transformation the law could never bring.
So then — again — what’s the purpose of pastors and the local church? First Timothy 1:5:
The aim of our charge [the aim of our church] is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.
And how does this type of transformation happen? Simple: The church celebrates and worships Christ week after week after week, in order that we be transformed and matured to be what the church exists on earth to be.
- The law will not make your faith more sincere; Christ can.
- The law will not purify your conscience; Christ did.
- The law will not cleanse your heart; Christ does.
- The law will not cause love to overflow from your heart; Christ will.
So, a law-enforcement officer can step in and stop two people from killing each other. But that police officer cannot make enemies love each other. Laws can help restrain massive sin outbreaks, but laws cannot change our loves. This is why in a billion years all the decisions of the Supreme Court will pale in comparison to what happened in our church body each and every week.
The local church is not a cheap social club. Going to church each Sunday is not hell insurance. We’re not here trying to make an insecure god happy. This is not a weekend hobby for the toy-deprived. This is not a tradition we do because our parents did it. This local church is where the unshrouded gather to see again the happy-glory of God shining in the face of Jesus Christ.
- the law binds those who have turned away from God;
- the gospel transforms those who are transfixed on the face of Jesus Christ.
And this is why this local church celebrates and worships Christ week after week after week, in order that we be transformed and matured to be what the church exists on earth to do and be: to resemble Christ by a “love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (1 Timothy 1:5). The law didn’t plant this church. Moses isn’t the founder of this church. Christ is our cornerstone, because in the face of Jesus Christ, the glory of our happy God shines brightest. And that radiating glory in the face of Christ is the nuclear core that powers everything in this local church.
So, our church motto is “Spreading the joy of treasuring Christ in all of life.” And it brings us, finally, to the final phrase in our text:
with which I have been entrusted. (1 Timothy 1:11)
Paul knew the happy God of the universe is not selfish with his joy. Never. His Trinitarian bliss expands outward as a gift to the creation, a gift to you and to me — the undeserving recipients of the happiness of God in his beloved Son. Our neighbors, right now out on their toys, who think of God as immaterial to life, have no idea the happiness they’ve turned their back on.
So, we go forth to spread the gospel of our gloriously happy God.
Tony Reinke (@tonyreinke) is senior writer for Desiring God and author of Competing Spectacles (2019), 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You (2017), John Newton on the Christian Life (2015), and Lit! A Christian Guide to Reading Books (2011). He hosts the Ask Pastor John podcast and lives in the Phoenix with his wife and three children.