The word of the day is “law.” In our reading of 1 Timothy 1:8-14, Paul corrects the false teachings of those who have an erroneous understanding of the law of God. The Apostle writes, “But we know that the law is good if one uses it lawfully” (vs. 8).
Paul composes his letter to warn about deceitful teachers who are misleading the faithful. To counteract this threat, Paul writes to clarify his teaching of the law. Some seem to have the impression that Paul is against the law and/or that it is no longer valid for believers in Christ. But here Paul says that the law, that is, the Mosaic Law, is still beneficial. Thus, The Orthodox Study Bible says that “the law is good, but it cannot be kept. It is a revelation from God, but it is not an end in itself” (OSB, “The Law,” 486).
The Law is Good and Bad
St. John Chrysostom notes the seeming contradiction that the law is “good” and “not good.” He explains that when it is used “lawfully,” that is, as God intended, it is “good.” But when false teachers use it in ways that God did not intend, it is not.
For example, if someone teaches the law but does not practice it, he uses it “unlawfully,” that is, he is not using it legitimately (Strong’s #3545, 172). Or as Chrysostom points out, if one tries to use the law to justify oneself before God, that too is improper. Such an endeavor is bound to fail, since no one can keep the law. Obeying the law is impossible, Paul teaches, because of “the weakness of the flesh” (Romans 8:3-5).
On the other hand, Chrysostom offers an example of a correct use of the law. The law is useful, Chrysostom says, if it “sends thee to Christ.” The preacher explains that since we cannot fulfill the law, it refers us to the One who can—and who meets its requirements for us (NfPf1:13, 413).
Accordingly, Paul teaches that, “the law is not made for a righteous person” (OSB vs. 9). Chrysostom comments that if anyone could make himself righteous by keeping the law, he would need the law to tell him what to do. He would have the “grace of the Spirit within to direct him (NfPf1: 13, 413). Then too, the just person would not be subject to the Law because he would have no need of its correction.
The Prohibition of Evil, the Punishment of Transgression
No, Chrysostom says that the law is for the “prohibition of evil” and the “punishment of transgression.” God, Chrysostom says, gave the law that “men might be chastened by fear of its threatening.” Therefore, the proper use of the law is to instill dread in the souls of the unrighteous. It teaches them and warns them of the divine penalties for their disobedience (NfPf1: 13, 414).
In today’s reading Paul goes on to describe those who must fear the law: the “lawless and insubordinate,” the “ungodly and sinner,” the “unholy and profane” (vs. 9). He does not hesitate to list examples of anything that is “contrary to sound doctrine,” that is, the blatant sins of those who disobey the law without repentance (vs. 10).
Paul’s Former Life Under the Law
Yet lest Paul seems like a proud Pharisee who judges others while excusing himself, he confesses that he was “formerly a blasphemer, and persecutor of the Church” (vs. 13). He states that he was also “insolent” (vs. 13). Note that the Greek word is more specific than this English term. Referring to his role as a persecutor, Paul says that he was “insolent” in the sense that he oppressed the believers for no other reason than to inflict pain on them (Strong’s #5197, 255).
Is Paul excusing himself when he says, “I obtained mercy because I did it ignorantly in unbelief” (vs. 13)? No, Chrysostom observes that Paul states he “obtained mercy” (vs. 13). If the Law is for the unrighteous, then God’s mercy is for not those who obey the law but sinners (NfPf1: 13, 417-18). Therefore, when Paul says he obtained mercy, he admits that he was a sinner. What was his sin? It was founded on unbelief that made Paul ignorant and blind to the truth of the Gospel (vs. 13).
Grace Exceedingly Abundant
Furthermore, Chrysostom says that while Paul recounts his own part of turning to Christ, he acknowledges the greater and more gracious part of God in his call to the ministry (vs. 12). In summary, Paul says that in his change from a chief persecutor to the leading promoter of the faith, “the grace of our Lord was exceeding abundant” (vs. 14).
What, then, is the difference between the flagrant sinners that Paul lists and Paul, who calls himself the “chief of sinners” (1 Timothy 11:15)? In terms of the law, there is no difference. In itself, without grace, all disobedience stands condemned before God. But in terms of grace, there is a huge difference. Brazen and unrepentant sinners must face God’s judgment. But those who turn to the grace of God for mercy are forgiven by the blood of Christ.
In our reading, therefore, we find that the law is not given for the righteous. The primary function of the law is to expose and identify sin. In this vein, Paul teaches, “…by the law is the knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:20).
But this knowledge can cuts two ways. On the one hand, it can “send the sinner to Christ” (NfPf1:13, 413). The law can induce us to acknowledge our sin. And it can open the way of repentance to the reception of God’s forgiving grace. On the other hand, the law can restrain sin. Though the convicted sinner may not turn to Christ, at least he may turn from wickedness for fear of just punishment.
In this Nativity Fast, let us pray with increased fervency, “Blessed art Thou, O Lord, teach me Thy statues.” Let us learn the Lord’s commandments of the Law that they would teach us to flee from sin and run to the mercy of Christ whose coming is near.