Thursday, November 11, 2004

I Timothy Commentary, continued

I Timothy 1:8-11

“ … We know that the law is good if one uses it properly. We also know that law is made not for the unrighteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious … and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine that conforms to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me …”

Whenever Paul talks about “Law,” he is referring to an entire complex of meaning from Hebrew Scripture. He’s not just speaking of ten commandments, nor simply of rules concerning burnt sacrifices, nor even only about cleanliness regulations.

Law, for Paul, is a standard of moral and legal purity by which God is able to distinguish between righteous and unrighteous. In his previous life, Paul believed that Law was attainable in human existence – one could live according to the precepts and statutes of God’s Law and, thereby, be counted righteous. But somewhere along the way, after the Damascus Road experience, Paul began to realize the uncomfortable truth that Law was incapable of making him righteous. Not only was he ultimately unable to actually keep all of the ordinances and commands of the Law, but it dawned on him that Law was actually unable – in and of itself – to make, or create, righteousness in him.

This is why Paul says here that Law “is good if one uses it properly.” Law has its purposes, its usefulness, but it is limited by something new, namely, the grace of God.

Jesus made the same point when he said, “I have come to save/heal/call the lost/sick/lonely, not those who are already righteous/pure/healthy.”

Law is useful when it acts as a mirror; it shows us as we really are. We compare ourselves to God’s standards and discover that we fall short, or are stained by sin, or are actually outright dishonest, money-grubbing thieves! But simply realizing this doesn’t change us! In fact, the Law can drive us to despair … as it did Paul, and then Augustine, and sometime later Martin Luther, and then even poor John Wesley!

If we stop at Law, then we become desperate and guilt-ridden. The only hope is for us to stop our sin and change our behavior. If you happen to be a strong-willed, tough-minded person, you might be able to pull off a complete behavioral change. But what happens when you fall off the wagon the first time? What happens when you discover that you simply can't pull yourself up by your own bootstraps? Law threatens to suck us into a never-ending cycle of sin/despair/repentance/forgiveness/sin/despair …

This sheds light, incidentally, on the problem with the so-called “teachers of the Law” whom Paul wants Timothy to censor. These teachers must have been introducing a new kind of legalism based on Old Testament rules and regulations. They must be preaching that people are to follow these rules, vote a certain way, wear a certain uniform, pray a certain way. As soon as Paul heard of it, he is enraged – and no wonder! This is not Christian freedom, this is not gospel/good news, this is not grace!

It’s strange, but we humans – especially those of us who consider ourselves “religious” – tend toward Law almost instinctively. Law pulls us in, entices us with absolutes, draws us in with promises and punishments. It helps us make sense of our fragmented world. It makes it so much easier for us to know how to vote, how to dress, how to pray. We crave the solidity of the Law.

But it’s not grace. And it doesn’t sound much like Jesus, either.