It is Often Said: the Law Was Given Only to Condemn
by Tim Hegg
In the current restoration of Torah among the followers of Yeshua, we sometimes struggle to explain Paul’s teaching on the Torah. We understand Peter’s persepctive when he writes:
“… just as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given him, wrote to you, as also in all his letters, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction. (2Peter 3:15–16)
Indeed, sometimes Paul’s words are “hard to understand.” For in some cases, it appears that Paul disparages the Torah, relegating it to something that has exhausted its usefulness and has been replaced by something better. The difficulty is heightened all the more when his teaching in other places seems clearly to extol the Torah as the standard of righteous living for all of God’s people.
The text before us is just such an example. On a first reading, Paul appears to be saying that God gave the Torah for the sole purpose of condemning the unrighteous and that it has no positive application to those who are righteous:
8 But we know that the Torah is good, if one uses it properly, 9 knowing that Torah 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 10 and immoral men and homosexuals and kidnappers and liars and perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound teaching, 11 according to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, with which I have been entrusted.
Yet such an initial reading does not square with Paul’s statements elsewhere about the Torah. For instance, his assertion that the Torah is “spiritual” (Romans 7:14) surely suggests that it has a positive application to those who have been born again by the Spirit. For Paul, only believers in whom the Spirit dwells are able to appreciate spiritual realities (1Corinthians 2:9–10). How then can he say in the text before us that the “Torah is not made for a righteous person?” If we reject the point of view that Paul contradicted himself, then we must seek to understand this passage in harmony with his other teachings on the place of the Torah in the believer’s life. Moreover, since we receive Paul’s writings as the inspired word of God, we must strive to see how his teaching about the Torah in this text aligns with the rest of Scripture.
Examples of Interpretations of Paul’s Perspective on the Torah in 1Timothy 1:3–11
Commentators have generally understood this text in one of several ways:
1) by “law” (nomos) Paul is referring to the the Sinai covenant (the “full Law”) which was added to the Ten Commandments only after Israel sinned with the golden calf incident. Thus, when saying that “the law is not for the righteous but for the unrighteous,” Paul is referring to the ceremonial and civil laws that were added to the moral law of the Ten Commandments.
2) that the Torah no longer stands as a guideline of holy living for believers in Yeshua, because a new guideline of righteousness has been supplied by the life and words of Yeshua, as taught by the indwelling Spirit of God. His words are thus understood to mean: “The Law is not for believers but for unbelievers.”
3) that Paul is using the term “law” (νόμος, nomos), not as a reference to the Torah of Moses, but as referring to the general concept of “law,” which is applicable only to criminals in human society. His words thus mean: “In human society, laws function to punish the unrighteous, not the righteous.”
4) that Paul is not speaking of the Torah in general, but only of one aspect of the Torah, namely, the condemning of sin and sinners. Thus his statement should be understood to mean that “the condemning work of the Torah is made, not for the righteous, but for the unrighteous.”
Irenaeus (c. 130–c. 200) comments on 1Timothy 1:9 in his explanation of the purpose for which God gave the Torah.1 In general, Irenaeus taught that God initially intended to give Israel only the Decalogue (Ten Words), but that after Israel sinned with the golden calf, He considered it necessary to give the complete Law in order to demonstrate Israel’s rebellion, and to reign in Israel’s wayward nature.2 Irenaeus emphasizes the point that the fathers were justified without the additional laws of the Sinai covenant, but that they had the Ten Words written upon their hearts.
Why, then, did the Lord not form the [Sinai] covenant for the fathers? Because “the law was not established for righteous men.” (1Timothy 1:9) But the righteous fathers had the meaning of the Decalogue [Ten Words] written in their hearts and souls, that is, they loved the God who made them, and did no injury to their neighbor. There was therefore no occasion that they should be cautioned by prohibitory mandates, because they had the righteousness of the law in themselves.3
Thus, the morality of the Ten Words was written on the heart of the righteous ones, while the additional laws given after the golden calf incident were intended to rebuke wayward Israel for her sin.
Clement of Alexandria (late 1st Century) also considered that the Torah was given primarily to show Israel the error of her ways, and ultimately to call all men to recognize their own sinfulness. Thus, he viewed the giving of the Torah itself as a demonstration of God’s grace, because it calls mankind to a realization of his need for a Savior by bringing upon them the dread of utter condemnation. It is in this context that Clement of Alexandria appeals to 1Timothy 1:9 in order to prove that the mission of the Torah was that of condemning sinners.4 Moreover, Clement of Alexandria taught that the “Law,” given to those who were unrighteous (proven by quoting 1Timothy 1:9), presented them with a freewill choice between right and wrong, a choice which could result in salvation. In this way, the harshness of the Law was also a mark of God’s benevolence.5
In a work of the 3rd Century (277 CE), called “The Acts of the Disputations with the Archheretic Manes,” attributed to Archelaus, bishop of Caschar, the Law is said to have been given in order to show the “strength of sin” (cf. 1Corinthians 15:56). Having finished the work of revealing the true nature of sin by giving the Law, God rested (which is how Archelaus interprets the meaning of “Sabbath”). The current work of God is to reveal through spiritual (not physical) means the true nature of salvation in His Son. Once again, 1Timothy 1:9 is brought forward to substantiate the position that the primary purpose of the Torah was to condemn sinners and to mark out the true nature of sin.6
Calvin’s remarks on 1Timothy 1:5–11 are insightful. He notes that Paul is warning Timothy about how those who have rejected the gospel of Yeshua misuse the Torah. Anticipating that Timothy’s detractors would try to use the Law against the gospel, Paul reminds him “that the law gives them no support but was even opposed to them, and that it agreed perfectly with the gospel which he had taught.”7 In explaining Paul’s statement of v. 9, that the “law is not made for a righteous person,” Calvin writes:
The apostle did not intend to argue about the whole office of the law, but views it in reference to men. It frequently happens that they who wish to be regarded as the greatest zealots for the law, give evidence by their whole life that they are the greatest despires of it …. Paul remonstrates that the law is, as it were, the sword of God to slay them; and that neither he nor any like him have reason for viewing the law with dread or aversion; for it is not opposed to righteous persons, that is, to the godly and to those who willingly obey God.8
- Irenaeus, The Sole Government of God, Book IV, chs. 14–15.
- As is typical of some of the early Church Fathers, Ezekiel 20:25 (“I also gave them statutes that were not good and ordinances by which they could not live”) is brought forward to show that the giving of the Torah beyond the Ten Words was done in order to condemn Israel in her sinfulness. But this word of Ezekiel is not referring to the statutes and ordinances of the Torah, but of the statutes and ordinances of the idolatrous worship into which Israel fell. That Ezekiel considers that God “gave” them to Israel (natan) is analogous to what Paul states in Romans 1:24 that “God gave them over to in the lusts of the hearts to impurity.” See the comments of Keil and Delitzsch on Ezekiel 20:24–25.
- Irenaeus, Ibid., Book IV, ch. 16, §3.
- Clement of Alexandria, Stomata, Book IV, ch. 3; also cf. Book I, ch. 27.
- Ibid., Book VII, ch. 2.
- Archelaus, The Acts of the Disputation, §31.
- Calvin, Commentary on 1Timothy (vol. xxi in the reprint by Baker Book House, 1984), p. 26.
- Ibid., p. 30.