Frederick W. Robertson

Sermon 62


The Lawful and Unlawful Use of Law

(A fragment)

Preached June 27, 1852

  Frederick W. Robertson

“But we know that the law is good, if a man use it lawfully.” - I Timothy 1:8


It is scarcely ever possible to understand a passage without some acquaintance with the history of the circumstances under which it was written.

At Ephesus, over which Timothy was bishop, people had been bewildered by the teaching of converted Jews, who mixed the old leaven of Judaism with the new spirituality of Christianity. They maintained the perpetual obligation of the Jewish law (ver. 7). They desired to be teachers of the law. They required strict performance of a number of severe observances. They talked mysteriously of angels and powers intermediate between God and the human soul (ver. 4). The result was an interminable discussion at Ephesus. The Church was filled with disputations and controversies.

Now there is something always refreshing to see the Apostle Paul descending upon an arena of controversy, where minds have been bewildered: and so much is to be said on both sides that people are uncertain which to take. You know at once that he will pour light upon the question, and illuminate all the dark corners. You know that he will not trim, and balance, and hang doubtful, or become a partisan; but that he will seize some great principle which lies at the root of the whole controversy, and make its true bearings clear at once.

This he always does, and this he does on the present occasion (ver. 5 and 6). He does not, like a vehement polemic, say Jewish ceremonies and rules are all worthless, nor some ceremonies are worthless and others essential; but he says, the root of the whole matter is charity. If you turn aside from this, all is lost; here at once the controversy closes. So far as any rule fosters the spirit of love, that is, is used lawfully, it is wise, and has a use. So far as it does not, it is chaff So far as it hinders it, it is poison.

Now observe how different this method is from that which is called the sober, moderate way-the via media. Some would have said, the great thing is to avoid extremes. If the question respects fasting, fast I only in moderation: if the observance of the sabbath-day, observe it on the Jewish principle, only not so strictly.

St. Paul, on the contrary, went down to the root; he said, The true question is not whether the law is good or bad, but on what principle; he said, You are both wrong-you, in saying that the observance of the law is essential, for the end of it is charity, and if that be got, what matter how; you, in saying rules may be dispensed with entirely and always, “for we know that the law is good.”


I. The unlawful use, and

II. The lawful use of law.


I. The unlawful use.

Define law. By law, Paul almost always means, not the Mosaic law, but law in its essence and principle, that is, constraint. This chiefly in two forms expresses itself-1st. a custom; 2d. a maxim. As examples of custom, we might give circumcision, or the sabbath, or sacrifice, or fasting.

Law said, Thou shalt do these things; and law, as mere law, constrained them. Or again, law may express itself in maxims and rules.

In rules, as when law said, “Thou shalt not steal”-not saying a word about secret dishonesty of heart, but simply taking cognizance of acts.

In maxims, as when it admonished that man ought to give a tenth to God, leaving the principle of the matter untouched. Principle is one thing, and maxim is another. A principle requires liberality, a maxim says one-tenth. A principle says, “A merciful man is merciful to his beast,” leaves mercy to the heart, and does not define how; a maxim says, “Thou shalt not muzzle the ox that treadeth out thy corn.” A principle says, “Forgive ;” a maxim defines “seven times;” and thus the whole law falls into two divisions:

The ceremonial law, which constrains life by customs.

The moral law, which guides life by rules and maxims.

Now it is an illegitimate use of law. First. To expect, by obedience to it, to make out a title to salvation.

By the deeds of the law shall no man living be justified. Salvation is by faith: a state of heart right with God ; faith is the spring of holiness-a well of life. Salvation is not the having committed a certain number of good acts. Destruction is not the having committed a certain number of crimes. Salvation is God’s Spirit in us, leading to good. Destruction is the selfish spirit in us, leading to wrong.

For a plain reason, then, obedience to law can not save, because it is merely the performance of a certain number of acts which may be done by habit, from fear, from compulsion. Obedience remains still imperfect. A man may have obeyed the rule, and kept the maxim, and yet not be perfect. “All these commandments have I kept from my youth up.” “Yet lackest thou one thing.” The law he had kept. The spirit of obedience in its high form of sacrifice he had not.

Secondly. To use it superstitiously.

It is plain that this was the use made of it by the Ephesian teachers (ver. 4). It seemed to them that law was pleasing to God as restraint. Then unnatural restraints came to be imposed-on the appetites, fasting ; on the affections, celibacy. This is what Paul condemns (ch. iv., ver. 8): ”Bodily exercise profiteth little.”

And again, this superstition showed itself in a false reverence-wondrous stories respecting angels-respecting the eternal genealogy of Christ-awful thoughts about spirits. The apostle calls all these, very unceremoniously, “endless genealogies” (ver. 4), and “old wives’ fables” (ch. iv., ver. 7).

The question at issue is, wherein true reverence consists according to them, in the multiplicity of the objects of reverence; according to St. Paul, in the character of the object revered . . . . . God and right the true object.

But you are not a whit the better for solemn and reverential feelings about a mysterious, invisible world. To tremble before a consecrated wafer is spurious reverence. To bend before the majesty of right is Christian reverence.

Thirdly. To use it as if the letter of it were sacred. The law commanded none to eat the shew-bread except the priests. David ate it in hunger. If Abimelech had scrupled to give it the would have used the law unlawfully.

The law commanded no manner of work. The apostles in hunger rubbed the ears of corn. The Pharisees used the law unlawfully, in forbidding that.


II. The lawful use of law.

1. As a restraint to keep outward evil in check. . . . “The law was made for sinners and profane.” . . . Illustrate this by reference to capital punishment. No sane man believes that punishment by death will make a nation’s heart right, or that the sight of an execution can soften or ameliorate. Punishment does not work in that way. It is not meant for that purpose. It is meant to guard society.

The law commanding a blasphemer to be stoned could not teach one Israelite love to God, but it could save the streets of Israel from scandalous ribaldry.

And therefore, clearly understood, law is a mere check to bad men: it does not improve them; it often makes them worse; it can not sanctify them. God never intended that it should. It saves society from the open transgression; it does not contemplate the amelioration of the offender.

Hence we see for what reason the apostle insisted on the use of the law for Christians. Law never can be abrogated. Strict rules are needed exactly in proportion as we wat the power or the will to rule ourselves. It is not because the Gospel has come that we are free from the law, but because, and only so far, as we are in a Gospel state. “It is for a righteous man” that the law is not made, and thus we see the true nature of Christian liberty. The liberty to which we are called in Christ is not the liberty of devils, the liberty of doing what we will, but the blessed liberty of being on the side of the law, and therefore unrestrained by it in doing right.

Illustrate from laws of coining, housebreaking, etc. We are not under them; because we may break them as we like? Nay, the moment we desire, the law is alive again to us.

2. As a primer is used by a child to acquire by degrees, principles and a spirit.

This is the use attributed to it in verse 5: “ The end of the commandment is charity.”

Compare with this two other passages-“Christ is the end of the law for righteousness,” and “Love is the fulfilling of the law;” “ Perfect love casteth out fear.”

In every law there is a spirit; in every maxim a principle; and the law and the maxim are laid down for the sake of conserving the spirit and the principle which they enshrine.

St. Paul compares God’s dealing with man to a wise parent’s instruction of his child-see the Epistle to the Galatians. Boyhood is under law; you appeal not to the boy’s reason, but his will, by rewards and punishments: Do this, and I will reward you; do it not, and you will be punished. So long as a man is under law this is salutary and necessary, but only while under law. He is free when he discerns principles, and at the same time has got, by habit, the will to obey. So that rules have done for him a double work, taught him the principle and facilitated obedience to it.

Distinguish, however. In point of time, law is first-in point of importance, the Spirit.

In point of time, charity is the “end” of the commandment-in point of importance, first and foremost.

The first thing a boy has to do is to learn implicit obedience to rules. The first thing in importance for a man to learn is, to sever himself from maxims, rules, laws. Why? That he may become an Antinomian, or a Latitudinarian? No. He is severed from submission to the maxim because he has got allegiance to the principle. He is free from the rule and the law because he has got the Spirit written in his heart.

This is the Gospel. A man is redeemed by Christ so far as he is not under the law; he is free from the law so far as he is free from the evil which the law restrains; he progresses so far as there is no evil in him which it is an effort to keep down; and perfect salvation and liberty are when we-who, though having the first-fruits of the Spirit, yet groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, “to wit, the redemption of our body”-shall have been freed in body, soul, and spirit, from the last traces of the evil which can only be kept down by force. In other words, so far as Christ’s statement is true of us, “ The Prince of this world cometh, and hath nothing in me.”