The Right Use of the Law
By John Newton
You desire my thoughts on 1 Timothy 1:8, "We know that the law is good, if a man use it lawfully," and I willingly comply. I do not mean to send you a sermon on the text, yet a little attention to method may not be improper upon this subject, though in a letter to a friend. Ignorance of the nature and design of the law is at the bottom of most religious mistakes. This is the root of self-righteousness, the grand reason why the Gospel of Christ is no more regarded, and the cause of that uncertainty and inconsistency in many, who, though they profess themselves teachers, understand not what they say, nor whereof they affirm.
If we first state what is meant by the law, and by what means we know the law to be good, I think it will, from these premises, be easy to conclude what it is to use the law lawfully.
The law, in many passages of the Old Testament, signifies the whole revelation of the will of God, as in Psalm 1:2. But the law, in a strict sense, is contradistinguished from the Gospel. Though the apostle considers it at large in his epistles to the Romans and Galatians, I think it is evident that, in the passage you have proposed, the apostle is speaking of the law of Moses. But to have a clearer view of the subject, it may be proper to look back to a more early period.
The law of God, then, is, in its largest sense, that rule or prescribed course which He has appointed for His creatures, according to their several natures and capacities, that they may answer the end for which He has created them. Thus it comprehends the inanimate creation — the wind and storm fulfill His word or law. He has appointed the moon for seasons and the sun knows his time for going down and going forth, and performs all his revolutions according to his Maker's pleasure. If we could suppose the sun was an intelligent being and should refuse to shine, or should wander from the station in which God has placed him — it would then be a transgressor of the law. But there is no such discord in the natural world. The law of God in this sense, or what many choose to call the law of nature, is no other than the impression of God's power, whereby all things continue and act according to His will from the beginning, for "He spoke, and it was done; he commanded, and it stood fast" (Psalm 33:9).
The animals, destitute of reason, are likewise under a law, that is, God has given them instincts according to their several kinds, for their support and preservation, to which they invariably conform. A wisdom unspeakably superior to all the contrivances of man, disposes their concernments and is visible in the structure of a bird's nest, or the economy of a bee hive. But this wisdom is restrained within narrow lines. They act without any remote design and are incapable either of good or evil in a moral sense.
When God created man, He taught him more than the beasts of the earth and made him wiser than the birds of Heaven. He formed him for Himself, breathed into him a spirit, immortal and incapable of dissolution, gave him a capacity not to be satisfied with any creature-goodness, endowed him with an understanding, will, affections, which qualified him for the knowledge and service of his Maker, and a life of communion with Him.
The law of God, therefore, concerning man, is that rule of disposition and conduct to which a creature so constituted ought to conform, so that the end of his creation might be answered and the wisdom of God be manifested in him and by him. Man's continuance in this regular and happy state was not necessary as it is in the creatures — who, having no rational powers, have properly no choice, but act under the immediate agency of divine power.
As man was capable of continuing in the state in which he was created, so he was capable of forsaking it. He did so and sinned by eating the forbidden fruit. We are not to suppose that this prohibition was the whole of the law of Adam, so that if he had abstained from the tree of knowledge, he might in other respects have done (as we say) what he pleased. This injunction was the test of his obedience and while he regarded it, he could have no desire contrary to holiness, because his nature was holy. But when he broke through it — he broke through the whole law and stood guilty of idolatry, blasphemy, rebellion, and murder. The divine light in his soul was extinguished — and the image of God was defaced. He became like Satan, whom he had obeyed, and lost the power to keep that law which was connected with happiness.
Yet, still the law remained in force. The blessed God could not lose His right to that reverence, love, and obedience, which must always be due to Him from His intelligent creatures. Thus Adam became a transgressor and incurred the penalty, death. But God, who is rich in mercy, according to His eternal purpose, revealed the promise of the Seed of the woman and instituted sacrifices as types of that atonement for sin, which He, in the fullness of time, should accomplish by the sacrifice of Himself.
Adam, after his fall, was no longer a public person — and the depravity he had brought upon human nature remained. His children and so all his posterity were born in his sinful likeness, without either ability or inclination to keep the law. The earth was soon filled with violence.
But a few in every successive age were preserved by grace and faith in the promise. Abraham was favored with a more full and distinct revelation of the covenant of grace. He saw the day of Christ and rejoiced. In the time of Moses, God was pleased to set apart a peculiar people to Himself and to them He published His law with great solemnity at Sinai. This law consisted of two distinct parts, very different in their scope and design, though both enjoined by the same authority. The Decalogue, or ten commandments, uttered by the voice of God Himself is an abstract of that original law under which man was created — but published in a prohibitory form. The Israelites, like the rest of mankind, being depraved by sin and strongly inclined to the commission of every evil, this law could not be designed as a covenant, by obedience to which men should be judged, for long before its publication, the Gospel had been preached to Abraham (Gal 3:8). But the law entered that sin might abound, that the extent, the evil, and the desert of sin might be known, for it reaches to the most hidden thoughts of the heart, requires absolute and perfect obedience, and denounces a curse upon all who continue not therein.
To this was subsequently added the ceremonial or Levitical law, prescribing a variety of institutions, purifications and sacrifices, the observance of which were, during that dispensation, absolutely necessary to the acceptable worship of God. By obedience to these prescriptions, the people of Israel preserved their legal right to the blessings pronounced to them as a nation and which were not confined to spiritual worshipers only, and there were likewise ordinances (means) and helps to the blessings promised them as a nation, and which were not confined to spiritual worshipers only.
And there were likewise ordinances and helps to lead those who truly loved God, and had conscience of sin, to look forward by faith to the great sacrifice, the Lamb of God, who, in the fullness of time, was to take away sin by the sacrifice of Himself. In both these respects, the ceremonial law was abrogated by the death of Christ. The Jews then ceased to be God's peculiar people (nationally) and justice having expiated sin, and brought in everlasting righteousness, by Christ's obedience unto death — all other sacrifices became unnecessary and vain.
The Gospel supplies the place of the ceremonial law to the same advantage as the sun abundantly compensates for the twinkling stars and the feeble shining of the moonlight, which are concealed by its glory.
Believers of old were relieved from the strictness of the moral law by the sacrifices which pointed to Christ. Believers under the Gospel are relieved by a direct application to the blood of the covenant. Both renounce any dependency upon the moral law for justification, and both accept it as a rule of life in the hands of the Mediator, and are enabled to yield it a sincere, though not a perfect obedience. If an Israelite, trusting in his observance to the moral law, had ventured to reject the ordinances of the ceremonial — he would have been cut off. In like manner, if any who are called Christians are so well satisfied with their moral duties that they see no necessity of making Christ their only hope — the law, by which they seek life, will be to them, a minister unto death. Christ and He alone, delivers us by faith in His name from the curse of the law, having been made a curse for us.
The second inquiry is, How we come to know the law to be good? for by nature we do not, we cannot think so. We cannot be at enmity with God — and at the same time approve of His law; rather the law is the ground of our dislike to Him, that we conceive the law, by which we are to be judged, is too strict in its precepts and too severe in its threatenings, and therefore men, so far as in them lies, are for altering this law. They think it would be better if it required no more than we can perform, if it allowed us more liberty and especially if it was not armed against transgressors with the penalty of eternal punishment. This is evident from the usual pleas of awakened sinners.
Some think, "I am not so bad as some others," by which they mean, God will surely make a difference and take favorable notice of what they suppose good in themselves. Others plead, "If I should not obtain mercy — then what will become of the greater part of mankind!" by which they plainly intimate that it would be hard and unjust in God to punish such multitudes. Others endeavor to extenuate their sins, as Jonathan once said, "I did but taste a little honey — and I must die? These passions are natural to me — and must I die for indulging them?"
In short, the spirit and strictness of the law, its severity and its leveling effects, confounding all seeming differences in human characters and stopping every mouth without distinction, are three properties of the law which the natural man cannot allow to be good. These prejudices against the law can only be removed by the power of the Holy Spirit. It is His office to enlighten and convince the conscience, to communicate an impression of the majesty, holiness, justice, and authority of the One with whom we have to do, whereby the evil and desert of sin are apprehended. The sinner is then stripped of all his vain pretenses, is compelled to plead guilty, and must justify his Judge even though he should condemn himself.
It is His office likewise to reveal the grace and glory of the Savior, as having fulfilled the law for us and as engaged by promise to enable those who believe in Him to honor it with a due obedience in their own persons. Then a change of judgment takes place and the sinner consents to the law — that it is holy, just, and good. Then the law is acknowledged to be holy. It manifests the holiness of God and a conformity to it is the perfection of human nature.
There can be no excellence in man — but so far as he is influenced by God's law; without it, the greater his natural powers and abilities are, he is but so much the more dangerous and mischievous. It is assented to as just, springing from God's indubitable right and authority over His creatures, and suited to their dependence upon Him and the abilities with which He originally endowed them. And though we, by sin, have lost those abilities [but not our original faculties], His right remains unalienable and therefore He can justly punish transgressors.
And as it is just in respect to God — so it is good for man. His obedience to the law, and the favor of God therein, being his proper happiness and it is impossible for him to be happy in any other way. Only as I have hinted, to sinners these things must be apprehended according to the Gospel and to their new relation by faith to the Lord Jesus Christ, who has obeyed the law and made atonement for sin on their behalf, so that through Him they are delivered from condemnation and entitled to all the benefits of His obedience.
From Him likewise, they receive the law as a rule enforced by His own example and their unspeakable obligations to His redeeming love. This makes obedience pleasing, and the strength they derive from Him makes it easy.
We may now proceed to inquire in the last place, What is it to use the law lawfully? The expression implies that it may be used unlawfully and it is so by too many. It is not a lawful use of the law to seek justification and acceptance with God by our obedience to it, because it is not appointed for this end, or capable of answering it, in our circumstances. The very attempt is a daring impeachment of the wisdom and goodness of God, for if righteousness could come by the law, then Christ had died in vain (Gal 3:21), so that such a hope is not only groundless, but sinful and when persisted in under the light of the Gospel, is no less than a willful rejection of the grace of God.
Again, it is an unlawful use of the law, that is, an abuse of it, an abuse both of law and of Gospel — to pretend that its accomplishment by Christ releases believers from any obligation to it as a rule. Such an assertion is not only wicked, but absurd and impossible in the highest degree, for the law is founded in the relation between the Creator and creature, and must unavoidably remain in force so long as that relation exists. While He is God, and we are creatures, in every possible or supposable circumstance — He must have an unrivaled claim to our reverence, love, trust, service, and submission.
No true believer can possibly admit a thought or wish of being released from his obligation of obedience to God, in whole or in part. He will rather startle from it with abhorrence. But Satan labors to drive unstable souls from one extreme to another, and has too often succeeded. Wearied with vain endeavors to keep the law, that they might obtain life by it, and afterwards taking up with a notion of the Gospel devoid of power, they have at length despised that obedience which is the honor of a Christian and essentially belongs to his character, and have abused the grace of God into a license for sin.
But we have not so learned Christ. To speak affirmatively — the law is lawfully used as a means of conviction of sin. For this purpose it was promulgated at Sinai. The law entered that sin might abound — not to make men more wicked, though occasionally, and by abusing it, it has that effect — but to make them sensible how wicked they are.
Having God's law in our hands, we are no longer to form our judgment by the maxims and customs of the world, where evil is called good — and good evil; but are to test every principle, temper, and practice by the standard of God's Word. Could men be prevailed upon to do this, they would soon listen to the Gospel with attention. On some, the Spirit of God does thus prevail. Then they earnestly make the jailer's inquiry, "What must I do to be saved?" (Acts 16:30). Here the work of grace begins and the sinner, convicted in his own conscience, is brought to Jesus for life.
Again, when we use the law as a looking-glass, to behold the glory of God — then we use it lawfully. His glory is eminently revealed in Christ, but much of it is with a special reference to the law and cannot be otherwise revealed. We see the perfection and excellence of the law in His life. God was glorified by His obedience as a man. What a perfect character did He exhibit! Yet it is no other than a transcript of the law. Such would have been the character of Adam and all his race — if only the law had been duly obeyed.
It appears, therefore, a wise and holy institution, fully capable of displaying that perfection of conduct by which man would have answered the end of his creation. As we see the inviolable strictness of the law in Christ's death — the glory of God in the law is manifested. Though He was the beloved Son, and had yielded personal obedience in the utmost perfection — yet, when He stood in our place, to make atonement for sin, He was not spared. From what He endured in Gethsemane and upon the cross, we learn the meaning of that awful sentence, "The soul that sins, it shall die!" (Ezekiel 18:4).
Another lawful use of the law is to consult it as a rule and pattern, by which to regulate our heart and conduct. The grace of God, received by faith, will dispose us to obedience in general, but through remaining darkness and ignorance, we are much at a loss as to particulars. We are, therefore, sent to the law — that we may learn how to walk worthy of God, who has called us to His kingdom and glory, and every precept has its proper place and use.
Lastly, we use the law lawfully — when we improve it as a test whereby to judge of the exercise of grace. Believers differ so much from what they once were, and from what many still are — that without this right use of the law, comparing themselves with their former selves or with others — they would be prone to think more highly of their attainments than they ought. But when they recur to this standard, they sink into the dust, and adopt the language of Job, "Behold I am vile!" (Job 40:4) and "I cannot answer you one of a thousand!" (See Job 9:3).
From hence we may collect, in brief, how the law is good to those who use it lawfully. It furnishes them with a comprehensive and accurate view of the will of God and the path of duty. By the study of the law, they acquire an habitual spiritual taste of what is right or wrong. The exercised believer, like a skillful workman, has a rule in his hand, whereby he can measure and determine with certainty. Whereas others judge, as it were, by the eye — and can only make a random guess, in which they are generally mistaken. The law likewise, by reminding them of their deficiencies and short-comings, is a sanctified means of making and keeping them humble, and it exceedingly endears Jesus, the law-fulfiller to their hearts and puts them in mind of their absolute dependence upon Him every moment.
If these reflections should prove acceptable to you, I have my desire. I send them to you by the press, in hopes that the Lord may accompany them with His blessing to others. The subject is of great importance and were it rightly understood — it might conduce to settle some of the angry controversies which have been lately agitated.
Clearly to understand the distinction, connection, and harmony between the law and the Gospel, and their mutual subserviency to illustrate and establish each other — is a singular privilege and a happy means of preserving the soul from being entangled by errors on the right or the left.
John Newton, 1765