How to Use the Law-Lawfully-to Bear Fruit for God by John Piper
John Piper teaches us that knowing the God of the Old Testament is to know Christ and the more that we see his glory and treasure his worth, the more we will be changed into his likeness.
The question crying for an answer after Romans 7 is how Christians should use the law of God revealed in the Old Testament. The reason this question is crying for an answer is that Paul has said things about the law that show its weakness and powerlessness to justify us and sanctify us. Romans 8:3, “What the law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh . . .”
Law-Keeping Cannot Justify You
I have argued that law-keeping can’t justify us in the courtroom of God: If his verdict changes from guilty to not guilty, it will be because we trust in Christ’s righteousness and death, not in our law-keeping. And if our hearts are changed from rebellious to submissive it will not be owing to law, but to the Spirit of Christ at work in our hearts. Again and again I have directed your attention to Romans 7:4, “Therefore, my brethren, you also were made to die to the Law through the body of Christ, so that you might be joined to another, to Him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit for God.” In other words, if we want to bear the fruit of love in our lives – and we will bear this fruit, if we are children of God – then we must pursue at it in a way that does not treat the law as our first or chief or decisive means of change.
What Then Shall We Do with the Law?
But this continual reference to dying to the law has raised the question for many of you: What then shall we do with the law? Are we to read the books of Moses? Are we to read the Ten Commandments and the other laws in the Old Testament? What are we to make of the saints of the Old Testament who said things like, “But his delight is in the law of the Lord, And in His law he meditates day and night” (Psalm 1:2). “The law of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul; The testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple. . . . They are more desirable than gold, yes, than much fine gold; Sweeter also than honey and the drippings of the honeycomb” (Psalm 19:7, 10). “O how I love Your law! It is my meditation all the day” (Psalm 119:97).
And even here in Romans we have the same spirit. In Romans 7:22 Paul says, “For I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man.” And in Romans 7:25 he says, “I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.” This delight in the law and this “serving the law of God” does not sound as absolute as “death to the law.”
Not only that, look with me at Romans 3:20-22. Paul makes clear first (in v. 20) that “by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin.” In other words, “law-keeping” will never change our verdict from guilty to not-guilty and will not be the ground of our acceptance in the last judgment. My one plea now and then for acceptance with God is that I have trusted not in my own law-keeping or my own imperfect, blood-bought, Spirit-wrought sanctification, but in Christ’s blood and righteousness. That is my one perfect plea in the courtroom of heaven now and always. “By works of the law no flesh will be justified.”
That is Paul’s conclusion so far: There is none righteous, no not one. But now what is our hope? Where does it come from? He says in verse 21, “But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, (22) even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe.” The hope of unrighteous people like us and all our friends and enemies is that God has brought about a righteousness that is possible for us to have that is not based on works of the law but based on Jesus Christ. He calls it “the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ.” We can be reckoned righteous because of Christ’s life and death if we will trust in him as our Savior and Lord and Treasure.
The Testimony of the Law
But notice one crucial phrase at the end of verse 21: “being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets.” This other righteousness that is not by works of the law is witnessed to by the law. The law testifies to it. That is one clear reason why Paul can delight in the law and why we do not want to throw the law away. The law itself told us that law-keeping cannot justify and pointed us to another “righteousness” that would one day be revealed.
So when Paul gets down to Romans 3:28, he says, “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law” – just like verse 20. But then again in verse 31 he asks, “Do we then nullify the Law through faith?” And he answers, “May it never be! On the contrary, we establish the Law.” So the law itself was pointing to a goal that it could not accomplish for us or in us, but when we attained this goal (of justification and sanctification!) through faith in Christ, the law itself would be fulfilled and established. “The goal of the law is Christ for righteousness for all who believe” (Romans 10:4, own translation).
So it’s plain that we do not die to the law in every conceivable way. We rejoice in the law in some ways (Romans 7:22), and in the law we see a witness to the “righteousness of God through faith in Christ” (Romans 3:21), and we establish the law through faith in Christ (Romans 3:31); the goal of the law is Christ.
So to clarify how we should lawfully use the law, let’s go to another passage in one of Paul’s letters where he addresses this question directly, 1 Timothy 1:5-11.
1 Timothy 1:5-11: The Lawful & Unlawful Uses of the Law
Notice first the key sentence in verse 8: “But we know that the Law is good, if one uses it lawfully.” So here Paul alerts us to the fact that you can use the law lawfully or unlawfully. My guess is that failing to die to the law will result in an unlawful use of the law. But let’s see what the context says here.
In verses 5-7 Paul says what his goal is in all his preaching and ministry and why certain people have failed in reaching this goal by the way they are using the law. He says, starting in verse 5, “The goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.” There’s the goal, and how to get there. Notice the path to love is not works of law. In other words the way to pursue love is by focusing on the transformation of the heart and the conscience and the awakening and strengthening of faith. Love is not pursued first or decisively by focusing on a list of behavioral commandments and striving to conform to them. That is what we must die to.
Law Teachers Who Do not Lawfully Use the Law
Then Paul introduces us to some men who are making a mess of the law, and not arriving at the goal of love either! Verse 6: “For some men, straying from these things [that is, “a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith”], have turned aside to fruitless discussion, (7) wanting to be teachers of the Law, even though they do not understand either what they are saying or the matters about which they make confident assertions.”
These “law-teachers” do not understand that the goal of the law, which is love, is pursued not by “works of law” but by inner spiritual transformation which the law itself cannot bring about. They don’t get it. Paul says they do not know what they are talking about. They are trying to teach the law, but they are turning aside from matters of the heart and conscience and faith. And that means they are not using the law lawfully. And that is why they are not arriving at the goal of love.
Oh, how we need to take heed here! There are hundreds of people today who put themselves forward in America as teachers of the law – marriage law, child-rearing law, financial-planning law, church-growth law, leadership law, evangelism law, missions law, racial-justice law. But here’s the key question: do they understand the gospel dynamic for bringing about the change they seek? I say this only to alert you.
Are the radio programs you are learning from and the articles and books you are reading permeated by a lawful use of the law? Do the speakers and writers understand the dynamic of dying to the law and belonging to Christ by faith alone as the essential means of becoming the people of love that we ought to be? Who today would Paul speak these words over: “[They want] to be teachers of the Law, even though they do not understand either what they are saying or the matters about which they make confident assertions”? In other words, they just don’t get it. They don’t understand the gospel way that human beings are changed in a way that glorifies Christ. We need to be prepared and able to assess these things. That’s why Paul wrote this to Timothy.
The Lawful Use of the Law: Realize It Is not Made for the Righteous
Well, what then is the lawful use of the law in this text? Follow his thought from verse 8: “But we know that the Law is good, if one uses it lawfully.” What is that? Verse 9 explains. First it involves “realizing the fact that law is not made for a righteous person, but for those who are lawless and rebellious . . .” etc. He lists fourteen examples of law-breaking (following the outline of the ten commandments, the first three pairs summing up the first table of the Decalogue and the rest summing up the second table).
So the law, Paul says, is not made for a righteous person, but for the lawless and rebellious. This sounds very much like Galatians 3:19. Paul asks, “Why the Law then?” Why was it added 430 years after Abraham was justified by faith? He answers, “It was added because of transgressions.” He does not say that it was added because of righteousness. It was added because of these kinds of things we read in this list in 1 Timothy 1:9-10. The law had a special role to play in setting a rigorous, detailed standard of behavior which functioned, Paul said, to hold people imprisoned (Galatians 3:22) or under a guardian or tutor (Galatians 3:24) until Christ came and justification by faith could be focused on him. The law commanded and condemned, and pointed to a Redeemer who was to come. Then Paul says, in Galatians 3:25, “But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor.”
This, it seems to me, is what Paul is saying in 1 Timothy 1:9, the “law is not made for a righteous person, but for those who are lawless.” In other words, if the law has done its condemning and convicting work to bring you to Christ for justification and transformation, then it is not made for you anymore – in that sense. There may be other uses you can make of it, but that’s not what this text is about. The main point here is that the law has a convicting, condemning, restraining work to do for unrighteous people.
But for the righteous – for people who have come to Christ for justification and come to Christ for the inner spiritual power to love, this role of the law is past. From now on, the place where we seek the power to love is not the law of commandments but the gospel of Christ.
I think we see this powerfully in verses 10b-11. Notice how Paul sums up all that the law must be against and restrain: “whatever is contrary to sound teaching, according to the glorious gospel of the blessed God.” So where does behavior come from that is not “contrary to sound teaching,” and is “in accord with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God?” Answer: it comes from that gospel. It comes from the clean heart and the good conscience and the sincere faith that this gospel calls into being.
The law does not produce a life of love that accords with the gospel. The gospel produces a life of love that accords with the gospel.
Justification by faith alone apart from works of the law, and sanctification by faith through the power of the Spirit – these produce a life of love that accords with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God.
And woe to those who try to fix your personality or your marriage or your children or your finances or your vocation or your church or your mission or your commitment to justice, but do not understand this gospel dynamic, and turn counsel in to new law.
What Then Shall Those Who Are Justified Do with the Law of Moses?
Read it and meditate on it as those who are dead to it as the ground of your justification and the power of your sanctification. Read it and meditate on it as those for whom Christ is your righteousness and Christ is your sanctification. Which means read and meditate on it to know Christ better and to treasure him more. Christ and the Father are one (John 10:30; 14:9). So to know the God of the Old Testament is to know Christ. The more you see his glory and treasure his worth, the more you will be changed into his likeness (2 Corinthians 3:17-18), and love the way he loved – which is the fulfilling of the law (Romans 13:10).
I say it again. What shall you do with the law – you who are justified by faith alone apart from works of the law? Read it and meditate on it to know more deeply than you have ever known, the justice and mercy of God in Christ, your righteousness and your life.