Posted by: mattcolvin | March 31, 2011

Torah and 1 Timothy 1:9-10

I mentioned on Facebook that I had had a hard time explaining 1 Timothy 1:9-10 in my church’s Thursday morning men’s Bible study. I had come unprepared for the fact that our study’s participants come from a wide variety of backgrounds and have different understandings of the relationship of the Torah to Paul’s gospel. So we got bogged down in the question of why Paul would say that the Law, which Ps. 19 extols in such grand terms, is “for the lawless and insubordinate, for the ungodly and for sinners, for. The unholy and profane, etc.”

Fortunately, I got a mulligan and was able to set things on a clearer footing this week. I relied largely on two things: N.T. Wright’s general portrait of Paul’s theology from his commentary on Romans, and (even more valuable), Tim Gallant’s excellent essay-book, These Are Two Covenants. This book is especially helpful because it is written by former theonomist who has come to a (not uncritical) appreciation of some of the insights of the New Perspective on Paul. In other words, Tim is coming from some of the same background as many of our church’s men.

The difficulty we were having mostly stemmed from a failure to think historically. The question was “How can we say that ‘the Law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul” or “How can a young man cleanse his way? By keeping it according to your Law” and at the same time “the Law is not made for a righteous person, but for the lawless, disobedient, etc”?

Tim mentions 1 Timothy 1:8 in this connection. He helpfully adduces several similar verses to show that Paul very definitely conceived of the Torah as having a function of magnifying and aggregating sin:

…by means of Torah, “Scripture has imprisoned all under Sin” (3:22). This is paralleled in 3:23 with being imprisoned under Torah, which in turn leads into the identification of Torah as paidagôgos in 3:24. Thus, in this context, (footnote: As opposed to, say, 1 Timothy 1:8-11) Paul’s view of Torah is not dealing with the restraint of sin, but confinement under Sin. Paul frequently makes similar remarks: “Torah entered, so that the trespass might increase” (Romans 5:20); “the strength of Sin is Torah” (1 Corinthians 15:56). (p. 38)

I would suggest, despite Tim’s footnote, that 1 Timothy 1:8-11 is actually right in line with the other passages here cited. After all, restraint of sin is a function that the Law could exercise even for a righteous man. Its function in 1 Timothy 1 seems to be specific to the long list of evildoers patterned on the Decalogue: lawless and insubordinate, impious and sinners, unholy, and profane…” The Torah is “established for them”. Thus, anyone who wants to be under Torah now — who wants that old covenant to be the means of his relationship to God — is choosing a covenant that no longer has any grace:

Consequently, there can be no question of allowing Gentiles to come under Torah’s yoke. This would be to make them slaves in a covenant which not only was never intended for them, but further, would seal them into a covenant whose grace has been withdrawn. (p. 88)

If we take seriously this characterization of the Torah as a defunct, broken, and therefore deadly covenant, we can make good sense of Paul’s statement that it is “made for” the ungodly: the list in 1 Timothy 1:9-10 is very similar to other Pauline lists of wickedness, as for instance 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 or Galatians 5:19-21 or Colossians 3:5-6. In these cases, Paul is clear: these people “will not inherit the kingdom of God” and “because of these things, the wrath of God is coming upon the disobedient”.

In 1 Timothy 1, Paul is instructing his assistant Timothy to put a stop to the false and distracting teaching of those who want to be νομοδιδασκαλοι, “teachers of the Torah”. He says that their teaching does not promote love, but speculation. As NT Wright puts it, “The implication throughout is: well, if they want to teach the law, that’s fine, but it presumes that their hearers are people of this sort — whereas, if they are working in a Christian community, their hearers ought not to be people of that sort.” (Tom Wright, Paul for Everyone: the Pastoral Epistles).

People of what sort? Unbelievers who are shut up unto condemnation because they are in a covenant that cannot save any longer. Where before, the Torah was a paidagogos, and kept Israel safe until the coming of Christ, it is that no longer, but is instead a jailor. We are dealing with the Torah in its frightening post-advent aspect: now that Christ has come, it brings death and condemnation, so that there remains nothing but a “fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God.” Paul is saying that the nomodidaskaloi are in fact leading people into apostasy. That is why he uses the verbs typical of apostasy: they have “strayed” and “turned aside”. The fruit of their speculation is not only idle talk, but the obscuring of the gospel.

One of the things I have most appreciated about the preaching of my own pastor is that every sermon is likely to paint for us a view of the New Creation, of the “new way of being human”, of the good news of Jesus’ resurrection. This used to bother me. I wanted expositions of particular commandments. I wanted topical sermons on Christian living. But I have come to realize that the preaching and teaching of my pastor — including his refusal to make an issue out of such things as contraception, head coverings, homeschooling, Christian schooling, modest dress, etc. — is at least partly responsible for the peace, love, and harmony of his church. He realizes that “the purpose of the charge” — Paul’s charge to Timothy to stop the “teachers of the Torah” with all their myths and speculations — is love, and that the way to bring about that love is to teach the gospel that Paul taught.


  1. the preaching and teaching of my pastor — including his refusal to make an issue out of such things as contraception, head coverings, homeschooling, Christian schooling, modest dress, etc. — is at least partly responsible for the peace, love, and harmony of his church.

    I’m jealous, but not surprised.

  2. Brother,

    I was with you until your last paragraph. I’m wondering how you would understand Paul’s instructions in I Tim 4? I think there that Paul gives more concrete, though perhaps not complete, examples of the speculations and myths to which he refers in Chapter 1. He then goes on to exhort Timothy to use the Torah (both here and more famously in II Tim 3) to train his hearers in godliness/righteousness and as Chapter 5 progresses, he lists a whole litany of topical issues upon which Timothy is to teach, summing with a generic “teach and urge these things” (ESV). In Titus 2, Eph 4-6 (to name a couple more), Paul spends a great deal of time lecturing on Christian living. Why wouldn’t a pastor preach, teach and urge these things?

    I agree with you that where there is little authoritative detail (contraception, head coverings, method of schooling, etc.) churches should have less to say not more, but that shouldn’t prevent a pastor from calling his congregation to sexual purity, modesty, belief that children are a blessing (no matter if you have 1 or 11), parents should train their children in righteousness, encourage young widows to remarry and have children, don’t fellowship with professed believers who are practicing sexual immorality, etc.


    • Ken,

      I’m all for particular exhortations.

      One of the conclusions we drew from Ephesians is that the efforts you to discipline yourself are to be seen as part of Christ’s cosmic dominion over the creation, so that in a very real sense, ethical conclusions about dress, education, childrearing, etc. are all to be outworkings of the gospel itself.

      The question isn’t “Should we obey?”, but rather, “How can love be fostered and exhorted in preaching and teaching?”

  3. One more quick thing: the fact that Paul tells Titus to instruct the women in his congregation to “train the young women to love their husbands and children, 5to be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their own husbands”, wouldn’t that entail specifics of some sort, e.g. how is she to be pure, how does she demonstrate submissiveness, etc.?

    Isn’t this a bit like formulating an authoritative doctrine of the Trinity? We have to come with some specifics but its an indication of wisdom to limit (but not eliminate) a plethora of details. The Nicene Creed is good teaching whereas Ralph Smith’s theories may be entertaining but they’re not a test of fellowship/orthodoxy.

    • Ken,

      Don’t get me wrong. The question isn’t whether we need to obey God, or whether there are better and worse answers to ethical questions of this sort. The question is how we arrive at those answers and motivate obedience. My pastor starts with the gospel as the uniting and motivating vision of the church, and the answers to these questions — including how much time to spend on them, and in what way one ought to answer them — is determined by that vision.

      So for instance, you are quite likely to hear say something like “be modest in your dress”, but very unlikely to hear a sermon unpacking every implication of that, still less setting rules for how to do it or drawing lines in the sand as shibboleths so we can tell who isn’t doing it. And this is what we see in Paul: the focus, the center of gravity of his letters is the gospel, the declaration that Jesus is risen and thus that we are living in the new creation. That’s what shapes his answer to a particular situation — including thorny and difficult ones like “Do I need to stay with my unbelieving spouse after my conversion?” and “How should I treat my runaway slave who has returned?” He doesn’t arrive at these answers by casuistry apart from the gospel. The gospel makes all the difference in his answers, because it both changes the goal of our behavior, and gives us the power and motivation to obey.

      There is a family in our church that recently decided to make what I believe is a wiser decision about how to educate their children. There is a young woman who recently changed how she dresses, at least on Sundays. There are men who have changed how they behave toward their wives and children. There is a thirty-five-year old arrogant legalist who has learned to be more humble and to love the brethren. In none of these cases was there an intervention (as far as I know). What happened? Children of God sat under the teaching of the gospel week in and week out. By worshipping Jesus together with their brothers and sisters, they learned to love different things and gained inspiration and ability to do so.

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