The Glory of the Happy God
Coming into this week, I assumed this was going to be an easy sermon. I long had loved this passage, especially verses 10–11. I even wrote up some thoughts on it for our Quarterly. So I thought I was already half done with my sermon.
I was not. This passage turned out to be trickier than I thought, and it had to do especially with the word law. When Paul refers to “the law,” what does he have in mind? Is it laws in general and how they work, or the commands of Christ specifically, or the Old Testament law in particular? And what does it mean for how we as Christians read and teach about “the law” today?
But before we get to the question about law, there’s another we need to tackle first.So let’s approach 1 Timothy 1:8–11 by asking (and answering) three questions.
Q1) What is “sound doctrine”? (1 Timothy 1:10)
The phrase “sound doctrine” (or literally “healthy teaching”) appears at the end of verse 10, and this is one of the most important concepts in in 1 Timothy, as well 2 Timothy and Titus (together we call the three “the Pastoral Epistles”).
Last week, we saw in verse 3 that Paul wants Timothy to stay in the city of Ephesus to “charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine” (1 Timothy 1:3). And near the end of the letter, he will say, in 1 Timothy 6:3–4, “If anyone teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness, he is puffed up with conceit and understands nothing.”
The battle lines in Ephesus are doctrinal. This is a war between teachers (and believe it or not, it so often comes down to this). The health of the church is being threatened by false teaching, and Timothy’s task, with the pastor-elders, is to fight back with good teaching.
In 2 Timothy, Paul will say, “The time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths” (2 Timothy 4:3–4). Then in Titus 1:9: A pastor-elder “must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.” And Titus 2:1: “Teach what accords with sound doctrine.”
Throughout 1 Timothy, we will be hearing the contrast between good teaching and bad. Between healthy teaching and unhealthy. Between the kind of teaching that produces healthy spiritual lives (“godliness”) and the kind that does not.
And what’s especially important about this first mention of “healthy teaching” in verse 10 is that more than anywhere else, it answers for us what is the key to “healthy teaching,” or the key to “sound Christian doctrine.” Have you ever asked yourself, What is the determining factor, for Christians, in whether teaching or doctrine or theology is healthy or not? Is there a litmus test, or organizing principle, or heart, core, touchstone, of what makes teaching “sound” or unsound? Healthy or unhealthy?
How do you know when evaluating a sermon, or a preacher, or a book, or podcast, or a conversation? Is this sound? Is it healthy? Will this produce godliness, or something else? Paul tells us in this text.
Look at the end of verse 10 and the beginning of verse 11: “Sound doctrine,” he says, is “in accordance with the gospel.” This might seem too simple to be true. The heart and core and center and organizing principle of Christian theology is, in the words of verse 15, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” The good news. True doctrine explains and supports and complements that message, and false teaching blurs and mutes and obscures it.
God created the world to give it, as a gift of love, to his Son (Hebrews 1:2). And he sent his Son into the world, as the pinnacle of all time and history, to save sinners through his death and resurrection and ascend to the throne as the King of all kings, and Lord of all lords. This is the gospel, or good news, of the Christian faith: “Jesus saves sinners.” This is the climax and heart and core of why God made the world, and all that Christians believe and confess relates in some way to this. Not just the truths we think of as exciting and comforting, like God’s love and mercy, but also the dark and difficult and unsettling truths like sin and divine wrath and eternal punishment in hell.
“Sound doctrine,” Paul says, is “in accordance with the gospel.” Christian doctrine, in all its details, gets its bearings from a particular message. Good, healthy teaching (that produces healthy Christian living) has the gospel of Jesus Christ at its center. It explains and upholds and expresses and is relentlessly shaped by Jesus’s person and work. This is one reason, among others, we at Cities Church love ending all our sermons at the Table.)
This may sound simple enough, but we need to see it in context here over and against what Paul is contrasting such gospel-centeredness with: law-centeredness. Living by external letter, rather than internal Spirit. Which raises questions, because what letter or external law would Christians otherwise try to live by? The law of Moses, and by extension, the Old Testament. But Paul and the apostles believe that the good news about Jesus, by the Spirit, is the power for the Christian life. And because of this, some accuse Paul of being anti-law. Which leads him in our passage to defend what he believes about the law, and how it relates to the gospel, and leads to our second question.
Q2) How do Christians use the Old Testament properly? (1 Timothy 1:8–10)
The reason we’re now asking about the Old Testament is because of the mention of “the law.” Last week we saw in verse 7 that the troublemakers in Ephesus were “desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make confident assertions.” Typically when Paul talks about “the law,” he is talking about the Old Testament, the first five books in particular, and by extension, sometimes called “the law and the prophets,” is the whole of God’s first-covenant Scripture with his people. (There is a twist, though, in a minute.)
The false teachers may be claiming that Paul has left the Old Testament behind in all his emphasis on Jesus and the gospel and grace and the internal power of the Spirit to change lives, rather than law-keeping. So Paul needs to clarify that it’s the false teachers who are the problem, not the law of God. Not the Old Testament. Look at verses 8–10:
Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully [it’s a play on words; “lawfully” means “properly”], 9 understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, 10 the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine.
As Christians, we do not leave the Old Testament behind. We do not “unhitch” ourselves from God’s word. As Paul says in Romans 7:12: “the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.” It is true that with the coming of the new covenant in Christ, that which the Old Testament anticipated has come. And Christians, Paul writes, are no longer “under law” (Romans 7:6; Galatians 2:16; 3:19–26) but “under grace” (Romans 6:14–15). In other words, God’s people are no longer under the old covenant but under the new. “The law,” the Old Testament, is no longer the present and active covenant of the people of God, but it is our Scripture. The question is not whetherwe use the Old Testament but how. What Paul makes clear here, and elsewhere, is that we read and teach the law now in light of the coming of Christ. We engage the Old Testament in light of the gospel.
So, Christians do not make the Old Testament into the bad guy. We don’t pit God’s first-covenant teaching against the new covenant. And we don’t pretend the first covenant is the new. So, to our question, How do Christians “use the law lawfully”? How do we use the Old Testament properly?
There is, admittedly, too much to say. There are books and books on this. But let’s stay with this text and the list of sins that follows, and the one other passage in the Pastoral Epistles more like it. First, let’s look there, to 2 Timothy 3:15–17:
. . . from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings (the Old Testament), which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.
In all Paul’s celebration of the gospel and grace and the power of the Spirit, he is not unhitching from the Old Testament. The problem is with the false teachers, not with the true Scriptures. The false teachers are teaching in such a way that the gospel of Christ is being minimized, or marginalized, or ignored. But Paul’s key for how to orient on the Old Testament is that all-important phrase in 2 Timothy 3:15: “through faith in Christ Jesus.” “The sacred writings . . . are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” Faith in Christ unlocks the Old Testament and makes the Scriptures “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.”
So, Cities Church, let’s take the law of Moses, and all the Old Testament, seriously as our Scripture and meditation and joy, and all “through faith in Christ Jesus.” And we’ll keep learning together, as we did in our Genesis series, and hope to so more this summer in studying Psalms, what it means for Christians to “use the law lawfully.”
However, secondly, how to “use the law lawfully” leads in this particular text to this list of sins (the “vice list”). In the context of battling the false teachers, who desire to be “teachers of the law,” Paul accents one particular ongoing relevance of the Old Testament: it cuts through the blinders and delusions of our sin to make clear to us what we really know deep down, that we are sinners. Verse 9: “Law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient.”
Now this is where the language gets tricky. “The law” in verse 8 means the Old Testament, but is that also the case for “law” in verse 9? It may be. Then who would be “the just” (literally, “the righteous”)? Well, the New Testament often talks about Christians as “the righteous” (among others, Romans 3:20, 24, 26, 28; Hebrews 12:23). But might Paul refer to “the law” as Old Testament in verse 8, and then appeal in verse 9 to how laws in general operate, including the Old Testament? “Law is not laid down for the righteous but for” the unrighteous. But either way, clearly “the law” as Old Testament is in view in this passage, and even if Paul means “law” generally in verse 8, the vice list soon falls into line with the Ten Commandments, which are the summary expression of Moses’s law.
What we need to note is that the Old Testament is good for more than just exposing sin. Paul is not saying that exposing sin is the only ongoing purpose of the Old Testament for Christians. To summarize, reliable theologians have often talked about “three uses of the law” for the Christian: (1) it shows us God and exposes our sin, (2) it restrains evil in society, and (3) it serves us as a guide for life (not as the grounds of our acceptance with God, but as a guide for living). But what the law does not do is give us pardon or power. God reserves that for the person and work of his Son and his Spirit.
God does not lay down the law as the power for the Christian life. Rather, Jesus lays down his life, and sends down his Spirit, and the function the law serves is to awaken us to our need for Jesus and his Spirit.
The Vice List
Now, about this vice list. As Paul describes the kind of unrighteous people who can be awakened to the reality of their sin and powerlessness through the law, he begins with six general terms (which correspond roughly with the first four of the Ten Commandments, which are Godward), and then he follows the course of commandments five through ten, which orient toward fellow humans. Look at the list of sins in verses 9–10. Law is laid down for . . .
[first the general terms, in relation to God] the lawless and disobedient . . . the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, [then Fifth Commandment] for those who strike their fathers and mothers, [then Sixth] for murderers, [then Seventh] the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality [Paul coins a term here based on Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 which condemns all homosexual practice, no matter how loving, committed, and consensual], [Eight] enslavers, [Nine] liars, perjurers, and [Ten, the catch all] whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine.
But don’t think that sinners don’t know they are such unless they hear from Moses. We know by nature that these sins listed in verses 9–10 are wrong. But sin has darkened our minds and hearts. So we seek to justify our actions. And so God gives his law to make even clearer what we already know. He gives his law, among other reasons, to show sinners their sin. To give them another warning that they are rebels in need of reconciliation.
But the role the law plays for the unrighteous is limited. The law exposes our sin, but it cannot get us right with God. Because the law lays out what we must do and we cannot save ourselves. God means for his law awaken us to our need and point us to Jesus and his gospel as the answer.
One final aspect to consider here is the rhetorical force of this vice list. Paul mentions this list of sins to press what the false teachers may be trending toward, whether in their own lives or the lives of those they’re teaching. He’s saying, in effect, you want to be teachers of the law, do you? Then use it to expose sin you’ve been avoiding. Don’t get distracted by Jewish myths and endless speculation about genealogies. Expose sin. Use the law for what it’s for: for calling out sin and driving people to Jesus.
So, in short, the proper use of the Old Testament is to read and teach it with our eyes wide awake to Jesus and the gospel. “The sacred writings . . . are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.”
Q3) Why is the good news so good? (1 Timothy 1:11)
As we said at the beginning, Paul says “sound doctrine” or “healthy teaching” is “in accord with the gospel” — but he doesn’t stop at gospel. And I am so glad he didn’t. Because the words that follow give us an amazing look into what makes the good news so good. Look at verse 11:
[Sound doctrine is] in accordance with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted.
“The gospel of the glory of the blessed God.” At first glance, this phrase may not seem all that extraordinary to us, but these are not throwaway words for the apostle Paul, even if two thousand years later we have to dig below the surface and shake off the dirt from the Christian buzzwords.
Here we find, piled on top of each other, three of the most important words in the Bible, three of the most important realities in the universe, and three words Christians can be prone to hear and say so often we miss the depth of their meaning. Gospel. Glory. Blessed. “The gospel of the glory of the blessed God.”
Gospel, as we’ve seen, is the good news that God himself, in the person of his Son, has made a way to rescue us, by faith, from our sins and the eternal death we justly deserve. The heart of our faith is gospel, not law. Good news, not good advice.
Glory is the beauty of God’s perfections, or the visible display of God’s infinite value and worth. “God made us for his glory” means he designed us to show his greatness in the world. And what is God doing in all of history in this visible, tangible world? Showing us his glory. And what is the height of his glory? Ephesians 1:6 says it’s “the glory of his grace.” Jesus and his rescue, called the gospel, is where God’s glory shines its brightest.
Blessed may be the trickiest of all. What does it mean that God is “the blessed God”? Blessed here doesn’t simply mean he’s worthy of worship, that we should “bless” him in praise. That’s true, but as an adjective for God, it’s deeper than that. He is worthy of our worship, but his being “the blessed God” means, in essence, he is “the happy God.” And his happiness, in all its glory, is the ground of the possibility of our being truly, deeply, enduringly happy in him, forever.
Beneath our conduct and we what do and don’t do, and beneath faithful teaching, and beneath sound doctrine (which is the content of our teaching) is “the gospel of the glory of the happy God.” God is not the cosmic killjoy so many of us have feared. He is not frustrated and sad. He is not grumpy and sour. No, he is blessed. He is infinitely happy. “Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases” (Psalm 115:3).
And this infinitely happy God, in his fullness, has gone public in creation and redemption with his infinite value and worth, called his glory. And the height of his glory is the demonstration of his fullness in the sacrifice of his Son for the eternal happiness of his people, called the gospel. And what good news it is for born law-breakers like us. Not just that God rescues sinners. But that he is glorious. And he is gloriously happy.
What makes the good news so good is that it welcomes us into the majestic glory of the infinitely happy God.
This Happy Table
In our study of 1 Timothy we’re hoping to “put God’s house in order.” 1 Timothy 3:15 calls us “God’s household, the church of the living God.” And it is such good news that the Father of this household is infinitely happy. And when Daddy is contagiously happy, the household is happy, and it’s a safe place to be honest about your disappointments and struggles. Our Father is happy enough to handle your sadness and pain. This is a good place to heal, and be restored to joy, and find joy that is deeper than all your pains.