“Sound Doctrine: Law and Gospel” (1 Timothy 1:5-17)
Today begins a series of weeks in which the Epistle comes from Paul’s two letters to Timothy. Paul we know, but who is this Timothy? Timothy was Paul’s younger assistant who often traveled with him and whom Paul would sometimes have oversee things in places while Paul was off elsewhere. This is the case when Paul writes this first letter to Timothy. Paul had gone off to Macedonia, and he had Timothy remain in the big city of Ephesus, in western Asia Minor. Ephesus was a very important city for the whole region. Paul had spent a lot of time there, building up the church and training leaders. And now he has left Timothy there to carry on the work.
So that’s what these pastoral epistles to Timothy are about: Paul’s instructions to his assistant as to what needs to happen there, the doctrine that is to be taught, the practices that should be followed, the corrections that need to be made, the encouragement that Timothy himself needs in carrying on his pastoral work. There is a lot here for both pastors and congregations to learn from. And so today we will learn, from the opening of Paul’s first letter to Timothy, the importance of “Sound Doctrine: Law and Gospel.”
“Sound Doctrine,” “Law and Gospel”: These are terms we’re going to unpack this morning. But first let’s set the stage. Paul opens this letter with a few verses you don’t have in front of you. As usual, Paul begins by identifying himself as the sender and his office as an apostle of Christ. Next comes the recipient of his letter, in this case, Timothy, whom Paul calls “my true child in the faith.” Then the apostolic greeting: “Grace, mercy, and peace,” etc. Paul then reminds Timothy of one of the reasons he left him there in Ephesus, namely, “so that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine.”
You see, apparently there were some individuals in Ephesus who were taking it upon themselves to teach in the church. Only they were not teaching God’s Word correctly. They had swerved off into areas that were not helpful in building up the body of Christ. So Paul writes to Timothy to have him charge those persons not to do that any longer. The aim of this charge is, as he says, “love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.” Paul isn’t giving orders just to throw his weight around. No, the purpose here, in putting a stop to persons teaching a different doctrine, is love for all concerned.
It is loving to want–it is loving to insist on–only pure doctrine to be taught in the church. We may sound like tough guys, bad guys, when we say that there is pure doctrine and false doctrine, and that we can tell the difference, and that we will only allow pure doctrine to be taught. That sounds a little too rigid and narrow-minded in our day and age, when nobody knows what is true and false anymore, or right and wrong anymore–except that people are absolutely sure that nobody can know the truth. Of that our society is certain.
But that’s not a biblical point of view. The Bible teaches throughout that there is truth and error, there is right and wrong behavior, and that God makes known to us the difference in his revealed Word, the Holy Scriptures. We can say in the church, “Thus saith the Lord.” That’s the approach Paul takes in all of his letters. There is right doctrine and wrong doctrine, right ways to live and wrong ways to live, and God has made this known to us.
So let’s get back to this word “doctrine” for a moment. It may sound like a big heavy word, and doctrine may indeed touch on some big heavy subjects, but the word itself simply means “teaching.” Doctrine is teaching, what is taught in the church. And that teaching could be in accord with the truth or it could veer off into error and lead people astray. Paul insists on only pure doctrine being taught. The aim is love, remember.
The term that Paul uses for this kind of teaching–he uses it throughout the pastoral epistles–is “sound doctrine.” Sound doctrine, “sound,” as in “whole and healthy.” Teaching that is in accord with the truth is, in Paul’s expression, “sound doctrine.” The Greek word here for “sound” is the one from which we get our word “hygiene.” It is the “hygienic” doctrine, the clean and healthy doctrine, that will build up the body of Christ and make us strong and healthy. Anything else, anything less, will make the church weaker and less able to stand against all the afflictions and infections that will come against us. We need sound doctrine.
Sound doctrine has to do with the teachings about God, of course: the doctrine of the Trinity; the person and work of Christ; and so on. It has to do with the relationship of God to man: the doctrine of justification, how a person is put right with God; etc. Sound doctrine has to do with the words that God speaks to man, two types of words in particular, what we call Law and Gospel.
Paul deals with both Law and Gospel here in our text. These are two different types of words from God to man, so it’s important to distinguish them carefully and teach them each according to their purpose. They say two different things.
The Law is that word of God in which he tells man what to do and what not to do. The Law says, “This is the way; walk ye in it.” The Law defines what is right and wrong in God’s sight: his good design for his human creatures, and, when we cross those boundaries, his wrath against sin. God sets down those boundaries in the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments tell us that we are to love God with our whole heart and love our neighbors as ourselves. When we fail to do that, we are breaking those commandments and thus are condemned as sinners.
When people are living in direct and open violation of God’s commandments, the Law, properly applied, will tell them they are defying God and coming under his judgment. And so Paul writes in our text that the Law is laid down “for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane.” And look at how his list continues, lining up in thought so closely with the Ten Commandments. “For those who strike their fathers and mothers”: That would break the Fourth Commandment, “Honor your father and your mother.” “For murderers”: That’s the Fifth Commandment, “You shall not murder.” “The sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality”: Sexual sins are covered under the Sixth Commandment, “You shall not commit adultery.” By the way, notice that homosexuality is condemned in the New Testament, not just in the Old. Paul goes on. “Enslavers”: Among other things, enslavers are guilty of stealing, Seventh Commandment, for they are stealing the fruits of the labors of their fellow man. “Liars, perjurers”: Sins of the tongue condemned by the Eighth Commandment, “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.” Sin includes all these things and, as Paul says, “whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine.”
But it’s not just the gross sinners, the blatant sinners, who break God’s commandments. We do too, we religious people. You and I sin against God and against our neighbor, not just in the big ways, but also in the little ways, in thought, word, and deed, in what we do and what we fail to do. The Law tells us that we are sinners. We cannot be saved by our keeping of the Law, since none of us keeps it well enough. But the Law does us a service in showing us just that: that we have blown it and that we need a righteousness better than we can come up with, a righteousness outside of ourselves.
And this is where Paul moves from Law to Gospel. The Gospel is that other word that God speaks to man. The Law tells us what we are supposed to do but fail in. The Gospel tells us what God has done for us to solve our sin problem. The Law condemns us. The Gospel frees us. The Law shows us our sins. The Gospel shows us our Savior.
Look at what Paul says. He acknowledges that he himself is a sinner, big-time, who deserves only wrath and condemnation: “I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent.” Paul “acted ignorantly,” but he should have known better. He was a religious leader, an expert. He thought he was doing God a service by persecuting the church, but he was going exactly in the wrong direction. So Paul describes himself as chief of sinners, “the foremost.”
But what has God done for this chief of sinners? And what therefore has he done also for all of us, who fall somewhere–it doesn’t matter where–on that spectrum of sinners from bad to worse? Paul tells us, and this is the main message he has for Timothy and for us today: “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.”
This is the Gospel! This is the good news! This is the sound doctrine that will build up the body of Christ and make us strong and healthy. “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” Christ Jesus came into the world to save you! Whatever your sins are–blatant or subtle, dishonoring father or mother, sexual sins, sins of the tongue–whatever your sins, acknowledge them, repent of them, and know that Christ Jesus died for those sins of yours on the cross. You are forgiven. The very Son of God is your Savior. Trust in him. Look to God for strength to live as his child, alive in the Spirit to do his will. This is sound doctrine.
The Law is good. It tells you how God wants you to live, and he knows best. And as a new person in Christ, you will find strength to walk in his way. The Ten Commandments will guide you in that. But the Law cannot save you. You will never keep it well enough to escape condemnation. This is where God’s other word, the Gospel, comes in. The Gospel does what the Law cannot do. It saves you. It brings you God’s grace, mercy, peace, and forgiveness. The Gospel brings you the Savior you need, namely, Christ Jesus our Lord.
Friends, today know this in the depths of your being. Engrain it in your brain. Engrave it in your heart: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” And this means you. This truth, this sound doctrine, will make all the difference in your life in this world. It will make all the difference in your living and your dying. It will make all the difference in your life forevermore. You believe in Christ “for eternal life.” Yes, the saying is trustworthy and true: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”
And now “to the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.”