On one hand, the Apostle Paul teaches us that we, as believers in Jesus Christ, “have died to the law through the body of Christ” (Romans 7:4) and on the other hand that “the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good” (12). Which is it? Paul hints at a balanced answer to this question when he writes to Timothy that “we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully” (1 Timothy 1:8).
It is helpful then for us to consider, or reconsider, the goodness of God in all that he does—including giving us the law—and how we are to use the good law God has given us lawfully.
More than just a list of do’s and don’ts, Jesus later summarizes all the law in terms of love. So, we might well approach each commandment as an answer to this question first and foremost: how can I better love God and love my neighbor?
And, like everything that God says and does, the law is for our good as well as for His glory. This is why God Himself says, in the same book in which He reiterates the law, “Oh that they had such a heart as this always, to fear me and to keep all my commandments, that it might go well with them and with their descendants forever!” (Deuteronomy 5:29).
If sin really does lead to death, then one of the kindest things God does is define it for us and warn us against it. We ought not, then, to see the law as the “No Trespassing” sign of a grouchy old neighbor who doesn’t want us to have fun enjoying the extra space in his yard (this is how the devil framed the issue for Eve). Instead, we should see the law as serving more as a “Warning: High Voltage” sign that draws attention to the real danger of getting too close to deadly things.
The Law Is Good for Unbelievers
It is the goodness of God to forbid all of us from sin. It is the goodness of God also to describe sin—and goodness!—for us in His moral law, so that we might know it when we see it, and keep from the one and pursue the other with all our might.
It Restrains the Wicked
Benjamin Franklin, an unbeliever, described the effect of George Whitefield’s preaching during the Great Awakening in early America: “It was wonderful to see the change soon made in the manners of the inhabitants.”
Similarly, Thomas Jefferson, also an unbeliever, nonetheless made this clear affirmation of the wisdom found in the law of the God of the Bible: “I have always said and always will say that the studious perusal of the Sacred Volume will make us better citizens.”
The law God has given us in His Word is good, even for non-Christians, because it restrains the wicked: “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…” (1 Timothy 1:9). Paul continues by listing examples of people who habitually break the Ten Commandments.
In other words, the Ten Commandments are not just useful for devout Christians but as a purposeful restraint upon those individuals who are currently living in conscious, continual rebellion against God. This is because, as the writer of Proverbs observed long ago, “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people” (Proverbs 14:34).
The fact is, there is not a single individual—in any age or any culture—who will not be improved by submitting him or her self to the perfect standard of God’s perfect character, reflected in God’s perfect law.
It Declares God’s Justice to the World
Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, “Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God” (Romans 3:19).
God’s law not only improves every society — it condemns every individual. Have you ever stolen? Told a lie? Desired someone else’s success or possessions? Then you are guilty before a holy and just God! Every mouth is muzzled by the fact we are all clearly guilty before God.
It should be striking, although not surprising, that the Bible says there will not be a single “not guilty” plea submitted on Judgment Day when we all stand before Christ to give account for how we lived our lives. The same conscience that warns us even now of the reality of God and His coming judgment will, it seems, be so utterly devastated by the sight of Christ’s glory that every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Christ is Lord of all. All of this brings me now to explain a third way in which the law is good, even for unbelievers.
It is a Tutor to Bring One to Christ
While many reject God’s law out of irreligion because they do not want to acknowledge God, others reject the law out of religion because they do not want to submit to God. People in the first category do not want to recognize the authority of God as God, the lawgiver of the universe. Individuals in the second group run to religion, in any of its many different forms, to “earn” their right to God’s pleasure rather than the relying on the one way to acceptance with God that God Himself has provided through the finished work of Christ.
The law of God is good for both groups of people because it points both to God’s universal authority to set standards for human thoughts and actions and to humanity’s universal inability to meet those standards on their own. The perfect law of God, properly understood, points us to our utter dependence on Jesus Christ as God’s only sufficient way of salvation for real sinners.
Paul emphasizes this benefit of the law as he writes to the churches in Galatia: “The Scripture imprisoned everything under sin so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe … So then, the law was our guardian [or “tutor”] until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith” (Romans 3:21-26).
You and I can never be good enough to please God on our own because God is perfectly good and we are not. But Jesus Christ came and lived a perfect life, died for sinners on the cross by taking our sins upon Himself, and rose from the dead to prove He is who He says He was – God in human flesh! One great purpose of the law is to teach us with classroom-like precision and thoroughness to run to Christ and throw ourselves upon His grace.
The Law Is Good for Believers
When you think of the call of the Christian message, what would you describe it as a call to? To holiness? Kindness? Forgiveness? Less flatteringly, to strictness? Boredom? Hypocrisy? Certainly, the pop-culture portrayal of Christianity is that it is bondage, a call that will just cramp your style.
Many Christians, sadly, have bought into—even perpetuated—this portrayal of religious bondage. But shouldn’t it be instructive to us that our society, which totes personal freedom and choice as the greatest good, is itself given so deeply to so many addictions and wrestles so constantly with dissatisfaction, insecurity, and depression?
The reality is that the law of God is the path of freedom and joy. That truth is even moreso for the Christian, for it makes our lives meaningful and fruitful as we seek to submit to it (Romans 7:4) by teaching us what is good and right and healthful for the soul (Psalm 1:2; 19:7-10).
Most of all, it helps us be conformed more and more into the image of our beloved Savior, who perfectly came to fulfill the law and whose character is thus perfectly reflected in it. So even though we find ourselves continually falling short of the law, we love it and desire it. Yes, we are—as believers in Jesus Christ—under grace and not the law; but as a result of this transformation we also now desire to obey the law and hate sin’s transgressions!
No matter who you are then, the law of God is good for you is beneficial to your life. But I hope that, more than anything else, it points you to the beauty and goodness of Jesus Christ and infuses in you a desire to rest in Him and resemble His goodness yourself.