top of page


  • Tim Knowling

The Right Biblical Use of the Law

Updated: Apr 30

By Tim Knowling

What comes to our mind when we think of the word “law”? It is often the case that these thoughts will affect our whole understanding on an issue.

Gavel on vintage scales of justice. Biblical use of the law

A. W. Tozer said in relation to God that, “What comes to our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us”.1 When we think about the law many will make a comparison between the old covenant and the new, some might think upon the Pharisees and their legalistic lifestyle.

The Apostle Paul said that “the law is good if a man use it lawfully”. Now in the middle of this verse is the word “if”. We know that this word is used as a sign of condition and that what it introduces is conditional. In the context of this passage it is telling us that the law can be used rightly and wrongly. Notice that it doesn’t say that the law is bad. Romans 7:12 tells us “Wherefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good.”

Corrupt administration

To illustrate the point, let us look at civil law. It is often the case that when an injustice is handed out in a court of law, people will say that the system is broken and needs reforming. But on closer examination we usually find that the right laws are in place, but outcomes are determined by those who are administering the law.

During our Lord Jesus Christ’s earthly ministry his greatest opposition did not come from the world but from the religious leaders of his day. The Pharisees were known as “the keepers of the law”, but when we examine the way they administered their duty it could be well said that, “Thou art weighed in the balances, and art found wanting”.

No one took them to task over their abuses more seriously than Christ. In Matthew chapter 23 we read of the woes that Jesus brought upon the Pharisees. He said in verse 4, “For they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers”.

And again in verse 13, “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men: for ye neither go in yourselves, neither suffer ye them that are entering to go in”. And in verse 15 Jesus said to them, “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For ye compass the sea and land to make one proselyte, and when he is made, ye make him twofold more the child of hell than yourselves.”

Jesus also told the people, “That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven” Matthew 5:20.

This was ultimately the greatest charge against the “keepers of the law” for they were trying to use the law for the purpose of justification. Therefore, we see clearly from these scriptures, that which the Apostle Paul warned about in our key text.

Bringing it back into order

It is often the case when something is abused, that man, in trying to prevent this happening again, will disregard that which has been abused, instead of bringing it back into order. In other words, they will ‘throw the baby out with the bathwater’.

Matthew Henry in commenting on this point said, “The Jews used it [the law] unlawfully, as an engine to divide the church, a cover to the malicious opposition they made to the gospel of Christ; they set it up for justification, and so used it unlawfully. We must not therefore think to set it aside, but use it lawfully, for the restraint of sin. The abuse which some have made of the law does not take away the use of it; but, when a divine appointment has been abused, call it back to its right use and take away the abuses, for the law is still very useful as a rule of life; though we are not under it as under a covenant of works, yet it is good to teach us what is sin and what is duty.”

What then is the rightful use of the law? The apostle Paul said there was one, so what is it?

Who it applies to

If we read on in first Timothy it tells us, “Knowing this, that the law is not made for a righteous man, but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and for sinners, for murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers, for manslayers, for whoremongers, for menstealers, for liars, for perjured persons, and if there be anything else that is contrary to sound doctrine.” 1Timothy 1:9, 10 KJV

And again in the Book of Romans Paul makes clear the true and right function of the law.

“Now we know that whatever the law says, it speaks to those who are under the law, So that [the murmurs and excuses of] every mouth may be hushed and all the world may be held accountable to God. For no person will be justified (made righteous, acquitted, and judged acceptable) in His sight by observing the works proscribed by the Law, For [the real function of] the law is to make men recognize and be conscious of sin [not mere perception, but an acquaintance with sin which works toward repentance, faith, and holy character].” Romans 3:19,20 AMP

In Matthew chapter 5, the Lord Jesus shows us the true spiritual nature of the law, in that its real purpose is in dealing with the iniquity that is in the heart.

As we consider this verse above some may stop and think, ‘Ok this only applies to the Jews’, but Paul makes it clear that its purpose is to make the whole world accountable (guilty) before God. In addition, just as the Pharisees tried to use the Law unlawfully for justification, we see that it actually shuts the mouth of those who may try to justify themselves by their works.

It shows the true nature of sin

The Apostle Paul then affirms the true function of the law, which is to bring the knowledge of sin. God’s Law tells us what sin is.

First John 3:4 says, “Sin is transgression of the law”. Again the Apostle Paul confirms this by saying in Romans 7:7 that, “I had not known sin but by the law”. In Matthew chapter 5, the Lord Jesus shows us the true spiritual nature of the law, in that its real purpose is in dealing with the iniquity that is in the heart. “You have heard that it was said by them of old time, You shall not commit adultery: But I say to you, that whosoever looks on a woman to lust after her has committed adultery with her in his heart”. Matthew 5:27,28

The Apostle John also affirmed this in 1 John 3:15 that “Whosoever hates his brother is a murderer…”

It brings the Knowledge of sin

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, many preachers engaged in what was known as ‘preliminary Law work’, that of using the Law to bring the knowledge of sin.

John Wesley the great British Evangelist said, “It is the ordinary method of the Spirit of God to convict sinners by the law. It is this which, being set home on the conscience, generally breaketh the rock in pieces. It is more especially this part of the word of God which is quick and powerful, full of life and energy and sharper than any two-edged sword .”2

And Charles Spurgeon who was known as the Prince of Preachers, believed that the law was the Gospel’s most “ablest auxiliary”. He said, “I do not believe that any man can preach the gospel who does not preach the law. Lower the law and you dim the light by which man perceives his guilt; this is a very serious loss to the sinner rather than a gain; for it lessens the likelihood of his conviction and conversion.”3

One of the other reasons that the law is effective is that our consciences affirm its truth.

In Romans chapter 2, we read, “For it is not merely hearing the Law [read] that makes one righteous before God, but it is the doers of the Law who will be held guiltless and acquitted and justified. When Gentiles who have not the [divine] Law do instinctively what the Law requires, they are a Law to themselves, since they do not have the Law. They show that the essential requirements of the Law are written in their hearts and are operating there, which their conscience (sense of right and wrong) also bear witness; and their [moral] decisions (their arguments of reason, their condemning or approving thoughts) will accuse or perhaps defend and excuse [them].” Romans 2:13-15 AMP

Paris Reidhead, a missionary who went to Africa in 1945, found out the truth of this passage when dealing with the native population. He found a people who knew what was right and wrong because, as he said, God had written it (the law) into the memory of every human being. It can’t be erased because God has placed it there. In a message he preached about the right use of the law he commented, “When 100 years ago earnest scholars decreed that the law had no relationship to the preaching of the gospel, they deprived the Holy Spirit in the area where their influence prevailed, of the only instrument with which He had ever armed Himself to prepare sinners for grace.”4

It makes sin abound

Romans 5:20 says, “Moreover the law entered, that the offence might abound. But where sin abounded, grace did much more abound”.

As we have already seen from scripture, it is the law that makes sin abound. As unregenerate sinners, we go through life with a carefree attitude to sin. Often the excuse is “everybody else is doing it”, thinking that this lets them off the hook. However, when the Law comes into effect it makes our sin to abound. Our sin becomes personal. Lust becomes adultery and those little fibs show us that we are false witnesses; we are murderers because we have had hatred towards another.

“I do not believe that any man can preach the gospel who does not preach the law. Lower the law and you dim the light by which man perceives his guilt; this is a very serious loss to the sinner rather than a gain; for it lessens the likelihood of his conviction and conversion.” Charles Spurgeon

The following excerpt has been taken from the School of Biblical Evangelism Course ‘Lesson 2’.

“We can see the work of God’s Law illustrated in civil law. For example, when there is no visible sign of the law on a freeway, motorists often transgress the speed limit. Apparently, each speedster says to himself the law has forgotten to patrol his part of the freeway. He is transgressing the law by only 15 kph, and besides he isn’t the only one doing it.

Notice what happens when the law enters the fast lane, with red lights flashing. The speedster’s heart misses a beat. He is no longer secure in the fact that other motorists are also speeding. He knows that he is personally as guilty as the next guy, and he could be the one the law pulls over. The fact that there are other people doing it is irrelevant. Suddenly, his ‘mere’ 15 kph transgression doesn’t seems such a small thing after all; it seems to abound.

Look at the freeway of sin. The whole world naturally goes with the flow. Who hasn’t had an ‘affair’ (or desired to) at one time or another? Who in today’s society doesn’t tell the occasional ‘white’ lie? Who doesn’t take something that belongs to someone else, even if it’s just a little ‘white-collar’ crime? Sinners know they are doing wrong, but their security is in the fact that so many others are just as guilty, if not more so. It seems God has forgotten all about the Ten Commandments; the sinners says in his heart, “God has forgotten; He hides His face; He will never see it”. (Psalm 10:11)

Now watch the Law enter with red lights flashing. The sinner’s heart skips a beat. He lays his hand upon his mouth. He examines the speedometer of his conscience. Suddenly, it shows him the measure of his guilt in a new light – the light of the Law. His sense of security in the fact that there are multitudes doing the same thing becomes irrelevant, because every man will give an account of himself to God.”

It prepares us for Grace

The right and proper use of the law is to make sin abound so that it will prepare men for grace. This was always the intent of the great preachers in the past. It strips us of all our own self-righteousness so that all we have to trust in is the righteousness of Christ.

The law makes grace abound so we can see the truth of Ephesians 2;8,9 “For by grace are you saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man boast.”

John Newton who wrote the famous hymn ‘Amazing Grace’ said that if we didn’t understand the harmony that exists between law and grace, that it would produce “error on the left and the right hand”5.

So, let us return the law to its proper place so that sinners can discover the amazing grace that Newton discovered.

References and Notes:

1,2,3,4,5. Taken from ‘The Way of the Master Evidence Bible’ by Ray Comfort

Quotes of Matthew Henry are taken from Matthew Henry’s Bible Commentary

Paris Reidhead quote taken from his message ‘The Right use of the Law’

Other quotes and references also taken from ‘The School of Biblical Evangelism’ course material.

Article originally published in The Evangelists Magazine Issue 4

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page